Officials and representatives from China’s internet industry are gathering in Beijing today for the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference.” The conference, hosted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Beijing Municipal CCP Committee and the Central Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization (中央文明办), a body directly under the Central Propaganda Department, addresses a single theme: “Gathering the power to move upward toward goodness, building an internet civilization together” (汇聚向上向善力量，携手建设网络文明).
The significance of this inaugural conference lies in the answer to a simple question: What do the authorities mean when they talk about “goodness” and “civilization” in cyberspace?
Announcing the conference on November 16, Sheng Ronghua (盛荣华), deputy head of the CAC, said the mission of the conference would be to “promote all sectors of society in unifying their thoughts and actions with the decisions and deployments of the Central Committee on the construction of online civilization.” The event would, he said, serve as a platform to promote the concept of “online civilization,” and ensure the “civilized” conduct of all parties, from internet platforms to users.
The impetus of the country’s first “Internet Civilization Conference,” said Sheng, was to build on the cleanup efforts undertaken in 2021. In particular, Sheng emphasized the advances he said had been made this year in “cleaning up chaos in fandom [culture]” online. He stressed that there was now much stricter and more regularized “strong oversight” of fandoms, and that online platforms had a much stronger sense of responsibility. To date, he said, the fandom cleanup campaign had resulted in the deletion of more than 400,000 pieces of “negative and harmful information.” Moreover, 20,000 illegal accounts and more than 6,500 group operators (群主) had been shut down.
In fact, the notion of “online civilization,” or wangluo wenmin (网络文明), first emerged in the late Jiang Zemin era, around 2001, associated closely with familiar concepts having less to do with moral consensus and more to do with political control. Looking back on that language, we can note that ideological control was generally in close company with moral justifications, the CCP being the ultimate arbiter of the good and the bad.
Moral Imperatives, Political Ends
In the 2001 Outline on the Establishment and Implementation of Citizen Morality, the CCP emphasized that the media had an obligation to adhere to “positive propaganda” and to “firmly grasp correct public opinion guidance” in order to advance “civilization construction” (文明建设). At this point, the internet was still a relatively new medium, but the same passage of the document noted that “[we must] lead online institutions and the web population in strengthening consciousness of online morality, building online civilization together.”
On the opposite side of “online civilization” were arrayed “certain people with ulterior motives” (一些别有用心者), those who spread “harmful information” (不良信息), a trend that necessitated the general education of the people in the “building of online civilization” (SEE: 共同建设网络文明).
In 2006, the notion of “online civilization” became closely tied to Hu Jintao’s laundry list of moral instructions for China, known as the “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” (八荣八耻), which was also closely connected with the application of online censorship around Hu’s concept of “civilized operation of the internet, civilized use of the internet” (文明办网, 文明上网). By 2007, these ideas about the political control of online speech as a broader social imperative had coalesced into the idea that China was creating, under the CCP, an “online culture with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色网络文化). The idea, as laid out by then propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (刘云山), was that the construction and control of cyberspace should proceed in tandem – “one hand grasping construction, the other hand grasping management,” as he said.
This model of internet development, said the propaganda chief, would ensure the “strengthening of online public opinion guidance, and the consolidation and development of positive, healthy and improved mainstream public opinion.” Combined here with the idea of “mainstream” public opinion, which is synonymous in CCP discourse with the Party-state line, the notion of “improved,” or xiangshang (向上), is the same language we see in the theme of today’s “Internet Civilization Conference.”
A Strong (and Moral) Internet Power
The talk of “online civilization” today, just as in the Hu era, is fundamentally about the political imperative of “public opinion guidance” cloaked in the language of moral goodness. The difference in the Xi era is that “online civilization” is now part of the broader idea of China as a “strong internet power” (网络强国), subsumed within the idea of creating a “modern socialist nation.” An article on page four of today’s People’s Daily, “Building a Better Spiritual Home Online,” mentions “Xi Jinping’s important thoughts on [building China as] a strong internet power,” and says that “strengthening the building of an online civilization has become an important task in accelerating the building of a strong internet power, and fully building a modern socialist nation.”
Xi’s focus is on leveraging “rule of law” related to online civilization (such as the 2017 Cybersecurity Law) in order to achieve a vibrant cyberspace – for so the thinking goes – that maintains the political discipline that the CCP demands. This is not so different at all from Liu Yunshan’s talk back in 2007 of two hands grasping, construction proceeding along with management. And in fact, old and familiar CCP discourse about speech control imperatives is as plain as day in the present-day talk of “online civilization.”
In discussing the concept today, the People’s Daily lifts a quote from Xi Jinping’s speech back in April 2016 to the Work Conference for Cybersecurity and Informatization:
Cyberspace is a common spiritual garden for hundreds of millions of people. Having a clear sky and crisp air, having a good ecology in cyberspace conforms to the people’s interests. A pestilent atmosphere and a deteriorating ecology in cyberspace do not conform to the people’s interest [China Copyright and Media].
As much as Party-state media would like to trumpet Xi Jinping’s theoretical innovativeness as a kind of philosopher-in-chief, this is classic Jiang Zemin, polished up for the era of cyberspace primacy, with environmental language thrown in for the sake of currency.
It was back on September 26, 1996, while visiting the People’s Daily, that Jiang, the same leader who originated the concept of “public opinion guidance” in the wake of the June 4 crackdown, elaborated the concept in terms of its benefit to the regime and to the people: “Correct guidance of public opinion benefits the Party and the people,” said Jiang. “Incorrect guidance of public opinion means calamity for the Party and the people.”
As officials, academics and internet representatives meet today at the “Internet Civilization Conference,” the essence of their discussions can still be summarized best by Jiang’s so-called “theory of weal and woe” (福祸论), which has only been re-animated by Xi Jinping’s words and their claim to moral rightness.