On December 15, the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) released an updated version of its 2019 list of content restrictions for short video platforms. The purpose of the release, a notice from the CNSA said, was to “improve the quality of short video content, and to curb the spread of false and harmful content to create a clear cyberspace.” While ostensibly an industry association comprising tech companies and radio broadcasters, both private and state-operated, the CNSA is also directly involved in the control of so-called “harmful content,” its charter committing it to such goals as “upholding socialist core values.”

The most recent rules elaborate and adjust the restrictions put in place on short video platforms back in 2019, and define “harmful content” across 21 categories, from content that is “harmful to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (1), promotes separatism (2), or is “harmful to the national image” (3), to the broad dragnet of “other content in violation of relevant state regulations and/or ethical norms” (21).  Other prohibited categories include content that “damages the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and martyrs” (4), which accords with legislation passed in 2018 that made defamation of CCP heroes and martyrs illegal, and content that “damages social stability” (6).

The stipulations in Section One of the CNSA rules, concerning threats to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, are a clear example of the breadth of the rules, which cover not just various forms of content deemed to “attack” (攻击), “deny” (否定), “damage” (损害) or “contradict” (违背) the nature or authority of the country’s governing system, but also content that is “teasing” (调侃), “sarcastic” (讽刺),  “oppositional” (反对) or “contemptuous” (蔑视) about the system, its laws and regulations, its policies, or about Marxism.  

There is no room for latitude or a sense of humor in the CNSA rules. Too much, after all, is at stake – not least the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its top leader, Xi Jinping. The third line of Section One explicitly forbids “attacking, denying or weakening the core of the CCP’s Central Committee, and the core status of the whole Party.”

The prohibitions in the rules are to be applied in all aspects of short video production and distribution, including titles, captions and subtitles, comments and bullet comments, pop-ups, emoticons, images, music, sound effects and so on.

What is new about this round of rules?

One conspicuous addition is a stipulation that forbids content that goes against the recently released Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), an outcome from the Sixth Plenum that reaffirmed the power of Xi Jinping.

Another of the 2021 additions, helpfully summarized by China Law Translate, is a prohibition in Section One of “teasing, sarcasm, opposition or contempt of the latest theoretical achievements in the Sinicization of Marxism.” This, once again, is less about Marxism than about Xi Jinping’s claim over the revolutionizing of Marxism in the 21st century as a keystone in the foundation of his power and legacy. More analysis on this topic can be found in CMP’s June 2020 analysis, “Claiming 21st Century Marxism.”

Also added in the fourth line of Section One is an explicit statement about content that “engages in historical nihilism” (搞历史虚无主义), departing from the “state of the world, the state of the country and the state of the Party” – essentially a prohibition against any views or interpretations of history that the CCP deems to be incorrect. Language from the CCP opposing so-called “historical nihilism” has been on the rise this year, particularly ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP on July 1.

Section Fourteen of the rules includes a new prohibition that also relates to more recent trends in online censorship and regulation. This is a line that prohibits the “displaying the chaos of ‘fandoms’ and unfavorable fan culture, advocating hype and traffic flow as a top priority, or aberrant aesthetics, fanaticism or fan irrationality.” These additions accord with the recent crackdown, since August, on so-called “fandom culture” (饭圈文化), which CMP has written about in “Fandoms in the Crosshairs,” and in “Cracking Down on Fandoms.” Readers may also be interested in our interview on the subject of fandom culture with Yin Yiyi, a professor at Beijing Normal University.

Immediately below the ban on promotion of “fandoms” in the rules is language prohibiting so-called “Sang culture” (丧文化), which refers to the expression of feelings of defeatism and loss, as was epitomized earlier this year in the prevalence of the term tangping (躺平), or “lying flat,” which encouraged young people in China, exhausted by a culture of consumerism and overwork, to simply opt for lives of slackish resignation.

Suppressing Dissent

Commenting on the rules as they were released through the official account of the NRTA on Weibo,  “Shi Ting China” (视听中国), some internet users expressed their concerns and skepticism.

“Who is the subject of these rules? What is their scope? How is monitoring done? How do you appeal?” one user asked.

“Whenever I see this word ‘association’ anymore,” another user wrote, using a popular idiom for a con job, “I think they are hanging a goat’s head and selling dog meat.” This, presumably, was a reference to the way an association of industry players was serving a rather explicit regulatory role.

Comments posted by readers under a notice from the CNSA on updated short video rules.

Another user wrote: “Detailed as these rules seem, I hope the country understands that in the implementation at the platform level all of these concrete rules will be twisted if there isn’t proper oversight, so that they will boil down to two words – ‘suppressing dissent’.”  

Stella Chen

CMP Senior Researcher

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