At a meeting in Beijing last month, Zhuang Rongwen (庄荣文), head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and a deputy minister of the Central Propaganda Department, issued written comments on the construction of what he called an “integrated national system for the reporting and handling of illegal and undesirable information” (全国互联网违法和不良信息举报受理处置一体化机制建设工作). Zhuang urged officials across the country to push for “new breakthroughs” in 2022 in what he called “online reporting,” or wangluo jubao (网络举报).
What does this mean? And what are its implications?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards the control and manipulation of public opinion, a process known since 1989 as “public opinion guidance,” as being of “extreme importance” to regime stability. The “guidance” mandate is achieved on a constant basis both through a vast and evolving human architecture (including propaganda officials, media personnel, public security staff and so on) engaged in what is broadly called “news and public opinion work” (新闻舆论工作). It is also, in the information age, achieved through a vast and evolving technical architecture restricting access and filtering content on the internet and social media.
Crucially, human and technical controls are also imposed through private, commercially operating internet websites and platforms that are pressed into service through a constantly evolving system of administrative rules and regulations that enforce “guidance” as a condition of doing business. (For a recent example, refer to the new “opinion” released last month tightening controls on chat groups).
But in an era of explosive digital development, with an online ecosystem shaped by nearly a billion active Chinese internet users, these intersecting human-technical-regulatory webs, which form the biggest thought control system in human history, are still not regarded as sufficient by the CCP. The answer is to create a further layer of control by mobilizing the population, again with the help of internet platforms, to flag “illegal and undesirable information” (违法和不良信息).
In 2014, the same year the CAC was formed, the CCP began building a nationwide system for “informant report acceptance” (举报受理). Coordinated out of the CAC’s “Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information” (违法和不良信息举报中心), this system was about ensuring that all websites and platforms had reliable mechanisms in place to source reports from the general public about content violations. In December last year, the CAC announced that an eighth batch of 450 websites had joined the system, bringing the total number of sites involved to more than 3,500.
According to the CAC announcement, these 450 new additions to the reporting system included news and information sites, social media platforms, livestreaming platforms, browsers, e-commerce sites, education sites and so on. New additions included the Hong Kong-listed education service provider Koolearn Tech, Shenzhen-listed Offcn Education and Uxin (优信二手车), an online site for the sale of used cars.
The purpose of this national reporting system, and the coordination of the CAC’s reporting center, is to leverage the eyes and ears of the general population to ensure that websites and platforms comply with Party-state mandates on information control, and that they do so in a way that is consistent and actionable.
But a further role of the system is to help legitimize controls through broader social involvement in the process. The authorities talk about “monitoring by society and the public” (社会公众监督), and about “properly safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of netizens.”
The formation of the CAC reporting center in 2014 came with the launch of a national reporting website at 12377.cn. The “About” section of the CAC site makes the role of the CAC reporting center clear:
The Cyberspace Administration of China (State Internet Information Office) Reporting Center for Illegal and Undesirable Information coordinates the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] leads and supervises local websites in standardizing the work of reporting illegal and undesirable information on the internet; [it] accepts and assists in the handling reports from internet users on illegal and undesirable information; and it conducts propaganda to mobilize the general public in actively participating in the reporting and supervision of illegal and undesirable information.
Despite the talk of safeguarding the public interest, the homepage of 12377.cn also offers a glimpse of the CAC’s prioritization in the reporting of “undesirable” content. And the political goal of enforcing “correct guidance” is front and center.
The site provides users with nine categories of information to report, including “fraudulent” (诈骗类), “rumor-mongering” (谣言类) and “pornographic” (色情类). But the list is topped at the upper left-hand corner by the content type most critical in the enforcement of the CCP’s guidance – “political” (政治类).
Clicking on the “political” button, users are taken to a landing page that urges them to understand the specific nature of this category and inform on content accordingly – lest their report not be properly processed. Here is how the category is described:
Please report here: Illegal and undesirable internet information involving attacks on the Party and state system and its major policies, attacks on the “Two Safeguards,” endangering of national security, leaking of state secrets, undermining national unity and territorial integrity, damaging the national image and honor, undermining national policies on ethnicity and religion, promoting cults, defaming heroes and martyrs and so on.
The reference here to the “Two Safeguards” (两个维护) is an important one. The “Two Safeguards,” which were stressed in the November 2021 CCP resolution on the history of the Party (read more in this recent CMP analysis), are about the protection of 1) the “core” status of Xi Jinping and 2) the central authority of the CCP. Internet informants, in other words, are invited to report anything that might undermine the position of Xi or the CCP.
Once users at the CAC reporting center website understand the virtually unlimited scope of this “political” category, they must click the box next to “I have already read the text.” Two buttons then offer a simple choice: “I accept” and “I do not accept.”