Chinese state media announced over the weekend that the central government has launched a two-month internet clean-up campaign targeting 10 categories of content on social media as well as short-video and live-streaming platforms.
While the “special action” purports to deal with “problems and chaos pertaining to minors” on the internet, including personal privacy (个人隐私) issues, official coverage of related actions in recent months has made clear that the campaign’s primary focus is purging unwanted information ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to be held sometime this fall. Following an official conference earlier this month on “protecting minors in cyberspace,” the campaign is the latest example of how broad political controls on the internet are routinely justified in China as actions protecting society’s most vulnerable.
The online campaign, “Clear and Bright: Summer 2022 Internet Environment Rectification” (清朗·2022年暑期未成年人网络环境整治), was formally launched on Sunday by several offices and ministries, including the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the Ministry of Education and the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL). A release by Xinhua News Agency noted 10 focal points in the actions to be taken by authorities across the country. They included personal privacy, personal attacks (人身攻击), and “insulting and abusive cyber-bullying.” The notice also alluded to the use of images of minors, including in sexually suggestive poses, to draw online traffic.
However, just as CMP showed in coverage last week about the hijacking of “digital literacy” (网络素养) campaigns, which stress obedience to CCP rule over basic protections, this most recent “Clear and Bright” (清朗) campaign reaches far beyond legitimate concerns about youth safety.
Introducing a series of “Clear and Bright” actions in March this year, Zhang Yong (张勇), head of the Internet Communication Office (网络传播局) of the CAC, the country’s top internet control body, emphasized what his office called “regulating the online information order” (规范网络传播秩序). Zhang wasted no time in putting “Clear and Bright” actions in their proper political context:
This year is the year of the Party’s 20th National Congress, and an internet communication environment that is clean and orderly, and full of positive energy, serves the situational needs of the overall work of the CCP and the government, and it is also what the majority of internet users eagerly look forward to.
The reference to “positive energy,” a term at the heart of the information control regime under Xi Jinping, was an unmistakable reference to broader political controls on content. But Zhang was even more explicit. “Regardless of the nature of the platform, and regardless of what type of communication,” he continued, “everything must give priority to adherence to the correct political direction, to [correct] public opinion guidance and [the correct] value orientation.”
Zhang justified the actions by suggesting that they were welcomed by the majority of internet users – as real moves to combat online trends like cyber-bullying might certainly be. And Sunday’s Xinhua release too suggested that the “Clear and Bright” special action was meant to address problems “on which the people had reflected strongly.”
But the mixing of priorities, evident in campaign after campaign, should call into question whether the leadership has its eyes fixed on real issues concerning China’s online population, or whether its focus with such campaigns is on political fundamentals. This, in fact, is a question Zhang Yong answered quite directly back in March, leaving no doubt: “The goal in carrying out the special action . . . . is to protect the Party’s 20th National Congress around services, continuing to deepen rectification work in various sectors of online communication order.”