Author: Joyce Chan

Joyce Chan is a freelance researcher with a particular interest in Chinese politics, media and foreign policy. She is currently a masters candidate in International Affairs at the Hertie School in Berlin, where she focusses on international cooperation and development, Sino-German relations and climate policy.

The State of Surveillance in China

Joyce Chan: Can you start off by introducing your backgrounds? How did the idea of this book come about? And what goals did you have in mind when you got started?

Josh Chin: We’re both reporters for The Wall Street Journal with a long-term focus on China. The book began in 2017 with an investigative series that we led for The Wall Street Journal looking into the Communist Party’s embrace of digital surveillance, which itself began when we noticed a lot of investment flowing into Chinese artificial intelligence startups that were doing a brisk business selling facial-recognition systems to police.

Over the course of our reporting, it became clear that this was more than a gee-whiz tech story. The party was exploiting data and AI in pursuit of a new, more nimble form of authoritarianism that looked like it had tectonic potential in terms of the global political landscape. It was science fiction in real life. We wanted to explore the story of that ambition in the most comprehensive way possible, with a particular emphasis on the human experience of living inside such a radical experiment.

Joyce Chan: Your book begins and ends with the account of a Uyghur poet named Tahir Hamut. Could you describe the process of choosing Tahir as the main character of the book?

Josh Chin: We got to know Tahir while reporting on the spread of surveillance in Xinjiang for a series at the end of 2017. He had recently escaped to the U.S. – essentially, he was the last prominent Uyghur intellectual to get out of Xinjiang before the doors slammed shut. At first, he didn’t want us to use his name because he was afraid of the consequences for his family. Later, he changed his mind and agreed to speak with us on the record. It was an act of real courage that gave the story – and then the book – crucial credibility and gravity.

Joyce Chan: How did you go about fact-checking the details that Tahir gave of various surveillance processes, given that so few sources from Xinjiang are willing to speak with foreign journalists?

Liza Lin: We took multiple trips to Xinjiang ourselves, including after we first interviewed him, so certain details – like what his neighborhood looked like – we were able to corroborate directly.  But for a lot of details, we had only Tahir and his family to rely on. Our solution was to interview them repeatedly and only use the details that they consistently agreed on.

We also talked to several people who knew Tahir, all of whom remarked on his personal integrity and his tendency to play down his own story, which we can also attest to. Getting him to talk about his personal fears was like pulling teeth. That was frustrating a lot of the time, but it gave us confidence in everything he did finally decide to tell us. 

Surveillance State takes an in-depth and readable look at how the CCP is building a new kind of political control: shaping the will of the people through the harnessing of data.

Joyce Chan: Your book points out that China’s surveillance systems in regions with ethnic minorities like Xinjiang and Tibet can take very different forms compared to majority Han regions, such as the city of Hangzhou for example. But do you think the pandemic and China’s digital response have taken surveillance beyond regions like Xinjiang and Tibet?  

Liza Lin: We had a Chinese human-rights activist tell us in 2017 that what was happening in Xinjiang was just a prelude, that the same systems were bound to be rolled out in the rest of China. We weren’t sure at the time. The levels of surveillance in Xinjiang were so extreme, it was hard to imagine them being implemented on a broad scale. But the pandemic proved us wrong. Not long after the “novel coronavirus” escaped Wuhan, you started seeing residential compounds in Beijing being locked down with only one way in or out – a system that borrowed directly from Xinjiang.

Later, you had the health code system, which tracked the movements of everyone in China and assigned them ratings according to their exposure risk. Again, there was a parallel with Xinjiang, where surveillance systems tracked, or at least purported to track, the exposure of Uyghurs to the “ideological virus” of radical Islam.

The levels of surveillance in Xinjiang were so extreme, it was hard to imagine them being implemented on a broad scale. But the pandemic proved us wrong.

Joyce Chan: How does the Chinese government use popular social media tools like WeChat in its digital surveillance of the population?

Josh Chin: WeChat is so ubiquitous within China that it’s proven to be a very effective tool in both social and discourse control. There are a few ways the Chinese government has put WeChat to use. Firstly, WeChat has become a goldmine for Chinese police in investigations or if they are trying to track down protestors and their relevant contacts.

WeChat is a super app that isn’t just chat messaging anymore. It offers users the ability to buy train and plane tickets. Many use it for mobile payments as well. Access to WeChat data has allowed national security agencies in China to retrace someone’s steps, tap his or her contacts, and monitor their purchases and movements.

Secondly, WeChat is also the main conduit for chat messaging within China itself, and through computer and human censorship, the Chinese government enlists tech companies such as Tencent to track what regular citizens say or do and punish them accordingly. We saw this happen recently when many Chinese were permanently locked out of WeChat’s social functions after sharing photos of a protestor on Beijing’s Sitong Bridge.

Passersby watch in Beijing in September as a protester hangs a banner over Sitong Bridge calling for elections and criticizing China’s “great leader” Xi Jinping. Source: Twitter.

Finally, post-Covid, WeChat is one of the gateways hosting China’s health code, which as we described above, has helped to spread real-time surveillance across China.

Joyce Chan: One example of China expanding its surveillance systems overseas can be seen in Uganda. The book highlights the intricate involvement of Huawei in the country, which worked in favor of Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni — using facial recognition tech, for example, to crack down on dissent. Can you elaborate on why it is in China’s interest to export these surveillance technologies to other countries, where China knows it might get little political gain in return?

Josh Chin: There’s a narrative out there that China wants to spread its model around the world. We think that’s too simplistic. China’s model is hard to replicate – a fact that the Communist Party likes to point out from time to time. There just aren’t that many countries out there that can combine vast amounts of data with cutting-edge technology, a robust economy, and a large, relatively competent bureaucracy.

So why export these technologies? First, it’s lucrative. Chinese surveillance companies, like companies everywhere, want to make money, and there’s a huge demand out there for what they’re selling. Second, it serves the Communist Party’s purposes for there to be a large number of governments around the world using surveillance technology to exert social and political control, even if they don’t do it as effectively as China does. The point is to make it normal.

Joyce Chan: How do you see this trend of China’s digital expansion developing in the future, with regard to Xi’s ambitious plans for the Belt and Road initiative, and building alliances in the Global South?

Josh Chin: The Belt and Road Initiative seems to have lost its way in recent years with so many projects getting mired in financial problems, but the tech-focused elements of it – otherwise known as the Digital Silk Road – are still going strong. China appears poised to increase its influence in the Global South through digital surveillance and other tech infrastructure programs – though recent U.S. moves to cut off China from access to top-end chips could undermine that.

Joyce Chan: A very interesting chapter of the book delves into the US situation and raises serious questions about the ethics and human biases in the adoption of facial recognition technology by police authorities. If a high-profile court case were to take place in China against the government, similar to where public defender Kaitlin Jackson sued the NYPD for the wrongful conviction of an innocent man using facial recognition, do you think it could shake up the people’s trust in the digital surveillance system and trigger wider resistance against privacy intrusion?

Liza Lin: The “ifs” loom large here. If such a case were to be filed in China, and if the Communist Party respected the rule of law enough to let it proceed, would it trigger resistance to state surveillance? Perhaps. But there’s so much corruption and caprice and human error at the local level in China, you might find people are comforted by the notion of rule by algorithms, regardless of whether they have bias baked into them. 

Joyce Chan: How is the Chinese government managing to balance civil discontent that stems from rising awareness, and skepticism against the pervasiveness of digital surveillance — especially in the wake of individual protests that have sprung up in response to city-wide lockdowns across the country and the denial of human rights during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Liza Lin: Before the arrival of the Omicron variant, most Chinese people we talked to seemed generally happy with the surveillance state. Whatever privacy sacrifices it entailed, the system had prevented a huge number of deaths and made it possible to live some semblance of a normal life. Now it’s different. Omicron moved too fast for the surveillance system to track, so the government started using its technology to enforce mass lockdowns instead. That cratered the economy and led to a surge in public outrage over access to basic necessities like food.

You saw that frustration bubbling over with a protest in Beijing last month – just days before the 20th Party Congress – in which someone publicly described Xi Jinping as a traitor and called for him to be removed from power. It was remarkable that anyone could pull off that kind of a stunt in Beijing in this era. But the fact that a small protest drew so much attention is also a testament to how much control the Communist Party exercises over Chinese society. The Communist Party wants Chinese people to be happy, but it now has a whole new set of tools to maintain control even when they aren’t.

Joyce Chan: China’s Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) was passed in 2021. It is reportedly based on the EU’s GDPR from 2018, but up to now it looks like China lacks the enforcement to make it an effective law. What value do you see in the PIPL?

Liza Lin: PIPL was at least in part an attempt by the Party to deal with a real problem in China. Data leaks by telecom companies, internet firms, banks – you name it – are rampant in China, and people are angry about it. Under the PIPL, companies and certain state agencies have grown more cognizant of the need for cybersecurity and are held accountable for losses of data. What we found interesting was how China redefined the notion of privacy to focus the onus of the law on Chinese companies, avoiding penalties on data collection and use by the state. The law gives an exception for data collected for the purposes of national or state security, which indicates little will to change on that front.

Joyce Chan: Is there a point when citizens in China know full well that privacy infringement is an accepted reality under the rule of the CCP?  

Josh Chin: There’s never really been a presumption of privacy in China, particularly when it comes to the government. You do see some incipient pushback against state surveillance, mostly in the biggest cities. That appears to have grown during the pandemic with stories of local officials using Covid surveillance tools for other purposes, like stopping protests. But it’s hard to say where that will go.

Prior to Covid, the Communist Party had done a good sales job for state surveillance in wealthy cities like Hangzhou, where you have AI-powered camera systems flagging illegally parked cars and automated traffic systems that help ambulances get to hospitals faster.

If Xi Jinping can find a way out of the zero-Covid quagmire, people might go back to their algorithmically streamlined lives and forget about their current frustrations. If not, then you’ll probably see the hard edge of surveillance being used more and more, and generating more resistance.

Unpacking the Booming Racist Video Industry in China

Joyce Chan: First, I wanted to thank you for producing the insightful documentary “Racism for Sale” on the BBC. I know it generated attention and spurred discussions of racism in the Chinese media as well as in the non-Chinese speaking world. But these types of racist videos aren’t exactly a new phenomenon on the Chinese internet. Can you tell us why you decided to pursue this topic now?

Runako Celina: Thank you very much for saying that. It means a lot. I was living in Beijing at the time the video [that opens the documentary] came out, and I’d seen these videos for years. The industry has existed since 2015. And so, you know, every time I received videos emerging from the industry I was disturbed. Many people [angered by the videos] were Africans, and many Chinese as well felt uncomfortable every time they saw this content. But no one really knew what was going on behind the scenes.

Screenshot of a scene from “Racism for Sale,” showing a Chinese video in which African children are given highly derogatory sentences to repeat. The video was posted to a site called “Jokes About Black People Club.”

I started to observe a gradual kind of progression in the types of content being produced. This industry exists on social media and social media thrives off of innovation — you do one thing and then you get clicks, and it’s like a drug and you want to get more follows and more clicks and more likes, and more sales in this case, until you push boundaries. You try to innovate and create something more, and so I gradually started to observe that this was happening within this industry as well.

It might have started off quite innocently in terms of the content of the videos, with greetings or celebration-related content. But eventually, we started to see the content getting worse.

In 2019, I remember seeing a video on the platform that I cofounded, Black Livity China. I think it was from 2019 or 2018 [and it showed] children speaking about a football team in China. They were made to chant foul language in Mandarin to describe the football team. Although they weren’t insulting themselves, these children quite clearly had no idea what they were saying. That to me represented this gradual progression. And so in 2020, this video emerges online [in which children were asked to insult themselves].

Joyce Chan: This is the video that starts off “Racism for Sale.” Certainly, it’s shocking for viewers, the children using a deeply hurtful racial slur in Chinese. As you explain in your documentary, the word the children are using, “Heigui,” could be translated as “black devil,” but is really equivalent to the N-word.

Runako Celina: I don’t want to say [it was a case of] enough is enough. Because to me, the industry shouldn’t have started in the first place, and this content should never have surfaced. But it was kind of enough is enough. You feel like this is just hideous. At this point, something’s got to give.

So I decided in December 2020, the same year the video came out, that I wanted to investigate it. It’s just taken this long for us to get things together in a way that we needed to and to gather a lot of evidence to put it out now. The whole process took one and a half years to complete. It’s a 50-minute documentary. It is impossible to include everything that we found out in the process of that investigation, but some of the wrongdoing and some things that Malawian media have even picked up on since are just hideous. So, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Joyce Chan: I assume there must have been quite a few of these videos around on the internet. What was your process for selecting this one particular video to hone in on?

Runako Celina: The investigation’s main focus — what we try and answer and investigate — is who made this video. Where was it made? Why? It starts very much focusing on this one video. Especially on my personal journey of investigating this, as you go into one video, you realize that you fall into a cesspit of content online that is far beyond just a 30-second clip. Now that clip does represent some of the most heinous types of content that we see in this industry. But it’s a drop in the ocean, as I said. So although the investigation centers around those questions to do with this one video, it does shine a light on this wider topic of anti-blackness and racist content on Chinese social media — mostly as part of this industry. But it opens this idea to “Hey, this industry wouldn’t have existed unless this content and content like it was attractive to an audience for a reason.”

Profit is what pushes an industry like this. We hear Lu Ke, the man behind the camera, tell us himself about how profitable it is and why he’s filming these videos. Obviously, he denies filming the racist videos —that’s important to state — but he gives us examples of how profitable it is. And so to me it’s also about raising the wider issue of anti-blackness that makes content like this have a market in the first place.

Joyce Chan: You mentioned that the industry started existing in 2015. Could you clarify what you mean by the “industry”? Do you mean the production of videos that exploit African children?

Profit is what pushes an industry like this.

Runako Celina: When I say the industry I’m referring to [what’s been called in Chinese] the “blessing video industry” (祝福视频行业). It’s very hard to directly translate it. In the few places where these content creators have tried to use English, they have translated it as “blessing videos” or “greeting videos.” [NOTE: In Chinese media coverage, these have also been referred to as “African blessing videos” (非洲祝福视频).]

There are different terms for it. I’m referring to a very specific format in which groups of people huddle around a blackboard dressed in costume saying words in Chinese with someone else off camera. That video format is what powers this industry. I wouldn’t like to guess when racist content started appearing on China’s internet. But when I say 2015, I’m just speaking specifically about this particular industry.

In a video in September 2021, a Chinese content creator on YouTube shows videos like this one of African children gathered for a happy birthday message and asks: “Have these blessing videos improved their lives, or are they just being used by others for profit?”

Joyce Chan: Moving on, I’d like to hear your perspective on the approach of the Chinese media and policies towards the portrayal of African countries and China-Africa relations. The official media narrative tends to focus on economics and practical issues like trade while remaining ambiguous on issues of racism, neo-colonialism, and social issues in Africa. How do you view the picture of Africa in the Chinese media?

Runako Celina: It’s difficult for me to answer directly about governance and policies. But the thing that I would say is that we raised questions in the film about why this content was allowed to be on the internet for so long. This industry doesn’t have a market or a way to market itself without social media, and so I think there’s a massive question mark raised by the film — and by people who have seen the film. Everyone’s question is: Why is this content out there?

I can’t answer what the government’s doing and what their intentions might be. But I also recognize that it’s very questionable that this content has been allowed to exist online for such a long time. The thing that’s been promising to see since the film’s release is the reaction from the Chinese Embassy in Malawi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and Wu Peng [head of the Department of African Affairs at MOFA]. They have come out and said this content should not be allowed. It is interesting because the statement from the Chinese Embassy in Malawi suggested they might have been aware of content like this for some time.

I wrote an article off the back of this film detailing more of my thoughts about the film and the process of investigating it. One of the things that I tried to emphasize was that it’s interesting that this content continues to find its way online on an internet as heavily censored as China’s. We’ve seen instances [in the past] when there is an attempt to shut down conversations on certain topics, and it’s done very thoroughly. So, I leave it to the audience to decide what they would make of the fact that these videos still somehow find their way online. 

The Chinese Embassy in Malawi responds on June 14, 2022, to the BBC’s documentary “Racism for Sale.”

Joyce Chan: How does this reflect, do you think, on the Africa-China relationship?

Runako Celina: In the dialogue around Africa-China relations, the human element is often removed, I find. By the human element, I mean the people-to-people relations, and what the influx of Africans to China and the influx of Chinese to Africa means. There are multiple relationships rather than a single relationship.

Sometimes we tend to think of China as a block and Africa as a block, but Lu Ke [the Chinese video-maker featured in the BBC documentary] is not a representative of the government. He’s an individual who came as a migrant worker. But even though these are an individual’s actions, they have implications for the wider relationship, and I think that speaks to this question mark about responsibility and whose responsibility it is to tackle the issues that we see in the film — such as the racist attitudes that make content like this have appeal [in China].

In the dialogue around Africa-China relations, the human element is often removed.

One of the things that lots of people have been saying is this question of education beyond just censorship, beyond just taking these videos down. Racism can manifest in other ways, and if the root causes of it aren’t dealt with . . .  What’s happening on that level? How do we stop people from having those attitudes before they reach an African village or a Malawian village and interact with actual Africans?

And the same should go vice versa. It’s just that question of what is actually being done practically. Like I said, after the film came out, we heard an instant statement from Wu Peng saying this is unacceptable, and we are cracking down on content like this. So, to me right now it’s about watching and waiting to see what happens next what comes next on the back of these statements.

Joyce Chan: Do you see these Chinese official statements against racist videos, then, as political blanket statements to prevent backlash from Malawian or other African governments?

Runako Celina: I think, firstly, that the fact these statements are coming is promising. It’s not every project of this kind that receives a more open reaction, more open than the one we’ve had. The statement from the Chinese Embassy in Malawi [through Twitter] basically said this is wrong, but added that “the video was shot in 2020.” You can see the responses [to that statement] that they were basically torn apart for playing the incident down as something in the past. Some things speak for themselves, right? But what I would say is that it’s very promising to see that reactions happened anyway, reactions that overall were not that defensive. But it’s a question of seeing what happens now.

There was a really good article written as a follow-up to this by Viola Zhou at Rest of the World. It looked into the wider question of these markets online, beyond just the blackboard-holding videos. She looked at the wider exploitation of Africans on Chinese social media. One of the things she highlighted was this question of action. Basically, she spoke to lots of content creators in this industry. They had already noticed that social media platforms, including Kuaishou and Douyin [the domestic version of TikTok], had started censoring searches for the term “Africa” (非洲). So perhaps that would suggest that things are being done. Whether they are the right things, or whether they are going to make a difference — that remains to be seen. But it’s an example of the reactions to our film beyond just statements.

An investigation by Viola Zhou in July 2022 looks at representations of Africans on Chinese social media.

Joyce Chan: So, this new keyword censorship was a consequence, you think, of the information revealed in your documentary?

Runako Celina: Yes, exactly. Beyond the government’s reaction and response, one of the things we have seen as well is that content creators themselves have started taking down this content, and have started to leave [Africa] as well. One of the most prolific content creators filming [African] children, Lu Ke, has obviously left. Then there was a second guy, also in Malawi, who also fled the country after the film came out. So yes, the film is having an impact.

Joyce Chan: You are saying that content creators have been physically moving from the country to escape from prosecution?

Runako Celina: I think beyond the risk of prosecution alone, it is the backlash or the risk [for content creators] of being associated with what has happened. One of the things we tried to do was to highlight that this is not just a Malawian problem. It’s not just a problem that happened in this one village. In the earlier parts of the film, we highlight a map of the African continent and we highlight several countries [where operations are happening]. I’ve since found other countries that host operations like this, including some featuring children. It highlights the wider trend across the continent, so it’s been great to see this conversation taken seriously.

In July 2022, Lu Ke, the Chinese national exposed in the BBC documentary, confronted here by Runako Celina, was extradited to Malawi from Zambia after attempting to flee.

Joyce Chan: So these video operations are an Africa-wide phenomenon, not limited to Malawi.

Runako Celina: Absolutely, it’s a broader issue not limited to Malawi. Throughout the film, we see quite continuously that the word used [to refer to the children and others in the videos] is never “Malawian” (马拉维人). It’s always “black people” (黑人). The term that is used is always “black people,” no matter what country they are from. It’s a much broader issue. The attitude is toward “them,” rather than toward people from a certain country or a certain village.

Joyce Chan: Would you say this attitude is representative of Chinese media as a whole or just social media?

Runako Celina: Yes, there are these sweeping blanket statements often used about African-ness and blackness, which are found also on Chinese social media. They represent this ignorance that exists and, more than ignorance, they often represent this racist idea that exists — of “these people” with “these set qualities,” and the associations are normally negative.

Beyond the government’s reaction and response, one of the things we have seen as well is that content creators themselves have started taking down this content.

We see this manifest perfectly in the film with things that are said in the undercover footage. For example, the things Lu Ke says about black people are hideous. But if I’m honest, I wasn’t surprised to hear them. I was kind of surprised that he just said them off the cuff, but I wasn’t surprised that he had those opinions at all.

I think one of the things that stands out for me is how we described him as an outcast. And he really was. He wasn’t well integrated into the Chinese diaspora in Malawi. But what made him an outcast wasn’t actually his racist views. Those racist views are very common. He was an outcast more because of his class and background, so I took that as kind of a microcosm of the fact that these views and opinions about black people are so widespread and often go unchallenged online.

In a podcast episode, Wode Maya, a Ghanaian YouTuber who has been vocal about these issues [of Chinese racism] from the very beginning, said that speaking as a black person, if you were to go online in China and understand what is being said about black people, you probably wouldn’t want to go to China. I think that’s a good way to sum it up, because some of the things [online] are hideous, especially to someone who can understand. This industry is just one example.

Screenshot of a video by Ghanaian YouTuber Wode Maya, who has frequently discussed issues of racism in China on his platform.

Joyce Chan: As you said before, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. But do you think attitudes on social media have changed at all since the emergence of these exploitative videos, considering the rapid growth of China’s social media culture? Has the notion of racism seeped into the public consciousness?

Runako Celina: I think there’s an awfully long way to go. I think the problem is that racist online content has been allowed on the internet for so long without any censorship, in my opinion. When that happens, the idea then becomes that this is tolerable and that we can say whatever we want about this group of people, and it means nothing. One of my greatest fears, if I’m honest, living in China and seeing some of the things said — the vitriol about Africans in Guangzhou and about African students getting scholarships in China and so on — is that online violence only stays online for so long.

Like most forms of online hate, things only stay online for so long. So how long will it take for that to spill into real life? It used to be a great fear of mine that it would end in an African getting attacked, a death, or something like that. I know people who have been shouted at and discriminated against in the street [in China] in ways that definitely have to do with their race. So, it’s problematic not only because it’s horrible to see, but because it has a real-life impact.

The image of African-ness and Blackness that is allowed to exist in the online imagination on Weibo and other platforms plays into it too. Some accounts search for people in interracial relationships, like a Chinese woman with an African partner, or pictures of people in partnerships like that, and they post their pictures on Weibo inviting people to comment on them and post hate about them. I have also seen African families who upload pictures onto Douyin, and the comments fill up with gorilla emojis and comments like, “Leave China,” things like that. My fear is that the hate only stays online for so long.

The impact of content like this is large and wide-ranging. To answer your question in a nutshell, I don’t think it’s changing. I don’t think it’s getting better.

Joyce Chan: I would have thought coverage of racism towards Africans in Guangzhou during the Covid-19 pandemic might have had some impact on people’s perceptions and attitudes. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Runako Celina: Someone might argue that that’s because it’s not being followed up on beyond that. If these instances happen and it invites widespread media condemnation across the world as the events in Guangzhou did, what should the response be on side of the authorities? What is happening then to tackle the issues that led to people using the instances to express such hate and vitriol towards Africans online? Were there any consequences for these actions? If not, then these things are going to continue.

Racism is not a Chinese invention. You see the same things here in the UK. Whenever something bad happens in the UK, it’s the most vulnerable groups that get the blame. If we follow the example of the UK, those views often go unchallenged because it means that the government can just continue and do what they want essentially, because there is a scapegoat. Naturally, people are more emboldened online to say things they wouldn’t offline. But the impact of the hate that can come out online is felt offline.

Racism is not a Chinese invention. You see the same things here in the UK.

Joyce Chan: How do you see the existing guidelines or regulations on racist and hate speech in Chinese online media? Is lack of enforcement part of the problem?

Runako: This wasn’t a part of our investigation. We focused specifically on the actions of the individuals and tried to hold them accountable. We didn’t try and seek accountability from the platforms because that conversation would start naturally after the film came out anyway, so I can’t say that I have tried to investigate whether or not there are policies in place.

For me, it comes back to the fact that, whether or not policies are in place, I have personally seen things censored in a matter of seconds when the will is there. But if there were efforts to censor racism on Chinese social media, then clearly these are not working. Content like this still constantly appears online.

But I will note one of the discussions I noted in China following the release of the film. I spent the first day after the film came out on WeChat to see what my old professors and classmates might be saying and how the reaction might be different from how Western audiences reacted to the film. One of the things I noticed was that some Chinese academics specializing in African Studies said they had been vocal for years about content like this online and how it damaged the image of African-ness and Blackness online. They said they had had conversations with app companies and social media companies letting them know this needed to be taken seriously, but there was never any serious attempt to deal with the situation. So that’s why all these years later . . . Remember, the industry we focus on started in 2015, so that’s seven years . . . That’s why all these years later this content still exists.

Joyce Chan: Just to clarify, you mean there have been attempts by individuals in China to speak out against such racist content?

Runako Celina: On lots of different sides, yes. Africans have been very vocal and Wode Maya is an example. But it’s really important to say as well that academics in China have been rallying against it for a long time. Obviously, the way that they fight is different. It might be through closed-door conversations with app companies, as I said.

Joyce Chan: I think there is a representation issue as well. Opinions from people of African descent or Black people would perhaps bear more significance than Chinese voices and give more agency to Black African voices when it comes to racism issues. Do you think so?

Runako Celina: Yeah, I think so. I’ve realized there are certain things I would never be able to achieve, or that there are limitations on what I can do as a non-native. Even if I speak Chinese, I’m still non-native and certain doors are closed to me. That’s just the reality. It’s not something I’m bitter about, just something I’m aware of. There are limitations on how far I can take certain discussions.

Everyone works on their own different turf. For Africans ourselves, it’s very nice to see this is an African-led initiative to tackle an issue that so many of us have felt and been pained by for such a long time. For the academics who have taken the initiative to sit down with Chinese peers at these organizations and platforms, perhaps it hasn’t worked. But it’s an important step in documenting the issue and saying, this is happening. And why aren’t you listening to us? It adds weight to the evidence. So that role is important too.

Joyce Chan: The reactions of these Chinese scholars, and the possibility of speaking out for Africans in China on the back of this documentary, all highlight some of the farther-reaching consequences of your documentary.

Runako Celina: Yeah, absolutely. At least on the Africans in China front. For years when something would happen in China, people would turn to Wode Maya, the YouTuber. So when Lu Ke’s video came out, people sent it to him. First of all, because he has a platform. But secondly, because he’s safer in saying things [being outside of China]. That’s often the African approach [to these issues], to find people who are outside [China] or are willing to take the risk, people who can speak on our behalf. Because there’s a feeling we wouldn’t be able to say these things safely. It’s happened with the Guangzhou situation as well.

Joyce Chan: Summing up, what do you think the impact of your documentary has been? And do you have plans for similar stories in the future?

Runako Celina: The audience or market for this content is not exclusively Chinese. You also see markets now in Japan and elsewhere. But because so much of it is coming from China, my main goal was for the issue to get through to China. In terms of impact there, although we haven’t seen strong domestic responses from people in government, some of the big African YouTubers, or accounts that focus on Africa from a Chinese perspective, were very vocal and did put out their own statements or responses to this type of content.

There was one really vocal article with a capitalized headline saying, “STOP FILMING THESE VIDEOS IN AFRICA.” It has been promising to see that. But it still feels like pockets, and I don’t feel satisfied that there’s no market for this content any more. With the dubbed version of the film in Chinese coming out, obviously despite the limitations of BBC being blocked in China, I’m hoping that it will find at least some of its way across the firewall and maybe also have the impact of emboldening people to be more vocal about these issues and to consider them more.

Joyce Chan: Future plans?

Runako Celina: I’ll be continuing with investigative documentaries, and building my open source investigative skills and portfolio. I will also continue to build and structure a community around Black Livity China to amplify African/Afro-diasporic voices in the Africa-China, Black-China, China studies spaces.

The BBC documentary “Racism for Sale” can be viewed online HERE.

Deciphering Chinese media discourse on the Russia-Ukraine war

Joyce Chan: Hi Maria. I want to talk to you today about how China has reacted to the Russia-Ukraine war since February in the media. To start off, can you outline how China has handled the public discussion of the Russia-Ukraine war since its outbreak and how has it evolved over time?

Maria Repnikova: There have been some interesting trends in how China handled the media and public opinion and the coverage of the war. The first theme I found interesting is the underreporting of the war in China. News about the Ukraine war does not have the same prominence as in Western media outlets, where it is often the top story. In Chinese media, the news has been buried at the bottom of the newscast, not presented as a prime story. This seems to me a deliberate strategy since the war is a contentious crisis and because of China’s delicate position in the war, and there is a fear that overreporting would create room for more questions.

A second thread is in the domestic context. The pro-Russia stance becomes more apparent in the coverage of this war that sways from the neutrality that China states in its official messaging internationally. For example, we see Chinese media echoing Russian narratives and perspectives, by incorporating a lot of footage from Russian media sources. I was looking at Xinhua news coverage for the entirety of the war and found a disproportionate number of sources that came from the Russian side in discussing the conflict, similarly for television coverage on CCTV.

In a March interview with China Daily, published by the State Council Information Office, the head of Russia Today speaks about bias in Western media reporting of the war in Ukraine.

Other studies done by CNN and the German Marshall Fund have found similar trends of echoing Russian footage and perspectives by both state media and official spokespeople. So, we see some merging of a pro-Russian stance between China and Russia in terms of how they present this conflict. One big point of convergence between China and Russia is the framing of the war as the responsibility of NATO or the West, a lot of anti-Western messaging, which I think to this day remains an important thread. That has been prominent in nationalistic discussions and in social media. We see how Russia itself explains this war as being pushed by NATO into this conflict and NATO has overmilitarized the region at the border. Chinese state media has taken up a similar threat in different wordings. But nonetheless it was interesting to observe the convergence with the Russian narrative.

Another aspect is the disinformation rhetoric, which has not been adapted in full scale in Chinese media, though a few themes have come up, such as the conspiracy theory about US biolabs in Ukraine, which some Chinese state media and government spokespeople like Zhao Lijian reposted online.

Aside from the underreporting of massacres, like the one in Bucha, we see the media giving more room for Russian voices to explain and complicate the narrative, and trying to dilute the Western narrative about Russia being at fault in an unambiguous way. News reports would include discussion from both sides and mention the potential for further investigation showcasing that there is more to the story than what the West presents.

Joyce Chan: Do you think it’s fair to say that China is echoing Russian media?

Maria Repnikova: The idea that China echoes everything from Russia is overstated, because we don’t see Chinese state media arguing Russia’s war is justified and there is no endorsement of the war. We do see some perspectives from Ukraine. English-language media like CGTN and some Xinhua articles in English are covering some Ukrainian voices. More recently, we see a bit more openness towards discussing more pro-Ukraine or Ukrainian perspectives on social media.

So, the reporting is not completely static and also not unanimously pro-Russia, but rather involves a more selective, opportunistic adaptation of some Russian footage and narratives. These are some of the important themes I see throughout this coverage.

Joyce Chan:  I want to hone in on your last comment about a “selective” adaptation. Do you think there are certain criteria or red lines in the selection of Ukrainian perspectives in Chinese media, for example on CGTN or in online media?

Maria Repnikova: It is hard to know the exact line without interviewing the journalists to try to understand the rationale behind them. But just from observation, the most contentious issues like the massacre or Russia war crimes are still presented in a more two-sided way. Even though there is access to Ukrainian sources, Russian sources are still there to overwhelm the report. So, it seems Chinese media are not fully endorsing the Ukrainian perspective, but there are a few reports about damage by Russian shelling or people fleeing in the refugee crisis.

Broadly speaking, political but not so contentious topics have been reported a bit more openly, as opposed to topics where Russia is clearly portrayed as a war criminal and prime facilitator of this conflict, which tend to be avoided or somehow complicated. When it comes to the outcomes and implications of the war, these are also discussed with relatively more freedom and in more detail.

The idea that China echoes everything from Russia is overstated, because we don’t see Chinese state media arguing Russia’s war is justified and there is no endorsement of the war.

Joyce Chan:  Now let us turn to this specific incident in March, where there was widespread coverage about a Chinese journalist who gained unprecedented access to report from the Russian frontline. How should we interpret this in terms of Chinese-Russian relations?

Maria Repnikova: The story is an example of disinformation spreading and China merging with Russia’s narratives and embedding journalists into Russian military operations. It is hard to understand the implications of this more broadly because it was only one journalist from one outlet. We didn’t see this replicating itself which suggests it was an opportunistic strategy, where this particular journalist made some connections on the ground and to get rare and unique footage, maybe to get a promotion or prominence professionally. If it was more organised, other outlets would try to do that as well.

Given the relatively close relations between Russia and China, it seems that Chinese media could potentially gain access to Russian state media or combat forces, to collaborate with them. But since it was only one example, so to me it seems more bottom-up and opportunistic, but I don’t know enough about this case to certify this, it is just my guess of what happened.

Phoenix TV reporter Lu Yuguang (卢宇光) reports from the front lines of the Ukraine war, embedded with Russian troops.

Joyce Chan:  It seems to me a paradox that China is maintaining strategic ambiguity internationally but keeps a pro-Russian stance domestically. Can you comment on how this could have affected the Chinese public understanding of Russian relations, at least in the short term?

Maria Repnikova: It is quite hard to answer definitively with so few sources of access to public opinion. However, I can refer to a survey by the Carter Center that came up with pretty interesting numbers of Chinese public opinion, where the majority of respondents were in favour of supporting Russia in the war, and were buying into the conspiracy theories of the US biolabs in Ukraine.

The survey demonstrated that higher education, more consumption of official and social media seemed to yield more pro-Russia inklings, which suggest there is some kind of convergence between official propaganda and nationalistic patches of social media. We have also observed over the period of the war that the more powerful voices in social media have been more nationalistic and anti-Western and seem to dominate the discourse. Although this survey was conducted on a fraction of the population, it was able to show some correlation in this regard.

At the same time, quite a large proportion were pro-peace and in favour of facilitation of ending the war. So it’s interesting that they think it is the right thing to support Russia, but also should bring about a peaceful solution to end the war, which presents a slight contradiction, because Russia does not seem to be gearing up towards ending the war anytime soon. So, the Chinese public opinion does not seem so homogenous, but contains contradictory fractures in sentiment.

Joyce Chan:  Following up on this, do you think the domestic reaction stems from the public desire to see China take a stronger role on the international stage?

Maria Repnikova: I guess there are many different ways that the public could be reacting. On the one hand, the domestic crisis of Covid-19 and the various restrictions that people are worried about might have played into how much the public really thinks about this war on a regular basis, especially if the story is underreported and citizens don’t receive the same coverage as elsewhere. Given this situation, it makes me wonder how much they are concerned about China taking a global stance.

Chinese public opinion does not seem so homogenous, but contains contradictory fractures in sentiment.

On the other hand, considering the strong anti-Western sentiments expressed in the first weeks of the war, there is the question of whether the Chinese nationalist public could be upset about collaborating with the West, if it were to mediate the war, since siding with the West could be seen as a weakness. So, there is no clear-cut answer, but just different rationales to how the public opinion may be reacting.

Just imagine from the perspective of a Chinese citizen in lockdown, who is facing food shortages, job uncertainty and long-term economic slowdown. It is hard to blame the individual for not being as curious about Ukraine since they’re concerned about their own well-being and survival.

Joyce Chan:  In this line of thought, what effect do you think the combination of food and energy security crises brought about by the war, along the Covid crisis, will have on the Chinese government’s degree of censorship overall?

Maria Repnikova: I guess overall in terms of contemporary Chinese media history, crisis events always were extremely sensitive and contentious. We see quite a bit of tightening when it comes to covering other types of stories because of a heightened sensitivity from the public. So I think it makes sense to think that China is restricting other discussions that may destabilise the Chinese government or distract it from the key goal of managing domestic politics if there is even more discussion of why they aren’t doing more about Ukraine – because it is not conducive to their governance. So I can see why a domestic crisis can push towards a more international sensitivity.

Another theme worth mentioning is . . . When I did fieldwork in Chinese media like about Xinhua news coverage of Russia and the US, I heard from various editors that Russia generally tends to be a censored topic, like the US, in the sense of presenting Russia in a positive light and covering Putin’s regime in a relatively neutral way. Protests against Putin, any acts of resistance or negative stories in Russia don’t tend to be covered in Chinese media, and much the same applies in Russian media for stories on China, so there is some solidarity in how they cover one another. That’s maybe part of the story of why it is so difficult for China to shift course.

Because if you present the Russian regime as losing and weak, the domestic politics have to be taken into account as well. There are many protests against the war in Russia, individual acts of resistance, rumors about Putin’s regime weakening and the economy staggering. If this very strong authoritarian regime is waning and potentially under risk, what does it say about the Chinese authoritarian regime? It may give people ideas about resistance and critique that may be directed towards China as well. So I think this phenomenon is something long-standing, in terms of how Russia is presented and how sensitive it is for China to complicate the Russia story for the Chinese audience.

Joyce Chan:  Thank you. That is a very important insight. I was looking at your paper from 2018 about critical journalists in China and Russia and their varying methods of challenging authority. Your paper found that the Chinese pushed boundaries within the system, while the Russians enacted opposition. Does this still hold true today? Are Russian journalists surviving in the system or are they fleeing from Russia?

Maria Repnikova: That’s a great question. Since this paper was published, there has been a little more convergence between China and Russia in terms of information management and governance including critical journalists. Particularly in Russia, there is more tightening of space for what is permissible and investigative journalism. I think during the war, this space has really shrunk with the regime deliberately shutting down pretty much any outlet and most spaces basically, except for Telegram, which is still very active. But websites, television, and cable, like TV Rain, the only independent TV programme station, have been pushed out.

So in terms of whether the thesis holds true, we see on the one hand more shrinkage of critical or anti-war journalism in this context of Russia. At the same time, the journalists who are fleeing are setting up outposts for extraterritorial reporting. Some of them for instance are based in Latvia, like Meduza, where they are close to Russia but not in Russia.

Tihkon Dzyadko, the editor-in-chief of TV Rain, speaks in March to PBS about the network’s decision to leave Russia.

They’re still sending reporters to Ukraine and reporting about the war. They write in Russian and their Telegram channel is not censored, so it is open and has a million followers. In some ways, even though their website is banned and it is not safe for their journalists to be in Russia, they can still report on Russia’s external activities like in Ukraine. Novaja Gaseta is another paper that was pushed to close, but they set up an office in Europe and are still reporting on the war. So we see this kind of effort. 

Joyce Chan:  Can they still reach Russian audiences from outside the country?

Maria Repnikova: There are several issues with that as well. One issue is whether or not they are reaching the mainstream Russian public, which I don’t think they are or were in the first place. So a million followers for the population of around 120 or 130 million in Russia is not a lot. The second weakness is the question of whether they can even re-enter Russia. Hopefully, once the war ends this can happen, but I’m not sure the regime will reopen those channels to journalists. It is very convenient for them to shrink that space to never reopen it again. Then, in that context, how do you report about Russia if you are not in Russia, so this creates a really big challenge. Especially since so many reporters have fled, they’re still trying their best to cover the war but beyond the war, it is very hard to cover all kinds of issues without being there. So I think this development is very systematic and damaging for the Russian critical journalism sphere. 

Joyce Chan:  So that has a long-term repercussion for the whole media landscape in Russia and for the Russian-speaking diaspora, I guess.

Maria Repnikova: I think so. They’re not completely shut off, and in the context of the war, they are doing amazing and meaningful coverage. But beyond the war, the space to report on Russia is very much shortened. How do you actually report about domestic politics or even Russia-Chinese politics? It would be interesting to see which Chinese companies are operating in Russia under the radar beyond the Western sanctions, like how much is China’s presence economically. That would require deeper investigation and would be really interesting, but very hard to do for these outlets who are not there. It’s just one example, but there are many, many stories that I am afraid will not be reported.

But I think the attitudes haven’t changed, in terms of what I discussed in the paper with Russian journalists being much more anti-regime. I think this has even sharpened now. They’re very outspoken, very political and anti-Putin. In that sense, we still see that sharp difference to Chinese journalists.

I’m sure, in China, some journalists also harbour very strongly critical and frustrated sentiments about the Covid policy and the regime, but we don’t see mainstream critical outlets. I don’t know what’s critical anymore in China, but let’s say, [something like] Caixin coming out to publish something radical. It is still very cautious, even more cautious than in the past. Part of it is probably just survival strategy, but we see some social media posts that are much more pressing or emotional. We see social media sentiments bursting out once in a while. And we see what’s possible if there’s no censorship. But once that is shut down, we see them being very cautious, and we see a very clouded picture.

Fandoms and “Digital Labor” in China

The Trouble With Fandoms

Joyce Chan: Fandom culture recently became a new target of the Cyberspace Administration of China (10-point guidelines published on 27 August), because of celebrity scandals and fan community cultures that are seen to be overstepping boundaries. Could you briefly explain the rationale behind this? Why are fandoms seen as a problem? 

Yiyi Yin: This was not the first time a fandom-related policy was released. In the past few years, online fandoms have been portrayed by the state and media as a source of trouble, and thus recognized by the public as such. Several socially influential cases happened, including the conflict between celebrity fans and the site AO3 (227 incident), and more recently the case of Kris Wu and Zhehan Zhang.

Cases like these led directly to the adoption of the policy, which should not be understood simply as a regulation of fandom, but more generally of the whole internet sphere, and of capital expansion of both internet companies and the entertainment industry. In other words, the current regulation is in fact targeting more on the platforms, celebrities, and entertainment companies, rather than merely on fans.

Joyce Chan: In your paper, you talk about “emotional capitalism” and “emotional labor” when you write about fandoms. Could you explain for our readers how fandoms in China work, and how you see these concepts applying to Chinese fandom in particular?

Yiyi Yin: It’s quite complicated to explain. In general, we see fans often contributing, first of all, to the public image or popularity of the so-called idols, celebrities or fan objects. Secondly, the material profits benefiting the fan objects. Their contribution was based on the affective intimacy, [a perception of closeness and emotional bonding], that was both imagined and manifested in fan practices. In one sense, the capitalization of fandom was facilitated and legitimated by this kind of affective intimacy or the affective para-social relationship between fans and the fan objects.

In China, digital labor was constructed as an efficient way to actualize or manifest this affective relationship, as the data itself has become an “object” relating fans’ affective pursuit and the celebrities who were not actually accessible offline.

A cartoon posted by the news app for the official People’s Daily newspaper in August 2021, as new measures against fandoms are introduced, reads: “Crooked ‘Fandom Culture’ Must Be Cooled Down.” It shows a celebrity idol in a cage being pulled along by adoring fans, marionettes manipulated by large arms that say “fandoms” and “traffic” — as idol shouts, “Somebody save me!”

Joyce Chan: Just to clarify, the term “digital labor” refers to the often-unpaid work of social media users creating value by generating interaction with idols. Is that correct? And are there any figures available to indicate the level of economic activity that has been created in recent years by the relationship between fans and their idols?

Yiyi Yin: I would define digital labor as the often-unpaid work of social media users creating value by patterned use of digital media, and in the case of fandom, this patterned way of media use is legitimated affectively by the interaction or imaginary interaction between fans and idols. I don’t think I have any figures indicating the level of digital labor or its generated economic activity, but you might be able to find some useful data in the annual reports on entertainment industry. Tencent publishes an Entertainment White Paper (娱乐白皮书) every year, and I believe they have included some reports on fandoms.

The Social Impact of Fandoms

Joyce Chan: Moving on to the social impact of fandom culture, it seems clear from several cases in recent years that fandoms have been highly organized communities. And they’ve mobilized around a lot of issues beyond just favored idols. For example, around aid for the fight against Covid. Could you speak briefly about the organizational power of fandoms? 

Yiyi Yin: One reason is because the fan community is usually mobilized affectively. It gains organizational and activist power from affective identifications and enthusiastic love. They consider the collective fan practices, including fan-cheering, collective purchasing and helping the fight against Covid-19 as the embodied practice manifesting the imaginative intimacy between them and the idols. Some of these practices both favored the idols and the public, while others might only favor the idols and relevant actors – for example, purchases and so on.

The fan organization has a long history going back to the 1980s and has developed to be more organizational, facilitated by the Internet and social media platforms like Weibo. Weibo serves as a very important platform for Chinese online fan culture, as it enables different fan communities and fandoms to be connected and visible to the public. This kind of visibility and connectivity influences the organizational structure of fandoms and how they mobilize themselves to perform in front of the public in some way. I would say the organizational power of fans is sometimes performative as well.

“I would define digital labor as the often-unpaid work of social media users creating value by patterned use of digital media, and in the case of fandom, this patterned way of media use is legitimated affectively by the interaction or imaginary interaction between fans and idols.”

Joyce Chan: When you say that the power of fans is “performative,” what exactly do you mean by that? Could you provide an example of how this works in practice?

Yiyi Yin: Fans sometimes mobilized themselves to “perform” the good public image of the celebrity. For example, in the case of Covid-19, fans donated under the name of an idol primarily to contribute to the reputation of the celebrity. In this case, the primary significance of their actions is not always about the political or social good, but about the visibility of the celebrity, as in how the online public would perceive the celebrities because of their acts. If we consider fan practice as a form of performance, then the prediction and the attempt to control visibility serve as a significant rationale for their acts.

Joyce Chan: Could you describe the fan practices that are characteristic of such fandom groups? Are the groups now banned from continuing these practices due to the “purification” of the online atmosphere on various platforms? 

Yiyi Yin: As I described in my article, digital labor has become a daily practice for many celebrity fans. Besides voting as a ritualized practice, their digital practices include “comment spamming” (控评), “anti-trolling” (反黑), and “formatting postings” that would be counted towards traffic data and that can boost the online visibility of the celebrity. These digital labors have often been organized and motivated by the social media platform logic that is driven by traffic data.

For now, the groups are not technically banned. Nevertheless, since the regulation targets platform rules in terms of traffic generation, some of the digital practices might be restricted. For fans, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing, since they didn’t actually enjoy carrying out the practices in the first place. The acts of digital labor were dictated by the platform infrastructure, and fans had no choice but to accept the affective power attached to them.

Joyce Chan:  It’s interesting that you describe voting here as a “ritualized practice.” Could you explain what you mean by that? How does it play a role in social media algorithms for fandoms?

Yiyi Yin: Traditional voting takes place through a competition, which only lasts for several months and leads to a result with significant titles. In voting, fans have to organize themselves as a sort of working group or voting group to participate in the particular competition. This is how the voting has been ritualized.

However, in the algorithmic fan culture, digital labor has become embedded into the everyday practice of online fans. They don’t need to join any group or take serious tasks to complete the voting, but only need to post in particular formats or sign in to Weibo every day. The data contribution has been routinized in common fan practice and even common media use. For fans, this is how they use social media platforms.

Joyce Chan: If we can turn for a moment to the topic of fandom nationalism. Can you tell us how the development of fandom nationalism, exemplified by the construct of “Brother A-Zhong” (阿中哥) – a kind of idolization of the Chinese nation – and Diba Expeditions, has influenced the overall dynamic of fandom culture on Chinese social media? 

Yiyi Yin: I am not an expert on fan nationalism, so I might not be able to answer the question profoundly. I would say the development of online nationalism might influence the atmosphere of the internet sphere more broadly, rather than only fan cultures. It’s also a tricky thing to equalize the “fans” of Brother A-Zhong and fans in the Diba cases to the fans or celebrity fans we discussed in other questions. The “fandomization” (the appropriation of fan practices) and the rise of online nationalism can be considered as parallel in the internet sphere in China.

Joyce Chan: Does the rise of fandom nationalism concern the authorities in China? It certainly seems to have been a rather grassroots, even to some extent democratic, phenomenon. Is that a concern now?

Yiyi Yin: Again, I’m not an expert regarding this topic, but from what I know, the rise of fandom nationalism has become a kind of mobilized power that concerns the authorities. There have been cases that the social media account of Communist Youth League tried to announce virtual idols to mobilize “mainstream” fans.

Joyce Chan: So, what impact do you think the new rules about fandom culture will have on fandoms in China? 

Yiyi Yin: So far, I would say there are some good signs especially in terms of platform regulation. The new rules have shut down platform league tables, which somewhat “released” the fans from the ongoing practice of digital labor. The online visibility of fandoms decreased as well, which I believe might be a protection rather than a restriction of fan culture. Nevertheless, as fandoms have concerned the authorities increasingly, fandoms, especially celebrity fandoms, will probably become more “mainstream” in the future.

A quote card posted to social media by the official CCTV News reads: “These sort of ‘fandoms’ running amok,” urging the need for new regulations.

Joyce Chan: That sounds quite unexpected and even counterintuitive. Can you elaborate a bit more on the logic that while platform regulations decrease online visibility of fans, fandoms would become “more mainstream” in the future? What do you mean by this?

Yiyi Yin: As I mentioned, the attempt to control the visibility of celebrity, such as preventing negative rumors or news of the celebrity to appear in the trending list; or increasing the visibility of the positive public image of idols by donating materials to Wuhan in the case of Covid, is the significant rationale underlying online fan practices in China. In this process, fans have to compete with other participants on social media platforms such as fans of competitors, the digital media, entertainment reporters and so on.

To some extent, fans have no choice but to take part in this game of visibility, otherwise they would lose control of the visibility of their idols’ public images. This is exactly how emotional capitalism works, since the social media platform sometimes convinces the fans that the consequence of losing visibility could be miserable, like by protecting or promoting certain digital media accounts that routinely spread false rumors. Therefore, for fandom specifically, the regulation indicates an “authoritative” selection of visibility.

As the new policy cuts off the visibility of celebrity and digital fandoms by removing several league tables and trending topic rankings, visibility in this sense would no longer be “controlled” by the platform, but by the authorities. Consequently, fans on the one hand wouldn’t need to compete against others for visibility, on the other hand they would have to act more “mainstream” as a “societally positive community” when they find themselves in the public eye. [Editor’s Note: “Societally positive” here refers to the government-sanctioned positive moral values, which the authorities wish to put in place through the new regulations. “Mainstream” in this context refers to values in line with official frames, just as “mainstream media” in a Chinese context refers specifically to Party-state media.]

Joyce Chan: Do you foresee the fandom community resisting the regulations in some way or trying to alter the mechanisms placed on social media platforms, given their demonstrated creativity as been described in your journal article, “An Emergent Algorithmic Culture: the Data-ization of Online Fandom in China“? 

Yiyi Yin: I would say that fans will find their own way to survive, which is why I insisted that fan groups would not be banned or disappear. Fans have been highly creative and flexible individuals, who would participate in affective practices in multiple ways.

Since the offline era, fans often traveled from one site to another, developing creative ways to manifest, embody and actualize their affect. I would say that the current regulation would largely influence the forms and rules of digital fan practices, but would not dismiss the fan culture. Fans might not directly resist the regulation, but they will find ways to negotiate and live with it. This is how fan culture has always been shifting.

An Olympic Censorship Slip

Users of livestreaming services topped 600 million in China in 2020, and live streamers have become a powerful force driving the growth of e-commerce in the country. But live streaming has also prompted concern from internet regulators, who see immense potential for a range of abuses in the fast-growing medium – from the marketing of low-quality and counterfeit goods and concerns over standards of basic decency, to violations of political discipline.

When the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s chief internet regulatory and control body, issued new regulations on live-streaming back in February this year, concerns over the protection of youth and over data security were topped by language about “enhancing mainstream value leadership” (提升主流价值引领), code for the need for platforms to enforce the values of the CCP. The rules also talked about the need for “positive energy” (正能量) to permeate livestreams and the internet generally – this being a term closely associated with the suppression of criticism of the leadership.

But while enforcing censorship guidelines may sound like a rather straight-forward business, it can actually be a messy process for the authorities and internet companies alike. In some cases, enforcement can backfire, achieving the opposite of the intended effect.

An excellent example of this occurred recently during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, for which the Chinese internet giant Tencent has been sublicensed broadcasting rights from the state conglomerate China Media Group. Sublicenses were granted to operators like Tencent and Kuaishou, a leading video platform, in order to help boost access to the Games, allowing Chinese users to view sports content through mobile services like Tencent Sports, Tencent Video,, Tencent News, and of course WeChat.

During the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, however, Tencent Video, which has more than 600 million monthly active users in China, made a major fumble as it sought to abide by censorship guidelines. As the Taiwanese delegation of athletes entered the stadium and was introduced by an anchor as being from “Taiwan” rather than from “Chinese Taipei” – the latter being a condition of the island’s participation in the Games settled back in 1981 with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to respond to China’s objections on sovereignty grounds – Tencent Video responded by quickly interrupting the live broadcast. The livestreaming app replaced the broadcast of the ceremony with a 20-minute segment discussing Olympic sports.

As the talk dragged on, millions of Chinese tuning in to the live stream at Tencent Video were missing an event they had tuned in especially to see: the entry of the 777-strong delegation of athletes from the People’s Republic of China, the largest delegation in Olympic history. Many were furious, as could be seen by the bullet comments streaming across the broadcast. “We want to see the Olympics,” said one frustrated comment. “What are you doing?” another asked. “Cut back!” several demanded.

A screenshot of the live broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremony on July 23, with sports talk replacing the broadcast from the Olympic Stadium.

The disruption by Tencent, a decision taken to anticipate objections from the authorities,  drew fierce protests from angered Chinese netizens, who demanded an apology for “selling out our country” at a crucial moment many had eagerly awaited. There were even calls to uninstall the streaming app.

Tencent’s intention, no doubt, was to circumvent a possible violation of propaganda guidelines in their live broadcast. But its inadvertent censorship of the grand entry by China’s own national team immediately rankled with patriotic users, who took to Weibo and other platforms to accuse Tencent of “disrespecting the Motherland,” calling the company “a traitor that deserves to be investigated.”

Weibo users furious at Tencent’s decision to interrupt its broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Summer Olympics leave angry comments on the Tencent Video app.

The process behind Tencent’s decision during the live stream of the opening ceremony remains unclear. Was it a technical problem? Or a man-made blunder as the company strove to abide by censorship demands? In an apology posted to Weibo the day after the incident, Tencent attributed the situation to unspecified “demands from the copyright holder.”

Tencent Video issues an apology via Weibo on July 24 concerning its decision to cut away from a live-stream of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony.

Did this refer to the China Media Group, the holder of the broadcast license? Again, it was unclear.

“In Olympics reports from now on,” Tencent Video said, “we will listen to the views of others, and do our utmost to do better.”  In the fast-paced and fast-growing livestreaming sector, and with both users and censorship authorities to please, that may prove a difficult promise to keep.

Sweeping Up the Government’s Social Media Mess

On May 1, as India faced a deadly second wave of Covid-19 infections amid a chronic shortage of hospital beds and oxygen, a Weibo post by China Chang’an Web (中国长安网) sought to grab readers by playing to a sense of national pride. The post showed two images side-by-side: on the left, China’s Tianhe space module burning off rocket fuel; on the right, the scene of a mass outdoor cremation of Covid-19 victims in India. “China lighting fires VS India lighting fires,” read the snide text of the post.

The juxtaposition quickly triggered a massive social media storm in China. While some defended the post, others saw it as morally reprehensible, displaying cruel disregard for the people of India. Beyond the debate over substance, the post prompted deeper questions about the role of China’s so-called “government affairs new media” (政务新媒体), those social media accounts operated by administrative organs and institutions at all levels in order to help disseminate the policies of the central leadership to the grassroots – and to transmit upwards the concerns of the public. 

Why was the Weibo account of China Chang’an Web, a site operated by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a powerful body directly under the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), creating sensational clickbait that served only to sow hatred and division? Surely the post, coming just one day after Xi Jinping had sent his official condolences to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was undermining diplomacy by playing to the worst impulses of online nationalists.

Screenshot of a Weibo post by @China Chang’an Web in May 2021 that drew a firestorm of criticism.

In fact, the China Chang’an Web post, which was subsequently deleted, was an embarrassment underscoring a far more widespread problem: rampant negligence and mismanagement among the very government affairs new media that were promoted 12 years ago in China as a breakthrough in communication between the government and the public. 

Four Ailments

In April, China’s State Council issued new orders to overhaul social media accounts belonging to government branches and offices in an effort to tackle persistent mismanagement and neglect. Reporting on the issue shortly after the State Council release, the official Xinhua Daily Telegraph noted accounts that had been “opened but not properly operated,” deviating from their government affairs role. Other accounts were simply dormant, without regular updates. Still others had grown unruly, morphing into “marketing accounts,” or yingxiaohao (营销号), pushing content with the sole, and cynical, purpose of drawing traffic.

The statement demanded a course correction from government-run social media accounts, predominantly on the WeChat and Weibo platforms, as authorities sought to crack down on four outstanding issues:

  • Dormant accounts without updates within two weeks
  • Indiscriminate sensationalist content and an excessive tendency toward entertainment content
  • Sharing of content irrelevant to government affairs
  • Delayed deactivation of neglected accounts

Of these four issues, the government cited dormant, or “zombie,” accounts as the chief complaint. Such neglect was sometimes the result of government organs abandoning accounts after launching them in the midst of nationwide campaigns that advocated greater use of new media platforms without sufficient guidance or resources. A State Council opinion released in October 2013, for example, pushed for “strengthening openness of government affairs information to respond to social concerns,” and said that “all regions and departments should actively explore the use of government microblogs, WeChat and other new media for the timely release of authoritative government information.”

In many cases, accounts were not updated with any meaningful information for long stretches of time. The blindness on the part of government departments could sometimes lead to account breaches. In one of the most notorious cases, it was discovered in 2015 that the official Weibo account of a local court in Hubei had been hijacked to repost ads for beauty products, mobile phones and electronics. This happened for nearly 10 months before it came to the attention of court staff. This egregious blunder drew national attention – providing comic relief for the masses, if not substantive government affairs content.

The Weibo account of the court in the city of Chengde is programmed to share commercial ads, this one for cosmetics, claiming: “We’ll help you get a guy!”

Upon closer inspection, these lapses in professionalism could be linked to the quantitative standards applied by the central authorities to gauge the online influence of government social media. Owing to the disproportionate weight given to the amount of accumulated followers and likes, content quality naturally falls by the wayside as account operators race for novelty and online popularity. Government officials at lower levels are often under immense pressure to rapidly expand their social media presence, leading them to churn out eyeball-grabbing clickbait to compete against other government accounts.

Flourishing Problems

The first official government affairs Weibo account, “@TaoyuanWang” (@桃源网), was launched in China on November 2, 2009, followed less than three weeks later by “@WeiboYunnan” (@微博云南), operated by Yunnan’s provincial propaganda department. In the more than 10 years since, government affairs new media accounts have developed rapidly – or “furiously,” to borrow the wording used by People’s Daily Online in its own review of the phenomenon. And the secret behind this furious development also explains why such glaring problems have emerged.

Beginning in 2009, the Chinese government actively encouraged government branches to establish a social media presence and to take advantage of advancements in digital technology. The use of new media mushroomed across various platforms from 2013 through 2015, as every branch sought to engage new generations of Chinese plugged in to the mobile internet. 

But in rather stark contrast to the strong centralized controls enforced on much of Chinese media and the internet, particularly during an era in which Xi Jinping has demanded media loyalty and sought to remake controls over cyberspace, official social media accounts have seemed to operate without stringent management or intervention. Central supervision of the government’s own social media accounts has been weak in practice, and this means they have often flourished in the wrong ways.

Rather than giving their own affiliates and departments a public dressing-down, the central government has historically adopted a low-key approach in the form of “opinion” statements and “notification” papers. In December 2018, the State Council issued its “Opinion on the Healthy and Orderly Development of Government Affairs New Media” (国务院办公厅关于推进政务新媒体健康有序发展的意见), which laid out both problems and action points. The opinion clearly spelled out both the government’s hopes for official new media as a resource for boosting credibility and enhancing control of public opinion (“channelling”), and its concerns about how these accounts were having in many cases precisely the opposite effect:

Government affairs new media are important channels for the Party and the government to connect with the masses, serve the masses and unite the masses in the mobile internet era. [They are] an important means to accelerate the transformation of government functions and build a service-oriented government, and an important front on which to channel online public opinion and build a clear cyberspace environment . . . . But at the same time, some government affairs new media have outstanding problems such as a lack of clear function and positioning, lax release of information, unstandardized operation and maintenance, poor supervision and oversight, and so on, and such phenomena as “zombie” (僵尸) accounts, “sleeping” (睡眠) accounts, “shocking remarks” (雷人雷语), and “lack of interactivity and service” (不互动无服务) occur. These have an adverse effect on the image and credibility of the government.

This whip-crack for a supposed overhaul of government affairs new media even attracted attention from some international media, the Reuters news agency noting that China’s cabinet had “warned government departments to clean up their social media image amid a drive to bolster the government’s online presence to help reach tech-savvy young people who get their information from smartphones.” The State Council followed in April 2019 by releasing a set of measurement indicators to ensure “scientific management and standardised guidance” of government affairs new media from the central policy level.

Screenshot of the State Council’s “Opinion on the Healthy and Orderly Development of Government Affairs New Media,” released in December 2018.

When it comes to policy, the central government has clearly intensified its efforts to rein in unruly government black sheep on social media, and stave off damage to the government’s social media image.

In practice, however, these government pronouncements have often failed to trickle down into action. Coverage of the issue in state media suggests that pragmatic solutions have not followed. The abovementioned article in the Xinhua Daily Telegraph last month found a wide range of inadequacies among official social media accounts. It found that language about “zombie” and “shell” (空壳) accounts, those rarely updated or not posting content at all, figured prominently in several provincial-level surveys of government websites and social media accounts during the first quarter of 2021. A report from the Hubei provincial government, for example, noted that one government affairs new media account in Tongshan County had not released a single item of information since its launch years ago, and another government account in Fang County, west of the city of Xiangyang, was last updated in October 2019.

In many cases too, the report noted, government websites and social media accounts purporting to offer interactive services for citizens, such as complaints and recommendations, were not actually functioning, so that those writing were faced with a wall of silence. In one case back in March this year, a Weibo user from the city of Ma’anshan, in Anhui province, posted online about his frustrations in trying to reach out through the city’s official social media account, “Ma’anshan City People’s Government Announcements” (马鞍山市人民政府发布), to address an outstanding concern. The user noted that his attempt to send a personal message to the government account yielded a message that said: “Owing to settings from the other party, this information cannot be sent.”

A message sent by a user to the official government Weibo of Ma’anshan returns a notice that the account is closed to personal messaging.

The Xinhua Daily Telegraph reporter also found quite a number of official social media accounts that were engaged in questionable commercial activities, such as marketing products, or that were focused on celebrity and entertainment.

In a commentary for the China Youth Daily newspaper on May 12, as the impact of the snide post from China Chang’an Web still reverberated, Ma Liang (马亮), a professor of public administration at Renmin University of China, wrote that quality should trump quantity when it comes to assessing the online influence of official social media accounts. “The assessment and evaluation of government affairs new media should not be about a ‘one-size-fits-all’ measure of traffic,” Ma wrote. “Rather, it should focus on whether the relevant department is making good use of new media channels for information dissemination, the provision of services and interactive communication.”

On May 17, the Shanghai government released its own report looking at government affairs new media and websites operating under its jurisdiction. The report noted numerous problems, including misrepresentation of government policies and failure to update channels and ensure they remained active. The report even included a shame list of government affairs new media that had not been updated for at least two weeks at the time of investigation.

A May 2021 report from the Shanghai government includes a list of government affairs new media that have not been regularly updated.

More or Less?

Ma proposed a number of necessary steps for systematic restructuring. Among them, he suggested that the government not resort to blanket mandates for the creation of official social media channels. “There should not be excessive requirements for comprehensive coverage of government affairs new media,” he said. “Nor should there be compulsory orders for Party and government organs to register accounts on all new media platforms.”

The development of government affairs new media has been conceived by the CCP as part of a larger process of remolding the traditional “mainstream” media – meaning the Party-state media system that works to enforce the Party’s dominance over public opinion. Following Xi Jinping’s mandate for the reorganization of official media at an August 2014 meeting of the Central Leading Group for Deepening Reform, at which he called for greater integration of new media and CCP-led traditional outlets, a report from Tsinghua University stressed the importance of government affairs new media. Official social media channels had the potential, according to the report, to act as channels offering greater interaction between the government and the general public. Government affairs new media might “provide ways for government departments to communicate with the public and improve the quality of services, and also provide interactive platforms for the general public to monitor the government and provide feedback.”

Despite the talk of quality, however, the Tsinghua University report was focused on numbers and rankings. It noted that by October 31, 2014, 16,446 government affairs accounts had been registered on the WeChat platform, and a staggering 116,607 government affairs accounts had been registered on Weibo. The report’s measure of “comprehensive communication power” (综合传播力), including a Top 20 list, was essentially about traffic.

The government continues to hope that official new media channels might lead to greater interactivity and responsiveness, that they might enhance the Party’s relationship to the masses by offering clarity on policies and procedures, and by streamlining of administrative services. An April commentary at People’s Daily Online stressed that “government affairs new media are an important means to accelerate the transformation of government functions and build a service-oriented government.” Beyond that, these channels might bolster the CCP’s capacity to lead public opinion – regarded as so essential to maintaining stability.

But for the time being, clearly, government affairs new media have also become a headache, another problem to be addressed from on high. When it comes to the national rollout of official social media channels, particularly given embarrassments like the recent storm over the China Chang’an Web post, could the leadership be realizing that less is more?