Stella Chen joined the China Media Project in 2021 as a senior researcher, responsible for daily CMP research and monitoring of the Chinese media and internet landscape. Stella has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Manchester, UK.
On December 15, the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) released an updated version of its 2019 list of content restrictions for short video platforms. The purpose of the release, a notice from the CNSA said, was to “improve the quality of short video content, and to curb the spread of false and harmful content to create a clear cyberspace.” While ostensibly an industry association comprising tech companies and radio broadcasters, both private and state-operated, the CNSA is also directly involved in the control of so-called “harmful content,” its charter committing it to such goals as “upholding socialist core values.”
The most recent rules elaborate and adjust the restrictions put in place on short video platforms back in 2019, and define “harmful content” across 21 categories, from content that is “harmful to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (1), promotes separatism (2), or is “harmful to the national image” (3), to the broad dragnet of “other content in violation of relevant state regulations and/or ethical norms” (21). Other prohibited categories include content that “damages the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and martyrs” (4), which accords with legislation passed in 2018 that made defamation of CCP heroes and martyrs illegal, and content that “damages social stability” (6).
The stipulations in Section One of the CNSA rules, concerning threats to the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics, are a clear example of the breadth of the rules, which cover not just various forms of content deemed to “attack” (攻击), “deny” (否定), “damage” (损害) or “contradict” (违背) the nature or authority of the country’s governing system, but also content that is “teasing” (调侃), “sarcastic” (讽刺), “oppositional” (反对) or “contemptuous” (蔑视) about the system, its laws and regulations, its policies, or about Marxism.
There is no room for latitude or a sense of humor in the CNSA rules. Too much, after all, is at stake – not least the position of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its top leader, Xi Jinping. The third line of Section One explicitly forbids “attacking, denying or weakening the core of the CCP’s Central Committee, and the core status of the whole Party.”
The prohibitions in the rules are to be applied in all aspects of short video production and distribution, including titles, captions and subtitles, comments and bullet comments, pop-ups, emoticons, images, music, sound effects and so on.
What is new about this round of rules?
One conspicuous addition is a stipulation that forbids content that goes against the recently releasedResolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party Over the Past Century (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), an outcome from the Sixth Plenum that reaffirmed the power of Xi Jinping.
Another of the 2021 additions, helpfully summarized by China Law Translate, is a prohibition in Section One of “teasing, sarcasm, opposition or contempt of the latest theoretical achievements in the Sinicization of Marxism.” This, once again, is less about Marxism than about Xi Jinping’s claim over the revolutionizing of Marxism in the 21st century as a keystone in the foundation of his power and legacy. More analysis on this topic can be found in CMP’s June 2020 analysis, “Claiming 21st Century Marxism.”
Also added in the fourth line of Section One is an explicit statement about content that “engages in historical nihilism” (搞历史虚无主义), departing from the “state of the world, the state of the country and the state of the Party” – essentially a prohibition against any views or interpretations of history that the CCP deems to be incorrect. Language from the CCP opposing so-called “historical nihilism” has been on the rise this year, particularly ahead of the 100th anniversary of the CCP on July 1.
Section Fourteen of the rules includes a new prohibition that also relates to more recent trends in online censorship and regulation. This is a line that prohibits the “displaying the chaos of ‘fandoms’ and unfavorable fan culture, advocating hype and traffic flow as a top priority, or aberrant aesthetics, fanaticism or fan irrationality.” These additions accord with the recent crackdown, since August, on so-called “fandom culture” (饭圈文化), which CMP has written about in “Fandoms in the Crosshairs,” and in “Cracking Down on Fandoms.” Readers may also be interested in our interview on the subject of fandom culture with Yin Yiyi, a professor at Beijing Normal University.
Immediately below the ban on promotion of “fandoms” in the rules is language prohibiting so-called “Sang culture” (丧文化), which refers to the expression of feelings of defeatism and loss, as was epitomized earlier this year in the prevalence of the term tangping (躺平), or “lying flat,” which encouraged young people in China, exhausted by a culture of consumerism and overwork, to simply opt for lives of slackish resignation.
Commenting on the rules as they were released through the official account of the NRTA on Weibo, “Shi Ting China” (视听中国), some internet users expressed their concerns and skepticism.
“Who is the subject of these rules? What is their scope? How is monitoring done? How do you appeal?” one user asked.
“Whenever I see this word ‘association’ anymore,” another user wrote, using a popular idiom for a con job, “I think they are hanging a goat’s head and selling dog meat.” This, presumably, was a reference to the way an association of industry players was serving a rather explicit regulatory role.
Another user wrote: “Detailed as these rules seem, I hope the country understands that in the implementation at the platform level all of these concrete rules will be twisted if there isn’t proper oversight, so that they will boil down to two words – ‘suppressing dissent’.”
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced on Thursday that Douban (豆瓣), one of the country’s most popular social networking platforms, had been removed from app stores along with 105 other apps, citing “excessive collection of personal information.” The move, which was announced through the MIIT’s WeChat official account, “Gong Xin Wei Bao“ (工信微报), quickly became a hotly discussed topic across Chinese social media.
“Please no, don’t let Douban die,” one user wrote in a comment under the news as reported on Weibo by The Beijing News newspaper. “I have a lot of bookmarks that haven’t been backed up yet.”
“Will Hupu, Zhihu and Baidu Tieba be next?” one seemingly distressed user responded.
Douban, a social networking platform established in 2005, allows users to share reviews of music, books, films and other hobby-related content. The platform’s “group,” or xiaozu (小组), function works as an online community for people who have shared interests in certain celebrities, pop culture trends, films and so on, allowing them to share their thoughts and responses.
Douban has sometimes seemed to be more liberal in its application of controls on user-generated content. A report by the AFP earlier this month showed that while information and discussion about the Peng Shuai case was virtually non-existent inside China, Douban had for a brief period enabled discussion of the case, with a mix of Chinese and English posts managing to survive for a brief time before censors cracked down.
In its announcement, the ministry said it had conducted inspections of apps for violations such as permission requests for users’ personal information that exceed what was necessary for advertised services, and inducing users to download apps through deceptive means. The MIIT said that the first five apps listed, including Douban and the popular karaoke app Changba (唱吧), had not completed “rectification” as required by the ministry, coming into full compliance with the Cybersecurity Law and the Personal Information Protection Law.
The 21st Century Business Herald, a commercial business publication based in Guangzhou, noted two things in particular in this round of regulatory moves taken by the MIIT. First, the removed apps had received notification back in early November that they were in violation of privacy rules but had failed to make the necessary alterations in time for the deadline set by the regulator. Second, the paper noted that the rectification order and removal list included apps operated by both private companies and state-owned enterprises, suggesting that the MIIT was treating SOES and private enterprises equally – which experts quoted by the paper said was unusual.
“This situation is something we don’t see so often,” said Yang Yong (杨勇), an expert from East China University of Political Science and Law, “and it shows an attitude of equal treatment in oversight of private and state-owned enterprises by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.”
Sources told the 21st Century Business Herald that Douban has repeatedly faced fines as a result of its failure to censor user comments within the platform’s private group function in violation of the Cybersecurity Law.
This is certainly not the first time that Douban has been subjected to fines and warnings. According to a December 2, 2021, post by “Wang Xin China“ (网信中国), the official account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on WeChat, Douban has been fined to the tune of 1.5 million RMB for alleged transmission of “illegal content.” Moreover, between January and November of this year, the notice said, Douban had been charged penalties on 20 separate occasions by the CAC, with fines totaling nine million RMB.
The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖), the Chinese war epic that recently became the country’s top-grossing film of all time, tells the story of self-sacrificing volunteer soldiers who bravely take on American troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Commissioned by the Central Propaganda Department with a budget of over 200 million dollars, the film has been praised inside China as a milestone both for China’s film industry and for the telling of the “China story.”
But while The Battle at Lake Changjin may have been a domestic success, earning more than 895 million dollars by the end of November, it has seriously misfired internationally, and the self-congratulatory tone of much coverage inside China points to the continued myopia of the country’s media system when it comes to crafting stories the rest of the world can relate to.
Earlier this week, the Economic Daily, a central newspaper run by the State Council, hailed the fact that in a period of 10 days following its first screening in Hong Kong on November 11, The Battle at Lake Changjin had brought in more than 10 million Hong Kong dollars in ticket sales. Not only this, said the paper, but the film, which in mainland China had prompted emotional tributes, including a wave of frozen potato eating, had “continued to heat up overseas,” showing in Singapore, the United States and Canada.
In fact, the film’s reception could scarcely be called lukewarm. It made just over 577,000 US dollars on its opening in Hong Kong. Compare this to the saga of the Eternals, which raked in nearly 3.4 million US dollars on its Hong Kong opening in November. Even Anita, the story of the disappeared Hong Kong Cantopop star Anita Mui, topped 1.5 million US dollars on opening, dwarfing the CCP’s nationalistic blockbuster.
In Singapore, meanwhile, the film was not even listed for returns at Box Office Mojo, and taken altogether overseas numbers for the film, including in the US and the UK, were “puny,” as Variety has reported.
Writing at the Economic Daily, critic Zhang Tianqiao (姜天骄) was undeterred by such facts. That that The Battle at Lake Changjin had become a “phenomenal blockbuster,” he wrote, was “a sign that the Chinese story is deeply rooted in people’s hearts.” What is this story exactly? According to Zhang, the story is that the “war of aid to Korea” (援朝战争) – China’s official characterization of the Korean War – was great, and that “its greatness lies in the fact that the Chinese people fought for peace and justice.”
Building on the ostensible success of The Battle at Lake Changjin, said Zhang, the goal should be to continue exploring ways for Chinese films to “both represent [China’s] national characteristics and core culture and also be widely accepted by the world film market.”
“Making the Chinese story tug at the heartstrings of the world means finding a common narrative language with humanity,” Zhang Tianqiao wrote. Story lines, in other words, should be compelling, and at the same time reflect the “China’s story,” a phrase that has become synonymous under Xi Jinping with the global rollout of the CCP’s official line through modernized forms of “external propaganda.”
Modernizing domestic and external propaganda has been a project of many years for the CCP. And The Battle at Lake Changjin has made a number of innovations in this respect, building on previous experiments.
Like Wolf Warrior 2 (战狼2), the previous box office record holder with nationalistic credentials, the film offers fast-moving action sequences and a few impressive swooping camera scenes. But unlike Wolf Warrior 2, this latest “slice of nationalistic entertainment” also makes a clever appeal to younger audiences with its casting choices.
Apart from the leading role played by Wu Jing (吴京) – who directed and produced Wolf Warrior 2 – the film also stars Jackson Yee (易烊千璽), an actor, singer and performer who is among the most popular today with young audiences. Yee is a member of the Chinese teen idol group TFBoys, or “The Fighting Boys.” The casting of younger stars like Yee signals another important change in the nature of official CCP film production. Film producers, working closely with the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, are exploring novel approaches to casting and marketing. In Yee’s case, his immense following as an idol can offer a convenient avenue for promoting the film.
On September 30, the day before the film’s National Day release, Yee promoted The Battle at Lake Changjin through his Weibo account. The post quickly received more than 1 million likes and reposts, and nearly 400,000 comments.
Like the Wolf Warrior films and Operation Red Sea (红海行动), a 2018 action war film, The Battle at Lake Changjin has helped to change the audience’s perception of “mainstream” films, meaning state productions aligning with the CCP line, as dull and doctrinaire. But it is only the latest culmination of a decades-long struggle to find novel ways to tell the CCP’s story.
It was at least as early as the National Film Work Conference in 1987 that the leadership introduced the idea of diversifying propaganda products. The phrase at the time was, “promoting the main melody, insisting on variety” (突出主旋律, 坚持多样化 ).” The term “main melody,” or zhuxuanlu (主旋律), is still used today by propaganda officials to assert the need to stick to the main political line, ensuring that the CCP leads the chorus.
Early in the Jiang Zemin era, the Central Propaganda Department initiated the so-called “Five Ones Project” (五个一工程), an awards program designed to encourage “innovation” in mainstream cultural production, including films, television programming, literature and music. The goal was essentially to convey the Party’s objectives, values and doctrines in cultural products that befitted an era of rising choice in the media, as foreign cultural products also became more readily available.
Throughout the Hu Jintao era this atmosphere of experimentation continued, one of the biggest changes being the increasing involvement of private sector investment in the production and distribution of “mainstream” films and TV shows. Films such as The Knot (云水谣), a “main melody” production set during the Chinese Civil War, and TV programs like Drawing Sword (亮剑), which tells the story of Li Yunlong, a commander of a regiment of the Eighth Route Army during the war of resistance against Japan, clearly showed the growing impact of private investors in productions. These films and television series were no longer the ponderous propaganda offerings of the past, but rather sought to blend more secular stories with broad appeal with so-called “socialist core values.”
Since the late 2000s there has been a greater emphasis on “cultural soft power” (文化软实力), the CCP leadership investing its hopes for greater credibility and influence overseas in the strength of Chinese cultural products. And since 2013, Xi Jinping has doubled down on this basic conviction, that China’s voice in the world must grow louder and stronger as a reflection of the country’s growing strength as a global power, and that this should be manifested in rising “cultural confidence” (文化自信).
The Battle for Global Audiences
State media and other official sources have relished The Battle at Lake Changjin as a prime example of China’s growing capacity for strong cultural products. Jun Zheng Ping (钧正平), an official Weibo account launched in July 2016 by the People’s Liberation Army, posted an article three days after the film’s release that said “the world’s recognition of the people’s army was far from sufficient,” and that this problem could be remedied through the medium of film. The article, “This Age Needs High-Quality National Military Films to Enter People’s Hearts and Head Out Into the World” (时代需要高质量国产军事电影走进人心走向世界), called the war scenes in The Battle at Lake Changjin “excellent,” and said that “the actors performed wonderfully.”
The Shanghai Observer (上观), an outlet run by Jiefang Daily, the official mouthpiece of the CCP leadership in Shanghai, said that the success of The Battle at Lake Changjin had demonstrated the vibrancy and vitality of the Chinese film industry, and had “shown the world the unique beauty of the China story.” The outlet was not wrong in claiming that a “Changjin Lake effect” (长津湖效应) had swept across mainland China. Some Chinese, after seeing the film, had visited the graves of these martyrs, laying down flowers. Some stands selling vegetables had reportedly posted signs that read, “Today we have plenty of potatoes,” a tribute to the hardships depicted in the film, including one scene in which the volunteer soldiers must eat frozen potatoes.
But many of the very elements that have made the film so appealing to audiences in mainland China, what Zhang Tianqiao hailed in the Economic Daily this week as an insistence on “national characteristics” and “core culture,” are the more or less direct causes of its failure overseas – a failure that commentators inside China seem ill equipped to recognize.
In the theory section of the latest edition of International Communications, a monthly journal on mass media published in China, two scholars from Ningbo University, Xin Hongjuan (辛红娟) and Meng Jialong (孟佳蓉), write that promoting the “going out” (走出去) of “red culture” (红色文化), a phrase referring to CCP-approved official PRC history and culture, is crucial to “telling China’s story well.”
From the outset of their summary, the two authors tacitly accept Xi Jinping’s external propaganda strategy as the frame with which to discuss international communications and its success or failure, and suitably they begin their paper with a reference to Xi Jinping’s remarks on “red resources” (红色资源) at the 31st collective study session of the Politburo on June 25, 2021.
The Battle at Lake Changjin, they say, “provides a good example of how to use film and television works as a vehicle to optimize the foreign communication of China’s red culture.” They conclude, on the basis apparently of a simple viewing of the film, that it “cleverly uses empathic communication, employing macro narratives to promote two-way empathy.” The result is to promote a clear image of the Chinese military as peace-loving and opposing war. Moreover, the film “contributes new ideas to promote the integration of Chinese civilization into the world civilization in a confident and positive manner.”
This faith in the film’s power of “empathic communication” is based in particular on two scenes in the film, which the author’s imagine must elicit sympathy from audiences everywhere.
In the first scene, soldier Wu Wanli, the brother of seventh company commander Wu Qianli (played by Wolf Warrior 2 director Wu Jing) is about to shoot an American officer and achieve his goal of killing 20 enemies, transforming himself into a “hero,” when Qianli stays his hand, saying: “There are some shots that must be fired, and others that can be left unfired.” In the second scene, an American commander named Smith comes across a group of Chinese volunteers frozen like ice sculptures, but maintaining their combat postures. He removes his hat and salutes the Chinese soldiers.
Xin and Meng accept out of hand that these scenes “promote two-way empathy,” that global audiences will take them as evidence of peace-loving goodwill. Here is their elementary thesis about how international communication can be achieved:
As a country with 5,000 years of civilization, China has its own national system, and its own discourse to express its values — for example, the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, the spirit of collectivism and communism, and so on. Western countries also have their own unique systems and values, including democratic republicanism, the supremacy of individualism and heroism, and so on. In order to foster empathy between these two sides having different cultures and ideologies, we must find the common emotions (共通情感) in both cultures. Respect for life, for example, is the basis for a natural dialogue between people in the East and the West.
Finding these points of “empathic communication,” the scholars conclude, can help to “break more barriers to the foreign dissemination of Chinese red culture.” But are Chinese scholars and strategists, including pundits at state media, looking critically at the real failure of how The Battle at Lake Changjin has been received in foreign countries?
The film has drawn overseas criticism for stretching the historical facts of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Malaysia turned the film away after online discontent over its role as CCP propaganda. Not only, South Korean critics said, did the film serve as a blatant propaganda, playing fast and loose with the facts, but its release was timed to accompany the 100th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party.
At the Rotten Tomatoes film review website, The Battle at Lake Changjinearned a green “splat,” receiving at 33 percent barely more than half the proportion of positive reviews it needed to earn a squishy tomato. The Guardian, which called it “straight-up propaganda,” bemoaned the lack of any coherent story at all. “It’s a shame there is virtually no story to sew this ungainly patchwork of styles together,” the critic Phil Hoad wrote, “apart from some threadbare twaddle about 7th Company commander Quanli (Wolf Warrior’s Wu Jing) and his wannabe soldier brother Wanli (Jackson Yee), as a stowaway who mostly exists for his comrades to impart self-sacrificing wisdom.”
Beyond its lack of coherence, said Hoad, the film had “worryingly belligerent overtones,” and seemed to revel in graphic violence. The critic likened a hand-to-hand combat scene in the American encampment to “a homicidal game of Twister.”
At The Hollywood Reporter, critic Elizabeth Kerr called the film “propagandist myth-making” that threw historical fact out the window. While Kerr said that the film “ticks all the boxes expected of a rousing slice of nationalist entertainment,” she concluded that “it’s not even trying for soft power” – a comment state media pundits should find painful given their insistence that the film is built to be an international sensation.
“There are no onscreen English credits, as if no one expected anyone outside the People’s Republic to watch,” Kerr wrote.
Kerr noted another very fundamental problem that those in China hoping to export “red culture” might take into consideration – the fact that The Battle at Lake Changjin is simply too long at a “butt-numbing three hours.” That might be fine for military die-hards, and for melodramatic audiences ready to mimic the sacrifices of the people’s volunteers, breaking their teeth on frozen potatoes. But when it comes to appealing to global audiences, it is one of many failings the CCP’s “red culture” promoters might do well to consider.
A generation ago China’s drive for economic growth and wealth creation could be summed up in Deng Xiaoping’s famous injunction to “first let a few get rich” (让一部分人先富起来), a formula that became simplified early on with the phrase “to get rich is glorious” (致富光荣). But these days, as Xi Jinping has insisted that the Chinese Communist Party must now close the gap and pursue “common prosperity,” getting rich, or being rich, can be a mark of socio-political shame.
On Chinese social media, this ethos of shame has lately centered on the phenomenon of “wealth flaunting,” or xuanfu (炫富).
Since the Cyberspace Administration of China launched its internet cleanup campaign back in May this year, social media platforms have been working overtime to comply with the broad demands of authorities, regulating content related to fandom culture, online gaming and other areas of priority for the CAC, pushing for a “clean and clear” (清朗) online space. “Wealth flaunting” has been one of a number of areas of focus.
Last week, the social media and e-commerce platform “Xiaohongshu” (小红书), known in English as “Little Red Book” or sometimes simply as “RED,” publicly announced the results of its internal campaign to combat “wealth flaunting,” or xuanfu (炫富), within its online community. RED is a platform where users post on a variety of topics such as food, fashion, travel and lifestyle.
According to RED’s announcement, the platform’s efforts over the past six months to “combat wealth flaunting” (抵制炫富) have resulted in the deletion of 8,787 “wealth-flaunting records in violation of regulations” (炫富类违规笔记). Fines were reportedly imposed by the platform on 240 accounts for related violations.
Interestingly, RED also reported that it had upgraded its algorithmic model for spotting posts that flaunt wealth (炫富识别的算法模型), offering a glimpse at how platforms are directly involved in creating and deploying technical solutions to achieve the objectives defined by the CCP and the CAC. The goal of RED’s upgraded algorithm model is to detect and remove wealth-flaunting content more quickly.
Back in April 2021, before the Chinese internet cleanup campaign was formally launched by the CAC, RED released community guidelines (社区公约) that defined “avoiding showing off your spending power” and “whether [content] is useful to others” (是否对别人有用) as important criteria in determining whether users’ posts should be shared. The guidelines also mentioned “respecting laborers/service providers” and “avoiding waste” as values to be upheld.
Online influencers have also joined the anti-wealth flaunting campaign by posting related content on RED. “Jassie” (杰西学姐Jassie), an influencer who shares career advice on the platform, wrote that such content is harmful to people of all ages, generating anxiety in adults, and implanting “incorrect” values, such as vanity, the temptation to take shortcuts, and the need to constantly compare oneself to others.
Another online influencer, “HR Brother Hong” (HR小弘哥), posted on RED that ostentatious displays of wealth were a vice, creating the illusion that all users on RED are prosperous, even though this is far from the truth. Echoing Xi Jinping’s recent pronouncements on “common prosperity” (共同富裕), “HR Brother Hong” emphasized that pursuing this goal – meaning closing the gap between rich and poor – is more important than chasing fame and affectation.
It is interesting to note that in fact the earliest mentions of Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “first let a few get rich” in the 1970s were closely associated at the time with the phrase “common prosperity.” For example, the first mention of “first let a few get rich” in the People’s Daily, appearing on May 28, 1979, was followed immediately by the words, “this is clearly an important measure in bringing about common prosperity.”
Back in May this year, the CAC directly addressed criteria for assessing wealth-flaunting content as part of its internet cleanup campaign. Zhang Yongjun (张拥军), chief of the CAC’s information management bureau, said during a related meeting: “How do we tell if content is simply sharing [details about] life, or actually showing off wealth? The standard here is to look at the dissemination effect of the content,” he said. “It depends on whether the dissemination of the content encourages people to live a positive and healthy life, or whether it instead triggers people to resent the poor and pursue lives of luxury, seeking ease and comfort without working.”
Zhang’s remarks clearly underscored the desire of the CCP to address the social and political impact of the growing gap between rich and poor in the country.
RED has been associated through much of its history – it was launched in June 2013 – with the sharing of content about luxury goods and extravagant lifestyles, an approach that has gained the platform a loyal following. There is a saying in Chinese social media that you can never know how rich Chinese people are until you see them on RED, showing off their latest Hermes bag, their newly-purchased Maserati, or the new house their parents bought for them.
The campaign on RED has been reported by various media in China, and shared widely on Weibo. Many netizens, however, have voiced discontent about the new measures. In the comment section under a related report by China Daily, some refused to support RED’s deletions of wealth-flaunting content. “Deleting all those wealth-flaunting posts and accounts doesn’t mean erasing the wealth gap in China,” wrote one user.
“This is unnecessary,” another wrote. “I can’t afford these products and lifestyles, but can’t I just scroll through the app and see how other people are enjoying such things?”
Terms like “foreign forces” and “hostile forces” have frequently been used by Chinese Communist Party officials and domestic media over past decades to launch allegations of foreign interference, but these terms have often pointed not to real instances of external meddling but rather have underscored tensions within Chinese society. In the era of digital social media, when online flag-wavers can crowd-source their activities and self-publish their accusations, the discourse of foreign interference has become a regular feature of online attacks in Chinese cyberspace, with a wide range of groups and individuals denounced as traitors.
One such unfortunate instance unfolded in late October, just as world leaders prepared to meet in Glasgow to address the issue of climate change. The Chinese NGO China House, an independent Shanghai-based educational social enterprise founded in 2014 that aims to “further integrate China into global sustainable development efforts through youth engagement,” including over environmental issues, faced a storm of harassment after an online influencer accused it of producing content allegedly used by “foreign forces,” or jingwai shili (境外势力), to disparage China.
The storm began on October 26, as a 13-minute video was posted to Weibo by the account “Sai Lei Three Minutes (赛雷三分钟), which often features short explanatory videos on topics ranging from world history to politics and cars. The video, produced by “Sai Lei Hua Jin” (赛雷话金), accused China House of recruiting student volunteers in order to produce “finger-pointing” negative content that “Western media can use to smear China.” Various forms of engagement between China House and foreign partners, including the China-Africa Project and the World Wildlife Fund, were characterized by the video as instances of the NGO working with “outside forces.” The video concluded by alleging that China House “served as a mouthpiece for the West in brainwashing Chinese” and producing “anti-China content” (反华内容).
The video took issue, for example, with the NGO’s work on discrimination against African migrants in Guangzhou, and with its nuanced views on racism. Among many others, it cited a research article from the organization headlined: “Discrimination Against Black People is Not Just an American Issue: Chinese Must Also Be on Guard.”
The post from “Sai Lei Hua Jin” quickly received more than 20 thousand reposts and more than 50 thousand likes, with many internet users similarly venting their outrage, accusing the NGO of damaging China’s reputation. In the days that followed, similar posts claiming to unmask China House as working with “outside forces” appeared across the internet. And the attention triggered a wide range of online attacks and doxxing against staff from the NGO.
The founder of China House, Huang Hongxiang (黄泓翔), a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, issued a statement via WeChat in which he countered the allegations against the NGO and shared harassing messages the organization and its staff members had received. Huang even shared threatening messages his mother had received. One message read: “Damn you, traitor! So you are carrying out furtive brainwashing, eh? In the name of environmental protection, you are raising the next generation of dogs.”
The attack subsequently spread to another NGO called Common Future, found to be following China House on Bilibili, the video sharing website based in Shanghai. One Chinese university student who as a volunteer at “Common Future” had produced a video on the refugee issue revealed in a post to the Douban platform that she was facing cyber-bullying as a result of the “Sai Lei Hua Jin” video. In her post, the student said that her social media accounts on QQ, Weibo, Douban and Wechat had been flooded with curses from netizens, condemning her for “taking money from the West to smear China.”
The volunteer’s article detailing her harassment was deleted by a platform regulator the next day. The comments attacking her remained, however. In the comment section of the video she had produced for Common Future, the volunteer was trolled with the words “50w,” an online reference to the 500-thousand-yuan reward that citizens can claim for reporting actionable instances of espionage to the Ministry of State Security (MSS). “Let me take my 50w home,” one user wrote again and again with smiley face emoticons.
The former volunteer at Common Future told CMP that influencers like “Sai Lei Hua Jin” produce videos like the one attacking China House in part because they can be extremely successful in attracting views online. “It is like they have found the key to getting video views,” the volunteer said, “so of course they will continue making videos like this, playing the heroic NGO hunter.” On November 1, another post to the Weibo account “Sai Lei Three Minutes” alerted viewers that another “investigation” of China House and its alleged connections with “foreign forces” would be released in early December.
Topics related to nationalism and the defense of China’s dignity can often prove popular on social media, and are a safe and surefire way to generate traffic in an environment where other current affairs issues can be highly risky. The popular scientific video channel PaperClip (回形针) learned this painfully in March last year when one of its videos posted to YouTube failed to include Taiwan as part of China, drawing outrage from netizens and eventually prompting an apology from the producer, Wu Songlei. PaperClip also faced criticism as online influencers, including “Sai Lei Hua Jin,” dug into former employees of the video channel and highlighted their supposedly “anti-China” remarks, as well alleging that one former employee had subsequently worked for a US military facility.
The use of accusations of foreign collusion to target domestic dissent has a long history. The term “hostile forces” (敌对势力), in fact, has its origins in Mao Zedong’s infamous February 1957 speech on “internal contradictions among the people,” which came ahead of the Anti-Rightist Movement that sentenced millions of writers, journalists, artists and teachers to “re-education through labor” and other punishments. In his speech, Mao Zedong outlined the need to “clearly distinguish between ourselves and the enemy, between right and wrong.” Under Mao’s system of “democratic centralism,” there were “the people” (人民) and those who fell outside this designation owing to their political crimes. “So long as they are not enemies, they are the people, and within this purview there can be no question of dictatorship,” said Mao.
The term “hostile forces” rose to prominence during the political struggles several years later, in 1959, as a catchall phrase for the Party’s enemies, both internal and external. Such forms of “aggressive discourse,” tend to be used with greater intensity in times of real or perceived vulnerability for the Chinese leadership. For example, historical peaks for “hostile forces” in the People’s Daily include the period after June 1989, and the period during the crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement in 1999. The term “hostile forces” can be deployed against unspecified foreign enemies, or against domestic enemies both inside and outside the Party.
The term “foreign forces” began appearing in the 1990s, often combined with the phrase “hostile forces” as “foreign hostile forces,” and was used with slightly increasing frequency in the 2000s, often with the accusation that religion was being used to “infiltrate” China. “Foreign forces” seems to appear with greater frequency as a term on its own, without the addition of words like “hostile” or “separatist,” in the Xi Jinping era. It was used, for example, to refer to events in Hong Kong around the 2014 Occupy Central movement.
Use of “foreign forces” in the official People’s Daily newspaper was infrequent in both 2018 and 2019, when it appeared just four and three times respectively. But the term leapt dramatically in 2020 in the paper, appearing in 65 articles for the year, the peak coming with the July 2020 introduction of National Security Law in Hong Kong. “Foreign forces” has appeared in 17 articles in the People’s Daily so far in 2021.
The discourse around “foreign forces” often deals with reporting on China by international media, with “Western media” (and those dealing in any way with them) frequently the target of criticism. In an article in the People’s Daily in April 2018, Zhao Qiang (赵强), the deputy editor of the Global Times newspaper, wrote that “interfering in the internal affairs of other countries through various means is something that Western countries are always willing to do, and one of the most common and practical methods is to infiltrate public opinion by raising the banner of so-called ‘freedom of the press.’”
Allegations like those against China House are increasingly common on China’s internet, where nationalistic users are on the hunt for perceived slights against the national image. In some cases, these actions are shared by official state media. So far, the online allegations against China House have not been reported by state media in China. However, the People’s Daily did make a post to its official Weibo account on November 3 claiming that a Shanghai-based environmental NGO, which it said received overseas funding, had been collecting marine data such as wind speeds and water temperature around military bases and naval vessel routes while monitoring marine waste.
The post did not identify the NGO by name, but speculation on social media soon centered on Rendu Ocean, an organization focused on marine environmental protection actions, and internet posts soon appeared accusing Rendu Ocean of espionage activities on the basis of its engagement with more than 20 “foreign organizations.”
Following the release of the video earlier in 2021 by “Sai Lei Three Minutes” that alleged connections between PaperClip and foreign organizations, the former was praised in June by Jun Zhengping (钧正平), a social media account launched in 2016 by the People’s Liberation Army in order to “innovate the army’s work in propaganda, ideology and culture.” The account warned in a post that China had to be aware of foreign NGOs that “cooperate with domestic self-publishers to place videos containing ideological ‘private goods,’” all in the name of environmental protection.
“There is no national security without cyber security,” the post said. “Maybe the ‘friend’ you are interacting with is a spy of some foreign intelligence agency. You must be careful. Every Chinese internet user and every Chinese internet company must keep their eyes open and not forget their responsibility in maintaining the country’s cyber security.”
On the evening of July 19, as streets in Zhengzhou were inundated the flood waters and thousands of people awaited urgent rescue, Henan Satellite TV, a provincial television channel directly under the control of Henan’s provincial propaganda office, continued to broadcast its regular programming, a slate of anti-Japanese dramas. These dramas, though popular with Chinese, have in recent years have become well known for their comically exaggerated scenes of graphic violence along with anti-Japanese and nationalist themes.
That evening, Zhan Jiang, a retired professor from the School of International Journalism and Communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, posted to Weibo to remark Henan Satellite TV’s apparent inattention to the flood roiling through the province’s capital. He asked politely that the network stop its broadcast of anti-Japanese dramas and turn instead to live coverage of the flooding.
Last month, CMP’s Stella Chen reached out to Professor Zhan to reflect on Chinese media coverage of the flooding in Henan and other breaking stories, and to discuss broad developments in the Chinese media environment over the past 30 years.
Professor Zhan’s major research interests include history and theories of global journalism, as well as media law and media ethics. In addition to his academic writing, Dr. Zhan has translated numerous English-language journalism books into Chinese. He earned his masters and doctorate degrees in law from Renmin University of China’s School of Journalism.
A Trickle of Flood Coverage
Stella Chen: I’d like to start with what happened a few months ago in Zhengzhou. Zhengzhou was hit hard by flooding over the summer, and then there were some questions on the internet not only about the response to the disaster, but also about the response of the Chinese media at that time. How do you think the media reacted when the flood happened? Perhaps you could first share some of your general views.
Zhan Jiang: Actually, first I’d like to talk about the environment issue. By environment I mean the relationship between the media and the state. Nowadays, whenever there is negative news to report, whenever it’s something qualified as “negative,” such as the economy not doing well or worsening public security, the general practice is to disallow production and reporting of such news by the media. It’s been this way in recent years.
So talking just about one story alone, talking about one incident, isn’t so meaningful. Which is to say that reporting isn’t permitted in the first place, or all negative news is to be strictly controlled, or propaganda departments, central or local, issue instructions, or they release information first. We can say that the Central Propaganda Department, and local propaganda offices, have to a great extent become media themselves. In many cases they, rather than television stations or newspapers, have become releasers of news and information.
We can already see over the past five or six years, for example, that some county propaganda departments release news, and the local authorities don’t allow you to go to the scene. So never mind something as big as the flooding in Henan . . . . When something happens like a few children drowning in a reservoir in a certain county in Zhejiang province, for a story like that media are often not allowed to go to the scene. The scene is locked down, or the media are directly issued with orders, so that traditional media cannot report the story. So for such a big thing [like the Zhengzhou floods] this goes without saying.
I would also say that in the case of the Zhengzhou floods there is actually evidence to support the fact that this was not merely a natural disaster. Because there were human [decisions] to discharge [flood waters] for the purpose of drainage, right? So it’s not strange that media weren’t allowed to report. It’s not strange in the least. It’s been like this for quite some time, even for ordinary stories. And so much more so for major stories.
Stella Chen: So is it the case here with the Zhengzhou floods that journalists would not have been allowed to go to the scene?
Zhan Jiang: Of course. Reporters were not allowed to visit the scene. Strictly speaking, you could say it’s not that reporters were absolutely prevented from visiting the scene, but rather the government wanted to wait until the disaster became more serious, by which time it could send official television stations out to film. Because, you know, these television stations are classic official media. These are not commercial media.
So later on you might have seen TV reporters on the scene doing reports, sure. But they were there to produce news from a positive angle, focusing on the rescue rather than on the disaster itself. News about villages totally flooded out, or news of casualties, this they didn’t say anything about. Or perhaps in reporting positive news they might have touched on some details like this. But the main point is to be positive and to reflect the prompt response of the Party and the government, to reflect the care they show for the people in the face of disaster, and how they come to the rescue of the people. News must be placed within the “main theme” (主旋律) in order to be reported.
Stella Chen: Did your Weibo post about coverage have any impact at all?
Zhan Jiang: Perhaps my post had a bit of influence. But according to my understanding, before [I made the post] . . . Well, there are a lot of channels on TV in Henan, and those of us outside of Henan can’t necessarily see anything but what’s on Henan Satellite TV, because this is what they want Beijing to see, and [it keeps to] the “main theme”. So basically what we see [from outside the province] is the singing of red songs and positive news, and very little of anything about the flooding. But I do understand that other channels [in Henan], certain local channels, actually did some reporting.
We can’t actually say, therefore, that television in Henan didn’t cover it. We can’t say that. Because we don’t know the full situation. Actually, later on it seemed that my suggestion was taken on board, and news about the disaster was merged from different channels and broadcast. But this is something that was still done under the “main theme,” keeping to the tone of positive reporting.
Stella Chen: After you posted about coverage of the flood, how did netizens respond? Did domestic media contact you and ask you to comment?
Zhan Jiang: I seldom use Weibo anymore. I might go on once a month, or even longer sometimes. It’s very easy these days to provoke the anger of nationalists online with this or that post. They’ll attack you because they’re unhappy with what you’ve said and see it as negative. So generally I don’t post at all. As for interviews with the media, I don’t appear as a source in news reports anymore for reasons that are complicated – though perhaps my comments can still have a bit of influence. Later, though, as the disaster situation became worse and worse, it wasn’t just people like me who felt it was inappropriate for them to continue singing red songs and worrying about image. I would guess that people in Henan locally were even more upset about this.
Disaster Reporting in the Past
Stella Chen: I understand. We can come back to Zhengzhou a bit later. But perhaps you can help our readers understand the historical background of disaster reporting in China. For disasters before economic reforms, for example, like the Tangshan Earthquake, how were these reported, if at all, at the time?
Zhan Jiang: First of all, Chinese media did report the story [of Tangshan]. But at that time, definitely, the local media had no autonomy in reporting on the quake. They had to follow state media like the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency. There was a saying at the time that “local newspapers” (小报) were accustomed to copying the “central core newspapers” (大报), and that things the core newspapers did not cover, mainly negative things, could not be spoken of.
Secondly, while the magnitude of the earthquake was reported in the news, there was no mention at the time of casualties. People across China all knew that the earthquake was serious, because preparations had been made everywhere. For example, I was in Jiangsu province at the time, which is quite far from Hebei, more than a thousand kilometers away. But even there in our local town there were warnings of a possible earthquake spreading, and our families even lived for a while in temporary shelters. Also, a large number of doctors and nurses from various places were transferred to Tangshan to help provide assistance. And this was the kind of main theme news story that Chinese media liked to report on.
Whenever a disaster occurred, every place across China would send out medical staff to help with the rescue. There were reports about local medical staff heading to Tangshan. While news of that kind was widely reported, the core details of the disaster were not – like the number of deaths and injuries. It was impossible to talk about such figures.
So as you know, it was only nine years later, as [CMP co-director] Qian Gang published his book The Great Tangshan Earthquake (唐山大地震), that the details of the disaster were disclosed to national readers in an extensive report. The casualty figures he disclosed in his book were not from his own research, actually, but from a technical book on national earthquakes. This research book had a small readership and few knew about it outside of professionals.
Chinese Media in the Reform Era
Stella Chen: Qian Gang’s book was published in the early years of the reform era. Did things change much in the 1980s in terms of reporting on disaster stories?
Zhan Jiang: Let’s go back to reform and opening. The basic pattern before the reform and opening up was to report the good news but not the bad, right? This habit later continued to a definite degree, but there were also relative changes. But the roughly 40 years from the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, or from the beginning of economic reforms in 1978, up to now, can basically be divided into three or four stages.
If we take this period and divide it into stages, then the first is from 1976 or 1978 through to 1987. In 1987 there was an important official slogan that emerged during the 13th National Congress [of the CCP], which was that, “The people should be informed of major situations, and major issues should be discussed by the people” (重大情况让人民知道，重大问题经人民讨论).
So in this process, and we can say this was a ten-year period from 1976 to 1986, during these 10 years, there were still many forbidden areas when it came to disaster reporting. But these restrictions were not related to the law. They were unwritten rules to be grasped within [the Party system]. While the media system as a whole was moving toward opening up, and media did report a number of things that they would not have reported in the past – for example, a story about a government minister eating and drinking lavishly and staying at a pricey hotel, which was reported by the China Youth Daily, and which was huge news – people just didn’t know whether the media were protected by the law for such work.
Stella Chen: So there was never any clear direction to the media about what was now possible to pursue?
Zhan Jiang: People had the sense that the whole society was moving toward openness, and that the official attitude was more and more open and enlightened. It was basically a situation of not being told how to act, and them saying, look I’m not going to tell you, it’s not convenient to tell you, just go and do it. So it was really a period of experimentation. It was during this period that I had just started out as a journalist. And there’s a story I can tell you that is linked to this question today of disaster reporting, something I experienced myself.
So in 1986, I began work as a reporter for a local newspaper. At that point I had already been working for some time, spending about 10 years in the military before changing professions. As a journalist someone said to me at that time, look, in our area we have some village farmers who have gotten typhoid fever. To me this was news, and I said we should report it, because at the time things were relatively open. And this wasn’t about any one person’s culpability, right?
But there was an understanding at that time that this couldn’t be reported on. There were internal rules that I didn’t know about because I was new to the profession. But I was told that infectious diseases were something we couldn’t report on. This included all sorts of infectious diseases, like tuberculosis.
Stella Chen: Just to get a sense for our readers, who may not be so familiar, what sort of media are we talking about at that time?
Zhan Jiang: In the 1980s we had only official media [in China]. There were no market-oriented media yet. And at the time the boldest among official national media was the China Youth Daily newspaper. Why was this the case? It’s actually hard to explain, because the newspaper is published by the Chinese Communist Youth League, which today in fact is actually very much to the left, an entirely different situation compared to those days.
How was it that the China Youth Daily has courage at that time? It was an official media outlet, one of seven major national (全国性) dailies. These seven national dailies had a relatively privileged position as newspapers because they could be circulated across the country. Let’s talk about these seven, because today some essentially have no influence while a few others continue to have a major role.
First there is the People’s Daily. This paper has not changed, and it will always maintain its influence, right? This goes without saying. Then we have the Economic Daily (经济日报), which perhaps you’ve not really heard about. You might have heard of the Hong Kong Economic Times (香港经济日报), but the Economic Daily on the mainland, who’s heard of that? In the 1980s, though, the influence of the Economic Daily was still pretty strong.
Stella Chen: So to talk about influence, we have to talk about where these media are positioned in terms of their relationship to the Party or the government.
Zhan Jiang: Certainly. In China, state-run media are ranked in the same hierarchy from top to bottom. The People’s Daily is the organ of the CCP, and its administrative ranking is at the ministerial level (正部级). Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television (CCTV) have the same ranking. The People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放军报), the organ of PLA, is another top newspaper, where [CMP Co-Director] Qian Gang had worked as a military reporter in 1980s. The Economic Daily, an organ of the State Council, has its administrative ranking at the vice-ministerial level (副部级).
Then we have to mention other national dailies: the Guangming Daily (光明日报), the China Youth Daily (中国青年报), the Workers Daily (工人日报) and Peasants Daily (农民日报), and they have their administrative ranking at the bureau level, next to vice-ministerial level. Among the top seven media [in the 1980s] the China Youth Daily was the boldest in news reporting and commentaries. Why was this paper more courageous? I think one reason is that as the organ of the Chinese Communist Youth League, it was under the long-term influence of its former general secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦). Another reason is the paper had relatively open-minded bosses and editors.
Stella Chen: Hu had become general secretary of the Party in 1980, and was responsible for carrying out Deng’s pragmatic reforms. . . .
Zhan Jiang: That’s right. From the 1950s on, he had held the position of general secretary of the Youth League, and he was responsible [in the 1980s] for encouraging the media to open up. He would take certain things on, you know. And so the China Youth Daily at the time, and through the 1990s, had this internal atmosphere that was pretty decent. Unlike the People’s Daily and other newspapers that were more rigid, an ordinary reporter could go to the editor-in-chief’s office without having to first file a report. So it was a special case.
Naturally, the China Youth Daily might also receive criticism both internally and externally. But generally speaking, it was pretty bold and willing to speak out. China Youth Daily was at the forefront at that time, and it did really decent work. One of the most prominent stories was the one I alluded to earlier, in which the minister of commerce was exposed for dining at high-class restaurants. The paper also reported the Black Dragon Wildfire in Heilongjiang’s Daxing’anling in 1987.
So at that time there were no laws [about media conduct]. We just figured things out as we went. And China Youth Daily walked out at the very front. So this was the situation up through 1987. Then, in 1989, the entire situation for the media in China tightened up. And of course there was a change in the leadership as well, including a changing out of the top leaders in the propaganda ministry. The talk then was of “giving priority to positive propaganda”(正面宣传为主). And the media also had to “talk about the Party’s nature”(讲党性), which meant acting in accordance with the Party spirit and instructions.
Professionalism on the Rise
Stella Chen: So 1989 was a pivotal year in the development of Chinese media in the reform era, and for some journalists like those at China Youth Daily it must have really meant stepping backwards. But when did things start changing again? Because we know that afterward there was an explosion in media development.
Zhan Jiang: There were three years of strict control of the media after 1989 and up to 1992. This is the second of the periods I mentioned earlier. The second period since reform and opening up. The period from 1989 to 1992, which ended with Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour,” which again opened China up, an opening that spread from the economy to other aspects of society. Politically speaking, things did not open up, but there was eventually a comprehensive opening, and this meant that things relaxed in Chinese society – and that the media had more space in which to operate.
In the early 1990s, from 1990 to 1994, there were no market-oriented newspapers in China. It was only after this period that they emerged. I’m talking about 1994. There were no market-oriented media (市场化的媒体) at that time. From 1994 on, and perhaps this was partly coincidental in terms of timing, there was more space for media to report, and it was at this time too that the notion of “press/public opinion oversight” came onto the scene. [Editor’s Note: “press/public opinion oversight,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), is the idea that the press as an agent of public opinion, can serve a watchdog role, exposing inadequacies in society and even in the government. In some cases, it can be seen as Party-state media performing a top-down monitoring function, exposing local corruption at the behest of the leadership. In other cases, particularly among more professionally-minded journalists, it can be similar to the idea of “watchdog journalism,” referring to more fully independent reporting, and even investigative reporting. In scholarly literature on the Chinese media, yulun jiandu has also been translated as “public opinion supervision” (Zhao Yuezhi, Ji Weimin, Wusan Sun, et al) and as “supervision by public opinion” (Dan Chen, Liu Fu, et al).]
Stella Chen: As the environment changed again and notions like “press oversight” were introduced, what were some of the better examples of media changing the way things were done.
Zhan Jiang: In 1994, China Central Television, [China’s state-run broadcaster], created the “Focus” (焦点访谈) in-depth news program. This program is the most influential program in the history of the Chinese media, by which I mean in television broadcasting. Because it was aired every day, every day, and even if you consider that it might have run one negative news report every three days, this was still quite staggering [in terms of impact]. Add to this the fact that “Focus” was reporting things from a national media standpoint, so that its reports were generally not about trivial matters. Right? So the launch of this program really was a milestone. “Focus” also published a lot of books about the content of its programming. CCTV released these books, which was still pretty rare at the time, given that the internet was still something ahead in the future.
In 1996, CCTV founded another program called “News Probe.” While this program was aired every Sunday, it was done in a really professional way, and later came to have even a global impact. Several years later in Beijing, there would be a major forum attended by investigative journalists from around the world, and journalists from the BBC, from Australia’s ABC and many other top television media outlets attended. When they arrived, these journalists were surprised to find that China also had these sorts of television programs. “News Probe” would cover a lot of different areas, like pollution, investigative and in-depth reporting of breaking events. And this definitely also included disaster reporting. My recollection is that they broadcast a variety of reports at that time, and disaster reports accounted for a substantial share of that. They did a very good job reporting on coal mine tragedies, for example.
Stella Chen: So broadcast journalism, and particularly the work done at “Focus” and “News Probe,” were highlights in the middle to late 1990s. But when did other media, including print media, undergo similar changes?
Zhan Jiang: We can move on to 1998. I regard this as the first year of investigative reporting in China, the year when things really began. There are several signs we can point to. But first, when we speak today of investigative reporting, what we are really talking about is the kind of journalistic reporting that is recognized internationally, not simply about reports that are critical in some way. We’re talking about investigative reporting like that we typically see being done in the UK, or in the United States – the kind that wins the Pulitzer Prize.
It was in 1998 in China that this type of reporting actually began. So there were three signs, or milestones, in 1998. The first was the emergence of market-oriented media engaged in investigative reporting, notably in 1998 the founding of the magazine Caijing (财经) by Ms. Hu Shuli (胡舒立), the most famous journalist in China.
The second sign was the rise of the metropolitan daily newspapers (都市报) as newspapers facing the public. By 1998, we’re talking about four to five years of history for these newspapers by that point. But we had not yet, before 1998, seen these newspapers doing investigative reporting. That started in 1998. Quite a number of papers transitioned in 1998 to doing more of what could be called “press/public opinion oversight,” and the year before had seen the launch of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, which would soon become associated with the culture of the investigative report.
By 1998, more and more metropolitan newspapers wanted to do press oversight and investigative reporting, but they didn’t know how to do it. So Hu Shuli set an example for them. So, again, this was the second sign: metropolitan newspapers turning to “press/public opinion oversight,” also around 1998.
The third sign is something that involves some of my own contributions. In 1998 I worked with some of my graduate students from Renmin University of China to translate Pulitzer Prize winning investigative work into Chinese for publication. Why do I mention this? Because at the time the book was immediately and universally welcomed. There were those Chinese who had a mind to do “press/public opinion oversight,” or people with journalistic ideals that wanted to do real journalism. Recognized by such people, the book got a lot of attention, and it became relatively popular.
Laws and Decrees
Stella Chen: You mentioned before the importance of the leadership culture at the Chinese Communist Youth League under Hu Yaobang to the character of China Youth Daily in the 1980s. What relationship do you see between leaders in China in the late 1990s to early 2000s and changes in the media?
Zhan Jiang: When Hu Jintao became general secretary of the Party in 2002, with Wen Jiabao serving as premier from 2003, both continued the openness mindset. In my view, both leaders were relatively open. Some would say that Hu Jintao was rather restrained, but I think inwardly he was relatively open. SARS was the first major disaster to come soon after they took office, and the response was not open throughout. But this did promote to a great extent the push for open government information (政府信息公开) that came later.
It’s important to understand that decrees, or tiaoli (条例), are at the highest position in legal hierarchy of China’s administrative rules and regulations (行政法规). At that time, there were many laws and regulations made [regarding the media], but most of these were decrees [as opposed to laws]. This is because it was difficult to introduce laws concerning the media, because we’ve always had in our system a very strong force pushing against the making of laws on the media.
In the 1980s there were two top leaders within the Chinese Communist Party. The first was well-known Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), and the other was little-known Chen Yun (陈云). Chen Yun was more low-key and did not often appear publicly, and he was also in poor health. But he was quite a formidable figure. Even Deng Xiaoping had to acknowledge him. At that time, in the 1980s, there was support in the Party to establish a press law. But Chen Yun was opposed.
Stella Chen: Why didn’t Chen Yun want a press law?
Zhan Jiang: It was in an internal speech that Chen asked, “Why do we need a press law?” He was entirely against it. The way he put it was that the Kuomintang had had a law on publishing, and we [as Communists] had exploited the loopholes. So wasn’t it possible that others would similarly exploit our loopholes?
It was precisely because others listened to Chen Yun’s words, and he felt that the establishment of a press law would be disadvantageous to the rule of the CCP, that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao could not make breakthroughs on the issue of a press law. But where they could make a breakthrough was on the issue of a law on access to government information (政府信息公开). So in 2003, with the occurrence of the SARS outbreak, they began creating related regulations. And from the beginning there were special areas, such as infectious disease, and this was later expanded to include all information having to do with the government. While media had covered disasters before this time, more had certainly been banned from coverage than had actually been reported.
Stella Chen: What kinds of stories were generally kept from being covered before 2003? Can you give us a sense of what was left unreported?
Zhan Jiang: Most news in fact was kept under wraps, and breakthroughs were the exception. Before 2003, very few things could be reported, and the majority of things could not. I can give you an example that is quite a famous case. In 2001, a coal mining accident happened in Nandan County (南丹县) of Guangxi province in which more than 10 people were killed, and in China an accident in which more than 10 people die is classified as an “extraordinary accident” (特大事故). I’m not sure you realized that.
These so-called “extraordinary accidents” are the highest level among accidents in classification, and they are accidents that involve at least 8 deaths. So what happened was that, with the internet already by that time having a definite impact, someone posted the information online [about the mining accident], and then media from outside of Guangxi were ready to go report the story. They were prepared to report the story, but they faced a great deal of difficulty in the process. Ultimately, though, they managed to report the story.
How much impact did reports on the Nandan County mining disaster have? You can understand the impact by looking at how the county CCP secretary and county chief were punished. After “Focus” went and did its own story on the disaster, the impact was huge, and as a result the county chief was sentenced to death, and the county secretary was given a prison sentence of 20 years. The death sentence, you know, was carried out immediately. There was no reprieve. It was just done right away.
After this, the People’s Daily wrote a commentary speculating on what might have happened had the media been silent on the incident, not doing its job. It supported the involvement of the media, asking people to imagine what might have happened had they not covered it. But were there any legal protections at all for this kind of reporting? No, there wasn’t. Media were fortunate if they managed to cover such stories. You might have success reporting on a story in this county, but in another county completely fail.
Stella Chen: But you were saying that this situation changed in 2008, right? With the introduction of the new law on open government information.
Zhan Jiang: Yes. After 2008 there was a fundamental change. That fundamental change was the 2008 Open Government Information Regulation of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例). With the introduction of this decree it was impossible to simply cover up any disaster in China, whether natural or man-made. In the past maybe one percent of incidents were reported, but that is probably now 95 percent. Local governments just could not not report a disaster. You might have local governments reporting late, or keeping some details under wraps, but not reporting at all was now impossible – particularly when it came to deaths.
Reporting in the Social Media Era
Stella Chen: Is this the pattern we saw this year with the Henan floods, that there was reporting, but it was selective reporting, keeping important details out? I remember when there were floods in 2020 too that there wasn’t much reporting in the Chinese media.
Zhan Jiang: I think it’s still helpful to look at the various stages. So we had 1978 to 1988 or so. Then we had 1989 to 1992. Then 1993 to around 2000. So we can look too at the period from 2000 to what year? To 2012. The period from 2000 to 2012 was still a relatively open period. But the period from 2012 to today has been a period increasingly not open. So if we look at last year versus this year, we won’t see major differences.
But if we look at the differences right now, what can we say is different? What is different is the rise of the so-called “we media” (自媒体). So the authorities might cover their ears and not face things, they might choose not to report. But when there are disasters in our own villages, when there are accidents at our own factories, they don’t have any way around this. People just pick up their mobile phones and record, right? People upload things. And you can’t just dismiss these as spreading rumors. These things are truths, right? And so, the authorities have no way to completely contain incidents. They can only control the traditional media.
Stella Chen: But I have seen some reporting, for example the media outlet Initium did some reporting on this before, where in situations like you’ve just said, the things people have posted themselves to we media like Weibo, WeChat and Douyin seem to be drowned out by reporting from official accounts from local governments, for example. So content posted by people doesn’t get the same level of traffic. Do you think this is something done deliberately by social media platforms?
Zhan Jiang: This is definitely deliberate. But you can’t simply just look at a platform like Douyin. This is a problem we face as we try to research such things – that we don’t have any idea when certain content was removed [from a platform]. Perhaps this or that post actually circulated for a while. Maybe it lived for four hours, or for six hours, and in some cases foreign media have even broadcast reports about it. But as a researcher you try to go back and look at it and you find that everything is gone.
If you look at television coverage in Taiwan, for example, you find that a lot of broadcasters regularly use material like this sourced from people on the mainland who have shot video. These are an important part of their regular programming, particularly over the past two years on stories like COVID-19, or flooding, or certain stories about the property market and so on. They have media people who specialize in the collection of content from social media, and they have the resources to do this – unlike us. We should also note that platforms like Douyin are even more prioritized by the authorities in terms of restraints, more so than for other video platforms.
Stella Chen: Do you think these self-media will become a new main force in domestic disaster reporting in the future? Compared, for example, to the mainstream media?
Zhan Jiang: It is possible, but they are unstable. The authorities can’t completely restrain these self-media, which is impossible from a practical standpoint. But restraints on self-media right now are quite stringent. It’s not about controlling everything, but about prioritization of what is controlled.
Of course, it’s not really a question anyway of whether everything can be controlled or not. In fact, the news about disasters has two sides, you can say. On the one hand, if you post a video about a flood happening at home in Shanxi or Henan, the authorities might not take any action at all, because this might simply be regarded as a natural disaster, right? There is no question of the government’s responsibility. And when the population impacted is huge, and it’s something everyone can see clearly, it’s difficult to keep information back. However, if something if having too much of an impact, then the time may come for them to take action.
Stella Chen: It’s never easy to know where the red line is.
Zhan Jiang: No, the red lines are always in flux. In a nutshell, it’s about restraining the negative, restraining negative news. This is not just about negative perspectives in the news, but also about negative comments and commentary.
Stella Chen: Just to change gears a bit, one issue that is getting a lot of attention when we talk about information being shared on breaking stories through social media is the spread of misinformation. How do you think the pros of social media sharing – for disaster stories, for example – can be balanced against the cons of false information?
Zhan Jiang: As for my views on self-media and misinformation, I can only say that this is the same problem around the world. So long as you have a free market there’s no reason to fear this sort of fake [information]. The key is to have someone out there fact-checking your misinformation. So if the government releases something untrue, people out there in the world can respond with credible information to compete.
This is really a question of having a free marketplace. What country in the world does not have false information? This is an issue that has been discussed for over a decade already, and I don’t think I can add much to it. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to a free market of ideas, what John Milton spoke about almost 400 years ago.
Stella Chen: Coming back to the question of disaster reporting and the stages you talked about earlier, I wonder if you could reflect on where we are now. You said earlier that you felt the Hu-Wen era had been relatively open. What environment are journalists facing now?
Zhan Jiang: Ten years ago, there were many things that still could be done, and even that you might be encouraged [as a journalist] to go and do. Such things are no longer possible. The emphasis now is on “the media being surnamed Party” (媒体姓党), which essentially means media must all be sons of the Party-Father. So now, regardless of whether you are a traditional party organ, a market-oriented media outlet or a we-media outlet, you must abide by the Party’s instructions .
Stella Chen: Does this general change in the environment also impact foreign media working in China, or reporting on China?
Zhan Jiang: The impact has been huge. In particular, investigative reporting about China has pretty much disappeared. These journalists haven’t just left, they’ve been encouraged to leave. Those who feel quite pessimistic about the situation even suggest that it has returned to what we had in the pre-reform era.
Stella Chen: So clearly, you would say the media environment today has changed dramatically from what we saw 10 years ago?
Zhan Jiang: We can’t even compare the situation today to the situation 10 years ago. Consider that in 2009, Xinhua News Agency invited international media, mostly Western media, to have a global media summit, and Hu Jintao actually delivered a speech there. When I look back on that meeting, I think his speech was actually decent, you know. What did Hu Jintao say? He said that global media, foreign media reporting on China was becoming more and more extensive, that there were more reports and that the reports themselves were more expansive. This, he said, had a positive role in China’s social development and progress.
We had never seen a Chinese leader formally address the international media like this before, especially Western media. He was mostly talking about the Western media, you know? And now? They have become an enemy of the Party-State. They are now being called “anti-Chinese media” (反华媒体).
But just because we have grown silent now does not mean we don’t have thoughts. And certain things that are said right now are not really representative of what people think. China is complex in this way. Chinese talk about a unity of thought and action (知行合一) – what you think is how you act. But while that might work in a relatively relaxed climate, when the climate gets bad you put on your persona (人格面具). You say certain things and do certain things. You might role-play in different ways.
People weren’t like this 10 years ago. The public generally believed that the media should reveal the truth, that they should expose those things that are shameful. It’s quite different now. They feel that China is great and strong, and that Western media are blackening China’s image.
Stella Chen: Are there still ways that Chinese media can push ahead?
Zhan Jiang: You certainly can’t expect any breakthroughs in investigative reporting right now. It would be enough just to hope things do not continue sliding backward. Change could happen, but we can’t be too optimistic. One trend we can see right now, after all, is that young students in China no longer want to become journalists. Investigative journalists are nearly a thing of the past, and they face a lot of risk today.
LinkedIn, the only major Western social media platform with a global reach operating in China, announced on October 14 that it would shut down its current localized version in the country, launching a separate job networking site called InJobs – minus interactive social media features – later this year. The news came through a post on LinkedIn’s official blog by the company’s vice-president, Mohak Shroff, who wrote that the service had been “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”
It was clear in international news reporting that LinkedIn’s decision was linked to increasingly strict Chinese censorship rules, and to growing criticism in the West that the company was actively censoring posts and profiles in order to remain compliant inside China. In his announcement, Shroff vaguely alluded to censorship issues when he said that LinkedIn had launched in China in 2014 knowing that it would have to abide by the “requirements of the Chinese government on Internet platforms,” and added that the company “strongly support[s] freedom of expression.”
But how was LinkedIn’s closure in China, which many Western news outlets marked as the final and “full decoupling” of China’s internet from the rest of the world, reported from inside the country?
Last Friday, shortly after news of LinkedIn’s China shutdown, the president of LinkedIn China, Lu Jian (陆坚), was busy putting a positive spin on the closure. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” he quipped on his social media account, attempting a humorous reference to an oft-used misquote of the American writer Mark Twain.
Meanwhile, LinkedIn staff in China were busy debunking “rumors” that LinkedIn services in China were being terminated, emphasizing instead that the moves were a “reconfiguration of strategy.”
The official Chinese-language statement from LinkedIn, which unlike Shroff’s post did not mention “a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China,” said that this strategy change at LinkedIn would provide better service for Chinese customers.
The Chinese-language website of the Global Times newspaper, a spin-off of the official People’s Daily, quoted the LinkedIn China Weibo post as a rejection of the version of the story as reported by Western media, including the New York Times and Reuters, dismissing these as “untrue information” (不实消息). The English-language website of the Global Timesdid mention Shroff’s remarks about a “challenging operating environment,” but it emphasized Lu Jian’s narrative about a simple reconfiguration to meet the needs of Chinese customers, the company having found that “job seeking is a primary reason our members in China use our localized version.”
The implication from Lu was that there was little need to offer users the ability to share posts or articles, a function that has run afoul of Chinese censors in recent years (although profile pages have hardly been immune from censorship).
Asked by an AFP reporter during a press conference on Friday for his remarks on LinkedIn’s “pullout from the China market,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) first pointed the press toward the official LinkedIn statement, and then emphasized that China remained committed to creating a favorable atmosphere for foreign investment. “China is firmly committed to expanding its openness to the outside world and will continue to welcome companies from all countries, including the United States, to invest in China and provide a market-oriented, rule-of-law and international business environment,” Zhao said.
The Beijing Daily, a paper published by the Beijing’s Chinese Communist Party committee, reported on Friday, following the LinkedIn announcement, that the platform was not localized enough to attract Chinese users compared to other domestic job-hunting websites. The article also said that the Chinese version of LinkedIn had been inundated with commercial spam, and questioned whether Microsoft would find greater success with the launch of its standalone InJobs platform later this year.
The headline at Shanghai’s Jiemian News, which shared an image of the official LinkedIn China statement, read: “LinkedIn China to Carry Out Strategic Adjustment, Focusing on Providing Professional Opportunities.” There was again no mention at all of censorship, or of “greater compliance requirements.”
Sina Technology (新浪科技) responded to the LinkedIn news by posting a poll to its official account on Weibo asking readers to indicate whether or not they had used LinkedIn in the past. While just over 2,500 respondents said they had used the service, roughly 4,000 said they had not.
At least some internet users, however, attempted to highlight the censorship issue when sharing reports about LinkedIn’s decision.
Spotting the difference between the statements from LinkedIn in English and Chinese, one Weibo user posted images of both, writing simply: “You can find differences in the Chinese and the English.” The screenshot of the English-language version on the left-hand side of the post was deleted, however, making it impossible for users to read between the lines.
But even when censorship was visible as an issue as the LinkedIn decision was discussed on Chinese social media, some users rejected these concerns as an attempt to smear China’s reputation. The “red V” celebrity Weibo account “Lone Smoke and Twilight Cicada” (孤烟暮蝉), which has more than six million followers, managed to share a screenshot of an English-language report by Reuters with the headline: “Microsoft to shut down LinkedIn in China, cites ‘challenging’ environment.” The post, which said simply that “Microsoft has decided, because of censorship reasons, to pull LinkedIn out of the China market,” was inundated with pro-China comments.
“Why would you leave the market if you have nothing to hide?” said one user, suggesting that the Microsoft service had been up to no good.
Others suggested that the service was simply inferior. “Who knows?” said one, shrugging the post off. “But no one uses this garbage anyway.”
Another comment, mirroring the LinkedIn China campaign to dismiss the service’s departure as a rumor, said: “This is fake news. It’s already been rumor-busted.”
Finally, one comment linked the Microsoft platform to foreign conspiracies against China: “They can see themselves out,” it said. “They are CIA linked.”
Warnings over income inequality have been a regular theme in Chinese politics over the past two decades, as rapid economic growth has turned the country and economic powerhouse but widened the gap between the richest and the poorest. One measure of inequality constantly reported and debated over the years has been the Gini coefficient, a statistic measuring the amount of inequality that exists in a population on a scale from 0 to 1, with a number closer to 1 indicating a greater level of inequality.
No country should hope for a high Gini index ranking. But as news of China’s Gini coefficient was shared across the internet last month, quoting a State Council adviser, the statistic was turned on its head, interpreted by some as an indicator of the country’s growing global prowess.
The confusion apparently originated with a September 25 online report from Beijing Business Daily (北京商报), a newspaper published by the Beijing Daily Newspaper Group, directly under the capital city’s municipal committee of the Chinese Communist Party. That story bore the headline: “State Council Adviser Tang Min: China’s Gini Coefficient Tops Global Rankings With Income Disparity Rather High” (国务院参事汤敏: 中国基尼系数在世界排名靠前, 收入差距较高).
In the story, shared across a number of websites and social media accounts, Tang Min (汤敏), an economist formerly with the Development Research Center (DRC) of the State Council and a frequent commentator on social entrepreneurship, was quoted as saying that “from a global perspective, China’s Gini coefficient ranks highly, and our level of income disparity is regarded as quite high in the world.” But despite Tang’s clear suggestion that income disparity was an issue China needed to grapple with, the story’s headline led to some confusion.
When the Beijing Business Daily story was shared on September 26 on Douyin, the Chinese video sharing site, by “Hefei Transport Radio” (合肥交通广播), a local FM radio station in the capital of Anhui province, the misinterpretation of Tang Min’s remarks in the story’s headline led to a bewildering chorus of patriotic shouting. The news was taken to suggest that China was in a leading position globally.
“We’re in the front of the rankings,” one user wrote. “When I see how excellent the motherland is, I feel at ease. Thanks!”
Immediately below, another user wrote simply: “Thanks to the motherland!”
“Our mother country is getting stronger and stronger,” another commented.
The Douyin post quickly gathered more than 16 thousand comments, and many netizens continued to voice their excitement at the apparent fact that China’s Gini coefficient ranked highly, a sign – or so they thought – of rising prosperity for all.
“China is the world’s number one,” one user wrote beside a string of fighting spirit emoticons.
Another, with three thumbs up emoticons, wrote: “I feel proud of our motherland as it is out front of the global rankings.”
On October 6, the WeChat official account Guibo (鬼波) posted a rundown of this mistaken outpouring of nationalist emotion, including screenshots of many of the thousands of comments. The post was called, “Some [Users] Make a Huge Joke as They Express ‘Patriotic’ Feelings.” The author wrote:
It is not wrong to go to praise the motherland when you see it is strong and making progress, and this is a positive expression of patriotism. But if, as they express their patriotic feeling, people do not bring along their brains along, they risk becoming a laughingstock.
The news of Tang Min’s misunderstood remarks naturally also prompted ridicule from internet users who accused their compatriots of being fatuous nationalists. On Weibo, these prematurely patriotic internet users were likened to willing “leeks,” or jiucai (韭菜), a reference to the internet slang “cutting leeks” (割韭菜), which is synonymous with constant exploitation by greedy companies, or by a government that demands constant sacrifice.
“The proper way of thinking we see from a leek is that it gets excited when the sickle draws near,” read one Weibo post on October 8, referring to the Gini coefficient story and the willingness of some to submit so quickly to ideas of national glory that might actually support their exploitation. A user commenting below the post quoted from the 20th century Chinese writer Lin Yutang (林语堂): “There is a certain kind of person in China, at the very bottom of society, with their rights constantly trampled upon, who maintains the ideas of the ruling class, and everywhere defends the ruling class. Look for such weak-minded creatures in the animal kingdom and you could not find them.”
Discussions of income inequality and China’s Gini coefficient come as the direction of China’s future economic development has been a major topic of discussion. Back in August, Xi Jinping renewed calls at a meeting of the senior commission responsible for economic coordination for “common prosperity,” or gongtong fuyu (共同富裕), a push to address income inequality through greater state control of the economy and society, and through exerting moral and political pressure on businesses and wealthy tycoons to give back in support of the general welfare.
China says the push for “common prosperity” will be the main objective of longer-term development goal, as narrowing the widening wealth gap is a crucial part of its economic (and political) blueprint. At the core of
the concept of “common prosperity” is the idea that a more equitable Chinese society requires a larger and more prosperous middle class. But there are also fears that a heavy-handed and populist approach to addressing the income inequality challenge could dampen investment and innovation, or even mark a slide backward toward the leftist politics of the 1960s and 70s.
Income inequality has continued to be a major issue in China, and many young Chinese have despaired over the lack of prospects for strong jobs and social mobility today. The Economistreported earlier this month that China’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.465.
There have been continued moves by Chinese internet authorities in recent months to assert control over digital platforms – restraining their commercial appetites and moral failings as well as their political/ideological impact. This has affected not just the handling of big data, but a wide range of social and cultural activities as well, from fandoms to online gaming.
Setting the tone for what would become a broad crackdown on the country’s internet sector, Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) chief Xu Lin (徐麟) said late last year of the application of big data and new technologies to the economy and society: “[We must] resolutely prevent the weakening of the Party’s leadership in the name of integrated development, and must resolutely prevent the risk of capital manipulating public opinion.”
One focus of concern for the authorities has been restraining the role of influencers, or wanghong (网红), the mostly young internet personalities who have drawn large followings. And since last month, one group of wanghong in particular has drawn fire from Party-state media outlets, held out as an example of the corrupting influence of commercialism online.
Meet China’s “Buddhist beauties.”
The term “Buddhist beauty,” or foyuan (佛媛), is a more recent addition to the online lexicon in China, applied to online influencers who pose themselves in Buddhist contexts, surrounded by Buddhist objects and rituals. They depict themselves lighting incense, studying the sutras, performing ritual bows, or eating in Buddhist vegetarian restaurants. They often appear delicate and demure in these spiritual settings, but their environments are often salted with commercial brands and products.
In the current internet policy atmosphere, where moral finger-pointing about civilizational responsibility has become de rigueur, and where state media and regulators seem always on the hunt for the next violator, it was perhaps only a matter of time before such acts drew greater scrutiny. The state media backlash kicked off in late September, as the Worker’s Daily, the official newspaper of All-China Federation of Trade Unions, published an article criticizing Buddhist beauties for capitalizing on religion. The paper specifically targeted female online influencers who proclaimed Buddhist lifestyles.
According to the Worker’s Daily, foyuan are vain and materialistic attention seekers. The article begins with a sneering description of a day in the life of one foyuan as she appeared recently online. The day begins with a fancy breakfast at her “grand residence” (豪宅), followed by a meditation done quietly as a luxury handbag waits by her side. Like many Buddhist beauties she wears a kasaya, the robe generally worn by fully ordained Buddhist monks and nuns. But her kasaya is custom tailored to accentuate her curves, and as she drives off to temple in her sports car her naked thigh is teased into the open. All of this is shared on video, to be consumed by millions.
The paper depicted the commercial behavior of the Buddhist beauty generally, the promotion of cosmetics, apparel, dietary supplements and so on, as an unforgivable sin against Buddhism. “I can’t help but think of these women as those nine-tailed fox monsters from [the classic] Journey to the West,” the author wrote. “Can the fox’s tail really be hidden behind a kasaya?”
The article concluded: “In short, the time has come to bring the farce of the ‘Buddhist beauties’ to an end. And I hope even more that the word ‘fashionable woman’ can soon regain its beautiful original sense.”
The reference here to the “fashionable woman,” or mingyuan (名媛), clues us in to the origins of the term foyuan. Popular since the 1930s in China, this term has generally referred to a woman who belongs to a well-known family and can often be seen in style and fashion circles. In a more contemporary sense, mingyuan can refer to famous and wealthy people in fashion and society (including internet society). The mingyuan, then, is the fashionable woman with Buddhist sensibilities. Another possible translation of foyuan could be “Buddhist socialite.”
When the Worker’s Daily spoke of the need to bring the “farce” of the Buddhist beauties to an end, this was clearly not just a moral judgement and a call for internet users to spurn such online content. It was a call for concrete action from internet platforms, implying that Buddhist beauties were somehow in violation of laws and regulations. The headline of the article also made this clear: “”In Governing the Chaos of Buddha Beauties, Platforms Must Be Clear About Their Responsibilities” (治理佛媛乱象，平台要明确用户责任).
The fit of pique towards Buddhist beauties on the internet continued on September 24, as the Southern Metropolis Daily, a commercial spin-off of Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, wrote that social media platforms should be responsible in censoring and regulating materialistic content from foyuan. And the paper revealed that some action had already been taken to curb the trend, reporting that 48 related accounts on Douyin (抖音), China’s domestic version of TikTok, had been fined, and seven accounts had been permanently deleted. In addition, some 148 online videos related to Buddhist beauties and their business promotions had been forcibly deleted. The Southern Metropolis Daily also accused Buddhist beauties of violating regulations in seeking to capitalize on Buddhism to sell their products. Specifically, it cited the Regulation on Religious Affairs.
But not all of those swept up in the growing maelstrom against Buddhist beauties have been silent about their predicament. When one female influencer was labelled a foyuan and singled out for criticism by “Feng Wen Community” (风闻社区), an account on Weibo that typically mirrors content posted to Shanghai’s Guancha News (观察者网), she accused the account of using her images without consent and fabricating a story about her exploitation of Buddhism to sell products.
Shortly after the influencer spoke out against the social media attack on her reputation, the original post from “Feng Wen Community” disappeared.
Other Chinese netizens responded to the newly toxic attitude toward female foyuan by pointing out an obvious discrepancy. While Buddhist beauties were being singled out in the Party-state media and on social media for supposedly spoiling the spirit of Buddhism, everyone seemed to be turning a blind eye to similar posts from male influencers. Clearly, they said, there was a strong whiff of misogyny in the building campaign against Buddhist beauties.
What about the Buddhist bros?
On September 24, the day after the Worker’s Daily article and the announcement from Douyin that it had disciplined more than 50 accounts related to the commercialization of Buddhism, Shanghai’s The Paper wrote concluded its criticism of the foyuan phenomenon with unmistakable moralizing over humanity, business and spiritual worth:
For these ‘Buddhist beauties,’ being ‘true to oneself’ means completing the transition from been a ‘socialite’ to being a human being, abandoning those misplaced illusions, steadily improving themselves, and making themselves worthy of those halos. Only then can they make clean money.
The moralism in the state media quickly extended from alleged Buddhist beauties to a new online slang term, so-called “sick beauties,” or bingyuan (病媛), singling out women who posed online seeking treatments and healthcare solutions.
On September 29, the People’s Daily reported on a post from the Xiaohongshu e-commerce platform, also known as “RED,” in which a female influencer claimed she had undergone thyroid surgery. A photo accompanying her post initially showed a scar on her neck, but the scar disappeared in subsequent images, and the influencer recommended use of a particular brand of scar removal patches and anti-scarring gel. The People’s Daily report speculated on whether or not the woman in question had actually need a procedure, centering on the elegance of her poses and the fact that she wore full makeup. Was she really ill, or was this just another way of promoting her business selling scar removal products?
While the People’s Daily report did not include images, the story was followed by Guancha News and the Health Times (健康时报), this time with images of the influencer taken from her account, and of other female influencers. The reports suggested that hospitals were sacred places where medical professionals were dedicated to saving lives, while these “sick beauties” showed disrespect for hospitals and patients alike by dressing up pretty and taking selfies in full makeup from their clinic beds.
These media attacks infuriated some influencers, and also drew criticism from many internet users. Zhang Jijing (张吉晶), the female influencer singled out in the Guancha News report, responded by filing a lawsuit against various news media that had used her images without permission, and had referred to her as a “sick beauty.”
In another post that was quickly deleted from the internet, Zhang Jijing sought to clarify that she in fact was not selling scar removal products, and that her trip to the surgery had been authentic.
When another influencer highlighted in the report from the Health Times, which had also been republished at The Paper, contacted the latter to ask whether the outlet would issue an apology for its actions, she was rebuffed, told that they would not take responsibility for an article that had originated with the Health Times.
The influencer recorded the entire exchange, posting it to the Weibo platform. In the recording, the influencer can be heard saying: “You’re saying you won’t apologize, is that right?” To this, the employee at The Paper responds: “This article was written by the Health Times, and we here simply reposted it.”
Influencer: “So if The Paper reposts something, then it doesn’t need to take responsibility, is that right?” The Paper: “That’s what you’re saying, not what I’m saying.” Influencer: “I see. So let me ask, then. Will The Paper definitely not take any responsibility for this?” The Paper: “Let me just tell you that regarding this report we’ve already followed up. The apology you want is impossible, but we will continue to follow up on the story.”
There is a great deal of talk these days about China’s internet and the need to regulate for greater responsibility. The broad accusations facing China’s so-called Buddhist beauties and “sick beauties,” however, are a cautionary tale about what happens when internet enforcement becomes rule by shame, an exercise in moral finger-pointing that can itself be devoid of responsibility.
In recent weeks, China has announced a series of measures to further regulate online entertainment, including a crackdown on so-called “fandom culture” and new curbs on online gaming. But a push in the state media last week against a popular role-playing game may suggest that momentum is building for action against offline activities too.
“Script murder,” or jubensha (剧本杀), is one of the latest obsessions of China’s Gen Z. The murder mystery-like role-playing game requires only a room, a table and a host with a variety of storylines and scripts from which players can choose. The excitement unfolds as each player is assigned a script with a different character, and must act out that character – either to the group or in private one-on-one conversations – until the original plot can be pieced together and the murderer unmasked.
The jubensha craze was driven by the popularity of the Chinese variety program “Who’s The Murderer” (明星大侦探), released on Mango TV in 2016, in which groups of famous singers and actors were placed in murder mystery scenarios for the enjoyment of television audiences – with a celebrity culprit exposed in each episode. The game now has a huge market in China. Countless Jubensha shops have opened across the country since 2016, and the game saw a sharp increase in popularity over the Spring Festival holiday earlier this year. A 2021 report by Meituan estimates that there are currently around 9.41 million consumers of script murder products, over 70 percent of them under the age of 30, with total sales of 15.42 billion RMB.
The rocketing growth of the jubensha industry has also come with problems. There have been complaints among various game publishers and shops about another sort of crime – the shameless pilfering of others’ plot lines. And there have been some concerns about the use of more violent and explicit content. But negative press coverage of jubensha since September may be the first clue that the industry is facing increased pressure in the midst of the government’s broader crackdown on the entertainment industry, and on youthful activities such as “fandom culture.” Some jubensha fans have criticized coverage in the state media, saying that it unfairly distorts public perception of the game.
On September 22, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a post to its Weibo account that content on jubensha games has been increasingly violent, and has tended toward the supernatural. Resorting to typical official discourse on media and propaganda controls, the Xinhua post emphasized the need for jubensha scripts to show the “correct value guidance” (正确价值导向), as well as the need to spread “positive energy” (正能量) – though it attributed these opinions to unnamed “psychology experts” (心理专家).
The Xinhua reporter urged government action to deal with the use of supernatural and spiritual themes by jubensha shops on the basis of a visit to several such shops in central China:
The reporter recently visited several “immersive jubensha shops” in some cities in central regions. In one shop, the owner led the reporter into several live-action rooms, which were decorated as farmhouses, cemeteries and other scenes. The “cemetery” was lit up with blood red lights, and a number of props were placed inside. In one store, the owner showed the reporter scripts about “human demons,” “nightclub murders” and “people with possessed eyes.”
While the Xinhua post conceded that “positive energy” jubensha might help young people “release mental stress” and might also “enrich creativity,” it applied assumptions about the link between horror and intrigue and psychological well-being that were not necessarily supported. “[But] if the content is excessively terrifying and exciting, and if participants do not have a definite capacity to distinguish, and if minors for example become addicted to it, this will cause participants to confuse reality and drama, resulting in psychological problems,” the post said.
The Xinhua News Agency post was shared via the social media accounts of other major media, including the official Weibo account of The Beijing News (新京报) and the official Weibo account of Vista (vista看天下), a news magazine launched in 2005. These accounts have 45 and 25 million followers respectively.
Xinhua’s post implicating jubensha in psychological harm and the misguiding of Chinese youth in fact came the day after the game was oddly linked in several online reports to a Covid-19 case in the city of Harbin. On September 21, Extreme News (极目新闻), a “new mainstream media” (新型主流媒体) launched by the Hubei provincial CCP-run Hubei Daily Media Group (湖北日报传媒集团), ran a report with the headline: “Harbin Adds 1 Positive Case, Played Jubensha Three Days in a Row, Shopkeeper Says One Time Was for Three Hours.”
While the positive Covid case in question, Harbin’s first in more than seven months, visited quite a number of locations that became the center of the city government’s concerns over possible infections, the link to jubensha seemed ominous in the reporting. Even an image of the jubensha establishment in question was shared with the news report, which was reposted by Sina News and other sites.
The odd association prompted questions from Shanghai’s The Paper (澎湃), which asked in a headline on September 22: “Why Must We Be Concerned With a Covid Case Playing a Few Games of Jubensha?” (感染者玩几次剧本杀，有什么好关心的?). The commentary spoke out against the sensationalizing of the Harbin story around the jubensha detail, and against violations of the unfortunate victim’s privacy and safety, as their personal information, including name and photograph, were shared online, subjecting them to ridicule. “Tomorrow if it’s you who becomes the unfortunate victim of the virus, you too might receive the same sort of unjust treatment,” the writer said.
The next day, however, it was The Paper sensationalizing jubensha. In a lengthy feature story republished by Sohu and others, the news outlet told the story of a mother who claimed her son had indulged too much in the role-playing game, prompting her to seek psychological intervention. The story provided no source attribution for this ostensible case, though it did offer quotes purporting to be from psychological experts, like this unnamed director of a psychology treatment unit who makes the questionable leap from jubensha to symptoms reportedly observed in patients:
“Indulging in such offline games, or getting too deeply involved in them, can affect your health, especially psychological problems. On average, our clinical psychology department sees patients with psychological disorders due to jubensha every month, and these patients are depressed, or anxious, or have psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations.”
Questioning State Media Psychology
Reported stories like this one, shared across social media, irked many netizens. Some, in the sleuthing spirit of jubensha, suspected a ploy by state media to use propaganda stories like these to distort public opinion on Jubensha. One user pointed to the absurdity of using so-called “psychological problems” as a justification in the media for greater control of entertainment by suggesting that work time should be more tightly restricted – considering that many people have psychological objections to going to work:
“So games easily lead to psychological problems, and so we must control them strictly. Jubensha leads to psychological problems, and so we must control jubensha strictly. Following celebrities leads to psychological problems and so we must clean up those enthusiastic fans. I think that since going from vacation time to work can cause psychological problems, we should look into restricting that.”
Another user concurred with the above argument. “Yes, as soon as I go to work, I feel murderous, so how should we characterize that psychological problem?” they responded. “I support the strict prohibition of work.”
In the comments under the news story from The Paperreposted at Sohu, users again followed to absurdity the argument that unfavorable affects justify prohibitions:
“Every year there are parents who leave their children in the car and suffocate them, suggesting that cars be outlawed. Every year, students commit suicide because they fail the college entrance exams, suggesting the abolition of college entrance exams is necessary. Every year there are wife-killers, suggesting that marriage be abolished.”
The backlash against state media moralizing over jubensha and its supposed harmful effects prompted Xinhua News Agency to disable comments on its original jubensha post.
Beyond the linking of jubensha with psychological problems, Chinese media have sought to contrast the game with alternative entertainment activities, suggesting these are more wholesome. On September 27, for example, a video posted by the National Business Daily (每日经济新闻), a daily newspaper published by the Chengdu Media Group, suggested China’s Gen Z is gradually shifting its interests from offline entertainment activities like jubensha to group activities such as camping out in nature, which offer comfort and relaxation.
The video, which was shared across many prominent social media accounts, including that of Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊), clearly contrasted jubensha with the healthy socializing provided by camping.
One user, however, gingerly poked a hole in this black-and-white contrast: “The vast majority of them are just playing jubensha outdoors,” they said.
The moralizing about jubensha in the Chinese media of late has been encouraged by the larger wave of greater government regulation directed at the entertainment industry, which has focused on cyberspace and such trends as fandom culture and online gaming. Despite talk of the need to protect China’s youth, these moves are primarily about ensuring that media and culture, including all manner of entertainment activities, align with China’s mainstream values (主流价值) – the values, in other words, of the Chinese Communist Party.
As one commentary on a WeChat public account responding to the jubensha report from Xinhua said on September 22, violence and the supernatural have long been a part of Chinese traditional culture, and the lines are a matter of debate, with many differing views among parents.
To be honest, words like ‘supernatural violence’ may sound terrifying, but actually the lines are very blurred. In the eyes of some parents, even cartoons like “Boonie Bears” are full of violent elements. The so-called Four Classic Chinese Novels are full of fighting and killing. Is the Journey West not about the supernatural? Is “bear” such cartoons are full of violent elements, for example, the four famous novels familiar to the Chinese, it is a fight to kill. Journey to the West, is not considered spiritual, water marsh is not violent? Is Outlaws of the Marsh not violent? Of the four classical masterpieces that unite traditional Chinese culture, none can be said to pass muster in terms of suitability for young people in China.
The notion of “positive energy,” said the commentary, should not be defined too narrowly, and the scripts of jubensha might serve to enrich people’s perspectives and exercise their reasoning faculties. “Everything has its advantages and disadvantages,” the author wrote. “Is killing with a stick really the best way to regulate?”