In an increasingly digital world, one of the basic tasks of education is to ensure that children understand technology and use it smartly, both online and offline. And in much of the world, digital literacy is about giving children the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to be safe and empowered in cyberspace.
In China, however, controlling the unwanted implications of digital information is a matter not just of individual well-being but of the regime’s security. In this context, what does the concept of digital literacy mean?
When Chinese tech bosses and internet experts gathered in Beijing in July 2022 for a conference on how to “better protect minors in cyberspace,” the participants did address the sort of problems that would concern parents and educators anywhere in the world – problems like internet addiction, cyber bullying, and online malpractice. Zhang Bin, a senior researcher for the internet giant Tencent, was quoted in English-language coverage by CGTN as stressing the need to “reduce the risk of harmful content being available to underage users, while also teaching them about online threats so that they can be more vigilant.”
But all of the conference’s key approaches to digital literacy, or wangluo suyang (网络素养), were deeply enmeshed with the far more basic goal of ideological and political control. This entangling of priorities is evidenced again and again in the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of digital literacy.
When former deputy propaganda minister Wang Shiming (王世明) addressed the youth conference, he related digital literacy for youth to “the building of online civilization” (网络文明建设), a term conspicuously connected in CCP rhetoric to the Party’s unshakeable leadership and the necessity of its “firm grasp of ideological discourse power.” State media did not report these remarks in other languages.
Wang’s remarks were a textbook case of priority entanglement, in which what seemed to be substantive discussions about online behavior and child well-being revolved around the paternalistic goals of the Party. “We must ensure that young people’s hearts are for the Party, that they love labor, and that they are well-mannered,” he said, “and we must actively apply socialist core values and traditional culture to enrich young people’s online lives and shape their positive and healthy online values.”
The former propaganda minister’s language about “hearts for the Party” (心向党) can often be found near discussions of digital literacy, and the need to “build online civilization.”
Back on June 27, the Cyberspace Administration of China held a promotional conference on “the building of online civilization.” At the meeting, Wu Haiying (吴海鹰), the deputy chairperson of the All-China Women’s Federation, said that her group, only nominally a women’s rights organization, had done its part to promote digital literacy – and implement Xi Jinping’s “important ideas” on cybersecurity – by holding a special campaign called “Women’s Hearts to the Party – Welcoming the 20th National Congress” (巾帼心向党·喜迎二十大). The goal of the campaign was to “steadily firm up the belief and confidence of the masses of women in listening to the Party, and following the Party.”
At the same conference, Wang Hongying (汪鸿雁), a top official at the Chinese Communist Youth League, spoke of “digital literacy” as a core goal of “building online civilization,” which was also about the CCP’s need to “continuously improve the ideological [nature], precision and effectiveness of online [public opinion] guidance.”
Digital literacy, in other words, is about creating online users, including youth as a crucial component, who are amenable to the CCP’s information control policies and goals. Love for the Party is the first principle of the civilized and digitally literate internet user.
But the most obvious manifestations of this linking of the Party, people’s hearts, and digital literacy happens at the local level in China, where digital literacy and education initiatives are legion.
When one primary school in the municipality of Chongqing held an event to promote digital literacy in April 2021, the emphasis was on that issue vexing all loving parents concerned about their child’s online habits: the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party. “On the day of the event, in addition to telling red stories,” the Chongqing Youth Daily newspaper reported, “students in the digital literacy education classroom at Zhuangyuan Primary School took part in an activity called “My Heart to the Party, Children’s Paintings of Party History” (我心向党，童绘党史)”
The reporter described students waving their brushes as they painted depictions of the national flag and the national emblem, or rendered other glories like the Chang’e 5 lunar mission or the high-speed rail.
These activities, taking place in a “digital literacy education classroom” at what was meant to be an “education base demonstration site” (教育基地示范点) in Chongqing for digital literacy, paint an accurate portrait of what digital literacy means for the Chinese leadership.
While appearing earlier in more popular sources, the term “digital literacy” first appeared in the CCP’s official People’s Daily in July 2022, in an article about the dangers of internet bars (网吧) for Chinese young people. The article, “Internet Bars Challenge School Education” (网吧挑战学校教育), voiced concern about problems like “internet addiction” (网恋的痴迷), and warned against violent and pornographic content online.
After 2013, seeming to correspond with more concerted control of the media and online information under Xi Jinping’s CCP, coverage of digital literacy in the People’s Daily more frequently mentions “negative information” (负面信息) and “harmful information” (有害信息), and the need for “positive guidance” (正面引导), a more direct reference to political and ideological controls on top of concerns about indecent or otherwise harmful content.
When the CCP released its Outline for Establishing a Rule of Law Society (法治社会建设实施纲要) in December 2020, Article 23 of the document dealt with “fostering a good consciousness of rule of law” online, and addressed “online media literacy” and “digital literacy” as a matter of “promoting the main theme of the times and positive energy in society.” Both the “main theme” (主旋律) and “positive energy” (正能量) are closely associated with the Party’s objectives in terms of media and information control in order to maintain its own ideological dominance.
In a March 2020 article in the People’s Daily on raising the CCP’s “overall internet governing capacity” (网络综合治理能力), Xie Xinzhou (谢新洲), head of the New Media Research Center at Peking University, wrote that, “Where the internet is concerned, positive energy is the overall demand, control is the hard principle, and using it well is the true ability.” On the last count, “using it well,” Xie meant not internet users themselves, but rather the CCP, which acknowledges the risks inherent in the internet, but also its potential advantages for governance.
Xie wrote: “Using the internet well, and control of the internet, demand that governing bodies take the initiative in adapting to the trend of social information technology, that they strengthen their internet thinking, that they raise their digital literacy, and that they properly grasp and use online governance methods.”