China's Glorious New Internet Censorship: What a Beautiful World This Will Be

The below post was written by one of our China lawyers who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of what might happen to him/her the next time he/she goes to China. So my name is going on this because I wrote the introduction and I have no plans to go to China until the CCP stops seizing people for having said things it does not like. About a fifth of the way into this post I immediately thought of one of my favorite songs, I.G.Y (What a Beautiful World), by Donald Fagen (one of the two forces behind Steely Dan. That song, which came out in 1982, was written from the overly optimistic view of a participant in the IGY (International Geophysical Year, 1957-58), but when listened to in the 1980s through today, sounds hopelessly naive, perhaps even stupid. Nobody doubts that Fagan, who has long been a master of sarcasm, intended this song as sarcasm. This song fits perfectly what the CCP is trying to do with China’s Internet, especially the line, “A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. We’ll be clean when their work is done. We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young.”Yeah right….
On March 1, China’s Provisions on Ecological Governance of Online Information Content (“Provisions”) became effective. These Provisions aim “to create a healthy cyberspace ecological system, to protect the legal rights and benefits of citizens, legal persons and other organizations, and to safeguard national security and public interests” and they apply to the following:

  • Online information content producers: organizations or individuals that create, reproduce, or publish online information and content;
  • Online information content service platforms: network information service providers that provide information and content transmission services; and
  • Online information content users: organizations or individuals that use online information content and services.

Since any person can become a content creator, these Provisions essentially apply to literally everyone that uses the Internet, ranging from sites like 163.com to an ordinary Chigua qunzhong.
In an effort to further widen their net and intimidate pretty much everyone into toeing the party line, these Provisions are vague and overbroad regarding the different categories of information they regulate and the sort of information to be promoted and banned. More specifically, they provide as follows:
Information to promote. The Provisions encourage the production, publication and transmission of content in seven ambiguously defined categories, including contents that publicize Xi Jinping Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, CCP’s theoretical path, directives, and decisions, content that showcases China’s social and economic developments, and content that increases the international impact of Chinese culture.
Illegal information. The Provisions prohibits content producers from making, replicating or publishing illegal information such as content that opposes the basic principles set forth in China’s Constitution, content that might harm the nation’s honor and interests, content that might undermine the China’s policy on religions, content that might promote cults and superstitions or disseminate obscenity, pornography, gambling, violence, murder, terror, or instigate crime, along with anything that is otherwise prohibited by China laws or administrative regulations. In other words, anything the CCP might not like. The Provisions also prohibit online information content service platforms and users from disseminating or publicizing any of the above sorts of content.
Negative information. The Provisions further urge online information content producers, service platforms and users to prevent and resist the production, replication, or publication of “negative” information. Such negative information includes (but is not limited to) content that use exaggerated headlines or sensationalizes gossip or scandals, content that “improperly” comments on natural disasters or major accidents, content that might incite discrimination against groups or regions. or promote vulgarity, content that is gory or horrifying, content that has sexual innuendo or is sexually suggestive, and content that might lead minors to imitate unsafe behaviors or behavior that violates social ethics or that might induce bad habits in minors. In other words, you are prohibited from posting anything that might make people unhappy or end in bad results.
The Provisions also talk about how online information content service platforms must provide “positive news and information.” For example, news sites must display “good news” on its front page or via popup windows, where no bad news can appear. In other words, these Provisions have decreed a better world for us all. The coronavirus? It’s under control? China’s economy? It’s all good; the empty factories and restaurants are simply a result of you not reading enough of Xi Jinping’s great thoughts. Try harder, people, and everything will be good.
Censorship in China is of course nothing new. China already had laws and regulations similar to these Provisions that prohibit certain types of information, such as the Film Promotion Law, Measures for Administration of Computer Network and Internet Security Protection, and Measures for Administration of Network Information Services and various others. But these Provisions take it to the next level and they reinforce self-censorship and they make clear that the CCP really means it this time. The Provisions require information service platforms to enhance their administration of information content and to report violations to government authorities. Many Chinese websites already implement such rules. For example, China’s video sharing website Bilibili requires its users pass what is essentially a political purity “test” before they can publish danmu comments. Passing the test means you know what you should or should not say on the site.
The Provisions also now require online information content service platforms to provide easy access for the public to file complaints about and reports of negative contents. They also encourage Chinese netizens  to participate in monitoring and governing the network information ecological system and in supervising illegal and negative information by filing complaints and reports. In other words, Chinese citizens are being encouraged to report on their friends and neighbors, and this snitching is happening and getting worse in China.
A recent example is the Chinese Government’s recent ban of the Archive of Our Own (AO3). Long story short, fans of Chinese actor Xiao Zhan disliked certain fan-fiction based on Xiao or his TV character and so they reported relevant fanfic and websites (such as AO3 and Lofter) to the Chinese government for being insulting, vulgar or sexually explicit and demanded the removal of relevant articles or the shutting down of relevant sites. Chinese users of AO3 soon discovered they can no longer visit AO3  from China and AO3 has confirmed this. It is unclear whether the Chinese fans of Xiao actually made AO3 “disappear” from the Chinese Internet or whether its disappearance is coincidental, but the way these fans reacted to the “negative” depiction of their star is chilling (and  reminiscent of the Red Guards. This kind of self-censorship is what the Chinese government wants to see and is exactly what the Provisions are promoting.
The Provisions aim to convert the Internet into a source of nothing but happiness and positivity. As some Chinese netizens put it, the new rules are “good” news because there can be no bad news. Golly gee, I am so looking forward to that.

I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)

Standing tough under stars and stripes, we can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train, all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well, by ’76 we’ll be A-OK
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
Get your ticket to that wheel in space while there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets, one for everyone
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
On that train, all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellas with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free