China gives internet stars a lesson in self-censorship

A group of internet celebrities in China have endorsed a government guideline for self-censorship on a variety of topics such as law, socialism, the state, the public's legal rights, and morality, according to state-controlled media outlet the People Daily.

Some are arguing their endorsement was invented as political propaganda. The internet stars were part of a group invited to attend a forum on Internet Celebrities’ Social Responsibility organised by the State Internet Information Office (IIO) and held at the China Central Television on August 10, 2013. There, they exchanged views with the head of IIO, Lu Wei, who presented the seven-point guideline.

The guideline includes principles for online public opinion leaders to self-regulate their online speech, which set limits and boundaries not to be crossed when it comes to discussion of law and regulation, the socialist political system, the state's interests, citizen's legal rights, public order, morality, and facts and accuracy.

As social media becomes more and more popular, online public opinion leaders are becoming very influential. On Sina and Tencent Weibo, there are more than 19,000 microbloggers with 100,000 followers; 3,300 microbloggers with one million followers; and 200 microbloggers with more than 10 million followers.

Soon after the conference, the People Daily reported that all the celebrities who attended the forum had endorsed the seven-point guideline.

But did they really? The set of principles have been welcomed by some in the past few days, yet others questioned it.

In fact, Pan Shiyi, CEO of real-estate developer Soho and one of the invited celebrities, questioned the premise of the seven principles during the forum:

“People here are discussing whether the Internet should be controlled, managed, channeled and turned into a tool for cultivating the mass…. My personal opinion is everyone should participate in the network society and people should not be considered a passive subject who need to be educated or channeled. Those who spread rumors should be punished according to the law. I don't think the Big V [online celebrities] should be responsible for lifting people's morality. It won't work.”

Some netizens noticed the contradictions in the guideline. @juchenxi, head of a news information centre in an academy in Hunan, also spotted the paradoxes:

“A number of paradoxes here: Upholding the socialist system may contradict with national interest. The pursuit of truth may also contradict some conditions of the socialist system. Also, the protection of citizen's legal rights may also go against the system. It would be difficult to follow all these guidelines at the same time. It won't be easy just to uphold the truth.”

Since the forum invited quite a number of celebrities from the liberal sector of the internet community which is often the target of censorship, there is speculation about its political intention. For example, @ranxiangbapi, a popular nationalistic microblogger, believed the celebrities were “forced to drink tea”, an online term used to describe interrogations by the internal security police:

“Don't you smell the aroma of a “tea session” in this forum? It invited those Big V [online celebrities] with a positive attitude in the show and gave them faces. Let's see how the Big V with a negative attitude perform in the future.”

@simanan, also a nationalist opinion leader, also believed the forum is a party strategy to build a united front with the influential liberals:

“Just now the South China Morning Post asked me to comment on Lu Wei's conversation with the Big V. I raised a few points: 1. This is a strategy to build a united front in a new era. But they use an old set of tools; 2. Faces have been given to some names before the consensus was introduced; 3. It is a signal to the destructive ones; 4. The seven guidelines can be reduced to one. Follow the constitution [one party principle]. 5. @Pan Shiyi [a liberal] tries to differentiate himself with others in the forum, Lu Wei did not give any response to him and no one backed him up.”

Even though Chinese netizens still have doubts, the China Daily continues to propagate the necessity to cultivate the idea of the “angry youth” and develop common boundaries on discussion for a "rational and healthy internet culture". But why are people angry in the first place? Many netizens questioned:

“Big bird in the sky” said: “Why there are so many fierce fights in the internet? We can't defend our own interest but those who design the rules of the game have gained so much illegitimate interests. The resentment has kept on accumulating and we have to swear to maintain our balance. It is necessary but secondary to urge netizens to remain rational and well-mannered in discussion. The most urgent task is to solve the problem of social injustice so that people develop a feeling that they are protected and living in a fair world.”

“Fly with black belly” noted: “For how many years people have we demanded our officials to declare their properties? Can you even hear people's constructive suggestions? You have been so effective in blocking people's speech. In such a highly manipulated and censored environment, you pretend that it is free and ask people to be rational and soft? This is such a joke.”

“Fredio” said: “What has been missed is a mechanism for people to monitor the government.”

*Oiwan Lam is Regional Editor for Northeast Asia at online journal Global