A ban and a cartoon: What is Xi Jinping doing to the Chinese Internet?

With a new week comes a new ban: Four American TV shows are the first to be removed from Chinese video sites in the Communist Party’s latest effort to rein in online speech. While films and televisions have always been tightly controlled, the Internet was almost untouchable, and video sites such as Sohu and iQiyi have been almost a godsend for us laowai to keep up with all the shows from back home — for free.

Now, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television is working with video sites to formulate the exact rules about what content they can post. It is still unclear which rules the American shows — including “The Good Wife” and “The Big Bang Theory” — broke, given that they are all relatively innocuous network TV shows. But it is increasingly clear that the government will go to great lengths, lengths it was unwilling to go to before, to “clean up” the Internet. A recap:

The blocking of the shows comes in the midst of a government crackdown on online discourse. Beginning last autumn, the government has warned and punished a number of well-known social-media commentators. It also said it would crack down on the spread of what it says are rumors and personal attacks online. Critics say the moves are aimed at quashing dissent and the discussion of sensitive topics.

Recently, the government has also begun a crackdown on pornographic content online, in an effort that has been more forceful than past campaigns.

That’s not nearly the extent of President Xi Jinping’s obsession with the Internet, though. Unlike previous leaders, Xi seems to understand the power of the Internet. These online crackdowns go hand in hand with viral media content designed to promote his image, such as this cartoon, the first ever of a Chinese leader to be created and carried by state media:

Originally created by Qianlong.com, the propaganda portal of the Beijing municipal committee of the CPC.
Originally created by Qianlong.com, the propaganda portal of the Beijing municipal committee of the CPC.

In fact, Xi’s administration seems hellbent on creating a new image for him, the Communist Party, and China through the pioneering use of online tools. His online campaigns through popular web portals rival that of U.S. President Barack Obama. And in a brazenly outrageous show of hypocrisy, all of the major state media outlets — Xinhua, CCTV, People’s Daily, Global Times — have taken to promote themselves (and China) on Twitter and Facebook, which the government has blocked from the Chinese people since 2009. In a recent post, I even pondered whether it was an orchestrated soft power campaign to litter Urban Dictionary with popular Chinese slang (I really wouldn’t be surprised if it is).

So the next time you read about China doubling down on censorship domestically, keep in mind that they are also ratcheting up their propaganda and spreading it across the world. I’m not trying to scaremonger, but it is something to be aware of.

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