China to punish internet users for ‘liking’ posts in crackdown after Covid-0 protests

By | November 30, 2022

Hong Kong
CNN Business

Internet users in China will soon be held accountable for liking posts deemed illegal or harmful, sparking fears that the world’s second-largest economy plans to rein in social media like never before.

China’s internet watchdog is stepping up its regulation of cyberspace as authorities step up their crackdown on online dissent amid growing public anger over the country’s stringent Covid restrictions.

The new rules take effect from Dec. 15, as part of a new set of guidelines published by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) earlier this month. The CAC operates under the Central Commission on Cyberspace Affairs, chaired by leader Xi Jinping.

The new rules have gained prominence on social media in recent days. and it will take effect just weeks after an unprecedented wave of public anger began to sweep the country. From Beijing to Shanghai, thousands of protesters demonstrated in more than a dozen cities over the weekend, demanding an end to the country’s draconian Covid restrictions and calling for political freedoms.

Netizens are taking screenshots of content related to the protests to preserve them and use coded references in messages to evade censors, while The authorities are scrambling to clear the internet of dissent.

the regulation is an updated version of one previously published in 2017. For the first time, it states that “likes” of public posts should be regulated, along with other types of comments. Public accounts must also actively review all comments on their posts.

Demonstrators hold blank placards, to denote censorship, during a protest in Beijing, China, on Sunday, November 27.

However, the rules did not detail what type of content would be considered illegal or harmful.

“Liking something that is illegal shows that there is popular support for the issue being raised. Too many likes ‘can start a prairie fire,’” said David Zweig, professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to a Chinese expression for how a single spark can start a much larger fire.

“Threats to [Chinese Communist Party] come from an ability to communicate across cities. The authorities must have been really scared when so many people in so many cities came out at the same time,” she added.

Analysts said the new regulation was a sign that authorities were stepping up a crackdown on dissent.

“The authorities are very concerned about the spread of protest activities, and an important means of control is to stop communications from potential protesters, including reports of protest activities and appeals to join them,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

“This control of cyberspace is an important lesson learned from protest activities like the Arab Spring,” he said, referring to protests that swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s eastern province in 2011.

“What is important to note is that, following the [China] protests, we will likely see more aggressive policing of Chinese cyberspace, especially if protests expand,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, a Boston-based China risk consulting firm.

In recent years, China has gradually stepped up its censorship of social media and other online platforms, including launching crackdowns on financial blogs and unruly fan culture. This year, the country’s strict zero Covid policy and Xi’s securing of a historic third term have sparked discontent and anger among many online users.

But under the internet’s increasingly stringent censorship, many dissenting voices have been silenced.

According to the regulation, all online sites are required to verify the real identities of users before allowing them to submit comments or like posts. Users must be verified by providing their personal ID, cell phone or social credit numbers.

All online platforms must set up a “check and edit team” for real-time monitoring, reporting or deletion of content. In particular, news comments must be reviewed by websites before they can appear online.

All platforms also need to develop a credit rating system for users based on their comments and likes. Users with bad reviews dubbed “dishonest” will be added to a block list and banned from using the platform or registering new accounts.

However, analysts also questioned how practical it would be to enforce the latest rules, given that public anger is widespread and strict enforcement of these censorship requirements would consume significant resources.

“It is nearly impossible to stop the spread of protest activity as dissatisfaction continues to spread. Angry people can come up with all kinds of ways to communicate and express their feelings,” Cheng said. “The biggest impediment lies in the perception that the (Communist) Party regime is still in control and sanctions are severe.”

Chongyi Feng, associate professor of China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, said it was now “extremely difficult” for the Chinese public to express their grievances and anger.

“The policing of cyberspace by Chinese authorities is already beyond measure, but that doesn’t stop brave Chinese citizens from challenging the regime,” he said.

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