Rui Zhong is the program associate for the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
At the start of September, China introduced a heavy-handed ban on online video games. Chinese children under the age of 18 are not allowed to play games on weekdays; on weekends and holidays they can only play for a single designated hour in the evenings. It’s just one of a spate of new policies targeting the internet and entertainment sectors. In 2021, this has manifested in the censoring of university LGBTQ group social media accounts, the shutdown of K-pop fan accounts, the banning of “effeminate” men from all media, and the digital deletion of celebrities. The end goal? To prevent any threat to China’s stability and shut down anything or anyone seen as culturally deviant – as determined by President Xi Jinping.
As Chinese youth spend more time online and craft their identities in virtual spaces, governance and efforts to control their conduct have grown accordingly. Technology and entertainment sectors within China have always operated under the auspices and permission of the Chinese Communist Party. Ministries have overseen online conduct and the content of what could be broadcast, printed or published digitally. Foreign platforms notably face scrutiny on what may be construed as politically sensitive or otherwise against the grain of Chinese censor standards. Online games in particular were targeted to curb the risk of addiction and associated health risks and help children form good habits. The framing of these restrictions, however, has a decidedly paternalistic bent. Subsequent news coverage emphasized interviews with parents who supported the ban, emphasizing the moral changes it brought about in their children, praising the government for stepping in to correct habits.
What makes recent changes within China’s internet and entertainment sector notable this time around is the specific targeting of consumers and consumer habits, rather than simply entertainment producers. Collective fan activity in the past has been monitored, but only discouraged if it took a turn toward the political. Digital culture is not seen by the government as a threat so much as a space to manage and rule. Just as Mr. Xi aims to tell effective stories of a strong China in foreign-facing propaganda work, the logical beginnings of such efforts start at home, where the government has the strongest grip over publishing.
China’s newest sweeping regulations can be interpreted as the latest in a long-standing effort by the government and the Party to tailor the conduct and behaviour of citizens to better suit state standards. Making money for China’s sake is a benefit, but it’s becoming more important to build a cultural identity with a bent toward nationalism, political security and social values on Mr. Xi’s terms. Control is tightening around online identity and it’s increasingly easy to be labelled a security threat. Mr. Xi’s cultural campaign, which includes specific guidelines for online habits and public figures’ morality, has been years in the making. “Xi Jinping Thought,” the leader’s ideological framework that has been enshrined into the Chinese constitution, is taking a more prominent place in the lives of young people and in online discourse. His theories are now mandatory learning for young children as well as university-age students.
This year’s slate of bans, account closures and rule-making indicates that these initiatives are gaining momentum. Gradually, their effect erodes the presence of recreational and cultural online communities, meme platforms and other non-governmental web presences. As time passes under new guidelines that restrict what influencers, celebrities and video gamers are able to do and say, the nationalistic and morally correct are given more avenues to rise to stardom, changing culture and taste-making in Mr. Xi’s favour.
Mr. Xi has held power in China for eight years now. Children in primary school when he ascended to the Party chair leadership have been socialized to know that to follow him is to succeed, and to dissent against him is to risk the clampdowns that their peers in Hong Kong have experienced. The stability of life in China, long contingent on not rocking the political boat, has been consistent. Only now, the helmsman of the boat is Mr. Xi, who steers cultural norms through narrower and narrower waters. With few avenues available to express dissent, Chinese youth might not all be happy about these changes, but there’s little they can do to prevent them from becoming permanent.
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