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Unpublished Chinese censorship document reveals sweeping effort to eradicate online political content

Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on the country’s online broadcasting platforms, banning a long list of content – everything from tattoos to religious proselytizing, violations of “mainstream values,” flirtatious dancing, images of leaders and Western political critiques – as the government seeks to stamp out any venue that could be used for dissent or behaviour it considers obscene, according to an unpublished censorship directive obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The meteoric growth of online video services in China has offered a vibrant venue for creativity and, occasionally, obscenity and political protest – unleashing a daily riptide of user-made cat videos, pranks and glimpses of everyday life. Hundreds of millions of people in China watch short video clips and live-stream video every month.

Chinese authorities have responded with strict new rules, ordering online broadcasters to eradicate a wide range of content, according to the document obtained by The Globe, which is entitled “Management requirements for live service information and content.“

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The document is being used as a master guideline for content blocking by some of the country’s most-used video sites, multiple sources in the industry told The Globe. It began circulating early this year, and is believed to have been issued by the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, China’s central Internet authority, which did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s also possible that the document, which outlines 10 basic categories of banned content, was written by a government-affiliated trade association, a censorship expert said.

In either case, the document is being treated by Chinese internet firms as a mandate from the Cyberspace Administration. As such, it constitutes a blueprint for censorship that underscores the fine-grained control authorities have exerted over public expression under President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a broad reinvigoration of the Communist Party’s supervision over Chinese life.

The document is like opening “a window into the government’s paranoid fears,” said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International.

“The specificity of it is revealing – it shows what exactly they are worried about,” said Yaxue Cao, the founder and editor of ChinaChange.org, which publishes news and commentary related to Chinese civil society and human rights.

“It targets political dissent of course, but any activities that might cause a large number of people to coalesce, whether through popular entertainment such as Duanzi (jokes) and cartoons, or through direct sales network,” she said, in an e-mail. “It also aims at content that might give people ideas of resistance and how-to knowledge. I go through each category, this is the theme I see: a heightened sense of regime insecurity.”

The censorship demands also illustrate the immense reach of political interference into Chinese programming, at a time Beijing is conducting a well-financed campaign to extend the reach of its media. That includes the construction of a new global broadcaster called Voice of China, as well as a quiet effort by mainland Chinese corporations to buy up radio stations and newspapers around the world.

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The document specifies the types of political discourse that are prohibited, including “insulting and defaming current or previous leaders,” speculating or discussing government plans “irresponsibly,” or attacking policies. Any content that does the latter “should be eradicated,” the document says, and no critique of Chinese political theory “by Western standards.” The pictures and names of political leaders are strictly forbidden.

Any attempt to “inspire people to do something or commit certain actions” must be blocked, along with information that “misinterprets” heroes or “maliciously” attacks Chinese foreign affairs. Social topics deemed “sensitive” are forbidden, including “made-up” accidents, epidemics or police incidents and issues related to the economy. The environment is a sensitive topic, and the document bans airing of investigation results or incident causes related to smog, water protection and soil pollution.

Not only is pornography banned, but so is all obscenity, a category that includes “using a bed or sofa as a prop or background,” appearing shirtless, wearing tattoos or dancing in a way “that has flirtatious and vulgar elements.” Also forbidden is the spreading of harmful information, a category that includes cursing, smoking and drinking, gambling or “vulgar use of a microphone controller (or any mimicking of it).”

Numerous acts of violence are forbidden, as is “oral description of bloody and violent details,” and any instruction in playing “dangerous games.” No “superstitious activity is allowed,” a category that includes fortune-telling, fengshui or “recruiting religious believers in any form.”

Celebrities, too, come in for special protection, with a ban on content that “overly exploits and publicizes celebrities’ privacy, scandals, sex rumours or luxurious lifestyles, which run against social morality.” The promotion of mindset that runs counter to mainstream values is forbidden, such as “money above all” or “fame above all,” the document says. “Over-entertaining is prohibited,” it adds, without defining what that might be.

Content deemed creepy, absurd or horrifying cannot be broadcast, including eating living things, swallowing “weird stuff” or abusing animals. A ban on illegal marketing proscribes advertisements for “overseas online shopping” in addition to cigarettes and medicine.

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The use of terms such as “sensitive” in the guide give latitude for censorship of “anything the Communist Party might find inconvenient,” Mr. Nee said. “Essentially, this sort of directive is a direct assault on freedom of expression.”

It also, he said, offers an unvarnished look into the deepest insecurities of China’s Communist leadership.

The restrictions show how “the grip keeps getting tighter in the recent years,” said Sandra Severdia, a senior editor at China Digital Times, which frequently reports on Chinese censorship requirements.

In China’s online space, she said, “there’s no normality anymore.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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