When Consensus Net, a website that published commentary by Chinese intellectuals, shut down earlier this week, a short message on the site said it had been suspended for an upgrade. That “upgrade” comes after several months of the Communist government’s crackdown on internet speech — on everything from reformist political speech to sexy banana-eating.
The 7-year-old site posted analysis by Chinese academics on sensitive political issues, such as the Cultural Revolution and systemic corruption in the Communist Party. In July, Consensus hosted its second “Sino-U.S. Symposium on Counterterrorism,” attended by current and former officials in the U.S. State Department and military. The site’s editors have spoken at wonky think tank events, including a symposium on the state of think tanks in China.
In February, President Xi Jinping made it clear to Chinese news organizations that they must serve the ruling party. “All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions, and protect the party’s authority and unity,” Xi told a gathering of media officials, according to state news agency Xinhua, as quoted by the New York Times.
Since the February announcement, evidence of a new crackdown on speech in China has surfaced every few weeks. In April, the Ministry of Culture said it was investigating live-streaming sites for broadcasting content that “harms social morality.” The following month, so-called erotic consumption of phallic fruit was banned from live streams, as was wearing suspenders and stockings.
U.S. media reports described those rules as quirky and funny and not very serious. But the Chinese government didn’t stop at limiting kind-of-sexy internet content. In July, many top managers of the 20-year-old liberal monthly magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu were fired or demoted and replaced with editors more aligned with Xi’s politics. A former Yanhuang Chunqiu executive editor, Wu Wei, told the New York Times, “What has happened shows the big changes in China’s political environment.”
Another former executive editor, Hong Zhenkuai, told the South China Morning Post: “The magazine represented reformists within the party and liberals within the establishment.” Just a few weeks earlier, Hong had been forced to apologize for questioning inconsistencies in an official World War II story in a Yanhuang Chunqiu article published in 2013.
Also in July, the Cyberspace Administration of China said it would punish news sites that published reports based on “unverified content found on online platforms such as social media.” The agency said news sites would have to “adhere to correct guidance of public opinion.”
Top news sites like Sohu.com and Netease were told to stop all original reporting and only republish news from government-controlled media. “The sweeping ban gives authorities near-absolute control over online news and political discourse, in keeping with a broader crackdown on information increasingly distributed over the web and mobile devices,” Bloomberg reported.
In August, TV shows were forbidden from “overt admiration for Western lifestyles” and showing cleavage. In September, a critic of family planning laws saw his social media accounts deleted. And a Hong Kong pop star’s music was deleted from Chinese music streaming sites because of her pro-democracy activism.
One of the more unusual cases of suspected censorship is the app Fenda. The question-and-answer app launched in May, hit 1 million paid users in six weeks, and then, in August, mysteriously went silent, supposedly undergoing a tech upgrade. Fenda users could pay a celebrity or expert to answer a question in a one-minute audio file. If other users wanted to hear that answer, the question-asker would get paid too. Popular users answered questions about abortion and sex positions. When Fenda went dark, many speculated on what its real tech problem might be: audio is much harder to censor than text.
Fenda denied government regulation was the reason for the suspension. But after 47 days, it reappeared, somewhat changed. Instead of a wide range of categories including gossip and movies — plus expert opinion from famous people and journalists — users can now ask questions only about work, medicine, or science.
Technode reports that users must now register with a mobile phone number — which would provide more information about their identity. And fantasy writer Tang Que got an error message when trying to upload an answer: “Sorry, according to laws and regulations, your answer contains inappropriate content. Please record another answer, or the expenses will be refunded to the question raiser.”