Internet users in China will soon be prosecuted for liking posts deemed illegal or dangerous, sparking fears that the world’s second-largest economy is planning an unprecedented crackdown on social media.
Internet watchdog China is increasing its control of cyberspace as authorities step up their crackdown on online dissent amid growing public anger against the country’s strict Covid restrictions.
The new rules take effect from December 15, as part of a set of new guidelines published by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) earlier this month. The CAC operates under the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission headed by President Xi Jinping.
The new rules have received attention on social media in recent days and will go into effect a few weeks after an unprecedented wave of public anger began to sweep the country. From Beijing to Shanghai, thousands of protesters protested in more than a dozen cities over the weekend, demanding an end to the country’s draconian Covid restrictions and demanding political freedom.
Internet users take screenshots of Content related to protests to save and use coded references in messages to avoid censors, while i authorities are trying to crack down on dissidents online.
Regulation updated version of the one previously published in 2017. For the first time, it says that “likes” on social posts should be regulated, along with other types of comments. Public accounts should also proactively check all comments under their posts.
However, the rules did not specify what kind of content would be taken illegal or dangerous.
“Like something that is illegal shows that there is support from the people on this issue. Too many likes can ‘start a wildfire,’” said David Zweig, a professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to a Chinese saying about how a single spark can start a huge fire.
“Threats to [Chinese Communist Party] they come from the ability to communicate across cities. The authorities must have been really shocked when so many people in many cities came out at the same time,” he added.
Analysts said the new law is a sign that the authorities are intensifying their campaign against opposition groups.
“The authorities are very concerned about the spread of protests, and an important method of control is to stop the communication of protesters including reports of protest actions and requests to join,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.
“This control of the atmosphere 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 the eastern province of Saudi Arabia in 2011.
“The important thing for us to notice is that after the game [China] protests, we’re likely to see more brutal policing in China’s cyberspace, especially if the protests escalate,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, a New York-based China risk consultancy.
In recent years, China has gradually tightened its censorship of social media and other online platforms, including cracking down on financial blogs and unruly fan culture. This year, the country’s strict zero-Covid policy and Xi’s historic third term have caused discontent and anger among many Internet users.
But under the intense scrutiny of the internet, many dissenting voices have been silenced.
By regulation, all online sites are required to verify the real identity of users before allowing them to post comments or like posts. Users must be authenticated by providing their personal ID, mobile phone, or social media credit numbers.
All online platforms must set up a “screening and editing team” for real-time monitoring, reporting, or removing content. In particular, comments on stories must be reviewed by sites before they appear online.
All platforms also need to develop a credit rating system for users based on their comments and preferences. Users with negative ratings called “untrustworthy” will be added to the blacklist and banned from using the platform or registering new accounts.
However, analysts also question how useful the new rules would be, as public anger is widespread and strict enforcement of these audit requirements will consume significant resources.
“It is almost impossible to stop the spread of protests as discontent continues to spread. Angry people can come up with all kinds of ways to communicate and express their feelings,” said Cheng. “The biggest obstacle lies in the perception that the Party (Communist) regime is still in power and the sanctions are heavy.”
Chongyi Feng, associate professor of China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said it was “very difficult” now for the Chinese public to voice their grievances and anger.
“Cyberspace policing by Chinese authorities is still above average, but that doesn’t stop brave Chinese citizens from challenging the regime,” he said.