Internet users in China will soon be prosecuted for liking posts deemed illegal or harmful, raising fears that the world’s second-largest economy plans to police social media like never before.
China’s internet watchdog is stepping up regulation of cyberspace as authorities step up their crackdown on online dissent amid growing public anger over the country’s strict Covid restrictions.
The new rules take effect from December 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 Cyberspace Affairs Commission headed by Chairman Xi Jinping.
The new rules have attracted attention on social networks in recent days and will come into effect just weeks after an unprecedented wave of public anger began to sweep the country. From Beijing to Shanghai, thousands of demonstrators protested in more than a dozen cities over the weekend, demanding an end to draconian Covid restrictions and calling for political freedoms.
Internet users take screenshots content related to the protests to save and use coded references in messages to avoid censorship, while to authorities are trying to clean up the Internet of dissent.
Regulation has been updated Version published in 2017. For the first time, it says to regulate “Likes” on public posts, as well as other types of comments. Public accounts must also actively verify every comment under their posts.
However, the rules did not specify what content would be considered illegal or harmful.
“Like something illegal shows that there is popular support for the issue being raised. “Too many likes can start a prairie fire,” said David Zweig, a professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, referring to a Chinese expression about how one spark can start a much bigger flame.
“Threats [Chinese Communist Party] comes from being able to communicate in different cities. The authorities must have been really scared when so many people in so many cities came out at the same time,” he added.
Analysts said the new regulation is a sign that authorities are stepping up their crackdown on dissent.
“Authorities are very concerned about the spread of protest activity, and an important control tool is to stop communications from potential protesters, including messages about protest activities and invitations to join them,” said Joseph Chen, a retired political science professor. City University of Hong Kong.
“This control of cyberspace is an important lesson learned from protest activities such as the Arab Spring,” he said, referring to protests that swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2011.
“It is important to note that after [China] protests, we are likely to see more aggressive Chinese cyberpolicing, especially if the protests expand,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, a Boston-based China risk advisory firm.
In recent years, China has gradually stepped up censorship of social media and other online platforms, including a crackdown on financial blogs and unruly fan culture. This year, the country’s strict zero-covid policy and Xi’s historic third term in office have sparked the frustration and anger of many online users.
But in the face of ever-tightening internet censorship, much dissent has been silenced.
The regulation requires all online sites to verify the true identity of users before allowing them to post comments or like posts. Users must be verified by providing their personal ID, mobile phone or social credit numbers.
All online platforms a “review and edit team” should be established to monitor, report or delete content in real-time. In particular, websites must review comments on news stories before they can appear online.
All platforms should also develop a credit rating system for users based on their comments and likes. Users with bad ratings labeled as “unfair” will be blacklisted 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 demands will consume significant resources.
“It’s almost impossible to stop the spread of protest activity because the discontent continues to spread. Angry people can come up with all kinds of ways to communicate and express their feelings,” Chen said. “The main deterrent is the perception that the (Communist) Party regime is still under control and sanctions is harsh.”
Chongyi Feng, associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said it was now “extremely difficult” for the Chinese public to express their grievances and anger.
“The Chinese authorities’ policing of cyberspace is already unparalleled, but that is not stopping brave Chinese citizens from challenging the regime,” he said.