China is cracking down on social media comments, ordering all websites, apps and other platforms to seek political approval of public comments – including emoticons – in news articles before they are published in the press. latest extension of government censorship.

“Wherever comments are enabled on a news article, a system must be in place to review comments before they are published,” a directive from the powerful Cyberspace Administration said on Wednesday.

“Anyone who provides comments under posts in the territory of the People’s Republic of China must abide by these regulations,” he said.

The rules apply to all platforms that have the ability to display public opinion or be used for “social mobilization”, and comments in the form of text, emoticons, images, audio and video, specifies the directive.

Comments on uninformative posts should be moderated after they are posted, he said. The regulations come into effect on December 15.

Service providers should set up dedicated teams to review and edit feedback, and strengthen staff training, and implement a “user classification” system and “credit rating” of user feedback behaviors , did he declare.

The measures come after authorities in Xinjiang said they were investigation of three men for “maliciously flooding” a live-streamed government press conference with comments criticizing COVID-19-related restrictions in the regional capital, Urumqi.

The cyberspace administration had anonymous comments already banned in a 2017 directive that also required online service providers to collect information about the identity of such commenters. The new rules will replace that directive, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Stifle public discourse

Zhejiang scholar Jiang Gan said authorities are likely to go after comments as the last bastion of public criticism, especially when tied to current events.

“The authorities don’t want hot topics like major news stories or disasters that the public might care about to start becoming trends,” Jiang told RFA. “They impose various regulations on information service providers to restrict [online commenting].”

Jiang said the government was likely seeking to weed out any public criticism of government policy, including party leader Xi Jinping’s zero COVID policy, following the 20th Communist Party Congress in October.

Yang Haiying, a professor at Shizuoka University, said the move had caught the attention of Japanese media. “It shows that they want to expand their control over cyberspace and maintain a pristine Communist Party image,” Yang said.

“It will mean people can’t comment on issues like…zero-COVID, or local banks or other issues.”

Washington-based think tank Freedom House has identified online comments and hashtag campaigns as an important form of public dissent in China.

“People in China are speaking out”

In an article published Thursday on his website, Kevin Slaten, who runs the group’s China Dissent Monitor, wrote that “people in China frequently challenge those in power, both collectively and individually.”

“In the streets, on banners, in cyberspace, collectively and individually, people in China are speaking out,” the article said, citing “notable online dissent such as large-scale hashtag campaigns and publications viral”.

He cited an example in which hundreds of thousands of Weibo users criticized authorities over COVID-19 policies, using a hashtag linked to the arrest of a woman and her father in Dandong after challenging the authorities. local pandemic restrictions for treatment in hospital.

In another example on the China Dissent Monitor website, homebuyers used a hashtag on Weibo to accuse the Changsha Municipal Housing and Rural-Urban Construction Commission of failing to oversee the developer of a construction project. housing after having suspended the construction of houses already paid for.

“[The Chinese Communist Party] treats the act of collectively and publicly challenging any authority as a potential threat … especially when protesters can win concessions,” Slaten wrote.

“This is why ‘social stability’ is embedded at all levels of governance and the ability to apply it is among the main parameters taken into account for the promotion of party cadres,” he said.

“This is why Xi has placed so much emphasis on stifling civic space and securing society,” he wrote. “The objective is to reduce the ability of citizens to mobilize.”

Translated and written by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster