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Two paradoxes in Chinese censorship

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Li Jiaqi (left) was a victim of censorship | Image: Taobao Live

OPINION: How do you step on a political mine selling a cake?

The answer is simple: give the four-wheel Oreo cake and a wafer pipe, and show the tank-shaped cake to millions of followers around June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square crackdown.

This is what happened to Li Jiaqi, China’s most popular live streaming seller. Boasting over 60 million followers, Li set an impressive sales record of 10.65 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) in one day.

On the evening of June 3, shortly after Li made a joke about the tank cake his assistant presented to the camera, the live broadcast came to an abrupt end, leaving millions of his followers wondering why. . Li later posted that he was having “technical difficulties”, but it doesn’t take much Chinese wisdom to decipher the coded language. Many asked on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) “what happened to Li Jiaqi?”

Li’s unwitting young followers would soon discover that their talkative curiosity was unwelcome. China’s Gen Z – including Li who was born in 1992 – is often genuinely unaware of the political sensibility around June 4, because in their minds, nothing in particular ever happened on this day 33 years ago. After vaguely learning why the tanks were a sensitive topic from the coded chat, some Weibo users expressed shock while others came to the government’s defense. One user posted: “Our upright country never wants to hide anything! Always trust our country! Another said, “If Li Jiaqi’s ban has to do with 6.4, he’s not wronged…how lucky our country resisted the color revolution, unlike the Soviet Union.”

As a reward for their patriotism, their Weibo accounts were quickly canceled.

To their surprise, when it comes to the Tiananmen crackdown and many other political issues, the state even forbids patriotic support. The existence of support implies the existence of doubt, criticism, even condemnation. The big brother wants something much better: ignorance.

Compared to its authoritarian neighbours, China’s censorship system has been exceptionally successful in maintaining ignorance. Vietnam established an army of 10,000 online censors in 2017 to combat anti-government “misconceptions”, but it remains one of the biggest markets for Facebook, Twitter and Google – meaning “erroneous opinions” are at least accessible. Thanks to the Great Firewall, an increasingly subdued news media, and systematic ideological education from childhood, young people in China know what they are supposed to know, such as the universally accepted truth that Evil United States is the world’s number one troublemaker. In the meantime, many remain blissfully unaware of what they are not expected to know.

But whoever really doesn’t know what he is “not supposed to know”, also doesn’t know where he should tiptoe and keep quiet. For everyday people who accidentally cross one of these invisible lines, penalties such as post deletion and account cancellation can be inconvenient. But for celebrities and corporations, this is a real and serious business risk. Li is not the first victim of misinformed tank references. In 2017, successful bike-sharing company Bluegogo, once valued at US$140 million with more than 20 million users, went bankrupt after launching a marketing campaign calling on its users to ride bikes with logos. tank on June 3 and 4 to participate in the draw. .

How should companies and celebrities manage such risk? The paradoxical lesson is that they must “perfectly know” what they are “not supposed to know”, if they are to be absolutely safe from the ruthless repression of censorship.

Li Jiaqi’s so-called paradox does not end there. Censorship aims to suppress knowledge and discussion. But silencing influencers such as Li Jiaqi only encourages innocent investigations into the mysterious “technical difficulties”, turning a high-profile exercise in censorship into a mass educational event. Censors end up arousing curiosity and spreading the very knowledge they seek to suppress.

It should be noted that globally, the Chinese do not oppose strict censorship. According to the 2017-2022 World Values ​​Survey, 92.7% of Chinese respondents choose safety over freedom, and 60.6% think the government should “definitely” or “probably” monitor all emails and any other information exchanged over the Internet. The underlying rationales for censorship have become widely accepted: social stability is fragile, people’s minds are easily corrupted, “positive energy” is preferable to information that is too much and openly critical of the government, and foreign media coverage is guided by a subversive agenda. Censorship therefore serves the public interest and is a core responsibility in the Chinese government’s job description.

Yet, in another paradoxical way, strong support for censorship, when mixed with a dose of paranoia and nationalism, can end up undermining state legitimacy. This May, for example, saw a public outcry in China over illustrations in textbooks from a major public publisher, People’s Education Press. The outcry started when people wondered if some textbook illustrations were too ugly and sexually suggestive, but it quickly turned into a witch hunt.

Some self-proclaimed citizen censors complain that English textbooks glorify Westerners and inculcate Western values; others wonder why the People’s Education Press spares so much effort to sell Japanese textbooks on Tiktok; still others express serious concern about whether classical paintings with nudity could corrupt children and adolescents. Do the censors live up to our expectations? Are we and our children in good hands? Are we enemies to each other? The witch hunters quickly concluded, a few questions later, that the public education system is ideologically infiltrated by the West.

Authoritarianism is never comfortable with questions, even innocent and well-meaning questions. An inquisitive mind will invariably find it riddled with paradoxes: dangerous knowledge is needed to maintain safe ignorance, suppressors of information become broadcasters, censors are both the incenseand the success of censorship, clouded by its own shadows, can have flavors of incompetence and failure.

– Asia Media Center