Fearing “black swans,” China seeks control via crackdowns online

Posted on : 2021-09-20 14:50 KST Modified on : 2021-09-20 14:50 KST
China’s attempt to solve problems by deleting mentions of them out of existence online will likely only exacerbate the issues
Chinese President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping poses for a photo on Sept. 6 with senior military officials, including five recently promoted generals (Yonhap News)
Chinese President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping poses for a photo on Sept. 6 with senior military officials, including five recently promoted generals (Yonhap News)
The Tiananmen Square black swan and press controls

A living, breathing black swan appeared in the heart of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Sept. 5. People flocked to observe the unexpected visitor, who arrived after the morning raising of the Chinese flag.

A few hours later, employees from a wildlife rescue center showed up and handled the situation. But the swan’s appearance ended up igniting some controversy due to the metaphor the animal represents.

Before the subprime mortgage situation crisis in 2007, the Lebanese-American writer Nassim Taleb used “black swan” as an analogy to refer to a situation where something that could never have been predicted actually happens — with major consequences — and where some argue in the ensuing analysis that the incident was “inevitable” the whole time.

For capitalists, the global financial crisis was a “black swan” — an event that revealed the fundamental contradictions of today’s global capitalist system.

Xi: “Be on guard against black swans”

Chinese President Xi Jinping made his own reference to a black swan. His remarks came in a January 2019 speech at the Central Party School in front of prominent senior officials gathered from all over the country to commemorate China’s 70th anniversary as a people’s republic.

“The international situation is ever-changing, and the external environment is complex,” he cautioned, calling for people to “be on guard against ‘black swan’ and ‘gray rhino’ scenarios and use strategic incentives to turn perilous situations into opportunities.”

He shared a similar message at a collective study session of the party’s Central Politburo early this year, urging the attendees to “profoundly understand the effects that the complex and tangled international solution has on China, and boost security by maintaining strategic capabilities while preparing measures against various ‘black swan’ and ‘gray rhino’ scenarios.”

The term “gray rhino” here refers to a risk factor that is easily overlooked, even when there are ongoing warning signs.

For example, the Hong Kong demonstrations of 2019 were perceived by the Chinese Communist Party as a “gray rhino.” This explains why the incident was marked by over-the-top suppression efforts and repression of civil society that might otherwise be seen as incomprehensible.

So how might they go about preventing “black swan” scenarios within society? Controls on civil society and the press, it turns out.

During the Hu Jintao presidency, it was relatively easy for Chinese people to voice critical opinions about social issues. At times, this served as a driving force shaping civil society.

But the situation began taking a turn for the worse when Xi came to power in 2013, and these developments were further cemented by institutional changes.

Early 2014 saw the launch of the Central Leading Group for Cybersecurity and Informatization, under Xi’s direct command. This signaled the first steps in the administration adopting controls on online media as a government priority.

In 2018, the Chinese government codified the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) as an institution directly under the Central Committee of the CCP. Presiding institutions have also been set up under party committees at various levels around the country — effectively establishing an internet surveillance team with a reach extending from the center to the provinces.

The chief duties of CAC institutions at different levels involve reviewing and blocking access to politically sensitive information.

The censorship targets are quite vast, and staffing has increased from one year to the next. Some of the departments directly beneath the CAC include a Bureau of Network Comments, the Cyber Security Review Office, the Illegal Information Reporting Center, and the Internet Public Opinion Center.

There’s also the youth internet civilization volunteer corps established by the Communist Youth League of China, which recruits college students to promote positive content online and report negative content.

These activities have only ramped up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, the Hangzhou branch of the CAC ordered the deletion of trending social media search terms concerning the death of Li Wenliang, the doctor who first tried to warn others about the virus. It also blocked the transmission of negative articles to the government. Other actions included organizing 1,500 internet users to monitor opinion on WeChat, with orders for them to retweet 6,000 messages a day.

Some of the abstract directives from the top ended up taking on extreme forms on the ground. In these ways, normative documents and “soft laws” that read as commands have reached the point of superseding the constitution and actual laws, and systems of control over actual citizen lives have been deepening. The devil truly is in the details.

In late March, the CAC announced that it was setting up a hotline for reporting “the online spreading of fake news that promotes historical nihilism, along with malicious acts of distortions, disparagement, and repudiation of the Party’s history.”

Where did this “historical nihilism” come from?

The Chinese philosopher He Zhaotian looked back at the situation that unfolded after the Cultural Revolution, as it became difficult for young people to properly address questions on the meaning of life and establish an ethical and practical sense that might afford them mental and physical stability. What he found was that these young people came to focus excessively on the self.

The result, he concluded, was a moral crisis and widespread nihilism, creating a state of psychological panic in Chinese society today. As a response, he calls for approaching ethical issues from a historical perspective rather than in abstract terms of the “contradictions of capitalism and modernity” or “lack of humanistic spirit.”

His idea is that when it comes to the predicaments that history poses, one should consider the different and complex possibilities of historical development, rather than imposing punishments based on dichotomies of reform vs. counter-reform, feudalism vs. enlightenment, or revolutionary generation vs. new generation.

Nipping “youth nihilism” in the bud

But the Chinese government’s response to “historical nihilism” has been the exact opposite. Recently, Beijing embarked on an extensive purge focusing on eight areas, including the eradication of historical nihilism, algorithm abuse, the “Internet Water Army,” and the online environment for minors. This effort is known as “Operation Qinglang.”

Fandoms dedicated to entertainers are facing large-scale inspection measures, which have included the closing of two fan club accounts each boasting over two million followers.

But the problem doesn’t lie in fandoms. At its root, it is about China’s rulers regarding it as a problem when millions of young people gather in online settings and engage in activities that are not subject to controls. There’s a powerful dichotomy at play in this process.

The Chinese government views “historical nihilism” among young people as a threat to the legitimacy of its rule. The same idea was reflected in its measures last April in reaction to a trend among internet users with the slogan “No need to work hard; it’s prudent to lie flat.”

“‘Tang ping’ is justice,” the saying declared, referring to the Chinese phrase for “to lie flat.” The government’s response was to prohibit the term outright and delete all related posts.

It’s misguided to try to resolve issues of “historical nihilism” through shutdowns and bans. Isn’t it more likely that young people will adopt a more complex and historical perspective on the current times when they are permitted more spaces for contemplation and practice?

This attitude of attempting to control freedom of association, freedom of expression, and everything else will only spawn more cynicism and nihilism. Things that are repressed always find their way back, and the anxieties of the ruling class will only breed more irony.

Perhaps that’s why the black swan in Tiananmen Square feels so unsettling.

By Hong Myung-kyo, researcher

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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