Critical Comments Among Chinese Netizens—Before and After the Cyber Security Law

Written by Zhaoyu Sun

Introduction

China is well-known for its internet censorship system, through which the government prevents citizens from viewing unfavorable reports of the regime. Under the government of current President Xi Jinping, however, this system has evolved to the point where the government can now identify any internet user who posts critical comments. According to Article 24 of the 2017 Cyber Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, all individuals are required to formally identify themselves before gaining access to the internet. The law states: “Where network operators provide network access and domain registration services for users… they shall require users to provide true identity information when signing agreements with users or confirming the provision of services. If any user fails to provide his or her true identify information, the network operator shall not provide him or her with relevant services.”

The new regulations sanctioned by President Xi enable the government to locate and punish those who make comments that the regime deems undesirable. The anonymity that most take for granted as essential to the nature of the internet is thus rendered nonexistent by the monitoring eyes of the government. Potential punishment against those who post critical comments undoubtedly impact the actions of Chinese internet users (“wangmin” or “netizens”). The present paper aims to determine precisely how President Xi’s strengthened censorship system has altered the behavior of Chinese netizens, and the implications of this new system for the prospects of future liberalization in China. This paper begins with a review of recent literature on the coercive practices and appeasement measures implemented by China’s government to influence netizens’ behavior, as well as on the role of rule consciousness, namely the self-awareness and adaptation to existing laws while demonstrating dissent, in the behavior of netizens and protestors in China. On the basis of this review, the paper describes a study carried out to test the hypothesis that coercive punishments associated with the Cyber Security Law have raised consciousness of the law among Chinese netizens and have led to a corresponding change in behavior; the results of the study support the notion that such a change has indeed occurred. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of this phenomenon’s relevance to the prospects of the future liberalization of China.

Literature Review

In order to study the new policies’ effect on netizens’ behavior, it is important to start with how the state responds to online comments regarding its performance. The state reaction can be categorized into two types: coercive action and appeasement.

Coercive Action Against Critics

The internet security law established under President Xi requires all social media accounts within China to be linked to a citizen’s ID number, which allows the government to identify the author of any online comment. According to Margaret Roberts (2018), online criticism of the government will sometimes lead to punishment under this law, though this depends on who or what the target of the criticism is. Negative comments about the censorship system or the behavior of local officials will generally not elicit punishment from the state apparatus; however, comments that broadcast means of bypassing censorship, use insulting language towards the government or the Chinese nation, or criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee are understood to have crossed a “red line” and will likely lead to a warning, an arrest, or, in extreme cases, a prison sentence. As an example of critical comments that go unpunished, Roberts points to the fact that many comments criticizing China’s “Great Fire Wall” are not deleted after being published (Roberts 2018)[i].

The punishments for citizens who cross the aforementioned red line are described by Roberts as fulfilling a coercive function. Roberts notes that punishments of VPN dealers or netizens who insult the Chinese nation are sometimes extensively covered by news media. For example, a VPN dealer in Shanghai was sentenced to three years in October 2018 and his trial was widely publicized by the CCP-controlled media (“程序员非法出售VPN被判刑三年 罚款10000元”, 2018). However, punishments of those who criticize high-ranking CCP officers are rather unseen on the domestic media. In fact, there have been no reports published within China of individuals being arrested for criticism of the CCP Central Committee; the only reports that mention such arrests have been made by foreign media on the basis of testimonies from relatives or friends of the arrested individuals (Roberts 2018).

As for criticism against local government, it belongs to a somewhat different category. According to Elizabeth J. Perry, the central government has a higher tolerance for attacks on local government and, in fact, uses people’s reaction as a means to evaluate the competence of local officials (Perry 2012). There have also been cases of local governments arresting and taking action against those who publish criticism of them. Once these arrests are exposed by news media, however, they tend to create pressure on local governments; in some cases, the central government has punished local officers for making these arrests in order to demonstrate the righteousness of the central government and ensure that citizens remain empowered to monitor governance at the local level. Such a case occurred earlier this year, when police from Inner Mongolia arrested, in Canton, a doctor who had revealed that a local specialty product originating in Inner Mongolia was fraudulent. The arrest was soon made known to the public by media outlets, and a newspaper controlled by the CCP criticized the local government’s action as a form of appeasement to the sympathizers of the doctor (Zhong 2018).

Appeasement Measures

Besides serving as a basis for punishment of government critics, online comments are used by President Xi’s regime to improve its overall governance and subsequently lower netizens’ level of dissatisfaction. This use is described in an article by Gary King, which outlines how President Xi’s government studies the demands of its citizens by observing netizens’ online comments. The government may respond to these demands through multiple channels. For example, officials may reply to a concerned citizen’s comment publicly, or the government might direct the media to report on how the government has recognized and taken action to alleviate the citizen’s concern (King, Pan, and Roberts 2013).

The Chinese government has also sought to appease disenchanted citizens through President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, as embezzlement by officials is a major source of discontent towards the government. According to news reports and official statements associated with the campaign, citizens are encouraged to report instances of government embezzlement and other unlawful actions carried out by government officials. As with concerns raised in comments online, media outlets frequently report on the central government’s awareness of embezzlement complaints and describe the prompt actions the government takes to address them (Wei 2017).

Rule Awareness

With the aforementioned studies about state responses in mind, it is reasonable to expect that netizens, assuming that they are rational, will adjust their behavior to prevent punishments or to have their voices heard. An extensive study by Jiayin Lu and Yupei Zhao demonstrates an increasing awareness of laws among the citizens of China. Younger netizens, for example, are found to generally have an informed understanding of internet-related laws. This awareness has resulted in netizens increasingly making comments that are in accordance with the law, while avoiding unlawful behaviors that may have previously led to coercive actions (Lu and Zhao 2018).

Similar to Lu and Zhao’s observations, a study by Perry has demonstrated the influence of rule consciousness on protesting behavior among Chinese citizens. Protesters in China tend to focus criticisms on local governments, accusing officials of disobeying the central government and ignoring citizens’ demands, while vocally showing support for the CCP Central Committee. Perry confirms that protesters are well aware of the laws related to protesting and show ample respect for the central government so that, ultimately, their actions are in accordance with the official legal framework (Perry 2012).

Preliminary Hypothesis

Given the implicit relationship between rule consciousness, appeasement measures, and coercive action against critics in the literature described above, it is reasonable to suppose that the use of coercive punishments might serve to raise consciousness of the law among internet users in China. In the same way that rule consciousness has been demonstrated among protesters, one might also anticipate that widely publicized reports of coercive punishments might have influenced rule consciousness among netizens and motivated netizens to adhere to the established law.

In addition, one could expect that frequent reports of the punishments meted out for unlawful behavior might encourage netizens to refrain from attacking the CCP Central Committee, while the government’s responsiveness to complaints that do not concern the CCP Central Committee would encourage netizens to comment critically on local governance and non-political social phenomena.

Methodology and Data Collection

To determine how netizens’ behavior was affected by the inauguration of China’s Cyber Security Law, comments made by netizens in various formats were collected and read and notes were taken regarding several characteristics of each comment. In particular, the following characteristics of each comment were noted:

  • The time when the comment was posted, with particular attention paid to whether the comment was submitted before or after the implementation of the Cyber Security Law.
  • The topic of the comment or post. Potential topics of comments include the CCP Central Committee (e.g., comments criticizing the constitutional amendment that removes the term limit of President Xi), local government (e.g., comments attacking local officials’ unlawful behavior), political events (e.g., comments supporting demonstrations calling for structural government reform), and other non-political events (e.g., comments on issues that do not directly conflict with CCP ideology).
  • Whether the language used is confrontational or not. Examples of confrontational language include name-calling, the use of strong language, or language highlighting the relevant entity’s wrongdoing. Non-confrontational comments include those that allude to the relevant entity indirectly or use figurative, nonliteral language to allude to the entity’s wrongdoing. Non-confrontational comments also include those that express frustration or dissatisfaction without criticizing a particular entity.

Categorizing the comments of netizens in this way should allow us to determine how the implementation of President Xi’s strengthened cyber security policies has affected the content of netizens’ comments and the frequency with which netizens use confrontational language in their comments on particular topics. In this study, 16 collections of comments by netizens, with each collection responding to an online article, were selected and analyzed, including four collections each concerning the following four topics: the CCP Central Committee, local government, political events, and non-political events. Posts occurring before the enactment of the Cyber Security Law are distinguished from those occurring after. The study considers two posts from each time period for each of the four topics.

As for the source of this data, comments are derived from China Digital Times, a US-based news website that collects Chinese netizens’ responses to social events in China. The website was created by political dissidents who immigrated to the US from China and focuses on critical comments aimed at the governance of the CCP’s regime. Pro-regime comments are not collected by the website, as China Digital Times notes that the government frequently hires internet users to “spam” positive comments online. However, in its selection of netizen comments, China Digital Times aims to publish a representative sample that corresponds to the general commenting trends of netizens as a group; for this reason, it is an appropriate source for the comments used in the present study.

Results

The chart below shows the percentages of comments relating to each topic that were found to use confrontational language before and after the initiation of the Cyber Security Law.

  CCP Central Committee Local Gov’t Political Event Non-Political Events
Pre-Cyber Security Law collection#1 24.0% 30.8% 43.8% 79.2%
Pre-Cyber Security Law collection#2 20.7% 29.6% 47.4% 87.8%
Post-Cyber Security Law collection#1 6.3% 33.3% 12.5% 80.0%
Post-Cyber Security Law collection#2 12.5% 62.5% 0.0% 93.7%

The results clearly suggest that, following the enactment of the Cyber Security Law and the corresponding punishment of internet critics, the number of directly confrontational comments made by netizens concerning the CCP Central Committee and politically sensitive topics has decreased. A correlation can therefore be drawn between the punitive actions taken by the government after the enactment of the aforementioned laws  and the netizens’ change in behavior. In order to avoid punishment by the state, it seems that netizens have increasingly chosen to avoid confrontation when demonstrating their frustrations with the government. Instead of using harsh, critical language, netizens register their dissatisfaction in other ways, such as by expressing their desire to immigrate to the US or their dislike of Winnie the Pooh, a character frequently likened to President Xi due to physical resemblance between the leader and the cartoon bear. Though these comments may convey a critical attitude, it would be difficult for the government to punish such expressions.

As for comments regarding local governments, the percentage of comments using confrontational language has slightly increased, which implies that the new Cyber Security Law and corresponding media coverage, in addition to encouragement by the CCP to monitor local governance, may have encouraged netizens to openly criticize their local governments, though not to a significant degree. There are two reasons why this might be the case. As mentioned previously, local governments have been known to retaliate against online critics. Though such acts of retaliation may be criticized by the media or central government after the fact, many netizens would rather not take such a risk. Another possibility is that netizens may be unsure about when comments concerning governance cross the red line established by the CCP Central Committee and therefore merit coercive actions. In short, netizens are still adapting to the new rules and establishing the “correct” way to use comments to express their demands.

Limitations

One possible limitation of this study is the fact that the data considered does not account for all the available comments made by Chinese netizens. Some comments may have also been omitted from China Digital Times‘ collection, as it is possible that some comments were manually removed by internet moderators before the news website could republish them. This study could be further developed in the future through the use of an algorithm that collects the comments of netizens on a larger scale.

Another limitation is the possible bias of the researcher. In this study, I have used my judgment to assess the nature of the various comments made by netizens. Though most comments can be clearly understood, and a glossary of internet argot was consulted when necessary, the possibility of some comments being misinterpreted cannot be completely ruled out. One way the likelihood of misinterpretation could be reduced is by having a group of researchers analyze and cross-examine each comment.

These limitations are due in large part to constraints in the time and resources available for the completion of this project; it is expected that these shortcomings will be addressed in a prolonged version of this study carried out in the future.

As relatively little time has passed since the establishment of China’s Cyber Security Law and the corresponding increase in internet censorship, it would be worthwhile to continue collecting data on netizens’ behavior under the new law in order to provide a more robust understanding of how commenting practices have changed and developed as a result.

Conclusion

This study has aimed to demonstrate that the Chinese government’s combined use of coercive action and appeasements in response to online criticism influences the behavior of netizens. Despite the growing availability of information within China and the country’s increased linkage to the West, the coercive actions taken by the government following the establishment of the 2017 Cyber Security Law have led to a reduction in comments using confrontational language in reference to the CCP Central Committee and other sensitive political topics; this behavior indicates that netizens are highly conscious of the laws concerning internet use and regulate their behavior accordingly. As for posts concerning local governance, the results of this study indicate that netizens have become more emboldened to directly criticize the government’s wrongdoing; this is likely due to the fact that netizens know that the government will respond to their comments positively as a means of appeasement. The censorship system and recent Cyber Security Law therefore seem to have successfully prompted netizens to self-censor their language in accordance with the boundaries established by the regime.

These observations closely follow in the wake of Perry’s research on rule consciousness among Chinese protesters. While Perry noted that protesters in China avoid attacking the CCP Central Committee but criticize local governments because such protest is recognized as safe and relatively effective at generating a response, the present study demonstrates that netizens engage in similar patterns of critical behavior.

Many scholars have argued that high levels of rule consciousness among a population under authoritarian rule is by no means conducive to liberalization, claiming instead that such consciousness tends to strengthen authoritarian regimes and prolong their rule as citizens adjust their behavior to avoid confrontation with the central government. I would argue, however, that such behavioral adjustments are not necessarily correlated with the diminishing of liberal ideals. In the case of the present study, we have seen how netizens have managed to express negative views of the CCP Central Committee while avoiding confrontational language and adhering to established law. The softening of language for the purpose of avoiding punishment is not a sign that netizens are abandoning the pursuit of liberal principles; on the contrary, as China’s young internet generation, with its greater awareness of the Western world, rises in the ranks of the CCP’s cadres and gains increasing power within the government, China may be closer to liberalization than ever before.


Endnotes

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