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No laughing matter: demise of a humour app is part of China’s tightening grip on new media

On the first day that Sophia Tian downloaded the video-streaming app “Douyin” onto her phone, she stared at the screen for two hours non-stop. Finding herself wasting too much time on it, she deleted it, only to re-install it a few days later.

“Each time I go on it I spend at least an hour or two there,” said the 28-year-old, who lives in Guangzhou and works in finance. “You immerse in it completely.”

douyin

Douyin.

In recent years, new media has been catching on all over China like wildfire. Half of the country’s population—or 770 million people—is now online, a number which grew by 6.2 percent in 2016.

Recognising the reach and influence of new media upon society, the Chinese government has been tightening its regulation of news and entertainment apps, in an effort to rein in their influence and force them to align more closely with state-approved values.

The latest casualty was a humour app run by Bytedance Tech called “Neihan Duanzi,” which means “Subtle Jokes.” The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) cited “improper and vulgar” content as the reason for its shut down on April 10th. In the same month, a video-streaming app and four news apps were suspended and asked to clean up their content.

While users and experts generally agreed there was a need to curb the spread of content verging on the violent and pornographic, they also criticised the government’s approach as disruptive and arbitrary. Experts predict a more restrictive environment ahead for tech companies, and further punishments can be expected.

Neihan death

Neihan Duanzi. Photo: Global Voices.

“Forcing someone to kneel down and repent is a reason why this is so ridiculous,” said Wenyi Ji, a venture capitalist based in Shanghai. Shortly after the crisis in the company, Bytedance’s CEO Zhang Yiming posted an official apology, saying the blame for the products taking “the wrong path” was entirely his own, and pledged to expand the team of censors from 6,000 to 10,000.

“Will this be like a mirage—an apology letter gets written—but then it fails to bring about greater reflection in society?” Ji asked.

The sudden demise of the app has left many questioning whether vulgar content itself was to blame, or if there are unspoken motives behind the move. There is even a rumour that it had to do with Zhang’s relationship with the former head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei, who had fallen from grace with the Communist Party.

Regardless, ever expanding and evolving censorship rules mean the “red line” of acceptable speech is constantly drawn and re-drawn. “You know what’s scary about this?” reads a post on Zhihu, a Chinese question and answer website. “You are asked to be a high-minded person, yet the power to define what high-minded means is not in your hands.”

“The government is showing them that they can literally shut down anything they want in a blink,” said Cassandra Chen, 28, who had used the app a few times. “That’s killing the chicken to warn the monkeys,” referencing an idiom in Chinese that means someone is made a victim to scare others into submission.

china internet censorship

Photo: Wikicommons.

Nonetheless, there are others who see Bytedance as deserving of a beating. “If you do a search on WeChat you’ll see how sexually suggestive, coarse, pornographic and mean the content is” on the Neihan Duanzi app, said Jianguo Deng, a journalism professor at Fudan University. He thought that “the government could be even tougher.”

The app could have drawn the ire of regulators because some of its content “very directly mocks the strange and outlandish phenomena under the current system in China,” said Beifeng, a prominent Chinese blogger. “This is totally unacceptable to the government.”

For example, one of the videos plays on the idea of “river crab”—a euphemism for “censorship” developed by netizens. Another video shows a son realizing that he was an illegitimate child, but his parent tried covering it up by saying he was “the people’s son,” in a mocking reference to a term often used in Communist Party rhetoric.

The shutdown may also stem from the government’s fear of any sizeable group that has mobilization power. Known as “duanyou,” the users numbered 20 million, or a quarter of the size of the Chinese Communist Party. They developed a subculture of their own containing secret codes, formed their own local chapters and organized offline meet-ups that included charity work.

After the closure of the app was announced, videos began to surface online purporting to show a throng gathered outside of SAPPRFT’s Beijing office, honking their cars and blocking traffic in protest. Scenes like this are dreaded by the government.

Neihan Duanzi

A Neihan Duanzi app protest. Photo: WeChat.

The gradual tightening of Chinese cyberspace occurs in tandem with President Xi’s catch phrase “cyber sovereignty,” the idea that the state has the sovereign right to shape and control online space within its borders.

The new cybersecurity law that came into effect on June 1 last year forces internet companies to enforce more aggressive censorship on their platforms, and makes it clear the responsibility to censor lies with the corporate. Failure to do so could result in the closure of websites or having the business license revoked.

That is why some think that Bytedance could have averted its fate if they had complied with government demands earlier. “If they’d started cleaning last October when it became clear that this sort of thing was going to happen,” said David Herold who teaches at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. “Neihan Duanzi would have survived.”

Aside from the humour app, the company’s most lucrative app, a news-aggregator called “Jinri Toutiao,” or “Today’s Headlines,” also came under fire. The app uses algorithms and artificial intelligence to feed users what they want to read, achieving spectacular success. It had more than 150 million users, half of whom spend up to 76 minutes on it every day, according to figures from 2016. On April 9th, SAPPRFT ordered it to be removed from app stores for three weeks to get rid of existing content deemed “harmful” by authorities.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping. File photo: GovHK.

Efforts to bring internet companies into the orbit of state control, and in particular the shuttering of Neihan Duanzi, would make the government look antagonistic to successful ventures, thereby hurting the startup environment.

Even so, stability and minimizing the threats posed to the political system are “a hundred times, a thousand times more important than economic considerations,” said Biao Teng, a human rights lawyer from China.

By streamlining the bureaucratic structure for censorship, law enforcement and passing new legislation, Xi has built a strong legal framework for internet control. “I believe the closing of Neihan Duanzi is more a sign of current standard procedures,” wrote Johan Lagerkvist, an expert on Chinese state-society relations at Stockholm University, in an email.

In an era of still increasing repression and social control, with examples like the social credit system, facial recognition and massively state-funded artificial intelligence research, “what can be controlled will be controlled.”

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No laughing matter: demise of a humour app is part of China's tightening grip on new media