Love and aliens in the time of censorship

New Internet guidelines for China could be a tactical misstep by Beijing.

'The Great Firewall' is one of China’s most notorious ideological control mechanisms, restricting citizens’ online ability to access news or organise politically. But the menu of sensitive issues extends far beyond Tiananmen, Taiwan and other familiar political flashpoints.

For decades, enforcing Communist Party orthodoxy has sometimes also entailed pushing puritanical social norms. As of last week, that means censoring depictions of infidelity, love triangles, murder, drug use and anything verging on the supernatural.

In issuing their latest circular, state media censors may also be trying to reinforce floodwalls against encroaching 'Western values', as Chinese internet viewers have flocked to American television shows such as Breaking BadHouse of Cards and The Walking Dead. The most important effect of the new censorship regime, though, might be to inadvertently weaken Beijing’s control over its own citizenry.

That’s because the success of the Great Firewall relies on citizens not 'jumping over' it. Yet those with enough determination and technological savvy can use tools such as virtual private networks or proxy servers to reach blocked sites. The danger for Beijing is that its latest directive could encourage more Chinese to seek out such subversive tools.

Data on VPN use among Chinese netizens is weak given sampling difficulties. It’s hard to know anything precise about Chinese behavior, especially the kind that is trying to stay secret. But in a recent survey by market research firm Global Web Index, 58 per cent of admitted VPN users in China said they jump to wall in order to access “better entertainment content".

Plenty of entertainment is available without breaching the firewall, on domestic online streaming sites that have been very lucrative. The success of online streaming derives partly from already-strict regulations on satellite channels (e.g. a 2011 stipulation that each station have a “moral program”) and content controls (a 2011 ban on depictions of time travel). Online advertising is growing apace, with market analysts at the firm iResearch projecting that this year online ad sales could for the first time surpass those for traditional TV.

By moving their regulatory focus to the web, China’s media censors could limit the entertainment options available on the Chinese internet and thereby grow the population of firewall-jumpers accessing TV shows from servers overseas. My Love From the Star, a popular South Korean soap opera, has been streamed more than 2.7 billion times on Chinese video site iQiyi, yet it probably wouldn’t pass muster under the newly proposed regulations. Even if censors were okay with the romantic content, the fact remains that the hero is an alien who came to Earth 400 years ago and fell in love with a woman startlingly similar to his contemporary paramour. That’s more than a little supernatural.

Chinese streaming sites’ other ventures would also run into trouble. Many have followed the lead of U.S. site Netflix in producing original online content. Particularly successful have been shows like Surprise, streaming on Youku , which follows the trials and tribulations of shiftless 20-something Wang Dachui. But under the censors’ new rules, Surprise would be nixed due to frequent sexual innuendo.

Suddenly limited in scope and possibility, these productions would be hampered when competing against foreign and underground Chinese shows on the other side of the Great Firewall. Dropping viewership would mean a dent in ad revenues that have been rising in recent years, stifling funds for further creative content.

That would also be a problem for Beijing. Officials have been desperate to grow China’s soft power but have been left scratching their heads as to why Chinese shows haven’t enjoyed the same success abroad as offerings from countries like South Korea and the US. The new regulations show their thinking is moving in the wrong direction.

However, the ultimate irony is that in policing morality on the web, Chinese censors would be pushing citizens toward opportunities to communicate outside government controls. According to Rob Faris of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, unmonitored social networks are Beijing’s greatest fear. Beijing thus might not want to fully implement the censors’ guidelines. But that would force the government to backpedal and confront whatever clique has been pushing to curb titillation. As Faris notes, “Once you’ve put in the structures and systems for censoring the Internet, it’s vulnerable to the whims of people in power.”

So what is Beijing to do? For once, it might help to listen to its people. As one commenter wrote on Chinese news hub Sohu, “Do you think it’s really necessary? Letting people use their own judgment is enough. People can still fundamentally distinguish between good and bad.”

Clearly no one has told the censors.

Cameron White is a Princeton in Asia fellow at The Wall Street Journal Asia editorial page.