Peng Shuai
Photo: Xinhua/Bai Xue via Getty Images

How much censorship is ‘enough’ for Beijing?

Protocol China

Good morning. In this week’s newsletter: Beijing’s endless thirst for censorship, XPeng’s privacy problem, and a crash course in Metaverse 101.

But first, an update: This will be your host’s final entry of this newsletter, having been selected as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow for the 2022-2023 period, which involves one year in government. It’s been a pleasure to launch Protocol | China and to see its readership blossom.

Of course, this newsletter and Protocol’s China coverage aren’t going anywhere; readers will be in excellent hands with Shen Lu, Zeyi Yang and AJ Caughey.

To Beijing, all the censorship is not enough

China’s powerful cyberspace administration announced Tuesday that it had ordered Weibo to “rectify” its content moderation and fined the platform $471,135 for the latest instance of laxity, citing the Cybersecurity Law and the Law on the Protection of Minors.

  • The Cyberspace Administration of China also said it had fined Weibo 44 times between January and November, totaling $2.25 million.
  • Before Weibo, Douban was the first social media platform that the CAC called out for the same offense.

The question is, how far must companies go? Chinese social platforms like Weibo are already trying pretty hard to censor their users.

  • Censorship in China is mostly outsourced to tech companies, which create their own keyword blacklists and hire thousands of employees and contractors across multiple offices to police what users are saying.
  • ByteDance, for example, employs about 20,000 “content moderators,” a February Protocol investigation found.
  • Not all content moderation is aimed at political speech, of course, but that is a major part of the work.

In fact, tech’s censorship efforts seem successful. Depending on how you measure success, at least.

  • In 2013, Lu Wei, then China’s internet czar, sat down with social platforms and ordered them to step up their censorship efforts.
  • They complied, and Chinese social media, which used to be full of comments that either ignored speech prohibitions or easily dodged censorship, hasn’t really been the same since.
  • It also “helped” that Beijing has increasingly targeted influencers, and has stepped up criminal and extrajudicial penalties for online speech it doesn’t like. It began with what was called the “Big V Crackdown” in 2013; it’s never really stopped.
  • In this context, it’s rather remarkable to see Beijing essentially declaring the status quo unacceptable. Then again, Beijing surely believes eternal vigilance is required to “manage” public opinion.

But maybe Beijing can never have “enough” censorship.The Peng Shuai fallout is a reminder: As the world keeps asking about the well-being of Chinese tennis star — who accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her — Beijing must continue to work to suppress any mention of her.

  • A joint investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica has found that Beijing not only censored discussion of Peng, but unleashed nearly 100 fake Twitter accounts saying Peng was fine.
  • One telltale sign it was state-led: The bot-like accounts did most of their posting during work hours on weekdays in China, with a slight dip in activity during lunch hours.

Beijing can’t make Peng’s accusation disappear, and it’s a dangerous one for the Party precisely because it was not made with political intent. As the 2022 Beijing Olympics move further into the headlines, Beijing will double down on the only solution it knows: more online repression.

On Protocol | China

China’s online nationalists have a new target: Lenovo. The global firm has quietly straddled two worlds, making money in both China and the U.S. while in the process becoming the world’s largest PC company. But online nationalists are increasingly focusing their fire on Lenovo, calling the homegrown company a traitor for kowtowing to American interests. Zeyi Yang explains.

Tencent’s gaming ambitions are global. Beijing might want to discourage minors from gaming — and from playing games with lots of shooting — but the rest of the world feels differently. A Protocol | China analysis of world patent filings uncovers exactly where Chinese gaming behemoth Tencent is focusing its global ambitions. AJ Caughey has more.

What on earth is Dot Dot Stand? It purports to be a new media outlet focused on Chinese tech, but it looks an awful lot like an undisclosed PR play by Tencent. Zeyi Yang has the story.


As companies planned their future workplace strategy, it was no longer about whether or not remote workers could be productive — productivity was booming! The question became about how to retain that level of productivity and happiness without risking burnout, sacrificing the workplace culture and leaving behind the innovation that comes from in-person collaboration.

Learn more

Big Brother Beijing

A major EV company was fined for collecting facial-recognition data. XPeng was fined (an admittedly meager) $15,000 for collecting retail consumers’ facial-recognition data without consent. According to Shanghai’s local market regulator administration, an XPeng retail store has been collecting consumer’s biometric data from January to June this year, uploading over 430,000 face pictures.

Huawei documents revealed more connections to state surveillance. More than 100 internal Huawei documents used to pitch surveillance products to government authorities — some marked confidential — reveal that the company is more actively contributing to China’s state surveillance than previously disclosed, the Washington Post reported.

China goes global

SenseTime delayed its IPO after U.S. blacklisting. China’s AI unicorn SenseTime was due to price its IPO last Friday, but it didn’t happen after the U.S. Treasury Department put it on an investment blacklist that same day day, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The Treasury said it blacklisted SenseTime because the AI company supported Chinese military development and played a role in massive human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Chinese mobile game developers won global recognition. The Chinese hit game Genshin Impact won Best Mobile Game at The Game Awards on Thursday, one of the most prestigious industry events. Notably, three of the five nominees in the mobile game category were developed by studios now owned by Chinese companies.

The digital yuan goes to Hong Kong — and beyond. Chinese central bank official Mu Changchun, head of the bank’s Digital Currency Institute, said in a Thursday conference that they are working with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to further test out digital yuan, otherwise known as eCNY, in retail scenes. The goal is to create a seamless exchange between the renminbi and the Hong Kong Dollar. Mu also said PBOC is working with Hong Kong, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates to explore a multilateral centrally backed digital currency bridge network that builds on Hong Kong’s important status in international finance.

Straight from China's web

Alibaba’s teamwork app was used in financial scams. The good: DingTalk, Alibaba’s co-working tool, reached 500 million users in October. The bad: it apparently has a design flaw exploited by scammers, according to an investigation by state broadcaster CCTV. The app allows users to add any stranger to a group chat without the latter’s consent. Charlatans seized on the feature to bait innocent people into participating in fraudulent business activities. In a company response, DingTalk has confirmed the loophole and promises to fix it ASAP.

Alibaba fired an employee who made rape allegations. A female Alibaba employee, surnamed Zhou, who accused her manager of raping her on a business trip in August, told Chinese media last Friday that she had been fired by the Chinese ecommerce giant in November. Alibaba dismissed Zhou because the company believed she spread misinformation online that brought “bad influence” to the firm.

The metaverse hasn’t arrived, but it’s already lucrative

Online classes that offer ordinary Chinese people a metaverse crash course are some of the hottest commodities on China’s web these days. According to Sina Tech, each day, hundreds of people enroll in a course entitled Metaverse 101, priced at the equivalent of $100, and the course creator has raked in $250,000 by teaching it for 10 days. Clubs that teach people to invest into the metaverse have also sprung up. One woman in Shanghai found the promises on return made at her metaverse club too good to be true; she suspected it was some kind of scam and reported the teacher for “brainwashing others into investing in the metaverse.”

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