China wants regular citizens to monitor online comments for “harmful” history

China wants regular citizens to monitor online comments for “harmful” history
Image: Andy Wang/AP Images
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China is gearing up to celebrate the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary in July, with the country holding various propaganda events to showcase its achievements to citizens. Now, the Party’s enlisting help to make sure online comments don’t stray from the official version of its history.

The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s top internet regulator, issued a notice (link in Chinese) last Friday (April 9) to encourage regular citizens to report “harmful” online comments that contain “historical nihilism.” That’s a term frequently highlighted by the Party and in Chinese state-owned media as something that needs to be rooted out to maintain the stability of China’s leadership.

“For a while, some people with ulterior motives have been spreading erroneous historical nihilistic comments online under the disguise of ‘recovering the truth’ and ‘reflecting on history,’…maliciously distorting, slandering, and denying the history of the Party, state, and military in an attempt to confuse people and disrupt their minds,” it said, referring to remarks by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to be on guard against historical nihilism.

The regulator said it had set up a section on its website for people to help it police online comments related to history. The website and the affiliated 12377 hotline are part of the regulator’s approaches to encourage the public to report online remarks that are seen as harmful or illegal, including those undermining state sovereignty, or leaking state secrets. Overall, the website has eight categories of information for citizens to choose from, ranging from politics to pornography, in addition to the newly opened section on historical nihilism.

The regulator listed remarks that “attack the Party’s guiding ideology, leadership, and policies,” “distort the history of the Party, the People’s Republic of China, the opening up and reform policy, and the development of socialism,” as well as “deny the excellent traditional Chinese culture, revolutionary culture, and advanced socialist culture” as among the types of historical comments that can be reported.  It’s not clear what punishments would be given to those who are deemed to have made such remarks—punishments for “speech crimes” can be carried out under variety of laws and vary widely.

In general, the Party sees any description of historical events that challenges the idea that it is inevitable (link in Chinese) for China to be a socialist country as historical nihilist thoughts. Re-evaluations of the rule and legacy of revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, who presided over the upheaval of the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution, are considered a particularly dangerous form of historical nihilism.

The CAC notice marks a fresh effort by the government to enlist the help of grassroots censors—patriotic ordinary internet users—to erase content it doesn’t favor, including about the past. A new law also implemented this year makes it a crime to defame historic heroes.

While in the past the Party has cultivated paid internet armies and requiring tech companies to use a mix of employees and automation for censorship, it’s increasingly relying on regular users to shape discourse online by encouraging them to join smear campaigns against activists and dissidents.

Most recently patriotic internet users have helped wage a consumer boycott against foreign companies who issued public stances about Xinjiang, where China is accused of mass human rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority. Still, as the news outlet Protocol this week documented in its examination of a sexist campaign to troll researcher Vicky Xu, who co-authored reports on Chinese factory use of forced Uyghur labor for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, even seemingly spontaneous waves of abuse get a nudge from state-linked online accounts.

The government is bringing the effort to enlist members of society to report on one another beyond mainland China as well, setting up a hotline to report breaches of Hong Kong’s national security law. The line got thousands of calls within hours of its launch, according to police, without elaborating what sorts of calls or tips were received.