Chinese teens feel like they’re in the crosshairs of Beijing’s tech crackdown

Chinese students listen to a speech by Xi Jinping.
Chinese students listen to a speech by Xi Jinping.
Image: REUTERS/David Ryder
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It is tough to be young in China right now.

Earlier, authorities seemed focused mainly on influential entrepreneurs and companies, whose expansion has been branded “disorderly” by the Communist Party. But now, with strict new limits on how many hours of video games minors can play each week—and even on which days—to coming down on celebrity fan clubs, it increasingly seems as if regulating how young people spend their time has become a crucial target of Beijing’s scrutiny.

The Party has described the moves as an attempt to free young people from being manipulated by capital and monopolies so they can have a healthier development. Many see the regulations as a crucial step for Chinese president Xi Jinping to shape the country’s youngest minds—and the country’s future workers and leaders—in addition to Xi’s focus on reining in the influence of the private sector.

“Based on my reading of Xi’s speeches in the past, I’d say his ideal youth are those who are patriotic, loves the Party, love Chinese culture, exercise regularly, and even have practical labor skills,” said Henry Gao, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

Growing frustration among the youth

In July, the Party banned most private tutoring companies from operating as for-profit companies, raising capital, or going public, which Beijing said is aimed at reducing the study burden of students. The new rules also banned foreign-based tutors from teaching Chinese kids on Chinese platforms, closing one of the few remaining doors for the youngsters to interact with the outside world.

This month, the government shifted its focus to the entertainment industry, after Xi’s called for the super-rich to give more back to society to help the country achieve “common prosperity.” The country has reportedly blacklisted a number of A-list stars seen as “misbehaving celebrities” and levied a major tax evasion penalty against one actor, while China’s top internet watchdog launched a campaign and released measures to regulate online fan clubs. This week authorities also urged programs to shun stars seen as “not having correct political stances.”

On Monday (Aug. 30), the country dropped another bombshell, stipulating those under 18 could only play games for a maximum of three hours every week at designated times—between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Prior to the move, investors already had a frantic sell-off of Chinese gaming company shares, when a state-run publication called gaming “spiritual opium”—phrasing that was toned down by the outlet later after the panic.

For companies, the impact from the new gaming policy looks limited for now. According to a note from Jefferies analysts, the share of users under 18 is in the low single digits for major gaming firms in China, including Tencent, which saw around 6% of online gamers from that age group as of the fourth quarter last year. The analysts estimate that about 5% of the firm’s gaming revenue comes from minors.

Tencent noted that it has followed the government’s past cues on video game access for children. ”Since 2017, Tencent has explored and applied various new technologies and functions for the protection of minors. That will continue, as Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities,” the company said in a statement.

But the moves have sparked expressions of frustration among young people online, with two key leisure activities being targeted and restricted. Some have pointed out that the age of sexual consent is 14 in China, but the country now requires people to be 18 to freely play games.

“The question is: what can we use to fill in the free time the kids have after the limit on gaming? Now the government would neither allow them to study nor allow them to have fun, then what can the kids do?” asked one user on Weibo.

Study Xi Jinping Thought

A possible answer to that question is more education and activities focused on cultivating patriotism and industriousness.  For the new school session, which starts this month, Beijing has already added indoctrination in Xi’s ideology to the national curriculum.

Another option could be to do more sports—Beijing came away with a good haul of medals at the Olympics in Tokyo and is now in the middle of a long-term strategy to do better at the Winter Olympics, as it prepares to hosts the next ones in February.

“I think there will be campaigns for students to read Chinese classics, learn Chinese music, beef up physical education lessons, and even work in the countryside during the summer breaks, etc,” said Gao, the professor.

In addition, when it comes to Chinese youth, the official stance seems to be that boys must be boys. As part of the crackdown on celebrities and their fan clubs, regulators are taking aim at celebrities who defy or blur traditional gender roles. In a break from earlier obsessions with hypermasculine stars, young people have gravitated in recent years to male celebrities who have adopted feminine or submissive aesthetics. China’s broadcast regulator on Thursday also told broadcasters to avoid working with celebrities with who adopt effeminate or “other abnormal aesthetics.”

The situation could get worse. Some worry the country could ban or restrict the short video apps teens spend hours on.

Also, in the past, China banned foreign video game consoles over fears of addiction, though it relaxed the measure in 2015. Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor who is now based in the US and analyzes censorship for news website China Digital Times, tweeted that foreign gaming platforms like Steam and Xbox that are still available in China—Twitch has already been blocked—could be Beijing’s next targets, closing a window that allowed people like him to escape patriotic Chinese TV dramas played during school holidays.

“Very few people remember that the adults today were once kids too,” he wrote.

Update, Sept. 2: This story was updated with details of guidelines on celebrity use issued by China’s broadcast regulator on Thursday.