Internet censorship haunts China's social media stars

Chinese state power looms large online but takes shape in unexpected ways.

Elizabeth Shim
Shen Man, a Chinese live-streamer featured in a new documentary from filmmaker Hao Wu, struggles with the price of popularity on social media. Image courtesy of Hao Wu
Shen Man, a Chinese live-streamer featured in a new documentary from filmmaker Hao Wu, struggles with the price of popularity on social media. Image courtesy of Hao Wu

NEW YORK, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- Online Chinese celebrities who are featured in a documentary that will be released in select U.S. cities on Friday are nervous about becoming the object of Chinese government attention, the film's director says.

Hao Wu, who directed People's Republic of Desire, a film about Chinese live-streamers, said one of the social media stars, Big Li, skipped a screening in Guangzhou, China.


"'I don't want to be associated with this film'," Li told Wu after being invited to the event.

"He was very afraid of being the target of government attention," Wu told UPI.

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China has the largest Internet population in the world, with at least 802 million users as of June. But it also retains a sophisticated system of censors, and online surveillance, that includes tracking users through name registration and the blocking of sites via the Great Firewall.

The sustained popularity of social media influencers, despite their wariness of the state bureaucracy, tells a more complicated tale about the relationship between China's vast online population and the state, however.

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In an increasingly unequal China, where the poor are finding themselves falling behind the urban elites in cities like Shanghai, the entertainment available online provides the state with a useful distraction to use against potential dissidents.


"There's a term in recent years, 'Entertain until your death'," Wu said, referring to the government's preference of keeping the "masses entertained" so they do not rise up to challenge the status quo. "In this regard, live-streaming is playing that role."

Wu added the Chinese state knows live-streaming, and other social media platforms, are powerful tools.

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"Fans worshiping their idols, each idol with millions of followers, they could easily start's a double-edged sword for the government," the filmmaker said.

To stay out of trouble, China's live-streamers choose to follow the rules, or have altogether eliminated politics from their daily conversations before the camera.

Wu said Big Li originally addressed social inequality in his online monologues in 2012, but eventually quit talking about politically sensitive topics as the government began a comprehensive crackdown on online activity.

Now the state is primarily concerned about how "dirty" the content is, as audiences sometimes flirt with their idols or if they are women, ask them to "take off their clothes."

"A lot of dirty jokes, a lot of flirting, money worshiping," Wu said.

In the Chinese live-streaming world, wealthy patrons shower social media stars with digital gifts, spending their personal wealth online, which impresses those of lesser means. Successful live-streamers earn several thousand dollars per month.


Lewd jokes and other forms of speech fill the Chinese Internet in part because the online world behind the Great Firewall "provides a relatively free space for expression that promotes the development of civil society, facilitating collective action," says Rongbin Han, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

Han, who studies the politics of Chinese cyberspace, said this week at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations the Chinese government has launched many campaigns to influence or manipulate public opinion -- a kind of middle-road solution for an economy that needs the Internet to innovate.

"The state has neither the capacity nor intention to curb freedom of expression," Han said.

China has instead turned to hired "trolls," dubbed the "50-cent army," to flood the comments section of electronic bulletin boards with official party views.

The hired commenters are low-paid workers who are not "super motivated" and the strategy has not really worked, Han says.

What is interesting, however, is the outcome of a relatively unregulated Internet.

Free "online expression has helped the government, [because] it creates spontaneous regime defenders," Han said, referring to a more authentic "voluntary" 50-cent army of commenters who are not state sponsored and are sometimes critical of the government, and therefore more effective communicators.


It is these defenders of China's authoritarian government that may have made it harder to build a common resistance against state censors, as they ultimately reinforce state power, according to Han.

Volunteers, like the live-streamers featured in Wu's film, are "playful, relatable," and testify to the power of entertainment as a means of spreading state messages.

China's "netizens are constantly fighting," and competing views work in the state's favor, according to the analyst.

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