China’s fears over the economy and its Gen Z ‘lying flat’ have it worried about social media posts with a bad attitude

China’s internet censors have begun a new campaign aimed at short TikTok-style videos that have spread on social media throughout the country, and the current government crackdown has a new target: content that promotes pessimism. 

The new guidelines released on Tuesday come from the Cyberspace Administration of China, as part of an effort to limit “misleading content” or content promoting “incorrect values,” according to the South China Morning Post. In March, the government agency had said it would focus on removing internet content that wasn’t aligned with the government’s values. These censorship efforts are part of a broader three-year-old campaign called Qing Lang, which aims to curb some negative aspects of social media and previously focused on things like limiting toxic fan cultures. The latest version, which includes the new restrictions on pessimism, is aimed at addressing mental concerns online, according to the South China Morning Post.

From 2021 to 2022, the effort shut down 10,500 websites, 1.35 billion accounts, and deleted 76 million messages, according to the Cyberspace Administration. 

The latest push to limit the doom and gloom of social media seems to target the country’s ailing economy, which continues to stall amid its slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese youth have taken the brunt of the hit. In the spring, youth unemployment hovered around a record 20%. The numbers were so bad the government opted to simply stop sharing them. In August, the yuan fell to a 16-year low against the dollar.

Even before unemployment became rampant, China’s young workers had started to rebel against prevailing careerist attitudes, with the “lying flat” movement, which rejects material achievement, gaining steam. (Although the subculture certainly has its detractors among the executive class.) Now, people posting that sort of content or fretting about the economy in general might find themselves in violation of government policies. 

Consider some recent videos that have gone viral in China from people who paid down payments on apartments that were never finished—highlighting the role of the country’s property sector in its  economic struggles. Some such videos have already been deleted from Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, according to the South China Morning Post

Some of the most widely shared videos were of a couple in the Henan province who were becoming increasingly desperate to get their down payment back from a developer of their stalled home. When the couple tried to get their money back, the developer assaulted them, the SCMP reported. As of last month both had their social media accounts suspended. 

On Tuesday, the same day the new censorship guidelines were released, Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed a government group about the need to “increase macro-control efforts” in fiscal, monetary, employment, and industrial policy. He also called for a strengthening of “public opinion guidance,” the sort of work Chinese censors are meant to undertake.  

The Cyberspace Administration’s announcement also detailed other types of posts subject to censorship, including unacceptable posts on marriage, personal finances, and history, as well as content that promoted “the wrong career values” and “extravagance and money worship.” 

Censors also said they would take down any content about different ethnic groups that they deem misleading or made in an attempt to win public sympathy for social minorities, according to the SCMP. China has been criticized for suppressing the Muslim-majority Uyghur population in its Xinjiang province, where local governments are accused of rounding up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs into mass detention camps. Since the war between Israel and Hamas broke out in October, there have been reports of rising antisemitism online in China.

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