China's internet censors target 'pessimism’

Semafor Signals

Insights from What’s on Weibo, Radio Free Asia, The Cyber Edge


China’s internet regulator is cracking down on “pessimistic” content that paints a bleak picture of the economy, the latest move by Beijing to control the digital narrative.

The updates to China’s content moderation campaign – named – or “clear and bright” in Mandarin – homes in on short-form video platforms like Douyin, which have become the epicenter for sociocultural debate in China.

With youth unemployment widespread amid a slowing economy, the watchdog also said it would remove videos that promote “the wrong career values” as the country struggles to rebound from the pandemic.


Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

China censors influencer couple sharing housing woes

Sources: What's on Weibo

Censors this year silenced two “mortgage slaves” who captivated social media with their economic woes. Liang Liang and Li Jun became internet sensations in 2022, with the husband and wife team sharing their love story on platforms such as Weibo and Bilibili, and documenting their excitement at buying their first home. But their dream soured after a Chinese real estate developer collapsed, leaving construction on their apartment unfinished and the couple on the hook for mortgage payments. When they went to update followers about their situation, their accounts were quickly blocked. The case sparked a viral conversation about how President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” is now unattainable for many hard-working couples. “Liang Liang and Li Jun are just the tip of the iceberg,” one Weibo user wrote.

Government counters memes and parodies with propaganda

Sources: Radio Free Asia, The Economist

Social media users are using memes to echo the “lying flat” phenomenon: a movement that encourages young people to reject societal pressure to overwork in a relentlessly competitive workplace. A parody music video about a humiliated academic went viral earlier this year, with the lyrics calling out the governing elite who criticize Chinese youth without actually understanding their predicament. Celebrities have also dived in, with a pop song called “I can’t afford to worship in the Temple of Wealth” becoming a top hit in October. Authorities are countering the “lying flat” movement with propaganda, with state media regularly quoting Xi’s mission for youth to “shoulder important responsibilities in the new era.” Streaming services also promote shows that amplify Beijing’s message that young people should toughen up, reports The Economist. One, is a reality TV show that focuses on former city dwellers moving to the countryside for better work opportunities.

Beijing selectively targets deepfake videos

Sources: The Cyber Edge, Voice of America

Beijing first attempted to tackle concerns over deepfake videos last year, but authorities have fallen short of “adequately applying the law” against such content, according to The Cyber Edge, a tech news site. Authorities seem more concerned about cracking down on deepfakes that pose political challenges, VOA reported earlier this year, moving to ban content they say could “endanger national security” while failing to tackle a proliferation of AI-generated videos being used to commit fraud. Chinese censors have reactively censored online conversations that express frustration about how AI perpetuates cases of extortion, such as removing references to one viral news story of a tech company executive who lost more than $600,000 to a deepfake on WeChat that claimed to be a friend in need of cash.