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Brief #84: algorithm, fan circle, Xi Thought in curriculum, online gaming

Note: This issue is heavy on law/regulations.

1. Regulating algorithms

The Cyberspace Administration of China has been busy lately. After its recent work on Data Security Law and Personal Information Protection Law, it has released a draft regulation for consultation on “algorithm recommendations” 互联网信息服务算法推荐管理规定 [China Law Translate]. The draft includes the following provisions:

  • Algorithms that make users addicted or spend large amount of money are banned
  • Providers must give users the choice to not use algorithmic recommendations (i.e. the right to receive non-personalised recommendations)
  • Users must be able to delete keywords used in recommendation services
  • Algorithms for unreasonably differentiate prices for consumers are banned

These provisions give more power to individual consumers to opt-out of “personalised” recommendations. Internationally, critics of social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have focused on the lack of transparency of algorithms used in how these platforms recommend or “personalise” content and the difficulty in opting out. In some cases, YouTube recommendations have pushed users towards neo-Nazi content.

As a result, many advocates around the world are pushing for the regulation of algorithms. But most jurisdictions are still in the early stages on this. For example, the Filter Bubble Transparency Act was re-introduced to the US Senate in June 2021. So China is an early mover on the regulation of recommending algorithms. This means that China may have more clout in future global governance on this issue.

But the draft regulation has more!

One particular provision deals with protecting workers’ rights. This is targeted at algorithms for ride-hailing and delivery services. Delivery drivers have been the focus of some labour movements this year, so this is likely part of the response to that.

Last, but perhaps most important for the Chinese government, the draft regulation also deals with social stability. One of the provisions requires platforms to present information that aligns with mainstream value ​​in areas such as the homepage, hot searches, and top content.

The principle behind this provision is that the platforms should “orient towards mainstream values” and “actively transmit positive energy”.

Here “mainstream values” usually refer to values acceptable to the government and “positive energy” usually means removing severe criticisms of government and society. So platforms must use algorithms to achieve a “desirable” social end.

This requirement is concerning for us who live in liberal democracies. But it is also interesting considering the current critique of the YouTube algorithm. As there is no such thing as a “neutral” algorithm, how to regulate algorithms to ensure they don’t encourage things such as Nazism or spread disinformation is still a challenge for liberal democracies.

An additional provision requires algorithms with the capacity for social mobilisation be assessed by the government. In the past, Facebook (and TikTok) has been used as a tool for social and political mobilisation outside of China, both positive (helping neighbours) and negative (organising white supremacist rallies). It’s not surprising that the Chinese government is worried about the mobilisation potential of the internet.

2. Regulating “fan circles”

Zhao Wei

I never thought I’d write so much about celebrities. Recently, there was Kris Wu and Zhang Zhehan. Now the latest celebrity “erased” online (including works taken down and name removed from credits) is Zhao Wei (赵薇, Vicky Zhao).

Zhao is a generation older than Wu and Zhang — she is famous for her role in the 1998 TV drama My Fair Princess (还珠格格), alongside Fan Bingbing 范冰冰 and Lin Xinru (林心如, Ruby Lin). Nowadays she is also a producer. Incidentally, Zhang Zhehan was signed to her company.

“Who the hell are you? How dare you hit me?”

The reason behind her erasure is not yet known, speculations are rife. Rumours range from financial reasons (tax evasion etc.) to being too close to Jack Ma.

Regulating “fan circles”

The recent crackdowns may be related to the government’s efforts to rein in “celebrity worship”. This week, the Cyberspace Affair Commission (the party-equivalent of the Cyberspace Administration) issued a notice on regulating “fan circles” 关于进一步加强“饭圈”乱象治理的通知. This builds on a rectification campaign from mid-June. The notice includes measures such as:

  • abolishing celebrity ranking charts
  • making celebrity agencies responsible for the behaviour of approved fan groups
  • ensuring fan group accounts are authorised by celebrity agencies
  • dissolving fan groups that focus on gossips and scandals
  • banning certain practices that encourage fans to spend money to support their idols, such as ranking of fans’ purchasing amount
  • banning certain reality TV practices, such as “paying to vote”

Now a disclaimer here. I have never been part of the fandom or “celebrity worship” culture — I don’t understand why anyone would buy things just because they’re endorsed by a particular celebrity, or why they would try to ensure “their” celebrity is more popular than other celebrities.

First, celebrities get paid a lot. This is because die-hard fans’ are willing to watch anything their idols are in and buy anything they endorse. And celebrities are certainly not shy from endorsing all kinds of products, including via live-streaming.

Second, a number of celebrities have also been accused of tax evasion in recent years, including by keeping two sets of books (one for themselves, one for the tax authorities). So celebrity crackdown may also be related to the campaign currently underway to reduce (visible) wealth inequality.

Third, “celebrity worship” culture is perceived as a problem by many people in society, as they lead to “irrational” behaviours. The most famous example is a woman whose obsession with Andy Lau led her father to commit suicide in order to draw Lau’s attention to her. In this instance, most people were sympathetic to Lau and placed blame on the woman.

Last year, the behaviour of Xiao Zhan (star of The Untamed)’s fans led to the “227 incident” where fans of Xiao and supporters of a fanfiction website went to figurative war with each other. This time, many blamed the fan behaviour on Xiao. Xiao later apologised for the incident.

Now the government has put the onus on celebrity agencies to guide fan behaviours. This way, fan movements are less likely to be grassroots movements — they must be supervised by the celebrity agencies. For the regulator, this devolves responsibility and ensures celebrity agencies (and celebrities themselves) will have to act more cautiously. Similar to censorship by platforms, celebrity agencies will need to guess the intention and requirements of government regulators — they will need to think about where the shifting red line is.

But there is one celebrity in China whose fan club is not being constrained. The party-state has put huge amounts of resources into expanding the cult of this idol. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about.

3. Xi thought in curriculum

A Reader on Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has officially been introduced into the national curriculum, from the new school year (tomorrow). The Reader will be used for Years 3, 5, 8 and 10. The Reader is just one part of the overall ideological education on Xi Thought in the curriculum.

Ideological education is nothing new in China of course. Efforts to indoctrinate children on ideology and patriotism has redoubled in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre. Ideological education sits in the curriculum as a class, just like maths or science in grade schools, and is also compulsory in higher education.

Ideological education is targeted at different levels of maturity. In primary schools, fostering a love for the country and the party dominates. Children go on field trips and are told stories of sacrifices of revolutionary heroes that made the “New China”.

As children get older, ideological education becomes more theoretical. High school children would study the guiding ideology of the CCP, which comprises Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, Three Represents (Jiang Zemin), Scientific Outlook on Development (Hu Jintao), and now Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.

However, with this change of curriculum, Xi Thought has become a special topic to focus on, elevating it above other parts of the guiding ideology. It harkens back to the Mao era, with the Reader mirroring the Little Red Book.

This change comes at a time that the government is trying to ease pressure on students. In this context, devoting more time to the study of Xi Thought shows the increasing importance of ideology in educating future citizens.

4. Regulating online gaming

The National Press and Publication Administration has issued a notice on preventing online gaming addiction for minors 切实防止未成年人沉迷网络游戏. The notice requires gaming companies to only provide services to minors between 8pm-9pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. That is, minors are only allowed to game for three hours a week at the specified time.

This is not the first time that a gaming time limit has been imposed for minors. In 2019, a similar notice was issued banning gaming companies from providing services to minors after 10pm as well as limiting gaming time to 3 hours on weekends and 1.5 hours on weekdays. Enforcement measures include real-name registration and facial recognition. So this week’s notice merely tightened the limit further.

Just like “celebrity worship”, online gaming is seen (especially by parents of teenagers) as a social ill. In 2018, gaming addiction was included as a disease by the World Health Organization. There are clinics that specifically treat gaming addiction, akin to drug rehabilitation clinics. Many parents are likely supportive of measures that curb online gaming, even though they seem rather draconian.

The interesting question is what will the youths spend their time doing, since they are going to spend less time doing homework or gaming or following celebrities.

5. Labour law ruling

The Supreme People’s Court released some cases on labour law. One of the cases directly refers to the 996 system popular with tech companies. The 996 system is where employees work from 9am to 9pm for six days a week.

The ruling said the 996 system violated labour law. Under the Labour Law, overtime should not exceed 1 hour a day under normal circumstances, not exceed 3 hours a day under special circumstances, and not exceed 36 hours in a month.

The problem is 996 has always violated labour law, and everyone knows it violated labour law, yet the government has chosen to turn a blind eye to it, even as companies openly praise the practice.

But it appears change might be in the air. I’m cautiously optimistic that the government might start to enforce labour laws more strictly, and companies may change their practices as backlashes grow. But for activists that have for years called on the government to enforce its own laws, they may be a bit more sceptical and cynical.

Neican Brief is made possible by the support of the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.