The CCP aims to “civilize” cyberspace by building what it terms the “online civilization.” This is the extension of its idealised moral order into cyberspace, with “correct” values and norms of behaviour backed up by institutional arrangements. The advent of the “online civilization” concept reflects the rising importance of cyberspace as a battlefield for hearts and minds. It also highlights the Party’s pretension as the sole guardian and exemplar of the Chinese moral order. Moreover, it tells us that the Party is going to ramp up efforts to enforce its moral standards in cyberspace.
Translation by Adam Ni, Introduction by Henry Gao
On September 14, Xinhua reported that recently, the General Office of the Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council jointly issued the Opinion on Strengthening the Construction of the Online Civilization (hereafter “The Opinion”). A translation of Xinhua’s summary of this document is below in Section III.
Casual readers might be surprised by such high-level attention on a seemingly mundane and marginal issue as “online civilization” — a grand euphemism for the often boorish and chaotic world of online content. Yet, for those who are familiar with the CCP’s approach to ideology, culture and the internet, this is no surprise at all.
To start with, Karl Marx — the founding father of Communism — was first and foremost a philosopher. In the world of philosophy, the relationship between matter and the mind is the fundamental question. For Marx, the answer to this question is summarised in his famous book The German Ideology (Die deutsche Ideologie), which argued that, while matter is primary and determines the mind, the mind/thought can counteract on the matter/reality.
Yet, things did not really turn out the way Marx envisaged when his thought experiment - Communism - became reality. Throughout the CCP’s history, much emphasis has been placed on the second part of his theory. The famous slogan during the Great Leap Forward, “the yield of the field is as high as you dare to imagine（人有多大胆，地有多大产）,” captured this mode of thinking.
In other words, the CCP has always placed great emphasis on “spiritual civilization”, a grand tradition dating back to Chairman Mao’s Yan’an Rectification Campaign in the 1940s and carried over into the era of reform and opening up with Deng Xiaoping’s famous remark that “we should not ignore the construction of Socialist spiritual civilization while we are constructing Socialist material civilization. We should grasp both with firm hands (在抓物质文明建设的同时，决不能忽视社会主义精神文明建设，要两手抓，两手都要硬)”.
With the dawn of the internet age, the CCP realised the importance of cyberspace as the new battlefield for hearts and minds. It took swift action, banning a list of items in 2000. According to this list, Internet Information Service Providers shall not produce, copy, distribute or disseminate information that:
- contravenes the basic principles laid down in the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations;
- is seditious to the ruling regime of the state or the system of socialism;
- subverts state power or sabotages the unity of the state;
- incites ethnic hostility or racial discrimination, or disrupts racial unity;
- spreads rumours or disrupts social order;
- propagates feudal superstitions;
- disseminates obscenity, pornography or gambling;
- incites violence, murder or terror;
- instigates others to commit offences;
- publicly insults or defames others;
- harms the reputation or interests of the State;
- is prohibited by laws or administrative regulations.
There have been some minor tweaks to the above list over the years, but it has essentially remained intact.
As online content has always been regulated in China, does The Opinion add anything new? The answer is yes: previous efforts have mainly focused on taking down “harmful” online content, while The Opinion calls for more on providing and promoting “positive” online content, such as the following passages:
[We must occupy] new [and stronger] positions in theoretical arming: further consolidate the leading position of Marxism as an ideology in cyberspace, and further consolidate the common ideological basis for the unity and struggle of the whole Party and the whole nation [and its people].
[We] must enrich the supply of high-quality online cultural products; guide websites, public [online] accounts, client-side [services, such as apps] and other platforms as well as the broad mass of netizens to create and produce online cultural products that are positive, healthy and morally good; and organise rich and varied online cultural activities.
In other words, we will likely see added efforts to produce government-sponsored content online. Such content will be drawn from not only ideological propaganda by the CCP, but also traditional Chinese culture, which has been increasingly employed by the CCP in recent years as it seeks to rebrand itself as “the faithful heir” of traditional Chinese culture.
In addition, we will also probably see China stepping up its effort to export its “spiritual civilization”. The Opinion alludes to this:
[We] must actively build publicity, experience exchange, achievement demonstration and international exchange platforms for China’s online civilization concept.
In Xi Jinping’s recent address at the UN General Assembly [Chinese | English], he asserted that China would not only be “a builder of world peace, contributor to global development, defender of the international order”, but also “a provider of public goods". More concretely, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has already been doubling up the efforts to build China’s “national culture export bases”.
Twelve years ago, the then-Vice President Xi told a group of overseas Chinese businessmen in Mexico, “Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do have been pointing their fingers at us. But first, China does not export revolution; second, we don’t export famine and poverty; and third, we don’t mess around with you. So what more can you say?” Well, the only one more thing I can say is that now we finally understand why the export of culture wasn’t mentioned back then.
II. Adam’s thoughts
Henry talked about the CCP’s long tradition of “spiritual civilization”. I see the Party’s call to arms to build the “online civilization” as the latest development in that pursuit. By “civilizing” cyberspace, the Party aims to extend its idealised moral order into cyberspace. In words of The Opinion:
[We] need to strengthen online culture cultivation. [We] must build an online civilization that takes as its guide the Socialist Core Values; extensively align and streamline news websites, commercial platforms, etc, to create synergies; and spread the Core Socialist Values among the broad mass of netizens and transmit them to every corner of society.
Unsurprisingly, The Opinion is heavily laden with moralistic assumptions and language. Indeed, moral aspirations and rhetoric have featured prominently in recent CCP campaigns, including those against technology companies and the entertainment sector. You can read my reflections on the relationship between morality and contemporary Chinese politics in an earlier post, Rectifying China's entertainment sector: idolatry, culture and socialist morality.
Like the current campaign to enforce moral and aesthetic standards in the cultural and entertainment sectors, the building of the “online civilization” aims to reinforce Party control and legitimacy. The Party is presenting itself as the sole guardian and exemplar of the Chinese moral order.
The monopolisation of morality and using it as a tool of political control and social engineering is nothing new. In China’s case, for example, the Mao era provides us with ample cautionary (and tragic) lessons on the potential pitfalls. The difference today, I suppose, is the existence of cyberspace and digital technology, which together have become integral to the lives of the Chinese.
In any case, understanding the moral pretensions of Xi’s project, I think, is critical to thinking about China’s trajectory. In the current case, The Opinion and the advent of the “online civilization” concept tell us that the Party is going to ramp up efforts to enforce its moral standards in cyberspace.
Things are heating up.
The General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council has jointly issued the Opinion on Strengthening the Construction of the Online Civilization
Xinhua (Beijing), September 14 — Recently, the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council jointly issued the Opinion on Strengthening the Construction of the Online Civilization (hereinafter abbreviated as "The Opinion"). They also issued a notification requiring that all localities and departments conscientiously implement The Opinion while taking into consideration their practical situation.
The Opinion points out that strengthening the construction of the online civilization is a necessary requirement for advancing the construction of socialist spiritual civilization and raising the level of social civility. It is an urgent demand for [us] adapting to the change in the principal contradiction facing [Chinese] society and meeting the people’s aspirations for a better life. It is an important task for accelerating the construction of [China into a] strong cyber power, and the comprehensive construction of a modern socialist country.
The Opinion includes eight sections: general requirements; strengthening online ideological guidance; strengthening online culture cultivation; strengthening online moral construction; strengthening online norms of behaviour; strengthening online ecological governance; strengthening the building of the online civilization; and organisation and implementation.
The Opinion emphasises that strengthening the construction of the online civilization should be guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. [We] must implement General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important thoughts relating to [building a] strong cyber power and his important expositions relating to the construction of spiritual civilization.
[We] must vigorously promote Core Socialist Values, and comprehensively promote the civilized running of the internet, civilized use of the internet, civilized access to the internet, and civilized development of the internet. [We] must promote the formation of the ideas and perspectives, cultural trends, moral ideals, norms of behaviour, legal environment, and construction mechanisms that meet the requirements for constructing the new era online civilization. [We] must realise the organic integration in the construction of civilization online and offline, and ensure that they mutually support each other. All of this aims to provide a firm ideological guarantee, powerful spiritual impetus, strong public opinion support, and good cultural conditions for the comprehensive construction of a modern socialist country and the realisation of the second centenary goal.
The Opinion makes clear the work objectives of strengthening the construction of the online civilization:
- Occupy new [and stronger] positions in theoretical arming: further consolidate the leading position of Marxism as an ideology in cyberspace, and further consolidate the common ideological basis for the unity and struggle of the whole Party and the whole nation [and its people].
- Achieve new results in cultural cultivation: insert Core Socialist Values deeper into people’s hearts, and make the online spiritual and cultural life of the people increasingly healthier and richer.
- Take new steps in moral construction: markedly elevate the ideological and moral qualities of netizens, and make positivity, honesty and mutual support stronger features of the online civilization.
- Make new improvements to cultural cultivation: increasingly elevate the online [cultural] cultivation of young netizens, and effectively implement [and enforce] the principal responsibilities of, and industry self-regulation for, online platforms.
- Enhance governance effectiveness: continuously improve the online ecology, further drive the rule of law in cyberspace, and continue to improve the governance ability to combat and prevent cybercrime.
- Organise events to create a new situation: effectively extend the spiritual civilization construction activities that target the masses into cyberspace, consolidate and improve online civilization brand activities, and make cyberspace more positive.
The Opinion points to the need to strengthen ideological guidance in cyberspace. [We] must adhere to Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era in commanding internet content construction, and push the Party’s new innovative theories so that they are embedded deeply and solidly.
[We] must strengthen the construction of key theoretical websites, public accounts [for internet platforms, such as social media] and client-side [systems], and carry out targeted online theoretical propaganda activities that are tightly aligned with the unique practical experience of socialism with Chinese characteristics, especially the new changes and achievements in the development of the Party and the State’s enterprise in the new era.
We [must] do a meticulous job of online propaganda on major themes, strengthen the construction and innovation in online means of dissemination, and build “viral” [content] products for dissemination.
[We] must deeply promote the integrated development of media, implement a mobile-first strategy, and increase the mobile technology construction effort of Central and local news work units, key news websites and other mainstream media.
The Opinion points to the need to strengthen online culture cultivation. [We] must build an online civilization that takes as its guide the Socialist Core Values; extensively align and streamline news websites, commercial platforms, etc, to create synergies; and spread the Core Socialist Values among the broad mass of netizens and transmit them to every corner of society.
[We] must conduct in-depth online education on Party history and disseminate our Party’s great achievements during the historical periods of revolution, construction and reform. [We] must promote the great spirit formed by the Party and the people in their struggle, and take a clear-cut stand against historical nihilism.
[We] must stimulate the vitality of the excellent Chinese traditional culture; create branded activities [and events], and original high-quality products that are popular among netizens; and promote the creative transformation and innovative development of the excellent Chinese traditional culture. [We] must enrich the supply of high-quality online cultural products; guide websites, public [online] accounts, client-side [services, such as apps] and other platforms as well as the broad mass of netizens to create and produce online cultural products that are positive, healthy and morally good; and organise rich and varied online cultural activities.
[We] must enhance the level of online public cultural services, promote the digitisation and internetization of major national cultural facilities and state-owned cultural resources, and improve coverage, inclusiveness and accessibility in supplying online public cultural services.
The Opinion points out that online moral construction must be strengthened. [We] must strengthen online moral demonstration and leadership, and widely carry out online publicity activities for model cases and stories of model workers, Role Models of the Times, moral exemplars, the Most Beautiful People, Good People Around You, outstanding volunteers, etc. This is to promote the formation of an online cultural environment that respects morality and goodness, one in which people recognise and emulate virtuous people.
[We] must deepen the construction of online integrity, hold diverse online and offline branded activities [and events] to vigorously spread the culture of integrity; advocate for the values of honesty and trustworthiness; encourage and support internet companies and platforms to improve internal integrity standards and mechanisms; and create a good atmosphere for running the internet in accordance with the law and using the internet in good faith.
[We] must develop [our] online public welfare [charity] enterprise, deeply implement the online public welfare project, widely carry out a diverse range of online culture volunteer services and online public welfare events, and forge online public welfare brands.
The Opinion points out that online norms of behaviour need to be strengthened. [We] must foster online ethics and norms of behaviour that are in line with the Core Socialist Values. [We] encourage all localities and departments to develop and launch online civilization guidelines and standard online language [lists] that are fit for purpose given unique circumstances. These shall align with [other] civilizing work conducted by the localities and departments. The requirements of online civilization construction shall be integrated into the standards by which governments manage [the relevant] industry sectors.
[We] must make efforts to elevate the online cultivation of young people; further improve the systems for online cultivation education that brings together government, school, family, and society; and improve the ability of young people to use the internet correctly, and their awareness of safety precautions. [We] must meticulously craft excellent online culture products that young people are willing to listen to and watch. [We] must also improve the system for preventing young people from becoming addicted to the internet; and in accordance with the law, resolutely combat and prevent youth cyberbullying, and protect the legitimate rights and interests of young people in cyberspace.
[We] must strengthen the responsibility of online platforms, strengthen the construction of community rules and user agreements on these platforms, and guide online platforms to enhance national security awareness.
[We] must strengthen the self-regulation of the internet industry. The industry should adhere to the value orientation that gives equal importance to commercial and social effects [and considerations]; internet companies should be urged to actively fulfil their social responsibilities.
[We] must realise the guiding and supervisory role of industry organisations, promote the healthy and standardised development of the [internet] industry, and encourage and support all kinds of online social organisations to participate in the construction of the online civilization.
The Opinion points out that online ecological governance needs to be strengthened. [We] must carry out online civilization guidance in-depth, vigorously strengthen the awareness of this online civilization [concept], and make full use of important traditional festivals, major holidays and commemorative anniversaries to organise online-civilization-themed practical activities. The broad mass of netizens shall be educated to consciously resist unhealthy and perverse trends, and promote civilized customs.
[We] must further standardise online content production, publication and the process for dissemination; push hard for the management of [online] public accounts based on different grades [of importance] and types; and construct a national online disinformation response system based on the foundation of the China Internet Joint Disinformation Platform.
[We] must push hard the “clean up” and “purify the web” series of special operations; deepen the fight against online crimes; deepen the management of uncivilized problems with respect to public online accounts, live streaming, questions and answers sites, etc; and carry out the governance of false information on the internet.
[We] must improve the complaint reporting mechanism for uncivilized phenomena on the internet, mobilise the broad mass of netizens to actively participate in the supervision, and drive the joint governance and usage of cyberspace.
[We] must adhere to the governance of cyberspace in accordance with the law, and promote Core Socialist Values throughout all aspects of lawmaking, law enforcement, judicial processes, and legal literacy with respect to the internet. [We] must realise the role of law and regulations in safeguarding a positive online order, and establish the supporting role of civilized online customs.
[We] must strengthen the implementation of the Personal Information Protection Law and the Data Security Law [which were passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on August 20 and June 10, 2021, respectively], and accelerate the drafting and/or amendment, and implementation, of [other relevant] laws and regulations, including the Cultural Industry Promotion Law, the Television and Radio Broadcast Law, the Cybercrimes Prevention and Control Law, the Regulations on the Protection of Minors Online, and the Regulations on Internet Information Service. [We] must innovate and organise a series of online legal literacy events, and enhance the citizens’ legal awareness and literacy in the rule of law.
The Opinion points out that the creation of the online civilization must be strengthened. [We] must extend mass-oriented spiritual civilization construction activities into cyberspace; give full play to the role of the New Era Civilization Practice Centers and county-level integrated media centres; strengthen the construction of practical education bases for online civilization literacy for netizens; and drive grassroots activities to build the online civilization.
[We] must carry out joint military-civilian activities to build the online civilization together, and promote unity between the military and governments, and the military and the people. [We] must actively build publicity, experience exchange, achievement demonstration and international exchange platforms for China’s online civilization concept. [We] must deeply implement the project “Being a Good Chinese Netizen;” guide the broad mass of netizens to respect morality and abide by the law, and interact in a civilized manner and express themselves rationally [online]; and guide the whole society to elevate online civilization cultivation, and purify the online environment.
The Opinion requires that all localities and departments fully understand the significance of strengthening the construction of the online civilization. They shall establish leadership and working mechanisms under the unified leadership of Party committees, with joint control and supervision by Party and state organs, with the relevant departments discharging their respective duties, and with the active participation from the whole society.
At all [administrative] levels, the General Office of the Cyberspace Administration, and the General Office of the Guidance Commission on Building Spiritual Civilization shall take the lead and supervise the overall plan [in their respective jurisdictions], and strengthen the organisational, guidance and coordination services for the construction of the online civilization. The focus shall be on realising the main role of netizens, building a wide range of platforms, organising special events, and attracting the broad mass of netizens, especially young netizens, to actively participate in the construction of the online civilization.
Policy, project funding and other support measures shall be increased, and social forces shall be encouraged to provide financial and material support for the construction of the online civilization. [All localities and departments and their relevant subordinate organs] shall strengthen their understanding of work rules, constantly promote innovation in content format, methods and means, channels and vehicles, etc; and enhance the relevance, effectiveness, attractiveness and influence of the construction of the online civilization [enterprise].