China orders TikTok and Tencent to suppress criticism as protests mount

Chinese protests - Bloomberg
Chinese protests - Bloomberg

China’s internet censorship commission has reportedly ordered social media companies TikTok and Tencent to crack down on posts criticising its government as officials struggle to keep a lid on growing social unrest.

The Cyberspace Administration of China has ordered tech companies to hire more content moderators and to crack down on posts and videos about recent protests, according to the Wall Street Journal.

New rules also “aim to solve the problem of [mobile apps] using pop-up windows to illegally push news information”, according to a briefing note from Beijing-based law firm Lee Tsai & Partners.

Unrest has simmered across China for most of the year as the country struggles to eradicate Covid-19 within its 1.4bn-strong population.

Students at a university in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing marched with electric torches last week to demonstrate against the restrictions. Some carried signs with messages such as “I'll be a free bird in my next life, so I'm not afraid of the flames”, defying government crackdowns.

Also in the Chinese censors’ firing line are virtual private networks (VPNs), a privacy technology that can be used to get around official blocking of websites such as Twitter. VPNs help shield one’s internet connection from official filters.

While some VPN companies can operate under licence in China, the terms of their licences mean they are obliged to filter out websites deemed inappropriate by officials.

Other VPN companies do not filter the websites they display, but their apps are normally blocked from mobile phone app stores within China. This prevents most users from accessing them.

Of special interest to Chinese censors are student protests at universities as well as growing opposition to zero-Covid lockdown policies, local sources told the Wall Street Journal.

Internet content blocked within China can include references to pro-democracy protests, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, or more recent events such as protests against zero-Covid laws.

This week Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, said he hoped the Chinese-owned app would reach a deal with US regulators allowing it to continue operating in the country.

Mr Chew told New York’s DealBook conference on Wednesday that US officials’ concerns over Chinese access to US TikTok users’ data was a “solvable problem”.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said at the same conference that there are “significant national security concerns” about staff from TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, being able to access American users’ information.

One proposed solution laid out by Ms Yellen is for TikTok to route all of its traffic through US-controlled servers before it leaves the country, allowing monitoring of Chinese access attempts.

China has a long history of suppressing online dissent as a means of keeping its ruling Communist Party in power. These censorship efforts began with the so-called Great Firewall, a countrywide website blocking scheme, in the late 1990s.