The censorship order handed down from the Chinese Communist Party earlier this year reads like a decree from a Puritan: depictions of underage drinking, gambling and extreme violence are not permitted online; images of scantily clad people and portrayals of homosexuality are off limits; spiritual figures and beliefs cannot be satirized.
The directive, aimed at China’s booming online entertainment industry, prompted uncommon outrage for the number of topics — 68 — it banned. The list includes not only the usual politically sensitive subjects but also subjects that have made the internet an exhilarating and liberating space for this country’s hundreds of millions of web users.
The priggishness of Communist Party censors is not new, but the escalation of puritanical policing in the past year reflects wider forces shaping Chinese society under President Xi Jinping. Following Mr. Xi’s high-profile crackdown on corrupt officials and thorough silencing of liberal intellectuals, the president’s most ambitious project with the wider public is underway: an attempt to govern not only citizens’ political outlook but, more than any leader since Mao, also the minutiae of their moral life.
Some of Mr. Xi’s measures build on existing tools of control: The official state news agency issued an update to its style guide in July, banning the use of crude language and online slang in news reporting; internet censors shut down scores of blogs in June for their sensationalist coverage of celebrity gossip; other information channels, including school textbooks and street billboards, promote traditional virtues like honesty, obedience and filial piety, which are hailed as the foundation of a good society.
Grander efforts have led to the creation of new rules and institutions: a Good Samaritan law passed in March, for instance, protects individuals from being extorted by those they had helped, a circumstance that was so common that it deterred people from coming to the aid of people in need. Also in the pipeline is a government-managed social-credit system that will rate citizens’ trustworthiness by tracking their personal data, from financial information to compliance with traffic rules.
Heavy-handed as they may be, these policies stem from government apprehension that is not ill founded. It’s a refrain among ordinary Chinese that the decay of public morality is turning society into a crass, unscrupulous, every-man-for-himself marketplace.
A survey released by the research firm Ipsos in July showed that 47 percent of Chinese people rank moral decline as one of society’s top three most worrisome problems, surpassing other pressing challenges like environmental degradation and unemployment. It is a gloom that hangs over people’s daily life in the form of cautionary tales about swindles like pyramid schemes preying on unemployed youth and online dating scams.
Chinese anxiety over public morality goes back more than a century, when the country was at the mercy of Western powers. Looking deep into the national soul, Chinese intellectuals blamed the lack of civic morality for China’s weakness. Leaders from Chiang Kai-shek to Deng Xiaoping waged “morality”-boosting campaigns to combat foreign influences on domestic politics.
Under Mr. Xi, the moral agenda of the state speaks to something larger: It is integral to his vision of China as a country of patriotic, diligent and civilized people that, led by a capable and highly disciplined Communist Party, is poised to achieve “national rejuvenation.”
The strategy echoes the ancient Chinese political mandate of “governing with virtue” — the idea that social harmony derives from the moral rectitude of the rulers — but in practice it promotes an amalgamation of values carefully culled from China’s past and present.
The public is instructed to adhere to Confucian family roles at home and to demonstrate capitalist professionalism at work. Wealthy officials are warned against betraying revolutionary frugality, while aspiring entrepreneurs are told to infuse their endeavors with patriotic ideals.
The effort to regulate public morality also means molding the incongruous government practices into a coherent ideology. The campaign’s overreliance on authoritarian tactics like surveillance and censorship have alienated a growing rank of citizens who see the paradox in the censors’ mission: The proliferation of the “vulgar” entertainment that is coming under fire is a result of restrictions on more sophisticated and critical artistic expressions. Social discussions have degenerated into coarse polemics online because of the lack of space for more nuanced and incisive conversations.
During the Communist Party leadership reshuffle last month, some of Beijing’s streets were bathed in red lights. The slogan “There is no new China without the Communist Party” beamed from electronic screens that a week earlier had displayed advertisements for Buick and Chanel. Farther along those streets, state-sponsored posters counseled thriftiness and restraint. People streamed by without raising their heads.
Chinese leaders may not be wrong in their belief that their new hodgepodge ideology will not antagonize a jaded public with its incoherence. But they should also recognize that under people’s begrudging compliance, a growing sense of resignation is threatening something vital.
Dutiful entrepreneurs and obedient apparatchiks may be easy subjects to govern. But the enterprising spirit and the appetite for risk-taking they are forced to shed are fundamental to the innovation-driven economy Mr. Xi promises to build for the future.
Helen Gao is a social policy analyst at a research company and a contributing opinion writer.