The rapidly expanding practice, which authorities say helps combat disinformation from abroad, has fueled a whole new type of online battle.
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For years China’s censors have relied on a trusted tool kit to control the country’s internet. They have deleted posts, suspended accounts, blocked keywords, and arrested the most outspoken.
Now they are trying a new trick: displaying social media users’ locations beneath posts.
Authorities say the location tags, which are displayed automatically, will help unearth overseas disinformation campaigns intended to destabilize China. In practice, they have offered new fuel for pitched online battles that increasingly link Chinese citizens’ locations with their national loyalty. Chinese people posting from overseas, and even from provinces deemed insufficiently patriotic, are now easily targeted by nationalist influencers, whose fans harass them or report their accounts.
The tags, based on a user’s Internet Protocol, or I.P., address that can reveal where a person is located, were first applied to posts that mentioned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a topic authorities said was being manipulated with foreign propaganda. Now they are being expanded to most social media content, further chilling speech on a Chinese internet dominated by censorship and isolated from the world.
The move marks a new step in a decade-long push by Chinese officials to end anonymity online and exert a more perfect control over China’s digital town squares.
In recent months, censors have struggled to control an upwelling of online anger over the harsh, and sometimes ham-handed, Covid-19 lockdowns that have paralyzed parts of China. The strategy is devised to push back against the complaints and ensure a more “uniform” online narrative, said Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism and communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
The public enforcers of the policy have been nationalist trolls, the patriotic accounts that at times dominate discourse on Chinese social media.
People writing from Shanghai, where bungled shutdowns have triggered food shortages, are called selfish. People criticizing the government from other coastal provinces near Taiwan and Hong Kong have been called separatists and scammers.
Those who appear to be getting online from abroad, even if they’re just using a virtual private network or VPN that cloaks their location in China, are treated as foreign agitators and spies. After being reported by the trolls, some accounts are deleted by the platforms for violating “community regulations.”
Blau Wang, a Chinese student living in Germany, said she had held back from posting critical views since the changes, in part out of fear of being reported by trolls as a foreign spy and being banned by Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform.
“For a while, I didn’t post anything,” she said, adding, “The atmosphere is geared toward attacking foreign users.”
She feared backlash from accounts like Li Yi Bar, a popular nationalist group with more than one million followers that publicly listed dozens of users with foreign I.P. addresses it deemed to be critical.
Their users’ pages were plastered with insults from an army of trolls. Many of those who were attacked disabled comments, changed user names, or simply stopped posting. Few openly responded to the accusations, though one wrote that being an overseas student did not stop her from caring about China.
“More people start to assume others’ motivation based on the cues from I.P. address,” said Fang Kecheng, a media professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It makes open dialogue more and more difficult.”
Away from the online fights, many have expressed alarm at the policy shift. The strategy cuts through the pretense of privacy that can seem to prevail online in China, even though the government has spent years ensuring that it can know the identity of the real person behind any given anonymous account.
One hashtag calling for the feature to be revoked quickly accumulated 8,000 posts and was viewed more than 100 million times before it was censored in late April. A university student in Zhejiang province sued Weibo, the Chinese social platform, in March for leaking personal information without his consent when the platform automatically showed his location. Others have pointed out the hypocrisy of the practice, since celebrities, government accounts, and the chief executive of Weibo have all been exempted from the location tags.
Despite the pushback, the authorities have signaled the changes are likely to last. An article in the state-run publication, China Comment, argued the location labels were necessary to “cut off the black hand manipulating the narratives behind the internet cable.” A draft regulation from the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, stipulates that user I.P. addresses must be displayed in a “prominent way.”
“If censorship is about dealing with the messages and those who send the messages, this mechanism is really working on the audience,” said Han Rongbin, a media and politics professor at the University of Georgia.
With the worsening relationship with United States and China and propaganda repeatedly blaming malign foreign forces for dissatisfaction in China, Mr. Han said the new policy could be quite effective at snuffing out complaints.
“People worrying about foreign interference is a tendency right now. That’s why it works better than censorship. People buy it,” he said.
An uncertain harvest. Chinese officials are issuing warnings that, after heavy rainfalls last autumn, a disappointing winter wheat harvest in June could drive food prices — already high because of the war in Ukraine and bad weather in Asia and the United States — further up, compounding hunger in the world’s poorest countries.
A strict Covid policy. As China battles its worst coronavirus outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic, its uncompromising determination to eliminate infections is taking its toll on the economy. Lockdowns have left millions unable to work, and foreign companies are becoming less willing to continue investing in the country.
The war in Ukraine. China’s officials and its media are increasingly repeating the Kremlin’s narrative about the conflict. This joint propaganda has undercut Western efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically and has found a receptive audience in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
A pause on wealth redistribution. For much of last year, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, waged a fierce campaign to narrow social inequalities and usher in a new era of “common prosperity.” Now, as the economic outlook is increasingly clouded, the Communist Party is putting its campaign on the back burner.
The vitriol can be overwhelming. One Chinese citizen, Mr. Li, who spoke on the condition that only his surname be used for privacy reasons, was targeted by trolls after his profile was linked to the United States, where he lived. Nationalist influencers accused him of working from overseas to “incite protest” in western China over a post that criticized the local government of handling a student’s sudden death. The accounts listed him and several others as examples of “spy infiltration.” A post to publicly shame them was liked 100,000 times before it was eventually censored.
Inundated by derogatory messages, he had to change his Weibo user name to stop harassers from tracing him. Even though he has used Weibo for more than 10 years, he is wary of the baseless attacks these days. “They want me to shut up, so I’ll shut up,” Mr. Li said.
In other cases, the targeting has been misguided. Elaine Wang, a college student in China, forgot to turn off the VPN she uses to get around China’s internet blocks when she posted about the dire circumstances migrant workers faced during the Shanghai lockdown. The software tricked Weibo’s detection mechanism into thinking she was posting from overseas.
The vitriol flowed fast. She received hundreds of insulting messages and threats and was ultimately reported to the authorities. Even after regulators verified the authenticity of her post and her location, trolls continued to attack her.
“I thought people would pay attention to those in need of help instead of my I.P. addresses, ” Ms. Wang said.
Some attacks have cut the other way. Mr. Zhan, the retired professor in Beijing, noted that the regulations have occasionally backfired, showing how difficult it is to have “total control of online rhetoric.”
He raised the example of Lian Yue, a nationalist writer known for his attacks on Chinese who have immigrated overseas. When location tags began appearing, Mr. Lian was revealed to be publishing content from Japan. Many branded him a hypocrite and jeeringly called him an “overseas patriot.”
In an article titled “Why Am I in Japan?” Mr. Lian sought to set the record straight, saying he was there for a “medical purpose” and would return to China in a month.
“I live as a Chinese man. After I die, I will be a Chinese ghost,” he wrote.
Joy Dong covers news in mainland China and Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong. @JoyDongHK