The Chinese government’s censorship of news and commentary related to the country’s slowing economy has made international headlines in recent weeks. This may be because financial or economic information is typically perceived as being less politically sensitive than discussions about democracy or human rights in China.
But the latest spate of economic censorship is hardly unusual. In fact, over the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has repeatedly imposed increased restrictions whenever the economy appears to be in trouble.
What stands out about the current crackdown is its focus on content highlighting income inequality, youth unemployment, and poverty among the elderly. These deep-rooted problems affect large swaths of the population and could undermine key pillars of the CCP’s political legitimacy. So long as they persist, the associated censorship is likely to remain in place.
Past Cycles of Economic Censorship
Any news that might reflect poorly on the ruling party or its top leadership is consistently at risk of censorship in China. But when the economy is doing well – or at least is on pace with official goals or outperforming other major economies, as occurred during parts of the pandemic – the regime tends to take a lighter hand.
That relative tolerance evaporates as soon as the economy enters rockier territory. For example, China’s stock market plunged multiple times in 2015. A Freedom House analysis of 75 leaked censorship directives from that year, which were published by the U.S.-based China Digital Times, found that news related to the economy, the stock market, and pending legislation on economic policy had become the second most censored breaking-news topic, up from seventh place the year before.
Censorship related to the economy spiked again in 2018 and 2021, due to concerns about the trade war with the United States and the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively. Financial news channels and mobile applications operated by Phoenix News Media and Netease faced suspensions or demands for “rectification” of their content, while government directives reportedly told journalists and websites to closely manage news and commentary on economic matters. In August 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the government’s top internet regulator, launched a two-month campaign to crack down on platforms and accounts that “maliciously” mischaracterized the economy, including those that republished foreign media reports or commentary.
Economic Woes and Growing Discontent
There was a widespread expectation that the Chinese economy would bounce back after mass protests pushed the government to lift its harsh “zero COVID” lockdown policies in late 2022. But heightened international tensions, a politicized crackdown on technology firms, and a lingering real estate crisis have dampened demand for exports, domestic consumer spending, and other drivers of economic growth. New amendments to the country’s espionage law, rising xenophobia within China, and reduced trust abroad in the reliability of Chinese supply chains are also shrinking the appetites of foreign investors. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual survey, published in March, found for the first time that a majority of U.S. businesses did not see China as one of their top three priority markets.
Meanwhile, government officials and businesses across China, especially at the local level, are facing regular protests related to wage arrears, the housing crisis, and other economic grievances. A project launched by Freedom House last summer, the China Dissent Monitor (CDM), documented a total of 2,230 incidents of dissent between June 2022 and April 2023. Housing protests, including those linked to the collapse of real estate companies, have been one of the main phenomena captured in the CDM database, constituting about 40 percent of all cases. Moreover, from December to February, the CDM tallied 370 labor protests, more than double the number from the previous three months.
Adding to these pressures is the record-high youth unemployment rate, which hit 20.8 percent in May and is expected to increase further over the summer as more university students graduate. The problem could be stoking official concerns about dissent from this segment of society, especially given that young people made up a high proportion of the participants in November’s protests against zero COVID.
Latest Measures to Control the Narrative
It is in this context that government regulators and social media censors launched the current crackdown, homing in on income inequality, youth unemployment, and poverty among elders as emerging sensitive topics.
One recent case that gained international attention was the announcement by the Sina Weibo social media platform that it had blocked the accounts of Wu Xiaobo – a prominent financial commentator with nearly 5 million followers – and two other unnamed individuals on June 26. Sina deleted Wu’s recent posts and claimed he had “disseminated negative and harmful information” that undermined government policy, citing assertions about the unemployment rate and the securities market, specifically. Wu’s accounts on various platforms had been temporarily suspended last year, alongside those of other economic experts, after they criticized zero COVID policies.
Less high-profile cases have also emerged, affecting sources of information that would typically have the blessing of the CCP. For example, a series of nine infographics were published by Sohu News on Sina Weibo in early June, highlighting social issues such as poverty, youth unemployment, and disabilities. While they mostly drew on Chinese government statistics, the images were censored, and as of June 15 they had all been replaced with blank gray boxes.
Earlier this month, multiple social media platforms – including Zhihu, Weibo, and Yixi – removed references to a video talk and news article about research by Qiu Fengxian, a scholar at Anhui Normal University. Qiu found that 60 percent of the provincial migrant workers she surveyed – many of whom had been working in Chinese cities for over 30 years – had no pension and were unable to retire, lest they be forced to live on just 100 to 200 yuan ($14 to $28) per month. The recent items were censored despite state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) covering publication of Qiu’s book with similar findings as recently as May 25.
Since March, the CAC has banned videos and posts that portray the challenges faced by poor, elderly, or disabled people. One piece of removed content was a video made by journalist Hu Chenfeng, who interviewed an elderly woman living on a meager monthly income of $15. Hu went grocery shopping with the woman and insisted on paying for her goods, which totaled $18. The clip was taken down from two China-based video platforms, and Hu’s online accounts were reportedly suspended.
In March and April, censors removed essays and social media posts that were part of a massive backlash against comments in which the CCP’s Youth League and the state broadcaster China Central Television suggested that young, educated people were simply not trying hard enough to find work.
A Remedy That Feeds the Disease
While past spikes in economic censorship have often come in response to temporary setbacks like stock-market plunges, the latest round targets structural weaknesses that policymakers have long struggled to address. Consequently, tighter regime control over discussion of economic data – even when the information comes from government sources – may become the norm rather than the exception in China.
Such restrictions carry their own risks, not only for businesses, investors, journalists, and ordinary news consumers, but also for the CCP and its aims. Tight censorship of economic news breeds distrust, fueling suspicions that the situation is worse than it appears. These in turn can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as consumers prepare for the worst and wary investors take their business elsewhere.
Instead of continuing to insist that all is well, the CCP should allow a full airing of reliable data, however dire. Only then can the private sector and individual citizens make rational, informed decisions about how to improve their and the country’s fortunes.