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The Wuzhen World Internet Conference is being used as a platform by Beijing to promote its idea of global internet governance. Photo: EPA-EFE

China’s youth are shaping internet culture at home and abroad amid censorship

  • Panellists at the World Internet Conference discussed the development of a distinctly Chinese online culture in a censored environment
  • China is home to the world’s largest online community, but the government imposes strict controls on users

China may be tightening its control over the internet at home, but it is encouraging its youth to export online culture with Chinese characteristics beyond the “Great Firewall”.

Members of a panel discussion on cyber culture and youth at the Wuzhen World Internet Conference (WIC) on Monday discussed how China could shape internet use among its massive online audience and duplicate the success of home-grown cyberculture like short video app TikTok abroad.

“Cyberculture plays a key role in forming the youth’s values,” Li Keyong, the secretariat of the Communist Youth League Central Committee, said in remarks to the panel. “We will encourage cultural products with positive energy and resolutely resist inappropriate content such as vulgar, violent, and pornographic products.

“When we transplant the Southern Orange to the North, it grows into something else, something inferior,” added Li, referring to the need for China to develop its own strong culture.

China is home to the world’s largest online community, but the government has imposed strict controls on use since 2012 and pro-democracy and liberal voices have been muted.

But cyberspace has also been reinterpreted by Chinese youth and it has been a forum for an enormous amount of original creative content, said Zhang Yiwu, professor at the Department of Chinese of Peking University.

“The market of Chinese online literature is much bigger than any other language, and this online literature has had a significant impact on Chinese readers,” Zhang told the panel. “Short video platforms like TikTok have been a huge space for the presentation of positive energy.”

Despite its fast growing global market share, TikTok has been criticised for censoring sensitive matters in China, including any mention of protests that have roiled semi-autonomous Hong Kong unless from official state media.

Patriotism permeated the panel discussion at the state-sponsored event, despite the attendance of many foreign entertainment companies. At one point, in a display supposed to rouse nostalgia for China, a performer organised by the youth league sang a traditional song to onlookers, many of whom were dressed in business suits.

Chen Anni, the young CEO of a Chinese comic company, asked why China’s youth should watch and read American and Japanese comics.

“Why can China not have its own comics? Young people should have confidence in our own culture, and we have to answer President Xi’s call to use Chinese culture to influence others,” she said as executives from American media company Marvel Entertainment and Japan’s The Pokemon Company watched on.

At the end of the panel discussion, an indie adventure game in which players can pick up and play different instruments was shown by thatgamecompany founder Jenova Chen. In the presentation, the game’s protagonist played well-known Chinese patriotic song My Home Country and I , which drew applause from the audience.

“As a long-time player of that game, I was surprised to see this. I thought it was a politically neutral game, now I see that these companies would do anything to please the authority,” said company delegate in a spectator seat who declined to give his name.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Mainland youth urged to look beyond great firewall