How China Censors Critics of the Economy

China’s top intelligence agency issued an ominous warning last month about an emerging threat to the country’s national security: Chinese critics of the economy.

In a series of articles on his WeChat official accountThe Ministry of State Security implored citizens to understand President Xi Jinping’s economic vision and not be influenced by those who seek to “denigrate China’s economy” through “false stories.” To combat this risk, the ministry said, security agencies will focus on “strengthening economic propaganda and public opinion orientation.”

China is intensifying its repression while struggling to regain the dynamism and rapid economic growth of the past. Beijing has censored and attempted to intimidate renowned economists, financial analysts, investment banks and social media influencers for their pessimistic assessments of the economy and government policies. Additionally, news articles about people facing financial difficulties or the low standard of living of migrant workers are removed.

China continues to offer an optimistic economic outlook, noting that it exceeded its economic growth forecast of 5% last year without resorting to risky and costly stimulus measures. However, beyond the numbers, its financial sector is struggling to contain huge amounts of local public debt, its stock market is reeling and its real estate sector is in crisis. China Evergrande, the high-flying developer whose debt fell by more than $300 billion, went into liquidation on Monday.

The new information campaign has a broader scope than the usual work of government censors, who have always closely monitored online discussions about the economy. Their efforts now extend to traditional economic commentary, which was permitted in the past. The involvement of security agencies also underscores how commercial and economic interests fall within Mr. Xi’s increasingly expansive view of what constitutes a threat to national security.

In November, the Ministry of State Security, being called “Faithful guardians of financial security,” said other countries were using finance as a weapon in geopolitical games.

“Some people with ulterior motives are trying to sow trouble and take advantage of the chaos,” the ministry writes. “It’s not just ‘bears’ and ‘short sellers.’ These market prophets of doom are trying to shake the international community’s confidence in investing in China and trigger a domestic financial crisis in our country.”

Over the past year, China has targeted consulting firms with foreign ties through searches, detentions and arrests. These companies, which helped businesses evaluate their investments in the country, have become collateral damage in Mr. Xi’s efforts to strengthen national security. Such efforts to curb the flow of information, restrict the release of unfavorable economic data, and limit critical financial discourse appear to only deepen concerns among foreign investors and businesses about the true state of China’s economy. .

“In my opinion, the more the government suppresses negative information about the economy, the less confidence people have in the current economic situation,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California in Berkeley.

New foreign investment in China fell 8% in 2023, hitting a three-year low. China’s CSI 300 index, which tracks the largest companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen, fell 12 percent last year, compared with a 24 percent rise for the S&P 500. China’s index is still falling by 5 percent this year to its lowest level in almost five years.

Premier Li Qiang on Monday called for more effective measures to stabilize the stock market, amid reports of a possible stock market bailout plan.

Mr. Xiao, the research scientist, said he began to notice in the second half of 2023 that Chinese censors were quicker to remove many financial news articles. Among them: a December article on the financial news site Yicai that cited a study that found 964 million Chinese earned less than $280 a month.

This month, a NetEase News documentary about migrant workers facing extremely low living standards was also removed from the Internet. Search results for the documentary “Working Like This for 30 Years” were also restricted on Weibo, a social networking site similar to X.

Since June, Weibo has banned the publication of dozens of accounts after, it says, “posting remarks disparaging the economy” or “distorting” or “defaming” China’s economic, financial and real estate policies.

Weibo warned its users in November not to be “maliciously pessimistic” about the economy or spread negative sentiments. Last month, the company said it hoped users would help “build confidence” in the development of the economy.

Other social media services are also moving to censor negative speech about the economy. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has specific rules prohibiting “malicious interpretation of real estate-related policies.”

Liu Jipeng, dean of the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, was banned from posting or adding new followers on Douyin and Weibo last month after saying in an interview that it was not a good time to invest money in stocks. He also wrote on Weibo, where he has more than 500,000 followers, that it was difficult for ordinary people to invest safely due to the large number of unethical institutions. His Douyin account, where he has more than 700,000 followers, states that the user “is unfollowed due to a violation of community guidelines.”

Banks and securities firms also face close scrutiny due to the content of their economic research. In June, the Shenzhen Securities Regulatory Bureau warned China Merchants Securities, a Shenzhen-based brokerage, had signaled a year earlier that domestic stocks would remain under pressure due to the economic situation.

In July, Goldman Sachs triggered a selloff in Chinese banking stocks after one of its research reports gave three major lenders a “sell” rating and warned that banks may struggle to keep their dividends in line. due to losses linked to local government debt. The Securities Times, a state-owned financial newspaper, responded, saying the report was based on a “misinterpretation of facts” and that “mistaking the fundamentals of Chinese banks is not advisable.”

An economist at a foreign securities firm said a Chinese government official recently asked the economist to be “more thoughtful” when writing research reports, particularly if the content can be constructed from negative way. The economist asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Even once, acceptable comments have become problematic in light of China’s current economic challenges.

In a 2012 interview, a year before Mr. Xi came to power, Wu Jinglian, a famous Chinese economist, warned that the country was at an inflection point. He said China could move forward with a law-governed market economy, or it could be swayed by those seeking an alternative agenda involving heavy government involvement.

China’s societal problems, Wu said in the interview, “are fundamentally the result of incomplete economic reforms, significant delay in political reforms and intensified administrative power to suppress and interfere with activities.” legitimate private economic interests”.

The interview was republished last year to mark the 45th anniversary of China’s economic opening. The post was widely shared and characterized as a rebuke of Mr Xi’s economic policies – which have pushed for greater state control at the expense of market reforms – before being removed from WeChat.

But the pressure campaign has intensified so much that it is turning into critics those who usually defend Beijing’s policies. Hu Xijin, an influential commentator and former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, wrote on Weibo that it was the job of influencers to “constructively help” the government identify problems, “rather than to actively cover them up and create problems.” a public opinion that is not real.