Chinese government adviser calls for law to ban ‘fake news’

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By Rhoda Kwan in Taipei

Originally published by The Guardian on 8 March, 2022

Jia Qingguo claims the proliferation of misinformation online has fuelled tensions between China and foreign countries

An adviser to the Chinese government has called for new laws to ban “fabricating and disseminating fake information online”, blaming the rampant disinformation on the internet for polarising Chinese public opinion.

Jia Qingguo, a member of China’s highest political advisory body, said he also believed the proliferation of misinformation online had fuelled tensions between China and foreign countries.

“For example, there are often people online who, for some purpose, package a foreigner’s vicious remarks against China as the view of everyone in that country towards China in order to incite the Chinese people’s dissatisfaction and hostility towards said country and its people,” Jia said in an interview on Saturday with online news portal The Cover, which is affiliated with the state-owned Sichuan Daily.

The former dean of the prestigious Peking University’s School of International Studies added that the spread of fake news could harm national interests, and lead to public confusion and social division. He called on Beijing to introduce specific measures to “severely punish” those who create false information to “cause serious harm to society”.

Jia said motivations for creating and spreading fake news vary. Some use it to vent their dissatisfaction, others profit through click-baiting, or use it for unfair competition, for example. He pointed out that some netizens spread fake news because of their narrow nationalistic mentality.

But while Jia’s proposal appears to be more domestic-focused, observers question any tangible impact of a “fake information law” when China’s internet is already heavily censored and often scrubbed of information Beijing wants to disappear.

Some also worry that, if not properly implemented, such a law could have a profound impact on journalistic activities in China by both domestic and foreign news outlets, given Beijing’s track record in press freedom. In the last few years, for example, China has called reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang “fake news” or “lie of the century”.

“China has so many laws and policies restricting freedom of expression that this sort of proposal seems completely superfluous,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said.

Critics say that misinformation that supports Beijing’s narrative, such as conspiracy theories against the US, reaches millions of people each day on Chinese social media platforms. In the last few weeks, Chinese social media has been overwhelmed with misinformation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which China’s state media call “special military operations”.

Jia warned that when people could not differentiate truthful information from disinformation, polarisation would intensify in society, and extreme views amplified. This, he said, could lead to an increase in opposing emotions and reflected in the phenomena of anti-officials, anti-wealth and anti-elites.

Jia also said that fake information could lead to hostility towards foreigners. His warning came as public opinion in China towards foreign reporters has become increasingly antagonistic as tension between Beijing and the west grows. Foreign journalists in China have reported an increasingly hostile work environment since Beijing expelled more than 20 American journalists in 2021.

In its most recent report in January, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said Beijing was finding new ways to intimidate foreign reporters. The club also expressed “dismay” last month over restrictions on reporting during the Beijing Winter Olympics, which they said “fell short of international standards”.

Beijing frequently uses accusations of fake news to take aim at foreign reporting it deems unfavourable. Last July, Beijing accused the BBC of fake news in its reporting on serious floods in the city of Zhengzhou, slamming the broadcaster for “smearing and attacking China”.

Foreign correspondents have reported receiving harassment and streams of vitriol on social media platforms over their reporting from the country’s legion of nationalistic trolls, known as “the little pinks”, who direct fury and vitriol at perceived slights to China’s self-image and sensibilities.

A fake news law has also been floated in Hong Kong, where Beijing has been accused of muzzling its free press since mid-2020. The changes in media landscape in the former British colony have prompted independent newsrooms to shut down, hundreds of reporters to lose their jobs, and jitters among its foreign press corps.

Right advocates have raised concerns that any content can be arbitrarily censored under the label of “fake news”.

“In reality we’ve seen the label of ‘fake news’ used to discredit human rights defenders, and so I’m afraid such a tool could become just another malicious tool for the authorities to silence unwanted opinions and information,” Nee said.

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