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Deafening silence on China's internet as party congress nears

Online services are being stripped of content that can spoil Xi's power play

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  © Reuters

TOKYO/HONG KONG -- With Chinese President Xi Jinping keen to cement his grip on power at the Communist Party congress this autumn, Beijing is doing everything it can to prevent the public from hearing even the slightest whisper of social unrest. And that includes making sure all is quiet on the internet front.

Some internet companies are voluntarily implementing censorship measures, while others are being ordered to remove content or services.   

Online titan Tencent Holdings moved quickly to silence two chatbots in its popular QQ messaging app after they started spitting out anti-Communist Party responses when interacting with users.

Both bots -- XiaoBing and BabyQ -- use artificial intelligence and learn from communicating with users. One chatbot, when fed words that praised the party, reportedly replied: "How can you praise such corrupt and useless politics?" Another told a user that its dream was to "go to America."

Such comments would have prompted the company to remove the services, party congress or not. But to have such a gaffe before the all-important gathering made things especially awkward for Tencent. A company spokeswoman said on Thursday that the chatbots were developed by third-party companies and that Tencent was tweaking the services. "[The services] will be resumed after adjustments," she said.

In response to a post on Chinese microblogging site Weibo asking when the bot services would resume, one poster quipped, "When they learn to talk in a less anti-government manner."

While Tencent's actions were likely voluntary, many other voices on the Chinese Internet have been quieted by the government. As of Tuesday, more than 1,000 blogs and other online accounts had been shut down at Beijing's request. Representatives from seven companies operating social networking platforms were told by the authorities in mid-July to close blogs or other online platforms seen as spreading false or inappropriate information ahead of the congress.

Apple plays along

The upcoming party congress is expected to see a reshuffle of the top leadership, and Xi is working hard to consolidate more power into his own hands. He even appears keen to revive the post of party chairman, the title Mao Zedong used for 30 years until his death and which was later abolished.

The importance of the occasion has spurred Xi to tighten his grip on the internet, and foreign technology companies -- including Apple -- so far appear happy to play by his more stringent rules.

The U.S. company recently removed virtual private network apps from its App store in China. The move came after a law banning the provision of VPN services without permission from the authorities came into effect in June.

VPNs are one of the few ways internet users in China can circumvent the government's "Great Firewall" to access otherwise blocked websites such as Facebook and Google.

"Earlier this year, [the Chinese government] began a renewed effort to enforce that [VPN regulation] policy, and we were required by the government to remove some of the VPN apps from the App Store that don't meet these new regulations," Apple CEO Tim Cook told a recent press conference. "We strongly believe that participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there, and in other countries as well. And so we believe in engaging with governments, even when we disagree."

Apple has good reason to play by Xi's rules. China accounts for about a fifth of the company's sales, and the company recently announced plans to set up a cloud computing center in China.

Not long after Apple's move,'s Chinese partner told its customers to stop using software that allowed them to bypass the firewall.

But trying to quiet voices of dissent can backfire on Beijing. Whenever the Chinese authorities are seen as engaging in censorship or tightening their grip on cyberspace, it ends up generating more interest in the topic, further placing the government in the international spotlight.

In mid-July, for example, word spread that Beijing's censors had blocked the name and images of Winnie the Pooh on certain internet services. Observers said the move came after bloggers had been comparing the plump bear to Xi. Major international news outlets were quick to report the story, with the topic even making it onto American late-night comedy shows.

Likewise, the global media zoomed in fast when China banned use of the candle emoji after the death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

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