China Launches Corruption Crackdown on Social Media Ahead of Party Congress

The Communist Party of China has recently warned its members of eight major “red lines” while using the popular social media platform WeChat, prohibiting behaviors like accepting or giving electronic “red envelopes” to buy votes.

The warning showcases the party’s resolve to fight corruption ahead of this year’s 19th party congress, which is slated to elect China’s top leaders for the next five years.

By tightening its grip, observers say the party may have gone too far to limit its 88 million-strong members’ social media presence.

And it may have exposed the true nature of Chinese-style elections, which is in no way free since no candidates are allowed to solicit votes, they add.

Red lines

Last week, the party’s anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, published a notice on its WeChat account, detailing words and acts that its party officials would be disallowed on the social media platform.

Those include criticizing government policies, sharing pornography, spreading rumors or making “inappropriate” comments, opening online shops and leaking state secrets.

Two of the eight “red lines” specifically refer to the “irregular use of WeChat red envelopes” as bribery kickbacks, or to buy or stump for votes.

Once found crossing the red lines, party officials will be disciplined, the notice warned.

Striking flies or tigers?

Observers, in general, believed electronic red envelopes on WeChat are most likely seen in small-amount briberies or vote-rigging as they are capped at 200 yuan ($29) each.   

Thus, lowly bureaucrats rather than high-ranking officials are more likely to resort to the platform to bribe or buy votes. In other words, the trace of corrupt “flies” rather than “tigers” is more likely spotted on WeChat, according to Qiao Mu, formerly a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The timing of the warning still makes it applicable to the party’s top-level elections, which is reshuffling its 2,300 delegates for the 19th congress, and also highlights something else, the professor said.

“Elections [in China] are mostly pre-organized by the party, which means that there won’t be any real and free competition. Therefore, soliciting or stumping for votes [via WeChat] is [firstly] disallowed,” Qiao said.

“But the warning coincides with the timing of elections for the 19th party congress’ delegates. So, I think that the ban on soliciting or stumping for votes via WeChat may also apply to [nation-wide] elections,” he added.

Qiao said Chinese-style elections are never free and fair, even if they may appear to be so.

One such example can be found in the electoral unit in Guizhou, which elected Xi Jinping to be a delegate to the 19th national congress by a unanimous vote last Thursday despite the fact that Xi has never lived or worked in the province; neither has he gone on any campaign trail there.

Tightened online control

While WeChat allows unlimited money transfers, it would also be suicidal for corrupt officials to engage in large-sum vote-buying activities as the platform is not only censoring users’ private messages and group chats, but is also keeping a tab on their financial dealings, said Ren Jianming, director of the anti-corruption and governance research center at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“Through such means of communications, the [past] record of users’ massages can be easily traced unless it involves one-on-one interaction,” Ren said. “Any group chats [or activities] can be easily leaked and reported. If one tries to rat them out, an investigation can be easily conducted as users’ content is mostly stored and can be retrieved.”   

Another law professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, urged the anti-graft body to clarify its definition of “irregular uses” of electronic red envelopes as the warning may have already sent a chilling effect to normal social exchanges of cash gifts on occasions such as weddings or Chinese New Year celebrations.

The warning has not only restricted party members’ right to freedom of expression on WeChat, but also greatly limited their presence on social media as WeChat users, Qiao adds.

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