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[ H ] Zhang Huan - Skin (1997) | © cea +/Flickr
[ H ] Zhang Huan - Skin (1997) | © cea +/Flickr
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How China's Social Media Crackdown Will Hurt Local Artists

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 7 July 2017
Tightened online censorship laws enacted last month are successfully deterring China’s social media users, many of whom are aspiring and practicing artists.

In June 2017, China enforced a new cybersecurity law by which companies are required to report the online activities of their employees. While the law is primarily concerned with corporate activity on WeChat, a calling and messaging app, and Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, the clampdown is successfully striking fear in China’s younger generation.

Ai Weiwei: Untitled (Golden Handcuffs, Surveillance Cameras and Twitter Birds) Wallpaper | Photo by René C. Nielsen/Flickr
Ai Weiwei: Untitled (Golden Handcuffs, Surveillance Cameras and Twitter Birds) Wallpaper | Photo by René C. Nielsen/Flickr

Shanghai and Berlin-based artist and blogger Xu Wenkai, who goes by the pseudonym Aaajiao, reported “feeling nervous for the first time” to The Art Newspaper, as 60 accounts have been forcefully collapsed by government officials so far. In addition to being monitored, social media users are also completely denied online anonymity.

While the Cyberspace Administration of China rationalized the law in support of “national security, the public interest, as well as the rights and interests of citizens,” Chinese citizens report feeling equal parts isolated and watched as a result of tightening restrictions.

“Sadly, I think there will be more and more restrictions to the internet overall in the long run,” New York and Shanghai-based artist Miao Ying told The Art Newspaper. “I recently had a government official show up at a museum displaying my art and I had to censor my work that was about censorship in order to show it there.”

Ironically, China’s culture of censorship has proven bittersweet for artists like Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan, who are simultaneously threatened and inspired by the Great Firewall.

Ai Weiwei has loudly and most famously led the opposition against Chinese censorship. In May 2017, he published a warning in the New York Times, writing: “The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.”

Fear of the government online and in real life will certainly continue to alter China’s up-and-coming art culture, forcing young artists to play it safe. “You would be surprised how much people are willing to give up over little inconveniences,” Miao said to The Art Newspaper. “Not big obstacles; that is precisely how censorship wins.”