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Why the Chinese government wants more feel-good stories posted online

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

China has one of the most sophisticated censorship regimes in the world. The government has also been more active in promoting content online, content it says promotes positive energy. The term means politically correct, feel-good stories. And as NPR's Emily Feng reports, this push for positive energy is reshaping the country's pop culture.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zhou Liqi bears a striking resemblance to Che Guevara, the infamous guerrilla fighter. But Zhou's claim to fame is not his looks. It's from an interview he gave while being arrested for the fourth time for stealing scooters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU LIQI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: In the 2012 interview, Zhou is literally handcuffed to the window of a police station. And when a reporter asks him - why do you keep stealing, why not find a job? - Zhou proudly answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Through interpreter) It's impossible for me to work in this life. And actually, being thrown in jail is like coming home.

FENG: Zhou went viral. Millions of people began following him on social media because they loved his carefree attitude and his rebellious good looks. Here's one of his some 3 million social media fans, Lu Houjie (ph).

LU HOUJIE: (Through interpreter) He's so cool. He may have taken a lot of wrong turns. But he found the right path. And now he's made a lot of money.

FENG: And when he got out of prison in 2020, talent agencies offered Zhou up to half a million dollars to be their brand ambassador. But it didn't matter because within days, authorities announced Zhou had run afoul of the, quote, "moral bottom line." They declared him a bad social influence, shut down his social media accounts and prohibited any talent agency from working with him. This kind of state-led cancel culture is becoming more and more common as part of China's drive to promote what they call positive energy.

GERDA WIELANDER: And what that means and immediately implies is that there is an expectation that at an individual level, you are aligned with the expectations and the feelings and the atmosphere of the collective.

FENG: This is Gerda Wielander, a China studies professor at the University of Westminster. She says this push to promote more wholesome and sometimes nationalistic content dovetails with the objective for greater state control.

WIELANDER: In recent years, in particular with the wider and ever further reaching policies to get people to correct their attitudes, to amend their behaviors.

FENG: Under the banner of positive energy, a state performing arts association last year blacklisted more than 80 celebrities for supposedly setting a bad precedent, like swearing too much. China's internet regulator is creating a list of topics celebrities cannot touch in an effort to tamp down on, quote, "distorted values." Some stars have been made an example of. One got a $210 million penalty for tax evasion and the social media account she makes a living off of blocked. Politically canceled stars have even been blurred out of videos. The state emphasis on positive energy also reflects a greater desire for the Chinese state to both measure and manage public opinion. That's hard to do, given China is an autocratic state that does not have elections or public polling. Here's Angela Xiao Wu, a media professor at New York University.

ANGELA XIAO WU: The government is not able to really detect how people actually feel. What they can detect with the help of social media analytics is exactly what kind of content are being circulated more widely than others. And if that kind of content, to the government, suggests positive energy, then that seems to be a success.

FENG: Wu is describing the rise of public sentiment analysis in China, which the ruling Communist Party sometimes uses to gauge public support for its policies. And one person measuring positive energy through social media is Qi Zhongxiang, the director of Womin, a data analytics company

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QI ZHONGXIANG: (Through interpreter) Anger spreads fastest on the internet. It can trigger cascading negative public opinion.

FENG: The idea, then, is to promote content that provokes happy feelings. Qi advises the Communist Party on how to create this positive energy online.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QI: (Through interpreter) Positive energy stems from the idea that it's possible to inspire audiences, to embody values that are in line with socialist core values, like civilization, harmony and justice.

FENG: China is now encouraging positive energy to be encoded into the very design of the algorithms behind social media platforms and mobile apps. New rules out this year from China's Cyberspace Administration require internet companies to register their algorithms. Part of this is to ensure apps don't abuse personal data. The other motivation is to control the flow of information, especially content China considers negative or immoral. Also, just as European and North American governments are, China is concerned about disinformation.

GRAHAM WEBSTER: The difference is that the Chinese government has sort of gone there, whereas the other jurisdictions around the world haven't done it yet.

FENG: That's Graham Webster from Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center. He explains regulators want more insight and control over how algorithms shape people's daily lives. And specifically, any algorithm that pertains to the broad and undefined category of public opinion must be justified to state regulators.

WEBSTER: It could actually be a pretty powerful lever to advance the general job of propaganda and public opinion guidance, as they call it, into this automated realm.

FENG: How China plans to categorize and measure algorithms for their adherence to positive content is yet unclear. But going forward, it could mean that China's nearly 1 billion internet users will see more nationalistic content and cute kitten videos and less critical commentary.

(CROSSTALK)

FENG: Back in his hometown, former scooter thief Zhou Liqi is still dealing with the fallout of being canceled. After he was censored, Zhou got a real job sort of running his own barbecue restaurant, where NPR managed to briefly meet him. I tell him, you once said you would never work. And now you're a manager. He responds...

ZHOU: (Through interpreter) If you're afraid to lose some in order to win some and you don't dare take that first step in business, then why bother doing anything at all?

FENG: It all sounds positive. But Zhou was prevented from speaking freely to NPR reporters, who were filmed by plainclothes state security officers as they tried to interview Zhou. His devil may care charm may still be a little too rebellious in the eyes of the Chinese state.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Guangxi, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRECTIONS IN MUSIC'S "ECHOES [CONTINENTAL DRIFT VERSION]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.