Beijing’s grip on Chinese gaming and media tightens

October 9, 2021 — by Atrey Desai and Andrew Lin
Photo by Andrew Lin
Are these restrictions helping China’s teenagers or hurting them?

In recent months, The People’s Republic of China has reined in its economic and social policies, following decades of loosening standards. First, it banned cryptocurrency; next came progressive taxes on the ultrarich following several high-profile disappearances of Chinese billionaires such as Jack Ma and ex-real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang. 

Soon after, the government said anyone under the age of 18 could play an hour of video games each day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, only during a small window of time between 8 to 9 p.m. Additionally, men deemed as effeminate — China’s workaround tag for LGBTQ+ men — have been forbidden from appearing on live television. All of these actions have been an effort to answer President Xi Jinping’s call for a “national rejuvenation.”

Previously, the limit on online gaming was 90 minutes per day during weekdays and 3 hours per day on weekends. The new restrictions came in response to the beginning of a new school year and national parental concerns about video games affecting their children’s studies, mental health and physical health.

China enforced this crackdown on the so-called “spiritual opium” and “electronic drug” by requiring video game companies to register players under their real names, with the use of actual state identification, according to Reuters

All of this has been in an effort to ensure that all Chinese children focus on their studies and become functioning members of society. 

“Teenagers are the future of our motherland. Protecting the physical and mental health of minors is related to the people’s vital interests, and relates to the cultivation of the younger generation in the era of national rejuvenation,” said a spokesperson for China’s National Press and Publication Administration. 

It’s hardly surprising that the practicality and reasonableness of these regulations have been called into question. Many people believe treating all minors the same way, whether they are toddlers or teenagers, is unfair. Others have called the regulations impractical, as determined gamers could find loopholes, such as using the accounts of parents or older siblings to bypass restrictions. 

An intended consequence of this new policy is to kill China’s emerging esports scene, as many professional gamers start training for hours a day from a young age. 

Kids in other countries [will] win the world’s champion at 17 years old, while we start to play the game at 18,” one Weibo user commented.

As for the impact of this new law on the economy, after the announcement was issued, large gaming companies such as Tencent dropped a few percentage points in market value but ultimately recovered. Even though 62.5% of the Chinese population under 18 years old plays online games regularly, children and teens only account for a tiny fraction of the total profits of gaming companies. 

China also shifted its focus onto regulating public influencers. Leaders of technology companies and entertainment superstars hold a disproportionate amount of the country’s wealth: According to the London School of Economics, in 2015, the top 10% of the population earned 41% of the national income compared to 27% in 1978. The bottom 50% of the population’s share of national income has dropped from 27% in 1978 to 15% in 2015.

China aims to carry out the “reasonable adjustment of excessive incomes,” supporting the idea of “common prosperity for all.” 

However, money isn’t the only concern for the Chinese government, which has made clear that they are embracing traditional ideals of masculinity. Men deemed “effeminate” by the CCP have been forbidden from appearing on TV. Broadcasting companies have been ordered to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics.” Presumably, the CCP is afraid of the influence some Korean and Japanese pop idols have on their citizens. 

Many citizens oppose the ruling party’s new crackdown. One Weibo user asserted that the acceptance of effeminate men signifies “aesthetic diversity,” while others believe that the problem of China’s general male population not being masculine enough simply does not exist.

Instead of admiring “vulgar internet celebrities,” Chinese citizens are encouraged to practice “Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture.” The worship of wealth and fame is something China wants to get rid of. Thousands of fan club and entertainment news accounts on Weibo have been suspended, as per the new laws. 

Celebrities are now also required to be flawless moral examples to their audiences. Actress Zheng Shuang was recently fined 299 million yuan ($46 million) for tax evasion, serving as a warning to other celebrities.

These restrictions based on morality have also been applied to video games as well. Games that depict same-sex relationships have been banned, as well as characters with ambiguous genders. “If regulators can’t tell the character’s gender immediately, the setting of the characters could be considered problematic and red flags will be raised,” says an internal CCP memo leaked by the South China Morning Post

Games that allow players to choose between morally good and evil actions have also been banned, only allowing games where the player is on the “good” side. 

By strictly regulating video games and carefully managing the public images of its celebrities, China has taken aggressive stances in areas that were formerly private and left to families. Only time will tell if these measures are effective or not — and what the cost will be for citizens who don’t comply.