Negative Takes on China’s Economy Are Disappearing From the Internet

An editorial published last month by Beijing-based Caixin Media disappeared from the outlet’s website. QILAI SHEN/BLOOMBERG NEWS
An editorial published last month by Beijing-based Caixin Media disappeared from the outlet’s website. QILAI SHEN/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Summary

Chinese authorities are warning against denigrating the economy, and urging officials to highlight its “bright prospects.”

BEIJING—Several prominent commentaries by economists and journalists in China have vanished from the internet in recent weeks, raising concerns that Beijing is stepping up its censorship efforts as it tries to put a positive spin on a struggling economy.

This month, top lieutenants of Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged officials to “promote the bright prospects of China’s economy." Those calls came after an unusual warning from China’s top spy agency in December, which cautioned the public to be wary of those who denigrate the economy. “Economic security is a key component of national security," the Ministry of State Security said.

One recent commentary that disappeared was an editorial published last month by Caixin Media, a Beijing-based business news outlet known for backing pro-market reforms. The editorial called for officials to confront economic challenges directly, harking back to when China’s economy was on the brink of collapse during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The editorial said that, at the time, officials insisted that “the situation is excellent," but in reality people were destitute.

The article urged officials to “seek truth from facts," quoting an ancient Chinese aphorism that was frequently invoked by Mao Zedong and especially by his successor Deng Xiaoping, who ushered in four decades of reform and opening.

“One can only correct inappropriate policies in a timely manner if one sticks to seeking truth from facts," read the unsigned article, which was published on Dec. 25, a day before the 130th anniversary of Mao’s birth.

Within hours, the editorial disappeared from Caixin’s website. A representative for Caixin declined to comment.

That same day, Li Xunlei, an economist at state-owned Zhongtai Securities, warned in a column published on Chinese news outlet Yicai that insufficient household consumption would persist unless China’s leadership took steps to help lower-income families. Li also highlighted a study conducted by Beijing Normal University showing that some 964 million Chinese people, representing roughly 70% of the population, were living on a monthly income of less than 2,000 yuan, equivalent to about $280.

That data point quickly went viral on Weibo before it disappeared from the Chinese microblogging platform’s official list of trending topics. Before long, Li’s column vanished from Yicai’s website too. It has also become inaccessible on Li’s public account on Chinese messaging platform WeChat, where a message read: “The content can’t be viewed due to violation of regulations."

Li couldn’t be reached for comment. Yicai didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Beijing’s increased concern about the discourse around its economy comes as growth in the world’s second-largest economy has slowed. Officials say China hit its official target of 5.2% gross domestic product growth in 2023, but it was one of the slowest growth rates in decades, apart from the pandemic era.

China’s economy is facing an array of headwinds, including a prolonged downturn in the property market and softening exports. Authorities have taken steps to revive consumer and business confidence, including releasing more liquidity into the financial system.

Still, home prices are falling across major cities, foreign investors are fleeing China at a rapid pace and the country’s stock market is suffering one of its worst slides in years.

As the data have worsened, Beijing has tightened the flow of information around its economy. In August, China’s statistics bureau abruptly stopped releasing youth unemployment data, after the rate hit a record 21.3%, before unveiling a new youth jobless methodology in December that showed just 14.9% of young people out of work. Regulators have restricted overseas access to some databases and raided the office of foreign due-diligence firms.

Economists have pointed to depressed confidence among consumers and private entrepreneurs as one of the biggest sources of economic weakness, dampening spending appetite and deterring entrepreneurs from making new investments.

Discouraging free discourse about the economy reflects the Chinese leadership’s anxieties, said George Magnus, a research associate at the China Centre at Oxford University, who warned that the clampdown on information and commentary will only increase opacity and the risk of policy mistakes.

“It’s really about cheerleading," said Magnus, a former chief economist at UBS. “If you stifle debate about important economic developments, it leads to bad decision-making."

At a forum last month hosted in part by a state-backed think tank, Liu Jipeng, dean of the business school at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said that China’s capital markets aren’t yet mature and advised individual investors to stay away from domestic stocks.

Later that same month, Liu wrote on his personal account on WeChat that he had stepped down from his position at the university, according to Chinese media reports. Liu’s personal account on short-video platform Douyin, the domestic Chinese counterpart of TikTok, can no longer be followed by new users because of what Douyin calls “violations of the platform’s rules."

The university didn’t respond to calls seeking comment. Liu couldn’t be reached for comment.

China’s Communist Party has often reined in public discussion of the economy when prospects have dimmed. China was ranked worst for internet freedom among 70 nations for a ninth straight year in 2023, according to Freedom House, a conservative Washington-based nonprofit organization.

In mid-December, Weibo sent notices to some users to warn them against making “any negative commentaries on the economy," according to a copy of the notice received by one user and shared with the Journal.

“Any comments on the economy that deviate from the official narrative are unwelcome," said the user, who is an economist. “Clearly, the leadership doesn’t want us to focus on the economy."

Weibo didn’t respond to a request for comment.

To help lift the sagging mood, Beijing has turned not only to internet platforms, but also to law enforcement and the country’s spy agency, for help.

The economy has emerged as a “key battleground" of competition between large countries, China’s spy agency wrote in an article last month on its official WeChat account. “Various clichés intending to denigrate China’s economy continue to appear," the Ministry of State Security wrote. “Their essence is to use various false narratives to construct a ‘discourse trap’ and ‘cognitive trap’ about China’s decline in order to…strategically contain and suppress China."

Economists are skeptical that such messages are having the desired effect.

“In the long run, the confidence of consumers and investors is determined by what’s actually happening to the economy," said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics. “Censorship of critical messages only provides a veneer that things are going well."

Write to Jonathan Cheng at Jonathan.Cheng@wsj.com

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