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China's TikTok users face punishment for vulgar content

Yuchen Li in Taipei
January 17, 2024

Beijing has introduced a rating system for China's version of TikTok, Douyin, that will penalize users who stream content containing sexual innuendos or promotion of "abnormal beauty standards."

A woman in a costume live streams from a conference
Live streaming is popular in China, but users face strict controls on content.Image: Costfoto/picture alliance

Douyin, TikTok's sibling app in China, has introduced a rating system for live streamers as part of Beijing's ongoing efforts to enhance control over the internet.

The 6-tiered rating system, officially called "health points" in China, came into effect this month after being piloted for nearly half a year.

On the first day of the system rollout, nearly 5,000 live streamers faced punishment and restrictions on access to certain app functions.

The system is set up to "draw red lines and bottom lines" for the fast-growing live streaming industry, China's state-affiliated Xinhua news agency reported.

Douyin also launched a "teenage mode" in 2021 that limits the amount of time users under the age of 14 spend on the app to 40 minutes per day.

How does the rating system work?

According to the latest rules, all streamers will start with a preset 100 points. Those considered top or professional streamers are allotted 120 points.

Points will be deducted from streamers who commit "serious offenses" that include streaming content or behavior featuring what censors consider to be vulgarity, or promoting "unhealthy views on relationships."

Sexual innuendos, pseudoscience, promotion of "abnormal beauty standards" or "violation of public order and morals" will be considered moderate infractions.

Streamers who violate these rules will have points deducted based on the severity of the alleged offense. Offenses considered to be serious will take off 4-8 points.

Sanctions will be imposed once a streamer's points dip below 70, with punishments ranging from function restrictions to a complete ban on streaming once the point count drops down to zero.

China's elderly social media sensations

China's political agenda for online content

Many Chinese users praised the points system on China's Weibo microblogging platform, with supporters saying the system could help regulate streamers' behavior and put a cap on content.

However, KK, a former influencer manager who spoke to DW on condition of using a pseudonym, expressed concerns about the system "likely being unfair."

"Let's say you think I wear [too] little so that my live show is sexual," she said. "This judgment should not be made by one individual or AI system simply based on some screenshots."

Tai Yu-hui, an associate professor of communication and technology at Taiwan's National Yang-Ming Chiao-Tung University, also raised the alarm over guidelines on "unhealthy views on relationships" and "abnormal beauty standards."

Tai told DW that these narratives may target sexual minorities because "some male streamers look feminine." In 2021, China banned "effeminate men" from television as the country's leadership seeks to promote what it considers to be "masculine" images of men.

In 2016, China implemented a cybersecurity law that signaled tighter controls over the internet, followed by a series of harsh crackdowns on the tech industry.

Over the past few years, China's crackdown has gradually shifted to short video platforms such as Douyin, ostensibly to stop young people spending too much time online.

Alarm over Chinese TikTok's popularity in Taiwan

Professor Tai said the rating system is part of a larger plan by China's leader Xi Jinping to exert Communist Party control over the digital space.

"Xi Jinping's entire policy and core values is to make the [Communist] party re-enter people's daily lives, influencing their ideology and their thoughts," she said.

The restrictions on Douyin, China's top live streaming platform, could further expand and strengthen Beijing's censorship over online content. Currently, the app has around 800 million users, with a monthly active user count surpassing 600 million.

Many influencers shy away from political content

In 2022, a prominent shopping live streamer was deactivated on social media for almost four months due to a brief appearance of "a tank-shaped cake" during a live stream.

Netizens suspected the "tank" had been interpreted as a symbol of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on student-led demonstrations.

Tai told DW that although governments indeed have responsibility to take actions on regulating social media content, China's Xi is using this as an excuse to justify a political agenda of social censorship.

KK, the former Chinese influencer manager, said she had helped several live streamers come up with ideas for their programs. But even before the rating system, none of them would ever consider talking about politics.

"It's risky and there's a lot of things to keep in mind, especially in this country. People don't really want to give it a try," KK said.  "If you're politically incorrect, it's highly possible that you could be banned."

Edited by: Wesley Rahn