Chinese govt cracks down on online gaming, TikTok — claiming that tech has outsize influence on society

On a recent school holiday in Shanghai, 11-year-old friends Logan Cui and Tylor Wang spent an afternoon on an iPad — indulging in their favorite hobby, video games.

They were so immersed in PUBG, a battle royal-type shooter game, that they could barely tear their eyes from the screen.

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“All of our classmates play online games. And between classes, that’s all we talk about.”

Tylor Wang, 11-year-old gamer

“All of our classmates play online games,” Wang said while Cui took his turn. “And between classes, that’s all we talk about.”

Screen time is hard to come by, though. After school and on weekends, Wang’s parents keep him busy with homework, sports and English classes. But now, there’s a new government crackdown that means even sneaking online to play games is getting harder for kids.

“We can only play online three hours a week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Wang said. “And we have to sign in with our real name.”

It’s the harshest restriction so far on the game industry as Chinese regulators continue cracking down on the technology sector.

Minors in China can only play games between 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays, weekends and on public holidays, according to a notice that was effective starting last month from the National Press and Publication Administration.

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That three-hour limit is down from a previous restriction set in 2019 that allowed minors to play games for 1 1/2 hours per day and three hours on public holidays.

The new regulation affects some of China’s largest technology companies, including gaming giant Tencent, whose Honor of Kings online multiplayer game is hugely popular globally, as well as gaming company NetEase.

The gaming restrictions are part of an ongoing crackdown on technology companies, amid concerns that technology firms — many of which provide ubiquitous messaging, payments and gaming services — may have an outsized influence on society.

Chinese authorities in recent months have targeted e-commerce and online education, and have implemented new regulations to curb anti-competitive behavior after years of rapid growth in the technology sector.

Last month, authorities banned companies that provide tutoring in core school subjects from making a profit, wiping out billions in market value from online education companies such as TAL Education and Gaotu Techedu.

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Limits for kids playing online games and watching videos on TikTok were also announced.

Ernan Cui, an economist at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, said these new regulations are the government’s way of showing it’s protecting the country’s future workforce.

“We have seen very intense policies in a lot of sectors to protect the young people from getting bad influence, either on gaming or online videos or like celebrities that are setting bad examples for young people.”

Ernan Cui, Gavekal Dragonomics

“We have seen very intense policies in a lot of sectors to protect the young people from getting bad influence, either on gaming or online videos or like celebrities that are setting bad examples for young people,” she said.

Even celebrity fan culture has brought new government scrutiny. Chinese fans are famous for buying up billboard ads in places like Times Square in New York to promote their favorite stars. The government has expressed concern that young people are spending too much time and money on such distractions.

“The Chinese government has taken a series of steps in recent days to rein in celebrity worship and fan clubs, amid growing concerns among officials that the relentless quest for online attention is poisoning the minds of the country’s youth,” The New York Times said in a recent report.

Tang Yuan, 18, is a telemarketer in the city of Hangzhou. She’s a fan of Wang Yuan, a singer in China’s top boy band TFBoys. Her username on social media is “Going with Wang Yuan to the Beach.”

“Some fans are really crazy,” Tang said. “The government, of course, has to control this problem.”

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But she added she doesn’t think her idol will feel the heat. He’s on the good side of the government, she said.

Bo Zhuang, an economist at Loomis Sayles in Singapore, said that this is all part of the plan to make China less dependent on the US.

Beijing, he said, wants Chinese companies to move away from soft-tech like social apps and put their energy into stuff like manufacturing semiconductors and microchips.

“It’s all part of the long-term strategy to make sure that China will be a future leading manufacturing powerhouse,” he said. “Cracking down on Alibaba, Tencent, Didi — it’s all part of the strategy to outcompete the US, or at least to be an equal weight with the US.”

”The government also wants more access to the massive amounts of data that tech companies are collecting from their users. China’s zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy, for example, has relied on contact tracing that comes from user data from social media apps.

“It’s increasingly clear that the Chinese government wants to take control, to let internet firms share this data and help the government to improve their governance,” Ernan said. 

All these crackdowns come in the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party Congress next fall. Many are expecting that Xi Jinping will be granted a third term as Party leader.

Economist Bo Zhuang said all these regulatory moves are part of Xi’s strategy to be seen as a success.

“Xi Jinping needs to burnish his socialist stamp on this Chinese political system. All those measures are part of his so-called election campaign we might call it or socialist push. He needs a reason to strengthen his legitimacy to continue with his third term.”

Dali Yang, from the University of Chicago, said everyone wants to be seen as doing their part.

“Bureaucrats in China have become very risk averse, especially with all the very strident crackdowns on corruption,” he said. “It’s very important to be seen as following the leadership of Chairman Xi and getting things done. You don’t just do something, you want to do it with a bang.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Steve Liem

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