Chinese internet users are already used to the country’s periodic crackdown campaigns that suspend popular apps for a period of time. Such crackdowns have largely targeted apps serving up text or video content. Now authorities are moving on to audio.

The Cyberspace Administration of China said they punished 26 audio apps in a clean-up campaign, including a range of voice-based social apps. Some audio apps not listed in CAC’s announcement have been removed from Android app stores, including popular podcast apps Ximalaya FM, Lizhi FM and NetEase Cloud Music, a popular music streaming app that includes podcasts. 

Some reasons cited by CAC will be familiar to anyone following content censorship in China. The agency said some online audio platforms attract attention by hosting pornographic content that goes against “public order and good customs.'' But it also cited other reasons that netizens found more baffling.

CAC accused some online music platforms of promoting anime culture and other subcultures. Some audiobook platforms are allegedly promoting “historical nihilism” by helping spread horror novels featuring zombies and posthumous marriage -- two examples used by CAC. Such content “severely damages the internet environment” and has a bad influence on minors, the agency said.

Popular music streaming app NetEase Cloud Music also hosts podcasts. (Picture: NetEase Cloud Music)

The number of Chinese users of online audio services, which is a combination of podcasts and audiobooks, reached 260 million in 2017, according to an iResearch report. Another report from iiMedia showed the number of online listeners grew to more than 400 million in 2018. But authorities only started tightening censorship on the rapidly-growing sector recently. And many users are confused about terms used in the CAC post.

“So now it’s illegal to listen to horror novels?” one Weibo user asked.

“What’s historical nihilism?” asked another Weibo user. “It’s the first time I’ve heard about this.” 

Many other Weibo users raised the same question. 

The Communist Party of China defines “historical nihilism” as thoughts that “seek to distort the history of modern China’s revolution, the CPC and the armed forces,” as explained in a China Daily article in 2017. So basically anything that casts doubt about the Communist Party’s official version of past events. Official Chinese history apparently doesn’t include zombies.

For a while, podcasts have been considered one of the few places left online for people to take part in discussions that would be deemed sensitive elsewhere. But some recent moves have led people to think things are about to change. Last month, TechCrunch reported that Apple started restricting podcasts on its Chinese store.

Users are also baffled over why authorities are targeting the ACG (anime, comics and gaming) community. Some users of audio apps are saying that it’s not really about inappropriate content.

“Every time they eliminate thoughts by using the excuse of cracking down on pornography,” one Weibo user said. “I’ve been listening to podcasts for so many years and I’ve never come across a so-called dirty show.”

Another Weibo user offered a different take on missing out on China’s audio porn, joking, “Every time I’m the last one to know there is pornographic content. Why on earth is that?”