This is a fascinating new era of socialist reform, one that is highly ambitious and radical and is ultimately aimed at achieving one result: winning the technological battle against America.
The scale of Xi Jinping’s social revolution intensifies every day, and nothing seems to be safe from its reach. To go alongside the dramatic reorganisation of private tutoring, the mauling of big tech and the campaign against celebrity culture, now the Chinese state is turning its sights towards what it perceives to be excessive gaming amongst young people. Tough new regulations aim to limit their activities on gaming platforms to just three hours a week, describing it as “spiritual opium” and stressing that it negatively impacts their mental health, as well as seeking to ensure that children focus more on their education.
It’s another effort to move China’s society in line with its national priorities, and yet another indication that the interests of “big business” do not always represent the interests of society as a whole, as many western countries habitually assume. George Soros has recently voiced his disquiet, but that’s probably more of a sign that China is on the right path than anything else.
In context, the evolution and growth of video games are something that have comprehensively changed our lives and the way we entertain ourselves. In just four decades or so, computer gaming and consoles have rewritten the recreational activities and hobbies of millions, sweeping classical “family board games” into near antiquity. Every child from the 1990s has grown up with various consoles, from the Playstation, to the Nintendo, to the XBox, to massive online platforms such as Steam. Along with its impact on lifestyles, modern gaming has also spawned a mega industry that amounts to hundreds of billions.
China has a huge slice of that pie. But herein lies the problem in Xi’s eyes. The video game industry thrives on perpetuating their products and on consuming ever more of young people’s time and resources, even if it disrupts their social and educational development. While games are fun and entertaining, they ultimately are not the real world. The effort put into them never truly achieves something tangible or worthwhile, and that is why China is firmly putting its foot down, effectively saying “enough is enough: Children should be focusing on their real priorities in their lives.” And the number one priority is education, not the fantasy universe of gaming.
This is bad news for China’s biggest gaming conglomerates such as Tencent, who have already taken a beating with Beijing’s wider shake up, but there is an innate wisdom in this, and it relates to China’s intensifying technological struggle with the US and its own vision to achieve development.
And that is: China should be developing better semiconductor, artificial intelligence and high-end technology chip firms, not bigger and increasingly bulging computer-game companies. If there’s one message that has come out of the events of the past few months, it is that a country’s economic strength is not merely defined by how many ‘Mark Zuckerbergs’ it has. Xi is relentlessly articulating a direct and clarified vision for China’s economy, and using socialist principles to make the case for it. He has decided that some things are more important to China’s economy and its strategic development than others. It isn’t about who simply has the most billionaires or the biggest companies, but the challenge with the US means that there is a very specific field of things the country needs to excel in, and its strategic future and success depend on it. Therefore, Xi has brought his hammer down on young people and gaming habits as part of his broader comprehensive approach to education, which has also included an end to for-profit tutoring.
But how exactly is this three-hour limit going to be enforced? Who tells the children “you’ve had your three hours, turn it off now!”, especially if parents are not cooperative? China will undoubtedly push the regulatory burden on gaming companies to enforce it, and will punish them if they don’t. Based on how modern China works with identity and data, people may be forced to sign up to gamer platforms verifying their age and identity documents, which will then restrict their time accordingly. There may well be ways to get around these limits – just ask the hundreds of millions of Chinese people who use VPNs (virtual private networks that mask your real identity or location) – so the extent of its effectiveness is unclear, and a lot of it may hinge on the willingness of parents to be responsible and discipline their kids.
In summary, China is saying clearly that it doesn’t want, need or value gamers. It’s a pastime that is fundamentally a distraction, something that is okay in moderation, but not as a wholesale addiction given it has little social value whatsoever. In branding it “spiritual opium,” China metaphorically touches base on a powerful historical memory: that it is locked in a new ‘Opium war’ against the west, with a series of countries wanting to impose their ideological, economic and strategic preferences on China, just like the British sought to in the 19th Century with its exports of the drug from the Indian subcontinent.
But this time Beijing has resolved that this kind of subjugation will never be allowed to happen again. Xi doesn’t want a society of gamers, he wants a society of engineers, scientists, doctors, and innovators; the sort of people who can ensure that Beijing wins the technological race and gains the upper hand in the struggle with America. In so doing, he is utilising the strongest principles of collectivism against the individualistic nature of western societies, where kids pretty much do what they want. This is a new era of socialist reform, one that is highly ambitious and unequivocally radical. It’s going to be a fascinating experiment.