Customers use computers at an internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province March 16, 2012.

© 2012 Reuters

Why was Chinese actor Wen Zhang touring in Hong Kong with actress Yao Di while his actress wife, Ma Yili, remained at home expecting their second child? Was actress Zheng Shuang really smoking alone on the street? Sadly, we – and tens of millions of people who follow dozens of entertainment news and celebrity gossip social media accounts – will never know these or other future scandals. As of June 8, the government shut them down.

This latest censorship comes on the heels of a meeting during which the Cyberspace Administration, China’s internet regulator, called on companies to “actively promote socialist core values” and stop the spread of “vulgar and kitsch sentiments.” China’s netizens have long-endured censorship of political content, but the removal of sensational gossip accounts caught them and the industry by surprise, leaving many wondering what is still left to say safely. One media manager lamented, “This morning, [I] had thought about several pitches for stories, but self-censorship had already killed them. So, in the end, is it that celebrity gossip is banned, or is it that [we] can’t criticize domestically made films. Is there any certainty?”

The 18th Communist Party Congress in 2012 enshrined 12 “socialist core values”; those include patriotism, honesty, civility, freedom, and democracy. But how authorities invoke those range from the repressive to the ridiculous: Last year, online April Fools’ Day antics were censured for being “inconsistent with socialist core values.” In November, China’s first law governing the film industry went into effect. It aspires to “promote socialist core values” by banning content deemed harmful to China’s “dignity, honor and interests” and requiring permits for films that want to participate in festivals. In May, producers of an animated Chinese comedy withdrew from a French film festival, citing “official pressure.”

In response to Beijing’s latest assault on freedom of expression, Chinese netizens played on a quote from a legal scholar: “They put an end to harsh criticism, then they come after mild criticism...When mild criticism is no more, they put an end to those who maintain independence and aren’t praising. In the end, for those whose applause is not enthusiastic enough, even they will be wiped out.”