China’s tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to limit online freedoms by closing down hundreds of mobile video platforms, firing thousands of journalists and promising to promote state media opinions.
The capitulation is part of the continuing government crackdown on online content, which started earlier this month when regulators closed dozens of the country’s most popular celebrity gossip accounts.
Analysts say the move is a result of the government’s desire to control public debate in the run-up to a big reshuffle of power in the ruling Communist party this autumn.
The culture ministry announced on Thursday that it had enlisted the help of mobile app providers such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu to delete 291 mobile video platforms and had worked with media companies to terminate the contracts of almost 10,000 broadcast journalists and performers.
Sina Weibo, China’s biggest micro-blogging platform, with 340m users — more than its US equivalent Twitter — said late on Wednesday that only holders of a valid media licence would be permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary, and it has banned the uploading of all videos longer than 15 minutes, putting an end to in-depth news features and entertainment shows.
As the influence of online video grows, regulators can no longer turn a blind eye
In its post explaining the decision, Weibo referred to last week’s statement from the media regulator, which complained that a vast number of political news videos “did not meet with national guidelines”. The regulator also accused social commentary videos of “disseminating negative opinions”.
Weibo also said it would strengthen its collaboration with the government’s media mouthpieces, such as the People’s Daily, in order to “strengthen the voice of mainstream discourse”.
Journalists and netizens have decried the crackdown. Unlike politics or economics reporting, celebrity and entertainment media had been previously thought of as outside the scope of strict government censorship. Social media news channels had also enjoyed more freedom than traditional media.
“The 19th national congress is coming and requires a clear political atmosphere,” said Song Jianwu, professor of media at Renmin University in Beijing, referring to the looming five-yearly meeting of the ruling Communist party.
The 2017 national party congress — the highest-level Communist party forum — will be a particularly stressful time for China’s politicians as it marks the start of President Xi Jinping’s second term. Analysts expect Mr Xi to solidify his rule through new appointments and to impress upon onlookers the strength of Communist party governance.
Last week Bilibili, a video-sharing website with more than 100m monthly active users — the majority of which are millennials sharing anime cartoons — started requiring video uploaders to provide copies of their passport or ID card, making it easier for the government to punish the sharing of videos deemed inappropriate.
Chinese law had always stipulated that video and news providers required a licence to operate, but until this month online media had existed in a grey zone.
China’s new cyber security law, which came into force on June 1, increases government control over the internet and requires online media providers to obtain a licence.
“As the influence of online video grows, regulators can no longer turn a blind eye,” Prof Song said.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu
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