Previous censorship policies and proactive media strategies have shown that the government in Beijing is keen on controlling the Internet and social media. So what is new about the regulations recently published by the MIIT and SARPPFT?
According to the new regulations, foreign companies and joint ventures are no longer allowed to publish books or magazines for the Chinese Internet, although the regulations do vaguely allude to the possibility to formally apply for an exception. Aside from print publications such as books and magazines, these new rules also apply to other “creative works” such as games and cartoons. Chinese institutions and companies can still engage in online publishing, but they will need to apply for a license. One of the prerequisites of obtaining a license is to insure that all content will have to be hosted on Chinese servers so that authorities can access and block it more easily.
It needs to be pointed out that foreign news media, such as the New York Times, are not directly affected by these particular regulations because “news” and “publishing” are treated differently in China. However, foreign news portals are already facing difficulties in China; at present, they can be censored or blocked at will.
This decision represents a setback for foreign companies who view the Chinese internet as a lucrative market. What is the logic behind this drastic step taken by the Chinese government?
Part of the idea is that Beijing wants to close legal gray areas in which some new types of businesses have been able to operate. China has a very sophisticated system of control for traditional (offline) media, but the Internet has given birth to new types of media and media platforms, forcing the Chinese government to constantly try to catch up with these new developments. In a sense, the new regulations attempt to tie Internet media more closely into the existing framework for traditional media. The restrictions on online publishing are not the only recent measure. In January 2016, the Chinese government also issued new preliminary regulations for online news providers which mandate an official institutional sponsor for anybody involved in the distribution of news online. This should not be a big problem for major news portals such as Sina, but a lot of smaller or players or private individuals will be effectively outlawed by these new rules.
Aside from asserting control over Internet media, the regulations should also be understood as part of China’s campaign for what it calls Internet sovereignty. Particularly since last year, Xi Jinping has been promoting the idea that national sovereignty should be extended to the Internet. This means that within its borders, every country has the right to regulate Internet use – even if that entails massive restrictions of content available to netizens. Xi recently tried to gain support for this idea at the World Internet Congress in the Chinese town of Wuzhen. Basically, the new regulations represent an additional step in translating the concept of Internet sovereignty into real-life measures.
What can we expect from the Chinese government under Xi in terms of control of the Internet in the future?
Since Xi came to power, the Chinese government has drastically and consistently tightened its control over the public sphere. Right in 2013, the government launched a campaign against “harmful content” in social media. In the same year, the government distributed a list of seven taboo topics that prohibit journalists, academics and other people in positions of influence from expressing opinions that veer from the official line on any of the issues. Just recently, the CCP announced its intention to control professors at Chinese universities more strictly. Finally, NGOs and lawyers dealing with politically sensitive topics have faced massive pressure, including arrests.
It is highly unlikely that the current policy of tightening control over the public sphere will change any time in the foreseeable future. Particularly in the field of media management, we are witnessing an increase in what could be termed “confident authoritarianism.” China no longer wants to censor in secret. It increasingly does so openly and by referring to China’s own legal framework as well as the concept of Internet sovereignty.