China’s internet watchdog intensifies campaign against independent content creators, says regulators must have ‘teeth’

Josh Ye
·5-min read

China’s internet watchdog announced new details for its plan to crack down on “self-media”, social media accounts run by independent content producers, which analysts interpret as targeting political content and comes after authorities targeted citizen journalists for reporting on conditions in Wuhan last year in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is exploring measures to control the distribution of information across all internet platforms to end “disruption to the order of internet broadcasts”, the agency said on Sunday. The campaign will primarily focus on cleaning up self-media accounts, but it also targets social media trending charts, push notifications and short video platforms, according to the report.

The announcement comes a week after the CAC updated rules on managing public internet accounts, the first change made since 2017, which are set to take effect on February 22. The rules specify the type of content platforms should ban, including fake information, rumours and artificially inflated traffic numbers.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

The announcement makes it clear that the CAC aims to curb independent reporting and reposting of information considered illegal while promoting government-sanctioned stories.

The rise of social media platforms such as Tencent Holdings’ WeChat and Sina Weibo, and more recently a new breed of video-sharing platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou and Bilibili, has enabled countless self-media accounts around the country, giving a voice to millions of Chinese netizens over the past decade.

But in recent years, Chinese regulators have taken an increasingly hard line against self-media outlets in an effort to clean up Big Tech business practices.

“The government is trying to probably treat these platforms, especially the major tech giants, not only as private companies, but also more like government infrastructure,” said Jyh-an Lee, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) who researches internet law.

Lee said China has been stepping up its efforts against user-generated content even as it recognises the power they have to fuel certain economic activities. The government primarily wants companies to impose boundaries on political content, he said.

“Adhering to correct political direction and directing public opinions and value orientations are the top priorities [for companies], no matter what kind of platforms or forms of communication they adopt,” CAC minister Zhuang Rongwen said in a statement.

Internet clean-up campaigns are a regular occurrence in China, and they have targeted self-media in the past. Last July, CAC launched a three-month campaign with the aim of cultivating the “healthy and orderly development” of self-media. The organisation said some self-media spread false information, distorted party and country history, and promoted the wrong values.

CAC’s decision to more closely scrutinise self-media accounts comes a month after Beijing decided to go ahead with the country’s top annual parliamentary meetings, known as the “two sessions”, scheduled for March 4 amid a resurgence in Covid-19 infections. Internet restrictions are typically tightened in China in the weeks leading up to the meetings.

Content moderation can get costlier with China‘s new social media rules

“We have to treat the regulations of self-media as a preeminently important mission, furthering the degree to which we punish and deal with illegal, unregulated accounts and the platforms that they are on,” Zhuang said.

“We have to give regulators teeth and the violative entities a long memory,” he added.

Zhuang Rongwen, minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said companies should ensure self-media accounts adhere to “correct political direction”, a week after the CAC updated the rules governing such accounts. Photo: Reuters
Zhuang Rongwen, minister of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said companies should ensure self-media accounts adhere to “correct political direction”, a week after the CAC updated the rules governing such accounts. Photo: Reuters

China now has 940 million internet users, larger than the population of Europe, and 99.3 per cent also use mobile devices, according to the latest report by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC). Self-media accounts have become a popular source of information for many people, especially on the mobile app WeChat, China’s largest social media platform, where content producers can make money from tips.

Citizen journalists played a unique role in reporting information from Wuhan when the city was locked down after the coronavirus outbreak. Videos and images circulated widely online, purportedly showed packed hospitals and dead people in hallways.

A 37-year-old citizen journalist named Zhang Zhan live-streamed reports from Wuhan last February before being arrested a few months later. Zhang had been critical of the government’s response in Wuhan, accusing it of covering up the severity of the viral outbreak and infringing on human rights.

In December, Zhang was sentenced to four years in prison after being found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a broad charge often used for stifling dissent.

An ambulance drives across a nearly empty bridge in Wuhan in January 2020 when the Hubei province city was under a 76-day lockdown. Photo: AP
An ambulance drives across a nearly empty bridge in Wuhan in January 2020 when the Hubei province city was under a 76-day lockdown. Photo: AP

China’s clean-up campaigns often target different types of content, especially those considered morally objectionable such as pornography and gambling. However, CUHK’s Lee said this new campaign is specifically focused on political content.

“[Xi Jinping] cares a lot about the internet and the content regulation compared with previous administrations,” Lee said. “He also imposed more control over the internet and online information.”

More recently, the growth of online video has allowed a new generation of tech companies to wrestle away attention from entrenched players like Tencent and Sina. ByteDance, Kuaishou and Bilibili have become China’s hottest tech stars.

How US newsletter site Substack took inspiration from China’s WeChat

ByteDance’s Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is now one of the country’s most popular social platforms. Rival Kuaishou just held Hong Kong’s hottest IPO with shares slated to start trading on February 5, which could see the company valued at more than US$60 billion. Bilibili listed on the Nasdaq in 2018 and is now worth more than US$39 billion.

However, the government’s heavy hand in content management could be costly for the country’s tech giants, according to Mark Tanner, managing director at Shanghai-based consultancy China Skinny.

“For the platforms, they will need more processing power to monitor many simultaneous live streams for all of the disallowed terms,” Tanner said.

More from South China Morning Post:

This article China’s internet watchdog intensifies campaign against independent content creators, says regulators must have ‘teeth’ first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.