New media platforms have challenged state-owned outlets and disrupted the once-centralised pipeline for news © Getty
China to tighten censorship of online news
  • Wed, 11/01/2017 - 15:33

by Emily Feng in Beijing 

China is to tighten censorship of online news and information apps amid concerns that loosely regulated private platforms are drawing readers away from more tightly censored state-run outlets.

The regulations, announced this week, will force news and information platforms to conduct regular assessments to prevent the spread of “illegal information”. Staff employed as online moderators at some publications will undergo additional training in socialist values and promoting Communist party news, as will state censors.

China’s cyber space administration, which this year has overseen a mounting crackdown, will implement the new regulations from December 1.

The restrictions come on the heels of last month’s landmark Communist party congress, during which President Xi Jinping cemented himself as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Mr Xi has increased party control over all aspects of Chinese society since taking office in 2013, declaring last year that state media “must work to speak for the party’s will”.

Yet censors have struggled to contain newer media outlets, which have grown quickly despite enduring some of the world’s most restrictive internet controls.

With features such as video live-streaming and discussion forums, new media platforms have challenged the popularity of state-owned outlets and disrupted the once-centralised pipeline for news and information.

“The market competition is increasingly fierce in media,” said Fang Kecheng, a media researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “Political leaders used to have all these newspapers and TV station services to use as mouthpieces but now young people are instead reading off their smartphones.”

Last year, Chinese citizens received a third of their news from traditional sources, while another third came from aggregators such as Tencent News, according to Beijing-based media consultancy iiMedia. The remainder received their news from blogs and forums.

Nearly 555m Chinese people now use online news aggregators, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, an agency with state ties — an increase of more than 50 per cent since 2010. About a quarter of news consumed in China comes from accounts published by party or government organs, according to iiMedia.

Tech groups such as Jinri Toutiao, an AI-powered news app, and Q&A forum Zhihu collectively employ thousands of human “online moderators”, who will be required to undergo additional training under the new regulations, to remove spam and content deemed illicit. 

Those measures have not shielded them from criticism. In September, People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, published a series of three editorials criticising Jinri Toutiao for propagating incorrect information and creating an “information cocoon”.

State media are also learning to adopt some of the tech-savvy techniques of their competitors by launching a number of mobile news apps.

However, such efforts sometimes backfire. Last May, Wujie News, a Xinjiang-based news app backed by the party and Alibaba, published an impassioned letter penned anonymously calling for President Xi to resign. Several Wujie employees were detained and the platform was shut down.

“There’s a constant balancing act. On one hand, operators have to comply with government rules but if you’re too compliant, then you lose your edge,” said Duncan Clark, the founder of consultancy BDA China.

Twitter: @emilyzfeng