In June last year China’s Cyberspace Administration introduced new rules governing online news portals. All content managers had to be accredited and trained by government propaganda departments.
“Internet news and information services must serve socialism, correctly guide public opinion… and create a positive, healthy and advanced online culture,” the new regulations stipulated.
It was a blow to China’s once flourishing online news industry. The number of information platforms subjected to the government’s so-called “rectification” programmes have since more than tripled from the previous year to around 2,000.
This month it was the turn of NetEase Finance, a popular financial news aggregator run by Nasdaq-listed NetEase.
On September 11 it issued a notice saying that after “profound review and reflection” it had decided to close down the site while it “vigorously worked on rectifying violations”. It added that it welcomed supervision and that it would work towards creating a “network space that is clean and tidy”.
This came after another meeting between Xi Jinping and the Party’s senior propagandists, where the Chinese leader dished out another directive that he wanted the nation’s internet to be “clean and righteous”.
But just what had NetEase Finance done to warrant such a sudden cessation of activities?
Two theories did the rounds online: one that it had published a story confirming that actress Fan Bingbing was detained for alleged tax evasion (see WiC424); the other that it ran a commentary saying that the threshold for paying income tax in China should be raised from Rmb5,000 ($730.66) per month to Rmb10,000.
The second article, which was published by the website’s own “think tank”, runs counter to one of the government’s goals of raising more tax revenue.
China’s media crackdown actually began almost as soon as Xi assumed the leadership of the Party in 2012. Under the previous administration headed by Hu Jintao, news and social media sites had been given more leeway to expand and host a wider range of opinions.
But Xi saw this as potentially destabilising and a threat to his project of ‘national rejuvenation’.
To accompany that theme he’s promoted the idea of ‘Internet Sovereignty’ – the concept that national governments should defend their control over cyberspace just as they defend the country’s borders. In China that means controlling the parts of the worldwide web that its citizens can see, and introducing a raft of rules about what can and cannot be disseminated online.
Pornography in particular has been a target, but so too have websites that host foreign TV shows or share bawdy jokes.
In 2017 The National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications shut down 130,000 websites, Xinhua reported.
The number of foreign websites blocked in China has also increased and Beijing has launched an on-off war on VPNs – a subscriber service used to jump over the Great Firewall and access an unfettered internet.
In 2017 Freedom House, the Washington-based research institute, claimed that China had been the worst abuser of internet freedom for three years in a row.
In particular it cited the 2016 Cybersecurity Law requiring network users to register with their real names and store their data inside China – as well as the detentions of citizens who were deemed to have spread rumours online.
“Internet companies are required to monitor and delete problematic content or face punishment. The Cybersecurity Law requires network operators to ‘immediately stop transmission’ of banned content,” it noted.
Since 2016 there has a been sharp increase in the supervision of information platforms. According to media reports, Tencent, Sina, Sohu and ifeng have all been criticised or fined by state censors for breaking the rules.
The directors of NetEase are said to have received calls from regulators on at least 10 occasions. The question now is whether NetEase Finance will be allowed to return. The answer is probably yes. But as with other ‘rectified’ platforms its punchier tone may disappear.
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