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China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, China, Dec.16, 2015. (ALY SONG/REUTERS)
China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the 2nd annual World Internet Conference in Wuzhen town of Jiaxing, China, Dec.16, 2015. (ALY SONG/REUTERS)

Chinese censors clamp down on popular online videos Add to ...

China’s dour censors have long maintained a lengthy naughty list, and used it to keep the country’s television sets unsullied by anything deemed to “lack positive thoughts and meaning.”

Now, the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has vowed to apply the same rules online, slamming shut an era of looser rules for Internet video, amid a sweeping campaign to reassert strict new controls over the country’s cultural life – a campaign motivated in part by fears that speech must be controlled lest a slowing economy sow dangerous unhappiness.

Chinese video websites such as youku.com, iqiyi.com and le.com, which blend the features of YouTube and Netflix, have flourished in recent years, attracting enormous audiences for their content, some of it bawdy and boundary-pushing. The makers of online video had largely been allowed to self-regulate, with shows dropped only if they caused too much of a stir after people started watching.

But China now says it will extend its strict censorship rules to Internet video, under the principle that “what can’t play on TV can’t play online,” a change that promises to end to what had been an avenue for freer expression.

Authorities have already knocked at least seven popular shows offline in recent months, including Web dramas dealing with time-travel, homosexuality, journalistic ethics and elder abuse. Together, those shows had attracted billions of views, before gaining scorn from censors as being too prurient, violent or superstitious. One reappeared weeks later, with a third of its content gone. Censors have also taken a hard-line approach recently to plunging necklines in an imperial court drama.

In China, one online comment was as searing as it was succinct: “Is this North Korea?”

Only two months in, 2016 has already become the year of the Chinese media crackdown, a campaign driven by parallel efforts to assert Communist Party supremacy and keep a lid on dissent that might emerge amid a slowing economy.

This weekend, Ren Zhiqiang became the highest-profile target. The bold property developer was nicknamed “the Cannon” for his willingness to challenge the party line, through sometimes scathing posts to social media. He accumulated 38 million followers – until Sunday, when China’s Internet regulator deleted his social-media accounts.

Weeks earlier, Mr. Xi visited the central organs of the state media apparatus – Xinhua, CCTV and the People’s Daily – on a smiles-and-handshakes tour intended to strike fear into the country’s journalists.

“The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name,” Mr. Xi said. Party media “must love the party, protect the party and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”

That mandate has grown particularly important as China’s economic growth rate slows and its stock markets fall, while the closings of factories and mines affects ever-larger numbers of people. Last summer, amid a market rout, authorities arrested hundreds for “rumour-mongering,” including a journalist who reported non-public information about internal financial policy debate. In late February, the state-run China Daily explicitly tied Mr. Xi’s new media mandate to the weakening prospects.

“It is necessary for the media to restore people’s trust in the Party, especially as the economy has entered a new normal and suggestions that it is declining and dragging down the global economy have emerged,” the paper wrote in an editorial.

The same strict mindset is being applied to cultural matters, leading to the pledge Sunday by Chinese authorities to halt the different treatment for online video, which had largely been allowed to self-regulate, with shows dropped only if they caused too much of a stir after people started watching.

Luo Jianhui, head of the online audio visual program department at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, criticized online production for its poor writing and bad quality control, which he said yielded absurd, bizarre and vulgar content, in comments reported by Chinese media.

He pledged to “strengthen” management of online video and increase punishment for offenders.

“The government thinks online security is equivalent to national security, so it’s not something that they can let slide,” said Will Tao, an independent China Internet expert in Beijing.

It’s a catchup game by Beijing, as its people stampede away from traditional media.

Last year, for the first time, Chinese spent more than half of their media-consumption time on the Internet, with TV coming in second at 46.3 per cent, according to estimates by Beijing-based iResearch, which conducts online audience research. The country now counts 460 million online video viewers; in early 2014, they watched 5.7 billion hours of content a month, a figure that has since risen – in part because viewers lapped up edgier online content.

Those sites had broadcast serious work online, too, including Under The Dome, a groundbreaking environmental documentary by a Chinese journalist that racked up 200 million hits before it was taken down.

Now, viewers are bracing for a tide of boring.

“The good part of this new regulation is that products which are too crappy won’t be able to pass the censors,” critic and writer Shen Jiake said. “The bad part is, too many limits won’t help produce great work. Creative vitality will be affected.”

Chinese online video companies, which have largely lost money, also face tougher economic times if they are barred from producing the most popular shows.

“It will reduce the attractiveness of their content to some extent,” said Wang Zheng, consulting director at China Media Management Inc., a Beijing media consultancy.

David Moser, a China commentator who is academic director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal, called it “a death of anything that smacks of subversion or alternative content or uncomfortable reality.”

Making online video look like television “puts everything down to the lowest common denominator. It’s all equally stultifying, all equally bland, all equally conservative.”

With a report from Yu Mei

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