Logo Logo

Web Special

Taming Online Media Platforms

The Art of Information Control in China

By Daniela Stockmann
March 2016

Each year, China undergoes a cycle of tightening and loosening of its media policy: Just recently, the government tightened regulations for publishing “creative works” online. Starting from mid-March, foreign-financed enterprises are no longer allowed to publish a broad range of works online. This is part of Beijing’s strategy to tighten control over Internet media. 

Other news outlets are targeted virtually every year around the time of the Spring Festival and the meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. Then, reporting is more tightly controlled than toward the end of the year, when there is more room for criticism. In the wake of China’s economic slowdown information control is particularly important.

Growth of Internet and Social Media Users

Source: China Internet Network Information Center; Rongbin Han (University of Georgia) 

Integrating online news into the existing propaganda apparatus

This year, the beginning of the cycle coincided with the publication of an opinion-seeking draft for new rules regarding the management of online news information services by the Chinese Cyberspace administration (ENCN). These rules published mid-January formally lay out informal rules that have developed since the establishment of the Cyberspace administration in 2014. The document also provides insights into how the new administration is integrating news circulating via “Internet sites, application software, fo­­rums, blogs, microblogs, instant messaging tools and search engines, as well as other applications having news, public opinion or social mobilization functions” into the existing Propaganda apparatus. From the party’s perspective the document lays out a brilliant strategy that, on the one hand, addresses tensions with media and IT personnel resulting from Internet control, but on the other hand, re-establishes authority of the party over news and current affairs published in Chinese cyberspace.

Balancing control and business models

Outsiders often mistakenly conclude that China’s propaganda system is a top-down system of control, with the party giving order and media falling into place. Within China’s authoritarian apparatus propaganda authorities clearly have the final say, but propaganda officials are very much aware that the regulations for Internet control are often unpopular among media and IT companies, who see themselves under pressure between the state and the market. 

Business models for IT startups rely on increasing the number of active users in order to attract advertising and investment; when users demand online services that conflict with directives by the Propaganda authorities, tension arises between profit-seeking businesses and the state. In order to be able to satisfy the tastes of an increasing number of citizens who get the news digitally, the party has to 

walk the fine line between, on the one hand, allowing media to successfully attract users, and on the other hand, reestablishing its authority over the process of news production. China’s new strategy regarding online news production does so in several ways:

Most importantly, the document asks organizations to obtain a new license in order to operate. Reregistration is a softer means to stir online news media in the “right” direction compared to forced closures, as we learn from the past. In 1987, the Central Propaganda Department and State Press and Publication Administration asked newspapers to reregister, allowing the state to suppress publications that had “committed political mistakes” or were of low quality. Reregistration resulted in the closure of 92 newspapers, but in comparison the massive crackdown on 880 newspapers after the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations had a more lasting effect.

Restricting the user – lowering tensions between authorities and IT businesses

Greater transparency aid in legitimizing censorship and also lower tensions between the Propaganda authorities and IT businesses. According to the new rules, user agreements are supposed to stipulate that users may not “produce, reproduce, disseminate or reprint information.” In line with China’s emphasis on Internet Sovereignty Chinese user agreements currently contain restrictions regarding political use for users located within the territory of the People’s Republic of China and Chinese citizens anywhere in the world. Producing news are now supposed to be added to the list.

Registration rules favor party-owned businesses

When asking for reregistration, the rules clearly favor party-owned businesses over others by actually extending rights to produce news to certain initiatives that were supposed to only reprint reports from traditional media outlets and the Xinhua news agency before. Now, to produce news it is no longer required to be sponsored by a traditional media or state unit; instead it is sufficient if news and propaganda units hold at least 51 percent of company shares. The 51 percent rule stems from a longstanding experience of allowing previously fully state-owned media to partially privatize and attract investment. In 2001 the central government transformed state assets into party-owned assets, so China’s media industry is de facto owned by the Chinese Communist Party (see the 2005 rules here). Should China ever allow for competitive elections between parties, the CCP is going to enjoy a major advantage in campaigning.

“Self-made media” may face pressure

Other initiatives outside of the party’s reach work on the boundaries between what is considered news and background stories. Private initiatives and “Self-made Media” like Wechat’s Daxiang Gonghui (大象公会) often start on social media and provide background information regarding news stories. These new information sources do not present themselves as news agencies, but assume similar roles and may face pressure to shut down depending on how the concept of “news” is interpreted by Cyberspace administrators. 

Because citizens perceive non-official information sources as more trustworthy compared to official ones, they present a potential threat to the party as they may challenge the official line of national and local governments.

Although not considered a news-producing unit, the rules now fully endorse online news services by Twitter-like Sina Weibo or smartphone apps and web 2.0-style newsblogs like Wechat and “The Paper.” Responding to complaints by media personnel and web administrators about the vagueness of rules, these organizations can now refer to a constantly updated and publicly available blacklist, called “Internet news information service online credit files.” Information distributed by blacklisted organizations are not allowed to be distributed by users and supposed to be deleted.  Enforcement is also outsourced to users who exert pressure on companies to enforce the rules instead of the Propaganda authorities: users have the right to complain and report problems, and Internet news information service providers are supposed to respond by giving feedback to users, report back to Propaganda authorities, and enforce censorship, if necessary.

The “right to be forgotten” does not exist in China

With the rise of new media many scholars and public intellectuals, such as Evgeny Morozov or Rebecca MacKinnon, have noted a worldwide trend towards the strengthening of ICT regulations, thus potentially reviving the importance of the nation-state as well as transnational organizations, such as the European Union, in shaping transnational information flows. In contrast to European efforts that place highest priority to the so-called “right to be forgotten” and protection of personal information, Chinese regulations require companies to preserve user records for 60 days and provide state units access to these data according to the law. Government officers are required to maintain secrecy of user identity information, but also the “daily information they encounter in the process of exercising their duties.” Not surprisingly, privacy of users does not extend to government agencies and the processes handling personal data remain obscure to users. 

Strict information control is not only a Chinese story

Although China is often used as an example of tight ICT regulations the infrastructure China has built to guide public opinion through media is not as unique as it may seem at first glance.When comparing China to other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the post-Soviet region, I found that many authoritarian states have been building institutions that are helping them to increase their capacity to use the Internet and market-based media for their own benefit. These states tend to be ruled by one party in the absence of competitive elections, as in China, or they tend to be dominated by one party although some competition between parties is taking place, as in Armenia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, for example. 

Such one-party regimes are more likely to have the institutional capacity to control information than other kinds of regimes.

These comparisons suggest that the new strategy regarding online media platforms will guide news production into a direction that is to the advantage of the party. In practice, Chinese ICT regulations are rarely enforced to the same degree as they appear “on paper”, but given China’s sophisticated infrastructure we can expect a strengthening of party control over online news production in the near future.



The Author

Daniela Stockmanns research is funded by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (ERC).

  • Stiftung Mercator