Following the passage of a new cybersecurity law and the removal of term limits from Chinese president Xi Jinping, China’s government is conducting a comprehensive crackdown on online discussions and content, with few companies spared the rod by the central government.
Among the casualties has been Bytedance, the extremely high-flying $20 billion media unicorn startup which was forced to publicly apologize for content that degraded the character of the nation. The government forced the company to shut down its popular Neihan Duanzi comedy app, as well as to remove its headline news app, Jinri Toutiao, for three weeks. The company announced that it would expand the number of human censors from 6,000 to 10,000.
Another high-flying media unicorn, Kuaishou, has been under fire for allowing teenage moms to be depicted in a positive light. The app is unique among China’s top social networks in focusing on ordinary Chinese, and is known for its focus on people outside of large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The company has faced public criticism from central television channel CCTV, as well as from regulators who have demanded the company act more aggressively in removing the content, a demand the company has acquiesced to.
Meanwhile, over at Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, the company announced on Friday that it would ban violent and gay content from its service, following instructions from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. LGBT content has been in the crosshairs of the country’s media regulators for years; for example, censors banned “abnormal sexual behaviors” from being depicted in any media or mobile apps in 2017, a term which includes homosexuality.
However, in a rare about-face for corporate China and internet censors, the company announced that it would reverse its ban of LGBT-themed content, following thousands of comments and discussions online by gay Chinese citizens. The company’s crackdown on other content though is expected to continue though.
There are other forms of censorship underway these days in China. China’s soccer players were banned from having tattoos a few weeks ago, since it depicts a “dispirited culture,” which is banned on all media. Perhaps most importantly, the government has banned the use of private VPNs, in order to better control online discourse.
China’s censorship regime is certainly not new, but its intensity around culture and how it is depicted is relatively novel. While the Chinese government has generally kept a tight lid on political dissent, particularly since the Tiananmen Protests in 1989, it has generally used a lighter touch on non-political subjects.
However, the Communist Party of China is now attempting to control the culture much more directly, not just on broadcast media like television, but also on apps and devices throughout the Middle Kingdom.
Following the National People’s Congress in March, the regulation of China’s media has been reassigned from the government to the party’s Central Propaganda Department. Since then, the party has been working in overdrive to tamp down content that it deems to be foreign, crude, vulgar, or not in the best spirit of the Chinese people.
While China’s media startups generally focus heavily on the mainland, their apps are also located in the app stores in other countries. Bytedance, which was forced to shut down its news app, also owns musical.ly, the popular music video app used by approximately 14% of American teenagers, according to some estimates. China’s censorship regime doesn’t stop at the nation’s borders then, but can extend its influence far wider.
Another example is Grindr, the popular gay dating app, which sold a majority share of its ownership to Beijing Kunlun Tech Company in early 2016.
The crackdown on speech is expected to continue over the coming weeks as the new rules are applied uniformly across the country. The situation is a reminder of the challenges of Chinese companies operating in the heavily-controlled country.
Although there are many trade tensions between the U.S. and China these days, a key issue has been access to the Chinese market for American technology companies. Even if China were to open its borders though, it remains unclear how U.S. companies could faithfully apply the law of China while maintaining their own moral standards.