22 January 2020

POLICY WATCH: When ideology trumps economics

Win some, lose some. That’s what it boils down to in China’s paradoxical approach to certain policies.

So, while the government loosened financial regulations with the launch of the Shanghai free trade zone, it tightened its grip on the news media at the same time.

China already has some of the world’s most stringent media censorship laws. Its Great Firewall, which filters information the government deems harmful to social harmony, has kept Apple Daily and the New York Times, among other news organizations, inaccessible to Chinese readers.

It doesn’t stop there. Several well-known micro bloggers have been arrested for allegedly spreading rumors and some legitimate critics have been muzzled.

Now the government has opened a new front in its crackdown on the news media: mobile news apps.

At least six have been named as violators including Zaker, mobee, chouti and my1510.

In a Sept. 30 circular, the State Internet Information Office said their owners have been operating without proper certification and have been publishing false information.

The apps are said to include content from foreign news outlets which are not permitted to distribute to Chinese readers without government approval.

Zaker claims a user base of 17.5 million as of end-April. Chouti is notable for its slogan, “publish all that should not be published”.

The stepped-up crackdown on the online media sector comes after the arrest of several well-known micro bloggers for allegedly spreading rumors.

Authorities are particularly tough on rumor-mongering. For instance, if a web page that published a rumor draws 5,000 or more hits or the rumor is reposted on social networking sites more than 500 times, the person responsible for it could face up to three years in jail.

Some mobile news apps have been accused of carrying news and commentary “not suitable for public places” and publishing pornography and obscene material, harming the “physical and psychological health” of young people, according to authorities.

Local officials have been directed to rigorously enforce the relevant regulations on mobile news apps and close companies that refuse to comply. Owners of the concerned news apps have been told to clean up their act.

Observers, however, see the crackdown not so much as a way to promote factual information but as a means to control the virtual world. China has been filtering online content from its citizens and from people and organizations outside the country.

In a sign that the government might have been unsure about opening up internet access in the Shanghai free trade zone, it was reported that it will lift all restrictions. An official denial came just hours after the story broke.

The Shanghai FTZ is an experiment in financial reform and innovation. In order to attract foreign companies, local authorities have put together what arguably are some of the most investor-friendly policies. Foreign players naturally like the idea of unfettered internet access.

However, observers said that in the context of the Shanghai FTZ, the government has signaled that ideology trumps economics.

That is part of the reason internet cafes, news organizations and online game operators are not welcome in the zone.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]



    EJ Insight writer