20 September 2018
File photo of members of the audience listening to Robin Li, founder and chief executive of Chinese search engine Baidu, as he speaks at the Baidu technology innovation conference in Beijing

POLICY WATCH: Keeping a tight grip on the internet

China’s leaders unveiled some key economic and social reforms following a high-level meeting last week, but at the same time stuck to their rigid stance on several contentious matters. On a few issues, the Communist Party top brass, in fact, signaled an even tougher approach. One of them, not surprisingly, relates to the usual bugbear — the internet.

Citing national security concerns, authorities, in a document issued after the third plenum of the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee, suggested higher entry barriers for foreign investment into the fast-growing internet sector and tighter rules on internet management.

Observers were caught somewhat off-guard as the leaders announced the establishment of a new top-level national security committee to oversee security issues ranging from geopolitics to online hacker attacks.

In the document, the party central committee called for scientific development but also urged officials to manage the internet sector better under the legal framework to ensure the safety of the network. The government must push harder on internet management and improve the leadership structure in related entities, making officials accountable for internet and information security.

Political observers believe the party may be aiming to put internet security-related issues under one organization. A unified security body should help the government respond better to external hacker attacks, as well as implement a tighter censorship environment in the domestic virtual world.

The move comes as many Communist Party leaders see the rising internet penetration as a threat to their grip on power. Growing popularity of instant messaging platforms like WeChat and Weibo among the public is a source of worry for authorities, as they fear that online posts and commentary exposing official shortcomings and misdeeds could spur social discontent.

Given such worries, President Xi Jinping {習近平} and his new administration, since taking office in March this year, have been stepping up measures to tighten the reins on the web’s opinion leaders.

Investment bank Credit Suisse Group AG said the new security body reflects the government’s increasing focus on internet and the new media industry. However, the government could potentially further regulate internet content.

While the government will continue to keep an eagle eye on online content, observers point out that fast-growing technology in the internet sector means that it will always outpace the existing legal regime, especially as China had adopted a separate regulatory regime for media content and distribution, and the telecommunications network.

That said, given the current trend of media convergence, the establishment of new security body should help authorities integrate the monitoring of both content and network together to avoid online threats.

With the rising penetration of broadband internet, people, especially the youngsters, are relying more on internet television or online video portals such as Youku and Tudou for entertainment. The new security committee is expected to play a significant role in monitoring the content distributed through the online channels and prevent any “dangerous content” from reaching users’ screens.

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]



EJ Insight writer

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