I’m no fan of censorship, but I still have to compliment Beijing on its recent unusual decision to inform South Korea of the reasons behind its recent decision to block LINE, a popular mobile instant messaging service.
This kind of explanation would sound normal in any other country; but it represents a big step for Chinese censors who are highly secretive when they block internet sites, ban foreign films and TV shows and take other similar actions.
Many people won’t be truly satisfied with China until it completely removes its practice of censoring material that simply expresses different views from the central government or is critical of high government officials.
But at least this unusual act of openly explaining one of its censorship actions marks a move in the direction of more transparency, which could be a small sign of improvement in helping companies navigate the difficult Chinese media market.
Chinese users of LINE, which competes with global rival WhatsApp and homegrown giant WeChat, were surprised about a month ago when they suddenly discovered the mobile internet-based service was blocked on their smartphones without any explanation.
The blockage looked quite worrisome since it came just months before LINE was reportedly planning to launch an official China-based version of its service.
Up until now, LINE, like many other web-based services like WhatsApp and Skype, has been available in China via service hosted by offshore servers not subject to the country’s tough self-censorship requirements.
According to the latest reports, South Korea has confirmed that Chinese government authorities have given it an official explanation of the blockage of LINE, along with another similar service called Kaokao Talk.
The South Korean Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said Beijing officials informed it that the sites were blocked because they were being used to facilitate terrorism-related activities.
A number of other services were also blocked for the same reason, including ones called Didi, Vower and Talk Box, according to the reports.
The South Korean ministry added in a statement that it will continue to work with the relevant Chinese authorities until the issue is resolved, which would presumably involve the complete restoration of access to LINE and Kaokao Talk to users in China.
LINE certainly wasn’t the first foreign social networking service to be blocked in China. Beijing formally blocked global leaders Facebook (FB.US) and Twitter (TWTR.US) in 2009, although other services like Skype and WhatsApp remain accessible.
No reason was ever given for the blockages, leaving many to speculate Beijing took the move because users of the sites were posting politically sensitive content.
Beijing frequently makes such moves, including its abrupt decision to pull the film Django Unchained from theaters last year and also its more recent decision to ban several TV series from Chinese video sharing sites, including the popular US show Big Bang Theory.
That’s what makes this latest move with LINE and Kaokao Talk look so unusual, and perhaps even slightly encouraging.
For a big company like LINE that’s preparing to move into China, it’s hard to make a smart business plan when Beijing makes this kind of major move without any explanation.
Such uncertainty is one of the biggest risks for companies doing business in China, especially in the sensitive media sector.
In this case, it does seem significant that Beijing has informed the Korean government about its decision rather than any of the companies involved.
I suspect the decision may have been partly political, since tensions have been growing between Beijing and a number of its neighbors over territorial disputes.
So far, Korea hasn’t been involved in any such dispute and Beijing probably wants to avoid yet another conflict with one of its major trading partners.
Whatever the reason, this new decision and the unusual transparency it signifies seem like a small step forward for China, marking a positive move for media companies trying to reduce their risks of doing business in the market.
Bottom line: China’s decision to explain its reasons for blocking LINE and several other services is a positive step that could augur more transparency in the country’s strict censorship regime.
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