19 July 2019
China's censors have ordered four popular new providers, including Toutiao, to remove their mobile apps from smartphone stores in a bid to tighten its control over the internet. Photo: Reuters/Xinhua
China's censors have ordered four popular new providers, including Toutiao, to remove their mobile apps from smartphone stores in a bid to tighten its control over the internet. Photo: Reuters/Xinhua

Why China is cracking down on popular news apps

In his speech at the annual Boao Forum in Hainan province on Tuesday, President Xi Jinping reiterated his pledge to further open up China’s economy.

But just a day before, his censors ordered four popular new providers to remove their mobile apps from Android smartphone stores in a bid to further control the flow of information in the country, local reports said.

Millions of Chinese internet users have already downloaded the applications on their cellphones, of course, but news providers Toutiao, Phoenix News, NetEase News and Tiantian Kuaiba also suspended their downloading services by 3 p.m. on Monday.

It is said that Toutiao, a popular news aggregator, is suspending its service for three weeks until April 30, while Phoenix will not be posting the latest news on its website for two weeks. NetEase is reportedly suspending its service for one week while Tiantian will go “silent” for three days.

Users, however, can still download the apps from Apple’s App Store. That may be significant because although iPhone lags far behind its Android rivals in market share, it still accounts for more than 10 percent of the Chinese market.

There is no doubt that the ban on the downloading of news apps on the Android platform discriminates against Android phone users.

But it seems the latest media restrictions are aimed at domestic internet companies that have been giving media watchdogs the biggest headaches when it comes to controlling news and information disseminated to the people.

Many of these media firms operate in a way that no longer strictly abides by the Communist Party’s propaganda line.

Their news apps deploy artificial intelligence and other technologies that can learn about the users’ habits and choices, thus enabling them to push news content that fits the user’s taste and preferences.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the country’s censors to make use of media outlets as Communist Party mouthpieces. In that sense, internet users are taking back control of the news and information they want to read, hear and watch.

Toutiao, as a news provider and aggregator, has broken the monopoly of party mouthpieces, and as evidence of its success, it has attracted more than 120 million daily active users. Currently, the company is valued at US$20 billion and No. 8 in China Money Network’s unicorn rankings.

However, as a consequence of its success, Toutiao is also drawing a lot of attention from the authorities recently.

On April 4, the State Administration of Radio and Television ordered executives of Toutiao and live-streaming app Kuaishou to remove “violent and erotic content” from their websites, cease adding new accounts and investigate the current ones.

According to SART, Toutiao and Kuaishou have long been ignoring the law by expanding their video program services without proper authorization, and were streaming programs that “violate social morality”.

On April 6, in an apparent bid to avoid further angering the authorities, Toutiao announced that it had deleted more than 10,000 short videos and 4,800 problematic accounts from its website and added 1,700 sensitive words for video censoring. The company also pledged to recruit more than 2,000 Communist Party members to review its content.

Kuaishou also served notice that it was recruiting 3,000 people for content review and editing. Priority was to be given to applicants with reliable political background, especially members of the Communist Party or its Youth League.

China is known for its “Great Firewall” or its massive and pervasive censorship of the internet.

Netizens had tried to skirt the restrictions by using virtual private networks (VPNs) to gain access to websites blocked in China, including news sites, social media and search engines.

However, the government banned companies and individuals from using VPNs that are not government-approved, although it is still not clear how the rules will be implemented.

Beijing wants to control the internet to fit its political agenda. But as technologies develop, Chinese people are finding more ways to gain access to the internet and know what is truly happening around them. 

In fact, in the age of the internet, where freedom and transparency should reign, the authorities’ efforts to control information may even backfire.

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EJ Insight writer

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