TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Ma Xiaolin has frequently written about the news on one of the leading microblogging sites in China, where he has 2 million subscribers. But recently, he said in a post, the Weibo site called him and asked him not to post original content on topics ranging from politics to economic and military matters.
“As an international affairs researcher and columnist, it seems I can only go the entertainment, food and drink route now,” the international relations professor wrote on Jan.31.
Ma, who has frequently published on developments in the Middle East, is one of several popular influencers working under the constraints of China’s heavily censored web who is seeing their speaking space shrinking even more with the latest changes. policy and a cleanup campaign. by the country’s powerful censors. He declined an interview request.
Starting next week, China’s Cyberspace Administration will require bloggers and influencers to have government-approved credentials before they can post on a wide range of topics. Some fear that only state media and official propaganda accounts will get permission. Although permits have been required since at least 2017 to write on subjects such as political and military affairs, law enforcement has not been widespread. The new rules extend this requirement to matters of health, economy, education and justice.
“The regulators want to control the entire news production process,” said Titus Chen, Chinese social media policy expert at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan.
The latest move is in line with President Xi Jinping’s increasingly restrictive regulations that restrict an already tight space for speech. The Chinese leader has made “digital sovereignty” a central concept of his reign, where authorities have set limits and increased control of the digital domain.
The new credential requirement could prevent individuals from posting original content, including people like Ma who do not openly challenge Xi’s ruling Communist Party line. Weibo CEO Wang Gaofei, responding to Ma on the platform, said that comments on the information published by the official media were allowed but commentators could not “publish the news” themselves.
The policy review aims “to standardize and orient public accounts and information service platforms to be more self-aware while keeping the right direction of public opinion,” according to a statement released by the Administration of cyberspace.
A week after the unveiling of the new rules at the end of January, the administration held a national conference on the importance of “strengthening order in online publishing”. The head of the agency, Zhuang Rongwen, said the agency should “let our supervision and management develop. . “
On February 4, the agency publicly announced a month-long clean-up campaign targeting search engines, social media platforms and browsers. Such campaigns, in which companies take action to meet government demands, are not new, but the app was more flexible in the past: In 2017, Weibo backed down after complaints that it incorporated gay content. with a ban on pornography.
This appears to be happening alongside a crackdown to enforce existing rules.
“It’s a big deal, it’s a massive campaign,” said Xiao Qiang, a digital censorship expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “And these are people who did not write something specific. They intentionally aren’t upset about things.
A notice on Sohu in January, which also hosts microblogs, said public accounts without credentials should not post or repost news. Banned subjects include “articles and commentaries on politics, economics, military affairs, diplomatic and public affairs; Get out of context and distort the content of the history of the Party and the country; latest news and reviews. Internet giant Baidu, which also has a publishing platform, issued a similar notice.
It is not clear to what extent bloggers will be punished if they post comments without the credentials.
A news account on Tencent’s WeChat messaging app was shut down last week on “suspicion of providing an internet news service.” Called “August Old Yu”, it was run by Yu Shenghong, a former reporter for the public broadcaster CCTV. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Representatives for Baidu, Sohu, Weibo and Tencent did not respond to requests for comment. The Cyberspace Administration did not respond to a request sent by fax.
The coronavirus pandemic appears to have partly boosted regulatory tightening. In the early days of the epidemic in China, much of the media coverage was driven by online accounts and digital-only media that carried both news and rumors.
During the pandemic, “the ‘self-media’ maliciously created rumors and casually ignored the privacy of others, seriously affecting the stability and harmony of society and undermining the rights and legal interests of others” the Cyberspace Administration said in a notice explaining the new policies. .
Ultimately, the new rules reflect the concerns of censors, although it’s unclear exactly what they’re so insecure about, Berkeley’s Xiao said.
“Over the past year, the control has been so tight that hardly anyone can talk about anything,” Xiao said.
Fu reported from Bangkok.
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