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China Tightens Grip on Media Using Corporate Means

The Chinese government is tightening its grip on cultural content and the media by use of new methods. These include buying equity stakes in key titles.

Since his arrival in power in 2012 President Xi Jinping has regularly given direct orders to media and culture industry professionals to back the Communist Party. More recently, instead of solely relying on central government apparatus, he has solicited state-owned enterprises to acquire management positions in privately-run Internet news and video streaming websites.

Stakes of between 1% and 10% in privately-run video streaming websites may be bought so that the state can keep a control on content. According to investigative financial publication Caixin, the state may not have enough capacity to block or remove content on these websites regularly.

The moves by China Media Capital to acquire stakes in Caixin and Hong Kong’s leading free to air broadcaster TVB, appear to be examples. The move by privately-owned e-commerce to entertainment group Alibaba to buy Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post may be in the same vein. Alibaba has repeatedly denied that it will exert any influence in the newsroom.

Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau said controlling people’s minds has remained a key means for the communist party to consolidate power since the days of its late leader Mao Zedong.

“Thirty years after the opening up of China, people have changed. People receive more information and see more of the world. Some do not believe in the party as much as they did in the past,” Lau said. “The Chinese authorities are facing a lot of opposing voices today, and they must suppress such opposition in order to continue their control.”

Alongside the new stake buying tactics are older methods. In 2014, Xi told authors, scriptwriters and artists to create works that represent socialist core values. Earlier this year, Xi said media run by the party must serve the party and protect the party’s authority.

“All news media run by the party bear the surname of ‘party’,” Xi said in February, when he toured the top three state-owned media and demanded absolute loyalty.

“They could use softer and more dynamic tactics such as building good relations with the media and leak them stories on a regular basis,” Lau said. “But instead, they continue to use the top-down model to suppress opposing voices.”

One prominent businessman turned social commentator Ren Zhiqiang (aka ‘Cannon’), dared to openly question the new Xi doctrine. Addressing his 37 million online followers, he suggested that state media is taxpayer-funded and should serve the public, not the party leadership. His postings were deleted.

Commentators see the roots of the latest crackdown in the state of the economy, which is undergoing slowdown and transition. “Such all-dimensional clampdown campaign is sparked by an economic crisis, as this could lead to the Communist Party’s legitimacy crisis and even an anti-Party campaign,” said Dixon Sing, a professor in politics at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong.

China saw the slowest GDP quarterly growth at 6.7% during the first quarter of 2016. Debt levels at $35 trillion (RMB167 trillion) stand at 250% of the country’s GDP. A large proportion of the debt has been accrued by state-owned enterprises.

Professor Sing says that as an extension of control over media and culture, the Chinese authorities have also been increasing pressure on non-profit organizations, human rights lawyers and academics. “This is all to maintain the hegemony of the Communist Party,” he said.

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