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China’s Media, Entertainment Controls May Not Ease After National Party Congress

Ebb and flow is a natural process, politically and financially, in the Chinese media and tech sectors. But sometimes it takes longer for the tide to turn.

Over the past several months, the Chinese government has ushered in a series of new controls over media and entertainment. These include introducing a cybersecurity law; slapping restrictions on live streaming and on the use of virtual private networks to get around China’s so-called Great Firewall; banning TV shows based on foreign formats; and requiring online firms to halt their own news-gathering activities and instead source their news from state outlets.

The crackdown comes in the run-up to the National Party Congress of the ruling Communist Party, a highly sensitive and symbolic gathering that takes place once every five years and is scheduled to start Oct. 18. Experience says that such tightening ahead of the congress is not unusual as the party tries to ensure that no dissent or questioning of its monopoly on power mars the proceedings.

The question is whether regulators will loosen their grip once the congress is over, as has often happened in the past. This time, some China-watchers say that a relaxation seems unlikely, in part because the congress is expected to confirm another five-year term for President Xi Jinping, who has become increasingly authoritarian in office.

“The regulatory crackdown has been ratcheting up for many months,” says Matthew Dresden of law firm Harris Bricken, which has a China practice. “I don’t see much changing in the media and entertainment space, except for maybe an easing on news reporting.”

There are at least three reasons for thinking that China’s latest restrictions on media, entertainment and technology will persist even after the party congress wraps up.

One is the huge increase in internet access and use in the world’s most populous country. When digital media were small and insignificant, supervision was loose and uncertain. But now that most Chinese citizens own smartphones and have access to social media and streaming video, regulation has been tightened and formalized. For example, a recently published rule states that online dramas are subject to the same controls as state-run TV.

Also, the Chinese government sees regulation, sanctions and pronouncements as effective tools for reining in rampant or unhealthy growth in media and entertainment. China’s search-engine leader, Baidu, was punished for skewing the rankings of search results and allowing the false advertising of medical products. Digital giant Tencent quickly restricted the number of hours per day that minors are allowed to play its popular “Honor of Kings” online game after government mouthpiece the People’s Daily described the game as “poison.”

And foreign companies, eager to protect their positions and exploit the Chinese market, have largely fallen in line. Apple recently ditched downloads of VPNs from the Chinese iteration of its iTunes store. Amazon made its cloud-computing service compliant with Chinese censorship requirements. Facebook has launched a localized version of its Moments photo-sharing app, which requires it to place servers in China and, presumably, provide regulators with a back door.

All of this encourages Beijing to carry on with its clampdown.

“Fairly often, the authorities state their position, which allows them to crack down at any time they choose, albeit not necessarily immediately,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Chinese politics and society. “However, if it proves to be successful, [meaning] that the pushback [against the new rules] is manageable, as currently seems to be the case, it may well continue.”

New cybersecurity and film-promotion laws that require the media to promote “core Socialist values” are so vague that authorities can use them in a multitude of ways.

“I would expect to see creative use of the recent cybersecurity law to continue to go after social media,” Rosen says. “After the relative emasculation of [microblogging site] Weibo, there are aspects of WeChat — using it for news reporting, to cite one recent restriction — that the [Communist Party] will move to control better.” WeChat, with functions ranging from messaging and online payments to bicycle-sharing and news groups, has become China’s primary online platform, with more than 900 million users worldwide at the end of June.

The Chinese government appears to fear connected media for its ability to nurture challenges to its authority. But it has proven adept at harnessing technology to create a surveillance society.

It has also kept Chinese cyberspace largely free from overseas competition. Facebook, Twitter, Google and Netflix remain blocked or unavailable in China. That has allowed domestic digital players like Alibaba and Tencent to become behemoths that are now using their vast financial resources and genuinely smart technologies to expand abroad. At home, though, they remain subject to the Chinese government’s controls and restrictions — and those don’t look likely to be eased anytime soon.

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