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China’s New Media Regulator Is Likely to Push Patriotism – and the Communist Party

Presented as a piece of government streamlining, the abolition of China’s top media regulator was one of a dozen bureaucratic and agency mergers across the Chinese state that were announced Tuesday and that will be rubber-stamped this week by China’s ongoing national legislative session. The changes – covering such matters as banking and insurance, and immigration control – were described as housekeeping measures to cut red tape and departmental infighting.

But the moves also have the effect of strengthening the rule of the Communist Party, including over media and entertainment. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) is to be replaced by a new super-regulator directly attached to the State Council, or Cabinet.

The move is part of President Xi Jinping’s drive to eliminate the differences between the Communist Party and the Chinese state. Xi is now China’s most powerful chief since Mao Zedong, its so-called “core leader,” who is no longer constrained by term limits, which were eliminated this week. In the business world, Xi has reinserted party cadres into private companies, required companies to sell shares to state investors, and, in some cases, organized corporate bailouts using a mix of state and private firms.

In media and entertainment, the past months have seen increasing controls over content and a pushback against foreign influence. Measures include a ban on hip hop and talent with tattoos, limits on Japanese anime, a ban on news-gathering by private sector companies, and curbs on live streaming. Online, regulators have increasingly made social media platforms responsible for censoring the content and comments of their users. That is in addition to the army of government censors commonly known as the Great Firewall of China, who went into overtime limiting public discussion of Xi’s recent consolidation of power.

Establishing a new super-regulatory body over media, entertainment and online communications will make it easier for the government to enforce its hard line. So will the possible merger of giant state broadcasters China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International, and China National Radio.

The structure of the new regulator is not yet clear. It was previously reported that SAPPRFT would be merged with the Communist Party’s publicity department, but other sources describe it being folded into the Ministry of Culture.

Regardless, the move could reinvigorate China’s attempt to project its soft power overseas. Xi called for that in 2016 but found that private companies like Dalian Wanda and Fosun were failing to deliver it through their multi-billion dollar Hollywood acquisitions.

The government will now be able to pursue that campaign more directly with its increased control over the media. China is currently brimming with self-confidence, bolstered by growing wealth, political stability, and patriotic movies that have proved to be genuinely popular.

Chinese mercenaries saved the world and earned $854 million in “Wolf Warriors II” at the end of 2017. Now a new film lionizing the People’s Liberation Army, “Operation Red Sea,” has just earned $530 million to become the second biggest film of all time at the Chinese box office. Even a handsomely mounted documentary, “Amazing China,” is on its way to earning $40 million.

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