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With a new guideline for bloggers, China steps up online controls

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With a new guideline for bloggers, China steps up online controls

On one of China’s leading microblogging sites, where he has 2 million followers, Ma Xiaolin has frequently written about current affairs. But recently, the Weibo platform called and asked him not to publish original content on topics ranging from politics to economic and military problems, he said in an article.

“As an international affairs researcher and a columnist, it seems that now I can only follow the path of entertainment, food and drink,” the professor of international relations wrote on January 31.

Ma, who has often reported on developments in the Mideast, is one of many prominent influencers working within the constraints of China’s heavily censored network, who finds that with the latest policy changes and a clean-up drive run by the powerful censors of the world, their room to talk is shrinking even further. He rejected an invitation for an interview.

Before they can publish on a wide range of topics, the Cyberspace Administration of China would require bloggers and influencers to have a government-approved credential beginning next week. Some fear that permission will only be obtained by state media and official propaganda accounts. Although permits have been required to write about subjects such as political and military affairs since at least 2017, compliance has not been widespread. The provision is applied to health, finance, education and judicial matters by the new regulations.

“The regulators want to control the whole information production process,” said Titus Chen, a Chinese social media policy specialist at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-Sen University.

The latest change is in line with increasingly restrictive regulations under President Xi Jinping that limit debate to an already narrow space. The Chinese leader has made his law of “digital sovereignty” a core principle in which the authorities have set limits and expanded the digital realm’s power.

The new credential requirement could prohibit people from posting original material, including individuals like Ma who do not explicitly criticise the Communist Party’s ruling Xi line. Responding to Ma on the website, Weibo CEO Wang Gaofei said comments on news published by official media were allowed, but commentators could not “release news” themselves.

According to a statement released by the Cyberspace Administration, the policy revision is intended “to standardise and steer public accounts and information service platforms to be more self-aware in maintaining the correct direction of public opinion.”

“The administration held a nationwide conference on the importance of “strengthening order in online publishing” a week after the new rules were unveiled in late January. The head of the agency, Zhuang Rongwen, said the agency must “let our supervision and management grow teeth.

On Feb. 4, a month-long clean-up campaign targeting search engines, social media sites and browsers was publicly announced by the department. Such initiatives, in which businesses take action to meet government demands, are not fresh, but in the past, compliance was looser: in 2017, Weibo backed off from a pornography ban following allegations that it lumped gay content in.

In competition with a crackdown to enforce current rules, it seems to be happening.

“It’s a big deal, it’s a massive campaign,” said Xiao Qiang, an expert at the University of California at Berkeley on digital censorship. And there are people who have not written a sharp message. They are not purposely edgy about things.

In January, a notice on Sohu, which also hosts microblogs, said that public accounts without credentials do not issue or republish news about current affairs. Banned subjects include “articles and commentaries on politics, economics, military affairs, diplomatic and public affairs; Taking the content of the history of the Party and country out of context and distorting it; breaking news and commentary.” A similar warning was released by Internet giant Baidu, which also has a publishing website.

The degree to which bloggers will be disciplined if they post comments without qualifications is unknown.

“Last week, on “suspicion of offering an internet news information service,” a current affairs account on Tencent’s WeChat messaging app was shut down. It was controlled by Yu Shenghong, a former journalist at state broadcaster CCTV, nicknamed “August Old Yu.” He did not respond to a request for comment.

Baidu, Sohu, Weibo and Tencent representatives did not respond to requests for comment. There was no response to a faxed request by the Cyberspace Administration.

It seems that the coronavirus pandemic spurred the tightened regulations in part. Most of the news coverage was powered by online accounts and digital-only media outlets that spread both news and rumours in the early days of China’s outbreak.

The Cyberspace Administration said in a notice outlining the new policies during the pandemic, “” self-media ” maliciously created rumours and casually disregarded the privacy of others, severely affecting the stability and harmony of society and damaging the legal rights and interests of others.”

Ultimately, the new rules represent the fears of the censors, even though what they are so nervous about isn’t entirely obvious, said Xiao of Berkeley.

“Control has been so tight for the past year that hardly anyone can talk about anything,” Xiao said.

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