Is China’s media crackdown going to expand?

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Following last month’s National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference, this month’s Red Flag Manuscripts, an affiliate to the Party’s chief theoretical magazine Seeking Truth, published contributions by the directors of two provincial-level propaganda departments. These contributions confirm the direction of increased control and intervention that has been developing over the past few years, as well as the intensified attention on the ideological sphere that the new leadership has brought. The contribution from Zhang Xiaolian, propaganda chief in Heilongjiang, provides a general outline of the priorities in propaganda work, while Ai Wenli, Zhang’s Hebei colleague, provides somewhat more information on concrete measures that will be taken. In particular, the following two passages from his article seem to point at measures that will be taken over the coming months.

Strengthen online social management according to the law. Strengthen the management of new technologies and new applications, all sorts of forums, blogs, microblogs, micromessaging services, search engines mobile telephone newspapers, mobile news clients and other businesses that have news, public opinion and social mobilization functions, must be brought under licensing management. We must, through strengthening online topical propaganda, improve online criticism work, optimize the online environment, and forge an online positive public opinion atmosphere; through strengthening Internet propaganda management organ construction and team construction, forge systems and mechanisms where the various departments mutually cooperate, and all areas of society vigorously participate, and constitute a nationwide “one network” management structure; through deeply launching online public opinion struggles and tightly preventing and restraining online attacks and acts of infiltration, organize forces to refute mistaken ideologies and viewpoints.

[…]

Strengthen management of the cultural market, social and cultural activities. Persist in deeply launching activities to sweep pornography and strike illegality, investigate and prosecute unlawful activities in performance and entertainment, Internet cafés and Internet surfing services, electronic games, fine art sales, cultural trading and other activities. Strengthen management over all sorts of lectures, forums, seminars and public report meetings, strengthen management over people-run social science research organs, non-governmental cultural work rooms, and people-run cultural organs, strengthen management over higher education school journals, intra-school organizations, intra-school broadcasting and campus networks, do not provide dissemination channels for mistaken ideologies.

Concretely, Ai first refers to the implementation of licensing schemes over a number of areas of the online environment. Licensing has, of course, been the most direct form of intervention in the media market that the Party has used since the regulatory reforms started in the Nineties. Second, Ai indicates that existing propaganda bodies will be expanded and their online presence will increase. Third, Ai seems to imply that the current anti-rumour crackdown will be broadened to more forms of entertainment. The question is to what extent these statements indicate concrete actions in the future. On the one hand, Ai is the director of a provincial Propaganda Department, and his article was published in a high-level theoretical journal, which is sponsored by the Central Propaganda Department. On the other hand, the CPD may have a its own departmental strategic interests in pushing stronger control over media higher onto the political agenda. Certainly, the crackdowns and new licensing systems he announces may harm the fledgling growth of China’s creative industries, at a time where equally, a number of measures is announced to expand internal information (and therefore media) consumption, and the film sector seems to be doing better than ever before, to a significant extent due to small-scale productions that are able to cater to the rapidly changing tastes of Chinese audiences. If the Party would kill a chicken to scare a monkey, would it want to go after the one that lays golden eggs?

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