China tightens control of internet speech amid regulatory action against popular online communities

  • Speculation is rising about the greater scrutiny of Chinese online communities, following recent regulatory action against popular virtual forums
  • App operators Zhihu, Weibo and Duoban have each been disciplined by regulators for ‘illegal’ information found in their online platforms

Chinese online communities, where discussions mostly revolve around non-sensitive topics from films to celebrity gossip, could face greater scrutiny from regulators, following recent disciplinary action against popular virtual forums over their content.

Such speculation in the sector has grown after executives from Quora-like app operator Zhihu, which runs the country’s largest question and answer online community, were summoned on Monday by the Beijing Internet Information Office for publishing “forbidden” information, according to a notice from the authority. It did not specify the illegal information found on the platform.

New York-listed Zhihu was slapped with an undisclosed penalty by Beijing’s internet authority, which resulted in a 9.5 per cent decline of the company’s shares on Monday in the US.

Zhihu said in a statement that it “sincerely accepts the criticism from the authority” and would “improve the management system to moderate content” and how it “handles emergencies”. The Beijing-based firm also suspended the comment function on its website.

New York-listed Zhihu operates China’s largest question and answer online community


The action against Zhihu came about a week after internet watchdog the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) fined local microblogging platform operator Weibo 3 million yuan (US$470,346) for repeatedly allowing the publication of “information forbidden by law and regulations”.

That followed the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s order to remove Douban, China’s best-known ratings platform for books and films, and 105 other smartphone apps from the country’s app stores as part of the government’s latest crackdown on data violations. Douban, which was earlier fined 1.5 million yuan for publishing “illegal” information, last week resumed the comment function on its website after suspending it earlier this month.

The series of actions was the result of tightened internet regulation and the platforms’ failure to moderate their content in line with efforts to clean up the country’s online environment, according to Wang Sixin, a law professor at Beijing’s Communication University of China.

In September, the Communist Party and State Council released internally a set of guidelines for building a “cyberspace civilisation”. It urges all levels of government to bring ideology, culture, moral standards and online behaviour under control, according to a summary published by state-run news outlet Xinhua.

Meanwhile, Tiexue – China’s top military online fan community – has announced that it will shut down operations in March next year. The 20-year-old platform said in a statement that it had failed to “keep up with the times” in the mobile internet sector, which suggested that it was closing because of operational factors instead of regulatory pressure.

Tiexue, which means “iron blood” in Mandarin, posted a profit of 9.7 million yuan in the first half of this year, up from a 12.1 million yuan loss in the same period last year, according to the financial records of holding company Beijing Tiexue Technology.

While Tiexue is popular with millions of junmi or fans of the Chinese military, domestic censors are sensitive to online discussions about matters related to the country’s defence and history. In 2015, the CAC shut down eight military-themed websites, which were found to have spread rumours, hosted sensational articles and contained pornographic advertisements.

Author: Coco Feng, SCMP

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