Paper Highlights Media 'Risks'

Chinese authorities target social media use, which has been responsible for exposing a number of high-level scandals.
2012-10-04
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Chinese customers buy mobile phones at a shop in Hainan province, Sept. 14, 2012.
ImagineChina

China on Thursday issued a policy paper on the country's rapidly growing new media sector, calling for measures to "resolve" risks inherent in soaring mobile phone Internet use for news and social media.

The document, titled "Blue Paper on the New Media," was published by the official Social Sciences Academic Press, and has sparked fears that further controls could be on the way for online freedom of expression for the country's 415 million registered new media account holders.

Xiao Jiansheng, editor of the Hunan Daily News, said government controls of the Internet were already tight.

"They will delete anything that has even the slightest bit of sensitive content," Xiao said. "Recently I sent out a couple of tweets about the demonstrations over the Diaoyu Islands, but they never got sent."

"There are also situations in which content gets sent, but then gets deleted," he added.

Xiao said China's new media sector, which refers to mobile news and microblogging services, video-sharing and blogs, was already putting intense pressure on the country's traditional, state-sponsored media, which labors under constant controls and directives from the ruling Communist Party's central propaganda department.

"The Internet has had a huge impact on mainstream media, because it is comparatively fast, as well as being more convenient," he said.

"You can read stuff right there on your cell phone, right there in your hand."

Scandals exposed

China's hugely popular microblogging services have exposed a number of scandals surrounding Party and government officials in recent months, including a sex scandal in the eastern province of Anhui, and the revelation that a security chief in the northern city of Xi'an owned no less than five expensive watches.

Xiao said China's corrupt officials had plenty to fear from the Internet.

"The threat is huge, because they never know when netizens may get hold of something and put it on the Internet," he said. "[If that happens], their political career is over, so you can say that public opinion plays a role in supervising them."

According to Huang Qi, an activist who runs the rights website Tianwang in the southwestern province of Sichuan, more and more people are using the Internet as a way to get and send crucial information.

"Recently, petitioner Li Zhaoxiu and four others were in the Fuyou police station in Beijing, and they used their cell phones to get in contact with me, and we were able to break the news on the Tianwang website instantly," Huang said.

"Petitioners all over China are using mobile phones and the Internet as a channel for communication with each other," he said. "Some of them have been able to change the tragic situation of petitioners across the country."

Huang said the huge upsurge in mobile Internet users in China would likely expose still more instances of rights violations by officials.

'Fighting for territory'

Shenzhen-based rights activist Zhu Jianguo said the policy paper showed that China's government was only just waking up to the potential negative consequences of social media.

"Before, they didn't really take social media seriously, because they already controlled the mainstream media," he said.

"Basically, what the government means is that they really wish there was no new media, or that they wish they had some way to block it," Zhu said. "The clearest example is that government departments are all getting their own microblog accounts, with the aim of hitting back at netizens' use of new media."

"They are fighting the general public for territory in social media," he said.

"On the one hand, they want to take control of it, which they are already doing to the best of their ability, with so many microblogging accounts shut down," Zhu said. "On the other, they can't actually stop it completely; they are fighting a losing battle."

China's major Internet companies have defended social media networks in public, although they have complied fully with censorship requirements imposed by the government, which include filtering, deleting and blocking content containing banned "sensitive" keywords.

Li Yuxiao, vice chief-editor of Tencent.com, which has about 400 million active users, told a recent conference in Beijing that new media networks were a force for "social good."

The number of mobile Internet subscribers climbed to 1.06 billion as of the end of July, while 3G customers now rank at 184 million, according to a recent speech by Liu Lihua, vice minister of the Ministry of Information Industry.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.