Chinese News App Calls For Communist Party Members to Work as Content Reviewers

2018-01-04
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A man uses a computer at an internet cafe in Beijing, June 1, 2017.
A man uses a computer at an internet cafe in Beijing, June 1, 2017.
AFP

Online Chinese news platform Toutiao is recruiting some 2,000 editors to oversee content delivered to its smartphone app, after being sanctioned last week for alleged breaches of regulations and for spreading "pornographic and vulgar content."

The app has begun recruiting content editors, whose job will be to filter out "illegal" stories from among the pool that the app sends to its users in a tailored news feed.

Members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party are particularly encouraged to apply for the job, which offers full health coverage and pension benefits and paid leave, on a salary of up to 6,000 yuan per month, according to an advertisement on the recruitment platform Lagou.com.

Successful candidates will be responsible for "reviewing and monitoring whether the content of the premier news platform of the day is illegal or not," the ad says.

They also be charged with handling user reports and tip-offs of illegal content, it says.

Applicants who are Communist Party members will be prioritized, but all applicants must be college graduates, preferably majoring in journalism, with "a passion for news and current affairs and good political sensitivity and discrimination."

They must also possess "an excellent grasp of the mobile internet and internet-related laws and regulations."

'Serious problems'


Last Friday, Beijing's Cyberspace Administration temporarily suspended both Toutiao and Phoenix News for carrying pornographic content. Both were also accused of "having serious problems in guiding public opinion," suggesting a political aspect to the closures.

Both companies promised to tighten up controls on content and management of staff after they were summoned to a meeting with internet supervision officials.

Online activist Wang Fazhan said the recruitment exercise is likely a bid to limit the political risk to the app's parent company, startup Bytedance.

"By hiring people to screen content, they can say in the event of further issues that the content was screened by party members," Wang said. "It's a form of risk management."

The ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, said the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping is constantly reviewing its notion of what constitutes undesirable content, meaning that few in the media know exactly where the lines are drawn.

"Content reviewers won't necessarily be able to do the job even when they're hired," Huang said. "The problem we have right now is that ... people can cross a red line without realizing it."

"What are our censorship criteria exactly? There isn't a set of standards; they are whatever those in power say they are," he said. "And their idea of those criteria keeps changing the whole time, so that we are in a constant state of transition where nobody has chance to get used to it."

"I don't really believe that rank-and-file party members are going to be able to act as watchdogs and effective gatekeepers for the government," Huang said.

A wider fear

Hong Kong political commentator Cai Yongmei said Toutiao isn't well-known for its political content, and the current clampdown on its operations is symptomatic of a wider fear that nearly 700 million people who access the internet by mobile device will get politically sensitive news of the wider world channeled to their inboxes by "gossipy" apps.

"The thing the authorities fear most of all right now is that overseas popular movements will spread to mainland China," Cai said. "That's why they are being more and more selective and controlling about content."

Author and Independent Chinese PEN member Liang Taiping said Toutiao's recruitment drive is likely more aimed at sending a reassuring signal to the government.

"I think it may be attempt to refine controls of content, not make them stricter," Liang said. "Of course any dissenting content is still tightly controlled, but they will also be looking to ... create a false impression that people still have a channel for their views."

"Otherwise, they may lose their audience entirely," he said.

The suspension of Toutiao's service was aimed to "better promote mainstream values and the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China," according to the Global Times newspaper, a tabloid run by the mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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