China Moves to Control Online Video

2008-01-04
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Villagers clash with riot police and a woman is beaten, during a dispute over land in Baima village near Dongguan city, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Supplied by a participant.

HONG KONG--China's government has issued a stringent new set of rules which will ban all but state-owned corporations from making and uploading video to the Internet.

The new regulations were issued jointly Dec. 31 by the Ministry of Information Industry and the Bureau of Film and Television under China's cabinet, the State Council.

"Companies or individuals who do not have an operating license issued by the relevant department, or who have not submitted an application for such a license, must cease to offer online video services," said the regulations, which come into effect Jan. 31.

The move will make it difficult for Chinese netizens to post video to their blogs or to Web sites, or to Chinese video-sharing sites similar to YouTube, including citizen journalism of the kind which has proliferated amid growing civil unrest across the country.

Fears of unrest

If the video serves to expose government corruption or illegal activity, it could very easily become symbolic, and ignite the people’s anger.

Industry experts estimate that there are currently around 160 sites offering such services in China, and that the majority of them are private enterprises financed by venture capital. Quite a few of them operate without any kind of license from the government.

“There is only one point to these rules, and that is to step up controls over any possible political dissent that might emerge in China,” Shaanxi-based cyberdissident Deng Yongliang told RFA's Mandarin service.

“Now that the standard of living is rising for many people, they are beginning to demand more intellectually as well as materially, and such ideological freedom would be a challenge to the current political system,” Deng said.

“We are also about to hold the Olympic Games, and so the authorities will continue to step up controls on freedom of expression.”

It is currently possible to see video of incidents of social unrest in China, circulating alongside hard and soft porn, and home movies people make to amuse each other.

In one video uploaded to the popular sharing site 56.com, an ordinary citizen visited Beijing's "Petitioner Village", a now-demolished shantytown once housing hundreds of destitute people who lost everything, and who now spend their lives trying to win redress for grievances against the government.

Mainstream control

His film gave voice to those who are seldom heard in the official, state-run media, people who have been evicted from their homes, or whose loved ones have died in police custody, or whose land has been sold out from under them for little or no compensation.

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Documentary uploaded by a Chinese netizen on the lives of China's petitioners.

“The communication achieved by video is even more direct than by text reports,” Deng said. “And if that video serves to expose government corruption or illegal activity, it could very easily become symbolic, and ignite the people’s anger.”

“For this reason the Chinese Communist Party is extremely nervous about it. For example, there is even video available online of people setting fire to themselves because they have been evicted from their homes."

Under the new rules, however, online video will be brought in line with strict controls on other broadcast media, and only state-owned enterprises will be eligible to apply.

Anyone who is not eligible must cease to provide video online from Jan. 31, according to the rules, which say they aim to promote the healthy development of online programming.

The regulations call on the broadcast and film bureaux of local governments to handle all requests for licenses, making them responsible for violations in their cities, provinces and regions.

News video 'popular'

But Deng said he still expected some video to fall through the cracks.

Demonstrations by disgruntled investors after the collapse of Yilishen in northeast China. Supplied by a participant.

They will be able to restrict people from broadcasting themselves to large audiences, but they won’t be able to control video getting out to smaller audiences, and on forums and bulletin boards.”

An employee at 56.com said the company offered one of the biggest video-sharing sites in the country.

Under current conditions, the site operates along the lines of YouTube. "Most users upload video they have shot themselves…and it can be broadcast as soon as they have done so. There are some guidelines on the site about what sort of videos are not acceptable," he said.

"The games section probably gets the largest numbers of views, along with the news-oriented videos."

But Deng said the cheap availability of video making equipment would ensure that citizen-produced video continued to circulate, albeit on a much smaller scale.

"You can do it on a mobile phone that only costs a few hundred yuan. They will be able to restrict people from broadcasting themselves to large audiences, but they won’t be able to control video getting out to smaller audiences, and on forums and bulletin boards.”

Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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