Category Archives: Media

China’s Press On Academic Freedom

Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher whose China Quarterly is one of the leading English-language social science journals devoted to China has reversed its decision to comply with the demands of China’s censors to block sensitive content.

The university press had initially removed some 300 China Quarterly articles on politically sensitive topics from its website in China on the instruction of the media regulator on penalty of not being allowed to publish at all in China.  The press changed its mind following protests, including a petition published by academics from around the world, condemning restrictions on academic freedom of thought.

It was a dilemma that many foreign businesses have faced: the choice between being shut out of the Chinese market for refusing to comply with authorities’ controls of markets or suffer reputational risk outside China by knuckling under. In information markets, the reputational risk of complying with controls on freedom of expression is potentially a higher cost for an academic institution that it would be for a commercial technology or media company. Online content providers,

Chinese and foreign, have been a particular focus of the censors’ attention this year, as online content, previously more laxly regulated than offline media, has been brought under the same control regime as traditional print and broadcast media.

Tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to close down hundreds of mobile video platforms and promised to work more closely with state media. Under the new cyber security law that came into force on June 1, only those online content creators who have been issued with a media licence are permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary.

This has reinforced Chinese firms’ pre-emptive self-censorship, and more foreign firms to accept specific demands.

Beijing has to tread a careful line with foreign academic publishers. While censoring politically sensitive material is one thing — and social scientists in Chinese universities, once an important source of policy advice to government, have come under greater freedom of expression constraints since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012 — it is another cutting off the country’s scientists and technologists from the latest foreign academic research in those fields.

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Protecting China’s New Economy

IF EVER THERE was an example of the West fighting the last war, it is over whether China is a ‘market economy’ in the eyes of the European Union. European steelmakers have been on the streets of Europe to support the case that it isn’t. China, however, has moved on to protecting its new economy.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in concert with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has published new rules for internet content providers. These set strict new guidelines for what can be published online, and what content—and which publishers—require prior approval from authorities.

“Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services,” the rules say, adding that any ‘online publication service units’ need to get prior approval from SARFT if they want to cooperate on a project with any foreign company, joint venture, or individual.

All content providers will also be required to host their data on local servers and be forbidden to store it on related servers and storage devices outside China.

The initial reaction outside China has been to see this as part of the strengthening central control over the media, and the creative industries generally, in line with President Xi Jinping’s broader centralization of authority and notions of soft power. Xi has just completed an inspection tour of leading state media to reinforce the message that they are there to be an instrument of the Party.

That, in itself, is nothing new, even if the emphasis on Chinese media gaining a louder voice on the international stage and “telling China’s story well” is.  However, the bluntness with which Xi underscored that state news media must “work to protect the Party’s authority and unity” and be the government and Party’s “publicity front” has not been heard for some time. Xi’s use of the word ‘struggle’ in the press’s role particularly harkens back to earlier times.

Western news providers such as Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and the New York Times are likely targets of the new rules. But so, too, are some of the fast growing non-state media companies that have flourished online through providing entertainment. The Party now wants to bring such outlets more under its sway in the way that traditional non-party media are circumscribed.

In the same vein, further targets include foreign game companies like Sony and Microsoft, and Hollywood studios and distributors that might introduce subversive—or even just foreign—ideas into the country through films, TV shows and other works of popular art.

However, the widely overlooked significance of the new rules is that they do not just tightly constrain China as a market for foreign news outlets, publishers and entertainment companies. They apply to all providers of online content.

That could include payments and e-commerce companies. Any foreign firm, such as Apple, Amazon or Alphabet (née Google), that might challenge China’s entrenched e-commerce giants is at risk.

That fits well with the notions of online national sovereignty that Xi outlined last December during a defense of online censorship in a speech to the Global Internet Conference, a meeting of a couple of dozen countries convened by China in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province.

As ever, how Chinese authorities implement the new rules — and how selectively — will determine how restrictive they are — and who gets restricted. Chinese laws are usually vague and broad to that end, if always with laser-focused purpose.

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And The Greatest Of These Is Order

THE WORLD WIDE Web is increasingly having national boundaries drawn over it. At the second Global Internet Conference, a meeting of a couple of dozen countries convened by China in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, President Xi Jinping laid out his notions of online national sovereignty along with a defence of online censorship.

“Freedom is what order is meant for,” Xi said, “and order is the guarantee of freedom”. And the greatest of these are order, this Bystander is tempted to add.

The right of a country to control the information flows across and within its borders, which is what cyber sovereignty means, is at odds with the way the internet has grown up as a free exchange of information (and thus ideas).

Russian Prime MinisterDmitry Medvedev, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Massimov kept company with a host of executives from such US tech titans as Apple, Facebook, IBM, LinkedIn and Wikipedia were there to hear Xi’s message that “no country alone can claim the role of the sole universal regulator of the world-wide web”.

This all, though, fits squarely with the massive resources that are being directed towards internal security and with China’s creation of parallel institutions to circumvent what it sees as the Western-dominant existing ones.

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The Blackmail News

THE INVESTIGATION OF staffers from the 21st Century financial news website in connection with allegations that they were involved in efforts to blackmail companies in return for favorable news coverage prompts a reminiscence from our man in Tokyo. Back in Japan’s go-go years in the 1980s, yakuza worked a similar extortion racket. They would inform a business that they had produced a special-edition newsletter or magazine — no web sites then — devoted to the affairs of that company. Needless to say, the tone of the coverage would not be flattering. An appropriate payment would ensure that the edition could be bought up or pulped in its entirety. Eventually, the system was refined to eliminate the printing and pulping, if not the payment.

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Beijing Seen From Space

THIS BYSTANDER HAS only recently come across the photographs that U.S. astronaut Reid Wiseman has been tweeting from the International Space Station. This one of Beijing taken earlier this month is almost a work of art.

 

beijing-photographed-from-international-space-station

 

You can see more of Wiseman’s stunning space photography on his Twitter feed

 

 

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Jack Ma Takes A Shot At Football Club Ownership

Since time immemorial professional football clubs have been the playthings of successful businessmen. Alibaba’s Jack Ma, by taking a 50% take in Guangdong Evergrande for 1.2 billion yuan ($192 million), is following an ancient tradition.

Why is he doing it? He has shown no interest in the game previously.

There may be money to be made. Talk is of an eventual public flotation of the club, though in Europe listed football companies have not proved particularly successful for investors. Many have reverted to closely held ownership.

It may be that there is a branding play for Alibaba as it spreads its wings beyond e-commerce, Ma has couched his investment in the football club in terms of buying entertainment content. He would not be the first billionaire to see football as such. Rupert Murdoch was a pioneer in that regard. Evergrande’s success on the field since real estate tycoon Xu Jiayin  bought the club in 2010, makes it preeminent among China’s teams, a prerequisite for building a merchandising and media brand.

Alibaba has been on a spending spree ahead of its planned blockbuster listing in the U.S., splashing out some $6 billion on acquisitions to broaden its portfolio of businesses. Most have been Internet companies, but it is starting to make inroads into media and entertainment. Sport, though much changed by television, has not been significantly disrupted by technology. At least not yet. And it is not costing Ma much in the global scheme of things to try.

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China Picks Up The Half A Percentage Point Of GDP Growth Its Finance Minister Dropped

Xinhua has added half a percentage point to the 7% GDP growth for the year finance minister Lou Jiwei talked of at a Washington press conference on Friday after the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. “There is no doubt that China can achieve this year’s growth target of 7.5%,” the state news agency now reports the minister as having said.

This Bystander can forgive anyone a slip of the tongue. Nor is Lou the first politician to need the services of a clean-up crew. As we noted yesterday 7% is the annual GDP growth target in the current five-year plan, even if 7.5% is the official target for this year. Half a percentage point either way on the GDP growth number does nothing to alter the trickiness of the balancing act the leadership has to pull off in lowering long-term growth expectations for China while making the necessary structural fixes to the economy to prevent years of hyper-rapid credit expansion and of the shadow banking system from bringing growth to a halt with a hard crash.

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