China clamps down on short video apps in push to cleanse online community

Lou Naiming (2-R) performs a skit on a Lunar New Year gala in Beijing in 2018. Photo: Reuters

The Chinese regulator has tightened its grip on the short video apps, the latest in a series of moves aimed at purging what it called "vulgar contents" on the Internet.

This round of crackdown on the short video apps came abruptly before the Chinese New Year, as it caught some influential satellite television broadcasters off guard by forcing them to hastily stop the logos of the sponsors from appearing on their Spring Festival television shows by means of mosaic-effect processing.

Huoshan and Douyin, two popular short video apps in China, were originally chosen as the commercial sponsors for the Spring Festival television shows, and later were replaced by selfie app Faceu at the request of the government. Huoshan, Douyin and Faceu are brands owned by Today's Headlines, the country's leading news app known for the personalized algorithm-based news feeds.

The Beijing Youth Daily quoted unnamed sources with knowledge about the situation as saying that several days before the broadcasting of the Spring Festival television shows, the involved satellite television stations including Shanghai Dragon Television, Jiangsu Satellite Television, Zhejiang Satellite Television and Beijing Satellite Television received a directive from the government which required the removal of the advertisements of Huoshan and Douyin from the shows.

The decree emphasized the corporate compliance of the Regulation on Management of Internet Audio and Visual Program Services, which was introduced in 2008 and stipulated that the Internet audio and visual service providers must obtain an Internet audio-visual program transmission license from the regulator starting 2008. The regulation also said that new enterprises wanting to apply for the license must be companies in which the government has significant control through full, majority or minority ownership.

Last year, Today's Headlines indirectly gained the license by acquiring a private media firm which had obtained the license which was valid till January this year.

It is speculated that the revocation of the logos of Huoshan and Douyin might not have been completely caused by the expiration of Today's Headlines' back-door license, with many domestic media reports attributing it to an online celebrity named Li Tianyou, also known as MC Tianyou.

Li rose to fame in 2014 for giving the Chinese rap-like performance to the audiences through a livestreaming app. Over the years, he has accumulated millions of fans on the Internet by virtue of his flatulent performance which rap artists do not recognize as authentic rap. Ahead of this year's Spring Festival which fell on February 16, the online celebrity was condemned for singing an immoral song inciting people to take drugs in a China Central Television program on February 12. According to China's criminal law, people who instigate others to take drug shall take the rap.

Coincidentally, the regulators in charge of the Internet reportedly summoned the executives of some top livestreaming platforms on February 12, asking them to ban what they called the problematic online celebrities including Li from performing or uploading short videos on their platforms.

The broader crackdown on the short video apps, which have used the commercial sponsorship for the hot television programs and online variety shows to increase their exposure to more users, lays bare the Chinese authorities' tightened supervision on what are published on the Internet, where Chinese netizens are restricted from visiting many foreign websites such as Google and Facebook because of the "Great Firewall of China".

The recent two years have witnessed an escalation in the government-led Internet cleanup campaign under Xi Jinping's leadership, which calls for the Internet, entertainment and media sectors' stronger coherence to the Party line. While many Internet users praised the government drive for purifying the online community, some complained about shrinking online space they could use to voice their views.

In February, China's well-known social media platform Sina Weibo was again targeted by the regulators, which ordered the platform to overhaul the hot searches list after accusing it of "spreading misleading hype" and "vulgar content". After a one-week closedown, Sina Weibo relaunched the improved hot searches list with a newly added feature called "New Era", which is designed to be based on spreading the "positive energy". Last year, Sina Weibo suffered the same fate with the short video apps to be asked by the country's top television and film watchdog to shut down video and audio program services due to lack of appropriate certificates.

Also in January, the Chinese government sought to regulate the country's fledgling hip-hop culture after hip-hop singers Wang Hao, known as PG One and Zhou Yan, known as Gai, came under fire for bad behaviors or contents at odds with the core socialist values advocated by the Communist Party of China. The regulators also asked the online streaming platforms and music apps to remove from shelves Wang's songs, whose lyrics are considered as "vulgar and of low taste" as well as "insulting to women", with the influential Communist Youth League criticizing one of his old songs named Christmas Eve for promoting drug use. And all the sanctions on Wang stem from the revelation of his inappropriate intimacy with a famous married actress.

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