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It is no secret that Xi Jinping’s administration is taking a hard line on internet regulation. Last November 18th’s blocking of EdgeCast’s Content Delivery Network or CDN illustrates just how far censorship authorities will go to control their domestic network. The CDN was host to a ‘mirror’ which provided internet users in mainland China unimpeded access to the Google search engine. It was thought that authorities would not block the Google mirror as doing so would risk disabling thousands of other innocuous websites hosted on the same network. Undeterred, officials blocked the EdgeCast network and ushered in a new era of internet censorship, one that signals China’s willingness to decouple itself from the global internet in pursuit of a relatively small number of offending targets. Google’s tumultuous history with the Chinese government is well known, but other less visible trends in internet management are emerging. In November last year, Shooter.cn and Yyets.com, both extremely popular subtitle-sharing websites were apparently forced to close by authorities. Both websites have their roots in volunteer translation communities that have been translating foreign TV and movies for over a decade, making the shows accessible to the general Chinese audience. Shooter.cn has closed permanently while Yyets.com closed temporarily for a content “clean up.” China Daily reported that the action was prompted by a renewed crackdown on pirated content. Indeed, Yyets.com had been labeled by the Motion Picture Association of America as among the worst copyright offenders. While it is likely that China will gradually improve IPR protection over time, it seems unlikely that subtitles for foreign videos are a high priority for Chinese authorities. Instead it seems probable that their closure marks a new stage in China’s web crackdown; one that is motivated not by politics or business but by concerns of cultural invasion.
Just days before Shooten.cn closed its doors, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) issued a sweeping order that banned a long list of acts from videos streamed within the country. The order banned depiction of extramarital affairs, prostitution, excessive violence, supernatural phenomena, gore, “intense” murders, suicide, kidnapping and drugs, among others. Interestingly, the regulation also took aim at the subtitles accompanying the videos as well as the videos themselves. One might conclude that China is simply ratcheting up control of overseas-produced content to aid domestically-produced competitors. However, one possible explanation that isn’t getting much play in the West is that the ‘crackdown’ could be a natural byproduct of administrative restructuring conducted in 2013. The restructuring saw the merger of China’s two main media regulators, the General Administration of Press and Publication and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, into the SAPPRFT. Prior to the merger there was no clear division of responsibility for online media regulation. It is also worth noting that unlike many countries, China lacks a ratings system for movies and television. With no rating system to safeguard children from viewing violent or lewd content, all media in the country has long been regulated to be acceptable to general audiences. When viewed in this light, the ‘crackdown’ on online media is not really a crackdown at all but rather an attempt at harmonizing regulation between traditional and new media. After all, for years traditional content has been subject to far stricter regulation compared to those online.
On the other hand, Xi Jinping’s administration is taking an unusually keen interest in art and media. Perhaps not since the 1970’s has the Communist Party sought as much influence in art and culture. Xi Jinping personally weighed in on the subject last October, warning artists against becoming “slaves of the market” in a speech to some of China’s leading creative figures. The speech, which Chinese media compared to a similar speech made by Mao Zedong in 1942, called for artists to remember that “they must work in service to the people” and “spread positive energy.” This speech was followed by a flurry of activity on the part various government departments, among which the Ministry of Culture and the SAPPRFT have announced plans to send members of the art and media community into rural areas for a kind of educational immersion. The Ministry of Culture intends to send some 3,000 artists in 100 groups to the countryside to gain “creative inspiration.” The SAPPRFT similarly has called for TV film crews to be sent to the countryside to learn from the masses and form the “correct view” on art. The directives are seen by some as eerily reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution which saw millions of intellectuals and artists forced into the countryside as a form of reeducation. Xi Jinping himself was among those “sent down” and this time in his life has often been portrayed as pivotal to his rise through the ranks in the years that followed.
Viewed against this backdrop of tightening control of the arts, it seems likely that IPR protection is merely an afterthought for what amounts to a broad campaign meant to cleanse internet media and harmonize regulation between traditional and new media. Indeed, this last year has seen a steady stream of new restrictions issued on the part of the SAPPRFT, which include requiring all foreign videos to receive permits before they can be streamed online after 1 April 2015. While it may be impossible to completely eradicate unapproved videos from the internet, it is possible to disrupt the community of volunteer translators that provide subtitles and make the videos watchable for millions of Chinese. In absence of easily accessible subtitles, the cat and mouse game of hunting down unapproved content is no longer as pressing. Viewed in this light, however, we might also come to the conclusion that the Chinese government has endorsed a new kind of internet management. Previously, videos and other media were permitted inside the ‘great firewall’ as long as they weren’t blatantly pornographic or political. Recent moves and comments on the part of the Chinese government, however, lend growing evidence that the Xi administration also sees foreign cultural influence as a dividing force that is not compatible with his vision of “positive” or “correct” art. We will have to wait and see just how far authorities will take the new directives. Issuing orders is one thing, but only implementation will determine that this is more than rhetoric.by