Beginning next week, the Cyberspace Administration of China will require bloggers and influencers to have a government-approved credential before they can publish on a wide range of subjects. Some fear that only state media and official propaganda accounts will get permission. While permits have been needed since at least 2017 to write about topics such as political and military affairs, enforcement has not been widespread. The new rules expand that requirement to health, economics, education and judicial matters.
“The regulators want to control the entire procedure of information production,” said Titus Chen, an expert in Chinese social media policy at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan.
The latest move is in line with ever more restrictive regulations under President Xi Jinping that constrict an already narrow space for discourse. The Chinese leader has made “digital sovereignty” a central concept of his rule, under which authorities have set limits and increased control of the digital realm.
The new credential requirement could restrict individuals from posting original content, including people like Ma who aren’t openly challenging the line of Xi’s ruling Communist Party. Weibo Chief Executive Officer Wang Gaofei, responding to Ma on the platform, said commentary on news released by official media was permitted but commentators could not “release news” themselves.
The policy revision is meant “to standardize and steer public accounts and information service platforms to be more self aware in keeping the correct direction of public opinion,” according to a statement posted by the Cyberspace Administration.
A week after unveiling the new rules in late January, the administration held a nationwide conference on the importance of “strengthening order in online publishing.” The head of the agency, Zhuang Rongwen, said the agency must “let our supervision and management grow teeth.”
On Feb. 4, the agency publicly announced a month-long clean-up drive targeting search engines, social media platforms and browsers. Such campaigns, in which companies take steps to meet government demands, aren’t new, but enforcement was looser in the past: In 2017, Weibo backed off after complaints it was lumping gay content in with a pornography ban.
It appears to be happening in concurrence with a crackdown to enforce existing rules.
“It is a big deal, it’s a massive campaign,” said Xiao Qiang, an expert on digital censorship at the University of California at Berkeley. “And these are people who didn’t write something sharp. They are intentionally not being edgy about things.”