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Great firewall of China reinforced as foreign media banned from publishing online

How Hwee Young/EPA

Great firewall of China reinforced as foreign media banned from publishing online

How Hwee Young/EPA

A new Chinese rule banning all foreign media from publishing online will come into effect on March 10, affecting everything from the press, radio and television to music and computer games. The edict provides legislative backing for the government’s existing control of the internet and will empower the Chinese cyber-police to further assert their “cyber sovereignty” inside the country’s online Great Wall.

Those Chinese media companies already acting as mouthpieces for the communist party now have legal backing that enforces their monopoly over online content.

The new directive, jointly issued by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, prohibits any foreign media companies from engaging in online publishing in China.

This is not new: foreign media outfits, such as the Financial Times, New York Times and Reuters who have invested in Chinese-language services, are frequently blocked in China.

The BBC has also experienced difficulties, despite establishing different websites aimed at different demographics. The minority of people in China who can speak English have access to the unblocked bbc.com, but the Chinese language BBC Chinese Net is blocked.

Still room to collaborate

The new law will, however, allow foreign media institutions to cooperate on individual projects with firms that are wholly-owned and based in mainland China, as long as they obtain prior permission from authorities.

This kind of collaboration has been going on for some time. The nature documentary series Wild China, for example, co-produced in 2008 by the BBC Natural History Unit and China Central Television, was approved by the government. These kind of collaborations have been well received by Chinese audiences, and the BBC now is co-operating with the Chinese film company SGM Pictures to produce the documentary Earth: One Amazing Day, for release in cinemas in 2017.

There is little new about the thrust of the law and it is the product of increasing Chinese observation and regulation of the internet that began in 2002. A 2005 regulation named Opinions on Canvassing Foreign Investment into the Cultural Sector banned foreign investors from establishing and managing news agencies and providing online publishing services in China.

So the new rule will have little impact on the way foreign media currently operate, although it’s still unclear how it will impact other foreign tech companies producing online content. And of course, online content by foreign media will still be available to Chinese netizens who use a virtual private network or other tricks to get around the censors.

Boost to Chinese online business

But the new legislation is no political platitude. It is a signal that China is hardening its line in the ongoing battle between communist party doctrine, the cyber police, commercialisation, and the consumption habits of sophisticated Chinese netizens.

The Chinese government has paid very close attention to how the internet and social media are changing society. It relies on more than two million cyber police to maintain internal security through censorship.

By stopping foreign media from publishing online in China, the new law is aimed at encouraging native Chinese media institutions to develop online publishing services. This fits with a new economic “Internet Plus” action plan launched in 2015 by Chinese premier Li Keqiang. This is aimed at driving economic growth through the integration of internet technologies, manufacturing and business.

Native Chinese internet companies and media institutions have already benefited from the government’s censorship and regional protectionism. For example, the search engine Baidu was one of the biggest beneficiaries after China expelled Google in 2010.

Baidu – also one of the Chinese companies in the new Internet Plus alliance – experienced a 33% increase in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Yet, there are signs that Chinese citizens are wary of increased control of their online habits, and some are boycotting Baidu for its collaborations with censors and unethical commercialisation.

The government’s latest edict cements the Chinese government’s control over the internet. And by fixing the government’s quest for cyber-sovereignty further into law, the Chinese public’s position as consumers has been weakened yet again.