China Cracks Down On Foreign Publishers

China has passed a sweeping law forbidding online publishing by foreign entities operating in the country. But it remains to be seen whether the law is enforced, and if so to what degree.

Whatever happens, the new rules suggest the Chinese government has no intention of relinquishing its iron grip on information and opinion anytime soon.

This month, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television promulgated a new set of regulations which require all entities publishing online to host all of their content on servers located in China.

This should make it easier for authorities to order the removal of objectionable items if need be.

Moreover, the rules, which take effect March 10, flatly prohibit “Sino-foreign joint ventures,” “cooperative ventures,” and “foreign business units” from engaging in “network publishing services.”

In its present wording, this prohibition would appear to apply to virtually every foreign publisher operating in China, including news, entertainment, and game publishers, as well as any Chinese publisher that has accepted foreign investment.

While the latter prohibition seems unambiguous, it is unlikely that the government actually intends to give every single foreign publication the boot. Because the rule of law is inconsistent at best in China, authorities can use the new regulations to silence unwelcome opinions, but otherwise, turn a blind eye to foreign ownership when no action is necessary.

This strategy has the added advantage of keeping foreign publishers and joint ventures in a constant state of fear, further discouraging them from crossing any lines.

By the same token, China already enforces bans on a number of big foreign publishers like The New York Times, which is petitioning the Chinese government, along with other foreign media companies, to get the ban lifted.

The new rules come amid moves by Chinese business, perhaps with encouragement from the government, to consolidate control of the few remaining independent sources of news and opinion in the country. In December e-commerce giant Alibaba bought a Hong Kong newspaper, The South China Morning Post, in a move the company described as an effort to counter negative portrayals of China by foreign media outlets.

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