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China Tightens Controls as Reach of Social Media Expands


FILE - Chinese are seen working on computer work stations. Called 'bo ke' in Chinese, blogs are hugely popular, especially among the young, despite strict rules on content enforced by the government.

FILE - Chinese are seen working on computer work stations. Called 'bo ke' in Chinese, blogs are hugely popular, especially among the young, despite strict rules on content enforced by the government.

China has announced plans to tighten its Internet controls even further beginning next month. The announcement and other tightening measures comes at a time when the reach of social media continues to expand.

According to the Cyberspace Administration of China, the new regulations will require users who post comments online, or in chat rooms and blogs, to register using their real name and agree to abide by a code of conduct. That code includes pledges that users will not criticize the Communist Party, make racist remarks nor post pornography.

Collection of data

For several years now, China has been requiring Internet companies to collect the real names of users. But compliance has been mixed at best.

Eric Harwit is a professor of Asia Studies at the Hawaii-based East-West Center who monitors cyber activity in China. He said that although the regulations are not new, authorities do seem to be sending a signal that users will be punished if they push too far.

“Up until now the Internet service providers, the websites that host chat rooms or Weibo in Chinese have been rather lenient about enforcing these kinds of rules. Now the Chinese government is really trying to impress on those mainly private companies that they really do have to watch what kind of content people are posting on their sites,” he said.

Maintaining order

Last April, China launched a campaign to clean-up online content. Authorities fined Sina Corp nearly $1 million for “unhealthy and indecent content.” In December, the Ministry of Culture announced that 11 companies, including Tencent and Baidu, would be fined as well for similar violations.

China has the world’s biggest online population and authorities work tirelessly to maintain order. The country’s Internet is filtered to block out unwanted political and sexual content and a wide range of search topics by what is known as the Great Firewall of China.

The wall blocks access to news and information sites such as VOA, The New York Times and others, topics such as Tibet, Tiananmen and Occupy Central as well as social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. According to GreatFire.org, an Internet portal that monitors what authorities are filtering, nearly 50,000 website addresses are blocked.

Harwit said that the new rules may make people a little more conservative for a while, but the regulations are unlike to change much in the long run. “The government I think doesn’t really want to shut down a lot of the communication, the vast majority of which is positive for Chinese social and economic development," stated Harwit.

Xu Feng, head of the Cyberspace Administration of China’s mobile Internet bureau told the Global Times that while the regulations require a real name, users would still be able to personalize their usernames.

According to official statistics, China has more than 600 million Internet users and estimates of social media users are in the hundreds of millions as well. And the numbers continue to grow.

China Internet usage demographics

A survey released earlier this week by Kantar, the data management investment division of the global consultancy group WPP, found that while enthusiasm for social media was shifting in China, its reach continues to expand.

According to the survey, the number of heavy users of social media among urban residents grew last year to 34 percent (from about 28 percent from the previous year). The number of older Chinese who use social media every day also grew. The survey of around 53,000 respondents living in 60 cities in China found that not only did growth expand among younger users, but also those who are less educated and living in smaller cities.

CTR Market Research's Media and Consumption Behavior group carried out the online polling survey for Kantar. The group's general manager, Sophie Shen, said that although those born in the 1990s became the largest grouping of social media users in this year’s survey, those born in the '50s, '60s and '70s also saw an increase in usage.

Shen said that in the past it was the younger generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s that made up the majority of social media users, but now usage is spreading from families to friends to reach the broader general public.

The survey found, however, that as the landscape of social media expands, enthusiasm for it as a medium has slipped. According to the results of Kantar's second annual China Social Media Impact Report, nearly 65 percent of those surveyed said they felt positively about social media, down 12 percent from the previous poll.

Shen said that some noted that their opinion toward social media was shifting because of the impact it was having on their sleep and natural social interactions with others. She said others expressed concern about how it was affecting their ability to concentrate and disrupting daily routines.

Shen said that at the same time, social media users noted a growing concern about personal privacy, with nearly 30 percent voicing concerns, an increase of nearly 10 percent from the previous year.

She said that as social media expands there is also a concern about users growing pools of “virtual friends” who at times become a nuisance.

Although the survey did not touch on the impact tightening regulations are having on the use of social media, Shen said that as someone who is a "heavy user" herself she does not believe the newer requirements will lead to less use. She said that with popular social media apps in China such as WeChat, many are linked up to family and friends who know who you are, even though some may have colorful creative usernames.

Victor Beattie in Washington also contributed to this report.

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