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China cracks down on online comments, click-bait stories, foreign TV content as Xi reshapes media landscape

China's internet regulator, long a thorn in the side of social media giants, has turned its focus on two ubiquitous elements of digital life: keyboard warriors and click-bait stories.

Ren Xianliang, deputy head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, said late on Tuesday that the watchdog wanted to carry out a large-scale cleanup of comments sections on news sites, and make it easier to report harmful content.

Online media should make sure that their stories are not simply "click-bait," Ren said in a statement. They should also fulfill their responsibilities to society by properly controlling online comments to "allow the internet to better benefit the people", Ren added.

Beijing's latest scrutiny of online material comes on the heels of new television restrictions announced Sunday, that limited the broadcast of foreign-inspired programs in a bid to encourage the production of local content that promoted Chinese patriotism and values, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said.

According to the regulator's edict, "only independent, innovative programs with Chinese cultural genes, characteristics and style can sustain themes of the Chinese dream, core socialist values, patriotism and outstanding Chinese cultural traditions."

This week's announcement are the latest in a recent series of fresh Chinese media regulations and plans.

Observers said that President Xi Jinping had been putting his own stamp on media control since assuming office in 2013, amid changing media consumption patterns in the Communist country.

Visiting the offices of China's main news outlets in February, Xi said, "All news media run by the party must work to speak for the party's will and its propositions, and protect the party's authority and unity", the state-run Xinhua news agency reported at the time.

In March, authorities sought to exert greater control over the internet, introducing new regulations that include blocking access to foreign websites.

Also in March, a Chinese dissident living in the U.S. said his parents and younger brother were taken away by local police as part of an investigation aimed at identifying the author of an open letter calling for Xi's resignation. Staff at the news website that had published the letter were also reportedly detained.

And earlier this year, several people in Hong Kong linked to a local publisher critical of Beijing's leadership went missing. One of the booksellers said last week that he had spent five months in solitary confinement in China.

David Bandurski, a media scholar at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project, said information controls were "a centerpiece" of the Xi administration's governing strategy.


Even without the current economic headwinds that may fuel dissent and social instability, the Chinese Communist Party would be "determined to constrain the potential for destabilizing dissent created by the internet," Bandurski said.

Despite the Chinese media police's regular dispensation of new rules, Xi himself appeared more open to public comment, he urged the country's top officials in late April to welcome online criticism.

Xi was pushing for a fundamental remake of the information control regime, not just through increased pressure, but also new laws, regulations and institutions, such as the cyberspace bureau that was set up in 2014, Bandurski said. And there was much at stake for China's leadership, the academic added.

"In the traditional media era, media in China existed on a kind of power tree - all connected with varying degrees of proximity to the party and government entities. The internet has mostly been the exception since the late 1990s," Bandurski told CNBC.

"Now that new media are no longer peripheral​, and traditional media are dying, the party must find a way to merge political power and cyberspace."

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