China's probe into Tencent, Baidu, Sina may be about politics, not cybersecurity

Key Points
  • A cybersecurity investigation into Chinese social media platforms may be a political tool for President Xi Jinping ahead of an all-important leadership reshuffle, according to one consultancy
  • Beijing regularly clamps down on media in the months preceding major events

A cybersecurity investigation into three of China's most popular social media platforms may have nothing to do with alleged illegalities. Instead, President Xi Jinping's administration may simply be looking to tighten censorship ahead of a major leadership reshuffle later this year.

Last Friday, cyberspace regulators said the three platforms — Tencent's WeChat, Sina's Weibo and Baidu's Tieba — violated cybersecurity laws and failed to manage user content that endangered national security, public safety and social order, referring to examples of violence, terror, false rumors and pornography.

Chinese Paramilitary police officers salute each other as they stand guard below a portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.
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"In reality, the accusations are loosely connected to cybersecurity laws, which contains only a single clause related to content management," a team of China analysts at political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group, said in a Tuesday note.

"Instead, the Cyberspace Administration of China appears to be simply advertising the law — its crowning achievement — while enforcement is driven by an uptick in more prosaic repression and risk-aversion ahead of the 19th Party Congress," the note continued.

As one of the world's most-censored nations, Beijing regularly clamps down on social and traditional media in the lead-up to meetings of top political brass.

Slated for October or November, the Communist Party's 19th National Congress is due to unveil new leadership that will govern the country for the next half-decade. Five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the ruling party's key decision-making body, are due to retire, but Xi is widely expected to stay on for a second term.

But even if he keeps his seat at the table, Xi still remains under the spotlight as he tackles challenging obstacles such as financial market liberalization and highly leveraged state-owned enterprises. So to demonstrate strength and uniformity before the high-profile meeting, Beijing is expected to prioritize steady economic growth and orderly societal conduct.

US businesses have a China challenge: Center for American Progress
US businesses have a China challenge: Center for American Progress

"Cultural conservatives within the bureaucracy appear likely to gain a temporary advantage in the coming months as the leadership shuffle approaches, leading to more conservative media content regulations across the board," the Eurasia analysts said.

The internet has emerged as a key domain for Xi to showcase his iron-clad grip on power over the past year.

In March, the government unveiled its first cyber policy paper that promoted the notion of "cyber sovereignty." Instead of following global standards, the world's second-largest economy has a right to create its own model of cyber development and regulations for web governance, the paper argued.

Meanwhile in May, Beijing introduced tougher privacy rules for online media, including search engines, instant messaging and news platforms.