Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties put the brakes on livestream­ing trend

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Business - By Jonathan Kaiman and Jes­sica Mey­ers

BEI­JING — It’s be­com­ing a com­mon re­frain.

A new so­cial net­work­ing tech­nol­ogy takes China by storm. Its users outsmart the cen­sors, ush­er­ing in an era of rel­a­tive free­dom. And then, al­most in­evitably, the Com­mu­nist Party be­gins to feel threat­ened and shuts it down.

Thus is the story of livestream­ing apps. In China, they’re largely an an­o­dyne form of en­ter­tain­ment for lonely mil­len­ni­als. They’re also mas­sive busi­ness. More than 344 mil­lion peo­ple — about half of China’s in­ter­net users — have used at least one of China’s ap­prox­i­mately 150 livestream­ing apps. Last year, these apps earned more than $4.3 bil­lion.

But this month, au­thor­i­ties brought the ax down. Last week, China’s me­dia reg­u­la­tor or­dered three ma­jor Chi­nese in­ter­net plat­forms to halt their stream­ing ser­vices, rais­ing users’ ire and sig­nal­ing a new phase of the party’s drive to con­sol­i­date con­trol over the in­ter­net.

“Most of the au­dio­vi­sual con­tent did not ac­cord with na­tional reg­u­la­tions or the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of the times, and its so­cial com­men­tary was prop­a­gat­ing neg­a­tive speech,” said the me­dia reg­u­la­tor, the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Press, Publi­ca­tion, Ra­dio, Film and Tele­vi­sion, in a sin­gle-sen­tence edict. The three ser­vices — Sina Weibo, IFeng and ACFUN — lacked proper livestream­ing li­censes, it said.

“Many livestream­ing me­dia com­pa­nies will suf­fer from this ban,” said Chen He Di, 27, an on­line gam­ing blog­ger and livestreamer with more than 200,000 fol­low­ers on Weibo. “For livestream­ers, this is dev­as­tat­ing, be­cause it could cut off their main — or even only — source of in­come.”

The ban is in many ways am­bigu­ous. Its tim­ing, and the ex­act rea­sons for the govern­ment ac­tion, re­main un­clear. Weibo’s video con­tent, for ex­am­ple, is hosted by the com­pany Yixia Tech­nol­ogy, which does hold a proper li­cense; sev­eral livestreams on the plat­form re­main uninterrupted. Weibo also has a part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Foot­ball League to stream games.

Au­thor­i­ties may worry about the medium it­self, which is more dif­fi­cult to cen­sor than static text.

“Any­thing live, the govern­ment is fright­ened by — any­thing they can’t con­trol,” said Stan­ley Rosen, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor and China ex­pert at USC.

Al­though scores of livestream­ing sites are still func­tion­ing, the ban could prove highly da­m­ag­ing to the three com­pa­nies sin­gled out by au­thor­i­ties. Weibo’s stock lost 6.1 per­cent of its value af­ter the ban, knock­ing $1 bil­lion off of the com­pany’s mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion.

The Twit­ter-like mi­croblog reached strato­spheric heights of pop­u­lar­ity in 2011 and 2012 as users rev­eled in its rel­a­tively free­wheel­ing po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions. Yet the Com­mu­nist Party con­sid­ered the on­line fo­rum a hot­bed of dis­sent and in 2013 sti­fled it with a raft of reg­u­la­tions. (Some func­tions on WeChat, Ten­cent’s mas­sively pop­u­lar chat app, have suf­fered sim­i­lar blows in re­cent years.)

CAO JIANXIONG/SIPA ASIA/ZUMA PRESS

Zhou Yuzhen broad­casts live to her fans at home on March 9, 2017 in Qin­huang­dao, China. The 81-year-old wo­man is one of the old­est of the in­ter­net celebri­ties who broad­cast live to fans in China. Livestream­ing web­sites have be­come a hit among Chi­nese ne­ti­zens in re­cent years.

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