China has long censored what people can read and watch online, but the increasingly heavy hand of the regulator threatens to disrupt growth in the country’s vibrant tech sector.
In the current campaign to “clean up” the country’s online space, Beijing hasn’t just focused on removing politically sensitive information. Authorities are now going after what they consider to be content that violates “core socialist values,” and these values include anything from patriotism to a positive lifestyle. To some of China’s most valuable tech companies — especially startups — this means risking alienating users by removing popular themes that have helped them grow large audiences in the first place. If the trend continues, some analysts believe the value of these companies will take a hit as user numbers start to fall off.
China’s Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo recently targeted content the authorities have put under the spotlight. The company last week said it would remove gay, pornographic and violent content during a three-month campaign. This triggered a storm of online protests under the quickly-deleted hashtag “I am gay,” as people criticized the company for discrimination. Weibo has now backed down, announcing on Monday through its official microblog that it will no longer remove gay-themed content during the current crackdown, without explaining further. It also reinstated the “I am gay” hashtag, which has been viewed 580 million times so far.
Other tech firms have also been requested to clean their sites up. Kuaishou, a Tencent-backed live-streaming platform with 100 million active users, and a valuation of $3 billion, has been removed from several Android app stores after state broadcaster CCTV criticized it for streaming teenage moms — some who claimed to be as young as 14 — and broadcast their newborns or swollen bellies online for no other reason than to be famous. Meanwhile, Beijing Bytedance, which has a valuation of $20 billion following a 2017 funding round, was last week told to permanently shut down its joke-sharing app Neihan Duanzi because it promoted “low values” among its 20 million active users, according to an online statement from the country’s media watchdog, the State Administration of Television and Video.