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Chinese government to expand censorship of web content

A new five-year cultural development and reform plan revealed by China this weekend calls for a tightening of the ruling Communist Party’s control over search engine and online news portal content.

President Xi Jinping of China has put “internet sovereignty” or “cyber sovereignty” at the centre of his campaign to bolster national security. The new five-year plan is the latest step in his attempts to exert government control over web content.

Speaking at the December 2015 World Internet Conference, President Xi called on nations to respect each other’s “cyber sovereignty” - their right to choose their own internet governance models.

Already, President Xi has overseen multiple laws to reassert Beijing’s role in limiting and influencing online discussion, such as a 2013 law introducing a three-year prison term for bloggers who share “defamatory” content critical of the ruling Communist Party. Popular foreign websites such as Google and Facebook are inaccessible in China and Weibo – once China’s most popular social network – has gone into decline following extensive censorship of the platform.

China’s thirteenth five-year cultural development programme, which was released by the Communist Party and Cabinet, intends to set up a “modern communication system” by 2020. It calls for a “perfecting” of laws related to internet content.

“Strike hard against online rumours, harmful information, fake news, news extortion, fake media and fake reporters,” the plan advised.

The government will intensify control over search engines, instant messaging services and news apps, whilst also clarifying what content may be shared on microblogs and WeChat (China’s most popular social media and messaging app).

There will be a new qualification system established for online news reporters, run by the Xinhua news agency. Xinhua, the country’s official press agency, is led by a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

President Xi has stated explicitly that the media must follow the party line. His five-year plan calls for the wider cultural sector to reinforce “positive propaganda” and improve “supervision over public opinion”.

Chinese regulators say that these controls are legal and necessary in the face of national security threats.

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