A popular online news website received a stern warning from China’s ideology authorities to toe the line, just weeks after its official launch.
Thepaper.cn, widely perceived as a key player in President Xi Jinping’s vision to establish a “new media” industry, was scolded for “improper practices” by the Cultural Security and Ideology Construction Research Centre – but there were scant details on what those mistakes were.
“The central government officials and relevant departments have conveyed stern criticism of the thepaper.cn for a series of improper practises and requested rectification,” the centre, affiliated to the nation’s main think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said on its verified Weibo account.
It reminded all news media to stick to the “bottom line” before they innovate their reporting and warned that “no media is exceptional” or exempt from the rules.
Zhu Jidong, deputy director of the research centre, told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday that the warning was conveyed at a recent meeting with senior officials from the central government.
He declined to give more details, saying the message was confidential, but hinted that the website might have crossed a line laid by the powerful Propaganda Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
“You should be able to guess where it came from,” Zhu said. “Regarding the relevant prohibition, you should consult with the Propaganda Department and other administrations that are in charge of the ideology.”
Responding to the warning, a spokesman for thepaper.cn’s editorial department said: “We have received all kinds of discussions and criticisms since the establishment of thepaper.cn; it’s their freedom of speech.”
“As long as the criticism is not fabricated, we won’t do anything about it,” he told the Post, adding that questions about the specifics of the message should be referred to the research centre.
Thepaper.cn, which was live and had been undergoing a trial run for three to four months before its official launch, mainly covers political news. Recently, it has given heavy coverage to China’s anti-corruption campaign.
Thepaper.cn was officially launched last month and is available online, through a mobile phone app and the popular instant-messaging platform Wechat, as it aims to better reach more tech-savvy audiences.
Thepaper.cn is operated by the state-run Shanghai United Media Group, which was formed last year when the party started pushing state-owned print media to improve their digital reach after years of losing ground to internet portals and social media.
Wei Wuhui, a veteran journalist turned media commentator, said the central government expected the Shanghai United Media Group to play an important role in official new-media organisations in the future.
“The Shanghai United Media Group is one of the contenders of the ‘new media national team’ that [the] government is keen to endorse,” he said. “So the website’s prospect is unlikely to be affected by what this [warning] has indicated.”
He said it was hard to pinpoint what the website had done to irk the propaganda department.
“The website has behaved squarely and in line with the official account so far, especially in accordance with the government’s anti-corruption campaign,” Wei said.
However, echoing analysts’ previous concerns, the warning shows that new media programmes – despite inhabiting the massive, fluid world of the internet – are still subject to stringent censorship from China’s propaganda apparatus.
Qiao Mu, an associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, earlier said “the promotion of new media will not lead to any real change in the nature of the media industry as the authorities still want to maintain tight control over ideology”.