The decision to remove Caixin from the approved list of news sources is the latest attempt by Beijing to reign in China’s remaining independent press.
Xi Jinping’s plan to reshape China’s economy and the Evergrande debt crisis started intense debates. Unlike political and social issues, reporting on economy has received minimal censorship in recent years. But that’s changing.
Cyberspace Administration Affairs of China (CAC) published a new list of approved news sources on 20 October. The list was posted on the WeChat and Weibo accounts of CAC. It was the first time since 2016 that the list of trusted news sources was updated, and included 1,300 news platforms and social media accounts.
The other publications removed from the approved list are Economic Observer, Caijing Magazine and the 21st Century Business Herald. All the publications removed from the list devote a significant share of their reporting to economic issues. Economic Observer was established in April 2001 and modelled on the Financial Times. Like Caixin, the publication has an English language website.
The removal from the approved sources means that Caixin’s news stories now can’t be distributed on various Chinese news media and social media platforms.
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Crackdown on Caixin
Though the Communist Party controls the ownership of news media outlets, there are a few independent ventures like Caixin. The independent news outlet self-censor their stories to align with the agenda of the party.
Until recently, publications like Caixin could report on China’s economic issues without oversight by China’s propaganda machinery. The crackdown on Caixin marks a pattern to control the reporting and data on economy-related news. China has tried to control personal commentary about the economy on social media.
The campaign against Caixin isn’t entirely new. In 2016, the media outlet reported on the deleting of its articles by the CAC and tried to expose the practice by the government. It also reported rigorously on the Evergrande debt crisis, which may partly explain the latest crackdown on it.
“Evergrande contagion may trigger wave of defaults for developers,” said one of the headlines of a story by Caixin on 9 October. “Evergrande Real Estate’s sales continue to fall, and price has reached the lowest value in recent years,” said another headline of an article on 15 September.
A vast majority of Caixin’s content, both in Chinese and English, is behind a paywall. Its stories were circulated widely by republishing the content on other Chinese platforms. The crackdown appears to be targeted at who can forward information and via which medium.
“It doesn’t say to me that they’ve been told not to write those stories. It just says they don’t want those stories broadly distributed,” said Ross Settles, an adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
The founder of Caixin, Hu Shuli had posted an image about how to cook a pig’s head, before Caixin was removed from the list. Some have speculated the message was for Xi Jinping. The post and the image were later deleted.
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New rules, goodbye investors
In a similar action, CAC recently asked top social media platforms such as WeChat, Weibo, Douyin and Kuaishou to control the “illegal release of financial news” by “self-media”. Beijing is finding it difficult to control the sharing of financial data and speculation about the financial markets.
On 8 October, a draft document by National Development and Reform Commission reiterated that private businesses couldn’t invest in the news media business. Some commentators have claimed there is nothing new in the restrictions. But others disagree.
“While many of the items banned in 2020 remain banned in 2021, there have been many important additions on the 2021 list, including banning non-public capital from engaging in news reporting & editing, public account, importing foreign news, holding news summits or prize awards,” said Henry Gao, a law professor specialising in Chinese trade and economy.
The announcement suggests that Beijing may completely force private investors to divest from media-related businesses in the coming months.
Earlier in March, the Chinese government had asked Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group to dispose of its media assets. Jack Ma’s businesses seem to have started complying.
On 23 September, Chinese state media reported that Jack Ma’s Ant Group had disappeared from the list of Caixin investors. Chinese State media later reported that Ant Group had sold its shares of Caixin.
Tencent had also invested in Caixin, and the company’s investment doesn’t appear on the list of investments any more.
Alibaba still has a share in the news outlet Quzhou News – another independent outlet. Alibaba and Ant Group are planning to divest shares of some other platforms they own, but the ownership of South China Morning Post remains with the group.
Beijing’s strategy may be to slowly starve publications like Caixin of private investment and reduce their capacity to report on critical topics.
“The goal is to ensure that the growing universe of digital media products is politically disciplined when it comes to sourcing news and discussion of current affairs,” said Chinese media expert David Bandurski.
For now, Caixin is safe since the company relies on subscription revenue for a significant portion of its operations.
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Xi writes an essay
Within China, there are deep-rooted questions about the direction of the country’s economy. Xi’s common prosperity campaign and upcoming property tax have unnerved many. Even Xi himself had to write an essay to explain the common prosperity campaign. That should have been the job of Chinese State media and other pliant media outlets.
The Wall Street Journal reported high-level opposition to Xi’s proposed property tax. The tax is said to be unpopular among the elite residents of cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. SCMP reported that the tax would be rolled out under a pilot project first.
The distribution ban is unlikely to stop Caixin from publishing on these matters, but the removal is a message to stop critical reporting on economic issues. Beijing may want to ensure that it has tight control over public opinion ahead of the national party congress next year.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)