Beijing widens control of wildly popular short-video apps

China’s wildly popular short-video apps, such as Tik Tok, will now be held responsible for all “harmful” content posted by users, in a move that could severely hamper their future growth.

Guidelines from an industry association, at the government’s direction, ban 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism”.

Some 600m people in China share and view short videos on their mobiles each day through a range of apps. While the government has not issued formal regulations, the new guidelines indicate that Beijing intends to control the medium more tightly.

“It’s a first and foremost a policy to show the direction of government attitude of how they want to regulate this industry,” said Ernan Cui, an analyst at research firm Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. 

Some content, such as displaying extramarital affairs, have been forbidden for “walking on the edge of social morality”, according to the industry’s China Netcasting Services Association. Some banned categories are defined precisely, such as “chanting spells to change human destiny”, while others are expansive. 

Most of the verboten items are political: now off-limits are puns on Communist titles, advocating for Taiwanese or Hong Kong independence, and distorting political speeches. 

Chinese video groups use armies of censors to take down politically sensitive or graphic content. But the new guidelines state that platforms should review every piece of content that goes online, a requirement that is likely to be enormously expensive. 

After regulatory reprimands last summer, Bytedance’s founder and chief executive Zhang Yiming vowed to increase the number of censors from 6,000 to 10,000. He also issued a letter of apology in which he also promised to adhere to socialist values. The internet giant surpassed Uber in valuation last fall.

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Bytedance’s video app Tik Tok, which has more than 500m users worldwide and has been a smash hit in the US, has about 150m daily active users in China. 

ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment. iQiyi, the Baidu-owned video streaming platform, said it supported the new rules and would “do its best to meet regulatory requirements”. 

For entrepreneurs and live-streamers who rely on short-video platforms to earn a living, the new guidelines have been seen as a continuation of a gradual chilling in the sector. 

“The whole industry is adding on manpower for reviewing content,” said Xu Huan, the founder of Shenzhen Yiqian Media, a short-video branding company.

“We always had to pay attention to whether content is compliant with rules,” said Mr Xu. “If content has problems, we won’t be able to put it in on our platform once the full short-video regulatory policy comes out.”

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing



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