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China confronts Internet rumors and trashy TV

The China Internet Information
Center counted 420 million Internet users in China in the middle of 2010. (AP)

Along with cracking down on what it considers trashy TV --- China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) said Tuesday that it will limit entertainment and add more news and other programs that "build morality and promote the core values of socialism" -- the government is going after what it calls rumor mongers on the Internet. The BBC and others reported on the Internet crackdown after the official Chinese news agency Xinhua released a short item on Tuesday, announcing that three people had been detained or arrested for publishing incorrect information, or "spreading rumors online," as Xinhua put it.

One was held in local police custody for 15 days for posting a falsified personal income tax document from the State Administration of Taxation in August; another for posting a fake news item about a sick man who killed eight village leaders in Yunnan. The third was a site editor who was given a warning from his employer for publishing a microblog entry about an air force fighter crash without confirming the source and facts, Xinhua said.

The moves are a step worse from August, when we reported in an alert --- Chinese microblog suspends accounts for false rumors --- that Beijing apparently was trying to deter journalists and bloggers from reporting breaking news. CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney pointed out that "Chinese authorities concerned by rumors would be better served by allowing free reporting in the nation's media -- not by stepping up online controls." Still, given China's dynamic online community (by the middle of 2010, the semi-official China Internet Information Center counted 420 million Internet users, with 364 million of them having broadband service) it is not surprising that the possibility of new rules has been under discussion within China's very active blogging and microblogging communities.

In August, as we noted in our alert, Communist Party papers like the Global Times and People's Daily had been criticizing social networks in the weeks before the accounts were suspended, apparently preparing for a crackdown. But after Tuesday's SARFT announcement, a Global Times op-ed was surprisingly critical of the restrictions on what the government considers TV programming that is less than uplifting. In "TV content restrictions quash creativity," the paper's argument, in part, was

There's no doubt of the influence TV, video games and online content has on people. But can we really blame a TV show involving desperate single men and women finding dates on the moral decay of our society? Are we to understand that the reason people turn a blind eye to car accident victims is because they have been watching too much China's Got Talent?

I'm dying to see what entertainment can boost my morality. Red songs? It's a long shot. After all, Chinese viewers have tuned into news programs including Xinwen Lianbo [CCTV's daily flagship news broadcast] for decades, yet look where we are now on the morality scale.

The comments that followed the piece were reasoned, with some acknowledging the need for a programming upgrade on China's TV, but the one that best reflected my attitude was this, from someone using the name Zhongshan:

Well written piece! Straight to the point. Must have a lot of guts writing those stuff. I really don't see how a few reality programs are somehow the moral degradation of an entire society. Perhaps CCTV is just too jealous that HunanTV can produce so much better shows than the usual crap on "central television."

Banning time-travel shows? That's got to be a classic. Perhaps the Party does not want "Back to the Future" re-enacted in China because it's too afraid of its own history. Sad and funny.

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