In the heydays of the dot-com era in 2000, at a speech at Johns Hopkins University, then-US president Bill Clinton was derisive about China’s ability to control how people used its internet. “That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall,” he quipped folksily to the room. While he was certainly right about the challenges of managing the internet, which is constantly evolving new tricks and loopholes for regulators to learn, the Great Firewall, the saga of Google, and other controversies in the past 16 years have more than proven authorities’ determination, at least, to stay ahead of the curve.
Since live streaming services began to proliferate on mainstream Chinese web platforms last year (though they had been widely used by the gaming community for nearly a decade before), international media have been avidly interested both in how these platforms might affect the internet landscape in China and in how the authorities might respond. Perhaps mellowed by years of experience since Bill Clinton, nobody has been predicting that live streaming will usher in sweeping social or political change—it’s more of a half-admiring, half-exasperated look at how today’s technologies are enabling every ordinary Chinese individual to take part in runaway capitalist self-promotion, even earning real money or invitations to star in web movies by doing so.
However, with the announcement last week that the China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) will require livestreaming platforms to obtain an “internet business license” and a “network broadcasting license” in order to operate, even news media inside China are wondering mournfully if this “put a period” to an era of grassroots content creation and a (more or less) meritocratic regime of “internet fame”. The prohibitive cost and stringent requirements for applicants to be even eligible for a license will likely edge smaller companies and new start-ups from the live streaming market.
The rationale behind the new licensing regulations, as explained by the South China Morning Post, has both to do with recent crackdowns on vulgar content and the general tightening of control over television and video. An expert quoted by the Global Times indicated that authorities felt that the live streaming industry was growing out of control, with currently more than 200 apps dedicated to live streaming (and plenty more that offer this function on the side) and a brisk trade in illegal content. This is said to pose a threat to social stability, which has been a continual ideological priority for the government since era of market liberalization. From the tussles between the authorities and Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend newspaper to the repeated affirmations by China’s leaders that state media, at least, ought to serve the Party’s interests, the story of Chinese media in the era of private ownership has been a balancing act between market-guided economic growth and the revolutionary tradition of social-development guidance that has been maintained by the Party as its mandate to govern.
So what is the story of live streaming in particular? The following is a timeline of significant developments and regulatory changes that have taken place as authorities have tried to outwit the multi-headed, instability-fomenting live streaming Hydra during its relatively brief run in the Chinese cyber-sphere.
2008-early 2015: the beginnings of the domestic livestreaming industry in China, with the birth of YY, a platform then-beloved by gamers. More platforms, such as Fengyun and Tencent’s QT, began service in 2011-2012, while existing video-hosting platforms such as 56.com and 6.cn also started to offer livestreaming services.
2015-2016: The market exploded in early 2015 with the launch of hundreds of new platforms and momentous increases in the number of users, reportedly doubling in size between October, 2015 to June, 2016. From classrooms and park benches to glitzy home-based recording studios all around nation, it seemed, everybody you know was broadcasting.
December, 2015: President Xi Jinping speaks at China’s World Internet Conference on the need to create a “civilized web infrastructure.” Earlier, in November, the management of China’s internet development was stated to be a top priority of the 13th Five Year Plan.
January 1, 2016: popular live streaming platform Douyu TV becomes the center of the whimsically named “‘Making a Person Controversy”, as one of the live broadcasts it hosted featured a man and a woman engaged in…well, the name explains itself. The incident attracted a huge amount of attention the platform and discussion among netizens on morality and online expression. Douyu responded by briefly shutting down its streams and providing the name of the broadcaster to the police.
March, 2016: SARFT bans television dramas from depicting “abnormal sexual relations and behaviors”, including homosexuality, “sexual perversion”, “one-night stands, sexual freedom, and other behaviors”.
April, 2016: Ministry of Culture investigates whether 20 live streaming platforms, including Douyu TV, YY, and 6.cn, to determine whether live streaming was harming “social morality”. Examples cited of such harm included obscenity, violence, inciting criminal behavior, and other conduct that threaten to “public morality”.
April 13, 2016: More than 20 internet companies (including Sina, Baidu, Sohu, iQiyi, and Yingke) that offered live streaming services released an agreement to ensure that their content is legal and “healthy”. To do so, they pledged to take measures (which went into effect on April 18) requiring all users to undergo real-name registration (including providing ID card number, phone number, and bank card), watermarking all videos with the logo of the platform, and saving the videos on the platform for at least 15 days. Those under 18 are also prohibited from becoming live stream “anchors” (主播).
May, 2016: This is the one you’ve all been waiting for. SARFT, emboldened by its new mission to take pornographic content off the air, imaginatively banned on-air erotic banana-eating by live-broadcasting hosts. According to China Daily, there would be more bans of sexual, criminal, and violent content to come.
July, 2016: the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced that nationwide overhaul of the livestreaming regulatory framework would take place from this time until October. At around the same time, the Ministry of Culture published its first blacklist of web programs and investigated 26 online video platforms.
August, 2016: CAC asks live streaming providers to also monitor “bullet-screen” comments for illegal content.
September 9, 2016: SARFT’s new regulations regarding licensing for live stream providers are issued. Apart from licensing requirements, these regulations also prohibit any organization or person on the internet calling themselves “television” or “television station” without authorization, and reaffirm the requirement for producers to create content that is legal and “healthy” (defined as being not vulgar, “not too entertainment-focused”, and not too materialistic).
September 13, 2016: the CEO and three other executives of QVOD, the company behind streaming app Kuaibo (defunct since April, 2014), are sentenced to prison terms and fines in the millions of RMB for distributing pornographic material on its platform.