China Tightens Controls Over Internet News, Raises Concern Among Environmental, Grassroots Groups

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On September 25, the Chinese government set new regulations on Internet news content, strengthening its control over the operations of online news organizations and the country’s rapidly growing Internet population. The move has alarmed environmental organizations and other grassroots groups worried about the potential impact on their communications and networking abilities.

According to Xinhua Net, the new regulations, which take effect immediately, allow for the publication of only “healthy and civilized news that will help to raise the quality of the nation, promote its economic development, and push forward social development.”. Online news service units are prohibited from spreading news and information deemed to be “against state security and public interest,” according to the State Council and the Ministry of Information Industry, which issued the ruling.

Because China has long monitored the content of key Internet information sites, the new rules are more of a codification and clarification of existing controls than a strict new mandate. But Chinese grassroots organizations—and international environmental groups working on China’s issues—still worry whether the move will inhibit their communications by encouraging stricter self-censorship, potentially slowing the pace of environmental protection in China. 

Despite onerous registration requirements, the number of Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has grown rapidly in recent years. According to Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations, there are now approximately 2,000 officially registered environmental NGOs in China, which act under the principle of “supporting and cooperating with the government” rather than embracing anti-government activism. Because their activities generally pose little threat to “national security and public interest,” these groups have been able to carry out their research and projects with little interference, and should continue to enjoy freedom in reporting even under the new rules. According to Jennifer L. Turner with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, environmental reporters in China tend to enjoy more freedom than other types of reporters, enabling them to obtain cooperation from local authorities in doing their investigative work. However, they also practice self-censorship and often avoid targeting national-level agencies and policies.

The new rules could have more serious consequences for unregistered environmental groups in China, of which there are a substantial number. The Internet has become a key tool for these organizations to publicize their views on environmental issues, particularly when covering sensitive topics or airing government critiques. For this group, the new rules could mean harsher punishments if their content is deemed to be subversive. Moreover, the government could expedite the shut-down of unregistered websites, blogs, and online diaries.

Meanwhile, the process of becoming an “official” NGO could become more difficult, as the new rules set out a system of registration and supervision of all online news organizations. Although the system primarily targets newspapers and broadcasters, environmental groups who wish to formally register as NGOs must now be more conscious of the type of information they distribute online. However, some experts are not too worried about the overall impact of the rules, saying that Internet users are often savvy enough to bypass them.

The regulations come at a time when Chinese environmental NGOs are ramping up their involvement in the design and implementation of major environmental projects, and are also beginning to speak out on sensitive political issues such as dam construction. Their messages appear to be reaching the highest levels of government: in late January, the Vice President of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency, with support from Premier Wen Jiabao and the State Council, ordered a halt to 30 large infrastructure projects, including 26 power-related projects, when it was determined that environmental impact assessments were not properly completed. With the new Internet ruling, however, it is possible that the Chinese NGO movement could be more constrained in its ability to target sensitive political issues in the future.