In a show of strength, in anticipation of a huge political event, China is cracking down hard on the one thing it hasn’t been able to control — livestreaming.

With 731 million internet users in China — of which 300 million have used livestreaming apps — its no surprise that the country’s livestreaming industry is worth an estimated $9 billion.

China had earlier last month ordered three major online platforms — Weibo, iFeng and ACFUN — to stop all its streaming services, immediately. According to the government, the sites were “not in compliance” with state rules.

Weibo, arguably China’s most popular social media site, is home to 340 million users and relies heavily on video streaming for revenue. The site has for years been at the receiving end of censorship, but much of that was done automatically by keyword scraping, or with an army of censors manually combing through millions of posts.

Livestreaming on the other hand, has bested the government. For one, it being live meant that there was no way to regulate what was being said.

“China’s government wants to send the message that they are in control.”

Video is also a lot more difficult to monitor than text — add 300 million people, and that becomes almost impossible.

Many livestreamers broadcast every aspect of their everyday lives, from playing games online to putting on makeup, with some treating it as a full-time job.

So perhaps the bigger surprise is that it’s taken them this long to shut it down.

Stan Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California specialising in Chinese politics and society, said it’s been some time coming. “The Chinese government has been doing a whole series of things leading up to this [ban]…you have them closing down celebrity gossip sites, foreigners not being able to livestream, the removal of American TV shows [on video streaming sites].

“You have the government cracking down, one sector after another, and [livestreaming] was one of the loopholes.”

A systematic shutdown

The decision to ban livestreaming on these main sites certainly did not come overnight.

In December last year, China shut down 4,500 accounts and 3,100 programmes from Beijing-based livestreaming sites.

This year, it went one step further and shut down almost 30 popular livestreaming apps altogether.

The government also moved to ban content depicting LGBTQ relationships, labelling it as “abnormal” sexual activity.

Weibo, which has historically complied with government censorship, came out after the new announcement, saying that it was restricting all videos longer than 15 minutes, adding that it would block unapproved videos and would be working more closely to promote “mainstream” ideas

“A scare tactic.”

“China’s government wants to send the message that they are in control,” said Rosen.

“In this case you go after some very prominent sites to send the message…it certainly is a scare tactic but I think they are doing more than frightening people, they are trying to get them to change their behaviour. China believes in self-censorship.”

But China has hundreds of other livestreaming websites in China that haven’t (yet) been banned, and thousands of self-made stars thrive on these platforms.

“[There are] other leading live-streaming platforms like Douyu, Yinke, Huajiao and YY. Usually, livestreamers move to other platforms when they get an offer of a higher salary,” said Eyal Baumel, CEO of Yoola, a digital media company aiming to bring popular western YouTubers to Weibo.

“If someone has a strong fan base on Weibo, they’ll stay on the platform to leverage their built in audience.”

This behaviour poses a threat to the medium as a whole, however — theoretically, if the government can’t control it, it may shut it down entirely.

Here’s what else has been shut down

Livestreaming is just the latest casualty. Several popular virtual private network (VPN) providers were recently asked to shut down as part of the crackdown on unauthorised internet connections.

This is unprecedented. For years, internet users in China have had to rely on VPN to bypass the government’s firewall.

Tweets like these started popping up on Twitter:

According to Prof Rosen, he believes China’s crackdown is a show of force before the Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress, which is expected to be held in November.

“The government will try to maintain as much control as possible…before the next Party Congress,” he said.

Delegates at the congress will elect, or re-elect, the next leader of the Communist party, who will go on to serve a further five-year term.

The congress is perhaps the most important political event to take place in the country, and could explain President Xi’s emphasis on the recent crackdown — his political fate depends on it — though there is almost no doubt that he will be re-elected.

“After that, it’s possible that things may ease up. Xi Jinping has to be careful leading up to the congress, he doesn’t want his opponents saying that he is going against party values,” says Prof Rosen.

China first implemented a format set of rules in 2016 pertaining to livestreaming platforms, with regulations including factors such as not damaging social stability or broadcasting obscene activities, but it’s only this year that they seem to have moved in to put them into action.

It’s not clear if China will ease up on its rules after the party congress is over — but for now, its certainly made its message clear.

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