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China cracks down on distribution of news via social media

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BEIJING — What do the subjects of these Chinese news reports have in common?

 The decay of moral standards in villages in northeastern China.

 Arson on a bus in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.

 A girl from Shanghai flees from a Lunar New Year dinner at her boyfriend’s family home in the south because of appalling living conditions.

The powerful Cyberspace Administration of China, whose mission is to censor online information and block some websites (including that of The New York Times), has judged all those reports to be based on false information spread through social media platforms.

The reports were cited in an agency announcement posted Sunday as examples justifying a new regulation. The agency said it would punish websites that publish "directly as news reports unverified content found on online platforms such as social media."

"It is strictly forbidden for websites not to specify or to falsify news sources and to use hearsay to create news or use conjecture and imagination to distort the facts," the Cyberspace Administration said.

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The agency said it had already warned and punished nine websites, among them the popular news sites of Sina, Ifeng, Tencent, Caijing, and 163.

The announcement could be interpreted as a government mandate requiring Chinese news organizations and online publishers to adhere to stricter standards of journalism and truthful reporting.

But scholars of the Chinese media say this is another attempt by the government of President Xi Jinping to tighten the vise around the practice of journalism and to restrict the flow of information online.

David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that the agency's demand in the first line of the announcement — that "various websites adhere to correct guidance of public opinion" — clearly signals that published news must conform to political norms, rather than to any objective standard of the truth.

"It means political control of the media to ensure regime stability," Bandurski said. "There is nothing at all ambiguous about the language, and it means we have to understand that 'fake news' will be stopped on political grounds, even if it is patently true and professionally verifiable. This overarching fact negates any real meaning this CAC notice might have in terms of truly curbing the very real problem of sensationalism and corruption in China's media."

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He added: "We might ask whether it is meaningful at all to talk about 'truth,' 'rumor' or 'fake news' in a system where journalists are told by the state that their primary role is to 'emphasize positive news.' So there is a fundamental conflict between the propaganda role of the media, on which Xi Jinping has been far more insistent than his predecessors, and the demand that they be truthful."

Qiao Mu, an associate professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that although the statement is directed at news websites, its ultimate aim is to try to silence ordinary people who post news on social media platforms such as WeChat or Weibo. This is how many Chinese learn of events around the country.

"The statement is more about intimidating every Internet user because they are hard to control," he said.

Under Xi, the Chinese government has said it will not hesitate to punish Internet users for spreading online rumors — which often means news or analysis that Communist Party officials find objectionable. In August, the Ministry of Public Security said it had punished nearly 200 people for "spreading rumors" online. Among these were posts about the stock market turbulence last summer.

In February, Xi visited the headquarters of three main Communist Party and state news organizations and delivered a major speech saying that all news media must work for the party. This inspired unease among many liberal Chinese, including Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property tycoon and party member who had a big social media presence. After he criticized Xi's speech on his microblog account, which had nearly 38 million followers, the Cyberspace Administration deleted the account and publicly scolded Ren.

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In April, Xi gave a speech at a forum on cybersecurity and information in which he called for officials to "realize rich positive energy" online and to control public discourse. And on June 21, the cyberspace agency began a broad campaign to "purify" user comments online, including ones deemed to endanger national security or jeopardize social stability.