China's new "white list" of government-approved internet news providers and aggregators will give Beijing tighter control over news in cyberspace but will not have a big impact on the few delisted publishers, industry insiders and observers said.
The list released by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) on Wednesday comprised 1,358 sanctioned online news providers and was nearly four times longer than the previous list released in 2016.
The approved outlets include hundreds of mobile apps and Weibo and WeChat social media accounts directly managed by government bodies and media groups overseen by the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
Among the notable exceptions were Caixin Media, The Economic Observer, Caijing magazine and the 21st Century Business Herald. Caixin was the only one of the four to be on the 2016 list.
Its release comes a week after state regulators underscored that private capital was not allowed in news operations and news distribution businesses.
The CAC said the new list aimed to "expand the supply of news and information with positive energy" and close a "back door" by cracking down on "illegal publishing and reprinting" of online news.
A CAC official said internet news aggregators "can add news feeds to their content management system, as long as they have reached an agreement with the authorised content suppliers".
But the regulator also reminded aggregators such as Bytedance's Toutiao and Sina.com - which are not allowed to cover and publish news on their own - that they should only reprint news from the approved news providers or they would face "consequences".
An industry insider, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said exclusion from the list would not have a significant impact on Caixin, which has put most of its content behind a paywall and defended its copyright vigorously.
"It has nothing to do with Caixin's licence to publish original news content in print and online," the source said. "Caixin's revenue mainly comes from subscriptions and it has been very active in defending its copyright especially since switching to the subscription model in 2017."
Ross Settles, an adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said exclusion would not have a big impact on Caixin but could make its audience less national and more industry-based.
The delisting would not restrict Caixin from publishing but shrink the audience of articles it could distribute through news aggregators such as Tencent News, said Settles, who studies the media and business in Greater China and Southeast Asia.
"It doesn't say to me that they've been told not to write those stories. It just says they don't want those stories broadly distributed," he said.
Settles said most of Caixin's content had been behind a paywall for years and the outlet had already reached its basic audience size.
He said the exclusion of the 21st Century Business Herald from the new list could be because it was part of the Nanfang Media Group, known for its progressive stance before a government crackdown about a decade ago.
"In retrospect, for me, that has less to do with the quality of their reporting than, perhaps, some ongoing penalty for past transgression," he said.
Wang Tianding, a journalism and communications researcher based in Qingdao, Shandong province, said the new list was clearly an effort by Beijing to dominate China's internet with officially sanctioned information and further "limit the room for unofficial news content".
"This will increase the risk faced by some media operators as they might face punishment if theyreprint content from the unsanctioned news sources by accident," Wang said.
"It may be all right during ordinary times but the punishment can be severe in (politically) sensitive periods even for just a small mistake."
Another Beijing-based media researcher expected further tightening of the media ahead of next year's national party congress, which will see a major reshuffle of the top leadership.
"This is a very tense period of preparations and the top leadership does not want the slightest possibility of losing control," the researcher said.
"Therefore, the tightening of control over public opinion - leaving almost no room for open discussion - will continue. I see little hope that they will loosen control in the near future."
Additional reporting by Jack Lau and Guo Rui
Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
-- With a report from Joyce Balancio and Jacque Manabat, ABS-CBN News