China is cracking down on podcasts for this surprising reason

To tell the truth, but with Chinese characteristics.
To tell the truth, but with Chinese characteristics.
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China is cracking down on a number of podcast-hosting platforms and apps as Beijing grows increasingly wary of opinions that the regime deems as out of line with the ruling Communist Party’s official narratives—in any format.

The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the country’s online regulator, issued a statement (in Chinese) on (June 28) that said a total of 26 Chinese podcast sharing or voice-based social apps have been ordered to suspend or terminate services. They also must hold talks with the authority over the apps’ alleged spread of pornography, “ACG culture”—animation, comics and games originating in the Japanese—and probably the most surprising, “historical nihilism.

Referring to pretty much anything that challenges the party’s version of past events, historical nihilism has been repeatedly highlighted in Chinese state-owned media as something that needs to be rooted out to maintain the stability of China’s leadership. Last year, Qiushi, a political theory periodical affiliated with the Party, labeled critical evaluations (in Chinese) of the legacy of China’s founding father, Mao Zedong, as one of the most pernicious forms of historical nihilism that should be banned from public discourse. Mao’s time in power was marked by political and economic upheaval, such as the Great Leap Forward industrialization project that is estimated by some historians to have killed 45 million Chinese people from hunger.

In the case of the crackdown on podcasts and voice-based social apps, the CCA notice listed content such as horror stories, folklore, legends about zombies, and accounts of marriages between the dead (a once popular phenomenon in China’s countryside as the families of the deceased couple could still receive betrothal gifts from this kind of “marriage”) as advocating historical nihilism, saying such contents have “seriously disrupted the order of China’s cyberspace and having a bad influence on teenagers.” Rejecting religious superstition is an important part of toeing the party line.

The crackdown highlights the ever-shrinking space for freedom of expression and media under president Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Since Xi came to power in 2012, outspoken citizens have been silenced more frequently, human rights lawyers jailed in a crackdown, and increased restrictions placed on the internet and broadcast television. The Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred reportedly saw its China release canceled recently, as the film was deemed by critics as being “too charitable” in its depiction of the nationalist Kuomintang, which fought against the Japanese in the 1940s together with the troops of the Communist Party, before being defeated by the latter in civil war and retreating to Taiwan.

The CAC only named four of the apps it was taking action against: Zhiya, Soul, Yuwan and Yishuo FM. Of relatively recent vintage, with the oldest of them established in 2015, the first three are voice-driven social networking apps while Yishuo is a podcasting platform.  Podcasts have become popular in China since 2013, when Himalaya FM and Lizhi FM, currently two of China’s largest podcast platforms, were launched. The two companies had around 89 million and 34 million active users, respectively, at the end of 2018, according to iiMedia research(in Chinese.) The audience for podcasts in China is around 400 million, added the report.

Although they were not named in the CAC statement, Lizhi and Himalaya also could not be found on some local Android stores today, including one hosted by Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi on its devices. Himalaya and Lizhi did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment.

Himalaya and Lizhi allow both individual users and official publishers to upload a range of content, with business commentary and folklore stories from different parts of China usually attracting the most listeners. However, the most popular topic seems to have changed for Himalaya, at least for now: Its website listed audiobooks (in Chinese) based on Xi Jinping Thought as among its top recommendations today.