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China’s crackdown on video games is getting more serious

A student majoring esports and management practices on her laptop in a dormitory at the Sichuan Film and Television University in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, November 19, 2017. The curriculum of the course is designed to prepare students for jobs in the growing industry that supports professional esports players who reach the peek of their career in their teenage years. The students study a wide range of subjects from commentating and script writing to event organising and gaming strategy. Picture taken November 19, 2017.
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
Winning the battle, but within limited time.
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The Chinese government is making it very clear that it’s determined to weed out children’s obsession with video games, even if that comes at the cost of hurting some of its biggest tech giants.

Last week, Beijing made a surprise announcement to stipulate that under-18s could only play games for a maximum of three hours every week at designated times—between 8pm and 9pm on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The measure is in line with the Communist Party’s other regulatory moves apparently aimed at helping youngster, including its clampdown on fan clubs and private tutoring schools.

This could go even further. The South China Morning Post reports today (Sept.9) that China is slowing down approval for all new online games. There was a nine-month suspension for new game approvals in 2018, also aimed at combating addiction among children—it wiped out nearly $200 billion off Tencent’s market value at one point.

A summon of gaming giants

This week, after Chinese reports suggested that there are online shops that rent accounts to minors for them to bypass the gaming time limit, Beijing summoned gaming giants including Tencent and Netease.

The Party’s publicity department and gaming watchdog, the National Press and Publication Administration, together with several other agencies, told the firms they must strictly enforce the gaming time limit for minors, and curb “erroneous tendencies” of focusing on chasing profit and traffic, according to state-owned media Xinhua. In China, a summons is a common way for the government to give orders or warnings, and gather feedback from companies. It is also a means to showcase its willingness to push through certain agendas to the public.

“We believe in healthy game play and take very seriously the physical and mental health of minors. We appreciate the guidance and instruction from the relevant regulators, and will work hard to be in full compliance with all rules relating to youth game addiction and content regulation,” Tencent said in a statement.

A crackdown on “unhealthy cultures”

Authorities also urged the companies to “resolutely resist unhealthy cultures” including worship of money and “boys’ love”—a popular literary genre in China that depicts the romantic relationships between males, as well as “sissy pants,” a derogatory term used in China to describe effeminate males, a group that has already been under attack by China’s TV watchdog—it said celebrities who sport this style should be banned from screens.

Just like a state-media article that called video games “spiritual opium” triggering a frantic sell-off in Chinese gaming companies last month, the reported suspension and the preceding summons have also raised investors’ fears about whether China will adopt even more drastic measures for the gaming sector. Tencent and Netease, whose shares plunged by 8.5% and 11% in Hong Kong today, shed around $60 billion in combined market value, according to Bloomberg.

Update: An earlier version of this story, quoting a report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), stated that China has reportedly suspended approvals for new games. The SCMP has clarified that authorities are, according to its sources, instead slowing down the process, and our piece has been amended to reflect that.

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