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China’s shadowy army of government censors have turned their attention to online video with strict new guidelines set to further curb freedom of expression on the internet.

The State Internet Information Office and State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) said in a statement that they want to stamp out “vulgar content”, including pornography and “scenes of bloody violence”.

Unusually for China’s censors, the departments claim that they are reacting to both industry and public pressure to clamp down on inappropriate content, in order “to protect young people's physical and mental health in accordance with the law”.

As with regulation of other online content, the government’s approach here is to ask online video sites to self-censor, screening content they produce before hitting ‘publish’ and holding them responsible if anything undesirable gets through.

However, there are no details in the statement about exactly what constitutes “vulgar” content – the ambiguity here being key to allowing censors to stamp out anything they don’t like the look of.

As David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong explained on the China Media Project blog, SARFT is also requiring online video programmes to “adhere to correct guidance”.

“[This is] a lynchpin propaganda policy that suggests control of not just vulgar or indecent content, but also of content that in the broadest sense goes against the policies, aims or ‘spirit’ of the ruling Party,” he said.

Sites like market leader Youku, which recently bought smaller rival Tudou, are increasingly producing their own “micro films” and online video series, which is what this directive appears to be targeted at.

There is no mention of user generated content, but holding these video sites responsible for self-censorship will put a huge financial burden on them – one that the likes of web giants Sina and Tencent have already been forced to face up to. ®

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