Will China’s New Foreign Media Ban Cause Big Problems for Fashion Magazines?

Hearst says it needs to evaluate what the Chinese government's new restrictions mean for its publications including Elle China.

Hearst says it needs to evaluate what the Chinese government’s new restrictions mean for its publications including Elle China.

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A new Chinese government regulation that bans foreign companies from publishing content online has spurred a discussion of its implications for news sites, but many fashion magazines as well as foreign companies involved with content production are also considering what it means for them.

Released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology last weekend and going into effect March 10, the new set of rules states that “Sino-foreign joint ventures, Sino-foreign cooperative ventures, and foreign business units shall not engage in online publishing services,” but the details are murky about the actual effects it will have on businesses.

While Chinese-language foreign news sites were already prohibited from publishing on Chinese servers, and some such as The New York Times have been banned by China’s Great Firewall, fashion and lifestyle magazines have had better opportunities to partner with local firms due to their less sensitive content. Many companies license their magazine titles to Chinese companies or work through Chinese subsidiaries in joint ventures.

Some companies are publicly confident that their business in China won’t be affected. Time, which publishes titles such as Travel + Leisure and Golf Magazine in China recently told Women’s Wear Daily that its current licensing agreements won’t be affected by the new rule. Meanwhile, Hearst, which owns Elle China, is more uncertain, as its CEO Duncan Edwards said that the new rule is “fairly discouraging,” and the company has to “dig into it a little bit more before seeing how it impacts us.”

Some fashion-related titles have already felt the wrath of China’s censorship long before the new regulation was announced. After The New York Times was blocked in China in 2012, it opted to launch its style publication T Magazine in Chinese in 2013 as an alternative monetization option in China. The company’s chairman emphasized the fact that the site was unlikely to be blocked because it was covering lifestyle rather than politics, foreign policy, or business, yet the New York Times name was enough to get it banned anyway.

Since the new rule extends across a wide range of categories including videos, e-books, online databases of content, animation, games, and more, it’s also unclear what it means for online content platforms owned by foreign companies like Apple or Microsoft, such as Apple’s Chinese App Store.

There technically won’t be a complete ban on foreign media, as foreign firms are permitted under the new regulations to cooperate with Chinese companies on “projects” if they receive approval from China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. The wording, however, is decidedly ambiguous and does not define the nature of a “project” or how it will be evaluated. According to a recent TechCrunch article, this new regulation may “not significantly alter the current state-of-play” for companies that already work with Chinese partners. In addition, it could give a wider range of digital media distribution companies like Netflix “a clearer legal path for market entry provided they find the right domestic partner,” but it goes without saying that all will come under heavy scrutiny by censors.

 

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