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A Chinese start-up that appears to have mastered the art of keeping people glued to their smartphones also has a knack for something else: drawing the ire of China's censors. The country's top media regulator on Tuesday ordered the company, Bytedance, to shut down its app for sharing jokes and silly videos. Vulgar content on the Neihan Duanzi app had "caused strong dislike among internet users," a brief notice from the State Administration of Radio and Television said. The company was told to clean up its other platforms, too.
The shutdown was only the latest blow for Bytedance, one of the world's most successful technology start-ups. Just a day earlier, its flagship app, a popular news aggregator called Jinri Toutiao, was pulled from app stores for unspecified reasons. And last week, Huoshan, the company's platform for sharing slice-of-life video clips, vanished from app stores after China's official television broadcaster rapped it for glorifying underage pregnancy.
In a statement posted Wednesday morning, Zhang Yiming, Bytedance's founder and chief executive, said he had spent the previous, sleepless night in deep reflection, gnawed by "a guilty conscience." "Content had appeared that did not accord with core socialist values and was not a good guide for public opinion," Mr. Zhang wrote. "Over the past few years, we put more effort and resources toward expanding the business, and did not take enough measures to supervise our platform." He added that Bytedance would expand its team for monitoring content to 10,000 people from 6,000 currently.
The company's travails show how the government in Beijing has broadened its restrictions on what people see and say on the internet. Regulators are increasingly suppressing content that they deem pornographic or in poor taste, and not merely material that touches on politically sensitive topics such as regime change or personal freedoms. The authorities are also scrambling to keep up as a new wave of Chinese apps, many of them built around short, spontaneously recorded video clips or live streams, helps people communicate and express themselves in new and hard-to-supervise ways.