“As these companies have grown both in size and influence,” he said, “that model is no longer comfortable for the authorities.”
In China as elsewhere, internet and social-media platforms have become an increasingly popular source of news as smartphones have come to permeate every aspect of daily life. According to government statistics, more than four-fifths of China’s more than 730 million internet users got some news online last year. More than 570 million people used news apps, up nearly one-fifth over the previous year.
But the information they get is heavily censored — and this year, it has been censored more still. The authorities have further curtailed online activity ahead of this month’s Communist Party congress, which will probably lead to some leadership shuffling. Traditionally, Chinese officials have prized stability above all else ahead of such meetings.
In recent months, many virtual private networks, which allow users to vault China’s Great Firewall to access blocked material, have been disrupted or shut down. Two popular sites hosting foreign television shows and movies were wiped clean. The clampdown even affected celebrity-gossip blogs and entertainment-related social-media accounts, dozens of which were shuttered after a call from regulators in June to create a “healthy, uplifting environment for mainstream opinion.”
The recent share deals could take Beijing’s involvement in online media a step further.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, a powerful Chinese media regulator, recommended last year that the government take small but significant stakes in media companies. Called “special management shares,” these would represent a stake of as little as 1 percent. Still, they would give Chinese officials seats on company boards and the right to review media content.
Tiexue, whose name means “iron-willed” in Chinese, carries articles on military affairs and history, often written with a nationalistic tone. On a recent afternoon, the headlines on the Tiexue home page included “Danger Approaching! Japan’s Oil Reserves Are the World’s Largest!” and “Shocking Reversal! China Leads America by 20 Years in This Military Technology.” (The latter pointed to an article about China’s progress in quantum communications, a way of transmitting information securely, and in advanced weaponry.)
Regulatory filings from August indicate that People.cn, the online affiliate of the People’s Daily newspaper, is paying $1.1 million for a 1.5 percent stake in Tiexue. People.cn can then recommend a board member and review Tiexue content, the filings said. The People’s Daily is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
A spokeswoman for Tiexue declined to comment.
Zaker, according to a January article in the official Chinese media, recently closed a funding round with a group of investors including Shenzhen Press Group, a state-owned media company in the southern city of Shenzhen. The article described the deal as a “trial” of the special management share structure, though it did not state how or whether Shenzhen Press Group would influence Zaker’s management and news content.
A Zaker representative declined to comment. Shenzhen Press Group couldn’t be reached for comment.
Teng Bingsheng, a Shanghai-based professor at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, said a resurgence of economic nationalism in China is fueling concerns about the ownership of the country’s technology companies, whose major shareholders sometimes include international private-equity firms.
“People look at their equity structure and they say, ‘Wow, this is actually not a Chinese company because their largest shareholders are not Chinese.’”
The government’s stakes in tech firms may be small at first, Mr. Teng said. “But once the door is opened, eventually they may ask for more.”