Chinese leaders are tightening the net of censorship around every aspect of public expression in China, sparking strong criticism from overseas press groups and a former top-ranking official in the ruling Communist Party.
Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused Beijing on Thursday of “gagging” its population with increased censorship that appears to be aimed at “stamping out all forms of freedom of expression.”
Meanwhile, a former top Communist Party official called recent curbs on reporting of the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East "outrageous."
"Recently some major events have been happening in the Middle East, causing great concern internationally," wrote Bao Tong, former aide to late disgraced former premier Zhao Ziyang.
"It's a shame the Chinese government won't let people in the mainland know about them, as if the entire Arab world simply didn't exist. This isn't normal," wrote Bao, who has been under house arrest at his Beijing home since serving a seven-year jail term in the wake of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
"If people want to be ostriches, then that's their personal choice, but shutting off information isn't acceptable," wrote Bao in a commentary aired by RFA's Mandarin service.
"They are effectively stripping 1.3 billion people of their right to information. This is outrageous," Bao wrote.
RSF also said Beijing has engaged in "heavy censorship" of the Middle East uprisings.
It said President Hu Jintao had called for new censorship as part of an eight-point social monitoring strategy at a conference on Feb. 19, "urging provincial leaders to step up online monitoring and develop new ways to channel online opinion."
It said sensitive keywords relating to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, as well as other countries in the region, had been blocked or filtered by China's system of online filters called the Great Firewall, or GFW.
Journalists were also barred from covering calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in 13 Chinese cities at the weekend, RSF said in a statement on its website.
"Police turned out in force and online attempts to discuss them were blocked," it said.
Fujian-based netizen activist Wu Gan, known by his online nickname "The Butcher," said netizens had noticed heavy censorship on the microblogging service Twitter, which is only accessible via circumvention tools in China.
"A lot of things are being deleted on Twitter right now," Wu said. "It's very hard to get onto Twitter at all, or to get over the Great Firewall at all."
"They are doing everything they can to stop people," he said, adding that he had been warned in person by police not to use microblogging sites to publicize his opinions.
RSF also cited a number of recent firings of cutting-edge journalists, including Sichuan-based investigative journalist Long Can on Jan. 21 from the Chengdu Commercial Times, along with colleague Li Jianjun on Feb. 17 for criticizing the move in an article.
It said history magazine Kan Lishi was also forced by Sichuan propaganda officials to fire journalist Ma Lan after he wrote an article challenging the government version of the 1937-45 Sino-Japanese War.
Meanwhile, three newspapers in the central province of Hubei were strongly rebuked by propaganda officials for reprinting an article from the economic paper Caijing about a corruption scandal, the statement said.
The Propaganda Department also ordered Chinese media in a Feb. 15 directive to reduce its coverage of child abductions, after netizens set up a microblogging account to post photographs of beggar children for parents to browse in search of missing children, RSF said.
In his essay, Bao said people seeking to defend their rights to freedom of speech, association, and information are likely to run into a number of groups in China, large and small, which "specialize in trampling on the rights of others."
"The right of ordinary people to information is frequently taken from them," he wrote, calling on Chinese citizens to band together to help each other defend their Constitutional rights.
"Their personal rights, their right to free speech, to property, to vote, to assemble, and to demonstrate are all frequently taken from them," he said.
"This isn't acceptable. The Constitution doesn't allow it. The people don't allow it."
China has continued its crackdown on political dissidents this week amid ongoing calls for "Jasmine" protests every Sunday to campaign for an end to official corruption and a more open and accountable government.
Police around the country have swooped down on rights activists and civil rights lawyers amid the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East, while netizens say censors have removed political comment and debate on the topics.
Bao said the mainstay of any movement for political change in China would be respect for law and the Constitution, while communication between campaigners is crucial.
"The groups that infringe the rights of others back each other up. We, as civil rights defenders, must also back each other up," Bao wrote.
"It is no crime if we unite to protect the rights of the people and to protect the Constitution."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.