The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Monday launched another volley of warnings to the country's media that programs engaging in "mockery" of its policies or "speculation" about the news stories of the day could risk closure and other forms of sanction.
Writing in an editorial in the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, the head of China's media regulator Tian Jin warned that "hostile western forces" are constantly trying to divide China, and the party must hold its own in what it sees as a form of ideological warfare.
"Internationally, the contest between different values and institutional models is heating up," wrote Tian, who is deputy head of the powerful State Administration for Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).
"Hostile overseas forces continue to try to westernize and divide China," he said. "There is still an idea in the international community that the West is strong and China is weak."
"China's news media are at the forefront of the ideological struggle against such forces ... They should take the initiative and fight to achieve ideological dominance," he wrote.
Tian also warned against a lack of discipline in "some programs" on state media, calling for stronger "guidance and management."
"Some programs follow the overall trend of speculation on hot topics of the day, mocking important social problems, ridiculing government policies, spreading false views and advocating extremist ideas, deliberately working against social order," he wrote.
"[They will] soon find themselves stopped in their tracks and under serious management measures," Tian warned, adding: "Discipline is the lifeline of the party."
As head of SAPPRFT, Tian has the power to shutter media organizations or individual programs that don't live up to President Xi Jinping's idea of what constitutes party loyalty.
His comments referred both to factual and entertainment programming, suggesting that fictional television dramas could be next in line for "rectification."
Don’t step out of line
Veteran journalist and media commentator Zhu Xinxin said the article sends a clear message to media organizations not to step out of line when it comes to questioning the ruling party.
"They are issuing this directive because they have notice criticism of the government taking place in various programs, whether it be by experts or celebrities, and they can't control it," Zhu said.
"They want to shut down any remaining freedom the media has, so that all they can do is say how great the government is; they won't be allowed to make rash comments," he said.
Party officials have already been warned that "making rash comments about government policy," in any public space ranging from dinner parties to social media platforms is now subject to disciplinary action.
The People's Daily article is in line with an ideological campaign launched by President Xi earlier this year targeting at "careerists and conspirators," "cabals and cliques" in party ranks who should be eliminated.
Xi told officials to make their loyalties clear in public and not to allow "western" ideas to seep into their thinking, adding that he wants all public debate to be shaped by the Communist Party and not by "hostile foreign forces" peddling values like democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Last week, the party's internal disciplinary arm hit out at its powerful propaganda department for failing to exert enough control over public opinion, particularly online and in universities.
China's secretive propaganda masters haven't done enough to spread the "correct" ideological outlook in the country's higher education institutions and new media, the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a report posted on its website.
"[The department must] extend the principle of party leadership to all new media, and effectively manage its use of the internet," said the report, which was billed as "feedback" following a lengthy inspection.
Beijing-based rights activist Xiang Li said the article was "ridiculous," because freedom of speech is enshrined in China's constitution.
"In my view, pretty much every government policy since [the start of communist rule in] 1949 has been wrong," Xiang said.
"If they bring out a policy that isn't appropriate to the reality of life in China, then everyone should get to make criticisms; this is a right and a duty that we have, conferred on us by our constitution," she said.
"If they really mean this, then they are talking about an absolute idea of what is ultimately correct, which I think is totally stupid and ridiculous," she said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.