China's powerful Cyberspace Administration has moved to further tighten control over what the country's 731 million internet users can see online, with a ban on private-sector providers of online news.
New rules coming into force on June 1 will bar any non-state-owned enterprise from running online news and editorial services, according to the agency's official website.
Announced on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, the move comes amid "increasing challenges in the country's efforts to regulate online news services," state news agency Xinhua reported.
The rules will transfer full powers to regulate online news to the Cyberspace Administration from China's cabinet, the State Council, it said.
The regulations will apply to "news reports about public affairs such as politics, economy, military and diplomacy, as well as comments and reports on emergencies, and news services include publishing, forwarding and broadcasting news," Xinhua said.
According to the regulations: "Non-publicly owned capital may not enter into Internet news information gathering activities."
Beijing lawyer Li Jinglin said the regulation is "illegal," although the regulations claimed to supersede any earlier laws.
"This is illegal, because it violates China's constitution," Li said. "But who is going to enforce that?"
"There is no independent judiciary in China, so there is no agency that could rule the Cyberspace Administration's rules unconstitutional," he said.
Li said the rules are a far cry from promises Beijing made during its negotiations to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) to open up its media sector eventually to foreign competition.
"They had previously promised to open up the media ... to foreign investment, but they are happy to break these promises," he said.
Instead, online news providers must be legally registered in China, and people in charge of the organization must be Chinese citizens, while companies are banned from operating beyond the scope of their existing license.
Licenses will be awarded for three years, and must be renewed before the end of that period, with further checks carried out in the case of news organizations judged to have violated the terms of their license.
The authorities will also freeze sites that refuse to take steps to "rectify" violations of censorship rules.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the rules show that the media industry in China has changed rapidly since the turn of the century.
"These new rules from the Cyberspace Administration will send a shiver up the spine of online reporters and editors who are already struggling for survival," Hu said. "It may be the beginning of summer in Beijing, but already there's a chilling effect in the air."
"There is less and less space for civil society to exist in," he said.
According to the rules, online news organizations must also show that they have "qualified" personnel, suggesting that journalists and editors will be subject to the same political screening process as their counterparts in more traditional media.
They will also be required to limit themselves to reprinting news information on the ruling Chinese Communist Party's news whitelist, clearly indicating the story source, and keeping the original headline and byline.
"They may not distort or misrepresent the original meaning of the title and the content of the news information," according to Article 15, while Article 17 forbids news sites from publishing or disseminating "prohibited" content.
Any content discovered to be in violation of Chinese government guidelines must be immediately taken down.
The rules add: "Internet news information service providers shall consciously accept social supervision."
'A cornered beast'
Meanwhile, Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du said the aim is to choke off any freedom of expression for online news and information.
"They have to cut it all off at one stroke; they can't allow any room at all or some idea that clashes with one-party rule could emerge."
But veteran Chinese journalist Zhu Xinxin said he is optimistic that social media will make total control hard to achieve.
"I think we can say that the efforts of Chinese citizens has broken the monopoly of the Communist party on news in the internet age," Zhu said. "Online, the government is fighting like a cornered beast."
"They can't exercise total control over online public opinion."
The new rules come after the Cyberspace Administration announced a crackdown earlier this year on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall that limits what Chinese citizens can see online.
Any service providers offering VPNs or special cable services to connect to the wider internet beyond sites censored by the government will now be required to obtain government approval before they can operate, according to a statement released by the ministry of industry and information technology.
Reported by Gao Shan and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.