The ruling Chinese Communist Party says it now has more than 3,000 official "Internet monitors" to act as its eyes and ears online, although the true number of people working to police online speech is believed to be far higher.
Beijing's police department announced the number as it unveiled its monitoring body, the Volunteer Internet Monitors, as an official civilian security organization, official media reported on Thursday.
The Volunteer Internet Monitors now number more than 3,000, and have helped police with more than 15,000 leads on "various cybercrimes," state-run China Radio International reported on its website.
"The Internet monitors assisted the police in fighting crimes such as fraud, prostitution, gambling, and drug dealing, as well as the spread of pornography," it said.
"The volunteers file reports whenever they find false information, malicious computer programs or content related to cybercrimes."
Last year, Beijing police deleted more than 200,000 "illegal" Internet posts, and shut down more than 9,000 accounts, the report said, adding that the volunteers are mostly young people born after the turn of the century.
However, the police volunteers are not the only people carrying out online monitoring on behalf of the government and the Communist Party.
Last year, leaked documents hacked from the computers of the Shanghai Communist Party Youth League revealed the inner workings of a nationwide network of online propagandists working under the aegis of the League alone.
The documents show that the monitors are used to gather information on public responses to sensitive news items, as well as to report content deemed subversive.
Universities and other institutions have also hired their own students to police online content on university chat sites and bulletin boards.
China's Internet service providers are also required to delete "illegal," politically sensitive posts and the accounts that publish them, as well as setting up keyword filters to block searches for politically sensitive content, under police supervision.
Guangzhou-based writer and activist Xu Lin said the intention of the authorities is to create a chilling effect on freedom of expression online, rather than to solve "crime."
"Even if they wanted to detain everyone, there are so many netizens, and the government can't detain them all," Xu said. "So they make an example of some of them, to frighten off the rest."
"They usually don't go after regular folk, but after people whose comments have been particular critical over a long period of time," he said. "They recruit all of these volunteers to delete posts that they think are a problem."
Guangzhou-based rights activist Ye Du said the policy is already sparking a backlash among Chinese netizens.
"It's like having a sword hanging over your head; you never know when somebody will report you," Ye said. "The worst thing is that you can never see where the threat is coming from."
"Of course there are benefits for the government in extending this level of control over online freedom of expression, but it will create a mood of defiant opposition to officialdom," he said.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has repeatedly warned of ideological attacks by "hostile foreign forces" that seek to undermine Communist Party rule with ideas of human rights and democracy.
Official media have warned that the Internet has become an "ideological battlefield" where wars could be lost and won against "hostile Western forces" aiming for regime collapse in China.
According to People's Liberation Army (PLA) strategists, whoever controls the tools of the struggle will win any such war in which Western powers might seek to overthrow the regime with a "color revolution" and "constitutional democracy."
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.