As the ruling Chinese Communist Party gears up for an all-important political congress later this year, the administration of President Xi Jinping has issued new rules aimed at limiting what party members can do online.
In an "opinion" issued this week, the party's powerful Central Propaganda Department warned its more than 60 million rank-and-file members not to engage in any "illegal" online behavior.
In a hint that the president is concerned about dissent within party ranks, forbidden online actions include not organizing or participating in any form of political opposition, including via forums, social media, or live chat.
Party members are also to stay away from any form of online religious or "cult" activities, as well as refrain from "conniving" with religious extremists, separatists, and terrorists, it said.
The browsing of "illegal and reactionary" websites is also forbidden, as well as "using the internet to divulge party and state secrets."
"Online behavior is an important part of party members and cadres' work, and [they] should play an exemplary role," the opinion said.
It said party members and government officials should "adhere to political discipline and political rules" online, and "resolutely safeguard the authority of the Party Central Committee ... with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core."
Worry over dissent
Political analysts say Xi's relatively new status as a "core" party leader, not seen since the days of former president Jiang Zemin, is a sign that the president is worried about internal dissent, rather than a sign that he has already won an internal power struggle.
Party members must also swear off visiting online porn sites, and from viewing content that promotes "feudal superstitions," according to the directive.
Content that "vilifies and slanders" the party or state leaders is also off-limits, it says.
Government censors have recently moved to crack down on any form of online satire targeting the president.
Commentators said censors are clamping down on online dissent ahead of the 19th Party Congress later in the year, during which Xi will be looking to cement his status as a "core" party leader for the next five years of government.
A Guangdong-based activist surnamed Ye told RFA on Friday that the government is afraid that online dissent could spark "mass incidents" ahead of the 19th Party Congress, which is expected in November.
"The tension between people and government is getting worse and worse, and the authorities are afraid that it might lead to a mass movement like the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement or the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square," Ye said.
"That's why they have to tighten up control of the internet, and that's why they held drills recently to practice shutting down websites and even the whole internet," he said.
Signs of pushback
There are signs of pushback from some of China's more than 730 million internet users, however.
Some online commentators called for an informal network to be set up in the event of an internet shutdown using the Bluetooth function on smartphones.
"All you need is a smartphone, and for everyone to install a particular kind of app, and to fire up the Bluetooth, and you have a network," one commentator wrote on social media.
Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said the new rules will likely have more of an impact on younger people, however, and will likely push more people into using older forms of technology to get news of the world outside the Great Firewall.
"There are so many Chinese people online now, and most of them are young," Sun said. "Older and middle-aged people just go to the park and walk around listening to overseas radio broadcasts. A radio is all they need."
"People are afraid that they will be under surveillance if they use the internet," he said.
Two universities recently terminated the contracts of lecturers, citing remarks they made online, reports indicated.
Beijing Normal University lecturers Shi Jiepeng had his contract terminated on July 25 after being accused of posting "inappropriate comments" to social media, including WeChat, according to a copy of his termination letter posted on Twitter.
And Li Mohai, a deputy professor at the Shandong Institute of Industry and Commerce, was fired from his job after he criticized government propaganda via his microblog account.
Calls to Shi and Li's cell phones rang unanswered on Friday.
Repeated calls to Beijing Normal University and the Shandong Institute of Industry and Commerce also rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Online writer Jiang Chun said Li is a member of the Communist Party, and had been fired because of the recent crackdown on party members.
"You can't try to dig up the truth about party history or say anything bad about the party," Jiang told RFA. "There are many more rules besides."
"They can deal with this pretty easily just by using administrative processes [like firing people]," he said.
Satirical images banned
China's internet censors recently banned social media tweets containing a reference to Winnie the Pooh, after a satirical image drawing parallels between the cuddly bear and President Xi circulated online.
The image showed the Disney version of Pooh and Tigger alongside a photograph of Xi and former U.S. President Barack Obama during their "shirtsleeves summit" in June 2013.
And Kwon Pyong, an ethnic Korean from the northeastern province of Jilin, stood trial on Feb. 15 for subversion after he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with satirical nicknames for President Xi Jinping, including "Xitler."
The last plenary session of the 18th Party Congress last October, which was held behind closed doors, formally endorsed President Xi Jinping as a "core" leader of the ruling party at the current plenum, potentially putting him on a par with former paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, whose authority must never be challenged.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.