China on Tuesday defended its recent blocking of overseas-based virtual private network (VPN) services, which allow Internet users in China to circumvent government censorship of what they can see online.
"As the Internet develops, and new circumstances arise, we will take new regulatory measures to keep up," Wen Ku, a director with China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told a news conference in Beijing.
"Certain types of unhealthy content will be regulated according to Chinese law."
A number of VPN service providers reported last week that users have had trouble accessing their services from China, including StrongVPN, Golden Frog and Astrill.
Astrill said in a message its customers posted on Twitter that it would continue to dispute the disruption to its Chinese users, many of whom use it to gain access to uncensored content on their iPhones.
"We know how access to unrestricted Internet is important for you, so our fight with Chinese censors is not over," the post said.
According to the Internet monitoring group GreatFire.org, Astrill's site has been 88 percent blocked in the past 90 days.
Asked if censorship would affect the development of Internet companies in China, Wen pointed to e-commerce giant Alibaba.com, apparently attributing its success to the complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, or GFW.
"Everyone can see that this is all because of the Chinese government's policy safeguarding the environment for the developing Internet industry," Wen said.
Earlier this week, China's Central Propaganda Department ordered the country's tightly controlled media not to mention the VPN blockage.
"Websites must not quote from news about 'China starting to block foreign VPN services,'" the State Council Information Office said in a directive dated Jan. 25 and sent to news organizations and websites around the country.
"We reiterate the following propaganda discipline: Information from sources which violate regulations or have not been verified by authoritative media must not be republished," the directive, which was leaked online by Chinese journalists before being translated and collated by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website, said.
Net is tightening
Online free speech advocate Wu Bin, known online by his nickname Xiucai Jianghu, said the move shows the net is tightening still further around any expression that doesn't tie in with the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official line.
"They are carrying out further suppression of the freedom of expression, which means any opinions that expose their dark side," Wu said. "All they want to hear is hymns of praise and fawning flattery."
In a satirical reference to China's leadership, Wu said the "imperial dynasty" is employing ever harsher methods to silence dissent.
"It's as if a mafia organization took over the organs of government," he said. "This so-called government is a criminal organization operating under franchise."
Wu said the information blackout surrounding reporting of the VPN blockage in official media was unsurprising. "What they are doing will only serve to deepen people's resentment," he said.
Chongqing-based political commentator Zhang Qi said there are no legal guidelines for what constitutes "unhealthy" content, however.
"This is a policy born of an ideological mentality aimed at protecting the party," Zhang said. "It's clear that the Chinese Communist Party feels that public opinion and social commentary poses a threat to its rule, and to its legitimacy."
But he said the business of Internet censorship is a constant cat-and-mouse game with new technologies, and Chinese Internet users are increasingly relying on smartphone chat apps to disseminate censored news items.
"Within a very short time, people overseas can send stuff to their circle of chat friends within China, so that several thousand people will see it," Zhang said.
"This sort of structure for spreading information is incompatible with [the Great Firewall]," he said.
‘Good online citizens’
Earlier this month, an article in a state-run newspaper called on Chinese netizens to "be good online citizens" and report online critics of the party, in a move that commentators liken to the ideological campaigns of the Mao era.
A signed article in the Global Times, which has close links to party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said China's 642 million Internet users should be "good netizens" and a "force for good."
Rights groups say the government has recently stepped up the level of official control over freedom of expression to include criticisms of the government that are merely implied.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.