The ruling Chinese Communist Party has announced plans to target the country's tech-savvy young people, many of whom may have picked up unauthorized ideas during periods of study abroad, for ideological "guidance."
The party's ideological arm, the United Front Work Department, said it will set up a new task force aimed at ensuring that this "new social class" sticks to the party line.
The bureau will seek to understand and consult with returning overseas students, management in private companies, non-government (NGO) and charity sector workers, freelancers, and those who work in online media, it said.
The department was set up on June 4 -- the politically significant anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre -- in response to a speech made by President Xi Jinping last May, who called on party officials to unite all "forces and positive factors" as extensively as possible.
Xi specifically mentioned returning overseas students, the United Front said via its official account on the smartphone messaging app WeChat.
Overseas students are the most likely among the younger generation to be well informed about the use of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops wielding tanks and machine guns to end weeks of peaceful, student-led pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square in the spring and early summer of 1989.
'New social class'
Keywords like "June 4, 1989" are routinely blocked by search engines and censors inside the Great Firewall, a complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship that limits what China's 720 million internet users can see online.
The "new social class" targeted by the United Front department are also the most likely to use circumvention tools to get around government censorship.
Xi has repeatedly warned against "hostile foreign forces" attempting to overthrow Communist Party rule by infiltrating China with "western" religious practices and ideas like democracy, constitutional government, and human rights.
In 2015, more than half a million young Chinese people left the country to study overseas, while at least four million are believed to have completed overseas study so far.
Rights activists, who have been on the wrong end of a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers, law firm employees, NGO workers and other activists since last year, say the move is aimed at gaining more control over a group that is most resistant to Beijing's propaganda.
"The United Front Work Department is a spy agency, whose job is to control [what goes on outside the party]," Anhui-based dissident Shen Liangqing told RFA.
"They have to fit in with the move to carry on the party's propaganda efforts overseas," he said. "So another aspect of that is trying to control overseas students and people like that."
Guangzhou-based writer Ye Du said the authorities are effectively going after the groups most likely to oppose government policies.
"This shows that the government is trying to control social groups that have until now been hard to control," Ye said. "This so-called new social class is actually the main pool from which critics of the regime are drawn."
"I'd say that the authorities have realized there is a threat here, so they are trying to co-opt this group using the United Front system."
Social media threat
Germany-based journalist Chang Ping said the authorities are also concerned about the growing tendency of younger people to bypass traditional media outlets, and to rely on mobile chat apps for news and comment.
"In the past, it was the news websites that posed a threat to traditional media," Chang said. "Now, it's social media that are posing a threat to news websites."
"The new media are constantly migrating, constantly on the run, in the face of government controls ... and if the government regulates mobile media to death, they'll just find somewhere else to run to," he said.
According to United Front head Sun Chunlan, the new social class will now be "a key focus" of united front work, which traditionally aims to mobilize students, intellectuals, overseas Chinese and quasi-government organizations to promote the prevailing party line.
Young people in Hong Kong, many of whom have made vocal calls for greater democracy, self-determination and even independence in recent years, are also on the department's list, the city's South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
Sun called on young Hong Kong people to love their country and make the most of close ties with China, it said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy under a "one country, two systems" pledge, and the maintenance of existing freedoms, including a separate legal system, for 50 years.
But there are growing complaints that China is increasingly disregarding those promises, particularly in the wake of the detention by Chinese police of five Hong Kong booksellers who sold "banned" political books to customers across the internal immigration border in mainland China.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ha Si-man and Gok Man-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.