China's online censors have launched a further round of account closures on popular social media sites in a bid to silence critical debate surrounding the annual session of its rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, online commentators said on Friday.
"I have heard of a lot of [activist and commentator] friends who have had their microblog accounts closed in the past few days," Guangzhou-based rights activist Jia Pin told RFA.
"I think this has to do with the fact that they want to tighten the reins on public opinion and debate during the parliamentary sessions," he said.
"They are probably worried that there will be too many of the sorts of opinions they don't want to see online," Jia said.
He said the sorts of commentators being targeted are those most likely to criticize the ruling Chinese Communist Party online.
"Mostly, it's any comments that are critical of them, or complaining that their policies haven't been delivered on the ground," Jia said. "They are terrified of that sort of thing."
He said this year's online censorship sweep isn't the first. "It happened last year as well, but it wasn't as ferocious as this year," Jia said.
More account closures
Online free speech advocate Wu Bin, known online by his nickname Xiucai Jianghu, said he has never seen account closures and deletion on the scale of the current campaign on China's Twitter-like social media platforms.
"My accounts on Tencent and Sina Weibo have been deleted, one after another," Wu said. "However many I had, that's how many were deleted."
"The level of account closures on Tencent Weibo has been unprecedented in recent history," he said.
"In the most extreme case, they also deleted accounts belonging to my wife and my friends."
Wu said the account deletions appeared not to be linked to the actual content he was tweeting.
"Some of them were accounts that contained very mild statements," he said. "I think Tencent must have had some orders from central government, and that they're going after accounts based on a [government] blacklist."
"This round of account closures isn't based on the content tweeted by an account, but on whether the person who holds the accounts is routinely critical of the government," Wu said.
"Some people even had accounts deleted that they had never tweeted from."
Limiting online discussion
But according to Jia, the authorities appeared keen to limit online discussion of the toxic air pollution that regularly swathes Chinese cities, in particular.
Jia said he believed his retweets of posts linked to recent smog protests had triggered the deletion of some of his accounts.
"I retweeted something on Sina Weibo [on Thursday] about a couple of friends of mine who held up placards in Chongqing complaining about the smog, saying government attempts to fix the air pollution problem hadn't been implemented."
"My Sina Weibo account was deleted," he said.
Percy Alpha, founder of the anti-censorship group GreatFire.org, told RFA that China's complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, had clearly been working harder than usual in recent days.
Alpha said GreatFire.org had tracked increasing numbers of website blockages in China, and increasingly short lifespans for websites considered problematic by the government.
"We have seen many more websites being shut down in just a few days, which previously might have got shut down in a few weeks," Alpha said in comments translated from the Mandarin.
"I think that Chinese government controls over the Internet are getting tighter and tighter," he said. "Basically, any website they see that has sensitive content will get shut down."
Agreeing with the government
Nearly 3,000 NPC delegates are currently meeting at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, but rarely votes on legislation, which is passed by the much more powerful 150-member NPC standing committee during the year.
When it does, the majority of delegates take pride in agreeing with the government.
Coverage of the parliament, and its advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in China's tightly controlled state media is increasingly confined to celebrity watching and gossip, rather than political reporting or informed debate.
The NPC's annual session runs from March 5-15 this year.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.