The ruling Chinese Communist Party is continuing to tighten controls over what the country's 700 million internet users see and post online, issuing reporting forms to its officials who are expected to list content that could be seen as problematic by censors.
Party members and government officials across China have been issued with forms requiring them to list any content on popular chat apps like WeChat and QQ that could go against government guidelines.
The forms require the full details of any administrator of chatrooms on QQ or WeChat, as well as the group's identification numbers, according to a copy of a form seen by RFA.
A Beijing-based academic surnamed Jia said he had also seen the form posted in chatrooms.
"After they fill out these forms detailing the issues with these chatrooms, then this will form the basis of an investigation," Jia said. "Once they know which chatroom you are talking in and what you are saying, they can infiltrate it."
"It's just another tool in their bag of tricks," he said.
A journalist who gave only his surname Li said he saw the move as an attempt to further clamp down on any form of free expression online.
"I saw this; it's ridiculous," Li said. "They just want to shut down public opinion, or to control it very tightly."
"It remains to be seen whether they will succeed," he said.
Matter of concern
Smartphone-based chat apps have taken off in China in recent years, replacing Twitter-like services like Sina and Tencent Weibo in popularity, partly because they are not so publicly visible.
Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said the growth of chatrooms or groups on WeChat and QQ is also a matter of concern to the government.
"I have a chat group with 400 people in it, and I'm the admin," Zha said. "They sometimes ask people if they're in that group, or they ask me the time and date that I sign in, and what I say."
"But they are the ones who decide when to listen in," he said.
Technically speaking, it's not hard to monitor chatrooms, but in reality, China has tens of millions of them, Zha said, making it difficult even for China's censors to keep up with all of them.
Stakes in content providers
The move comes amid reports that China's press regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), may soon be able to buy mandatory stakes in online content providers, making it easier for the state to govern what gets posted on China's internet.
The SAPPRFT is recommending that each video website sells anywhere from 1 to 10 percent of its shares to state-owned enterprises, all of which are subject to local branches of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Consultations are currently under way for the scheme, which is just one of many ways of consolidating government control over content providers, a recent report by the cutting-edge magazine Caixin said.
The aim of the plan is to exert stricter scrutiny over video content before publication, said the report, which has since been deleted.
Xiang Ligang, CEO of telecommunication industry portal cctime.com, said the "special management stake" proposal shows the government is exploring new ways to exert control over online content.
"For many years, there have been various problems on different media platforms," Xiang told the Global Times newspaper.
"In the past, the government has had little influence over the operations of video websites," the paper quoted him as saying. "The government cannot punish [the websites] on a daily basis or shut down [a website]."
Current regulations only allow for officials to sanction an organization after unwanted content has already appeared online, the paper said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.