China has deleted hundreds of thousands of microblog posts in an attempt to stem the tide of online rumor and speculation amid an unfolding political scandal in the southwestern megacity of Chongqing and a security lockdown by armed police following clashes with protesters.
State media said on Thursday that China had closed 42 websites and deleted more than 210,000 posts since mid-March in a crackdown on "dangerous" rumors.
China's censors have moved rapidly to filter any posts containing words or phrases linked to the political upheaval in Chongqing and an
investigation surrounding ousted city leader Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai.
A keyword search on the popular Sina Weibo microblog service on Thursday for "Bo Xilai" returned the message: "According to the relevant laws and regulations, we were unable to display the search results."
'Tip of the iceberg'
The crackdown came as a former top Chinese official in charge of the media warned that Bo's recent removal from high-ranking posts in China's ruling Communist Party and a probe into Gu's alleged involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood were only the beginning of what could be revealed about Bo.
Du Daozheng, a former high-level Party official and aide to late ousted Premier Zhao Ziyang, said China's leadership appeared to be in tune with public opinion over Bo's fall from power.
"This affair is far from over," Du said in an interview with RFA's Mandarin service. "This investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is the tip of the iceberg."
'Like the Cultural Revolution'
Du said he believed the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, who are due to hand over the reins of power at a key leadership summit later this year, was in tune with public opinion when it made the decision to remove Bo from his post as Chongqing Party secretary.
"There were some things that were good about the 'red songs, anti-graft' campaigns [that Bo spearheaded], but in their essence and ideology ... it was basically the Cultural Revolution," Du said, referring to the Mao era of Red Guards, political violence and factional infighting between 1966 and 1976.
"It was Mao Zedong in the dictatorial later years of his rule, when there was too much centralization of power and it was used arbitrarily, when there was no law and people were randomly detained, sent to prison and their property confiscated."
"Bo was the top man in charge there at the time ... all of that ... the Wang Lijun incident, his wife's business, was his responsibility."
The first outward signs of trouble in Chongqing came when Bo's former right-hand man and police chief Wang Lijun sought political asylum at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February, sparking rival manhunts by Chongqing police and Communist Party discipline inspection officials.
Bo's subsequent sacking on March 15 widened the ideological rift between the old-school socialist left of the Party and the reformist right, and official media has been quick to urge the Party and the military to ignore recent rumors of a coup by the charismatic politician's most high-ranking supporter, security chief Zhou Yongkang.
China's leadership recently also ordered the closure of at least one prominent leftist website for a month, citing its publication of "critical" political essays.
Chongqing meanwhile remained under tight police and army control on Thursday following large-scale clashes between thousands of local residents and police in its coal-mining district of Wansheng, residents said.
Large numbers of police and military personnel had been deployed in the area following two days of violence and demonstrations, and many
people had shut up shop and were too frightened to go out, they said.
An employee surnamed Wang who answered the phone at the Liushi Guesthous in Wansheng, where an estimated 10,000 people clashed with police on Tuesday, said most people were staying at home on Thursday for fear of further violence.
"People are afraid to go out," Wang said. "Some of them were smashing up shops and the doors and windows are broken and their goods have been looted."
"People have also got beaten up," she said. "The police have been going around today beating people up and arresting them."
"There are large numbers of armed police, soldiers and regular police," Wang said. "There are even more of them today."
She said many people were now stuck at home with dwindling food supplies. "We will have to eat up the rest of the noodles we have
here," she said.
An employee at an auto parts store near the 303 national highway, scene of a large demonstration on Wednesday, said police were checking all vehicles coming in and out of the district, and that few vehicles were on the road at all.
"None of the shops are open today," he said. "People are afraid that they will get smashed up like they did in Tibet."
Calls to the Chongqing municipal propaganda department went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Some commentators said it was no coincidence that the clashes had begun on the day that Beijing announced Bo's suspension from top Party posts.
According to Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, Bo's ouster had likely sparked long-running popular anger among Chongqing residents.
"According to our understanding, this is a matter of a lot of people getting together to bring their government's problems out into the open," Huang said.
"It seems that their motivation is pretty straightforward."
In an apparent reference to the situation in Chongqing, Xinhua reported late on Thursday: "Residents of Chongqing have expressed support for the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee's decision to investigate the recently fired Party chief of the southwestern municipality."
"The municipal authorities will spare no effort to maintain social stability in Chongqing," it quoted municipal Party secretary Zhang Dejiang as saying.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.