China's propaganda chief has spoken publicly about the problems of controlling the activities of the country's 500 million netizens, fueling fears that further attempts at control are on the way.
Propaganda department chief Liu Yunshan made the comments on Wednesday during a round-table media discussion held with participants from China, Japan, and South Korea, according to Taiwan's Central News Agency.
"The central propaganda department won't be able to completely control [the actions] of 500 million netizens," Liu was quoted as saying in response to widespread criticism of his department.
"The criticisms [leveled at us] overestimate the propaganda department," he said.
Many online activists have expressed concern that further controls over China's Internet users are imminent, especially in the wake of official campaigns against "rumor-mongering" via social networks and microblogging platforms.
Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser told RFA on Thursday that her account on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo had been closed this week for the fifth time, after she was handed a cultural award by the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Fund.
She said she thought the closure was linked to the fact that her award had garnered a number of comments from supporters on the Sina microblogging site.
"Some posts were deleted, so that no one would be able to read them," Woeser said on Thursday, adding that few people in China are able to surmount the government's "Great Firewall" of Internet controls and get onto Twitter.
She said Sina Weibo seems now to be coming under increasing control by the government and its own management.
Independent commentator Ye Du said that controls were already in place on Sina Weibo, but that a series of major events, including the recent Wenzhou rail disaster, had flooded the authorities' capacity to edit, delete, and filter sensitive content.
"I think we can predict that the next wave [of controls] will target the microblogging sites," Ye said. "There will be a new set of much tighter measures."
"All of the microblog service providers will come under increased pressure from departments in charge of managing the Internet to step up self-censorship efforts," he said.
"Controls on sensitive authors and topics will definitely be increased."
Sichuan-based Internet expert Pu Fei, who works for activist Huang Qi's 64Tianwang website, said the authorities would likely target sensitive and high-profile bloggers like Woeser, improve their ability to locate banned content, and continue to delete sensitive content when directed by government departments.
"Online rumors are saying that the major Internet companies have boosted the number of online censors to more than 10,000," Pu said. "But we don't have any evidence for this right now."
Yang Dali, politics professor at the University of Chicago, said the government could still have a role in the development of the Internet without suppressing its critics.
"The government and society can develop at the same time; it doesn't have to be that the government is bigger and that society has to get smaller," he said.
A new challenge
U.S.-based Chinese scholar Ran Bogong said that the Internet is a new challenge for the Chinese government, which hasn't necessarily got its policies right.
"China should change its policy of suppressing everything across the board," he said, adding that the government should consider whether or not it should listen to different opinions.
"Suppressing them is not just bad for the Chinese people, it's also bad for the country and for China's government," Ran said.
Yang said Chinese citizens are passionately interested in the running of their country.
"This could have a positive effect," he said. "It would have a good effect on social conflicts and help to dissolve feelings of [popular] anger."
China sees hundreds of thousands of "mass incidents" a year across the country, in which people angry over their treatment at the hands of local officials stage protests, petitions, and sit-ins, and clash with security forces, often over pollution, property rights, and the sale of rural land.
The Prince Claus Awards are presented annually to individuals, groups, and organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean for their outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service and by Yang Jiadai for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.