The ruling Chinese Communist Party has tightened its grip on what China's citizens can see online, upgrading the country's already powerful network of blocks, filters, and censorship known as the "Great Firewall," a new report has shown.
"China's Internet controls, which were already among the most extensive in the world, have grown even more sophisticated and pervasive under the new Communist Party leadership," U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House said in a report this week.
China's Internet service providers have boosted their capacity to delete content deemed "sensitive" by the Party's propaganda department, often reacting within minutes of publication, the group said.
New regulations requiring real-name registration for Web-based services and cell phones mean that anonymity is much harder to come by than before, the report said.
Meanwhile, circumvention tools like Tor which once enabled users to view blocked, overseas content, are now profoundly compromised.
Refining the apparatus
"As more Chinese people get online and encounter constraints, more adopt tools and workarounds to avoid them, a sign of tremendous public demand for Internet freedom,” Freedom House research analyst Madeline Earp said in a statement on the group's website.
"But instead of relaxing control, [Party] leaders under President Xi Jinping are refining China’s technical and regulatory apparatus to stop citizens from evading censorship and surveillance," she said.
Mobile Internet users in China in particular, who outnumbered broadband netizens for the first time in 2012, are easy for police to trace.
A number of activists, including those in Tibet and the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, were jailed for using social media and other digital tools, while searches of mobile handsets are becoming more and more common, the Freedom House report said.
Meanwhile, private Internet companies like Sina, Tencent, and Baidu had stepped up their ability to filter unwanted content.
"Domestic companies must censor to succeed," the report said, adding that companies had produced sophisticated and nuanced control in order to stay ahead of evolving official directives and restrict creative online activism.
"Instant messages containing sensitive keywords disappeared, connections using [circumvention] tools were severed, and public microblog posts were quietly made private, visible only to the author," the report said.
China is rated Not Free in three separate Freedom House reports encompassing general freedoms, press freedom and Internet freedom.
Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said his experience as a Chinese activist using the Internet chimed in with the report's conclusions.
"The government is controlling the Internet more strictly than before," Sun said.
"When I go online, I often run into difficulties. For example, when I want to view some articles on Dongtaiwang, they have either been deleted, or you can only view the headline, but can't open the page," he said.
But he said censorship was often inconsistent, which Freedom House concluded could be linked to political use of online content by factions within the Party.
"During the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 [incident], I couldn't get online at all, and when the computer company came to check out why, they couldn't find any problems."
"My guess is that it was a [government] hacker attack. It got better two weeks later," said Sun, who is a vocal campaigner for the reappraisal of the official verdict on the 1989 bloodshed.
Sichuan-based activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said the number of netizens exposing corruption online was growing daily, suggesting that the authorities couldn't control everything.
"Now we have several hundred million getting online, and their views and ideas are all over the place," Huang said. "There is no way the government can completely control that."
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.