Tighter Grip on Social Media

China plans new measures to limit online criticism.

china-internet-305.jpg A man surfs the Internet in Beijing, June 15, 2009.

In the highest-level indication of a wider Internet crackdown in China, the ruling Communist Party's central committee has announced plans to tighten controls on online social media and instant messaging tools.

The move comes after repeated warnings by officials over the explosion of microblog services which netizens use to expose corruption and criticize the government and its policies, including popular anger over the recent Wenzhou high-speed rail disaster.

In a communique from last week's party central committee plenum published on Wednesday in the official People's Daily newspaper, Beijing vowed to strengthen Internet administration and promote content that the Party finds acceptable.

It set out ways in which the government can step up controls on hugely popular microblogging services like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.

The communique vowed to "strengthen guidance and administration of social Internet services and instant communications tools, and regulate the orderly dissemination of information."

It also said the government should "apply the law to sternly punish the dissemination of harmful information."

Communiques from the party's central committee set the broad direction for policy in China, with the latest one a sign that the country's leaders are concerned over the explosion of microblogging among China's 500 million Internet users.

Analysts said the document shows Beijing is taking the issue of microblogs very seriously.

The number of Chinese users registered on domestic microblog sites reached 195 million by the end of June, a more than threefold increase on the number at the end of 2010, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

High-ranking officials have hit out at microblogs for spreading what they call unfounded rumors.

Punished for 'rumors'

The State Internet Information Office said on Wednesday that it had asked police to punish people responsible for spreading a bogus tax policy announcement and rumors that a fighter jet had crashed, killing the pilot.

"The Internet is a microphone that everyone can use, but it is not one that everyone can use well," the People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, said in an editorial.

The official state news agency Xinhua said on Tuesday that three people, including a website editor, had been punished for spreading rumors.

One Shanghai resident was held by local police for 15 days, while another man received a warning from his employer for writing about a reported fighter aircraft crash without checking the facts first.

Online activists have been expressing concern for weeks 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.

The communique also called on China's media to correctly guide public opinion, to emphasize positive propaganda, and to uphold stability and unity.

However, it added that the people should have the right to know what is going on, the right to participate in and monitor events, and the right to express themselves.

Hong Kong-based media analyst David Bandurski said there are many areas of the communique that need closer study, especially the Party's policy on private investment in creative industries.

But writing on the China Media Project blog on Wednesday, he said the overall message seems clear.

"Everything about the language of this 'decision' suggests the Party’s fist is still tight when it comes to political and ideological controls on the media and culture," Bandurski wrote.

"Raise your hand if you think that’s a good recipe for a renaissance."

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.

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