Authorities in the central province of Henan have set up an online task force comprised of volunteers from schools and universities who wage an ideological "struggle" on behalf of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Revelations about the 'command center' first appeared in social media posts made by insiders to the projects, including the claim that some 100,000 primary, secondary and university students have been recruited as volunteers to support the party line, online.
The project's aim is to "resolutely and totally engage in a life-or-death struggle with harmful content and with those who propagate it," the leaks quoted an official description of the project as saying.
An official who answered the phone at the municipal Communist Party committee offices in Henan's provincial capital Zhengzhou appeared to confirm social media reports of the taskforce's existence on Tuesday.
"Online struggle? Just a minute, the propaganda department is in charge of that," the official said when contacted by phone.
"Online struggle, yes, that project is being run by the propaganda department linked to this committee," she said, but declined to give further details.
However, an official who answered the phone at the propaganda department of the municipal party committee declined to comment, asking instead where the information had come from.
An internal party source surnamed Wang told RFA the move was part of an ideological initiative being rolled out across the nation since 2012, the year of President Xi Jinping's ascendancy to power.
'Hostile foreign forces'
"The government's aim in setting up this organization is to strengthen management of public opinion on the internet," Wang said."This runs from the central government right down to local level."
Adding that the online ideological campaign is a key policy of Xi Jinping, who has repeatedly warned of "hostile foreign forces" seeking to undermine party rule with "western" ideas, including press freedom, democracy and religion.
"They have always believed that foreign forces are collaborating to manipulate the Chinese internet," Wang said.
"But mistakes are bound to be made along the way in this kind of work, and their use of the word "struggle" caused a lot of debate," he said.
While the idea of ideological "struggle” has fallen into disfavor with the general public because it carries connotations of the political struggle sessions and violence of the Mao-era Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), officials have continued to use the term among themselves, Wang explained.
"This concept is perfectly normal, according to their thinking," Wang said. "This is the same thinking that brought us the June 4, 1989 [massacre]. Why would it have changed?"
Charge of the '50-cent brigade'
Rights activist Jia Pin said the new recruits will join the ranks of China's online "public opinion managers," who are loosely known in China as the "50-cent brigade," based on a rumor of how much they are paid per social media post.
Operations of this online army of opinion managers first came to light when a massive trove of documents was leaked from the Shanghai branch of Communist Party's Youth League last year.
"This shows that the 50-cent system has been expanding ever since the Youth League [leaks]," Jia told RFA on Tuesday. "They tend to be from the leftist faction within the party, and fairly nationalistic."
"A lot of people of course are talking about whether there will be another Cultural Revolution."
He said that while a full-on repeat of the decades of political violence and social chaos that characterized Mao-era politics in China is unlikely, it could be re-enacted in digital form.
"I think we could approach it to a degree using different technologies," Jia said.
The Shanghai Youth League leak revealed how the party used internet monitors to gather information on public responses to sensitive news items, as well as to reported content deemed subversive.
Universities and other institutions have also hired their own students to police online content on university chat sites and bulletin boards, insiders have told RFA.
Last January, Chinese police announced that they have recruited more than 3,000 official Volunteer Internet Monitors when it launched as an official civilian security organization, official media reported at the time.
China's Internet service providers are also required to delete "illegal," politically sensitive posts and the accounts that publish them, as well as setting up keyword filters to block searches for politically sensitive content, with police officers stationed in their offices to supervise their work since last year.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.