Authorities in Beijing have set up a formal police team to monitor Internet security, boosting its rank to just below the level of the municipal police department as a whole, official media have reported.
"In the information age, the police department ... began to build up its Internet security work last year," official media quoted police department officials as saying.
During last year, Internet security departments had been set up at municipal level and at county level within the greater metropolitan area, according to a news report on top news provider Sina.com.
The Internet security branch had recruited from among top officials and police officers with specialist knowledge, it said.
The scheme is being piloted in Beijing, and is expected to expand to other provinces and cities at a later date.
Peter Guo, a blogger and online activist based in the southeastern port city of Xiamen, said the upgrading of the Internet security service reflects an expansion of powers and an increase in spending granted by the government.
Guo said the targets of the Internet security team would primarily be Chinese who use the Internet for any activities the government see as threatening.
"Of course this service will be aimed at netizens," Guo said. "It shows they are stepping up Internet controls."
Crackdown follows 'Jasmine' calls
The most recent crackdown on dissent in China began following anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
Rights groups say dozens of activists, lawyers, and cyberdissidents have been detained, sent to labor camp, or sentenced to jail terms for subversion.
Last week, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group warned that 17 people—including artist Ai Weiwei—who are being held incommunicado in a recent crackdown on dissent are at risk of being tortured.
Spending on domestic security this year has outstripped the military budget for the first time, and Guo said controls over online activists are unlikely to be relaxed soon.
"They have given [domestic security] greater powers and more funding ... The profile of Internet surveillance will only continue to get higher," he said.
China has imposed a complex system of blocks, keyword filters, and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, or GFW, on its 457 million netizens.
Netizens routinely point to pro-government messages appearing on discussion forums, blog comments, and microblogging services, saying the commenters—the so-called "50 cent army"—are in the pay of the ruling Communist Party.
Political activists repeatedly complain that their e-mail accounts are attacked by hackers they assume to be working for the government.
One Beijing-based Internet service provider, who declined to be named, agreed.
"The promotion of the service to deputy bureau level will probably mean they hire more staff and get more money," he said.
The social action website Change.org has said it is under continuing attack from hackers after it hosted a petition calling for the release of detained artist Ai Weiwei that garnered more than 90,000 signatures last month.
Attackers traced to China launched distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks which temporarily brought down the site, the site's editor said on April 20.
Over the May Day holiday, China's cabinet, or State Council, ordered media organizations to counter the image of China as a hard-line regime by giving front-page coverage to an article about Internet controls imposed by overseas governments.
"All websites are requested to continue effectively organizing positive on-line guidance related to the development and surveillance of the Internet," according to a directive issued April 30 and translated by the California-based China Digital Times (CDT).
"Regarding the related special topic, “Exposing Internet Management Abroad,” during the May Day period all websites are requested to continue implementing the requirements by prominently placing this topic on website front pages," the directive said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.