China on Wednesday announced the creation of a nationwide command center to oversee the country's 457 million netizens, and to "manage information" on the Internet, prompting fears that online controls will get tighter still.
The State Internet Information Office, directly under the control of China's cabinet, or State Council, will "direct, coordinate, and supervise online content management," official media reported.
It will also handle administrative approval of businesses related to online news reporting.
"The office will be engaged in promoting construction of major news websites and managing government online publicity work," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"It is assigned the duties to investigate and punish websites violating laws and regulations," the agency said.
The office will be charged with implementing policies on the Chinese Internet made at the highest level of government.
Staffed and headed by existing State Council information office staff and directors, the new department will have a hands-on role in the direction of online publications and of online gaming, video, and audio businesses, it added.
It will also oversee foreign service providers in China's Internet market to "improve management" of domain names, IP addresses, and website registration, Xinhua said.
The news has sparked concern among rights activists, many of whom rely on the Internet for support.
"This new supervisory body includes a deputy minister from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and a deputy public security minister who are both very high-ranking officials," said Sichuan-based rights activist Liu Feiyue.
"The aim is to step up monitoring and control over the Internet, and to step up the pressure on netizens," Liu said.
Blogger and social activist Beifeng said the new office would liaise between the various departments which control the Internet, although he said the impact on online freedom of speech was hard to gauge.
"The central government regards the management of the Internet as a matter of ever-increasing importance," Beifeng said. "Especially [President] Hu Jintao, who called for increased controls on the Internet on [April] 29."
"The aim of this new department is to boost control in this area."
Hard to achieve
But Hangzhou-based independent journalist Zan Aizong said the authorities will find it hard to achieve greater control over social media.
"New media like blogs and microblogs are new channels for expression," Zan said. "They barely get done stamping out one thing and another has grown up."
"The Internet is a universal means of expression, and the government will never be able to eliminate that entirely," he said. "So these controls won't be much use."
However, spending on domestic security this year has outstripped the military budget for the first time, and activists say controls over online activists are unlikely to be relaxed soon.
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.
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.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.