The ruling Chinese Communist Party is extending its clampdown on what the country's 720 million internet users see and do online, with a set of new powers for police wishing to use a person's social media contacts as evidence of criminal activity.
From Oct. 1, Chinese police will have the right to use information about a person's social media contacts list, including friends circles on popular smartphone chat apps, as evidence in criminal investigations, the ministry of public security said in a statement on its official website.
Police will have the power to monitor and include data from web pages, blog posts and tweets, social media friends and groups, and cloud storage services when investigating crimes, according to the regulations, signed by the Supreme People's Court in Beijing.
Text messaging, e-mails, instant messages and group chats will also be fair game for investigations, as well as computer code, audio, video and picture files and digital certificates.
"The People's courts, People's procuratorates and public security organs shall have the right to collect or obtain electronic data from individuals and work units, which must provide truthful information," the order said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Chen Jiangang said police already use such items as evidence in criminal investigations, but that the process is now being legitimized and formalized with the new regulations.
He said the monitoring of online communications represents an invasion of individual privacy.
"Social media posts and chat messages are personal and private communications, but there is no right to privacy for Chinese people," Chen said, adding that police have now been given the green light for blanket monitoring of people's private lives in digital form.
"There are no checks and balances on official power, and they get to do anything they like," he said. "Basically there are no human rights, nor any privacy, in this part of the world."
"All these rules are doing is making that extremely clear."
Online activist Wu Bin, known by his internet nickname Xiucai Jianghu, reacted with a satirical comment via Twitter: "You have the right to remain silent, but all of your friend circles and tweets may be taken down and used in evidence against you."
He told RFA in an interview on Friday that he expects the new rules to be used to police speech, rather than to support investigations into criminal actions.
"In our country where we have the rule of individuals rather than of law, people are getting more and more worried about what they say, rather than what they do," Wu said.
"This is because there are now so many people criticizing [the government] that they are having trouble keeping tabs on it."
"They can't stem the flow easily, so they are trying to frighten people, and make them feel threatened," Wu said. "It's another form of control on free speech."
"These rules are sending out a very clear message: don't go criticizing the government any more."
China now routinely clamps down on unverified reporting via social media, in a bid to retain control of a single, official version of events.
A slew of new regulations have criminalized "rumor-mongering" via social media, and some activists have been held on criminal charges over they retweeted an unverified report on a politically sensitive topic.
In July, police in the northern province of Hebei detained three people for tweeting "false news" to social media after they posted reports that hundreds of people had died in overnight flooding near Xingtai city.
One of the detainees had posted to the social media site Tieba saying that "more than 700 people" had drowned as floodwaters from the Qilihe River engulfed their homes as they slept, police said.
Police set up a whistleblower website last May in a bid to garner tip-offs from those wishing to report "false" online information, official media reported.
Anyone found "spreading rumors" on Sina Weibo will have their accounts terminated and may be investigated by police, The Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling party, reported at the time.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.