Online reports that the propaganda department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has banned "anti-Party, anti-Mao" comments in the country's state media have sparked fears of a further censorship drive among journalists and rights activists.
A recent microblog post on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo quoted insider sources at the propaganda ministry as saying that every official newspaper is banned from publishing any content that "goes against the interests of the Party and the people."
Any organizations which do not comply will have their licenses revoked, according to the outcome of a recent policy working conference at the ministry, the tweet said.
"No anti-Party or anti-Mao opinions may appear openly in the media," the tweet said, adding that the ministry had now defined a new category of "Three-Anti" person, who is considered to be anti-Party, anti-China and anti-Han Chinese.
"Three-anti individuals must not be allowed to train personnel in universities or news organizations," the tweet said. "Management of such people must be stepped up, and they must be prevented from always writing negative news."
The post sparked fears among journalists and bloggers of a new political campaign against them.
Sina Weibo user @keketongxunshe wrote on Sunday: "That makes me a Three-Anti," while @wenyuangedaxueshi wrote: "My colleague freaked out after reading this and went and deleted all of his Weibo posts."
Hangzhou-based veteran journalist Zan Aizong said the new policy, if confirmed, would remove what little freedom Chinese journalists had been able to cling onto.
"They are hardening and systematizing Party control over culture," Zan said. "This means that those areas which still had a little room for maneuver in the education and media sectors will now be totally suppressed."
"This is yet another measure that supports a cultural dictatorship."
Wang Zhousheng, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy for Social Sciences, said it was unclear exactly what sort of stories would now be discouraged.
"This three-anti notion is really empty," Wang said. "For example, would the incident of the dead pigs in the Huangpu River and suspicion of the government count as three-anti?"
"Am I a three-anti if my suggestions to government don't accord with its policies?"
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the move went against the spirit of the times.
"Historically speaking, this is a regressive move, against the times," Hu said. "Whatever it is they are opposing is exactly what the people are calling for."
"[The ministry] is just flexing its muscles to turn up the pressure on people," he said. "If anyone tries to hold fast to their views, they will ... make sure that they lose their job or teaching position."
He said any further pressure on the media would eventually result in a stronger backlash in public opinion.
Cai Yongmei, editor of the Hong Kong-based magazine Kaifang, said the reference to Mao Zedong showed that the legacy of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was still active in Beijing.
"Even though they have said that Mao Zedong made errors, they still praise him to the skies and don't allow anyone to criticize him," Cai said.
She said online media in particular had become more critical of Mao's legacy in recent years. "It has been quite biting, with no sense of taboo around it," she said.
"That's why they have now come up with this policy; I think it has to do with the Internet and perhaps a tightening of ideological control."
Zan said the move was also an indicator that the new administration of president Xi Jinping was moving to consolidate its grip on power, but that the conservative faction, which includes propaganda minister Liu Yunshan, was pushing back to preserve its own influence.
"That is the only way to understand it," he said. "If Xi Jinping is sincere, then it means he hasn't entirely consolidated his grip on power, and he hasn't managed to get the cultural and media sector entirely under his control."
"In particular, the culture and education sectors seem to be under the control of rather backward, conservative forces," Zan said.
The authorities routinely disperse activists who gather to sing revolutionary songs from the Mao era, or who use public images of former supreme leader Mao Zedong as a focus for protest.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.