Tough new regulations requiring online publishers to attend "chats" with officials and police if they post content deemed false or inappropriate have raised questions about the increasingly strong-armed role of China's Internet regulator.
China's Cyberspace Administration on Tuesday issued the rules, which set out a serious of violations of rules on web content that could prompt a summons to "drink tea," a technique traditionally employed by the state security police to warn, interrogate, and intimidate rights activists and dissidents.
Sites deemed to have published banned content—which might include "false information, pornography, and rumors"—will be obliged to send a representative to such meetings from June 1, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive criminalizing online "rumor-mongering" in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.
Until this year, the authorities have mostly targeted individuals under the new rules. But the Cyberspace Administration summoned high-ranking executives from Internet giants Sina and Netease for "tea" in February and April, "to urge them to correct their violations," Xinhua said.
"There is a high possibility that those websites spreading rumors and pornography, leaking user information, and permitting users to set up illegal account names, will be invited for a chat," official media quoted Cyberspace Administration official Fan Li as saying.
"If problems are not rectified after they have been summoned several times, [Internet portals] will be given heavier punishment," Fan warned.
According to Fan, the new system will strengthen "guidance and correction of errors," rather than relying on a simple punishment system alone.
Sites that violate guidelines on content, whether by editing, posting, re-posting,or deleting news copy, including news organizations that either publish or do not publish certain items in return for cash, can expect a summons under the new regime.
According to the English-language China Daily newspaper, "'Providing tea' is a mild way of saying that cyber administrations at all levels will arrange meetings with Internet companies that have seriously violated the law and regulations, issue a warning and urge the adjustment of content."
Government-initiated "chats" will become a regular management tool in managing Internet news service providers, who will be required to take action on the basis of what is said in them, the paper said.
Online content providers cannot decline the "invitation," it said, adding that at least two clearly identified law enforcement officers would be required to attend each session and make a record of the "chat."
Legal basis dubious
According to Beijing-based lawyer Li Heping, the rules raise questions over the Cyberspace Administration's apparent move into law enforcement.
"The question of what sort of entity the Cyberspace Administration is, and upon what basis it manages online content and issues these rules, is a very hard one to answer," Li told RFA.
"[It raise questions over whether] they have better judgment than the Internet service providers, and about where they get their powers from," Li said. "These questions need answers."
He said the legal basis for the Cyberspace Administration's new rules is also dubious.
"Under the Constitution, Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of expression and publication," Li said. "The right to post articles and express opinions online is constitutionally protected."
"These rules on chats place limits on those freedoms, and so they are in conflict with the principles enshrined in the Constitution," he said.
Li said the Cyberspace Administration's methods are also questionable.
"It's very similar to rights lawyers in China who are frequently invited to drink tea with the police," Li said. "Now, they are treating Internet service providers the same way."
"This is a deplorable method, and I will be taking up this matter of the legal basis for these rules with the Cyberspace Administration," Li said.
The next step
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the new rules represent the next step in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's stranglehold on the country's 642 million Internet users.
"This forms part of the Chinese government's stability maintenance program," Hu said of the new rules.
"Beijing wants to control the direction of public opinion, and prevent Internet users from accessing truthful and accurate news and information," he said.
Earlier this week, Internet users in China said they were unable to access a number of foreign websites carrying buttons enabling visitors to interact with the social media platform Facebook, Reuters reported.
However, it was unclear whether the access issue formed part of the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known collectively as China's Great Firewall.
Earlier this month, security researchers said China had launched a powerful new cyber weapon they dubbed the "Great Cannon," with a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on the coding site GitHub, which was hosting tools to help users circumvent online censorship.
The Great Cannon had "weaponized" unsuspecting Internet users who visited the Chinese portal Baidu, unleashing code that targeted the GitHub site in a technique first leaked by U.S. whistle-blower Edward Snowden, they said.
Researchers said at the time that the attack was engineered so that it couldn't have taken place without the agreement and full knowledge of the Cyberspace Administration.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.