Online Chinese news platform Toutiao has suspended more than 1,000 accounts after being sanctioned last week for alleged breaches of regulations and for spreading "pornographic and vulgar content."
The popular app has also included a channel titled "New Era," in a reference to the political "thought" of Chinese President Xi Jinping, "to release information or reports about China's accomplishments and efforts after socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era," according to a statement on its official account on social media platform WeChat.
"The move is a step to better promote mainstream values and the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China," The Global Times newspaper, a tabloid run by the mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.
Beijing's Cyberspace Administration on Friday temporarily suspended both Toutiao and Phoenix News. Both apps were also accused of "having serious problems in guiding public opinion."
The apps had "carried pornographic content, seriously misled the public and had a very negative impact on the social media environment," the administration said in a statement on its website.
Both companies have promised to tighten up controls on content and management of staff, after they were summoned to a meeting with internet supervision officials, official media reported.
A Toutiao source at management level confirmed that the company's management had been "called in for a chat" by the Cyberspace Administration.
"We have already made a statement and explained everything on group chat, but it's not convenient for me to comment on any of this," the source said.
"I can't give any kind of interview on this."
Toutiao said it had banned 1,101 accounts for "posting low-quality content in violation of governmental regulations." The Global Times said the accounts had featured celebrity gossip, sexual innuendo and violence.
From now accounts will be scored out of 100 for appropriateness of content, it said, with "inappropriate content" triggering a 20-point deduction and a two-day posting ban.
Broader content controls
A journalist who asked to be identified only by his surname, Zhang, said the Cyberspace Administration was cracking down on any form of public expression not directly sanctioned by the government, under the guise of "inappropriate content."
"They're tightening controls on content still further, only this time the [companies] are self-censoring more stuff," Zhang said.
An academic surnamed Xu said much of Toutiao's content was "low-end, pandering to popular tastes," however.
"I think the stuff they thought should be the headlines didn't have that many followers, even though there are a huge number of readers on there," Xu said.
"The Communist Party is really exerting tight control over public opinion these days," she said.
A Toutiao user surnamed Wu said President Xi Jinping plans to extend his ideology across China in 2018, "in the spirit of the 19th party congress" during which it was enshrined in the ruling party's charter last October.
"A lot of news [in China] no longer serves the function of news, although it certainly does serve a function," Wu said. "Some social media platforms are still able to help people who need help by posting some news about society."
"It's pretty clear when you have social media platforms shutting down and then talking about the spirit of the 19th party congress what is going on," he said. "Xi Jinping said in his New Year's address that he planned to ensure that the 19th party congress spread [across all levels of society]."
"I think the window for the Chinese people to make their concerns and demands known has now closed," he said.
Veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said the pure ideology now required of China's state media was behind the recent closure of a number of print newspapers.
"Any journalist or editor with any talent for expressing an independent point of view is naturally going to run afoul of government controls on the media and insistence on ideological unity," Zhu said.
Reported by Gao Feng and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Dai Weisen for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.