The number of Chinese netizens has reached 477 million, according to official figures released this week, as the authorities vow to clamp down further on web content and public access via cybercafes.
Top telecommunications and law enforcement officials said they will step up campaigns against "unhealthy" online content, citing pornography and guerrilla publicity services.
They also announced a "special investigation" into China's Internet cafes, which recently started banning anyone under 18 and requiring a national identity card before allowing people online.
"Surging online fraud, pornography, and illegal publicity are disrupting online communications and the market economy," Wang Jianwen, deputy head of the Telecommunications Administration Bureau under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told top officials on Monday.
A total of 3.82 million Chinese websites are currently registered using the government's mandatory real-name registration process, in which those responsible for the site must use an ID smart card to register the site.
Wang said the rapidly developing Internet has been shaping social relations, the economy, and culture, in an apparent reference to the explosion of microblogging users in the past year.
But he hit out at "Internet mercenaries," who launch smear or distortion campaigns online to manipulate public opinion in favor of their clients, usually companies seeking to attack competing brands, official media reported.
"Illegal publicity is when companies or individuals recruit 'Internet mercenaries' to engage in improper competition against rivals, such as fabricating or distorting facts that can lead to blackmail or seeking to reap profits by sensationalizing issues via the Internet," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
It cited the case of a product brand manager for Mengniu, a major Chinese dairy product company, who was arrested last October after organizing an online slander campaign against rival milk product firm Yili.
It said representatives from 140 major Chinese websites signed a "self-discipline pact" at the meeting with Wang on Monday, vowing to never organize or take part in any form of illegal publicity on the Internet.
The pact was signed by major portals Sohu, Netease, Xina and QQ, as well as search giant Baidu, video site Youku an social networking service Kaixin001, the agency said.
The meeting came just days after the release of an interview with a member of the Chinese government's own online propaganda groups—known as the 50-Cent Army—by now-detained artist and social critic Ai Weiwei.
"Generally, after something happens, and sometimes before new stories even break, we’ll receive an e-mail," said the government opinion manipulator, identified only as "W."
"It will tell you first about the incident, about the news, and then tell you what direction to take ... so you go and channel the ideas of web users toward that orientation, or you go and blur the focus of web users, or you might go and stir the emotions of web users," said the man in an interview carried out by Ai before his April 3 detention via phone and chat program.
"[It] requires a lot of skill. You must hide your own identity. And you can't write in too official a way," he added in the interview, which was translated and published in English by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
Hunan-based blogger and citizen journalist Zhou Shuguang, known by his online nickname "Zola," said the government's own "mercenaries" are becoming increasingly active online as Beijing moves to influence every aspect of public opinion in its favor.
But he and other netizens said they are easy to spot, as their identities constantly shift.
"Most people online have a stable identity which is the same as their identity card," Zola said.
But he added: "No one really pays attention to what the 50-cent Army says ... All they can do is send out huge volumes of messages like spambots."
"Their influence is very limited."
China has launched one of the harshest crackdowns in years following online, anonymous calls for a "Jasmine" revolution inspired by recent protests in the Middle East.
Dozens of activists have been detained, held under house arrest or sentenced to labor camp or jail terms for subversion and public order offenses, rights groups said.
Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.