China’s propaganda authorities are trying to tighten controls over the Internet as they fear social unrest in the face of a cooling economy and mounting public anger at official corruption, analysts say. With more than half a billion Chinese now online, authorities in Beijing are concerned about the power of the Internet to influence public opinion in a country that maintains tight controls on its traditional media outlets. “The reform of the cultural system” is on the agenda for a four-day annual meeting of top Communist Party officials that begins on Saturday — a term widely seen as including measures to ensure media and Internet firms serve the authorities’ aims.
Already leading Internet firms have been pressured to tighten their grip on the web, with propaganda chief Li Changchun, fifth in the Communist Party hierarchy, recently meeting the heads of China’s main search engine Baidu. China has repeatedly vowed to clamp down on Internet “rumours” — often used as code for criticism of the government — after a fatal high-speed rail crash in July sparked a furious public response on social media sites. For a few days even state media followed that critical lead, until instructions were issued to desist. But many Internet companies are in private hands, and the web has posed a huge challenge to government attempts to block content it deems politically sensitive.
Chinese media expert Xiao Qiang said China’s weibos — microblogs similar to Twitter — had formed a large-scale social network on which information can be disseminated and action coordinated “at an unprecedented speed”. “This creates a considerable challenge to the party’s ideological and social control,” said Xiao, a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “There are increasing incidents of social unrest in different parts of Chinese society and almost every region and city in China. “While these incidents are local, they often have the potential to spread the sentiments of the protests to other parts of the society through the Internet, especially through microblogs.” David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong said a recent rise in civil action and the looming leadership handover, which will begin in 2012, had heightened official concerns. “There is no doubt these are sensitive times in China. The country faces immense social and economic challenges,” said Bandurski, who runs the university’s China Media Project.