In its latest effort to muzzle dissent and steer public opinion, the Chinese government has started to shut or freeze microblogs written by prominent liberals on the Twitter-style Weibo, which has 368 million users.
Among those whose microblog accounts have been affected are prominent liberal intellectuals, while there has also been harassment of human rights lawyers lobbying against unofficial “black jails” and corruption.
But the crackdown is also affecting ordinary people and is being portrayed in the official media as an effort to control the spread of rumours and false information.
There have been reports of authorities issuing a list of the “Seven Don’t Mentions” among university students, which forbid lecture hall discussion of press freedom, judicial independence, civil rights, civil society and the party’s historic mistakes.
By the end of last year, the number of internet users in China had reached 564 million, and the Communist Party has been keen to harness this powerful resource in its highly public bid to clamp down on corruption.
However, Beijing is finding that microbloggers can be difficult to keep under control, especially as traditional media, such as TV and newspapers, are forbidden from reporting on controversial matters.
Last week, a well-known writer called Hao Qun, whose pen name is Murong Xuecun, had his Weibo accounts with the providers Sina, Tencent, Net- Ease, and Sohu deleted simultaneously. His writing, as well as his microblog, which had more than one million followers, deals with social issues in contemporary China such as corruption and media censorship, putting him in a confrontational position with the authorities.
"The ruling party is losing in the field of public opinion, which is threatening its legitimacy," Mr Hao said. "Now, they must exert tighter control, and that's why they have gone on the offensive in public opinion."
The State Internet Information Office has declared war on “the spread of online rumours”, saying in a statement this month that it seeks to foster “a normal and orderly online environment” and avoid “bad social influence”.
“An extreme minority of netizens had been spreading various rumours online,” according to an SIIO statement. The charge of “spreading rumours” is a broad one that can be easily used to stop dissenting voices.
Law professor He Bing had his microblog account suspended for spreading rumours earlier this month. Mr He said neither the authorities nor the service provider had informed him of the suspension. Also, he did not know how long his account, which has more than 460,000 followers, would be suspended.
“The professor was punished for forwarding a rumour that a university graduate killed an official for shutting down the website he set up because it wasn’t registered,” Xinhua said.
There was strong support for the activist Liu Ping, who was detained by police after she called on Communist Party cadres to disclose their assets.
Millions of Chinese online commentators want an inquiry into the 1995 poisoning of a Tsinghua University student, which they believe was covered up because of the poisoner’s political connections.
Subsequently, the Communist Party mouthp iece, the People's Daily ran a story on its official Sina Weibo account saying: "Zhu Ling is 40 years old now, completely paralysed, almost blind and with the intelligence of a six-year-old. What exactly happened 19 years ago? Who was behind the poisoning?"
In a strange development, the People's Daily Weibo site too was blocked.
Web commentators alleged that an Anhui migrant worker, Yuan Liya (22), who fell to her death from the fourth floor of the Jingwen market in Beijing, was not a suicide as authorities said, but murder.
Web commentators have complained that the absence of official clarity on such cases only serves to fuel online hysteria.