David Bandurski -- "Sensitive times in China".
BEIJING: 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 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.
That and the leadership handover present "a double recipe for tighter controls on the press," he said, adding that "we should expect to see leaders at every level emphasising the need to maintain control over public opinion."
China runs a robust censorship system of the Internet, known as the Great Firewall, which blocks numerous overseas sites and censors information and news deemed sensitive by the government.
Increased controls are likely to raise Internet users' ire, not least because they slow down traffic, and the more knowledgeable ones will be even more motivated to find ways around the Great Firewall, such as using virtual private networks.
But with newspaper and television reporting tightly controlled by authorities, weibos have already proved to be an effective public platform for reporting government malpractice and civil unrest.
The number of weibo users has more than trebled since the end of 2010, according to government data, and the speed with which they have taken off has made it impossible for government censors to keep up.
Last month the head of Internet giant Sina said the company, owner of China's most popular weibo, had set up "rumour-curbing teams", apparently in response to government pressure.
The move came after Beijing's top party official Liu Qi visited Sina and Youku, a Chinese site similar to YouTube, to urge them to stop the spread of "false and harmful information".
Last month, China's propaganda authorities reportedly placed two of Beijing's most popular newspapers, the Beijing News and Beijing Times, under the direct management of the city's propaganda bureau.
Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China's propaganda efforts, told AFP the move signalled a desire by authorities to restrict more commercially-oriented papers.
"The current mode of media management is macro, rather than micro control, so it is likely that these heavy-handed tactics of taking over popular papers are designed to redraw the political boundaries," she said.
"One would expect that in the lead-up to the leadership transition and after the Arab Spring, the central propaganda department will keep a tight rein on the Chinese media."