Beijing: China`s Communist Party is preparing for its biggest policy meeting of the year by ratcheting up pressure on social media sites that have fast become forums for information and public expression beyond government control.
The latest warning shots at social media were fired by Wang Chen, a senior propaganda official, who told a meeting of government and Internet company officials this week that Twitter-like microblog services need tighter regulation. Wang reiterated a warning that punishment will be meted out to people who post rumours or falsehoods.
"Microblog sites should strengthen the management of information dissemination, and not provide channels for the spread of rumours," Wang said according to a transcript of his speech posted on Sina.com. "Those who fabricate facts and concoct lies online, resulting in serious consequences, should be severely punished according to the law."
Wang`s remarks, widely reported in state media on Friday, come ahead of Saturday`s opening of the annual meeting of the party`s Central Committee and fit with this year`s stated agenda: reforming the cultural system.
Behind the scenes, the 200-plus members of the party elite drawn from the government, the provinces and the military will try to dampen infighting over who will lead China when President Hu Jintao and many in his collective leadership must retire a year from now.
The political transition comes at a time when the leadership wants to flex China`s new power abroad and feels besieged at home by a fast-changing society that feels entitled to make demands on the authoritarian government, with social media amplifying grievances.
Previewing some of the themes the Central Committee will address, the leadership`s propaganda chief Li Changchun last month said China needs a strong "ideological line of defence" to guard against harmful Western influences. He decried declining morality that was fuelling public anger at a time of rising protests.
"Money worship, hedonism and extreme individualism are spreading among some members of society. Looking for profit and forgetting righteousness, a lack of integrity, a loss of moral norms are occurring," Li said in a speech carried by state media. "These problems seriously damage the social atmosphere. The masses` reaction is strong."
For a government that is used to controlling what information the public consumes, social media — which encourages individuals to generate content — is proving unnerving. Popular microblogs, or "weibo" in Chinese, helped mobilize 12,000 people in Dalian to successfully demand the relocation of a petrochemical factory and served as an outlet for public anger after a crash on the showcase high-speed rail system in which at least 40 people died.
The largest microblog sites are run by Sina and Tencent, which each claim to have around 200 million users, though it is unclear how many are active.