Beijing's police chief has threatened "severe punishment" against Internet users who "attack" China's Communist Party, raising fears of an intensified crackdown on freedom of speech ahead of a sensitive political transition.
Fu Zhenghua, the chief of the Beijing Public Security Bureau, made his comments earlier this week at a meeting regarding a recently announced month-long government campaign to "clean up" the Internet.
Fu said "Those who make up and spread political rumors, attack the Party, and government leaders and the system will receive a public warning or severe punishment according to the law."
The Communist Party-controlled Global Times
said Fu did not specify what constitutes a political rumor or attack, and noted that some Chinese web users are concerned that the "clean-up" campaign is an attempt to mute online criticisms of the government.
The report comes a day after Chinese authorities announced they have arrested over 10,000 suspected online criminals and erased 3.2 million "harmful" online messages since a wide-ranging campaign against cybercrimes was launched in March.
China's extensive online censorship network is expected to work even harder to filter government criticisms in an attempt to enforce calm in the run-up to a once-in-a-decade leadership transition in the Communist Party later this year.
Though popular Western social media such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked, Chinese web users have increasingly taken to local microblogs, such as Sina Weibo, to express their criticisms of the government.
Most recently, government censors have been busy deleting online posts criticizing the government for a lack of preparedness and for not giving reliable information during and after the torrential rains that have fallen in Beijing in the past several days.
In addition to deleting posts, China also is putting pressure on major microblogs to require all users to register using their real names, in an effort to more carefully monitor anti-government comments.
Beijing defends its online censorship, dubbed the Great Firewall of China, by saying it is aimed at maintaining social stability, preventing the spread of false rumors, and blocking inappropriate material.