Pu Zhiqiang
Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang talks to the media in Beijing, July 20, 2012. Recently, state prosecutors charged him with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting ethnic hatred" after he challenged local government leaders to explain separatist activities in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. Reuters

SHANGHAI -- If the Internet has become one of the main channels for China's citizens to express opinions and sometimes criticize or even mock the government in recent years, the authorities are making it increasingly clear that they are no longer willing to tolerate the extremes of such behavior.

In the latest sign that the government is going on the offensive against online misdemeanors, the Chinese police’s Internet inspection arm -- otherwise known as the country’s cyberpolice force, a body that "has long operated in the backstage,” as the official Xinhua News Agency put it -- is planning to “come out from behind the curtain,” according to state media. Xinhua said that from this month, cyberpolice in 50 towns and cities around the country -- from the capital Beijing to remote rural towns in the southwest -- would launch their own accounts on China’s most popular social media platforms, in a pilot scheme aimed at “swiftly cleaning up illegal and criminal information online.”

The report said the Internet police would “openly patrol” cyberspace, deal with public tip-offs and publish case reports, and would “give warning to those involved in minor offenses” and “investigate law violations” in more-serious cases. The Ministry of Public Security explained that the campaign was targeted partly at “conventional crimes,” which it said were now increasingly common online, such as deception, gambling (illegal in China) and crimes involving guns. But it also said it would take aim at “slander” and at “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” -- both charges often leveled by the authorities at people who have criticized the government or officials.

The ministry added that the above misdemeanors posed a “potential threat and challenge to people’s lives.” It said the police’s new approach was designed to “shock, warn, and prevent” and in the process to “reduce the frequency of online criminal activity.” And it emphasized that the rules should be implemented and followed strictly in all localities and that officials should dare to “show their sword” -- to take bold action -- to ensure that the new structure did not become an “empty framework.”

The Public Security Ministry also called for public support, saying that Internet users should not only “draw a clear line” between themselves and illegal activities online but also tip off the authorities if they discovered such activities. Only by working together, it said, could the authorities and society “build a clean and harmonious Internet space.”

The use of the word "harmonious" and the call for online denunciations will confirm the fears of some Chinese Internet users that the authorities are increasingly serious about reining in the Web: Over the past decade, since it was first used by former President Hu Jintao, “harmonizing” the Internet has become Internet slang for censoring content. And under current President Xi Jinping, observers say the space for online expression has narrowed: The authorities have set up a new body to control the Internet, arrested a number of prominent bloggers and social media personalities and introduced jail sentences for people who “spread rumors.”

The fact that the cyberpolice are now to publicize their work online appears to be another sign that the government is no longer embarrassed about its attempts to control the Internet. The Communist Party’s Youth League recently called for 10 million young volunteers to denounce unhealthy Web content, while President Xi last month emphasized that the party should seek to co-opt new-media professionals who were not party members to get their help in “cleaning up cyberspace.”

The latest reports came as the Public Security Ministry announced that officials had already deleted some 758,000 pieces of "illegal and criminal information" since the beginning of this year and had investigated and handled over 70,000 cases of “cybercrime” -- though it did not give details on what these cases involved.

Like most societies, China is affected by cases of online fraud, libel and even cyberbullying. But human rights groups say there is also evidence of an increasingly tough approach to those who make comments that censors in the past simply might have deleted. In a recent case, state prosecutors charged leading civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting ethnic hatred,” after he challenged local government leaders to explain why citizens of China’s northwest Xinjiang region were prone to engaging in separatist activities and poked fun at a veteran legislator who boasted that he had never opposed any bill proposed by the government.

And in what some observers said was an unusually assertive move, Xinhua last week published a long article denouncing a well-known "online activist," Wu Gan. Wu, known online as the Butcher, has played a role in the "public scrutiny" of government that the authorities have said they welcome in recent years -- notably revealing in 2009 that a woman accused of murdering a government official had actually been trying to defend herself from being raped. He has often staged one-man protests outside courthouses at what he sees as injustices. And he recently offered a cash reward to anyone who could provide a complete film showing the incident in which a drunken man was shot dead at a railway station by a policeman, after Internet users expressed cynicism at the official version of events.

However, Xinhua described him as "vulgar" and motivated by greed, and following his latest arrest outside a courthouse in Jiangxi province, he was also charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a crime that can carry a jail sentence, in what some observers described as another example of a deepening crackdown on online activism.

Meanwhile, police in Shanghai last week arrested a photographer, Coca Dai, who had posted a photograph online showing President Xi Jinping with his face contorted, as part of a series of images apparently designed to depict the strained expression of people in the process of using the toilet. The official reason for his detention has not been made public, but his supporters said he had also been accused of “picking quarrels and stirring trouble.”

The Chinese authorities have previously sought to reduce the distance between Xi Jinping and the nation’s young people, using humorous cartoon images of the president in an attempt to appeal to China’s Internet generation. However, observers said Dai’s detention was another sign that the authorities are becoming increasingly intolerant of what they see as the irreverent behavior of many Internet users.

China’s army newspaper recently warned that the Internet had become a battleground where “hostile foreign forces” seeking to undermine the Communist Party promoted Western values, in an attempt to turn young people into “traitors.” And Willy Lam, a specialist on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, recently told International Business Times that while the authorities might still be willing to allow some limited online criticism of local authorities and of social or environmental problems, partly as a safety valve for social tension, they would show “zero tolerance” to anyone believed to have challenged the political system or the nation’s top leadership.