President Hu Jintao spoke of the need to "purify the internet environment" at a top-level party meeting in late January. Suggesting that the Communist Party should play a more active role in driving online opinion, Hu stressed that the internet must be used to "nourish spirits and mould minds".
Emphasizing the gravity of the situation, he also told the meeting that the "national cultural information security and long-term stability of the state" were at stake.
The comments were seen as an indication of Beijing’s concern at the growth and influence of online activity. In February, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) revealed that the number of internet users in the country rose by 14 million in 2006 to reach a total of 137 million.
With internet penetration still just 10.5%, the potential for growth is clear. A CNNIC official told state media it could take China two years to surpass the 210 million internet users in the US.
Although the internet is one of country’s least controlled public spaces, a report released by Reporters Without Borders concluded that China has the world’s most policed internet system.
Fifty-two of 60 people jailed worldwide for criticizing the government online, currently reside in Chinese prisons, the report said. Beijing officials keep a close eye on the country’s 17 million bloggers daily with the latest filtering tools and cooperation with foreign and domestic information technology firms and service providers.
The government also works with franchise internet cafes in order to shut down smaller cafes, making it easier for them to monitor content.
With China seeking a positive global image for Beijing in 2008, a so-called ease in press freedom recently has not led to a decline in persecution, according to the report.
In 2006, a record number of 16 media workers were killed in China, along with 328 arrested, 517 assaulted or threatened, and 478 media outlets censored.