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China further stifles online speech ahead of party congress

Beijing deletes more 'illegal information'; WeChat, Weibo targeted

A smartphone user in Beijing. China's cybersecurity law took effect in June.

CHONGQING -- China is clamping down on free speech on the internet, deleting nearly twice as much "unlawful information" online in July and August, as President Xi Jinping seeks to suppress criticism before top leadership is reshuffled at the Communist Party congress beginning Wednesday.

According to internet authorities, 6.5 million instances of unlawful or inappropriate information were reported in August, up 80% year on year. The majority came from posts to chat apps or social media, and most were deleted. Normal months see around 3 million cases, but the count swelled to 6 million or more beginning in July.

"Regulation suddenly grew much stricter" under new cybersecurity legislation, said an official at an information technology company. After the law -- purporting to safeguard China's cyberspace and national security -- took effect in June, authorities asked executives at major internet businesses to thoroughly scrub content amounting to criticism of the party from blogs and other platforms.

The targets included Tencent Holdings' massively popular messaging app WeChat, as well as online media company Sina's microblogging platform Weibo -- akin to Twitter -- and online message board Tieba, operated by search provider Baidu.

The three services are where China's public opinion is shaped online, with their user bases overlapping but nevertheless reaching over 1.5 billion combined. They also were the top three hosts of August's speech infractions on a by-company basis, and authorities slapped them with fines and other punitive measures late last month for insufficient oversight.

In late September, Politburo member and public security official Meng Jianzhu called for stronger regulation of speech online in a televised briefing geared to an audience including the country's 1.5 million police officers. Businesses leapt into action. Sina began assembling a team of 1,000 supervisors for content on Weibo, and Tencent and Baidu are moving to add staff as well.

The clampdown appears to be more than a passing movement. China's internet regulators have started talks with social media powerhouses including Tencent to take 1% stakes in them, The Wall Street Journal reported in its online edition Wednesday.

China is also further restricting access to foreign websites. Yahoo Japan's search service is off-limits to Chinese as of September, and Beijing continues to hunt down virtual private networks often used by individuals to circumvent regulations.

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