SHANGHAI, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Strict new rules on Internet publishing in China went into effect Thursday as authorities in Beijing moved to silence online dissent and political criticism ahead of this year's 16th Communist Party Congress, when an entire generation of leaders will step down.
The new regulations, a copy of which was obtained by United Press International, ban material that "threatens national unity, divulges state secrets or fuels ethnic hatred or discrimination."
Electronic versions of published books, newspapers, periodicals, and audio and video products, as well as original literature, art, and material related to science and technology, social sciences and engineering, are listed in the government circular as subject to close scrutiny by authorities.
Internet publishers caught disobeying the guidelines will have to pay hefty fines or be shut down.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Information Technology in Shanghai, who only gave his surname Chen, said the new rules were created because Internet portals were caught disobeying previous laws on content. The government wants people to use the Internet "in a civilized manner," he said.
"Some Internet service providers have been hosting Web sites that carry content which is contrary to the government's regulations," Chen said. "We plan to get tough with violators this time around."
The move comes amid a major crackdown on Internet cafes and a voluntary pledge signed by at least 130 Internet companies in March to cooperate with authorities in censoring online content. Beijing intensified its crackdown on Web cafes after a deadly fire killed 25 people in the capital last month. Critics claim the government is using the incident to limit online access.
Authorities also have ordered Internet cafes to install software that can block 500,000 blacklisted, overseas-based Web sites and track the movements of surfers who attempt to access them. The Internet has become an increasingly powerful medium for political dissent and discourse in China, the world's second-largest online community with nearly 50 million Web users. Chinese-language Web sites ranging from the serious to the sublime have emerged over the past few years and efforts to control the content of what is published have met with limited success.
Officials from the Public Security Bureau in Shanghai have been carrying out inspections of local Internet service providers, as well as foreign companies and news organizations. For example, officials paid a visit to the Shanghai bureau of United Press International on Wednesday, wanting to know if the news agency, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was using local servers to publish news on China.
Industry sources said the nationwide crackdown is meant to curb discussion of sensitive political issues while Beijing works out the final details of leadership changes for the upcoming congress.
"The Communist Party views the Internet as a threat to its hold on power," said Peter Cheung, an Internet consultant in Hong Kong. "The new rules indicate they're very concerned about it."