CHINA'S Communist Party has significantly tightened propaganda controls by shutting down the country's most vibrant and influential intellectual discussion platform.
The move to shut down the website Bullog follows a prominent warning by the country's propaganda chief, Li Changchun, last week that the party would tighten internet controls over "vulgar" content.
The Bullog founder Luo Yonghao received official confirmation of the site's closure on Friday in an email from the Beijing Communications Administration, which accused the website of containing "harmful comments on current affairs".
Bullog has recently grown to become the most important platform for Chinese intellectuals and commentators to debate policy and political developments, with the number of daily viewers exceeding 1 million last April.
Increased propaganda restrictions are being interpreted as a sign of leadership panic about the social ramifications of China's sudden economic slowdown and a series of politically fraught anniversaries that could act as a lightning rod for dissent this year.
Data this week is likely to reveal a decline in exports and industrial production last month, which may signal an outright contraction in an economy that has averaged an annual growth rate of 10 per cent for the past 30 years.
Chinese estimates of the number of manufacturing, construction and other workers who have already lost their jobs range from 6 million to 20 million.
The economic turmoil will coincide with a year of political milestones, including the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square "incident", the 50th anniversary of the "liberation" of Tibet and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.
Websites are important social and political discussion forums in China because they generally allow a greater range of debate than the tightly controlled mainstream media.
"China lacks freedom of speech, but the blog is like a private media for intellectuals," said a Chinese media researcher, Michael Anti.
"If you shut down all the liberal platforms for bloggers that means the liberal voices cannot be heard in the public sphere, and that will be a real problem for civil society."
Bullog was the leading domestic source of information about "Charter 08", a democratic manifesto signed by hundreds of leading Chinese intellectuals last month.
Liu Xiaobo, an intellectual behind the charter, was detained at the time of the charter's publication, and dozens of other signatories have been interrogated.
But Mr Luo told the Herald: "We will definitely open again. If it can't be in China, then we will open our website overseas."