BEIJING — China has quietly formed a new bureau expected to help to police social networking sites and other user-driven forums on the Internet, which are proving harder for the government to monitor and control than ordinary news portals.
The new bureau marks the latest outgrowth to a morass of agencies tasked with regulating online business and communications in China. People informed of the expansion say the authorities are retooling their media apparatus to deepen their leverage over the Web, and regulators are jostling for the growing power and privilege at stake.
The new agency, officially called the Internet news coordination bureau, is part of this effort to better monitor the communications of Chinese Web users, who total nearly 400 million by official estimates.
Chinese officials consider tools like social networking, microblogging and video-sharing sites a major vulnerability. In the past year, they have been forced to block access in China of overseas video and networking giants like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and suspend several upstart Chinese look-alikes, over information they deem subversive.
In turn, China has promoted the use of local alternatives on sites like Sina.com, QQ.com, and the Web site of the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily, which are more cooperative with official mandates to filter the Web. Both the new and pre-existing bureaus are under the auspices of the State Council Information Office, which acts as a leading daily enforcer over news-related content on the Web.
For weeks, the head of the newly established bureau has represented it in meetings with foreign diplomats and in official propaganda conferences and training sessions.
But public acknowledgment of the addition only came last week, after The New York Times submitted a question about the overhaul. The next day, the Information Office altered a page on its Web site to reflect the new Internet bureau. It also unveiled another new bureau, devoted to regulating foreign news and information outlets that conduct business in China.
This week, in a faxed response, the Information Office said the Internet news coordination bureau, which it also refers to as bureau nine, “is mainly responsible for ‘guidance, coordination and other work related to the construction and management of Web culture.’ ” It gave no further details.
China already employs a sprawling bureaucracy of government, party, and industry bodies, and local affiliates down to the neighborhood level, to screen, filter, and steer public opinion online and regulate various facets of the industry.
But in response to a series of events the past two years, particularly ethnic riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, the release of the democracy manifesto known as Charter 08, and opposition protests in Iran — all of which were seen as proliferating via mobile and Internet communications — the Communist Party leadership has taken stronger steps. It has unleashed a propaganda buildup of multimedia arms acquiescent to the government, and a policy clampdown on more unruly foreign and private firms.
Previously, the Information Office operated a single Bureau of Internet Affairs, referred to as bureau five. It supervises sites that publish news in China and operates in close contact with many of their top executives and editors. That bureau traditionally worked on circulating official information and censorship guidelines, but with the evolution of the Web, it has become more occupied with monitoring public sentiment over news developments on user-generated services.
Now two bureaus will divide the labor. The older one will retain a focus on promoting the official line to domestic sites and international media, while the newer one will be devoted more to enforcement over news-related content on interactive forums, say scholars, diplomats and editors familiar with the reshuffle.
“So just from the viewpoint of personnel, you can see that the government is putting more and more emphasis on managing the Internet,” said an editor at an official media organization, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject.