China's Communist Party control is at risk unless the government takes firmer steps to stop Internet opinion being shaped by increasingly organized political foes, a team of party writers warned in a commentary published on Friday.
The long commentary in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the main newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, added to signs that Beijing, jolted by the growing audience and influence of Twitter-like microblogging websites, is weighing fresh ways to tame and channel online opinion.
Chinese officials and media have recently complained about the spread of damaging and unfounded "rumors" on the Internet. But this commentary raised the political stakes by arguing that organized, subversive opponents are exploiting tardy regulation to inflame opinion and spread their views.
The commentary urged changes in how China controls Internet innovations.
"Internet opinion is spontaneous, but increasingly shows signs of becoming organized," said the commentary, written by a team of writers for the Communist Party's top theoretical journal, "Qiushi," which means "Seeking Truth."
"Among the many controversies stirred up on the Internet, many are organized, with goals and meticulous planning and direction, and some clearly have commercial interests or political intentions in the background," said the commentary.
"Unless administration is vigorous, criminal forces, hostile forces, terrorist organizations and others could manipulate public sentiment by manufacturing bogus opinion on the Internet, damaging social stability and national security."
A commentary in the People's Daily does not amount to a government policy pronouncement, and indeed this one may reflect a more conservative current in official debate. But it adds to signals that Beijing is leaning to tougher controls.
China already heavily filters the Internet, and blocks popular foreign sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The People's Daily commentary did not single out the explosive growth of microblog, or "Weibo," users, who reached 195 million by the end of June, an increase of 209 percent on the number at the end of 2010.
But a preface to the newspaper commentary singled out a recent string of public uproars that have spread through microblogs, especially the "Weibo" site of Sina Corp, which dominates the sector in China.
Those uproars included a bullet train crash in July that drew outrage aimed at government officials over evasive statements, safety failures and the feverish expansion of high-speed rail.
A "LIGHT" HAND
That sort of growth is a key reason why investors remain cautiously optimistic — for the long term — on Internet and social-media players such as Sina, Tencent and RenRen Inc, billed as a Chinese version of Facebook.
Wall Street hopes that rapid growth in mobile and social-media adoption in — the world's second-largest Internet market and already the biggest social-media playground by users — will offset persistent fears about a widespread crackdown on Weibo or other rapidly expanding media.
Sina's shares on the Nasdaq slid more than 3 percent to $100.95 in afternoon trading, while RenRen was off 1 percent.
"The concern is valid, but the probability is low. The social media market has grown to such a size that it is almost impossible for government to shut down all the platforms," CLSA's head of telecoms and Internet research Asia, Elinor Leung, argued in a Thursday report on the industry.
Various government agencies in fact employ Weibo, she said, much like Twitter is used as a communications tool in the United States.
"The government is likely to continue to rely on Internet companies to curtail rumors and sensitive information, rather than suppress them."
Sina and other Chinese microblog operators already deploy technicians and software to monitor content, and block and remove comments deemed unacceptable, especially about protests, scandals and party leaders. But the torrent of information and combative views can be hard to tame.
"In Internet battles, usually negative views crush positive ones," said the People's Daily, adding that extreme online opinion abounded with "unvarying suspicion of government policies, official statements, mainstream viewpoints, the social elite and the well-off."
Officially, at least, Sina's Weibo and other Chinese microblog sites are still in "trial" mode.
In comment's that appeared aimed at such microblogs, the People's Daily commentary said the Chinese government had shot itself in the foot by letting Internet technologies take off and win huge followings before effective control was in place.
That must change, it said.
"We have failed to take into sufficient account just how much the Internet is a double-edged sword, and have a problem of allowing technology to advance while administration and regulation lag," said the commentary.
Once the government tries to control an Internet technology that has already become popular, it faces "fierce resistance and a backlash" from users, and also international criticism, said the newspaper.
"Clearly, in the future when developing and applying new Internet technologies, there must first be a thorough assessment, adopting even more prudent policies and enhancing foresight and forward thinking in administration," it said.