China’s move to rein in microblogs is seen as part of an intensifying control of the media landscape ahead of next year’s crucial Communist Party Congress, which will bring the most sweeping leadership change in a decade. (Nelson Ching/Bloomberg)

Chinese authorities have stepped up efforts in recent weeks to rein in the hugely popular microblogging sites that have become an alternative source of real-time news for millions while challenging the Communist Party’s traditional grip on information.

Journalists, bloggers, media analysts and others said the moves are part of an intensifying control of the media landscape ahead of next year’s crucial Communist Party Congress, which will bring the broadest leadership change in China in a decade. Although leadership shuffles here are routinely decided behind the scenes and carefully choreographed for the public, they are still often fraught with uncertainty — and jittery authorities typically want to take no chances.

The 2012 leadership change will be the first since the explosion here of Weibo, the microblogging sites that are like a Chinese version of Twitter with some of the visual elements of Facebook tossed in. Weibo has more than 200 million users, and the number is growing.

Although the traditional media here remain largely controlled by government censors, Weibo has emerged as a freewheeling forum for breaking news, exposés and edgy opinion — often to the chagrin of censors. For example, Weibo users first broke the news of the July 23 high-speed train collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 people — even using cellphones to post photos directly from the crash site — well before traditional government-controlled media reported the accident.

Also, although newspapers, television and radio are typically owned by the government or the Communist Party, the Weibo sites are run by private companies, meaning the censors’ control had to be more indirect.

But that seems to have changed.

Last Friday, a spokesman for the State Council Internet Office, which is under China’s State Council, or cabinet, issued a statement warning Internet users to “show self discipline and refrain from spreading rumors.” The statement was carried by Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

A day before, Wang Chen, minister of the State Council Internet Office, told a conference here that social networking sites posed a problem for the government.

“Many people are considering how to prevent the abuse of these networks following violent crimes that took place in some parts of the world this year,” Wang said, referring to rioting in Britain that was fueled in part by youths using BlackBerry messaging and cellphones. “The Internet should not be used to jeopardize the national or public interest,” he said.

Intensifying pressure

The companies that run the most popular microblogging sites seem to have gotten the message. Sina, whose Weibo site is the most commonly used, has stepped up efforts to remove what it calls unsubstantiated rumors from its site and to indefinitely freeze the accounts of users who spread rumors.

Sina’s move came after Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi, who is also a member of the party’s Politburo, visited its head office in Beijing in August. Afterward, Sina said in a statement that it would “put more effort into attacking all kinds of rumors.”

Sina also said it would monitor more closely the content of users with more than 50,000 followers.

But it seems that not only rumormongers are having their Weibo accounts suspended. In Shanghai, a Weibo microblogger using the online name “General Secretary of the Flower and Fruit Mountain” gained 20,000 followers by taking published photographs of government officials, zooming in on their luxury wristwatches and identifying their make and cost. Starting in July, General Secretary posted dozens of photos of officials and their watches.

The point was clear: Officials on low government salaries were publicly sporting pricy Rolexes, Omegas and Piagets — just the kind of potential corruption the party has said it wants to stamp out. But for his trouble, General Secretary received a call from Sina last month telling him that his account was being shut down and that all his posts were being deleted.

“I think the pressure on social media in China is intensifying, particularly given the strong role platforms such as Sina microblog have played on recent news stories,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project Web site at the University of Hong Kong. He said the moves to rein in Weibo were part of the “cyclical nature” of media control in China.

Sina did not respond to questions about how many user accounts it has suspended since the new government edict came down. According to media reports, Sina has a large team, led by 10 editors, combing through the millions of daily Weibo posts trying to confirm whether news circulating online is true.

Murky situation

The efforts to control the microblogs come as authorities have made other recent moves against traditional media.

In September, two papers, the Beijing News — known for its aggressive reporting and investigations — and the Beijing Times, were placed under the control of the Beijing municipal propaganda department. Newspapers in China must have a “supervising authority,” and the two papers had been indirectly under the control of the central government.

Some journalists and media advocates said the situation was murky and unpredictable because competing power centers are vying for position before next year’s leadership changes.

“Each official is worrying that the media will be the tool of their enemies to attack them at this moment, which will be harmful to their political life,” said one Chinese investigative reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymously for fear of facing reprisals. “For example, if a newspaper of Hubei province reported a scandal out of Henan province, then the Henan officials will be really embarrassed.”

Investigative reporters and columnists have also been targets of the media tightening; many of them have lost their jobs.

Deng Fei, an investigative reporter for Phoenix Weekly, said, “The circle of Chinese investigative reporters is shrinking now. Many of them want to change jobs.”

He added, “This is really discouraging. I have been working in this field for 10 years. I also switched to working for a charity organization this year. I can’t see a future on this road.”

Staff researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.