China communists to punish members who visit `illegal websites'

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(Bloomberg) -- China’s Communist Party is curbing the online activities of its 89 million members ahead of a leadership shake-up in a few months.

The new rules made public on Tuesday said that all party cadres face punishment if they visit “illegal websites” or disclose party and state secrets online. Cadres need permission from the party before registering social media accounts or setting up a WeChat group that contains their job information, the party’s personnel, propaganda and cyber watchdog said.

Party’s members could also face punishment for passing information online that damages the image of the party and the leadership, the rules said. Violators could be punished with party regulations and the nation’s laws, they said.

The new rules come amid a surge in restrictions on free expression ahead of the 19th Party Congress, a meeting of top leaders that will mark the halfway point for President Xi Jinping’s presumed term in office. The president has recently warned military and government officials to stay loyal as he asserts his power ahead of the meeting a few months from now.

China already blocks access to Twitter, Facebook and news websites such as the New York Times. Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp messaging service was partially blocked in China in July, and the government has begun cracking down on virtual private networks -- a technology that allows users to route their data overseas to get around the Beijing’s Internet firewall.

Authorities already have the power to censor images and conversations held in private one-on-one chats on WeChat, a service provided by Tencent Holdings Ltd. that has more than 768 million daily active users. The number of banned keyword combinations greatly increased on WeChat and other social media platforms, according to a report published by Citizen Lab in July.

--With assistance from Ting Shi

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