The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has launched a campaign against "fake news" that will mostly target online content, and will likely extend to Hong Kong.
The move comes as Beijing accused the BBC of "fake news" in its reporting of the floods in the central province of Henan, following death threats targeting the broadcaster's correspondents initiated by the Henan branch of the CCP's Youth League.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dubbed the corporation a "bad-mouthing broadcasting corporation" that had "attacked and vilified China, seriously deviating from journalistic standards" and a producer of "fake news."
Zhao said the BBC deserved to be "unpopular" with the Chinese public.
The BBC and other foreign journalists were then targeted by state journalists and other nationalists while on assignment in Henan, according to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
"The youth division of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) published online death threats against foreign journalists covering the floods in central China's Henan province, triggering a wave of physical, verbal, and online harassment against them," RSF said in a statement on its website.
"China, one of the world's worst abusers of press freedom, has no journalism lessons to give to the BBC, and is showing outrageous hypocrisy by accusing it of broadcasting “fake news” while it is itself the world's number one exporter of propaganda contents," RSF's East Asia bureau chief Cédric Alviani said in the statement.
It said that while Chinese state media like Xinhua, CGTN, and Radio China International are statutorily compelled to relay CCP propaganda, the UK's public broadcaster practiced "fact-based journalism" and enjoyed editorial freedom.
The BBC on July 27 called for "immediate action by the Chinese government to stop the attacks on journalists following reporting on the floods in Henan Province."
The row came as the CCP's central propaganda department launched a nationwide political campaign against "fake news."
"Key targets are illegal newsgathering activities by news organizations and their staff, as well as by online social media platforms and public accounts," the General Administration of Press and Publications (GAPP) said in a statement on its website.
It said a recent top-level meeting had ordered departments to "strike hard" and start the battle against "fake news."
'A sensitive period'
Chinese political scholar Chen Daoyin said the move was likely not just a reaction to online public criticism over the authorities' handling of the Zhengzhou flood disaster, but also a way to prepare the ground for the 20th Party Congress in 2022.
"The Politburo believes that the current situation in China and internationally is complex and difficult, and domestic economic recovery is still unstable and unbalanced," Chen told RFA.
"We are now in a sensitive period in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress, when it becomes necessary to strengthen controls on public speech, eliminate unwanted voices, and ensure that only one voice can be heard -- that of the party," he said.
He said the fact that the authorities in Hong Kong are also looking at bringing in a law banning "fake news" is significant, because Beijing likely wants to prevent dissenting voices from being heard in China via Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong has always been a channel between the mainland and the outside world, especially in the area of news and public opinion," Chen said. "They are getting ready to strike."
He said he expects prominent social media accounts and bloggers talking about news and current affairs, as well as cultural products dealing with history, culture, and religion, to be key targets of the campaign.
Protecting leadership image
Joseph Cheng, former politics lecturer at Hong Kong's City University, said the campaign will enlist the help of at least 10 departments and ministries.
"The target of the campaign will be the kind of gossip that affects the image of the leadership," Cheng said. "This is the kind of content that is picked up in Hong Kong, and then by the international media, and which has an impact on public opinion."
"Hong Kong has become an important channel for the export of this kind of gossip, and the Hong Kong government is also legislating against fake news," Cheng said. "In particular, this crackdown will target online news."
Cheng said a prominent example was the sale of books containing juicy content about Chinese leaders, once sold by the Causeway Bay bookstore and now shut down following the cross-border detentions of five of its booksellers in 2015.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Emily Chan and Hsia Hsiao-hwa.