When floods killed at least 154 people in Northern and Central China and displaced tens of thousands over the weekend, Chinese web users may have wanted to know more about the extent of the disaster through reporting from Chinese journalists on the scene. But that kind of reporting was not available on the Chinese web, and it will be even harder to come by, after the government cracked down on web-based news outlets, forbidding them from running their own news operations.
With an edict made public on Monday, China's top internet regulator ordered online companies to stop producing original reporting from their news operations. Websites will have to hew to the official message of the Communist Party, or expect to see their publication "cleaned up" or shut down, according to the official statement in Chinese.
The order issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China or CAC is targeting the popular news portals owned by some the country's biggest Internet private companies: Sohu, Sina, NetEase and Phoenix.
China has over 688 million Internet users, according to the most recent official figures, published in December.
As of Monday, some of the most popular news sections produced by those companies had already been taken down, such as Sohu's Click Today or People in News, with URLs redirecting users to Sohu's main page.
Other sections have disappeared altogether, said Yaqiu Wang, the Committee to Protect Journalist's northeast Asia correspondent. 404 web pages popped up on sites like Radian, News Geek, Landmark, and Serious Reporting.
As for Western news sites, several of them aren't accessible in China, including the websites of The Economist, TIME Magazine, The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, according to GreatFire, a website that tracks censorship on the Chinese web. As of Monday, the websites of the VICE network were available.
The ban comes as a significant blow to the independence of the companies running these websites, which also operate social media platforms and online games. Sina, for instance, runs Weibo, a giant micro-blogging platform similar to Twitter (which is banned in the country, as is Facebook, although many people bypass the censorship by using a virtual private network.)
Observers of China's current affairs and researchers on press freedom interviewed by VICE News were not surprised by the announcement. It was, they said, the latest step in a gradual crackdown on the media that has been taking place since President Xi Jinping came into power, in 2012.
"This all seems to be motivated by a fear of public criticism of the regime spiraling out of control," said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who focuses on Chinese politics.
A regulation issued in 2005 by the Communist Party already prevented news companies from producing original reporting, but the order made public on Monday sanctioned the "serious violations" of the ruling, pointing out the "negative effects" of such coverage.
How online news outlets will comply with the order remains to be seen, as the rule is not new. The CPJ's Wang pointed out that some media outlets have already been sanctioned in the past for publishing sensitive reporting.
"For a while, it looked like companies that were big enough were able to have leeway, because of the size of their audience, mostly," Madeline Earp, the Asia Research Analyst for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House, said. "But specifically targeting these companies and news portals is a way to punish them, to show them that they still have to be subject to those public regulations."
Those restrictions can include any controversial topic that would shed negative light on China according to the Party: for example pollution in cities, vaccine shortage, human rights, political corruption, or territorial disputes over the South China Sea.
Another controversial issue was the Taiwan presidential election, which took place in January. Some of the websites targeted by Monday's order sent reporters to cover the election, but wouldn't publish their stories on their home page, Wang said.
"On the one hand, they want their news to get out, they want their readers to get to know this," Wang said, "but on the other hand, they don't want to be too noticeable for this, almost as if they were trying to hide this."
"All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party's will"
Whether or not the websites that are still online will comply with the initial 2005 rule remains to be seen, Wang said.
But the latest move from the Cyberspace Administration illustrates the vast power that the agency, created in 2014, has demonstrated in the past couple of months.
Its new director Xu Lin didn't wait long after he was appointed in June to intensify the crackdown on the media. Earlier this month, he warned that websites reporting unverified content from social media could be punished, and ordered them to provide "correct guidance for public opinion."
Lin used to run the propaganda department of the city of Shanghai before heading the CAC, and worked with current President Xi when he was the Shanghai party secretary. The two are believed to be close, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In a media tour of the top state-run news organisations in February, Xi told employees that they were "disseminators of the Party's policies and propositions," according to a translation by the US-based China Digital Times.
"All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party's will and its propositions and protect the Party's authority and unity," Xi said when he visited the headquarters of People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and CCTV.
With Monday's sweeping ban, the same policy now applies to some of the most popular online news websites that the Chinese can visit.