Mao Zedong once wrote that “the Communist party must control the guns”. Now, it seems, it must control the internet as well. Of course, this is not exactly new. For years, China’s authorities have played a cat-and-mouse game with internet users, taking down controversial posts and intimidating persistent “offenders”. ‘The Great Firewall of China’ is so bulky it, too, can doubtless be seen from space.

But in recent weeks, China’s security apparatus has intensified the crackdown. It has launched a full-blown offensive against microblog celebrities, cracking down on what it has termed malicious rumour-mongering. Through official publications, the government has described online criticism of the party as “defamation” and issued a legal interpretation allowing people to be prosecuted for “spreading online rumours” if their posts have been viewed by more than 5,000 internet users or forwarded more than 500 times. The message seems clear: If you are going to post something controversial, you better make sure no one reads it.

In the past weeks, hundreds of bloggers have been rounded up. The attack has been especially focused on the so-called “Big Vs”, the internet celebrities, some with millions of followers, who have exclusive “verified” accounts on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Last weekend, Charles Xue, an outspoken blogger with 12 million followers, was paraded on state television praising the crackdown. Last month, Xue, a Chinese-born US investor who writes under the pen name Xue Manzi, was arrested for allegedly hiring prostitutes. The official Chinese media highlighted his online exploits as much as his alleged bedroom antics, suggesting the former was the graver offence. “The internet Big V ‘Xue Manzi’ has toppled from the sacred altar,” carped state-run news agency Xinhua. “This has sounded a warning bell to all Big Vs.”

The campaign has sent a chill through the internet. For weeks, bloggers have been warning fellow users about the need to watch their words. Pan Shiyi, a billionaire who founded property developer Soho China and who has 16 million Weibo followers, has publicly supported the crackdown. The unexpected stance from someone considered an internet pioneer suggests the intimidation campaign is working.

This assault on the internet poses several questions, the most pressing of which are why now and will it work? In answer to why now, the most rational explanation is that the party is scared that the internet has got out of hand. Its previous efforts to control online content aside, Chinese cyberspace has become a riotous Wild West of discussion, mockery, information-sharing and whistleblowing. Seemingly small campaigns have gone national, such as the case last year when Zhan Haite, daughter of migrant workers in Shanghai, protested against her disqualification from school entrance exams on the grounds that she did not have a hukou residency permit. Such was the support for her plight that several provinces changed their rules to address the issue.

In other cases, officials have been brought low for wearing expensive watches (perceived as evidence of corruption), while local issues from land disputes to environmental hazards have been given a national platform. The internet has been important in the gradual formation of a civil society that does not always see the interests of Chinese people and those of the Communist party as one and the same thing.

Naturally, there is a lot of bile on the internet, too. That has given authorities the pretext to claim that they are targeting malicious elements. The effort, however, appears to be part of a much broader campaign led by Xi Jinping, the new party leader now fast losing his reputation as a closet liberal. In a document said to be closely linked with Xi, opponents of one-party rule are criticised for using the internet to “stir up trouble” by disclosing officials’ assets and exposing corruption. Among Xi’s “seven perils” — western-influenced ideas to be stamped out — are those of media independence, civil society and criticism of the party’s past. All three are facilitated by the internet.

Will the clampdown work? There are reasons to think not. First, the explosion of the internet may have been as useful to the party as it has been to its opponents. Online forums have acted as a release valve for social discontent and as a barometer of public opinion. That has helped foster the illusion — and to some extent the reality — of popular empowerment. To shut that off completely could risk a dangerous build-up of social pressure.

Second, clamping down on freedom of expression runs counter to the so-far timid efforts to loosen the reins of the state in other areas, such as banking and finance. Many Chinese officials, possibly including Xi himself, believe that the state-led model as currently configured has run its course. They argue that market discipline, for example, in the setting of interest rates or the lending of money, must slowly augment state-directed capitalism if China’s economy is not to stall.

That poses a big problem. It is not impossible to envisage a clampdown on internet freedom coupled with a withdrawal of the state in certain limited areas. The Communist party has managed to square such contradictions before, but the two do pull in opposite directions. Ultimately, they may prove irreconcilable.

— Financial Times