Last weekend's deadly knife attacks in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming could spark further Internet controls, as police punish online "rumor-mongers" and warn those who try to start a debate on the causes behind the attacks.
But netizens are still hungry for alternative sources of information to official news reports on the slashing rampage at the Yunnan provincial capital which the authorities have blamed on separatists from the troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, northwest of the country.
China's public security ministry said police have already punished 45 people for "provoking panic" and "disturbing public order" online.
They are accused of fabricating news and spreading rumors online in the wake of the attacks, which left 29 people dead and more than 140 injured, on social media platforms including QQ, WeChat and Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like service.
Veteran Hangzhou journalist Zan Aizong said there is a huge demand for alternate sources of news to complement the official line taken by the government.
"At the moment, only Xinhua news agency is putting out reports about the Kunming incident; the regional press aren't allowed to report on it freely," Zan said.
"There is relatively little information coming through official channcel, and it's not very detailed or confirmed," he said.
He said security camera footage from Kunming railway station existed, but hadn't been shared with the public.
Zan said there were still many questions around how the attack had been allowed to happen.
"Passengers needed to already have train tickets, and pass through a security checkpoint to get into the waiting room, so how did the attackers get past the checkpoint carrying knives?" he said.
"This was the responsibility of the police and station security."
Interest in online rumors
The information vacuum means that online rumors often get far more play in China than they would in a country with a free press, Zan said.
Among those punished by police was a Web user surnamed Wang from the eastern province of Zhejiang, who posted online a report that "attackers from Xinjiang" had killed more than 10 people near the West Lake in provincial capital Hangzhou and injured over 80 others, the ministry said on its official Sina Weibo account.
A similar report was posted online in the southwestern province of Sichuan, saying that three attackers "speaking the regional dialect of an ethnic minority group" slashed at passers-by in Chengdu with long knives.
A third post appeared on an online forum on Tuesday, warning that similar attacks were planned at 5.00 p.m. that day in a number of Chinese cities.
Under a Supreme People's Court ruling in September 2013, anyone "spreading rumors online" can be jailed for up to three years.
Chinese authorities have also issued a strong warning to popular "Big V" tweeters, warning them not to post or retweet online "rumors."
'Mistaking the black for the white'
Earlier this week, the Internet security group of the Beijing police department accused influential microbloggers, including soccer commentator-turned-writer Li Chengpeng and journalist Luo Changping, of "ignoring facts" and "mistaking the black for the white".
Public figures should "be responsible for their words" and threatened action "when laws are breached", it warned.
Last year, China arrested a number of liberal online commentators who lent their support to a movement to call on high-ranking government officials to reveal details of their assets, and those of their families.
Li Chengpeng had commented online of the attacks: "These people came from nowhere and attacked regular citizens. What was their motivation?"
A second post also questioned the motives behind the attacks.
"Do you know why they killed people? Figuring out the cause of the attack will be more useful than tackling them with force," the writer said.
The widely shared posts stirred up furious debate on China's tightly controlled Internet, with many accusing the posters of sympathizing with terrorists.
Meanwhile, officials have blamed the Internet for contributing to terrorist attacks in China.
On Thursday, Zhang Chunxian, ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang--home to the mostly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs--said that "about 90 percent" of terrorists use circumvention tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to get around China's system of blocks, filters and censorship known as the Great Firewall.
Zhang said that the attacks were not an indication of a faulty government's ethnic and religious policies, nor did they prove that the government's recent crackdown was inappropriate, the English-language Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the Communist Party, reported.
"Such terrorist attacks grew after 9-11, Chechen terrorism, and the July 5 riot in Xinjiang," the paper quoted Zhang as saying.
China has said the Kunming attacks were an act of terrorism perpetrated by Uyghur separatists who had planned to leave the country on "jihad."
However, Uyghur sources have told RFA that the group had been "desperate" to leave China for Laos in order to escape oppressive government policies affecting their religious freedom and economic opportunities.
China says a total of 105 "terror attacks" and severe crimes took place during 2013, the People's Liberation Army Daily newspaper reported this week.
Reported by Lin Ping and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
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