(Reuters) - China's top military newspaper told troops on Friday to ignore online rumors and authorities shut a left-wing website that has decried the ousting of populist official Bo Xilai, as the ruling Communist Party fought jitters over a leadership transition.
The Liberation Army Daily did not mention outlandish rumors of a foiled coup in Beijing that spread on the Internet in past weeks, after the abrupt ousting of Bo, an ambitious contender for a spot in the new central leadership to be unveiled at a party congress later this year.
A commentary in the newspaper, however, left no doubt the party leadership wants to inoculate People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops against rumors about coups or political divisions that could erode the authority of President Hu Jintao, who is also head of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission which commands the PLA.
The paper admonished soldiers to "resolutely resist the incursion of all kinds of erroneous ideas, not be disturbed by noise, not be affected by rumors, and not be drawn by undercurrents, and ensure that at all times and under all circumstances the military absolutely obeys the command of the Party central leadership, the Central Military Commission and Chairman Hu."
Although the coup rumors were unfounded, their spread and the government's tightening of Internet controls and warnings to ignore such talk have reflected jitters about stability after Bo's fall.
The Communist Party has always regarded its absolute grip on the PLA as its ultimate bulwark of power, and so the government is acutely sensitive about any signs of discord in the military.
The PLA has also been shaken by a separate corruption scandal in the run-up to the party leadership change, said Chen Ziming, an independent scholar of politics in Beijing.
"I think both incidents generated tensions and uncertainty, and in the military the case of Gu Junshan is a source of tensions," said Chen, referring to PLA Lieutenant General Gu, whose downfall for apparent corruption emerged this year.
"Before previous recent party congresses, the Internet was not such a factor, and structural factors, including the big turnover of leaders, are adding to uncertainty now," he said.
The newspaper's front-page commentary directed at the military builds on a series of official comments aimed at reinforcing the party's grip on opinion after an unsettling two months at a time the leadership prizes stability.
Unlike past removals of defiant provincial-level leaders on corruption charges, Bo's downfall has drawn open opposition. He wrapped himself in populist rhetoric and vows as party chief of Chongqing in southwest China, and leftist supporters have called him the victim of a plot to derail his policies.
Fan Jinggang, the general manager of the Beijing-based Maoist website Utopia (www.wyzxsx.com), which has vigorously defended Bo, said government Internet agencies and police ordered the site shut for a month starting from Friday.
Officials said "the Utopia website issued essays violating the constitution, maliciously attacking national leaders, and making wild comment on the 18th Congress," Fan told Reuters.
The Utopia group asked the officials to specify what essays were deemed to violate rules. "They did not have specific essays or evidence," said Fan.
Utopia and other ardently leftist Chinese websites have spread documents claiming to prove that Bo's downfall was engineered by the United States, and have also blasted comments by Premier Wen Jiabao critical of Bo.
"Handling things this way will not win over people, especially the left-wing and the public at the grassroots," said a recent comment about Bo published on the Utopia website.
"If this is mishandled, it could trigger a split in the Chinese Communist Party."
In late March, authorities shut 16 Chinese websites and detained six people accused of spreading rumors about unusual military movements and security in the capital, feeding talk of an attempted coup or schism in the leadership.
The rumors fed on speculation about the ousting of Bo, who in mid-March was removed as party boss of Chongqing, over a month after his vice mayor, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate, triggering a scandal exposing accusations of infighting and abuses of power.
Despite Bo's fall, the party's leadership transition appears on track, with Vice President Xi Jinping's rising profile leaving little doubt that he will succeed Hu.
The Liberation Army Daily has mentioned nothing about Bo or the rumors, nor Gu's case, in a string of comments over the past week aimed at stressing loyalty to the party and to Hu.
"Conscientiously resist all kinds of mistaken words and actions damaging to the party's image and unity, and do not heed or believe all kinds of hearsay and dark stories," the paper said last Sunday.
On Friday, it said the military must maintain a tight grip on troops' access to the Internet in the middle of what it called an "ideological struggle" before the 18th Communist Party congress late this year, when Hu and his cohort will retire.