A popular Chinese political news and opinion website whose owner claims has connections to Japan, the U.S. and Taiwan has been shut down.

Consensus Net, which was read by hundreds of thousands of people each day, appears to have been taken offline over the weekend.

The site is owned by Beijing-based Li De Consensus Media Group.

Initial reports about its demise quoted website founder Zhou Zhixing (周志興) as saying the site had been shut down for “transmitting incorrect ideas.”

However, Zhou has denied making the statement and told the South China Morning Post he is negotiating with Chinese officials.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future but, up to this moment, there is no order to stop the operation of the website,” he told the SCMP.

David Bandurski, of the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project, writes that Consensus Net, “long served as a respected platform bringing together writers and academics of various backgrounds to discuss more sensitive issues of social and political development in China.”

Launched in 2009, the site had a daily audience of about 500,000 people, Li De Consensus Media Group said. Its core readership consisted of “scholars, government officials, entrepreneurs and young people,” the company said. Its articles covered international affairs, governance, history, ideology and culture.

According to a 2015 Tech in Asia article, the blog’s contributors are usually “well-recognized practitioners and/or researchers in their fields.” The article also noted that discussions on sensitive topics, such as the Cultural Revolution, appeared to remain available online longer than on other more mainstream Chinese web platforms, which suggests the site may have not been as strictly censored.

Li De Consensus Media Group also alleges it has “connections” with foundations and think tanks in the U.S., Japan and Taiwan. It listed Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Japan’s Nippon Foundation and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwan.

The fall of Consensus Net, if true, will be viewed by many as the latest in an ongoing trend of tightening media controls by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping (習近平), who took power in late 2012.

Bandurski told The News Lens International in August that Chinese Internet authorities were moving to make sure all media – including new Internet sites and social media – stayed in line with the ideas and messages of the CCP leadership.

“Xi Jinping wants media development and ostensible diversity under renewed and unchallenged Party authority,” Bandurski said at the time. “He wants social media without networked social action that challenges the Party. He wants news without unwelcome surprises.”

Beijing beefed-up monitoring of online news portals in August. That included creating new rules to ensure website staff monitor sites at all times to make sure there are no rule breaches, and making editors-in-chief at online news sites responsible for all content.

In July, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) prohibited news websites from basing their stories on information collected from social media. Also in July, CAC shut down investigative news programs at several major online news sites, including those owned by media corporations Sina, NetEase, Sohu, Tencent, and Phoenix.

In June, the CAC said it was ramping-up efforts to purge comments by China’s nearly 700 million Internet users in order to eliminate "unhealthy information" and promote “helpful and well-intentioned” messages.

The Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranked China 176 out of 180 countries, ahead of Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. Amnesty International says China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.”

Additional reporting by Mo Tz-pin

First Editor: J. Michael Cole