President Xi Jinping urged cadres to improve communication with prominent figures in new media as the Communist Party wrapped up a three-day conference yesterday. Xi also called on the cadres to step up political ideological work with intellectuals outside the party, and warned that religions in the state must remain independent from foreign influence. His remarks came amid a push for the propaganda machine to better utilise new media, following concerns over the detention of several prominent figures on social media. "There needs to be strengthening work on well-known representatives of new media, setting up regular communication and interacting with them both online and offline," state-run Xinhua quoted Xi as saying. "We should let [these intellectuals] exert positive influence in cleaning up cyberspace and spreading mainstream values," he said, adding that non-party intellectuals were crucial for united front work. "Those studying overseas should be encouraged to return … to serve the nation." The president explained that bringing together non-party intellectuals was a basic and important strategy as part of the party's efforts to unite the nation towards realising the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. Xi has in recent years issued calls to arms against the country's unruly internet users, ordering the propaganda machine to build a "strong army to seize the ground of new media". Several people known for being vocal on social media in their criticism of the government have been detained over the years. In 2013, one of them, Xue Manzi, was arrested on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes. Qiao Mu, dean of Beijing Foreign Studies University's Centre for International Communication Studies, said Xi's remarks showed the party was now trying a softer approach in managing new media, rather than focusing on technical management and licensing issues as with traditional media in the past. "But I am highly doubtful about the effectiveness of controlling and cleansing opinions on the internet," the international relations expert said. "After all, the internet is the only place for mainlanders to express themselves as traditional media has been so heavily suppressed." The university's journalism professor Zhan Jiang welcomed the party's softer approach towards opinion leaders on the internet. However, he said: "But I doubt it is going to be effective to expect the internet to be filled only with positive energy." Xi has also called for expanding the selection and use of non-party representatives who accept the party's leadership and show strong political ability.