June 21, 2006

Blogs Test Political Limits of Internet in China

BEIJING -- A New York Times columnist has created Chinese-language blogs on two of China's most popular Web portals to test the limits of the Internet in China -- but one of them could not be accessed on Wednesday.

In new blogs on Sohu and Sina, Nicholas Kristof denounced the imprisonment of his Chinese colleague, Zhao Yan, and called for President Hu Jintao to set an example in the fight against corruption by disclosing his financial assets.

He also mentioned Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned by Beijing as a cult in 1999, and described how on June 4, 1989, he saw the Chinese army fire on Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters -- both taboo subjects in China.

Zhao, 44, has pleaded not guilty to fraud and leaking state secrets, but his lawyers expressed little hope he would be cleared of charges for which he faces more than 10 years in jail.

Sohu appeared to have pulled the plug on Kristof's blog on Wednesday but his Sina blog could still be accessed.

A Sohu spokeswoman reached by telephone declined to comment.

"The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like," Kristof wrote in his column. He shared the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, for their coverage of the 1989 massacre.

"To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don't see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire," he wrote, borrowing a quote from the late Chairman Mao Zedong.

In December, Microsoft Corp. shut down a blog at MSN Spaces belonging to Michael Anti, a Chinese researcher for the New York Times in Beijing, under Chinese government orders.

Google Inc. has come under criticism for toeing the government line by blocking hundreds of words or by denying access to politically sensitive Web sites.

China employs about 30,000 Internet censors to filter politically sensitive information and help the Communist Party cling to power.

The search engines of Sohu and Sina resumed operation on Wednesday amid media speculation they had been closed down by the government after failing on-the-spot censorship tests.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, citing unnamed industry sources, said on Tuesday Beijing had stepped up controls on portals that had failed to filter certain words deemed politically harmful.

But spokeswomen for Sina and Sohu said their search engines had been closed on Monday afternoon for "system upgrading." They denied knowledge of any government crackdown.

The Ministry of Information Industry declined to comment.