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China tightens restrictions on journalists' freedom of expression

BEIJING—In recent times, hardly a week goes by without Chinese authorities censoring journalists, shutting down popular Web diaries or scrapping publications that display signs of boldness.

The latest ax to fall came Wednesday, when the influential China Youth Daily newspaper suspended publication of a popular weekly supplement, Freezing Point.

It was the newest move in a months-old campaign by President Hu Jintao's communist government to tighten restrictions on freedom of expression. Officials have shaken up newspaper editorial staffs and clamped down on Internet blogs and campus chat forums amid a rising number of public disturbances in China.

Freezing Point's chief editor, Li Datong, said Communist Party officials told him that a commentary critical of history textbooks, which appeared Jan. 14 in the weekly, had "irritated patriotic young Chinese people greatly." They told him Tuesday night that Wednesday's weekly edition wouldn't be printed.

The opinion piece that irked censors argued that Chinese textbooks manipulate historical facts, such as those about the Opium War between China and Britain in the mid-1800s and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900), to boost patriotism. The communist government closely controls the content of the school texts.

"This is just an excuse," Li said. "They had long prepared to punish Freezing Point, and this article just gave them a chance to attack."

No other Chinese newspaper or Web site reported on Freezing Point's suspension. Li said he believed the Propaganda Ministry issued a blanket ban on news of the matter.

When Hu took over the Communist Party leadership in late 2002, some experts expected gradual political reforms to accompany China's galloping economic performance. But as Hu consolidated control, he firmly held on to the party's monopoly grip on power, fearful of social unrest.

"Hu's control of the press has become increasingly strict over the past two years as his power within the party has grown," said Yu Jie, an outspoken writer.

China Youth Daily, which has a circulation of more than 400,000, is one of only several major newspapers to face simmering internal tensions in the past year.

News of turmoil in the press surfaced in mid-2005 when Li wrote an angry internal memo blasting a proposal to link journalists' salaries and bonuses to how positively they portray top government officials and policies. The memo was leaked to a Web site.

Tensions also have risen at the Beijing News, once the capital's most popular and lively tabloid. On Dec. 29, some 100 reporters and editors went on a brief strike to protest the removal of a progressive editor, Yang Bin, and a takeover of the paper by editors from a party mouthpiece, the Guangming Daily.

According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, 32 journalists and some 50 Internet posters are currently imprisoned in China.

Among them are Zhao Yan, a news assistant for the New York Times, and Ching Cheong, a veteran Hong Kong-based correspondent for the Straits Times of Singapore.

Authorities are leaning on U.S. Internet companies to help them prevent Chinese Internet users from reading about such topics as democracy, Taiwan independence and religious freedom.

In late December, Microsoft shut down the site of well-known Chinese blogger Zhao Jing, who used the pen name An Ti, after he wrote about the turmoil at the Beijing News. Microsoft said it removed the blog at the request of the Chinese government.

Google, the Internet search engine company with the motto "Don't Be Evil," said Tuesday that it had decided to practice self-censorship as it expands services in China. The Mountain View, Calif., company said it would comply with Chinese decrees that bar Internet discussion or research on a wide variety of topics for users in China.

Chinese authorities don't say which topics are taboo, making self-censorship even more pronounced. Senior leaders enjoy access to internal journalistic reports on matters such as social unrest and major business swindles, but possession of the sensitive reports by the general public is deemed a state-security crime.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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