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Many Internet users in China unfazed by government censorship - 2/15/2006

BEIJING—The issue of China's Internet censorship is bigger overseas than at home. Many Internet users here shrug off debate about the "Great Firewall" and how it restricts the Internet.

"Here in China, we get very used to this," said Jin Kaixiang, an elevator salesman, who added that he spends about three hours online daily.

Like many of China's 110 million Internet users, Jin sees censorship as a nuisance that he can do nothing about.

"I don't think it will change in the next few years," added Hao Mengyuan, who works at a publishing house associated with China Politics and Law University.

China's Internet-filtering system has become an issue in Chinese-U.S. relations. At a congressional hearing Wednesday in Washington, legislators grilled executives from Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. about their role in helping China filter information or track down those who run afoul of restrictions on free speech.

Earlier in Beijing, Chinese authorities dismissed concerns about censorship, denying that they widely block Web sites and asserting that they've never arrested anyone for expressing an opinion on the Web, despite a series of detentions that indicate the contrary.

"No one in China has been arrested simply because he or she said something on the Internet," said Liu Zhengrong, the deputy chief of the Internet Affairs Bureau of the State Council Information Office, according to the China Daily newspaper.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group, says 49 Chinese are known to be in prison for "posting on the Internet articles and criticism of the authorities."

There could be other, unknown cases. Asked at the hearing how many times it had turned in e-mail users to government authorities, Michael Callahan, a Yahoo lawyer and company executive, said Chinese law prohibited revealing such information.

Yahoo complied with a Chinese demand for e-mail information about journalist Shi Tao, who was convicted for sending information about a Communist Party decision through e-mail and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Callahan said his company was distressed over Shi's case but had no choice because its Chinese employees would've been subject to criminal charges if it had refused to comply.

Most Chinese Internet users appear unaware of the jailings and nonchalant about the barriers that prevent online research into topics such as democracy, religious freedom, human rights and other sensitive matters.

Even some proponents of free speech dismiss the American debate over how to deal with Internet companies that are accused of helping China neuter the Internet.

Some bloggers say bringing officials from U.S. Internet companies before Congress is unlikely to help the situation.

"These are regarded as simply Western exercises in self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-flagellation, and completely alien to the Chinese situation," Roland Soong of Hong Kong said on his EastSouthWestNorth blog this week.

Another critic, Zhao Jing, who blogs under the pen name An Ti, said in an essay last month that the battle for Internet freedom must be fought by Chinese in China.

"I don't think that the U.S. Congress is able to defend the right of freedom of speech of Chinese people," said Zhao, whose blog Microsoft shut down in December.

Most Chinese go online for gaming, e-mail, news, weather reports and blogging, and say they rarely encounter signs of censorship.

"I can find all that I want," said Chen Zhao, 24, a Tsinghua University doctoral student. "I seldom find pages I can't open."

Another student, Wang Jinlin, supported the censorship. "Some things are not good for people to read," she said.

A dissident writer, Liu Xiaobo, said he supported efforts to hold American Internet companies to account but that it would be more effective for President Bush "to speak frankly to Chinese leaders and urge them not to pressure U.S. companies to provide user information" facilitating the arrests of critics of China's one-party system.

In Washington, the Internet executives said that even if they banded together, they had no leverage to change the Chinese government's policies. The state company Baidu is the leading search company in China.

As the American debate intensifies, Chinese officials misrepresent the extent of Internet filtering. In remarks widely reported in China's newspapers, Liu of the Internet Affairs Bureau said China blocked "a very few" Web sites, mostly those that had pornographic or terrorist content.

China doesn't make public the list of pages it blocks or filters, but Internet experts abroad say they number in the tens of thousands.

Blocked news sites include The Philadelphia Inquirer, BBC News and the Voice of America. China blocks most pages linked to the Pentagon, the Wikipedia online encyclopedia, information on how to bypass Internet filtering, anything on the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and many other topics.