China's president chats online, but skates by tough questions

BEIJING — President Hu Jintao sat down before a computer Friday for a rare live chat session and declared himself a regular, if silent, visitor to Web sites, skirting tough questions posted by surprised Internet users.

Hu took only three softball questions in his brief appearance on the Web site of People's Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party.

Surrounded by propaganda officials, Hu gave oral answers to questions read to him by an aide, who typed them into the computer for him.

"I am squeezing in time to go online, although I cannot surf the Web every day because of my busy work," Hu said to a question about how often he uses the Internet.

China has 221 million Internet users, more than anywhere else in the world, including the United States, and Internet forums often provide an immediate sounding board for the policies of the one-party state.

China also has what some overseas critics portray as the harshest and most extensive Internet censorship system anywhere, even as officials deny that they block Web sites at all. A system known commonly as the "Great Firewall" blocks users from visiting any sites considered anti-Chinese, critical of its policies or a threat to the party's power.

Evidence of censorship unfolded even as Hu fielded questions. Censors began deleting tougher questions, and by the afternoon only 180 or so questions of the nearly 300 originally posted remained on the site.

Asked what he reads online, Hu said he liked "to see domestic and foreign news."

"I get to know what Internet users are thinking, their viewpoints and their ideas and suggestions on the work of the party and the government," he said.

Other queries were about food safety issues, financial corruption, a recent plunge in the stock market and surging inflation.

"Greetings, General Secretary!" one question began, referring to Hu by his party title. "What's your opinion on the development of democracy in Taiwan?"

Hu didn't answer such questions in the quarter-hour session, but he did attend to a query about his reaction to opinions and suggestions he reads online.

"I am very much concerned about some of the problems and opinions raised," Hu said. "We must listen to the people and learn from their wisdom to do a good job."

Last month, two days after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province, Premier Wen Jiabao made an appearance on the popular social-networking site Facebook. His page quickly became one of the most popular among the hundreds of politicians with similar pages.

Wen lists his interests as Chinese literature and baseball, although it isn't clear whether he had anything to do with setting up the page.

Earlier this week, the page disappeared. It re-emerged Thursday with 51,000 supporters, a tally that makes him the fifth most popular politician on Facebook, trailing U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain but with four times more supporters than President Bush.