China drops heavy Internet censorship — at least for now

BEIJING — China Friday opened major cracks in its Great Firewall, allowing Internet users in the nation's largest cities rare glimpses at foreign Web sites that censors have blocked for years.

China loosened its Internet restrictions after several days of intense foreign criticism that it had reneged on a pledge to relax censorship around the period of the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympic Games.

In a highly unusual meeting with a group of foreign journalists early Friday, President Hu Jintao said that China would stand by the pledges of openness it made in 2001 when it was bidding for the right to host this year's Summer Games.

"The Chinese government and the Chinese people have been working in real earnest to honor the commitments made to the international community," Hu told the journalists.

At the televised news conference, Hu warned foreign journalists to abide by Chinese laws but said that even after the Games are over, China will "welcome foreign journalists and facilitate their reporting."

Hours earlier, the International Olympic Committee and China appeared to be at loggerheads over the nation's continued blocking of numerous foreign Internet sites.

An IOC statement said that two senior IOC officials, Hein Verbruggen and Gilbert Felli, had met with Chinese officials Thursday to discuss Internet access problems encountered by early arrivals among some 20,000 accredited journalists expected for the Games. The statement said the officials urged Chinese authorities to act quickly on their pledges of media freedom.

"We trust them to keep their promise," the statement said.

China now has 253 million Internet users, more than any other country in the world.

Shortly after Hu's meeting with foreign reporters, the broad easing of Internet controls was readily apparent in Beijing and Shanghai, China's two largest cities.

The easing of Internet controls left some foreign groups exhilarated at the novelty.

"We have been blocked since 2003. The fact that our Web site is unblocked is very good news," said Vincent Brossel, the head of the Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that's been harshly critical of China's censorship and the imprisonment of dozens of journalists and dissidents for their postings on the Internet.

Web sites run by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also were unblocked. The main Pentagon Web site became accessible, as did numerous foreign media sites, such as those of Germany's Deutsche Welle, the anti-Beijing Apple Daily of Hong Kong, the Liberty Times of Taiwan and Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-supported station critical of rights abuses in China.

A smattering of Web sites remained blocked, however, including those linked to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, the government-in-exile of overseas Tibetans and, curiously, the and China Digital Times, a news aggregator at the University of California at Berkeley. McClatchy correspondents' blogs at also remain blocked.

Brossel of Reporters Without Borders said he expects China to reinstall the Great Firewall after the Games.

"Many things will change after Aug. 24th," he said.

Some experts on Chinese Internet usage also cautioned that the opening was more symbolic than real because most Chinese Internet users don't read languages other than Chinese and almost never visit foreign Web sites.

"For the overwhelming majority of Internet users in China, this doesn't mean anything," said Kaiser Kuo, the head of digital strategy for Ogilvy China, part of a global advertising firm.

Andrew Lih, a former professor at Columbia University who studies the Internet in China, said that many Westerners don't realize that most Chinese barely notice censorship of foreign Web sites.

"Chinese users are too busy enjoying the Internet they have to lament the one they don't have," Lih said. Even so, Lih said, the Internet is now freer in China than perhaps it's ever been, and the sudden unblocking of sites such as Amnesty International's would give a positive impression to the world, even if it's for a short time.

"It's typical of, 'The guests are coming! Polish the china!' " he said.

An IOC spokeswoman, Emmanuelle Moreau, said Games organizers are satisfied with Friday's actions. "We're quite happy with the outcome," she said.

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