By Clay Chandler

Monday, October 22, 2001

SHANGHAI, Oct. 22--Hours after a high-profile meeting of Pacific Rim leaders in Shanghai, China's rulers quietly restored long-standing blocks on the Web sites of foreign news organizations including the CNN, the BBC, Reuters and The Washington Post.

The government lifted the blocks Thursday without explanation ahead of last weekend's summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. During the two-day conference--the largest gathering of foreign leaders on Chinese soil since the [party's name omitted] Party swept to power in 1949--China's leaders went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate that they run a modern, cosmopolitan nation ready to play a leading role in global affairs.

Meetings were staged in gleaming conference centers bristling with sophisticated telecommunications technology. Chinese President Jiang Zemin flaunted his English skills before the international press.

But by Monday morning, with President Bush and guests from the other Pacific Rim economies safely on their way, government Net nannies pulled the plug.

China's Ministry of State Security, the agency thought to enforce the Web ban, had no comment. China's leaders have offered little explanation for their restrictions on foreign news Web sites. Asked in a meeting with foreign journalists months ago why China wasn't as willing to let its readers view Western sites, Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi dismissed the question as irrelevant on the grounds that few Westerners could read Chinese.

In fact, the government's censorship policies are arbitrary and inconsistent. The government blocks direct access to The Washington Post's Web site. But it has so far left mostly unmolested, the Web site operated by The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post Co.'s joint venture with The New York Times Co., and Both sites carry a variety of articles published in The Post, including many stories about China.

Similarly, isn't completely blocked, although it provides access to a host of articles from Reuters and the Associated Press. Nor is the site of The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English daily, even though its reporters regularly probe sensitive China issues such as human rights, corruption and Taiwan relations.

The Web site of the New York Times was unblocked several weeks ago with no explanation after a meeting between Jiang and senior Times executives. The government also allows direct access to the Web site of the Wall Street Journal, perhaps because full access to that site requires payment via an overseas computer, putting it off-limits to all but a handful of Chinese citizens.

Western news sites can be reached by determined Internet users sophisticated enough to connect through third-party servers known as proxies. But the government's Net police are apparently engaged in a constant battle to search out and block the most popular proxy sites.

Jiang and other top [party's name omitted] Party officials delight in boasting about the rapid rise in number of Internet users in China--at last count there were about 20 million. Sales of personal computers are booming here. China's leaders have often stressed the importance of keeping up with the United States, Europe and Japan in developing electronic commerce and other Internet technologies. Here in Shanghai, city officials are investing heavily to spread a vast broad-band network to bring ordinary users high-speed access to the Internet.

For the moment, though, the movement of traffic along China's information superhighway is slowed by official checkpoints every few feet. In most major cities, for example, Internet cafes are forced to install monitoring software that tattles on users attempting to connect to politically sensitive or pornographic sites.

In theory, operators of China's major Internet portals are legally obligated to turn over names and records of any customers using their sites for purposes the government regulators deem subversive. In practice, that forces the companies to employ small armies of monitors to coordinate with regulators and security police and handle the delicate task of self-censorship.

During the summit, the government's willingness to loosen its grip on the Internet and other media only went so far. Overseas Web sites operated by members of Falun Gong, which China has branded an [Jiang Zemin government's slanderous term omitted], remained inaccessible.

Similarly, Chinese domestic television coverage of Jiang's news conference with President Bush did not air live and was heavily edited. Unlike President Clinton, Bush did not demand that his appearance here with Jiang be carried live.