HONG KONG, Mar 29, 2001 -- (Agence France Presse) China will inevitably lose its battle to control information and free expression via the Internet, an international press freedom body predicted Thursday.

Such is the Chinese government's commitment to expanding Internet access, attempts to simultaneously impose a "great firewall" limiting what information can be accessed will fail, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

"China has always wanted its people to have information, it just wants them to have the right information," CPJ Asia consultant Lin Neumann told a press conference in Hong Kong.

"The Internet is the greatest challenge in promulgating the right information the government has ever had."

The Chinese authorities are waging a battle to contain free access to news and comment on the web, but "they will lose it in the end," Neumann said.

The number of Internet users in China has risen hugely in recent years, with a growth of 153 percent last year to 22.5 million, according to government figures.

Beijing has imposed tough legal controls over political content on websites. These include regulations passed last year prohibiting subjects as wide-ranging as rumors, slander and "harmful information."

Domestic websites are required to police their own content and remove any offending content. Access to some foreign sites, including news resources, is routinely blocked.

But Neumann pointed to incidents such as the aftermath of an explosion this month at a school in Fanglin, southeast China, which left scores dead.

Official Chinese media blamed the blast on a lone mentally ill man, despite persistent reports the schoolchildren were manufacturing fireworks.

Such was the on-line outcry claiming a cover-up, China's leading website, Sina.com, was forced to shut down its chatroom.

In contrast, a few years ago Neumann said, the official line would have been repeated in state newspapers, "and that would have been the end of it."

"This has changed the fundamental way that news moves around in China," he added.

However the deputy director of China's premier on-line news site, the People's Daily Online, denied the authorities had any interest in restricting information.

"If you think the Chinese government is interested in containing and restricting the use of the Internet, you have no way to explain the development in the Internet in China over the last five years," Jiang Ya-ping told reporters. ((c) 2001 Agence France Presse)