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China set to further tighten grip on Internet freedom

Published Dec. 28, 2012

BEIJING — China's new communist leaders are increasing already tight controls on Internet use and electronic publishing after a spate of embarrassing online reports about official abuses.

The measures suggest China's new leader, Xi Jinping, and others who took power in November share their predecessors' anxiety about the Internet's potential to spread opposition to one-party rule and their insistence on controlling information despite promises of more economic reforms.

"They are still very paranoid about the potentially destabilizing effect of the Internet," said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

This week, China's legislature took up a measure to require Internet users to register their real names, a move that would curtail the Web's status as a freewheeling forum to complain, often anonymously, about corruption and official abuses. The legislature scheduled a news conference for today to discuss the measure, suggesting it was expected to be approved.

That comes amid reports Beijing might be disrupting use of software that allows Web surfers to see sites abroad that are blocked by its extensive Internet filters. At the same time, regulators have proposed rules that would bar foreign companies from distributing books, news, music and other material online in China. Beijing promotes Internet use for business and education but bans material deemed subversive or obscene, and blocks access to foreign websites run by human rights and Tibet activists and some news outlets.

Communist leaders who see the Internet as a source of economic growth and better-paid jobs were slow to enforce the same level of control they impose on movies, books and other media, apparently for fear of hurting fledgling entertainment, shopping and other online businesses.

Until recently, Web surfers could post comments online or on microblog services without leaving their names. That gave ordinary Chinese a unique opportunity to express themselves in a society where newspapers, television and other media are state-controlled.

The Internet also has given the public an opportunity to publicize accusations of official misconduct. A local party official in China's southwest was fired in November after scenes from a videotape of him having sex with a young woman spread quickly on the Internet.

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