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Chinese websites fall victim to strict controls

The number of Chinese websites available to users fell dramatically last year after the government tightened controls on the internet, according to a new study by a leading state-run research institute.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said there were 1.91 million websites operating in China at the end of 2010, 41 percent fewer than a year earlier, attributing the change to stronger regulation.

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“Although the internet is posing some problems for new media, our regulation is becoming stronger, we have taken a very big step in this area,” CASS media expert Liu Ruisheng was quoted as saying on the organisation’s website.

Liu said China had “a very high level of freedom of online speech” and there had been few cases in recent years of sites being closed purely to control speech.

He said a crackdown launched by the government in 2009 under which thousands of sites were shut down was mainly aimed at putting a stop to online pornography, although critics have said other sites were also closed.

While the number of websites dropped, Liu said Chinese web pages increased in 2010 by 60 billion, an increase of 78.6 percent over 2009, though he doesn’t make it clear how the two are differentiated.

“This means our content is getting stronger, while our supervision is getting more strict and more regulated,” he said.

Earlier this year, Chinese web police censored Internet calls for Arab-style uprisings in China.

This month, the government also censored all postings on China’s Twitter-like microblog Weibo that referred to former president Jiang Zemin, who is reported to be seriously ill.

The government has long viewed the health of the nation’s top leaders as a state secret, due to concerns illness might affect the political stability in the ruling Communist Party.

China has the world’s biggest online population with 457 million internet users and the web has become a forum to express opinions in a way rarely seen in the official media.

Beijing, however, also operates some of the world’s toughest web censorship, with a system known as the “Great Firewall of China” blocking access to any content deemed unacceptable, and web spin doctors accused of spreading subversive propaganda.

Numerous overseas Chinese websites, including sites run by exiled political dissidents and rights groups, are blocked inside China, as are popular Internet portals such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

It was reported earlier this year that China’s online population rose to 477 million, and that spiralling online numbers have turned the internet into a forum for citizens to express their opinions, albeit covertly.

The number of internet users in China, already the world’s largest online market, hit 477 million at the end of March, a senior government official was quoted by state media as saying at the time.

These figures should be taken with a pinch of salt however, as while the country has undoubtedly risen to become one of the world’s largest internet markets, opinion differs on its exact size, varying with the methodology used to arrive at the figure, especially from a government attempting to maintain such tight control over the country’s web access and international opinion. — AFP and staff reporting

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