BEIJING, Feb 17 (Reuters) - China’s Internet censors have deleted U.S. Embassy posts promoting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom from microblogs, parrying U.S. efforts to spur debate about Beijing’s grip on free speech.
Clinton said on Tuesday that China faces a “dictator’s dilemma” on Internet censorship, and that the government risks being outrun by online opinion.
The online scrap over Clinton’s comments underscores how Beijing is learning to cope with a booming microblog industry that is sparking social activism.
It also highlights how governments are embracing Twitter-like sites that allow users to fire off 140-character messages to engage with citizens on an ideological front beyond their borders.
Twitter itself is blocked in China, along with Facebook and other websites that are popular abroad.
The Embassy posts, issued by U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and removed on Wednesday, asked Chinese users to opine on Clinton’s speech, including on whether freedom of speech should apply in cyberspace, the Wall Street Journal reported.
It is unclear whether their removal was ordered by the government or censored by the companies that host the Embassy’s microblogs, Sina.com and Tencent Holdings .
Those companies cooperate with the government under Chinese law to scrub content that is deemed illegal.
“The Ambassador recently responded to a query to the Wall Street Journal saying that we are disappointed that some Chinese Internet sites have decided to remove discussion of Secretary Clinton’s Internet freedom speech from their websites,” the U.S. Embassy said in an emailed statement.
“It’s ironic that the Chinese are blocking an online discussion about Internet freedom.”
On Thursday, it appeared the U.S. Embassy was having difficulty updating its Sina Weibo (microblog) page with information unrelated to Clinton’s speech.
The Twitter feed of U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Buangan linked to a screenshot of the Embassy’s Sina microblog which showed an error message after Buangan said he tried to post an explanation for an English-language idiom.
“Tried to update our Sina weibo account today (to explain the English idiom ‘old hand’) and this is the message we (got),” he wrote, linking to a picture of the message.
In response, China’s Foreign Ministry said that freedom of speech on the Internet in China was guaranteed by law, but that it was firmly against other countries meddling.
“We oppose any country using the Internet as a pretext to interfere in China’s internal affairs,” spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters at a regular news briefing.
He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University in Beijing and an outspoken advocate of political liberalisation, said China was facing a dilemma over control of the Internet.
“The government is expending a huge amount of resources and attention to control the Internet, but even so that’s proving difficult,” he said.
He noted that people use altered words and indirect phrasing to get around keyword blocks.
A scathing editorial in Thursday’s Global Times, a popular Chinese tabloid run by the Communist Party’s official newspaper, said the U.S. pressure over the Internet was “grandstanding”.
The Global Times added that China’s growing number of Internet users would soon challenge the U.S. in defining language and content on the Web.
“... The U.S. cannot play tricks on the Internet and expect to turn China into another Middle East,” it wrote, where Internet-fomented uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia helped topple those countries’ rulers.
Chinese Internet sites have restricted public comment on the unrest in Egypt, apparently reflecting official worry that criticism of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime could also turn on Beijing.
Spokesman Ma repeated that China hoped stability would return to the Middle East as soon as possible.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Sugita Katyal)