China unblocks news sites as leaders gather
By CNN's Marianne Bray
SHANGHAI, China (CNN) -- Internet censors in China have quietly unblocked some Western news sites as thousands of journalists flock to Shanghai for one of the biggest global gatherings on Chinese soil in modern history.
While Beijing has been tight-lipped on the move, web surfers in China say they have been able to access previously permanently blocked Western news sites, such as CNN and the BBC, along with some American dailies, like the Washington Post.
Although China has been keen to boost the Internet, it has long blocked access to sites Beijing deems inappropriate as it seeks to inform its people through the country's state-controlled media.
While analysts say it is unclear whether the move is a sudden change in Beijing's policy, or just a temporary measure tied to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai, they agree that it signals a loosening of restrictions.
Indeed, it is the second time that Beijing has unblocked major Western news sites in a little over a month.
During the week of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, China quietly unblocked U.S. sites such as the Los Angeles Times.
The shift came about as "demand was so great for content," Frank Yu, Ion global analyst in Hong Kong, told CNN.
Now with the 21-member APEC summit underway in Shanghai, and more than 3,000 overseas journalists converging on the city, China wants to "put its best foot forward," Yu added.
It is likely that many delegates attending the summit will want to check home news sites.
While analysts say they are unsure whether the sites will stay open, they do believe that China will likely slowly relax restrictions on Western web sites following its entry into the World Trade Organization.
Even as Beijing loosens its Internet roadblock, it has remained quiet on which sites have been unblocked, what criteria are used for unblocking them, and who makes the decisions.
"China can turn on and off access to news sites," Yu told CNN. "It's like controlling the floodgates."
It is widely thought that security agencies, including the State Security Bureau, are influential, while the State Council Information Office has a mandate to regulate the Internet, Reuters news agency has reported.
While many Western news organizations have lobbied for access over the years, they have been puzzled by the apparently random censorship.
Reuters, for instance, has been widely available on sites such as Yahoo.com and the Web site of the International Herald Tribune, which have not been blocked.
But authorities have blocked the news section of the Yahoo! Asia site, which carries news from Agence France Presse. That site was also unblocked on Tuesday.
Analysts have also pointed to a warming of ties between America and China in the aftermath of the September attacks amid a realigning of global alliances.
China is shaping a new image as a global partner rather than a looming threat, says a report released by Strategic Forecastors Stratfor, just ahead of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Shanghai.
Beijing seems to be keen to let Chinese users see the news of what's happening, analysts say.
Several weeks ago, the New York Times site was unblocked shortly after Chinese leader Jiang Zemin was asked in an interview by the paper why its website was banned. Jiang was embarrassed by the editor's questioning, says CNN's senior China analyst, Willy Lam.
But the real test, Lam says, will be if China lifts restrictions off Web sites for Hong Kong and Taiwanese newspapers, which are politically dangerous from Beijing's point of view. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
Other sites remain blocked, including those promoting the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. China regards the sect as a political threat to Communist Party rule and has coined the movement an "evil cult."
By strictly limiting the number of gateways to the World Wide Web, Beijing has found it relatively easy to apply blocks.
China boasts more than 20 million Internet users and the number is expected to mushroom in coming years in line with booming sales of personal computers.
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