Chinese Ask Kerry to Help Tear Down a Firewall

On 17/02/2014 by Site Default

A group of Chinese bloggers asked the United States to take up the cause of Internet freedom in an unusual meeting on Saturday with Secretary of State John Kerry.

One by one, the bloggers voiced concerns to Mr. Kerry, who arrived here on Friday to discuss regional issues with China’s leaders, that the ability of Chinese citizens to gain access to information was under siege and that the country’s prospects for becoming a democracy were uncertain at best.

“Will you get together with the Chinese who aspire for freedom” and help “tear down this great firewall that blocks the Internet?” asked Zhang Jialong, a reporter for Tencent Finance,  a division of China’s largest social media company.

Mr. Zhang, who was detained for three days in 2011 because of his posts about conflicts between the artist Ai Weiwei and the Chinese authorities, asked Mr. Kerry to look into reports that American companies had helped the Chinese government establish controls over what websites Chinese citizens could access.

Wang Keqin, an investigative reporter who American officials said had been forced to leave an economic publication because of his critical reporting, said the cause of Internet freedom was “going backward.”

“There is less of it,” he said.

Ma Xiaolin, a former correspondent with the official news agency Xinhua who is a co-founder of a blogging site, said websites had become the main sources of news and expressed hope that the Chinese government would ease its Internet controls if relations with the United States improved.

If China becomes a real partner of America, he said, “the Chinese government can feel more confident.”

Seeking to reassure the bloggers, Mr. Kerry said that human rights were a perennial issue in his meetings with Chinese officials and that he had repeatedly taken up the cause of press and religious freedom. He said he had not heard the charges that American companies had helped the Chinese authorities maintain control over Internet access, but promised to look into the matter.

“Obviously, we think that the Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the Internet,” Mr. Kerry said.

The United States Embassy organized the 40-minute session a day after Mr. Kerry met with President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials.

During the meeting, Mr. Kerry sometimes seemed inclined to see a glass half full, while the bloggers were worried that it was emptying. Wang Chong, the director of a major web portal and a fellow at an independent foreign policy research center, wanted to know how the United States could help Mr. Xi build democracy.

Mr. Kerry said American officials were working on many fronts. On democracy in China, he said, “A slow progress is taking place.”

While elections “are within one party” in China, he said, there is often “a very vibrant debate at the local level.”

He noted that it was important for American officials to maintain a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts, even as they pressed human-rights concerns.

“No one country can come crashing in to say: ‘Do this our way. It is better,’ ” Mr. Kerry said.

But some of the bloggers appeared to be looking for a more visible and dramatic gesture. Mr. Zhang, the financial reporter, said he was worried about “prisoners of conscience,” specifically Xu Zhiyong, a human-rights activist who was sentenced last month to four years in prison, and Liu Xiaobo, a writer and activist who was imprisoned after being charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” While in prison, Mr. Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Zhang wanted to know if Mr. Kerry would visit Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, who Mr. Zhang said was in poor health. The secretary of state did not directly respond to that appeal but noted he was only here for a day and a half.

“We constantly press these issues at all of our meetings, whether it is in the United States or here, at every level, and we will continue to do so,” Mr. Kerry said.

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