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CHINA: Beijing authorities blocks Internet searches for 'Egypt'

January 31, 2011 |  2:23 am

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The unrest may be taking place thousands of miles away, but Chinese Internet censors felt it close enough to disable searches for "Egypt" in its Twitter-like services.

The blocking underscores Beijing’s continued concern over the Internet and its potential to access anti-government information and organize opposition to China’s ruling Communist Party. 

Protests have swept across cities in Egypt with the aim of ousting President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian government has since suspended Internet and cellphone service in the country.

China’s 457 million Internet users have been embracing microblogs, which act like Twitter by allowing people to write short posts and provide links instantaneously. Twitter is banned in China and accessible only through special software.

The number of micoblog users is believed to have more than tripled to 100 million last year and has attracted film stars and famous entrepreneurs. China’s leading Internet portals, such as Sohu.com and Sina.com, have been offering the service, which had been thought of as an example of growing free expression in an otherwise tightly controlled corner of China.

Last summer, the services were mysteriously shut down in what was believed to be a warning to the web portals to scrub their sites of politically sensitive topics. At the time, searches for posts about protests in southern China over the demise of Cantonese were disabled.

Chinese media coverage of the Egyptian crisis has been mostly downplayed, with little mention of the underlying causes for the revolt. In international sections, newspapers carried nearly identical reports provided by the state-controlled New China News Agency,  a common practice for politically sensitive issues.

Coverage, both online and in print, focused on the economic repercussions of the situation in Egypt, with the Egyptian pound falling against the dollar on Friday. No mention was made of Egypt’s rising prices or official corruption -- problems with which many Chinese are all too familiar.

Searches on Sina.com for "Egypt" returned a message saying, "According to relevant laws, statues and policies, the search results cannot be displayed." A microblogging site operated by Tencent showed no results.

--David Pierson in Beijing

Photo: People surf the Internet at a Beijing Internet cafe. Credit: Diego Azubel / European Pressphoto Agency

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