China president wants gov't to 'purify' Internet

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BEIJING -- Chinese President Hu Jintao wants to "purify" the Internet with tougher rules and closer monitoring, he told communist officials gathered this week to study the fastest growing Internet population on Earth.

Hu's call to "actively and creatively nurture a healthy online culture" went out to China's ruling 24-member Politburo, the official Xinhua news agency reported late Wednesday.

"Maintain the initiative in opinion on the Internet and raise the level of guidance online," Hu said in a speech, Xinhua reported. "We must promote civilized running and use of the Internet and purify the Internet environment."

Hu's speech came on the heels of Beijing police busting a prostitution ring targeting well-to-do Web surfers with online ads sent from an Internet cafe on the south side of the capital.

Hu made no direct mention of censorship in his speech, preserving the official line that Chinese online have unfettered access to the Internet.

However, experts watching online development here say that the majority of China's 137 million netizens regularly run into Web sites blocked by government censors employing sophisticated technology that watches for words critical of the ruling party and its policies.

"There is good evidence that there is human tweaking and that the (sensitive) keywords change all the time," said Andrew Lih, a Beijing-based new media expert and former journalism professor at Hong Kong University and the Columbia Journalism School.

Hu's warning to communist leaders coincided with Tuesday's release of a study by the quasi-governmental China Internet Network Information Center, which reported that China had 137 million people access the Internet in 2006, 26 million more, or 23.4%, than in 2005.

The communist party must "strengthen administration and development of our country's Internet culture," Hu said.

One in 10 Chinese now access the Internet, and CINIC's report said that this population spent a monthly average of 170 yuan ($21.79) online each month in 2006 -- on Internet access, Web shopping and games -- compared with 150 yuan ($19.23) the year prior.
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