China widened its attack against US criticisms of internet censorship today, raising the stakes in a dispute that has put Google in the middle of a political quarrel between the two global powers.
China has stepped up its defense of curbs on the Internet nearly two weeks after the world's biggest search engine provider, Google, said it wanted to stop censoring its Chinese Google.cn website and was alarmed by online hacking attacks from within China.
Google's complaints received backing from the White House, but China countered with accusations that Washington was using the internet to support subversion in Iran.
The dispute has stoked friction between Beijing and Washington, already wrestling over trade, US weapons sales to Taiwan and human rights.
The rising heat over the internet feud could narrow room for both sides to back down quietly while they seek to cooperate on broader financial and diplomatic worries.
"The more this case takes on high-level political import for the Chinese government, the more likely it is to stick to its guns," said David Wolf, president of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based company that advises investors on China's media and telecommunications sectors.
"The Chinese government can't be seen as backing down on such a fundamental issue," said Wolf.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week urged China and other authoritarian governments to pull down Internet censorship, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
After Google first made its criticisms, Beijing was tight-lipped. Now Chinese officials have decided to swing back at Washington.
In the latest jab, a spokesperson for China's State Council Information Office said the nation "bans using the internet to subvert state power and wreck national unity, to incite ethnic hatred and division, to promote cults and to distribute content that is pornographic, salacious, violent or terrorist."
The comments from the unnamed spokesperson were issued on the central government's website (www.gov.cn).
"China has an ample legal basis for punishing such harmful content, and there is no room for doubting this. This is completely different from so-called restriction of Internet freedom," the spokesperson said.
The government comments were accompanied on Monday by scathing official newspaper commentaries aimed at Washington.
"This year, we're seeing problems over trade, the Dalai Lama, and US weapons sales to Taiwan coming to the surface," said Jin Canrong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
"The politicization and ideological turn of the Google case could make it more difficult to work together. The basic need for cooperation, economically and diplomatically, hasn't changed, but each of these issues could disrupt cooperation from day to day."
President Barack Obama may meet the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader, in coming months. Beijing calls the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist for seeking Tibetan self-rule, and is sure to be angry about such a meeting.
Washington has also unveiled arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing regards as a renegade province.
The State Council Information Office is the cabinet arm of China's propaganda apparatus, which is steered by the Communist Party, and is one of several agencies behind Internet policy.
The latest comments from China made no direct mention of Google or Clinton.
They appeared intended to amplify the government's case that its Internet controls are for it to decide, and expressing non-violent views online can be a crime in China.
China has jailed dissidents and advocates of self-rule in Tibet who have used the internet to challenge Communist Party policies and one-party rule.
Late last year the country's most prominent dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was jailed for 11 years on charges of "inciting subversion," largely through essays he published on overseas internet sites.
On Sunday, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, accused the United States of exploiting social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, to foment unrest in Iran.
Today, the paper said Washington was hypocritical about Internet controls, noting the US has laws seeking to restrict images and words that can be seen by children.
"This 'internet freedom' that is being promoted everywhere is nothing more than a foreign policy tool, a fantasy of freedom," said a commentary in the paper.
Since Google said it could pull back from China over censorship and hacking, the company has stressed it wants talks with Beijing seeking ways to defuse its complaints.
But, especially in ideologically-sensitive sectors such as the internet and media carefully watched by the Communist Party, foreign companies can find political uncertainties never far from the negotiating table.
"Google may look back and see it pursued an ill-advised course by bringing in the US government in such high-profile way," said Wolf, the industry consultant.
China has blocks YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and imposes a "Great Firewall" of filtering to stop citizens seeing banned images and ideas on overseas websites.
China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology also rejected suggestions the government was behind the sophisticated hacker attacks described by Google.Reuse content