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Peking's gag artists eye the Internet

The information-allergic government of China is to control access to the Internet, the computer information superhighway which is starting to make inroads in the People's Republic.

Wu Jichuan, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, told a press conference yesterday: ``It is a kind of progress in terms of science and technology for China to be linked [to the] Internet. But as a sovereign state, China will exercise a control on the information.''

He did not explain how access would be limited but stressed government opposition to ``absolute freedom of information''. He admitted, however, that the government was ``fully aware of the difficulties and technical problems we will face to manage such a network''.

The Chinese Internet service, ChinaNet, went into formal operation last Tuesday. Its main data bases are designed for academic use. Although the government would like to keep the service confined to non-controversial areas, it has only a slim chance of excluding the mass of information surging through the highway.

Ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters, the Chinese government has been waging an unequal battle against the spread of information technology. During the democracy protests, fax machines became a primary source of information for many people. When the government realised what was happening it issued strict instructions to curb the use of fax machines for ``personal'' purposes. However, the proliferation of equipment made it difficult to enforce the rules.

China has waged a more successful battle against the "spiritual pollution" of satellite television. In 1993 Rupert Murdoch, who controls Star TV, the biggest Asian satellite broadcaster, famously described the electronic age as being the means to bring the curtain down on totalitarian rule. His remarks were taken seriously in Peking, where access to Star was banned. Shortly afterwards Mr Murdoch ordered the removal of the BBC, Star's sole news provider, from the coverage beamed to China.

Relations between China and Star TV are now on a more even keel. The Internet is less accessible than satellite television, but computer sales are soaring in China and, more crucially for Internet users, the provision of telecommunication services is growing by leaps and bounds. Mr Wu said yesterday that services would expand by 50 per cent a year to 2000 and beyond.

Most homes in China lack a private telephone line. However, according to Mr Wu, there were over 69 million telephone lines by the end of last year, which will rise to 140 million by 2000. This still means that less than one in 10 rural homes will have a telephone, although up to one in four city dwellers will.

At the moment the small band of Internet users tend to link up with providers in Hong Kong and Taiwan and directly with United States-based services. This is extremely expensive and most Chinese users are believed covertly to borrow time on their office computers.

Interest seems to be higher in non-political matters but, as China discovered six years ago, attention can rapidly switch should political developments occur which are not to the government's liking. The main problem for the Chinese is that most Internet material is in English, although Taiwan is developingChinese-language data bases.