Beijing issued a stinging response Friday to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism that it is jamming the free flow of words and ideas on the Internet, accusing the United States of damaging relations between the two countries by imposing its "information imperialism" on China.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu defended China's policies regarding the Web, saying the nation's Internet regulations were in line with Chinese law and did not hamper the cyber activities of the world's largest online population. His remarks followed those made by the US secretary of state, who in a speech Thursday criticized countries engaging in cyberspace censorship, and urged China to investigate computer attacks against Google.
"Regarding comments that contradict facts and harm China-US relations, we are firmly opposed," Ma said in a statement posted Friday on the ministry's Web site. "We urge the US side to respect facts and stop using the so-called freedom of the Internet to make unjustified accusations against China."
In her speech in Washington, Clinton cited China as among a number of countries where there has been "a spike in threats to the free flow of information" over the past year. She also named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
A state-run newspaper labeled the appeal from Washington as "information imperialism," and Ma insisted that China had "the most active development of the Internet" of any country.
Washington, meanwhile, carried its message on Internet freedom directly to Chinese bloggers. The US Embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou hosted Internet-streamed discussions with members of the blogging community on Friday afternoon - the latest example of Washington's outreach to Chinese bloggers as a way of spreading its message.
The bloggers met with US diplomats from the political, economic and public affairs sections, who held discussions and answered questions about Clinton's speech. The meetings were similar to a session organized during US President Barack Obama's visit to China in November.
Zhou Shuguang, who blogs under the name "Zuola," attended the session in Guangzhou and said Clinton's speech resonated deeply with Chinese bloggers frustrated by the content controls.
"We welcome the US bringing this topic to the table for discussion in a diplomatic way," Zhou said.
Internet control is considered a critical matter of state security in China, and Beijing is not expected to offer any concessions. Beijing promotes Internet use for commerce, but heavily censors content it deems pornographic, anti-social or politically subversive and blocks many foreign news and social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook and the popular video site YouTube.
Underscoring such sensitivities, Chinese media published only scant reports on Clinton's speech and Web sites carrying the Foreign Ministry response had disabled their comments pages.
"For many senior leaders in the party, they're going to see this as just a further example of Western misunderstanding of China, Western domination of the agenda, and they're going to be more encouraged to push or defend China's own press policies," said David Bandurski, a Chinese media scholar at the University of Hong Kong.
Bandurski said that could give added impetus to multibillion-dollar plans to raise Chinese state media's overseas profile. China has been setting up new bureaus for state newspapers and funding the official Xinhua News Agency's move into television while establishing new foreign language channels for broadcaster China Central Television.
Phil Deans, a China expert at Temple University's Japan campus in Tokyo, said Beijing will likely view Clinton's comments as further confirmation that the current administration is no more amenable to its world view than the preceding one.
"After a year of sort of getting to know you and seeing how things are, the two sides realize they have a very, very different view of how the world does work and how the world should work," Deans said.
Clinton's speech came on the heels of a Jan. 12 threat from Google to pull out of China unless the government relented on censorship. The ultimatum came after Google said it had uncovered a computer attack that tried to plunder its software coding and the e-mail accounts of human rights activists protesting Chinese policies.
Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, said Thursday that the company hoped to find a way to maintain a presence in China but intended to stop censoring search results within "a reasonably short time."
Responses to the Google issue have ranged widely among Chinese Internet users, with some placing flowers at its Beijing headquarters and others penning screeds bidding good riddance.
US State Department officials have said they intend to lodge a formal complaint with Chinese officials soon over the Google matter. Clinton not only urged China to investigate the cyber intrusions but openly publish its findings.