With the glare of the Olympic spotlight gone, China has resumed blocking access to the Internet sites of some foreign media, reversing itself on earlier promises to expand press freedom as part of its bid to win the games, human rights groups and press advocates said Wednesday.
The Chinese-language Web sites of the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America, along with the Hong Kong-based media Ming Pao and Asiaweek, are among the sites that have been inaccessible since early December, said the press rights group Reporters Without Borders.
"Right now, the authorities are gradually rolling back all the progress made in the run-up to this summer's Olympic games, when even foreign Web sites in Mandarin were made accessible. The pretense of liberalization is now over," the group said in a statement, as it urged China to unblock the sites.
Earlier this week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao had defended China's right to censor Web sites that have material deemed illegal by the government, saying that other countries regulate their Internet usage too.
He said that some Web sites — which he did not identify by name — breached Chinese laws by recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation. China maintains that the self-ruled Taiwan is a part of China, and has even threatened to use force if Taiwan moves to make a permanent split.
"I hope that these Web sites exercise self-discipline and abide by the Chinese laws, in order to pave the way for better Internet cooperation," Liu said.
During the Summer Games held in August, China allowed access to long-barred Web sites such as the BBC site and Human Rights Watch after an outcry from foreign reporters who complained that Beijing was failing to live up to its pledges of greater media freedom.
The fact that China has now chosen to re-block those sites is not so surprising, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor who teaches about media and the Internet at the University of Hong Kong.
"I don't think very many people expected to see the Olympics herald a whole new era in China, at least not as far as politics and media," she said.
MacKinnon noted that the policing of the Internet in China, which has the most online users in the world with more than 250 million, swings between phases of looser monitoring and then tighter regulation.
"There were a lot of foreigners running around covering the Olympics. It made sense to unblock at that time," she said. "But things always go in phases. And during politically sensitive times, you always get a tightening."
Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Beijing is also taking advantage of the fact that the world's attention has shifted away from China after the Olympics.
"The spotlight has moved out of China, so it's easier to suppress dissent when you don't have 10,000 journalists in town," he said.
Bequelin said he believes that the Internet restrictions are part of a larger attempt at political control during a period of uncertainty and potential instability for the government. China is facing a serious economic downturn this year, and social unrest has increased.
"I think we're heading toward a sensitive period for the leadership. This is a time of many anniversaries" such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Tibetan uprising and 30 years of economic reform, he said. "Information control is the basic tool of political control in China."
The Web site censorship also comes as the government continues a clampdown against more than 300 writers, academics and critics who signed a recent bold appeal circulating on the Internet calling for greater freedoms and an end to China's one-party rule.
The manifesto, dubbed "Charter 08," is one of the broadest calls for multiparty democracy in recent years. One of its signers, Liu Xiaobo, a writer and former professor, remains in police custody more than a week after being detained. Dozens of other signers have reported being summoned and harassed by police.
Bequelin said it is unclear whether the Internet restrictions are related to the crackdown, but that Beijing's attempts to stifle the Internet and control public information are ultimately futile.
"The free flow of information in China now is huge. Jailing journalists, closing down Web sites and blocking foreign Web sites, even arresting people like (dissident writer) Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo, it's illusory to think that's going to stop Chinese society from demanding more accountability, rights and more transparency," he said.