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China fights to control the net

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A CHINESE government threat to close down unregistered websites has convinced just 430,000 to make themselves known at the Information Ministry - suggesting that most of the country's estimated 4 million web loggers, or bloggers, are choosing to stay out in the cold.

"There's a bit of a chill blowing through right now," said Duncan Clark, managing director of Beijing-based media consultancy BDA China. The campaign for registration is "obviously an effort to impose control" on web activities, said Mr Clark, who has moved his website offshore to avoid the regulators.

Li Xinde should be more worried than most.

The freelance investigative journalist is gaining fame for his site, www.yuluncn.com, which targets official corruption. The site, known in English as Chinese Public Opinion Surveillance Net, was shut down last year when it carried pictures of the allegedly corrupt vice-mayor of a major Chinese city on his knees apparently begging not to be exposed.

The official was arrested soon afterwards and awaits trial on accusations of stealing $530,000. But the woman who first accused him, and whom he allegedly tried to kidnap and intimidate, has already been sentenced to five years in prison in a case Li believes was mounted in revenge by the vice-mayor's government cronies.

But Li says his site was shut down only because the vice-mayor's younger brother worked in the Public Security Bureau. "We'll register according to the regulations. Similar websites by my friends have all passed registration so far. I don't think anyone will tell us not to post corruption-fighting content."

By confining his writings to factual exposures of corruption, and never questioning the party's rule, Li minimises his risks. He is a Communist Party member. He believes he has the support not just of the general public, but of the party too. In an anonymous Beijing hotel room with his tools of trade - an IBM laptop and a digital camera - he says they share the same aims.

"There are many people (with grievances) who go around from department to department without result, and they come to me very upset and scolding the party loudly," he said.

"I tell them, 'If you believe in the party, tell me what happened. if you don't believe in the party don't tell me, because everything that follows depends on the party for a solution'."
Li lives by the creed of "publish or perish", keeping one step ahead of corrupt local officials by working quickly and in secret, travelling in and out of places before he can be detained by the local officials he specialises in exposing. "I could not do what I do without the internet," he says.

The site gets an average of 15,000 hits a day. Even if he does have tacit official backing, Li's activities are highly risky. He claims no one is immune from his attention, yet he must also know that he will be abandoned to his fate the moment his investigations sail too close to the true centres of party power.

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