BEIJING — The Chinese government has lifted--at least temporarily--its restrictions on access to the Web sites of some major foreign media outlets, including The Times and the Washington Post.
Beginning earlier this week, Internet users in Beijing and Shanghai were able to log on to such sites directly, without resorting to the tricks--such as using proxy servers--they have had to employ to get around the Communist government's electronic firewalls.
Censors here have long blocked the Web sites of many Western news organizations on the grounds that the content might prove harmful or subversive to Chinese society. On Friday, some sites, such as Voice of America and a few overseas Chinese-language news agencies, remained off-limits.
But other previously taboo sites, including those of CNN, Reuters and Associated Press, were accessible.
It was unclear how long the liberalization would last--or whether it was an accident, an experiment or a quiet shift in policy. Requests for information Friday went unanswered by public security officials and the Ministry of Information Industry.
The government has lifted its Internet blackout on foreign media before, most recently in October when President Bush came to China for a summit of Pacific Rim leaders. But such moves are usually short-lived and have been seen more as an exercise in public relations than a commitment to greater openness. Controls are usually reimposed a few days later.
This time, however, no major Western leaders are in town, prompting speculation over what led to the loosening of controls.
One intriguing explanation centers on behind-the-scenes infighting and factionalism among China's top leaders, who are jockeying for position as they prepare for a major Communist Party reshuffle this fall.
According to this theory, members of the party's liberal wing have been irritated by President Jiang Zemin's widely assumed efforts to cling to power, despite expectations that he will step down as general secretary of the party this fall and as president next year. Jiang is believed to want to stay on as chairman of the country's Central Military Commission, the body that ultimately determines who wields power.
By agreeing to relax controls on the Internet, Jiang can throw "a sop to the liberals" who advocate greater openness and who want to see a total shift to a new generation of leaders this fall, said a Western analyst here who closely follows the Internet in China.
He added that such a move is relatively painless, because plenty of China's 36 million Internet users are savvy enough to find ways to access forbidden Web sites. And those who are sufficiently fluent in English to check out sites such as The Times' are relatively few.
Others speculate that the government has opened access to some sites because it wants to attract foreign investors to its telecommunications industry, which is about to lift a long-standing ban against such investment. Easing restrictions on the Internet could make the industry appear more modern and inviting.
Yet another explanation is that Beijing can now afford to relax its ban because it has greater capability to track who is visiting sensitive sites--and therefore compile dossiers on such users.
Indeed, officers who monitor the Internet have become fixtures on the police forces of most, if not all, of China's big cities.
One measure of the durability of the latest liberalization could come in a few weeks. June 4 marks the 13th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, during which hundreds and perhaps thousands of democracy demonstrators were killed by security forces. The state usually tightens controls on speech around that date to discourage any show of dissent or remembrance.
"June 4 will be the real test," the Western analyst said.
China has struggled to strike a balance between controlling information and encouraging Internet development as a key to prospering in the global economy.
Beijing has prosecuted a high-profile campaign to weed out pornography from Chinese cyberspace. It also has cracked down on unregistered Internet cafes, shutting down hundreds in the nation.