Senior China government adviser criticizes web censorship

BEIJING — A senior Chinese government adviser has warned that the country's internet censorship is hampering scientific research and economic development, in a rare public criticism of a sensitive policy that the government has vigorously defended.

Slow access to overseas academic websites have forced domestic researchers to buy software to circumvent China's site-blocking firewall, or even travel overseas to conduct research, Luo Fuhe, vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, told reporters in Beijing. He described the lengths that Chinese researchers go to simply carry out their work as "not normal."

Luo's remarks, reported by state media, came as national leaders and thousands of appointed representatives are gathering in Beijing for the national legislature's annual session. Luo's conference, the CPPCC, is the official advisory body to the legislature, the National People's Congress.

Chinese officials rarely comment on internet censorship, other than to emphasize the need to respect the country's laws. However, Luo may have felt free to speak up because of his status as a vice chairman of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, one of eight minor political parties the ruling Communists permit to shore up their democratic credentials.

China's sophisticated internet censorship tools block numerous foreign social media and news websites, while discussion of political topics and other sensitive issues such as Tibet and Taiwan are routinely squelched.

However, the same tools also hamper access to vast swathes of the internet outside China, including some research and university websites, whether inadvertently or by design.

Many Chinese employ virtual private networks to scale the censors' blocks, known sometimes as "the Great Firewall of China."

Luo, who studied and researched agriculture before taking up his official posts, also noted that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program's webpages took up to 20 seconds to load while "a famous foreign search engine" — an apparent reference to Google — was also blocked.

He recommended that the government determine which websites are off-limits with greater "precision" and allow full open access to sites frequented by researchers, particularly if they do not contain political content.

China's authoritarian government has recently renewed a push for a greater role in global internet governance based on restrictions and regulations rather than the principle of free-flow of information found in democratic societies.

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