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China vs. the Net

The Internet can be a gadfly that defies swatting. But Beijing's keepers of political order keep trying.

The Chinese government's latest swatter for intimidating e-mailers and Web surfers - a more detailed set of rules announced late last year - isn't likely to be any more effective than earlier models.

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This isn't traditional broadcasting, with content under tight government control. Web site creators are everywhere, and their sites multiply constantly. E-mail can follow all sorts of circuitous routes to assure that a message repugnant to Beijing's censors finds a readership.

Official concerns in China are pinned, partly, to the desire to restrict access to pornography. That desire is shared in Washington and many other capitals. But the only effective way to tackle the smut problem is to give families, schools, or libraries the means to block the stuff.

Beijing's central concern, however, is less moral than political. Comments about communist tyranny, about repression in Tibet, or independence for Taiwan, just can't be allowed. But China has some 620,000 Internet accounts, with as many as 20 people using many of them. And those numbers are sure to balloon - unless the country takes the incredibly backward step of trying to roll up the information highway. Modernization, after all, is the regime's rallying cry.

So the lines are drawn. A government bent on censorship versus the most free-wheeling, democratic means of communication ever. That's a losing scenario for censors.

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