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China says US Internet accusations “baseless”

China hit back at US criticism of Internet censorship and hacking, warning that relations between the two global heavyweights were being hurt by a feud centered on web giant Google.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday challenged Beijing and other authoritarian governments to end Internet censorship, an issue that has jumped to the heart of US-China ties after Google threatened to quit China due to hacking and web restrictions.

China's Foreign Ministry said the US criticisms could hurt relations between the world's biggest and third biggest economies, already strained by disagreements over trade imbalances, currency values and US weapons sales to Taiwan.

“The US has criticized China's policies to administer the Internet and insinuated that China restricts Internet freedom,” said spokesman Ma Zhaoxu. “This runs contrary to the facts and is harmful to China-US relations.”

“We urge the United States to respect the facts and cease using so-called Internet freedom to make groundless accusations against China,” Ma said in a statement carried on the Foreign Ministry website.

But the spokesman also indicated that his government did not want to see the dispute overwhelm cooperation with the Obama administration, which has sought Beijing's backing on economic policy and diplomatic standoffs, such as Iran and North Korea.

Ma said each side should “appropriately handle rifts and sensitive issues, protecting the healthy and stable development of China-US relations.”

On Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei played down the dispute with Google and indicated that his government was more worried about broader economic and political disputes that could flare up in coming months.

Clinton's speech criticized the cyber policies of China and Iran, among others, and demanded Beijing investigate the hacking complaints from Google.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China, which uses a filtering “firewall” to prevent Internet users from seeing overseas web sites with content anathema to the Communist Party.

“Sino-US ties have been impacted,” Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said of Washington's push on Internet controls.

“China has admitted there are areas where it can improve, and then Clinton made her comments in a public venue, comparing us to Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he added. “So I think over the past year Clinton's speech is the most undiplomatic thing she's said.”

Some sections of the Chinese media were quick to criticize Clinton's remarks. But many of the Chinese reports were themselves cut from websites within hours of appearing.

It was unclear why they were removed, but Chinese websites often adjust or cut content based on propaganda authority instructions, especially for volatile issues.

Many cyber-experts suspect that the hacker attacks from China on Google and other targets were so sophisticated that official involvement was likely.

Ties between China and the United States have been put to the test in recent months over trade, currency, climate change and arms sales to Taiwan.

With the two giant nations joined at the hip economically, Sino-US tensions are unlikely to escalate into outright confrontation, but could make cooperating on global economic and security issues all the more difficult.

Earlier this month, China denounced the US sale of Patriot air defense missiles, capable of intercepting Chinese missiles, to Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

China announced its own anti-missile test soon after.

Beijing has warned that more US weapons sales to Taiwan could badly bruise relations with Washington, and has urged President Barack Obama not to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader of Tibet who Beijing denounces as a separatist.

“I think over the short haul (the Google issue) is going to go away because other problems that the US and China face are rather numerous,” said Niu Jun, an international studies expert at Peking University. “I think economic and trade issues are still more important.” (Reuters)