The investigation was triggered when Google launched a China version of its search engine that blocked websites and content banned by Beijing's censors, adding to a growing list of embarrassing revelations about the four companies' China activities.
Google defended its actions, claiming that providing some information was better than providing none. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information is more inconsistent with our mission," a senior Google executive told the Financial Times.
Yahoo took responsibility for inadvertently assisting in the arrest of Chinese dissident Shi Tao after its China affiliate Alibaba provided Chinese authorities with e-mail account information without requiring a court order. It appealed to the US government for leadership, claiming private industry could not effectively influence foreign government policy. Reporters Without Borders have accused the company of working "regularly and efficiently" with the Chinese police.
Microsoft, which also blocks sensitive terms from its MSN search engine, drew flak for blocking a popular blogger from its MSN network in January at the Chinese government's request. It responded that it would only work with censors in future if handed a legally binding request. Chairman Bill Gates called for a law outlining how US Internet companies should respond to censorship in foreign countries.
A draft bill that would limit the China activities of US-based Internet firms was circulated at the hearings, and the US State Department announced plans to lead a new international task force that would promote free expression on the Internet.
Beijing said that no one had ever been arrested for simply expressing an opinion online and defended its right to police cyber-space in order to "guide its development in a healthy and orderly fashion." It insisted that foreign Internet companies would continue to abide by its laws.
Unrest boosts rural push
Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao claimed that corruption and inequality were responsible for protests, demonstrations and "mass incidents" rising 6.6% in 2005 to 87,000. Analysts say the public candor is an effort to boost support for a controversial and ambitious rural renewal program aimed at reversing decades of urban "favoritism" by transferring more investment and government funding to the countryside. The plan, which may cost up to US$1.24 trillion over two decades, has been labeled "anti-reform" and "demarketization" by critics. But one expert favorably compared it to the New Deal, which dragged the US out of depression in the 1930s. China has boosted rural spending 50% since 2002, reaching US$37.5 billion last year, and ended the agricultural tax, which cost farmers US$2.75 billion a year. The Ministry of Finance said China would boost rural spending US$124 million in 2006.
Flu vaccine a red herring
A study of samples from more than 13,000 migratory birds showed the H5N1 bird flu virus has developed into four distinct gene families, rendering the development of a single vaccine ineffective. Instead, bird flu must be controlled at the virus's birthplace in the poultry flocks of southern China, the team of scientists behind the study said. The study also showed the virus has probably been endemic in southern China since 1996, when a single Guangdong goose virus was found, and exists in healthy birds. The long-term presence was thought to add greatly to the risk of a pandemic. Meanwhile, China announced its eighth human bird flu death and 12th human case after a 20-year-old female farmer died of bird flu in the central province of Hunan on February 4. Separately, nearly 200,000 chickens were culled in the northern province of Shanxi in early February after about 15,000 chickens died from the virus.
No change after Tokyo talks
Beijing remains opposed to direct talks between Japanese Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi and Chinese President Hu Jintao, or any full ministerial contact between the two countries despite the fourth round of China-Japan strategic talks held last month. China's Foreign Vice Minister Dai Bingguo and his Japanese counterpart, Shotaro Yachi, exchanged views on issues of mutual concern and agreed to hold similar meetings in the future "when necessary." China maintains an angry attitude towards the Japanese prime minister's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors several war criminals as well as Japan's war dead. Koizumi has promised to step down as premier in September after more than five years in office.
Beijing backs Russia on Iran
China gave support to Russia's proposal that Iran-bound uranium be enriched on Russian soil, thus opposing western demands to bring Tehran before the UN Security Council to impose sanctions to end its nuclear program. Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani visited Beijing and said the Russian offer needed more discussion. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said earlier that China wanted other countries to consider Russia's proposal, aimed at preventing Iran gaining technology that could be used for military purposes.
Arms import claims rejected
China dismissed claims that it was running agents in the US who were trying to export military equipment as "groundless." A Taiwan citizen and a Frenchman were charged with attempting to illegally export cruise missiles, an F-16 jet engine and Blackhawk helicopter engines to China in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. "China's military imports go through strict surveillance. Chinese enterprises will never purchase any military goods that cannot provide legal documents," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said. The US is concerned a Chinese military build-up could result in an attack on Taiwan, should the island declare independence.
Axed paper relaunches
The China Youth Daily's controversial Bingdian Weekly supplement resumed publication on March 1, five weeks after it was closed down by the Communist Party's Propaganda Department, but without its former editors. Its axing came after it published an article by Guangdong professor Yuan Weishi questioning the official history of the Boxer Rebellion and of the Communist-Kuomintang cooperation in World War II. The outspoken paper received widespread support, including an open letter from a group of 13 former Chinese officials and academics who called for a complete relaunch of the publication and for the central government to stop press censorship. The group included Li Rui, a former aide to Mao Zedong, and Zhu Houze, former head of the central propaganda department.
Income gap "alarming"
The income gap between China's urban rich and poor has widened to an alarming and unreasonable level, a State Development and Reform Commission report said. A social investigation into China's urban residents put the country's Gini Coefficient – an internationally accepted measurement of income equality – at 0.4, the international benchmark for alarm. The poorest fifth of urban income earners account for only 2.75% of the country's total urban income, which is equivalent to only 4.6% of the income of the richest 20%.
Chen branded troublemaker
Mainland authorities accused Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of being a "troublemaker" after he proposed scrapping unification guidelines and applying to the United Nations for membership in his Lunar New Year speech. Li Weiyi, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council told state media Chen's insistence on Taiwan independence risked peace and stability in the region. "[China will] unswervingly adhere to the one-China principle," he said. "Taiwan compatriots are our brothers and sisters and we will not change our solemn promise made to them because of the deliberate provocation made by the Taiwan authority leader."
Geisha film banned
Fearing public backlash, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned "Memoirs of a Geisha," which shows Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas. The film was to be released February 9, but SARFT rescinded its earlier clearance. "We were pleased by their acceptance of the film in November and were disappointed by this decision," a spokesman for the film's China distributors said. With only 14 Hollywood films released each year through a strict quota system – most Chinese who see movies watch them on pirated DVDs – the ban is likely to have little impact on the film's financial results, the Financial Times reported.
First HIV regulations issued
The first official regulations on how to prevent and control the spread of AIDS will take effect from March 1. The regulations mandate free testing and medication for the country's poor, protecting HIV carriers and AIDS patients from discrimination, and criminalizing the intentional spreading of the disease. The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS had estimated that up to 10 million people in China could be infected by 2010 without more aggressive prevention measures. That estimate looks increasingly unlikely with the government announcing last month there were an estimated 650,000 people with the HIV virus living in China, including 75,000 with full-blown AIDS. But some AIDS advocates were skeptical of the figures, which dropped from 840,000 people two years ago.
We're no threat: Beijing
A US Pentagon report that played up the "China military threat" was rejected by Beijing, which reiterated recent statements that it posed no threat to the outside world. The Quadrennial Defense Review, released in early February, said China had the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States. Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said the report "groundlessly blames" China for its defense build-up and "whips up fears of a Chinese military threat and misleads public opinion." Kong said China posed no threat to the world. "We express firm opposition to the US defense review and have lodged a serious objection with the US."
SEPA pollution crackdown
The State Environmental Protection Administration proposed immediate reporting requirements for environmental accidents to better inform the public of impending disasters. The new reporting proposal will require departments and people responsible for supervision to report environmental accidents to local governments and relevant provincial departments within an hour. SEPA received 45 reports of environmental accidents between November 13, when a toxic spill in the Songhua River started to affect water supplies in the northeast, and February 1. Many accidents were exacerbated by notification delays. SEPA also launched a crackdown on industrial pollution. It said it planned to investigate environmental safety standards at 127 riverside petrochemical plants, focusing on environmental safety measures and crisis contingency planning.
Top cadre jailed for life
The former party secretary of Dingzhou, Hebei province, was sentenced to life in prison for hiring a gang of thugs to beat to death six villagers protesting over inadequate land compensation. Four of He Feng's 26 codefendants were sentenced to death while another five also received life sentences. It is not clear what sentences the other 17 received. The trial came after several hundred armed men set upon 300 farmers in June last year when they refused to surrender 25 hectares of their land to an electronics factory in Shengyou village. Following the attack, the government decided not to go ahead with the land seizure.
Heavy metals poison fish
Dangerous levels of heavy metals were found in a significant proportion of seafood in one of China's major fish-producing areas, prompting officials to warn of the potential harmful impact on human health. A local environment monitoring center investigation of four major freshwater lakes and offshore areas of eastern Jiangsu province showed cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and zinc were present in 41% of all fish. Disposed chemical products and poisonous industrial discharges were the main sources of the pollution.
Flight ban reconsidered
Beijing has called for talks to end the five-decade ban on direct air links with Taiwan, the South China Morning Post reported, but drew the line at talking to Taipei directly. Travelers must currently fly via Hong Kong or Macau, except during Lunar New Year when direct flights are permitted. "We have repeatedly urged talks with Taiwanese [aviation] counterparts on year-round charters, showing the mainland's sincerity and goodwill on the issue," the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Li Weiyi said.