Crack in China's firewall turns Obama page into freedom forum

Mon Feb 27, 2012 2:20pm IST

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REUTERS - Chinese Internet users taking advantage of temporary access to Google Inc's (GOOG.O) social networking site, Google+, have flooded U.S. President Barack Obama's page on the site with calls for greater freedom in the world's most populous country.

"Oppose censorship, oppose the Great Firewall of China!" one user posted, one of hundreds of comments in Chinese or by people with Chinese names that dominated the site over the weekend.

Beijing's blocking of websites and censoring of search results for politically sensitive terms is known colloquially as the "Great Firewall of China." With sites such as Facebook and Twitter blocked, self-censoring homegrown equivalents like Sina Corp's (SINA.O) microblogging platform, Weibo, fill the void.

It was unclear why Google+ was accessible for some users in China for part of the past week. A Google spokesman said the company had not done anything differently that would have led to the access. One Google executive told Reuters that the company had noticed the opening early last week.

Some Internet users said they were accessing the site via mobile devices, suggesting censors may have overlooked certain mobile browsers.

Whatever the reason, the incident offered a glimpse into the pent-up demand for free speech in a country where the Internet is heavily censored and any criticism of the ruling Communist Party in other forms is stamped out. It also serves as a reminder of why Chinese authorities view such sites as a threat.

BUMPER STICKERS, GREEN CARDS

The posts in Chinese slowed to a trickle by Monday, suggesting the window of unfettered access to Google+ might have closed. Individuals in China normally need to use a virtual private network to access blocked sites, an added expense and trouble that limits the number of people who do so.

But that was not before hundreds of people who said they were Chinese citizens had an opportunity to ask their U.S. counterparts about hallmarks of U.S. elections such as campaign bumper stickers.

"I'd like to grab a bumper sticker in my left hand and a green card in my right hand," said user Zhou Zuoxin. A U.S. green card allows a foreign citizen to work in the United States.

American presidential elections attract a great deal of attention and interest overseas and Obama in particular is very popular abroad. But the Democrat has been careful to stress that foreign interests should not influence the November 6 election.

Despite the outpouring of admiration for Obama from some of those posting with Chinese names, others on the site expressed frustration over the avalanche of Chinese posts.

However, Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said its policy was only to remove posts from the Google+ site when they are offensive or threatening.

Responding to those who criticised their use of the Obama page as a place to express their desire for democracy, many of the Chinese participants called for empathy.

"Many people don't understand the meaning why all Chinese are coming here. We envy American people their democracy and freedom!" wrote one user with the name Lihui Chen.

(Writing by Jason Subler; Reporting by Melanie Lee in Shanghai and Laura MacInnis in Washington; Additional reporting by Terril Yue Jones in Beijing; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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