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China shuts conservative Web sites amid reform debate

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BEIJING, Feb 23 (Reuters) China has shut down two conservative Web sites vocal in criticising market-oriented reforms amid a Communist Party crackdown on liberal expression.

China has some of the strictest Web controls in the world, with rigid registration procedures for Web sites and a special police force monitoring its 110 million Web surfers round the clock.

It mostly targets progressive content attacking the party's monopoly on power and calling for democracy and civil liberties.

In September, Yannan.cn, a major forum hosting liberal intellectual writings was shut down indefinitely.

Now the conservative sites of ''Chinese Workers'' (www.zggr.com) and ''Communists'' (www.gcdr.com) have also been closed.

''The Beijing City Internet Propaganda Management Office has ordered us to suspend operation by 9 am on February 22,'' they said in brief notices posted on their front pages yesterday.

The sites did not give a reason.

They are fairly obscure to the general public, but analysts say authorities are wary of their populist commentaries.

Chinese Workers reports on strikes and protests by workers in moribund state enterprises, once the backbone of China's planned economy but now riddled with problems having laid off tens of millions.

Communists advocate China's return from today's rampant corruption and yawning wealth gap to the moral purity and income equality under Chairman Mao Zedong.

China has virtually abandoned Maoism, which also spawned the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, since it started the milestone economic reforms a quarter of a century ago, transforming the poverty-stricken country into the world's sixth-largest economy.

But the development is imbalanced. Poor peasants and urban underdogs alike resent the increasingly conspicuous and many say unfair disparity in wealth as health care and education costs skyrocket, fuelling growing unrest.

It has prompted a heated debate on the merits of the reforms, with conservatives blaming them for all the social ills and liberals citing the lack of political change and thus real market reform.

Analysts say the debate has put China once again at a crossroads and the pace of its opening might be slowed if not halted.

US law makers questioned Internet giants like Google and Yahoo last week for their cooperation with China over Web controls.

Google offered to self-censor politically sensitive items in its new Chinese search site google.cn, while Yahoo was accused of providing evidence that helped Beijing jail two dissidents.

REUTERS SHR RK1500

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