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China Cracks Down on Web Savvy Activists

Activists in China have been enjoying greater influence in recent years thanks to the internet. But as Beijing and Washington sit down for their first human rights talks in two years, Chinese human rights defenders are facing a security clampdown and increased intimidation.

Friday is day two of the talks on human rights between the United States and China - the first dialogue on such a sensitive issue in two years. The talks so far have been described by the U.S. as candid and in depth.

The dialogue is taking place as activists in China - who have found an ever louder voice in recent years thanks to the internet - come under fresh attempts by the Communist Government to control and silence them.

China continues to ratchet up internet censorship by boosting the power of the Great Fire Wall, making ID checks on all those who log on, and blocking more websites. The authorities have also been turning to more traditional methods.

In recent months, dozens have been detained, harassed or forced to flee China.

The most recent case is that of Wan Yanhai, the prominent aids activist who fled to the U.S. last week after his office and home were repeatedly raided by various government officials, including those from the police, fire and tax departments.

Wang Songling, representing the Hong Kong-based pressure group China Human Rights Defender, says the increase in harassment is because the activists are becoming too vocal and influential on the latest battleground for a civil society - the internet.

"These individuals have had success over the last few years to mobilize civil society and draw attention to humans rights violations," said Wang Songling. "Basically the [modern] human rights movement in China has grown up around the time of the internet becoming very popular in China, from 2003."

Hours before U.S. and Chinese officials sat down on Thursday for their human rights talks, it was revealed the U.S. State Department offered $1.5 million to a Falun Gong-affiliated organization that designs software to defeat internet censorship.

This drew immediate scorn from China with Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu condemning any such move Thursday.

Ma says Falun Gong is a cult banned in China, and says no country should help what he describes as an anti-China force find a voice.

International pressure groups welcomed the proposed funding, however.
And China Human Rights Defender's Wang says more money should be given to Chinese groups to combat censorship.

But she also says the U.S. government should seek to stop those Western internet technology companies that develop and sell the Chinese government internet censorship software.

"I think this is a more important act for the U.S. government in terms of helping human rights defenders," she said.

Wang says human rights concerns cross all departments including trade, and the U.S. should act now before China becomes economically stronger and harder to persuade.

Chinese activists were alarmed with the Obama Adminstration when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton , on a trip to China in early 2009, said human rights concerns should not interfere with improving bilateral relations.

Michael Posner, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, will head the U.S. delegation to this week's talks. The Chinese side will be led by Chen Xu, the Foreign Affairs Ministry Director-General for International Organizations.

U.S.-Chinese ties have been recovering after a tense period of disputes, including disputes over Google, Taiwan arms sales and Tibet.