China's cyber police have intensified controls over the country's 100 million Internet users in the past few months but that hasn't stopped Western Web firms from pushing ever farther into the market.
Rather than using their clout to help push the boundaries of free speech and information in the one-party state, critics say companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are at best turning a blind eye to the machinations of the cyber police.
"It's too early to say that just by doing business in China and developing the Internet in China they will foster democracy and human rights," said Julien Pain, of Reporters Without Borders. "It doesn't work that way."
Indeed, the group says there is evidence the opposite is happening, with the major Web players accused in the past of pre-empting the government by routinely blocking discussions on sensitive subjects from the 1989 democracy movement to the spiritual group Falun Gong.
China has blocked access to the Web site Google News to force surfers to use the Chinese version of the site, which removes politically sensitive reports.
Microsoft's "MSN Spaces" came under fire for censoring phrases like "human rights" and "Taiwan independence" from the subject lines of its free online journals.
And most recently, Yahoo was accused of supplying data to the authorities that was used as evidence against Shi Tao, a journalist sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending an internal Communist Party message by e-mail abroad.
Yahoo says it was only abiding by local laws. But rights groups say the company, which agreed last month to pay US$1 billion for a 40 percent stake in Chinese Web auctioneer Alibaba.com, is complicit in a system bent on curtailing, not expanding, Internet freedoms.
REAL NAMES, REAL DANGERS
Since March, online discussion groups at Chinese universities have turned into internal platforms open only to students, in accordance with a demand from the Ministry of Education. The groups now require users and managers to register with their real names.
Web site owners now also are required to register within 30 days of their launch, part of a campaign begun in July that also includes a Web site census conducted by the cyber police.
"The registration requirement issued by the Information Ministry is aimed at not-for-profit Web sites, including personal Web sites and blogs," Southern Weekend newspaper reported.
"It shows the extreme concern from the central leaders of Internet work," the paper said.
Analysts say the regulations are aimed at extending the tentacles of state control to blogs since not only blog communities but individuals who create their own blogs are subject to registration -- and therefore to censorship.
"I am against the online `real name system' ... because the real point of this regulation is to control and even threaten Internet users who say things that jeopardize the government's interests," said Anti, an active online blogger.
The sentencing of Shi Tao in April and conviction in July of dissident Zhang Lin for jeopardizing national security with his Internet posts make clear the threat from speaking out in the relative anonymity of the Internet is real.
In the latest example, a court in Yingkou, Liaoning Province, convicted Zheng Yichun on subversion charges on Thursday and sentenced him to seven years in prison, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said yesterday.
The group, citing unnamed sources, said Zheng was convicted of "inciting subversion" through his writings published by overseas-based online news sites that are blocked within China.
But critics say the reach of the state control in cyberspace is almost besides the point, with the new regulations and the convictions more important for the culture of caution they promote.
"The most important problem is self-censorship," Pain said. "There are very few Chinese Internet users who dare to talk about politics knowing they can be caught."