By Carrie Kirby
China's 46 million Internet users are unable to access popular search engine Google, and most believe that the Chinese government is blocking the site as part of a crackdown on the Internet in preparation for a politically sensitive Communist Party congress in November.
Mountain View's Google is "working with Chinese authorities" to resolve the issue, spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey said Tuesday.
Google became aware of the problem when users in China reported over the weekend that they couldn't access the Web site.
She did not say whether Chinese officials were purposely blocking the site.
"We're not giving out a lot of information at this point," she said.
Chinese officials have not officially taken responsibility for cutting off access to Google; spokesmen for several government divisions told news agency Agence France Press they knew nothing about it.
But President Jiang Zemin has called for measures to ensure a controversy- free atmosphere for the upcoming party congress. And, over the past year, the government has been exercising more and more power over the Internet. For instance, authorities have compelled Web portals, including the Chinese version of Yahoo, to filter out material the government considers bad while closing thousands of Internet cafes.
Chinese Internet users are howling in protest at the loss of one of the best ways to find information otherwise not available to them, said Xiao Qiang, executive director of the nonprofit group Human Rights in China, based in New York and Hong Kong.
"They had a huge reaction from Chinese Internet users. In e-mail, chat rooms and on bulletin boards, thousands of messages are protesting it," he said.
Chinese officials routinely block many foreign news sites, including The Chronicle's site, www.sfgate.com, and CNN. But this is the first time China has blocked a site with such broad appeal as a search engine, Xiao said.
Internet users in China can sometimes get around blocks by using proxy servers -- which are other sites hosting copies of the original site.
The apparent move to block Google, which is very popular in China, shows that officials are taking the Internet crackdown to a new level, Xiao said.
A Chinese social journal called "China," which goes by e-mail to 30,000 subscribers, has also been banned, Xiao said.
It's typical for Chinese officials to prepare for important events, including government meetings and visits from foreign heads of state, by tightening control over practically everything. That means watching newspaper content more carefully, detaining dissidents, and even removing people from Beijing who don't have official license to live in the city, Xiao said.
Since the violent suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, political dissent in China is limited to groups outside the country and a few individuals in China, who are regularly punished. But the crackdown on the Internet is spurring a new group of people to speak up, Xiao said: professionals who were otherwise unlikely to be interested in politics.
Google's disappearance may lead many to speak out, he said.
"People have developed this dependence on (Google), and now it's being taken away by the government for obvious political reasons," he said.