HONG KONG—Chinese authorities shut down sections of two major Web portals in the wake of news reports that President Hu Jintao's son is linked to a Namibian graft probe, industry sources said.
The popular Web sites 163.com and Sina had their technology sections closed simultaneously Tuesday, with messages announcing that they did not exist.
State-run media ignored the reports.
"It was probably around 11:00 a.m. [on Tuesday] that we were unable to visit the technology sections of 163.com and Sina," a former employee at one of the portals said.
"This really is not normal. A quick keyword search confirmed that the report [about a graft probe involving President Hu's son, Hu Haifeng] had been posted on both of those technology sections, and that other Web sites were linking to it," he said.
The industry source said: "Both sections were back online at around 5:00 p.m. My sources had told me they expected the two sites to be closed for at least a day."
The report related to Hu Haifeng had been deleted from both Web sites when their technology sections came back online.
Allegations of graft
Namibia's Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) has called on Hu Haifeng, who headed state-controlled Chinese security equipment provider Nuctech until last year, to assist in the investigation into the disappearance of millions of U.S. dollars linked to a government supply contract in Namibia.
Two Namibians and a Chinese national were arrested last week in Namibia as part of a probe into bribery allegations involving Nuctech, a company headed until last year by Hu's 38-year-old son, Hu Haifeng, who is now Communist Party secretary of Nuctech's parent company.
Their arrest was followed swiftly by the suspension of the country's defense force chief amid allegations that he too was linked to the Nuctech case.
Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba said in a statement: "The decision to suspend Lieutenant General Martin Shalli stems from serious allegations of irregularities, which must be thoroughly investigated."
Namibian media reported on Thursday that Shalli was accused of allegedly having millions of Namibian dollars transferred to him, through a third party, by the Chinese company.
Nuctech representative Yang Fan and two Namibians, Teckla Lameck and Jerobeam Mokaxwa, were arrested after Namibia's ACC said they had taken money from a U.S. $12.8 million down payment on security scanning equipment, which Nuctech was supplying to the Namibian government, financed by a Chinese government loan.
The supply contract and loan were inked on Hu Jintao's 2007 trip to Namibia.
Likely to face sanctions
In China, another industry insider who declined to give his name said that both Sina and 163.com were likely to face official sanctions following the posting of a report titled "No sooner has Hu Jintao vowed to battle graft, than his son is in trouble."
"If the news story contained the name of one of China's leaders, and if it was posted by an editor after it had been deleted according to the rules, then that is a very big problem," he said.
Professor Joseph Cheng, of Hong Kong's City University, agreed.
"Even if there is a case of this kind, it can't be allowed to involve either Hu Jintao or his family members," Cheng said.
"Of course, some executive from the compan[ies] will take all the blame. Even the suspicion of involvement by family members will have a big effect on the image of China's leaders," he said.
Searches for information on the case and Hu Haifeng's connection to it on Chinese Web portals turned up error messages such as: "The search results may contain content not in line with relevant laws, regulations, and policies."
This message is commonly found when Internet users attempt to access forbidden material online.
China habitually adds information about the country's top leaders to its lists of banned keywords, prompting deletion and self-censorship by Web sites providing news.
Any attempt to search with the "forbidden words" returns a similar message.
US-based China Digital Times, which monitors Web usage in China, said propaganda officials had issued an order banning Internet searches related to the Nuctech case.
Neither company confirmed that the sites had been blocked by the authorities or that their blockage was linked to any content, however.
But a customer service executive at Sina.com said the site had experienced technical problems.
"The technical problems experienced by our technology section are believed to have originated with a server or network error, and our engineers are investigating the reason," he said.
Officials at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology press office declined to comment on the closures.
Foreign ministry officials have referred media inquiries to Nuctech.
Beijing-based journalist Gao Yu said Beijing wasn't showing much reaction to the case on the outside, but that top officials would be scrambling to put out fires behind the scenes..
"This is a really big story of the utmost urgency for them," said Gao, deputy chief editor of Economics Weekly.
"Of course they must try to play it down, and whatever happens, Prince Hu musn't be touched by it," she said, referring to Hu Haifeng.
Gao said she believed the Chinese government had already leaned heavily on Namibian authorities, resulting in the postponement of a bail hearing for the three suspects until next week.
"Of course there is Chinese involvement in the postponement of the hearing by Namibia," she said. "China will keep a poker face, trying to play it down to the outside world, and never admitting it inside China."
City University's Cheng agreed the case would evoke a negative response from within the country.
"Whenever the Chinese Communist Party leadership makes any plans to stamp out corruption, it's going to reduce public confidence," Cheng said.
"Most people believe that at the highest echelons of leadership, the Party won't do anything about corruption, and that if they do, it's not about corruption, but rather about a political power struggle," he said.
China is rapidly building strong economic and diplomatic ties among African countries, which will help ensure future energy security for its booming economy, markets for its goods, and a place to invest its capital, experts say.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.