Chinese writers on Monday welcomed a call from visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for more Internet freedom in their country, while the ruling Chinese Communist Party styled his comments "naive."
Kerry told a group of Chinese bloggers in Beijing on Saturday that he would like to see more online freedom in China, sparking a sharp retort from the foreign ministry.
The bloggers reportedly asked him for help to "tear down" the Great Firewall, China's intricate network of blocks, filters, and human censorship that limits what its citizens can see online.
Kerry told the bloggers that he had raised the issues of press and Internet freedom in his discussions with Chinese leaders last week.
"Obviously, we think that Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the Internet," he told the roundtable session, which was attended by investigative journalist Wang Keqin and outspoken tweeter Zhang Jialong, among others.
'A bit naive'
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit out at Kerry's remarks as "naive," however.
"China's affairs must be decided by Chinese people based on their own national situation," she told reporters on Monday.
"Isn't it a bit naive to use methods like this to push China in the direction of the change they would prefer?" Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
She said the 40-minute chat between Kerry and bloggers could equally well have touched on mass online surveillance carried out by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and leaked by its former contractor, Edward Snowden.
But Chinese commentators said Kerry's remarks were "very meaningful."
"They might encourage more Chinese Internet users to protest against this dictatorial regime," online writer Liu Yiming said. "The situation has been extremely worrying in the past two years."
Increasing official control
Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including criticisms of the government that were merely implied, according to a report by the Hubei-based Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch.
Activists say the number of outspoken Internet users detained by the authorities had risen sharply in 2013, after the administration of President Xi Jinping formally took power in March.
China has detained a number of high-profile tweeters in recent months, after they sent out critical or overly revealing posts about government activities.
The Communist Party's powerful but secretive central propaganda department is worried about unapproved opinions and reports making their way onto China's tightly-censored Internet via microbloggers with huge personal followings, known as "big V" tweeters.
According to global media freedom monitor Reporters Without Borders, China's press freedom ranking fell from 173 to 175 last year, as the party continues to ramp up online censorship and keep in jail the largest number of journalists and netizens in the world, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Censorship so entrenched
Many now say that the system of censorship is so entrenched, and Chinese journalists and citizens so vulnerable to reprisals, that the impact of social media reports on matters of public interest is extremely limited.
Liu said the meeting with Kerry had likely been arranged under the watchful eye of Chinese officials.
"I think that those people who went to that meeting...were probably skewed towards China's choice," he said.
"They are all fairly independent and outspoken, but they aren't at all radical, so they would have been acceptable to both sides."
Freelance journalist Sun Lin, known online by his pen-name Zimu, said his own social media account had simply been closed after he posted content that was critical of the government.
"I spent two years on NetEase building up more than 80,000 followers, and they shut it down, just like that," Sun said.
"So we can say that there are very tight controls on freedom of expression on the Chinese Internet," he said.
He said that while Kerry's comments were similar to other expressions of concern over freedom of speech from other world leaders, he was unsure how much effect they will have.
"Yes, he can make a bit of a noise, but how far will that noise carry, and who will hear it?" Sun said.
"We will have to wait and see."
Reported by Jiang Pei for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.