China on Friday responded to an article in the New York Times detailing billions of dollars in business wealth linked to outgoing premier Wen Jiabao by placing it swiftly outside the system of blocks, filters and human censorship known as the Great Firewall.
According to the testing site GreatFire.org, access to English and Chinese versions of the article "Family of Wen Jiabao Hold a Hidden Fortune in China" was blocked to computers in mainland China.
Censors were also at work on China's hugely popular Twitter-like sites, blocking keyword searches for "Wen Jiabao," and "New York Times," in English and Chinese.
Searches on Sina Weibo on Friday produced the message: "According to the relevant laws and regulations, we were unable to display the search results for "New York Times" [in Chinese].
Similar results were displayed for "Wen Jiabo" in both languages.
However, netizens apparently managed to get around the blocks by searching for "New York" in English and "Times" in Chinese, although only the first page of posts would display.
User @quweiguo, whose identity as an international relations professor at Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University was verified on Sina Weibo, said he had been unable to get onto the site on Friday.
"I heard it reported some rubbish that our leader's family have assets worth a few billion," Qu wrote. "We should organize people to hit back against this nonsense."
Not all netizens agreed, however.
User @luDaphewweibodaren wrote simply: "The headline in the new york times is pretty cool," adding a "surprised" emoticon, while others said they were unable to find it. "I searched all afternoon, but no trace," wrote user @VR-046. "Can't you tell us something about it?"
Other users retweeted a post from @steve_Jin, which read: "Actually this is something everyone already knows."
Meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei accused the paper of "smearing" China with the report, which said that Wen's family was in control of assets worth at least U.S.$2.7 billion.
The report "blackens China's name and has ulterior motives," Hong told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Asked why the report was inaccessible from within China, Hong replied: "China manages the internet in accordance with laws and rules."
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said she was disappointed that Internet access had been blocked, adding that the Chinese-language Web site had attracted “great interest” in China, the paper reported.
“We hope that full access is restored shortly, and we will ask the Chinese authorities to ensure that our readers in China can continue to enjoy New York Times journalism,” she said in a statement.
The article said that many of Wen's relatives, including his son, daughter, younger brother and brother-in-law, had become extraordinarily wealthy during his leadership.
After reviewing numerous corporate and regulatory records, the paper said records showed that the prime minister’s relatives, including his wife, had controlled assets worth at least U.S.$2.7 billion.
Many of them "have a knack for aggressive deal-making," it said, adding that their names had been hidden behind "layers of partnerships and investment vehicles involving friends, work colleagues and business partners."
The article came after a lengthy investigation untangled the family's financial holdings.
"The Times found that Mr. Wen’s relatives accumulated shares in banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, sometimes by using offshore entities," the paper said.
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi said China had stepped up controls over what its netizens could see in recent weeks, and the New York Times wasn't the only publication that was blocked inside China.
"Chinese rights websites, including [my own] Tianwang website, international media and human rights websites have all been blocked," Huang said.
He said he had been unable to visit the websites of the New York Times, Radio Free Asia, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the VOA, BBC, Deutsche Welle or Radio France International, recently.
He said the authorities were also now able to block specific URLs within sites.
"They are also taking special measures, such as hacking into the back end of the Tianwang website, and blocking specific content from certain websites," Huang said.
Hong Kong-based blogger and editor Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, said that even China's more tech-savvy netizens, who had previously been able to get around the Great Firewall, were now having problems.
"It's really obvious that some web circumvention tools are losing their effectiveness," Wen said. "In the past few days, it has become very difficult to get into Gmail from inside China."
"This used to be a very rare occurrence," he said.
Meanwhile, Fujian-based blogger Peter Guo said the ruling Chinese Communist Party was under intense internal pressure following the fall of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, and ahead of the 18th Party Congress on Nov. 8, when a new generation of Chinese leaders will be announced.
"Of course they are going to step up controls on the Internet," he said. "I think we'll see overseas media sites gradually getting blocked now, and they already have a stranglehold on the microblogging sites."
"Today, on Weibo, not only were searches blocked for 'New York Times' in English and Chinese, but you couldn't even search for '2.7 billion,'" Guo said.
"Personally, I think these controls are just going to get tighter and tighter."
Hu Ping, the U.S.-based editor of Beijing Spring magazine, said the report would have an impact in China, regardless of the censorship, however.
"The New York Times has published such a long article saying that their family is corrupt...there is a lot of suspense over what kind of 18th Party Congress this will be," Hu said.
And Shenzhen-based rights activist Zhang Jinjun said Wen had, until now, managed to cultivate a fairly upright image in most people's eyes.
"These reports aren't going to be published in China so that most people will know about them," Zhang said. "But perhaps they will be used as a tool by Wen Jiabao's political enemies at the highest level."
Reported by Pan Jiaqing and Yang Jian for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.