China Officials Seek Image Boost via Public Internet Chats

Five Chinese lawmakers answered questions from Web users in an online chat room Thursday evening in another sign the government hopes to reinforce its credibility by appearing open on the Internet.

The members of China's national congress steered clear of political issues as they spent three hours giving upbeat responses to a dozen screened questions about China's economy and rising unemployment amid the global recession.

The chat was a first for congress members, who met in Beijing this week for its annual session, and came after Premier Wen Jiabao logged into a chat room to answer similar questions last weekend.

The chats added another online channel for Chinese citizens to submit views to the government, but such measures do not amount to freedom of speech, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a Hong Kong-based expert on the Internet in China.

"The leaders are saying, you know, we want to listen to Chinese citizens through the Internet, but I think clearly the government is picking and choosing what they want to listen to," she said.

The National People's Congress is China's highest lawmaking body but is ultimately subject to Communist Party authority. It meets once a year to pass laws already decided upon by the leadership in Beijing.

Many of the online chat questions were about the state of China's economy. Premier Wen defied the predictions of some economists on Thursday by saying China's economy could grow more than 8 percent this year, a level officials see as necessary to maintain social stability.

Wen wrote about government efforts to boost growth in his online chat last weekend but also took questions on whether he cooks, what sports he likes and how he felt when a protestor lobbed a shoe at him during a speech at Cambridge University last month.

"Your questions, whether big or small, all show your concern for your country and your trust in the government," Wen said in his chat.

President Hu Jintao also appeared online for the first time to answer selected questions last June.

The Chinese Internet is heavily policed, and blogs or forums with dissenting views are often shut down.

"One could almost make the case that potentially, if the Communist Party manages things well, they may stay in power longer if they use the Internet than they would if the Internet didn't exist," said MacKinnon.

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