BEIJING China sought on Friday to portray its Internet crackdown as a campaign to protect youth from filth and nothing to do with stifling political dissent, with an official promising long-lasting action against "vulgarity."
China has already detained 41 people as part of the crackdown, but the government's move was in reality no different from laws in the United States and Europe which also aim to keep children from harmful sites, said Liu Zhengrong, deputy director of the State Council Information Office's Internet Bureau.
"The purpose of this campaign is very clear," he told a small group of invited reporters. "It's aimed at creating a healthy Internet environment for all young people and making the Internet in China safer and more reliable."
The Internet crackdown has been described by analysts as another step in the Communist Party's battle to stifle dissent in a year of sensitive anniversaries, including the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests.
"The Internet remains where the battle for information lies and the fact that the government is devoting so much effort at reining it in, in itself indicates how much of a threat they perceive it to be," said Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch.
China polices the Internet intensely, quickly removing any content deemed subversive or overly critical of the Party.
The government has closed over 1,200 websites, including a popular blog site, but with an estimated 3,000 new sites appearing daily, the battle to maintain control of the online world is never-ending.
"We fully realize that the crackdown on vulgar websites will be long-lasting, complicated and difficult," said Liu. "We will not abandon efforts to clean up the Internet environment under any circumstances."
One of the websites closed in the campaign, which began this month, was bullog.cn, a popular site for Chinese bloggers. Some of the bloggers it hosted had been signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto released in December that called for greater civil freedoms and elections in China.
But Li Jiaming, director of the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, said the government did not have a political motive.
"I can tell you very candidly, our work does not have anything to do with political content. People are extremely supportive of this campaign," he said.
The crackdown had "achieved clear results," with more than 3.3 million pornographic or vulgar items already identified and deleted, Liu said.
"Internet pornography and vulgar content seriously threaten the mental and physical health of youth and threaten to damage the healthy development of the Internet in China," Liu said, adding that more than 35 percent of web surfers in China were under 19.
China had looked at similar Internet laws in other countries, including in the United States and Britain, and found common ground, he added.
"We discovered a common goal of all these governments is to ensure that Internet users feel safe when they go online."
(Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Fox)