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February 3, 2006 5:44 pm

BBC tones down news on China website

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The BBC World Service has launched a website targeted at the mainland Chinese market, offering English-language training and news that is unlikely to upset Beijing’s internet censors.

China has long blocked access to the British broadcaster’s main Chinese website, www.BBCChinese.com, which yesterday led with a story about US forecasts that Beijing’s suppression of dissent could undermine national stability.

By contrast, the top item on the broadcaster’s new www.BBCChina.com.cn site was a Chinese-language news story on the much less sensitive topic – to Beijing officials at least – about the row surrounding cartoon images of the Prophet Mohammed.

The new website and the adoption of a domain name with the Chinese .cn ending mark a big step forward in the BBC’s efforts to build a presence in one of the world’s fastest growing media and education markets.

However, the decision to avoid including any of the broadcaster’s often hard-hitting China coverage could expose it to charges of bowing to Beijing censors.

Google, the US internet search company, has been widely criticised for launching a local version of its service for the Chinese market that actively censors results that could anger the Communist leadership.     

Lorna Ball, head of the BBC Chinese service, said the new site had not been adapted to avoid causing political offence and there had been no attempt to discuss it with Beijing.

The BBC had instead catered to the Chinese market simply by making the site “lively and exciting and appealing” to reach the predominantly young group of people interested in learning English, Ms Ball said.

However, all the Chinese-language China-related news stories available on the
site yesterday appeared studiously uncontroversial, including interviews with a Chinese snooker champion and pop star and a report on the recent state visit to the UK of China’s President Hu Jintao.

The site does not have any links to the main BBC internet service. China has for years blocked the BBC’s Chinese news but allows internet users in the country to access some of its English- language broadcasts and other content.

By focusing largely on English learning, the BBC’s new site seeks to tap into a huge demand in China.

Andrew Thompson, head of English Language Teaching for the World Service, said an estimated 200m Chinese were learning English, making it the biggest English-language teaching market in the world.

The broadcaster is trying to combat piracy of its programmes by commercial users by launching its own CD-Roms of programmes such as From Our Own Correspondent through a Chinese partner, along with MP3 downloads from its site.

BBC correspondents have in the past often offered trenchant reports on Chinese government conduct and it is unclear if such items will be included in the programmes made available.

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