BEIJING, Feb 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed his support for online freedom in China during a meeting in Beijing with Chinese bloggers concerned about a crackdown by authorities on Internet discourse.
Last year China's Communist Party renewed a heavy-handed campaign to control online interaction, threatening legal action against people whose perceived rumours on microblogs such as Sina Weibo are reposted more than 500 times or seen by more than 5,000 people.
Rights groups and dissidents have criticised the crackdown as another tool for the party to limit criticism of it and to further control freedom of expression.
The government says such steps are needed for social stability reasons and says every country in the world seeks to regulate the Internet.
During an approximately 40 minute discussion with Kerry on Saturday, the bloggers focused on the need for internet freedom, human rights, China's territorial dispute with Japan and even President Barack Obama's travel plans, according to a U.S. reporter who attended the session on behalf of journalists travelling with Kerry.
Kerry said he had urged Chinese leaders to support Internet freedom and raised the issue of press freedom, in a country with tight controls on what the media can say and which blocks popular foreign social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
"Obviously we think that the Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the Internet," he said.
Blogger Zhang Jialong asked if the United States would get together with the "Chinese who aspire for freedom" and help "tear down the great Internet firewall", complaining that U.S. companies were helping Beijing block access to sites like Twitter.
Kerry said it was the first time he had heard complaints that U.S. companies were helping the Chinese government control access to the internet and that he would look into it.
Microsoft Corp denied this week it was omitting websites from its Bing search engine results for users outside China after a Chinese rights group said the U.S. firm was censoring material the government deems politically sensitive.
The United States and China have long clashed over freedom of expression and human rights, with Washington frequently calling for the release of dissidents such as anti-corruption campaigner Xu Zhiyong and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
Kerry said that he had raised human rights at high levels.
"We constantly press these issues at all of our meetings, whether it is in the United States or here, at every level, and we will continue to do so," he added.
But it was not the United States' role to lecture, he said, as "no one country can come crashing in and say 'do this our way, it is better'".
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