Beijing: China called for a swift return of public order in Egypt while the tightly controlled media glossed over details of the popular uprising that forced president Hosni Mubarak from power.
Online discussion about the protests has been muffled since the turmoil began, in a sign that the unrest is worrying Beijing, which restricts content seen as a potential challenge to the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.
Internet forums appeared firmly under the censors' control on Saturday, while newspapers limited their coverage to the official Xinhua news agency's reports and avoided the underlying political factors and calls for democracy.
"China hopes that the latest development of the situation helps Egypt with the restoration of national stability and public order as soon as possible," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.
Some channels on state television network CCTV briefly reported Mubarak's fall after nearly 30 years in power, with footage of protesters cheering.
The Beijing Youth Daily reported that Mubarak had stepped down, but did not mention the underlying grievances behind the uprising.
The Beijing News noted that hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the protest movement, emphasising that Egypt's vice-president had urged people "to return home and go back to work as soon as possible".
Ma's comments were echoed in the official media, with the English-language China Daily saying in an editorial that "social stability should be of overriding importance".
The 18 days of protests that eventually forced Mubarak from office had caused "havoc" and disrupted people's daily lives, it added.
Since the beginning of the turmoil, China's coverage has stressed Cairo's lawlessness and the need for order to be restored.
China is extremely sensitive to any news involving social unrest, having experienced its own uprisings in Tibet and the mainly Muslim Xinjiang region of northwestern China in 2008 and 2009 -- both of which were put down.
Its leaders have faced mounting public discontent in recent years over issues including persistent reports of abusive government officials, environmental damage and now surging inflation.
Since the beginning of the Egyptian turmoil, keyword Internet searches on the protests returned no results on microblogs and reader discussion of news reports about Egypt was disabled on major portals.
A search under the word "Egypt" on microblogs such as that on popular web portal sina.com resulted in a message saying the search result could not be shown "based on the relevant laws, regulations and policies".
While state-run newspapers and television have reported on the events in Egypt and Tunisia, readers have not been allowed to post remarks. On web portal netease.com, a message this week said the comment section had been closed.
One dissident said this week that police in southwest China had barred activists from distributing leaflets about Egypt and Tunisia, deeming the news too sensitive.
Beijing's reaction to the Egypt situation recalls similar curbs put in place during social upheaval in Eastern Europe a decade ago.
But the explosive growth of microblogs in China has emerged as a new challenge for censors seeking to control public discussion.
China blocked Twitter in 2009 after barring other high-profile foreign Internet services such as YouTube and Facebook. Twitter and Facebook in particular were crucial in the Egypt protests.
Despite being banned in China, imitations have filled the void to a degree and drawn an enthusiastic following from the country's 457 million Internet users.
Netizens have seized on the platform as a new avenue for mass discourse but controversial issues remain blocked, either directly by the government or by providers hoping to avoid trouble.
First Published: Saturday, February 12, 2011, 14:48