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China announced on Wednesday the ouster and reshuffle of a dozen senior officials in what foreign diplomats described as a continuing purge of liberals and consolidation of power by the hard-line government.

Among those replaced was Vice Minister of Culture Ying Ruocheng, also one of the country's best-known actors. Ying won acclaim for his portrayal of a prison warden in Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's Oscar-winning film "The Last Emperor."The shakeup in five vice minister posts and the shifting of a total of 12 high-ranking officials was reported by the state-run press, including the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, without comment.

The liberal Ying was long rumored to be out of favor with the leadership for being overly sympathetic to last spring's student-led democracy movement. His former boss, writer Wang Meng, was fired last year as culture minister and replaced by a conservative.

Ying and fellow Vice Minister of Culture Wang Jifu were replaced by Xu Wenbo and Chen Changben, described by Chinese sources as "obedient" bureaucrats with close ties to Li Ruihuan, a member of the party Politburo's ruling Standing Committee.

Another casualty was Vice Minister of Radio, Film and Television Chen Haosu. Chen, the son of a veteran revolutionary, was reportedly made to take responsibility for a brief but unprecedented period of liberalization in the state-run media last spring.

Foreign diplomats in Beijing said the sweeping changes were no surprise and should be interpreted as a continuing purge of senior officials in the context of last year's massive protests.

"It certainly represents a perceptible hardening in the cultural field," said a Western diplomat. "Everyone they're putting in is more orthodox."

The diplomat said government authorities are "going through the Cultural Ministry at every level," replacing those construed as liberal with conservatives more loyal to the regime.

Since the military crackdown on democracy protesters last June, China's hard-line government has clamped down on free expression in the media and the arts, removing senior editors and reporters at key newspapers and stressing "positive propaganda" that praises socialism.

"They say we're free to write what we like, but we're not," said a government employee and professional writer.


(Additional information)

Israel now supplies military technology

Israel has become the biggest supplier of advanced military technology to China since the United States banned military sales in the wake of the Chinese crackdown on the democracy movement, and the Bush administration is concerned, a published report said Wednesday. Quoting unidentified administration sources, the Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. officials have told Israel they strongly oppose the military cooperation because it undercuts the intended effect of the U.S. sanctions. "This is over our objections," a senior administration official told the newspaper. "I'd rather not get into the tit-for-tat on this, but they know our views." U.S. officials insisted that Israel is not operating as a proxy for the United States in the military sales, as it did when it supplied arms to Iran during the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair. Israel, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with China, recently opened an office of the Israeli Academy of Sciences in Beijing.