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WikiLeaks website blocked behind Chinese firewall

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BEIJING — China, one of the biggest Internet policers, took no chances with the latest online sensation and blocked the WikiLeaks website Wednesday amid potentially embarrassing claims made in leaked U.S. diplomatic memos posted there.

Attempts to access wikileaks.org and cablegate.wikileaks.org were met with a notice saying the connection had been reset, or were diverted the user to popular Chinese search engine Baidu. That's the standard response when the connection to an overseas-based website has been cut.

The U.S. Embassy memos — called cables, though they are mostly encrypted electronic communication — contain some frank talk about and attributed to Chinese figures and their North Korean allies.

In one, a Chinese diplomat is quoted describing North Korea as a "spoiled child" for attempting to win U.S. attention with a provocative missile test.

China's representative to six-nation disarmament talks, meanwhile, is described by a South Korean diplomat as an "arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard who 'knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about nonproliferation.'"

Another memo reveals details of a Chinese contingency plan for North Korea's collapse — the existence of which is likely to drive a wedge between the allies at the very least.

The leaks also claimed that leadership of China's ruling Communist Party directed a cyber-intrusion into Google's computer systems, and expressed concern over attempts by Iranian front companies to obtain Chinese nuclear technology.

It wasn't clear when the blocks were imposed, although a vast swath of the Internet is inaccessible behind China's firewall, including social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Human rights and political dissent-themed sites are also routinely banned, although technologically savvy users can easily jump the so-called "Great Firewall" with proxy servers or other alternatives.

While WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Time magazine this week that the Chinese government is "terrified of free speech," he takes heart from their fear.

"I think that is a very optimistic sign because it means that speech can still cause reform," he said in an online interview. "We believe closed societies have the most reform potential."

China's government has taken a low-key approach to the leaks, with the Foreign Ministry saying it would not comment on specific assertions in the cables.

"China takes note of relevant reports. We hope the U.S. side will properly handle the relevant issue. As for the content of the documents, we do not comment on that," ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Global Times, a provocative tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party mouthpiece Peoples Daily, labeled the disclosure a "nefarious slander against China."

It also wondered why the U.S. didn't block the posting of the leaks, saying that raised questions as to whether it had reached some form of tacit understanding with WikiLeaks.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the documents. Officials around the world have said the disclosure jeopardizes national security, diplomats, intelligence assets and relationships between foreign governments.

The massive leaks were "embarrassing" and "awkward," but the consequences for American foreign policy should be limited, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.