BEIJING -- Leading Chinese bloggers asked Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday to put more pressure on their government to ease mounting restrictions on freedom of expression and Internet use and to help tear down the Great Firewall of China, as the system of censorship here is known.
Reporter and blogger Zhang Jialong complained that U.S. companies were complicit in maintaining Internet restrictions in China and asked Mr. Kerry to do more for Chinese dissidents who have been jailed for peacefully expressing their views.
Mr. Kerry met with four leading bloggers during a short trip to China, a visit otherwise dominated by official discussions on the thorny issues of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and climate change.
The U.S. Embassy organized the 40-minute session a day after Mr. Kerry met with President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese officials.
Although Mr. Kerry's morning meeting with the bloggers was supposed to show U.S. support for freedom of expression in China, the secretary seemed to be put on the defensive by their questions and appeals for help, insisting that he had urged Chinese leaders to support expanded press and Internet freedoms.
"Obviously, we think that [the] Chinese economy will be stronger with greater freedom of the Internet," he said.
But Mr. Kerry sidestepped a question about his view of the path China is on, after investigative reporter Wang Keqin said intellectuals were worried about growing restrictions since Mr. Xi took over as president last March.
Asked whether he would visit the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has herself been held under house arrest, Mr. Kerry said he typically only visits Beijing for a day and a half at a time. Ms. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in 2009 for "subverting state power" after helping to write and circulate a call for democratic reforms and human rights.
Mr. Kerry said he had consistently raised the issue of human rights during his visits to China, including in meetings with Mr. Xi. "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 said.
Mr. Wang said later that he had been called in for a chat with state security officials before the meeting with Mr. Kerry but had declined to attend.
Mr. Zhang asked whether the United States would get together with the "Chinese who aspire for freedom" and help "tear down the great Internet firewall," noting that U.S. companies were helping the Chinese government block access to Twitter and other Web sites.
Mr. Kerry said that it was the first time he had heard this complaint and that he would look into it.
Mr. Zhang is a financial reporter at Tencent Finance, a division of China's largest social media company, and has 110,000 followers on his microblog, while Mr. Wang lost his job as a reporter in 2013 for reporting on the cause of flash floods in Beijing and now works to support victims of lung disease. He has more than a half million followers.
China devotes enormous resources and manpower to Internet censorship in an effort to prevent dissent and social unrest from threatening communist rule. Facebook and Twitter are banned and Internet search-engine results heavily censored to remove Web sites or terms deemed sensitive. All Internet firms operating within the country comply with the government's requirements.
Earlier this week, a China-based group that advocates for freedom of speech accused Microsoft of censoring searches related to the country, filtering out sensitive results about the Dalai Lama, for example, when the Tibetan religious leader's title was entered into the Bing search engine in Chinese anywhere in the world.
Greatfire.org also accused Microsoft of not being transparent in indicating search results that had been censored.
Microsoft denied the accusations, blaming a system fault as well as search algorithms that prioritize Web sites users actually visit.
Microsoft, which has plans to build a bigger presence in China, has also drawn criticism in the past for censoring the Chinese version of Skype.
Asked what the United States could do to help build democracy in China, Mr. Kerry said that "slow progress" was being made and that the administration wants to maintain a dialogue.
"No one country can come crashing in and say, 'Do this our way; it is better,' " he said.
The New York Times contributed.