HANGZHOU, China -- Former President Clinton urged China on Saturday to recognize the urgency of the environmental threats to its growth, and to use the Internet as a tool to surmount them. But he remained silent on the risks faced by those who use the Internet as a forum for dissent.
He warned that the energy consumption required to keep China's economy growing at its recent rate of more than 9 percent is "unsustainable."
China's oil imports have soared as it struggles to keep booming industries growing. Its continued strong growth, and that of the rest of the world, will depend on its ability to find alternative energy sources and make better use of the resources it has, Clinton said.
"If we don't do it, it will eventually impose severe restraints on economic growth and make future conflicts far more likely," Clinton said. "It's not clear to me that there will be enough oil to produce that growth according to traditional energy use patterns," he said.
Clinton, the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by Yahoo's new Chinese partner, Alibaba.com, did not respond to questions from reporters about demands by human rights activists that he raise the case of a jailed Chinese journalist with his hosts.
Just days earlier, overseas-based human rights groups disclosed that Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. had provided e-mail account information that helped lead to journalist Shi Tao's conviction and 10-year prison sentence on state secrecy charges.
Other Chinese journalists have faced similar charges of violating vague security laws as communist leaders struggle to maintain control of information in the burgeoning Internet era.
Despite government information-sharing requirements and other restrictions, Yahoo and its major rivals have been expanding their presence in mainland China in hopes of reaching more of the country's fast-growing population of Internet users, who now number more than 100 million.
The Internet is having "significant political and social consequences and they cannot be erased," Clinton said. He noted that public demands for information during the SARS outbreak two years earlier forced authorities to take action to stem the epidemic, amid widespread accusations of a government coverup.
But Clinton only alluded to the risks faced by Internet users who dare to speak out.
"The political system's limits on freedom of speech ... have not seemed to have any adverse consequences on e-commerce," he said. "It's something you'll all have to watch and see your way through."
New York-based Human Rights in China and the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Clinton urging him to bring up the case of Shi, the jailed journalist, during his visit to China.
According to Reporters Without Borders, court papers show that Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd., part of Yahoo's global network, gave Chinese investigators information that helped them trace a personal Yahoo e-mail to Shi's computer.
It said Shi, a former journalist for the financial publication Contemporary Business News, was convicted for sending notes on a government circular spelling out restrictions on the media in the e-mail. He was seized in November at his home in the northwestern province of Shanxi.
Yahoo has defended its move, saying it is obliged to comply with Chinese laws and regulations.
Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, who also appeared at the forum, said the demand for the information was "a legal order" and that the company gets such requests from law enforcement agencies all the time, not just in China.
But, he added, "I cannot talk about the details of this case."
The case is not the first in which a prominent high-tech company has faced accusations of cooperating with Chinese authorities to gain favor in a country expected to become an Internet gold mine.
Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and two of its biggest rivals, Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, previously have come under attack for censoring online news sites and Web logs, or blogs, featuring content that China's communist government wants to suppress.