HONG KONG (Reuters) -Some offshore users of an official Chinese website providing economic and demographic data on Fujian province across from Taiwan say their access has been restricted, and Beijing said "emergency measures" had been taken to deal with a cyberattack.
More than half-a-dozen users with knowledge of the matter said some users outside the mainland have found themselves unable to access the website within the purview of Fujian's statistics bureau.
One researcher based in Singapore said he started encountering the curbs in March, while others said they had become aware of them more recently.
After Reuters published a report on the issue, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: "As far as we understand from Fujian competent authorities, the official Fujian provincial data website recently suffered a serious cyberattack."
The ministry added that the official departments of the southeastern province of Fujian took emergency measures to deal with it and if "normal users" were not able to access the website they could "make an appeal" to lift restrictions.
The restrictions come after similar blocking of access for offshore users of some Chinese financial and academic databases, and after Beijing targeted some consultancy firms over national security concerns.
The official website of Fujian, with a $790-billion economy comparable to that of Switzerland, had regularly posted data on topics such as economic growth, energy consumption, and real estate sales, according to the users and a review of the site.
That data was a key source of detailed information for some foreign research firms, economists, and financial institutions tracking the world's second-largest economy, said the users, who sought anonymity as the matter is sensitive.
Such curbs, at a time when China seeks to bolster an economy only slowly recovering from stringent pandemic measures could weigh on foreign investors already grappling with tighter regulatory controls and geopolitical tension.
"If the Fujian case was a deliberative decision, it will set a precedent that will likely to be followed by other local or central government agencies," said Xin Sun, who teaches Chinese and East Asian business at King's College London.
While China has made fewer government-affiliated websites accessible to offshore users in recent years, amid heightened tension with the United States, the restricted access to the Fujian government website is a rare step, the users said.
The Fujian provincial bureau of statistics is "studying the condition", one of its officials said, when asked for comment, but did not elaborate.
The State Council Information Office, which handles media queries on behalf of the Chinese government, and the National Bureau of Statistics did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
Some firms are scrambling to reduce risk following a crackdown by Beijing over information security, which ensnared Shanghai-based consultancy Capvision this month, particularly as a sweeping update to anti-espionage laws will take effect from July 1.
The sharper focus on information security also comes as the latest data points to a weakening in the momentum of economic growth, while the youth jobless rate has hit a record.
One of China's top financial data providers, Wind Information Co, had blocked some offshore users from accessing certain business and economic data since late last year, Reuters reported this month.
A crucial academic database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), also limited access to overseas subscribers from April 1, those notified of the suspension said.
However, other official websites of provincial statistics bureaus can be accessed by offshore users normally for now, said the users. The Fujian website is accessible on the mainland, a Reuters review showed.
Data from Chinese provinces can help analysts and economists track regional trends, such as patterns of migration within the labour force, land and property sales, and industrial development.
The Fujian website, for example, also detailed the spread of advanced and basic manufacturing industries within the province, as well as population census results embodying the demographic data of each of its cities.
But its importance outstripped that of other provinces, as some foreign investors tracked it closely for any signs of military movement amid the cross-Taiwan Strait tension, said two Hong Kong-based hedge fund investors.
Taiwan's China policy-making Mainland Affairs Council declined comment.
There has been a clear trend of foreign access to domestic data being limited by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on national security grounds, Sun added.
"In the context of geopolitical tension with the West and the Party's rising concern about national security, any engagement with the West can become a politicised matter," he said.
(Reporting by Hong Kong Newsroom and Joe Cash in Beijing; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Clarence Fernandez)