- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

For supporters of democracy and freedom of speech in the world’s most populous country, the Chinese government’s recent decision to free Liu Di, a 23-year-old college student who was held between Nov. 2002 and Nov. 2003, was certainly a positive and welcome development. Miss Liu had been charged with engaging in conduct “detrimental to state security” by posting several essays online, under her nom de plume “stainless-steel mouse,” criticizing government control of the Internet.

While Miss Liu’s detention generated worldwide condemnation, less media attention has been given to the more than 40 Chinese cyber-dissidents still in jail for criticizing their government, including three who had participated in online petitions calling for Miss Liu’s release. Du Daobin, a 39-year-old civil servant from Hubei, was an organizer of one of the petitions. He was arrested on Oct. 29 on charges of subversion. Mr. Du had been a prolific Internet essayist who wrote extensively on civil liberties and political rights.

Mr. Du is just one in a string of Chinese Internet activists who have been silenced as cyber-criminals. Not without irony, Beijing observed World Human Rights Day on Dec.10 by sentencing a cyber-dissident to eight years in prison on charges of subversion. Li Zhi, a 33-year-old government worker in the southwestern province of Sichuan, had exposed official corruption in his online essays. Two days earlier, Yan Jun, a 32-year-old schoolteacher from the city of Xi’an, received a two-year jail term for posting five articles on the Internet calling for greater press freedom and a reassessment of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement. According to the Geneva-based World Organization Against Torture, Yan Jun has been subjected to beatings by other inmates under the encouragement of public security police.

On May 9, as the world media focused on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Chinese authorities sentenced Web publisher Huang Qi to five years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the state.” Huang Qi had created a Web bulletin board that carried articles about the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement.

On May 28, four more cyber-activists — all around 30 years of age — were handed lengthy prison sentences for posting articles on politically sensitive topics. Geological engineer Jin Haike and journalist Xu Wei each received 10 years. Computer engineer Yang Zili, creator of the now-outlawed Web site “Yang Zili’s Garden of Ideas,” along with freelance writer Zhang Honghai, received eight-year sentences. All four men have complained about abusive treatment in detention. During his sentencing on May 28, Xu Wei told the court that he had been tortured with electric shock to his genitals.

With the world’s focus understandably on international terrorism and events in Iraq, we are witnessing in China today a 21st-century literary inquisition. This sends an ominous message to the country’s 70 million Internet users, especially those seeking to address sensitive social and political themes. In 54 years of communist rule, Chinese writers have suffered routine attacks for their work. This new form of literary censorship is a continuation of that practice, and one that seeks to kill in its crib an emerging and potentially powerful threat to China’s autocracy.

First introduced to China in 1995, cyberspace is relatively uncharted territory and remains a predominantly urban phenomenon in that country. But it has begun to catapult the nation into the information age. Dissent that used to play out in underground leaflets — or in whispers among friends — is beginning to be expressed more openly and shared instantly among millions of Internet subscribers in chat rooms. In a July 2002 interview with Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service, Du Daobin said that through the Internet, he had gotten to know many like-minded people in China and that he was therefore beside himself with excitement.

The Internet’s power to inform and influence so many so quickly sounds alarm bells for repressive governments seeking to maintain the power they hold over their peoples. Chinese authorities are responding to this threat in predictable fashion. At a Dec. 4 press briefing,ForeignMinistry spokesman Liu Jianchao remarked that “the Internet contains many unhealthy elements that are detrimental to society” and that measures to control it “are beneficial to the development of Chinese society and the Chinese people.”

And control they do. An Internet cafe employee in Sichuan told Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service that last January police installed monitoring software on every computer in his cafe. China’s more than 110,000 Internet bars are now regulated by a centralized system of approval and control — one of the most advanced of its kind in the world.

On Dec. 3, the Paris-based press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders appealed to CEOs of 14 leading international high-tech firms that supply China with Internet equipment and technology to take a stand against Beijing’s repression of online free expression. According to the press-freedom group, some of these firms are selling technology that helps the Chinese government spy and crack down on Internet users among its own people.

Freedom of political speech in Western democracies is such an integral part of our culture that we seldom think much about it. We also take as a given the right of citizens to speak out about, and try to change, government policies with which they disagree. In China, the government asserts a monopoly in this area.

Beijing’s online crackdown has as its most direct and obvious victims those currently spending time in jail for exercising their right to free expression. The indirect class of victims is, however, much larger. It is the Chinese people, whose leadership remains free from the restraints that might be imposed upon it by an informed populace. And the international community may suffer too, as in an increasingly dangerous world, this behemoth of a country acquires ever more economic, military and diplomatic clout — undisciplined by the will of its own people.

Jennifer Chou is director of Radio Free Asia’s Mandarin Service.

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