- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Where once radio and rock music were considered subversive elements influencing the political life of repressive regimes, today advances in electronic technology including the World Wide Web are being used to penetrate nations' borders to reach public opinion and, on occasion, help bring about the downfall of a government.
The ramshackle interior of a small home in Camp Springs is an unlikely setting from which to challenge the repressive policies of the entire Chinese government, but Li Hongkuan says he is succeeding using inventive technology of his own design on a computer he put together.
The 39-year-old Chinese dissident, who also uses the alias Richard Long, has been busy trying to circumvent the communist regime since 1997 with the creation of software that he claims is successful more often than not in getting through China's heavy-handed censorship of electronic communication with the outside world.
Mr. Li's method is an electronic newsletter that he says goes to a quarter-million e-mail addresses in China. Its name is VIP Reference, a mockery of a Chinese state-run publication called Reference News, which is aimed at 200 of the communist elite. The Chinese government's fear of it can be shown by the fact that Chinese citizens have been arrested and put in jail by the government for supplying him with addresses, Mr. Li says.
Mr. Li says his mission is promoting freedom of expression inside his native land, not undermining the government. By spending up to 15 hours a day at this task, he says, he manages to spread information about political arrests and other internal matters as well as pro-democracy news from abroad.
A biochemist by training who came to New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine for a doctorate in molecular biology in 1991, he lives off small donations and savings from the time when he worked as a stockbroker.
Persistence and dedication are paramount in this effort. One reason he is successful, he says, laughing, is that "you often get through because [censors] can be lazy."
The challenges he faces are not all technical. His physical mobility has been curtailed since he broke a leg falling from a tree in his yard as he was cutting limbs for firewood. His furnace failed recently, so he relies on wood supplied by friends and on electric heaters turned low so they won't crash the computer.
He says he has a network of 10 persons across the United States who help him and he is linked informally with other activists who have developed similar programs to try to undercut the Chinese government's determination to limit the country's 1 billion population from unfettered access to the Internet. Chinese Internet police, who number in the tens of thousands, try to delete foreign news sites and others judged to contain pornography.
The Chinese government long has had a love-hate relationship with the Internet, which is welcomed as an educational device promoting economic growth but also is seen as an avenue for introducing what is regarded as subversive material liable to weaken the regime. Political arrests are frequent, and few of them are reported, Mr. Li says.
Human Rights Watch this month reported increasing pressure on activists championing freedom of expression, including numerous arrests of people charged with subversion for using the Internet to criticize party leaders and promote workers' rights.
The government tries periodically to block people's access to search engines such as Google, which is especially popular because it can run searches in Chinese.
"In my experience, it is the most technologically advanced search because it can handle odd characters and different languages," Mr. Li says. When blocked, he adds, "the search engine may get through, but the page will look black; you won't see content. That is the major technological achievement by the Chinese since October."
Opening Iran
Mr. Li isn't unique in his dedication to the cause of promoting democracy abroad while living in exile. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late Shah of Iran, is a considerably wealthier man who funds offices here and in London for the purpose of promoting democracy in the land he left 22 years ago when his father's regime was overthrown.
"Banned newspapers are now on the Internet, and in Iran, every roof has a [satellite] dish, although it is illegal," says Kamran Beigi, press coordinator for Mr. Pahlavi's Falls Church-based group, called the Secretariat. "The fear factor in Iran is breaking up, and people are openly talking everywhere."
Demonstrations take place regularly with the aid of cellular phones that can give notice and spread word at the last minute the same method useful to student groups that brought down Yugoslavia's former strongman Slobodan Milosevic more than two years ago.
"Cell phones call directly to the TV stations, and then everybody in the street can hear it," says Mehrdad Irani, Web master for Mr. Pahlavi's group. Having an address on Yahoo or Hotmail isn't safe, he notes.
"We instruct people to go to Hushmail.com if you want to send something secure that only you and the recipient will know. The beauty of that is when you have [both writers using Hushmail], it is encrypted. And even if the message is intercepted, it is garbled. The more people use it, the better it is. The government has no way of shutting this down, and once volume increases, control becomes impossible."
The Cuban government monitors Internet cafes, which are limited in number, says a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, "but there has been less harassment lately." Dissidents communicate almost entirely in coded language, he says.
Iraq may be the most difficult place of all to penetrate. Faisal Qaraglioli, a spokesman for the London-based Iraqi National Congress (INC), says two or three public Internet coffee shops exist but the Ministry on Information controls all methods of communication, including telephones, and few people take chances. Such cafes are expensive, and there are no private e-mail addresses using Yahoo or Hotmail.
"An outsider called a former military man inside Iraq to talk about falcons, and the man was sent to prison and tortured. His claim that it was a commercial undertaking and not a coded conversation wasn't believed by the authorities," Mr. Qaraglioli says.
At least five persons to date have been imprisoned for making their own satellite dishes, he adds. "Shortwave radios are possible, but not FM," he says.
"Even fax is prohibited," notes Entifadh Qanbar, director of the INC Washington office. "In order to send or receive faxes, you must go to public offices monitored by Iraqi intelligence. In Iraq, owning a typewriter without permit will put a person in prison for life, if not [have him] executed."
One of the most extensive and expensive efforts to reach audiences overseas is undertaken daily by the Broadcasting Board of Governors that runs all U.S. nonmilitary international broadcasting. The federal agency spends half a billion dollars annually transmitting various radio programs by AM, FM, digital satellite, Internet and shortwave intended "to promote and sustain freedom and democracy by broadcasting accurate and objective news and information about the United States and the world," according to Joan Mower, agency communications coordinator.
Shortwave into China is jammed, and Web sites and e-mail there are blocked, she says, but the agency is "working to overcome this." One of the ways they do this is by employing the services of Dynamic Internet Technology in Asheville, N.C., which supplies Voice of America with software to get e-mail newsletters into China.
One way to get e-mail through, Mr. Li says, is to use methods similar to those spammers use: deliberately inserting odd characters in key terms, much like a code. This is done to circumvent Chinese censors who use filters to scan e-mail for such politically sensitive words as "Tiananmen Square" or even "democracy." A reference to Tiananmen Square protests, for instance, might be written in garbled form relating to the date of the crackdown.
Circumventing censorship
The Freenet Project, software designed and coordinated by computer scientist Ian Clarke in Santa Monica, Calif., is given away free to people trying to circumvent censorship in any form. The network operates by allowing any computer to communicate with any other computer, which means the Chinese government would need access to every individual machine to shut it down.
"What makes it different is basically it avoids any form of centralized control, like a well-orchestrated anarchy," explains Mr. Clarke, who also is a specialist in artificial intelligence. "The real trick is to make it as difficult as possible for a government to identify who is using it and for what. That is where a lot of technical innovation in Freenet goes."
The software allows people to put information anonymously in what is best termed "a global information library" open only to other Freenet users, avoiding the necessity of connecting to the World Wide Web with individual Web sites.
"A lot of the techniques we use were inspired by a lot of biological systems," Mr. Clarke says. "We have used some out-there, cutting-edge methods relating ant behavior to computer science. Basically, we have created a parallel kind of shadow Internet in some ways in which Freenet operates over it.
"It isn't about breaking through the Great Wall but existing inside the Great Wall. One of the nice things is you start it going and it starts a network that we can't control even if we want to. All we try to do is work on it and fix bugs."
Cellular phones and the Internet played a major part in overthrowing former Philippine President Joseph Estrada two years ago, says a government official in Manila who, because of the nature of his present job, asks not to be identified.
"There were simultaneous demonstrations all over the place, and police could not control matters," he says.
Cellular phones were used to punch out messages, he says.
"The Philippines are known as the texting capital of the world. You can 'blast text' a message about when a meeting is to be held, and in 10 minutes get two- to three thousand people together."
Another technique was targeting government officials by e-mail in great numbers.
"The servers got clogged, and communications broke down, so the government had a situation where bureaucrats were hampered in their ability to carry on their work. They could only do it by running across town in person," he says, chuckling, recalling how, in his words, "People power was [information-technology] enabled."

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