Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Yu Ling’s eyes well up and her hand instinctively pats her heart at the mention of her husband.

Wang Xiaoning, her partner of 27 years, has been sitting in a Chinese prison since September 2002. He is serving a 10-year sentence for using the Internet to advocate democracy.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Yu, 55, came to the U.S. to find a lawyer and sue Yahoo Inc.

She blames the Sunnyvale, Calif., search giant for providing evidence that helped Chinese authorities convict Mr. Wang, 57.

“I have to help my husband,” she explains through a translator. “Yahoo is wrong. … I hope Yahoo is punished and the other companies learn from it.”

Mrs. Yu, who is in Fairfax to meet with lawyers, has yet to file her planned lawsuit.

As early as 2000, Mr. Wang had written articles critical of the Chinese Communist Party and distributed them through a Yahoo Group function and, when that stopped working, e-mails. His pro-democracy essays — with titles like “To Correctly Understand China’s Constitution and Propel the Democratization by Using the Constitution” — labeled the socialist government an “authoritarian dictatorship” and called for multiparty elections.

Mrs. Yu says she was aware of her husband’s writings, but stopped short of asking him about them. Government agents had previously visited their home to interview him, but Mr. Wang’s Sept. 1, 2002, arrest came as a shock.

That day, a Sunday, Mrs. Yu was upstairs cleaning her Beijing home while her husband sat at the computer. The telephone rang, her husband picked up, and the caller asked if he was at home.

“He said ‘Yes, I’m here,’ ” she recalls, trembling. The caller hung up and minutes later, a group of Beijing security officials barged in, arresting Mr. Wang on the spot. “They give me notice of detention and take pictures, everything. They take away two computers, disks, information.”

The next time she saw him was March 15, 2004. He was in a Beijing detention center following his conviction by the First Intermediary People’s Court for inciting “the subversion of state power.” His appeal was rejected later that year.

Both court opinions cited information provided by Yahoo Hong Kong.

Mrs. Yu says the case of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist who in 2005 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing an internal Communist Party document to an overseas Web site, inspired her to sue Yahoo. That case, in addition to at least two others, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, relied on evidence supplied by Yahoo Hong Kong.

Mrs. Yu, who is allowed to see her husband once for 30 minutes each month, last saw him March 5. She told him she was going to the U.S. but did not tell him the purpose of her trip, which was arranged by outspoken Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

The China dilemma — the question of whether a company should, as a cost of doing business in a repressive but potentially lucrative country, cooperate with government officials and agree to censorship — is an issue that Internet companies in particular are grappling with and not unique to Yahoo. Rival Internet companies Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are required to filter content in China as well.

“It’s important to note that law-enforcement agencies in China, the United States and elsewhere typically do not explain to information technology companies like Yahoo … why they demand specific information in a criminal investigation regarding certain individuals,” Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan explains.

“Yahoo condemns punishment of any activity recognized as freedom of expression. We have expressed our strong feelings about such actions to the Chinese government as well as the U.S. State Department,” he adds.

By all accounts, Mrs. Yu faces an uphill battle.

“The question that is really up in the air is how much you can associate a private corporation with the actions of a government,” says Barry Carter, a Georgetown University Law Center professor who has written casebooks on international law.

In one pending case, known as the “apartheid lawsuit,” up to 100 U.S. and international companies are being sued for selling equipment to South Africa’s white dictatorship and lending it money. The case, currently on appeal, says corporations such as IBM helped the racist regime stay in power.

“The companies in a way are a proxy for the government because you can’t sue the government,” Mr. Carter adds.

Another wrench in Mrs. Yu’s plans is the change in ownership of Yahoo’s China subsidiary since Mr. Wang’s arrest. In October 2005, Yahoo China was spun off from Yahoo Hong Kong in an acquisition by Chinese company Yahoo now owns a minority 40 percent share in the company.

This means that Yahoo has “no involvement in the collection or retention of data from Chinese users,” Mr. Cullinan points out.

As she tells her story, Mrs. Yu looks tired, her hands resting on a table in the Fairfax town house that serves as the headquarters of Mr. Wu’s nonprofit China Information Center. Laid out before her are tablets filled with notes in Chinese, a copy of Mr. Wang’s conviction and other documents. When asked how his imprisonment has changed her life, she pauses silently, then her eyes redden.

“It’s a very painful life now,” she says, adding that she can’t discuss the case with friends or family members. “Every day, I cannot eat well, I cannot sleep well.”

According to a report by the group Human Rights in China, Mr. Wang has experienced physical and mental abuse during his imprisonment, including solitary confinement that bars him from leaving his cell, even to go to the bathroom.

Now, Mrs. Yu says she worries that Chinese authorities will take revenge on her husband or the couple’s 26-year-old son. But she says she plans to stay in the U.S. for as long as it takes.

“I know I am a very small person, I cannot even speak English,” she concedes. “But in American society the power of freedom is very large — I feel the people are on my side.”

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