Chinese Web Activists Fight for Freedom of Expression


2004-06-08
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HONG KONG — ; An increasing number of Chinese activists are taking their battle for freedom of expression online, waging a guerilla-style warfare of dissenting political opinion from the country's bulletin boards, chat rooms and setting up rapidly moving Web sites, RFA's Mandarin service reports.

"It is said that now the battlefield for the Chinese people for freedom is online," Internet activist Wu Wei told RFA reporter Kang Cheng in a recent interview. Wu said that some well-publicized cases brought by the authorities against Chinese net activists were in fact heavily influenced and even overturned by the opinions of the online community.

"The worst pain the Chinese people are suffering from is the inability to speak out," Wu said. "What I want to do the most is to provide an open public medium that will tell the truth to the Chinese people."

He said that a recent surveillance program set up by Chinese police to monitor Web site traffic and Internet cafes had so far failed to completely suppress online political debate and dissenting opinions.

Wu, a former Communist Party Youth League member who was put off the Party by the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters on June 4, 1989, said he was introduced to the Internet by a colleague, and found himself drawn into a new world, where he enjoyed reading discussion threads on history, politics, and current events.

In June 2001, after a Web site he frequented was shut down, Wu and two fellow doctoral students started the "Democracy and Freedom Forum" using free bulletin-board space. So far, the forum has been shut down 38 times, and each time Wu and his colleagues have found a new space for it, where it can last anything from a few hours to a few months.

Guizhou-based commentator Zeng Ning said Wu is one of a growing number of similar activists, known as "mice," who have so far managed to stay one step ahead of the authorities, the "cats."

"There's also Cao Siyuan, Liu Junmin, Donghai Yixiao, Du Daobin, Huanghe Louzhu, and the latest one is Yang Yinbo, the young and talented one from Chongqing," Zeng said. "There's also Zang Guotang, who I think is from Guangdong. He started a China Republican Party and published a Republican Party Manifesto. All of the people I just mention have had similar experiences."

Wu, 34, says his colleagues and friends have already been harassed by the authorities for their involvement in the Web site, however. But he says the risk is worth it. "Isn't there a famous story that goes something like "when they first persecuted the Jews, I didn't speak up. When they later persecuted the Communists, I didn't speak up. But when they started to persecute me, there was no one to speak up for me anymore."

"If we're to pursue freedom of speech but don't act on what we say, then we can never obtain what we're going after," Wu said.

Not all the "mice" are so lucky, however. Last month, a former government official in the central province of Hubei, Du Daobin, nicknamed Huanghelou Zhu, was tried behind closed doors without access to legal representation. Du was charged with incitement to subvert state power after he posted several essays critical of the Chinese government on the Internet. Du had also campaigned for the release of student Internet activist Liu Di, otherwise known as "Stainless Steel Mouse."

China has kept a tight hold on Internet use by its citizens for fear that critics could organize themselves into an effective opposition and disseminate their views to China's fast-growing population of cyber-surfers.

Government filters block access to Web sites abroad run by dissidents, human rights groups, and some news organizations. The content of domestic sites is monitored and sometimes censored. Banned Web sites also include those offering pornography and those belonging to banned organizations such as the Falungong spiritual movement.

Chinese authorities are thought to have detained more than 30 people since the Internet boom began in the late 1990s as part of its crackdown on online dissent. Overall, the government has sought to encourage Internet use for business and educational purposes but not for political discussion.

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