Taking dissent online in China

SUN JOURNAL

E-mail: In the age of the Internet, Chinese leaders are finding it harder to contain free speech.

May 11, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In the late 1970s, Chinese dissidents used "Democracy Wall" near the Forbidden City to hang posters voicing their desire for political change. A decade later, student leaders turned to fax machines to help organize the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Today, as the government continues a recent crackdown on progressive journals and publishing houses, opposition voices have a far more potent weapon at their fingertips: e-mail.

Each day, government critics based in the United States fire out an electronic magazine filled with articles from the Western press and broadsides against the regime to about 300,000 e-mail subscribers -- most of whom live in mainland China.

The magazine, called Xiaocankao -- literally "small reference" -- often runs 28 pages and contains the kinds of articles you can't read in China's state-run newspapers, including attacks on Communist Party leaders, reports on the detention of dissidents and rumors of corruption involving high-ranking officials.

As free speech in China accelerates into cyberspace, such publications present Chinese leaders with a dilemma: How does a regime that puts a premium on rapid economic development and tight political control maintain both in the age of the Internet?

With socialist ideology all but dead here, the government has staked its claim to rule on raising people's living standards. Yet, to compete internationally and further develop its economy, China must allow some degree of freedom online.

"As economic incentives motivate Chinese authorities to get their population onto the information superhighway as quickly as possible, the amount of open, uncensored online debate will inevitably increase," says Joshua Gordon, a fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu who researches Internet issues in Asia. "In the interest of the bottom line, the government knows that it must eventually give up its stranglehold on the free flow of information."

Since China first permitted commercial use of the Internet in 1995, the number of users -- while still very small -- has grown rapidly. Estimated at about 2.1 million last year, Internet "bugs," as they are called in Chinese, are expected to rise to more than 5 million by next year.

Although they represent a tiny fraction of China's 1.2 billion people, most are university students, business people, professors and young professionals -- exactly the kind of opinion leaders that the editors of Xiaocankao want to reach.

The organizers behind the publication, which maintains an office in New York and another near Dupont Circle in Washington, began sending out an e-mail magazine toward the end of 1997. Six months later, the government started trying to block the e-mails in what has evolved into a high-tech game of cat and mouse.

Chinese officials try to locate the Internet service provider from which the messages originate -- erols.com, for instance -- and then block all e-mails coming from that source. The organizers behind Xiaocankao switch providers each day and sometimes hide the originating address to keep China's Internet police guessing.

Despite the adroitness of its foes, the government shows no sign of letting up.

A team of software engineers at South China's Shenzhen University are developing an e-mail filtration system to catch messages critical of the regime, according to reports in Mingpao, a Hong Kong newspaper. In January, the government sentenced a Shanghai computer entrepreneur named Lin Hai to two years in prison for providing a database of 30,000 e-mail addresses to Xiaocankao.

"If anyone was doing this in China, they would be arrested in a week," says the magazine's editor, Richard Long, a former Beijing college professor who left China after the 1989 massacre in which hundreds of protesters died.

Xiaocankao takes its name from an official Chinese publication that provides translations -- often heavily edited -- of foreign-language news reports. The underground Xiaocankao provides a mix of unedited stories from overseas and commentary on topics usually too sensitive for the Chinese press.

Last month, more than 10,000 followers of a semi-religious group called Falun Gong surrounded the leadership compound in Beijing demanding freedom to practice their beliefs. It was the biggest demonstration in the capital since the 1989 Tiananmen movement. The Chinese media did not touch the story for days.

Xiaocankao, however, immediately pounced on it, devoting edition after edition to the protest, including comments from its readers in China. One named Li Yi attributed Falun Gong's popularity to its emphasis on truth, kindness and tolerance.

"The Communist philosophy," Li said, "does not believe in such things as `kindness' and it emphasizes that repeating the same lie 100 times makes it become the truth."

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