Downloading Dissent

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JAIME A. FLORCRUZ BeijingWhen U.S. President Bill Clinton toured Shanghai last June, he stopped by an Internet cafe to mingle with young people surfing the Web. It was no random photo-op: Clinton was giving a thumbs-up to the liberating role of the Internet. Little did he realize that, not very far from the cafe, a local computer engineer was languishing in jail for tapping the power of the Net.Shanghai police in March arrested Lin Hai, 30, manager of a local software firm, and charged him with inciting to overthrow the government. Now awaiting trial, Lin is the first Internet-related political prisoner in China. His offense: passing 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses on to Da Can Kao (Big Reference), an overseas dissident webzine, which then spammed the addresses with forbidden information. Shanghai authorities claim the tide of e-mail paralyzed the city's computer network.Since China four years ago plugged into the yingtewang, as the Internet is known, communist apparatchiks have gingerly widened access to the Net, even as they built firewalls to block sites considered subversive (CNN, TIME) or degenerate (Playboy, Penthouse Live). Today, 1.2 million Chinese have access to the Net, a number that is projected to grow to 5 million by 2000. Typically, the Net-surfers are young, highly educated, influential and affluent.Just the sort of person who might be inclined to question authority or become involved in dissident activities, which China has long sought to curb. Indeed, it has been the government's continuing crackdown on subversive tendencies that has spawned a new band of hacktivists--activists who are shifting to the relatively unpatrolled world of cyberspace to campaign on behalf of democracy. Says Eddie Leung, editor of the Hong Kong Voice of Democracy website, (), which monitors freedom in China and the former British colony: There is a significant trend toward using the Internet as a means of bypassing government censorship on the mainland.Last week, only two days after a state-run organization launched a human rights Web page () to promote the official line, a U.S.-based group calling itself Legions of the Underground cracked the site's security and replaced the page with a new one labeled Boycott China! The hackers also added links to two sites--Amnesty International and Human Rights in China--usually blocked by state firewalls.PAGE 1  |  
Pro-democracy activists, as well as Taiwan and Tibet independence advocates, have set up mailing lists and websites on servers outside the mainland. A Chinese-language webzine called Tunnel (), which bills itself as the underground magazine of mainland China, claims it has received nearly 200,000 visitors since June 1997. Tunnel is said to be surreptitiously edited in China and sent by e-mail to an address in the U.S., where it is posted on the Internet and bounced back to Chinese readers. Its creators supposedly have a system that guarantees anonymous messaging from the mainland, where e-mail users are required to register with the police. Da Can Kao (), the webzine to which Lin Hai sent e-mail addresses, is a compendium of banned reports and commentaries compiled by exiled activists. Like Tunnel, the site invites those who care about human rights in China to send its editors messages, which it promises cannot be traced.The Hong Kong Blondes, an enigmatic group of Chinese hackers, claim to have more than 40 people working both within and outside of the country to infiltrate mainland police and security networks in order to warn political targets of imminent arrests. In a recent online interview the group's mainland-born leader, a man who uses the name Blondie Wong, warns that other hackers plan to target computer systems and websites of U.S. companies doing business with China. Says Oxblood Ruffin, the online pseudonym of a Toronto hacker who serves as the Blondes' spokesman: The Internet cannot be censored. He helps operate a separate organization, the Cult of the Dead Cow, which he says is committed to assisting whoever wants to latch on to the democratic experience.Such threats only reinforce Beijing's worst fears about cyberspace. The government is grooming a team of Internet police to patrol its networks and is upgrading technology to filter sites. New laws require severe punishment--including a five-year jail term--for using the Internet to harm state interests, spread rumors, or publicly insult others.Lin Hai committed none of those offenses, insists his wife Xu Hong. His exchange of e-mail addresses with Da Can Kao, she argues, was merely a normal business deal. Says Xu: E-mail addresses are public information, just like telephone books, which can be exchanged or purchased at will by companies or individuals. If spamming the local network were a crime, she avers, the police should go after Da Can Kao, not Lin Hai: If someone committed murder with a knife, why arrest the knife manufacturer instead of the murderer? Lin's legal tangle underscores the need for China to define online crime more precisely, lest legitimate businesses be stifled. As the information highway expands, the country will have to prepare itself for life in a borderless, transparent world.With reporting by Lori Reese/Hong Kong  |  2