Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Net activist finds that even a mouse roars too loudly for Beijing

By Jim Yardley  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Beijing

The restaurant in the fashionable Qianhai district is almost empty, courtesy of the afternoon rains, though a small young woman is sitting on an upstairs sofa, slightly uncomfortable in her chic surroundings. With her oval glasses, shy demeanor and slightly hunched posture, Liu Di (劉荻), looks like a bookworm.

What she does not look like is a threat to anything, yet the government has already imprisoned her for a year. In recent months, during significant dates on the political calendar, officials have posted security officers outside the Beijing apartment she shares with her grandmother. "They think I'm a dangerous figure," said Liu, 23, giggling slightly at the thought as she picked at a Thai rice dish.

It is Liu's other identity that has made her a target of the Chinese Communist Party. Known on the Internet as Stainless Steel Mouse(不鏽鋼老鼠), she is a dissident whose incarceration over her writings attracted international attention from human rights groups that demanded, and eventually helped win, her release.

Even now, roughly eight months after she was freed, Liu must live a watchful life. Upon her release, she resumed her studies at Beijing Normal University, yet for months administrators left it unclear whether she would be allowed to graduate. She monitored courses until she was finally awarded her diploma in late June with a degree in psychology. She did not attend the ceremony.

She still does not have a full-time job, nor is she certain when, if ever, she will cease to draw the government's attention. It has been a disorienting, dizzying ride for a quiet woman who rarely grants interviews and who says she has always felt like something of a misfit. It was, in fact, in cyberspace where she first felt accepted. "To me, the Internet is a huge virtual space," she said. "It is so different from real life. You can be more free."

Liu first logged onto that other world when she was in college. She had grown up in Beijing in a family that revered books. Her father worked in the library of the China Fine Arts Museum, while her mother was a factory worker who died when she was 15. Her grandmother was a reporter for the government's main newspaper, the People's Daily.

An awkward and shy child, she retreated into books, particularly science fiction. She was struck by the grim warning against totalitarianism in Orwell's 1984. "It's very horrific," she said. "I had never thought about how human nature could be so dark."

By middle school, she had decided to become a writer and chose psychology as her college major because she thought she "needed to know more about human beings" to write.

On campus in 2000, Liu noticed other students staring into their computers. "A lot of other students were logging on, so I started," she said. She combed through online college bulletin boards and personal Web sites before searching deeper and finding voices of discontent. "There were a lot of opinions and stories that couldn't be seen in newspapers," she recalled. "I liked it."

In cyberspace, Liu found her community. She plumbed literature for a nom de plume, trying Clockwork Orange and Banana Fish (a J.D. Salinger reference) before settling on Stainless Steel Mouse, from the science fiction of Harry Harrison.

She began participating in discussions on a Web site called Democracy and Freedom, which is often at odds with the government. By 2001, she opened her own site, much of it dedicated to literature, but she also published some articles calling for more freedom. As cyberspace became her home, she began to defend those whom the Chinese call netcitizens.

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