Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Nobody's safe in China's Web squeeze

BIG BROTHER The detention of a girl who discussed democracy online sent chills down the spine of many Chinese despite the president's call for a more liberal society

AFP , BEIJING

A Chinese crackdown on online activism -- highlighted by a mounting wave of arrests and trials -- is unlike other recent government campaigns, because anyone can become a victim, experts said yesterday.

The year-long detention of Liu Di, an ordinary Beijing student who posted democracy essays on the Internet, shows that this time the target is not just a well-defined group of open-mouthed intellectuals.

"What you see is a pattern in which the government is arresting more and more people who are not `dissidents'," said Bobson Wong, a New York-based researcher on the social impact of the Internet.

"Liu Di wasn't a dissident, she was just a kid," he said.

The detention of Liu has clearly sent chills down the spine of many Chinese, and her arrest has triggered unusually widespread calls for clemency.

What bothers many is that a 23-year-old girl, who may have thought little about the consequences of expressing her views online, could be met with the full force of China's system of oppression, observers said.

She has emerged as the most well-known person to fall foul of the Internet censors, who are engaged in a massive drive to quell discussion of sensitive political issues online.

Jiang Lijun, a Beijing-based activist accused of being a ringleader of a pro-democracy community in cyberspace, went on trial last week, and the verdict is still pending.

Du Daobin, a prolific contributor of articles on social and political issues to online forums, was arrested near his home in central China's Hubei province one week earlier.

At about the same time, the ministry of culture announced plans for a nationwide surveillance system aimed at controlling what people read and write when they visit one of the country's 110,000 Internet cafes.

"I think this is partly because Internet use is growing rapidly in China and the government wants to send a message that it will not tolerate any dissent online," said Wong.

Analysts disagree whether the government has stepped up its efforts in recent months and weeks, or if policies in place for years are just beginning to attract more attention.

But the consensus is that China is reaching a crucial stage, as public discontent is brewing over issues ranging from unemployment to official graft, while technology makes it easier than ever to discuss those matters.

"There are more and more social problems, and people, especially the young, increasingly use the Internet to air their views," said Frank Lu, who heads the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

The question is whether the government is united in its attempt to rein in free speech on the Internet, which now has at least 68 million users in China and is becoming a difficult animal to harass.

Even as reports are accumulating of government measures to stamp out what it considers subversive Internet use, it is far from obvious that the overall trend is for tighter controls.

Beijing prosecutors said late last month that they were not able yet to process the case of Liu Di, the university student, telling police to come up with better evidence.

Shortly afterwards, four young intellectuals sentenced to jail for posting their views on social issues online appeared at a day-long appeal trial and were given ample time to defend themselves, although the appeal was turned down yesterday.

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