Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Political critic flees Chinese police

AFP AND AP , BEIJING AND SHANGHAI

A leading Chinese social critic and political activist has fled China amid widespread concerns that he could be arrested and tried for subversion, a rights group and his Beijing-based office said yesterday.

Cao Siyuan (曹思源), a key proponent of constitutional and political reform, left China recently despite a heavy police presence that has monitored his home and office 24 hours a day, officials at his office said.

"Since the meeting [of China's National People's Congress], a lot of police have been monitoring our movements from outside our office," an official at the Beijing Siyuan Merger and Bankruptcy Consultancy Company said.

"Cao Siyuan left in recent days for an overseas academic tour, we are not sure when he will be back, this is a sensitive issue," he said.

"He did not have a return ticket," he said.

New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC) said in a statement that Cao faced charges of subversion if he returned to China.

After being harassed for more than six months, Cao managed to evade surveillance long enough to process a passport and other necessary paperwork for a visit to the US, the group said.

"His departure from China so enraged police that surveillance of his home and office have been upscaled, and the authorities are reportedly preparing to charge Cao with incitement to subvert state power upon his return," HRIC said.

Official concern over Cao began after he organized an academic meeting in eastern Qingdao city, Shandong Province, in June, gathering some 40 prominent legal and economic researchers and entrepreneurs who widely criticized China's strong-armed one party communist rule.

The meeting also called for a constitutional oversight committee to the nation's parliament capable of ensuring full implementation of the state Constitution, including the largely ignored rights of freedom of speech, press, association and religious belief.

China has also shut down a pair of Web sites that were free-ranging user forums known as blogs, stepping up government attempts to control political discussion on the Internet, a media watchdog group reported even as one site reappeared yesterday.

However, a note yesterday on the page of the second site, blogbus.com, said it was still closed due to content problems.

"Because individual postings contained forbidden content, the server is temporarily down. We will seek a speedy resolution to the problem," said a message on the site's Web page.

The other site, identified by Reporters Without Borders as blogcn.com, said its page had shut down for "server upgrading" but did not mention forced closure. It appeared to be restored yesterday.

China has enthusiastically promoted use of the Internet for commercial applications, but fights hard to prevent it becoming a forum for criticism of the Communist Party. A special team of police monitors Web sites and chat rooms for sensitive content, and sites are told to censor themselves or face penalties.

Blogs, online diaries in which users post their thoughts for others to read, have become hugely popular among China's roughly 80 million Internet users.

While some postings appear to be oblique criticisms of the government or calls to action against censorship, blogs haven't previously been noted as a source of anti-government activity.

Blogbus.com had hosted more than 15,000 individual blogs, according to Reporters Without Borders. It said the site was closed on March 11 for "allowing a letter to be posted that was critical of the government."

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