The price of Internet freedom

Chinese dissidents thought of Yang Zili as a Web handyman. The government saw him as a threat.

Published May 30, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

For more than two-and-half months, Yang Zili, 30, a Chinese writer and software developer, has been under arrest in the custody of the Beijing State Security Bureau. Among his apparent crimes: being a Web handyman for pro-democracy Chinese intellectuals.

"There are a lot of senior veteran dissidents who don't even know how to use e-mail," explains Richard Long, editor of VIP Reference, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident online publication. "They've been restricted by their technology handicap, and all of a sudden you have this guy coming in and helping them to get online and get their articles published. That's something that the government doesn't like."

Yang was arrested in mid-March, along with three fellow founding members of the New Youth Society, a group that meets weekly to discuss political and social reform. Another member of the group was detained but never formerly arrested, and has since been released and put under "supervised residence." The four arrested members of the group, including Yang, have been charged with "subverting state power." There's no word on when their trials or sentencing will take place.

"These five young men are the pride of the 1970s generation of China," said one friend of Yang's, who asked not to be identified. Aside from Yang, they are Xu Wei, a reporter who organized the Book Reader's Society at Beijing Normal University when he was a philosophy graduate student; Zhang Honghai, a freelance writer who, when he was an undergraduate at Beijing Broadcast College, organized the Book Reader's Society there; Jin Haike, a geologist who organized the Youth Forum as an undergraduate at China Geology University; and Zhang Yanhua, another geologist who studied at China Geology University and who was just detained and then released.

On March 13, Yang was on his way back to Beijing from his grandmother's funeral in Hadan when he simply disappeared. It wasn't until mid-April that his wife, Lu Kan, received official notice of the arrest and the charge. According to a letter posted on the Free Yang Zili Web site by Lu, she was also arrested. The couple's home was ransacked, and Yang's computer was seized along with other household items, including the couple's love letters from before they were married. Lu was released after three days. According to people close to Yang, his friends have also been interrogated.

While he was a master's student at Beijing University, Yang co-founded the Current Affairs Society, a student discussion group on social issues in China. The school forced the group to dissolve, and Yang has been under surveillance ever since.

Yang's more recent association, the New Youth Society, which held meetings and published articles online, apparently drew many university students to its discussions. The four arrested members of the group also served as volunteer teachers in illegal underground schools in Beijing that educate children whose families are not official residents, although they may work or live in the city. Without a "hukou" -- or official family registration card -- the children are not allowed to go to local state schools, and the alternative schools that they attend are outlawed.

But it's Yang's activities online that made him really stand out. Until his arrest, Yang published a Web site called "Yang Zili's Garden of Ideas," which still exists on a mirror site. He published his pro-democracy writings on the site, like this March poem titled "The Ghost of Communism." He was also critical of the government crackdown on the Falun Gong. But the software developer is hardly the most outspoken or visible critic of the Chinese government among liberal thinkers and intellectuals in Beijing.

"If you are famous, you have bigger protection," explains Long. "Yang Zili is someone who is a small potato." Still, beyond anything he wrote and disseminated online, Yang posed another kind of threat: He had Web and computer skills. In Beijing pro-democracy circles, he was known to be the go-to guy for computer problems and online publishing.

"The fact that he could help others get around the official censors was particularly threatening to the state," said Minky Worden, electronic media director at Human Rights Watch. "There is some indication that he is part of a more general crackdown on those who are liberals in academia and the press, and in particular people who had anything to do with the Internet."

According to the Digital Freedom Network, Yang and his colleagues are among some 10 other Chinese political prisoners who have been detained because of their actions on the Net. For example, two years ago, Lin Hai, a Shanghai computer company owner, received a two-year sentence for selling 30,000 e-mail addresses to VIP Reference. The dissemination of the addresses was ruled an "incitement to subvert the state."

"It's about information. It's about losing control on the monopoly on information. The Chinese government is scared," says Long. The Chinese government may be scared, but it also seems to be quite comfortable using the Net to crack down on the behaviors that it deems subversive.

Worden explains: "The Chinese government wants the Web for commercial purposes but does not want the Web to be used for any political or organizational activity. There's a lot that is frequently said about the ability of the Internet to jump borders and empower activists, and that may be true in the long term. But the Chinese government is using the new technology to make it an instrument of control, and those who are pushing the envelope with technology are the ones who are most likely to be targeted by the state for punishment."

But Yang and his cohorts are not being forgotten in mainland China and beyond. Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and prominent dissident who has been arrested twice and served a three-year sentence, is among the well-known critics of the Chinese government within China who has taken up their cause, writing articles about them and publishing them on Web sites like VIP Reference. And on May 17 a group of overseas Chinese dissidents awarded Yang a Young Freedom Fighters award of about $1,000, which was sent to his wife. Long explains: "They are trying to find a way to help them spiritually and materially."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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