China’s Intellectual Elites Protest Jailing of Internet Dissidents

Nov. 7–BEIJING–A broad group of Chinese scholars, lawyers and artists is protesting an escalating campaign to arrest those who voice dissent on the Internet.

By one count, Chinese authorities detained or put on trial at least nine Internet essayists in the past five weeks, accusing them of state security violations, which often carry long prison terms.

In an open letter Thursday, 42 widely known Beijing professors and scholars lambasted the campaign, describing several of those arrested as “social critics” and saying their writings “all fall into the category of freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution.”

Earlier in the week, 58 lawyers, artists and social scientists sent a similar open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, declaring a recent arrest “illegal” and “totally groundless.”

Internet usage has grown feverishly in China, with some 69 million users, and the number of people who are daring to put critical remarks online nettles the nation’s leaders. The crackdown — and the public backlash — expose the tensions as China’s Communist Party modernizes the country while maintaining an iron grip on political control. Even as living standards rise sharply in cities, public disgruntlement over a variety of social and political issues is percolating into the open.

Condemnation of the arrests also came this week from two New York-based watchdog groups — Human Rights in China and the Committee to Protect Journalists — and a Hong Kong group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Beijing dismissed the criticism.

“Any actions taken by the authorities of China have been following the laws of China,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said Thursday.

A focal point of the protests has been the arrest of Du Daobin, an essayist in Hubei province in central China, who was detained Oct. 28. In one of his online postings, Du said Chinese citizens had an innate right to disobey arbitrary state power.

In a letter sent Monday to President Hu Jintao, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ann K. Cooper, said the group was “gravely concerned” about Du’s arrest and condemned a “draconian effort to silence any speech that is critical of government policy.”

Other monitoring groups said China had stepped up efforts to intimidate and dissuade Internet users from voicing political views.

“It’s increased very seriously. We are really worried about this. Since Oct. 1, there are nine people who have been arrested, tried or sentenced,” Frank Lu Siqing, the head of the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong.

Another monitor said Du’s arrest and recent court hearings for other “cyber-dissidents” on subversion charges were designed to intimidate those going online.

“The arbitrariness is part of the strategy of the authorities to dissuade people from writing political views on the Internet,” said Nicholas Becquelin, a research director in Hong Kong for Human Rights in China.

Among those who faced trial this week was Jiang Lijun, a 37-year-old employee of a construction company in Liaoning province, in northeast China.

Jiang was detained a year ago and charged with incitement to subvert state power because he advocated a multiparty system. Jiang’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said prosecutors on Monday and Tuesday used Jiang’s computer archives as evidence of his criminal guilt.

“Mr. Jiang downloaded many materials online about democracy and structural reform,” Mo said, adding that Jiang had struck up an online friendship with another Internet user, third-year Beijing Normal University psychology student Liu Di, who had posted Internet articles under the pseudonym “Stainless Steel Mouse” calling for democracy.

Liu was arrested last year on Nov. 7. Since then, she has inspired other Internet activists, some of whom have put either “stainless steel” or “mouse” as part of their user names.

In a court hearing Monday, four young academics known as the “New Youth Study Group” appealed their convictions for sentences ranging from eight to 10 years on subversion charges. Chinese courts usually decide appeals quickly, but in this case the verdict hasn’t yet been made public.

The 42 scholars, in their letter of protest, which was made public by Lu’s group in Hong Kong, called on China’s legislature to establish a special inquiry to see if Du’s arrest violated the constitution. They demanded an open apology and his immediate release.

Among those signing the letter were Lu Yuegang, a well-known writer, and Xu Youyu, a social scientist at a government research academy.

Estimates vary over how many Chinese are in jail for Internet-related offenses. The London-based rights group Amnesty International says 40, while the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders says the number is at least 36.

China may have the most sophisticated filtering system in the world for detecting what the government deems subversive content on the Internet, said Bill Xia of Dynamic Internet Technology Inc., a North Carolina company.

“In the last year, the technology has improved a lot,” Xia said in a telephone interview. “They tap the routers and look at every (digital) package” of information.

Eager not to cross the authorities, Internet portals and service providers have rigorously enforced laws barring online criticism of the Communist Party and discussion of anything considered a “state secret” or anything related to groups such as the banned meditation group Falun Gong that the government considers “evil cults.”


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Nov. 7, 2003
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