From Iowa to New York, from France to Norway, Chinese students and professors alike have tapped into computers to share transcripts of telephone conversations with relatives in China, rage over atrocities witnessed on television, mourn acquaintances slain and, in one case, to start in motion a proposal to award the student demonstrators the Nobel Peace Prize.
Thousands of subscribers, mostly Chinese college students and professors, are linking up to the networks through large, institutional computers on university campuses with the capacity to hook up to the three main organizations that distribute the messages.
Since the student uprising in China, use of the networks has skyrocketed. Liu Yadong, a student at the University of Maryland and a subscriber, said the number of messages posted has grown from about 20 a day to close to 300.
The entries, which are written in sometimes imperfect English, can be moving, melancholy, angry, ironic.
One comes from a Chinese student at Caltech, who came across an unofficial list of students killed in Beijing while he was reading his messages recently on the network's "bulletin board." Among those listed: "Zhong Qing, male, Qinghua University, Wounded in chest. Dead on arrival to Fuxing Hospital. Death time 1:30 a.m."
At first, the author didn't recognize the name. Then it came to him.
"I had a small dispute with him the first time I met him due to different opinions," he typed into the computer. "None of us hated each other after the dispute. He might have fallen down on the Avenue of Eternal Peace. He is gone. Probably he is lucky. He may now be in the Heaven of Eternal Peace."
The student had been moved by his recollection of the acquaintance and titled his impromptu computer essay, "Mourning Zhong Qing."
"No more care. No more worry. . . . He left his parents, friends, sorrow and pain. He will long live in their hearts," he wrote.
The networks have become a speedy, economical channel for Chinese students all over the world--except in China--to communicate with each other. Access to the networks, now the unofficial news service of supporters of the students in China, is free to anyone who wishes to subscribe.
Disseminating the information are three groups of Chinese students in the United States who send along information about small demonstrations in the United States, protest letters and transcripts of phone calls, news stories and the outpourings of grief and rallying slogans.
The three major networks are Soc.Culture.China, based at Yale University; Electronic Newsletter for Chinese Students, widely known as ENCS; and China-net, which started at Stanford University recently in response to the uprising.
ENCS and China-net edit the messages, essays and commentaries that they receive, distributing mostly articles and announcements.
Soc.Culture.China, on the other hand, serves as an open forum. It does not edit submissions or messages, and accepts anything that its subscribers send. With 9,000 members worldwide, it is the most popular of the networks.
The messages, which are often filled with spelling and factual errors, range from the serious to the ridiculous.
"If you put something out, everyone can read it," said Sun Yun, a Caltech student, as he scrolled through dozens of articles on a terminal in a school computer lab. "In the TV and newspapers you usually don't hear from ordinary people. But here, everyone is reacting. You can just feel some people's anger."
The feelings of writers blare out from computer screens with an intensity that resembles the chanting in Tian An Men Square.
"Sisters back home are shedding blood for us, for Chinese people, for the future of China, please do something within the ability of yours. . . . Believe me nobody outside of China knows what is going on in Beijing. . . . Whatever you can do, please do it!," read one statement that was sent from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"Huge rock-throwing fights are going on in the streets. People are breaking up pavement to have more rocks to throw at the soldiers. It is very hard to estimate the casualties. . . . Our dear fellow students!" wrote a student from the University of Colorado.
Although the reports of atrocities given by relatives are unconfirmed, piece by piece they paint a chilling underground version of what may be happening.
"An army man stabbed an 8-year-old child to death by bayonet just because the child could not withstand the brutality of the army and throw a stone at the soldiers. A civilian lady was shot to death accidentally when she went to her kitchen," stated one report.
"The furious Beijing citizens have rushed to the streets. They start to burn every army vehicle and kill every soldier they see," wrote a student from the University of Syracuse.
The networks have been consumed with expressions of anger and calls for help in recent days, obscuring, in many ways, the debate over issues concerning the student movement.
A series of letters last month discussed nominating the students in China for the Nobel Peace Prize.
"The truly peaceful character of the movement demonstrated so far and the determination on the part of the students-citizens to maintain their peaceful nature have surprised and inspired all of us watching intensely from afar," wrote a physics professor from Iowa State University.
'Goddess of Democracy'
More recently, a group of Chinese students from the Boston area wrote that the plaster "Goddess of Democracy," a Statue of Liberty look-alike erected in Tian An Men Square, was perhaps too radical and inappropriate an image for a Chinese movement.
A response came from another user: "The foreign face of the Goddess of Freedom apparently does not matter. Beijing residents enthusiastically hail her. Could a Statue of Liberty be so scary to the people standing in the middle?"
Two days later, the statue was destroyed by Chinese tanks.
The networks have had several entries from Chinese students in countries other than the United States. Students from France recently issued a message on the board stating, "The Chinese students in France declare that we do not recognize Li Peng's government."
Like their counterparts at other schools, students from Norway's Trondheim University used the network to report fund-raising efforts.
Other messages have appeared from Germany, the University of Grenoble, the University of Cambridge and the University of Hong Kong.
One user proclaimed: "Here is the countdown of THE TEN BIGGEST LIES in China."
The list included, "Jiang Qing (the widely unpopular widow of Mao Tse-tung) was a virgin when she married Mao," "People is the master of the country," "Yellow River runs to the West" (it runs to the east) and "Li Peng is not stupid."
Because the situation is changing so quickly in China, the computer networks have been supplanted by telephones and facsimile machines as the primary means of communication between overseas Chinese students.
The networks, however, remain an important link. Unlike a telephone call in which two people share a conversation, the networks are a public form of expression, a bulletin board for all to see.
The best feature, said Tang Sanyee, a student at UC San Diego, is that they epitomize free speech--a right his peers in China are fighting for.
Emotional expression flows freely in this forum. A student from New York University sent a short message that began simply, "I am crying."