Liu Di, a 23-year-old college student known online as “Stainless Steel Mouse,” was recently released on bail after a year in prison. The Internet essayist jailed for her ironic musings about China’s political shortcomings gave a big wave as her father picked her up.
Few saw in Beijing’s move much evidence of a softer government line. The government is increasingly adept at blocking politically objectionable subjects from China’s 78 million Internet viewers. When that fails, it reverts to the blunt approach. Even as Liu and two others were let go, several more have been locked up or sentenced on similar charges.
What is increasingly frustrating for China, however, is the budding resistance it faces to its ambitious, and some say futile, effort to control the Internet.
When the state blocks popular search engines such as Google, the ether buzzes openly with criticism. When a government official told a forum on Hainan island in November that the Internet was freer than ever, online bulletin boards blasted him -- arguably proving his point.
And when Beijing hauls in people, particularly the growing numbers who are not extremists and don’t know they’re doing anything wrong, officials often hear about it. After Liu’s arrest, thousands of students, journalists and free-expression advocates signed three online petitions -- an unthinkable challenge in the past.
“When dissidents disappear, most people think, ‘I’m not one of them,’ ” said Sophie Beach, senior Asia researcher with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “But when they see someone like Liu Di, they identify and think, ‘That could be me.’ ”
Liu isn’t the type you’d pick to be a poster child for Chinese democracy. An introvert while growing up, she never displayed much social outrage, said Liu Qinghua, her father. She did, however, show an enormous passion for a wide variety of books.
After entering Beijing Normal University, she decided to study psychology. In her sophomore year, she developed an interest in the Internet, where her shyness wasn’t a handicap. She took her online name from a science fiction character. Over the next several months, she posted nearly a dozen essays from a school computer in a small online circle, ultimately attracting the attention of authorities.
In one essay titled “How the Ministry of State Security Harms the Security of the State,” she questioned the unchecked authority of the security apparatus. In another, this one tongue-in-cheek, she called on those using the Internet to surrender to authorities because under China’s rules anyone favoring free expression is a violator.
Liu’s father didn’t know what she was doing online. The Internet wasn’t part of his world, and he figured her Web chatting was largely about boys.
A Father’s Nightmare
She was arrested in November 2002. Security agents seized her at school, accusing her of belonging to an illegal organization, and took some books, papers and the family computer from their home.
It was the beginning of a nightmare for her father. Over the next year, he worried incessantly about his shy daughter alone in prison. Authorities refused to let him see her, and she was not allowed to see a lawyer for months, the family said. China’s Ministry of Public Security declined to comment.
But the arrest also opened her father’s eyes as he discovered her writings and the support that had built around her. The Chinese cyber community alerted foreign human rights groups and helped the family find a lawyer.
For a year, the government considered the case, teetering on the horns of a dilemma. If it admitted making a mistake, it would look fallible. If it went ahead in the face of growing opposition, it might weaken average people’s faith in the justice system.
After extensive deliberation, the government released Liu and said it wouldn’t charge her. But in late October, one of her most outspoken supporters, 39-year-old Hubei provincial official and fellow Internet essayist Du Daobin, was arrested, leaving another family divided.
“I don’t know what they’ll do to him,” said Du’s wife, Huang Chunrong. “My son and I find it very difficult to understand how he could be found guilty just for writing a few articles.”
Another supporter, an unemployed worker, was also held.
China is deeply conflicted about the Internet. It has embraced its economic potential and now boasts the world’s second-largest pool of users, after the U.S. Logging on is as easy as dialing a five-digit number from most private phones and no account is necessary.
At the same time, the state wants users to avoid areas it considers off limits, including discussions of high-level corruption and Taiwanese independence, criticism of the Communist Party and support for the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which China has outlawed as an “evil cult.”
In recent months, Beijing has jailed more people for writing negative articles on overseas websites -- a break with its practice in the past, when it focused largely on Chinese sites -- and arrested more ordinary citizens.
Since mid-October, China has arrested, sentenced or denied the appeal of at least 14 Internet essay writers, said Frank Lu of the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
“You no longer need to even be an activist,” Lu said. “Just posting your own articles is enough.”
Xiao Qiang, director of the Chinese Internet project at the journalism school at UC Berkeley, identifies three broad tools China employs to maintain control: the law, technology and self-control.
Heavy-handed legal tactics tend to be a last resort. Agents arrive at the doorstep to haul a writer off to prison. This silences the writer and sends a signal.
The second approach uses technology to limit citizens’ ability to view what the government considers objectionable.
In recent months, China has become far savvier in this area, experts say. It wasn’t too long ago that it had to block an entire overseas website containing objectionable material, with questionable results. While blocking the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s site prevented Chinese citizens from accessing encryption programs, for instance, it also frustrated future government engineers trying to apply to the institution.
Now Beijing can block access to a single page, or to links it finds objectionable.
“It sounds easy, but it’s been a deep technological problem,” said Ben Edelman with Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
The firewalls around China require users seeking access to the rest of the Internet to go through a limited number of gateways controlled and monitored by Beijing. China also has improved its ability to divert or hijack requests for sensitive information, redirecting them to harmless sites or “timing out” the request. It’s also better able to block sites that constantly change their Web addresses, a tool used in the past to keep one step ahead of censors.
“With new technology, they’re now upgrading their system within a couple of months,” said Bill Xia, president of Dynamic Internet Technology, a U.S. company that develops technology to circumvent China’s filters. “They probably have to go through approvals, but I’m rather impressed by their speed.”
There are limits to the technology, however. You can’t block everything. So China has invested heavily in an expanded cyber police force that scours the Web looking for new sites to block, monitoring bulletin boards and identifying “undesirables.” Online rumor puts China’s cyber police at 30,000.
“That’s just a number,” said Michael Iannini, Beijing-based general manager with Nicholas International Consulting Services. “The point is they have a lot of people doing what they do to make sure you can’t do it.”
Of the three repressive tools, self-censorship is potentially the most effective. This includes the chill individuals exert on themselves, as well as the monitoring that cyber cafe owners, local Internet service providers and operators of online bulletin boards are expected to provide.
These tools are meant to keep Chinese from crossing the line.
“But nobody actually knows where the line is,” writer Liu Xiaobo said. “Different people have different ideas where it is.”
At the Qian Long Wang Du Internet cafe near Renmin University, manager He Fei explained how his staff patrols aisles lined with 500 computers, warning customers against signing on to sites that display politically sensitive issues or pornography. Customers must register by showing an ID card before being assigned to a numbered computer, information the police can access on request.
“I’m concerned about writing anything sensitive online,” said Li Nan, a 20-year-old liberal arts student who visits Qian Long Wang Du two or three times a week.
Despite all its efforts to funnel expression into areas it considers appropriate, however, most experts say China is slowly losing the battle. Online bulletin boards and Web logs are opening vast new areas that further tax the state’s ability to control it all.
As Liu Di’s father worries about her future, he reflects on the pressure put on her by the government as well as supporters of greater democracy.
“People online idealize her, but she’s just a kid,” he said. “She doesn’t even like the image that the Internet made of her. Like her nickname, Stainless Steel Mouse, she sees herself more as an antihero.”
Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.