POSTED AT 8:28 AM EDT     Friday, October 29

Cyber dissidents rattle China's thought police
As many as 30,000 government employees are believed to be monitoring the Internet for subversion, ROD MICKLEBURGH writes

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Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — The most renowned Internet dissident in China, perhaps the world, has a cold. A bad cold. Maybe later, Stainless Steel Mouse tells The Globe and Mail.

She's talking on her cellphone, between reading text messages. Of course, she prefers to answer questions by e-mail. Mobile phones, text messaging, computers -- these are the new weapons of dissent in modern China. And they're making its rigid Communist rulers extremely nervous.

Few have rattled them more than Stainless Steel Mouse -- real name Liu Di, a slight, bookish, 24-year-old with disarming oval glasses whose pointed and irreverent on-line commentaries were considered such a threat that authorities took away her laptop two years ago and threw her in jail.

Locked in a tiny, cold cell with three other prisoners, Ms. Liu had no idea she was becoming a world celebrity, with Amnesty International and hundreds of Chinese intellectuals calling for her release. When she emerged a year later, it seemed everyone knew about her.

"I think my life has changed a lot since then," she says. "A Mouse should have been a small, shy animal, always hiding itself in a dark corner. I am not accustomed to living under a spotlight."

Ms. Liu is now a major player in an intense tug of war between China's police-state apparatus and a growing number of politically astute Internet users who want to move beyond soccer talk, video games and chat-room flirting. They switch cellphones constantly and use text-messaging to foil police.

With 80 million registered on-line users, Chinese authorities are only too aware of the Internet's potent force. They encourage its use but simultaneously are building a new Great Wall of technology to shut out dissident views.

With the help of Western technology firms, China has developed the world's most invasive cyberspace security techniques. Human-rights organizations say as many as 30,000 government employees are dedicated full-time to monitoring the Internet. China leads the world in jailing on-line dissidents. More than 60 are now incarcerated for terms as long as 15 years -- simply for posting "unhealthy things."

A similar struggle is going on in traditional media, where increasingly aggressive journalists are challenging the state's right to dictate what they write. An estimated 40 journalists languish behind bars after displeasing the powerful.

"It's a dangerous time for journalism," says Yu Guoming, vice-dean of the journalism school at Beijing People's University. "Society is changing in China, and the media is often on the front lines of these societal conflicts. But government controls are as severe as ever. So it's risky."

The outcome of these battles will be vital in determining the kind of country China becomes in the 21st century. Will Western-style accountability triumph, or will the harsh controls of authoritarianism prevail? The jailings indicate Communist Party hard-liners are still in control. But there are victories for the dissidents.

Despite her year in jail, Liu Di was not charged and is back on the Internet. Du Daobin, a quiet government employee convicted of "inciting subversion of the state" after espousing democracy on-line, is also at home. His four-year sentence was suspended after intellectuals and academics signed petitions demanding that he be freed.

Nevertheless, Ms. Liu says she is more worried now when she goes on-line. Just last week a security officer showed up again in her neighbourhood to ask where she was. Mr. Du, meanwhile, has been ordered to temper his on-line views, report to police once a week and refrain from talking to journalists.

A visit to one of China's 110,000 Internet cafés illustrates the reach of China's security measures. Users must show identification cards and are watched by surveillance cameras. Sophisticated software filters block access to pornography and politically sensitive websites.

At the Holiday Sunshine Cyber Café in Beijing's east-side Chaoyang district, the mood is decidedly docile. Customers play video games, answer e-mail and chat on-line. All claim to pay attention to the posted warning: "No porn and no illegal material."

Manager Zhang Baili, who earns $130 a month for working 16-hour days, says a cultural official visits about once a week. "Every time they visit, revenue goes down."

Yang Songyuan, a 21-year-old broadcasting student, supports government controls.

"I don't do anything illegal," she says. "Whenever I see an e-mail from Falun Gong [a banned religious sect], I delete it. I read one once. It was boring."

But at a gloomy café in Zhengzhou, 600 kilometres northeast of Beijing, the interference irritates 27-year-old Zhang Bei.

"I like to come in here and chat with my friends," she says. "It's better than shopping. But we know the government may be watching us when we talk, and I don't like it. I don't like being watched."

Despite government controls, the Internet is changing China, according to Stainless Steel Mouse.

"It enables us to unite to do things," she says. "Together, we can plan lectures, collect donations, sign petitions, and so on."

Technology also helps activists keep up with the authorities. During a recent interview, AIDS activist Hu Jia was talking to a Globe and Mail reporter when his cellphone beeped. It was a text message from Stainless Steel Mouse, telling him the police had turned up at her home to warn her to stay away from him.

Internet activism is now a fact of life in China. When a young art student was beaten to death by police after being arrested for not having a residency permit in the southern city of Guangzhou, the Internet erupted with outrage. Petitions were circulated and a crusading newspaper, Southern Metropolis News, took up the case. To the amazement of many, the government took away the right of police to detain migrants simply for lacking the right papers.

In another case, a court spared violent crime boss Liu Yong the death penalty because of evidence he had been tortured by police. After Internet campaigners protested the leniency, a higher court sentenced him to death and he was quickly taken out and executed.

Nevertheless, journalists continue to face risks. Peeved officials in Guangzhou jailed a reporter and two executives from Southern Metropolis News after the furor over the student's death died down. Last month, after The New York Times published a story about an impending power shuffle, a Chinese researcher recently hired by the paper was accused of "passing state secrets to foreigners" and jailed. More than 20 assaults against reporters were documented last year, prompting one insurance company to rate journalism as the third-most dangerous occupation in China -- behind police work and coal mining.

But the hard-hitting business magazine Caijing remains untouched, despite its regular exposés of private corruption and government shortcomings. It was among the first to zero in on China's cover-up of the SARS crisis.

Hu Shuli, the magazine's brash, chain-smoking editor, says these are "the best of times" for Chinese journalists. "Yes, some topics we have to stay away from, and sometimes we go too fast," she says. "But there's more and more we can report on in China. I'm optimistic. We're never going back to the way it was 20 years ago."

Prof. Yu shares the belief that things are changing for the better, and says idealism is thriving. "I always tell my students: 'If you don't have ideals, that's a sad thing for society,' " he says. "I find many of them are very idealistic, and they make a great effort to follow their dreams."

Not to mention the Stainless Steel Mouse that roars.

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