After prison, dreams of China's democracy

Lin Hai is an unlikely prophet of the digital liberalization of China.

Released from prison last September, his name streaked through chat rooms and bulletin boards two years ago when he was arrested for providing an online, pro-democracy newsletter in the US with 30,000 e-mail addresses. Yet today, he says, "The Internet is invading China, and it will bring about a transformation in culture, ideas, information, and how we communicate."

Detained in March 1998 and convicted of subversion, Mr. Lin says his detention was simply a crude message sent out to the masses on Beijing's new restrictions on the World Wide Web. "The government's policies on the Internet are always changing; sometimes they turn right and sometimes left," he says. "Unfortunately, I became a banner for the new Internet rules."

Lin, who was dragged from his small Web company to Shanghai's most notorious jail, says he is much more philosophical about his own and China's future after the 500-plus days he spent in a tiny cell.

He shared a 30-square-foot room with two drug dealers. Meals consisted of sparse helpings of rice and vegetables. Tilanqiao was not only a century-old jail, but also an information prison. "The prison administrators would not let me have any English books or newspapers," Lin says. "They seemed to be afraid of English and anything from the outside world."

Xenophobia was a central feature of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Lin was born during that era and came of age as a student at the Beijing University of Astronautics in 1989, when the government called out troops and tanks to crush peaceful pro-democracy protests. "When I was a child, I saw Americans walking on the moon and dreamed of becoming an astronaut," he says. "In school, while studying computers, I dreamed of becoming China's Bill Gates."

But following his imprisonment, Lin says "my dream is to see China become a powerful democracy in the next century."

Five years ago, Lin began designing Web sites and providing information largely for Sino-foreign joint ventures until he became the first casualty of China's war on electronic dissent.

Lin says Shanghai's police still visit him regularly, and he adds that "although I was released from jail, I am not really free at this time."

In a human rights report released last month, the US State Department welcomed Lin's release, but added that Beijing is setting up "special police units to monitor and increase control of Internet content and access."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says China's "State Secrecy Bureau promulgated a set of regulations restricting the posting of ill-defined state secrets" on the Internet. "The directives also prohibit the transmission of news that has not been officially sanctioned by the state," says the group in a letter of protest to the Chinese leadership.

The global organization also says that at least six Chinese citizens were jailed in 1999 for exchanging news and information via the Web, including three dissidents who edited an underground e-zine, a pro-reform scholar, and a Falun Gong follower who reported over the Internet on Beijing's crackdown on the spiritual group.

"The government is trying to build a firewall around the Internet just like the centuries-old Great Wall," says Lin. But Beijing's rulers will ultimately learn they "can't use methods developed by ancient Chinese emperors to govern a modern nation or the Internet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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