BEIJING — The "stainless-steel mouse" is her cyber nom de plume. Her name is Liu Di, and in the one picture available, she has a young face and a wide, shy smile. Until the authorities tracked her down a year ago Friday, she was one of the most famous Internet web masters in China.
A third-year psychology student at Beijing Normal University, Ms. Liu formed an artists club, wrote absurdist essays in the style of dissident Eastern-bloc writers of the 1970s, and ran a popular web-posting site. Admirers cite her originality and humor: In one essay Liu ironically suggests all club members go to the streets to sell Marxist literature and preach Lenin's theory, like "real Communists." In another, she suggests everyone tell no lies for 24 hours. In a series of "confessions" she says that China's repressive national-security laws are not good for the security of the nation.
But since Nov. 7, 2002, when plain-clothes police made a secret arrest, Liu has not been heard from. No charges have been filed; her family and friends may not visit her, sources say; and, in a well-known silencing tactic, authorities warn that it will not go well for her if foreign media are informed of her case.
Experts have debated for several years now whether expression in China is opening up or whether a steady stream of key arrests or removals of Chinese writers and editors means that speech is being diminished. Some argue that while individuals like Liu and others are detained, in the long run overall media freedoms in China are expanding, due to the rise of commercial press competition.
Such arguments, however, do not hold up in another recent prominent case - a loss of editorial freedom inside Southern Weekend. The Guangdong weekly has been known for years as China's most crusading journal. Yet since 2001 Southern Weekend has lost two editors and nearly half its lucrative circulation of 1.2 million, due to censoring policies. Some readers have started circulating a "eulogy" for the weekly.
The magazine, which combined liberal thinking and market savvy in the booming commercial zone of the south China coast, made a name for itself in the 1990s with pioneering pieces about crime gangs, bad bank loans, and sleazy local officials - all previously taboo subjects. Among Chinese journalists, the magazine was famous for simultaneously publishing exposés about injustice or exploitation, and writing the official self-criticism and apology letter about why it was wrong to publish such stories.
Yet editor Jiang Yi Ping made many enemies and was finally replaced by a company man, Xiang Xi, last year. Mr. Xiang's initial answer to a major loss of ad revenue and the resignation of more than a dozen top journalists, was to reduce salaries. However this did not bring the desired result, and Xiang and the staff started to tussle with their management overlords to reinstitute a feisty editorial identity designed to halt plummeting circulation. That brought the ax down on Xiang.
Two months ago Zhai Min Lei, one of the last well-known investigative reporters from Southern Weekend, resigned. The proximate issue was the killing of a story that criticized the local Nanjing government for laxity in protecting a famous Ming-era tomb from vandalism. But Mr. Zhai's five-page resignation letter cited deeper problems, such as a complete whitewash of SARS stories. The new editorial policy, enforced by incoming editor Zhang Dongmin, formerly of the Guangdong propaganda ministry, "would rather deny the journalist than fight for the article with officials," writes Zhai.
"People talk about changes in the Chinese media," says a Beijing-based media expert. "But it goes up and down. All political news still goes through the state. When it comes to important questions, there isn't any independent media."
Expressions of support for those who are testing the individual and collective limits of speech in China is also still a dicey question. The case of the "stainless-steel mouse" is an example.
One reason authorities arrested Liu Di was her support of another web master whose "missing children" website was widely believed to be a site to post messages about the Tiananmen Square massacre. The web master denies this.
Since September, moreover, "mouse" supporters have signed three separate petitions calling for her release - including one that is dated for the anniversary of her arrest Friday. More than 300 Chinese used their real names on the petition, arguing that there is strength in numbers and citing the extraordinary facts of the case. Thousands more Chinese have signed using fictitious Internet names, preceded by the words "stainless steel."
Yet last week brought the arrest of essayist Du Daobin, who was responsible for helping organize one of the petitions. Ann Cooper of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called on Chinese leaders to release Du.
"After Liu Di's arrest, Du had actively called for her release and recently helped to organize an online campaign to show solidarity by taking a series of actions, including spending one day in a darkened room to symbolically accompany Liu Di in prison. He also wrote a number of essays supporting Liu Di and calling on authorities to release her," Ms. Cooper points out.
As materials for this report were being prepared, Chinese prosecutors sent her case back to police, citing no evidence of crime - though Liu has been in jail for 364 days. No mention of her arrest has ever shown up in China's state-controlled media.
China hands describe a tension between what Chinese authorities say is necessary to keep stability in a large and developing country and what intelligent, often urban and educated Chinese will accept as limits to their speech and expression.
In the kinder reading, many officials, particularly those under 60, say privately that the rules governing free expression must change; but they look for a gradual solution. They and their offspring, many of whom are educated in the West, may even have sharp disagreements with the current limits of acceptable expression and diverse opinion. In this view, free expression in China is improving.
In the less kind reading, the Chinese security and police are regularly told to crack down. There may be exceptions, as when the daughter or son of a high party member or rich family gets in trouble; or when there are excesses of youth.
But these are exceptions. The rest - labor activists, upstart college students, journalists, writers, intellectuals, professors, dissidents, religious believers with too much spunk, those who stand out in a too-public fashion or attract too much attention - are warned, or arrested. In this reading of China, free expression is not improving in the short- and midterm.
Despite some changes of style, more arrests are taking place, and ordinary Chinese are still strictly censoring themselves.