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Yahoo, Chinese police, and a jailed journalist

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2005



HONG KONG

The role of the US Internet firm Yahoo in helping Chinese security officials to finger a journalist sentenced to 10 years for e-mailing "state secrets" is filtering into mainland China. The revelation reinforces a conviction among many Chinese "netizens" that there is no place security forces can't find them.

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Yet if netizen reaction in China is resignation, the story of Yahoo's complicity in the arrest of Shi Tao, a journalist with the Contemporary Trade News in Hunan, brought a spontaneous uproar among Western human rights and business watchdogs.

They say the case of Mr. Shi, convicted for e-mailing comments made in a newspaper staff meeting to a democracy group in New York, and whose IP Internet address was given to Chinese officials by Yahoo - highlights both a deepening US corporate acceptance of illiberal Chinese laws and a little-noticed rise in the jailing of journalists in China over the past two years.

Given that Bill Clinton will be in Hangzhou on Sept. 10 for a "China Internet Summit" hosted by Yahoo's Chinese partner Alibaba.com, rights groups are urging the former president to raise Shi's case and advocate a freer flow of information.

Yahoo Holdings Ltd. in Hong Kong worked with mainland Chinese police to find Shi, according to court documents. So far, Yahoo has refused to offer details beyond this statement released Thursday: "Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the [local] laws, regulations, and customs."

When queried whether Yahoo gave Shi's address to police after a court request, or whether police simply phoned Yahoo offices on the mainland to get help, Hong Kong Yahoo marketing spokesperson Pauline Wong said she was "unable to give out any information like that."

"For Yahoo to say it only must abide by 'customs,' well, that opens the floodgate," says Nicolas Becquelin of Human Rights In China. "Anything can be called a custom."

Legally, Yahoo is not obligated to cooperate with Chinese police. Yet in practice it may have to. Unanswered so far are the terms by which Yahoo Hong Kong, operating under the "one country two systems" formula that allows autonomy, was forced to conform to Chinese requests, despite its Hong Kong registry.

The Shi case also highlights vast differences in the Western and Chinese definitions of "state secrets." Beijing includes information on statistics, child labor laws, police behavior, strikes, and riots.

"The content of state secrets in Chinese law ... goes far beyond ordinary definitions of national security to encompass, in fact, most information handled by the government," says Mr. Becquelin.

Shi was arrested in November, and convicted in April of "providing state secrets abroad." He had e-mailed personal notes from a staff meeting about overseas Chinese returning for the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.

Yet until the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders released court documents showing that Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary played the central role in identifying Shi to police, his case was obscure.

"We think Yahoo's role is very sad in this case, and we hope Yahoo reexamines its policies," says Abi Wright of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been following Shi's case for months. "But frankly, it isn't Yahoo but the Chinese authorities who are jailing this man, and we feel the focus of attention needs to remain on the authorities."

In the past year, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have been in competition to attract China's 95 million Internet users. They have been pressured to comply with local laws that restrict news and discussion. Google has agreed with authorities to censor its Chinese search engine, for example, as has Yahoo. Microsoft launched a Chinese blog service that forbits users from using certain words.

In China, "netizens" is the term for a class of mostly educated, urban Chinese who regularly use cyberspace for a range of activity and expression that exists in a grey area. Netizens tend to write in a world of information broader than is found in public culture. They read and discuss news and information from outside China that is not officially approved and therefore exists at best, semilegally. Both netizens and chat-room users typically use anonymous e-mail addresses.

Chinese netizens received their first shock two years ago when authorities tracked down one of the most famous anonymous cyber-essayists, Liu Di, who wrote under the name "Stainless-steel mouse." Ms. Liu, a college student, wrote satirically about the fact that while most Chinese no longer believe the doctrines of communist ideology, they must all act as if they do. Her writings caused much mirth - and official wrath. Authorities tracked Liu Di to her college and had the administrators reveal her identity through her IP address. She was then held for more than a year, without charges, before being released. The case triggered an Internet campaign to have her released, and for authorities to relax their policies.

But, in the current Party campaign of "ideological strengthening" and control of information, which has taken place alongside a push for a "harmonious society," the idealism that many felt characterized the Liu Di protest has largely evaporated.

"We understand that the Internet is not a safe space," says a cofounder of a Beijing Internet company. "We all have to be careful."

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