China Surfs The Internet, But Gingerly

LI LAILAI is paying a price for being a cyberspace pioneer in China.

With the Communist government allowing the Chinese public access to the fast-growing Internet, Ms. Li finds her goal of low-cost access to environmental information under official suspicion and challenge.

Li, who is director of the private, nearly year-old Institute of Environment and Development in Beijing, hopes to connect the Chinese masses to a trove of international data about environmentally safe technology and development ideas.

She is one of a growing corps of Chinese exploring databases, electronic mail, and other wonders of the expanding information superhighway. This month, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications began the first direct commercial links to the Internet.

Before, the high costs of local access limited use to just a few government, military, and university offices.

Li, a US-trained sociologist, says her services will help create ''a cyber society where there are no borders, no political disputes, and people can talk about the issues freely.''

Li, who already has an Internet connection through a scientific institute, services several dozen users and plans to get a leased line from the government this month. But some officials, nurturing a long-standing paranoia about information control, don't agree. Although Li says she operates within the parameters of the government's new, relaxed policy toward digital information, she has been warned by individual officials that her organization is under investigation and threatened with closure.

No proof of infractions

''I'm not worried about the real government attitude. It's open. I can rely on that,'' says Li, who has demanded but has yet to see any official documents accusing her institute of infractions. ''I'm concerned about some individuals who do these things in the name of the government and are worried about me because I'm an NGO [nongovernmental organization] and regarded as a competitor.''

Although China's ruling Communists keep a tight grip on domestic and foreign media, they are falling back in the face of the steady advance of electronic communications via the Internet. Planning to spend billions this decade to upgrade telecommunications, Beijing recognizes that advanced technology is a prerequisite for a modern economy and cannot be contained within national borders, Chinese and Western analysts say.

During the nearly six years since political protests exploded in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the government has attempted unsuccessfully to restrict fax machines and access to foreign television programs by banning private ownership of satellite dishes, which nonetheless continue to dot many city rooftops.

Western diplomats suggest that government officials are still concerned Internet users will tap the system to access pornography or fuel political discontent with the help of overseas dissidents.

Although access cannot be restricted technically, the state monopoly on providing Internet service and high user fees could limit use, Western observers say.

When she first launched her project, Li encountered skepticism from the work unit that is providing her office space and some financial administrative services. ''They had these worries that we might release state secrets and bring in things that should not be brought in,'' she recalls, slumped in her office chair, wearing jeans and the sweatshirt of her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.

But Li says that's not her purpose. To meet the needs of Chinese clamoring for information about the environment, sustainable development, and new technology, she hopes to introduce ideas about reducing waste plastic, chalking up energy savings, cutting automobile pollution, and other environmental dilemmas.

''I want to be a technology broker, providing connections to Chinese users,'' she says. ''All these [environmental] problems have to change. And it's not that people don't want to change. It's just that they don't know about these problems.''

A Rockefeller grant helps

Li got her start through Leadership for Environment and Development, an international training program for promising professionals in developing countries that is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. As the China training coordinator, she got the foundation to allow her new institute to establish the electronic link through which participants from around the world communicate.

From that base, she has established a computer room with donated state-of-the-art equipment from overseas and has branched out into providing e-mail services to users from outside the program at lower costs than providers.

Planning to double her user base in 1996, she also is exploring other innovations such as linking up foreign technology with potential Chinese entrepreneurs, helping Chinese inventors find outlets for their work, and encouraging data exchanges among researchers worldwide.

''This way they can get involved in planning for the future and the future of their children,'' she says. ''This way they can cross national barriers.''

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