China hits at e-mail to curb dissent

Whether she is playing at home with her baby son, telephoning her dwindling circle of friends, or surfing the World Wide Web in one of Shanghai's new Internet cafes, it seems to Xu Hong that China's secret police are ever-present, jotting down the details of her life.

Ms. Xu has never been charged with a crime, but that has not stopped China's thought police from mounting a campaign of surveillance that "would be used in the West only against terrorists or political assassins," says a Western official.

Caught in the cross-fire between China's authoritarian leaders and free speech advocates in a battle being waged over cyberspace, Xu's nightmare began late one night last March. More than a dozen police ransacked her home and seized her husband, his computer, and a box full of floppy discs.

Lin Hai was given a rushed trial early this month on charges of "inciting to overthrow the government." He was the first Chinese charged with launching a "cyber-attack" on the Communist system: Mr. Lin allegedly sold 30,000 e-mail addresses to an online pro-democracy magazine run by Chinese exiles in the US capital.

Xu is also being penalized for protesting Lin's treatment in foreign-press interviews and in an open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The police have let me know that they have eyes and ears everywhere," says Xu. "They know what I'm doing at home, at work, or on the Internet."

Undercover police outside Xu's home monitor her every move, and have begun warning her friends to stay away if they want to avoid trouble. In the middle of China's latest crackdown on human rights and democracy advocates, many friends are opting to abandon Xu. Xu says her parents are being pressured to silence her.

"Police told Xu that if she is imprisoned along with her husband, her son will grow up as an orphan," says Frank Lu, who heads the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy Movement in China. "The Communist Party's heavy-handed treatment is like taking a great leap backward to the Cultural Revolution, when an entire family was punished for the political crimes of a single member," Mr. Lu adds.

During Mao Zedong's radical 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the party tried to control Chinese life, thought, information, and communication. Most Chinese were forbidden to have contact with the outside world. Even receiving a letter from abroad could trigger arrest.

In the two decades since Mao's death, Beijing's opening to the world and market economic reforms have given many Chinese the freedom to map out their own lives, so long as they do not cross a great wall of political taboos.

A nascent cyber-revolution is expanding China's links around the globe but is also fueling the party's fears of an influx of Western ideas on democracy and basic rights. To block a computer-aided "free marketplace of ideas," China's parliament last year amended the law to forbid electronic messages deemed critical of the government, which can be punished with lengthy imprisonment.

"During the entire era of reforms, China's leaders have attempted to open the economy and country while maintaining political control," says Ken Farrall, who heads China Matrix, which operates a Web site on Internet use in China. Just as on ongoing wave of dissident trials is being used to make China's 1.2 billion citizens think twice before publicly criticizing the party, so is Lin's prosecution a warning to Web surfers. "The government wants the people to censor themselves," says Mr. Farrall.

With an explosion of Internet use here - from 100,000 Chinese in 1996 to as many as 5 million today - Beijing is focusing on "increasingly sophisticated monitoring techniques" in addition to blocking numerous Web sites, Farrall adds.

Although Lin Hai has not yet been sentenced, verdicts in other trials this month bode ill for him. Three leaders of the fledgling China Democracy Party were each given decade-plus prison terms, and two hackers who staged China's first "bank cyber-robbery" were sentenced to death.

Although Beijing recently signed the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial, Lin's treatment reads like a manual on how to violate due-process rights. Xu says that when she tried to hire her husband's lawyer, the attorney was detained until he agreed to give up the case. Police used similar tactics against a second attorney, and detained Xu outside a Shanghai court to prevent her from attending Lin's trial.

Mike Jendrzejczyk, who heads the Washington, D.C., office of Human Rights Watch, says under international standards China is violating the law by prosecuting Lin. "Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Many government leaders in the West have called for Lin's release. If China keeps Lin locked away, "this case is going to have a direct impact on China's international relations," the Western official says.

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