Information Warrior
Lu Siqing delivers human-rights news to the world

By Maureen Pao in Hong Kong

February 4, 1999

A bout an hour after a Shanghai court sentenced businessman Lin Hai to two years' imprisonment for "inciting to subvert the state power," the verdict was faxed to the international media. The man who released the news wasn't in Shanghai, but in a small, cramped office in Hong Kong, where he received word from Lin's family.

"A relative who was in court paged me just a few minutes after the sentence was announced," recalls 34-year-old Lu Siqing. "I immediately called back the number he left and in a few minutes, I had the information."

In the past two years, Lu has become the conduit through which news about Chinese dissidents--as well as peasant and worker unrest in far-flung regions of China--reaches wire services, newspapers and broadcasters around the world. His Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movements in China is practically a one-man news agency--and proves that "subversive" information can still flow in and out of China.

Lu appears able to maintain that flow in the face of the Chinese government's mounting efforts to control information entering and leaving the country electronically. New regulations of the Internet aim to police its use, while its users are now more vulnerable to prosecution. Lin Hai, who owns a software company, was convicted of subversion for trading 30,000 mainland e-mail addresses with VIP Reference, a U.S.-based, on-line pro-democracy magazine.

Armed with a fax machine, a pager and a mobile phone--relatively low-tech weapons in a hi-tech era--Lu is an unlikely information warrior. But says Robin Munro, the former director of Human Rights Watch Asia's Hong Kong office: "He's putting out a very large amount of day-by-day information on the dissident scene in China and has played a very significant and pretty unique role to that extent."

Lu's role is so significant that he recently received an award for being an "outstanding personality for democracy" from the respected Chinese Democracy Education Foundation, based in San Francisco. Other recipients of the annual awards include jailed China Democracy Party leader Wang Youcai and Bao Tong, a former Communist Party official ousted for sympathizing with students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

But perhaps the best testimony to Lu's effectiveness are the fake pager messages and blank faxes he's being plagued with. He is convinced that the Chinese authorities are behind the "jamming," which he says began in November--the same time that Beijing began cracking down on dissidents who were trying to register the China Democracy Party. "They leave numbers that don't exist or numbers for hospitals, karaoke bars. Just this morning, from about 8:30 a.m. until lunchtime, I received more than 10 fake pages," he grumbles.

The son of Communist Party members, Lu first ran afoul of the authorities at age 17, when he was serving in the People's Liberation Army in his native Hunan province. He was detained for a year without trial for writing an essay on political reform. After his release, he entered Central Southern University of Technology in Changsha, the provincial capital.

As a graduate student there, he organized local protests in 1989 in support of the Tiananmen Square protesters, and was again detained without sentence. Freed in 1990, he went to Shenzhen where, yet again, his dissident activities drew the authorities' attention. In 1993 he fled to Hong Kong, where he was granted political asylum and founded the information centre. In 1996, he began sending out press releases.

Apart from small donations from individuals, Lu funds the centre from money earned as a part-time computer consultant and from his wife's clerical job. With his home doubling as his office, he says he doesn't have to pay for much, though telephone bills can be hefty--up to HK$14,000 ($1,800) per month. He says he receives no overseas funding but plans to seek donations when he goes to San Francisco in April to accept his award.

Lu's single-mindedness comes through even in an interview--aside from a quick discussion of soccer, he's all dissident facts and figures, as well as statistics about his own operation: Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press pick up 90% of his news releases--which totalled 135 in 1997 and jumped to 535 last year--he says, clearly pleased.

A Western journalist in Beijing says her news organization receives information from Lu practically every day. "He is pointing out stories that we wouldn't otherwise know about," she says. "We have other sources, such as Human Rights in China and the Free China Movement, but they focus more exclusively on dissidents and human rights, while Lu gets information about unrest in the countryside, as well." And beginning about two months ago, all of Lu's press releases have been translated into English and posted on the U.S. government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service, a Western diplomat in Beijing says.

Not everyone is as impressed with Lu, who has been a controversial figure among fellow human-rights monitors. Shortly after he set up the centre, he was accused of fabricating information; he was also criticized for being too quick to publicize information and for jeopardizing the safety of his informants.

But some who were dismayed by Lu's tactics in the past praise the work he's doing now. "At that time, he didn't really know the rules, how valuable credibility is in human-rights work," says Han Dongfang, a Chinese labour activist now based in Hong Kong. "Today, most of what we hear and see about what is really happening in China, most of it comes from Lu."

Lu admits that in his inexperienced early days, he wasn't as careful as he should have been and made mistakes in his eagerness to promote his cause. He says soberly: "We have to be very careful not to report anything that is not true." To the best of his knowledge--and others interviewed--none of his sources have got into trouble for passing information to him. "The informants don't use their home phone, they use pay phones. They page me, then I call them back. There's no way the Public Security Bureau can trace calls from random phone booths. They might know that someone has contact with us, but they don't know the details of our conversation," he says.

More than 1,000 people in China--activists, journalists, ordinary citizens and even members of the Public Security Bureau--serve as his eyes and ears, says Lu. If a tip comes from a first-time informant, he confirms the story with local activists, journalists or officials he knows.

Why do so many people call him? He's well connected ("my phone number is in almost all dissidents' address books") and very high-profile, giving out his phone number whenever he's interviewed on Chinese-language radio shows on the BBC or Voice of America. Lu has set up a toll-free number, making it easier and cheaper to call from the mainland than from the U.S. or Britain, where many human-rights groups are based--plus he's in China's time zone. Besides, Lu is one of the few dissidents who have remained in Hong Kong since its 1997 return to Chinese rule. While most of the 160-odd dissidents have left, Lu says he has rebuffed offers of resettlement from the U.S., Canada and France.

As Munro points out, Lu also stands out by focusing exclusively on providing up-to-the-minute information to the media. "He's become known among all the dissidents who are networking in China as a person who you can call who will get the news out if anything happens in your part of the country," Munro says.

Lu has been allowed to do his work unfettered in Hong Kong since its return to China, and there's nothing to indicate that won't continue. A government spokesman says: "Unless a person breaches the law, we will not curtail his personal freedoms."

With Beijing's recent crackdown on Internet activity, Lu may become an even more important channel to the outside world. Lin Hai's conviction is widely seen as a warning not to use the Internet or e-mail to spread dissident news. New regulations give the police the authority to demand that Internet cafes hand over the names of Web surfers. The government is blocking a growing number of "subversive" Web sites. And Internet policing units are being set up which will have the right to search private e-mail.

But with Internet users in China already numbering 2.1 million by official count (although the actual numbers are much higher), and expected to reach 5 million by 2000, Lu says government moves to control the Internet are "stupid." Nonetheless, he's disturbed by such flagrant attempts to rein in the flow of information--especially such invasive methods as demanding users turn over their account passwords. "Such powers are a serious breach of privacy," Lu intones.

But he notes that invasion of privacy is nothing new to Chinese in the mainland; the government is just extending old methods into a new sphere. "In the past, the police have always been able to open up private letters," he says. "The new laws just mean they can open up private e-mail." But as Lu himself shows, where there's a will to keep the world informed, there's a way.