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Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
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November 16, 1998, Monday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 8; Column 1; Foreign Desk
LENGTH: 837 words
HEADLINE: A Trial Will Test China's Grip on the Internet
By ERIK ECKHOLM
DATELINE: BEIJING, Nov. 15
The trial of a 30-year-old computer executive, soon to begin in Shanghai,
heralds a new electronic battleground for China's political dissidents and
security forces determined to preserve Communist Party control.
Lin Hai, the defendant, is charged with
"inciting subversion of state power."
Prosecutors say that from September 1997 until his arrest in March, Mr. Lin
gave tens of thousands of Chinese E-mail addresses to
"hostile foreign publications."
In particular, they say, he provided addresses to an electronic newsletter
called VIP Reference, which is compiled by Chinese democracy advocates in
Washington and sent to hundreds of thousands of computer-users inside China.
According to the indictment, Mr. Lin helped the newsletter
"carry out propaganda and incitement
by distributing essays inciting subversion of state power and overthrow of the
Mr. Lin appears to be the first legal casualty of a building struggle, as
Internet users here and abroad make shreds of the Government's efforts to
censor political debate and filter foreign news. VIP Reference -- which sends
out reports on dissident activities, essays and reprinted articles on human
rights and other issues -- is the most prominent of several electronic forums
that are breaching China's information defenses.
"We're promoting freedom of speech on the Internet," said Feng Donghai, a software engineer at
Columbia University who moved to the United States three years ago and helped
start VIP Reference last fall.
"They are putting Lin Hai on trial to set an example."
The main VIP Reference, sent out every 10 days, mostly includes essays and
on democratic topics. A subsidiary Daily News edition, sent daily, includes
detailed accounts of dissident initiatives and arrests.
The main newsletter is now sent to more than 250,000 addresses in China said
its publisher, Lian Shengde, who spoke from Washington. The Daily News edition
goes to about 25,000, and the numbers are steadily climbing as sympathizers
send in lists of Chinese addresses.
The newsletter accepts addresses indiscriminately -- many are from commercially
traded lists -- then mails to everyone. The theory is that when so many are
automatic recipients, individuals cannot be accused of deliberately subscribing.
"We're posing a
new problem for the Communists," said Mr. Lian, a software engineer in his 30's who moved from China after the
1989 military crackdown on student-led demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen
"I don't think there's any way they can stop
Another, similar publication is Tunnel, a self-described
"webzine" of commentary written in China and sent electronically to the United States
from where it is wired back to thousands of accounts inside China.
Addresses are, for VIP Reference, www.ifcss.org/ftp-pub/org/dck and
for Tunnel, www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Bay/5598. Chinese-script software
A third newsletter, Public Opinion, is edited and distributed electronically
from inside China. It includes commentaries and reprints of items taken off the
Internet and is produced by a group of young
computer company workers who call themselves
Over the last year, these newsletters, plus assorted on-line discussion groups,
have become important means of communication among political activists, said
Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights in China in
China now has some 1.2 million Internet accounts, many shared by several users,
with the numbers zooming. The Government has encouraged hookups in the interest
of promoting national development, but is fighting a losing battle to control
Chinese officials use
"firewall" to block access to web sites it deems objectionable, including those of human
rights groups and some considered pornographic. But it cannot keep up with new
sites, and clever users can sidestep the firewall. E-mail is virtually
uncontrollable, although agents
can identify a particular individual and read that person's mail.
China's security agencies have formed special units to fight not only
conventional computer crimes like illegal break-ins and fraud, but also the
spread of dissident information. To evade Government filters and electronic
Reference is mailed from a different American address every day.
Somehow, the authorities zeroed in on Mr. Lin. Last week, Mr. Lin's wife, Xu
Hong, learned that his trial will begin on Nov. 26 but will be a closed
proceeding so that she
cannot attend. The lawyers she hired will be present but, Ms. Xu said by
"I'm afraid the lawyers won't have much influence on the results."
If convicted as charged, Mr. Lin may face a prison sentence of five years or
more. He and his wife have a 20-month-old son.
Ms. Xu, who says her husband is innocent, said that E-mail addresses are
"public information, like telephone books, which can be exchanged or purchased." He has never been involved in politics, she said.
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