SHANGHAI (November 23, 1998 4:39 p.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com) - China's battle against dissent enters cyberspace this week when a computer engineer will be tried for using the Internet to send anti-state propaganda.
On Thursday, a Shanghai court will hear charges against Lin Hai, a 30-year-old computer software specialist, who is said to have e-mailed thousands of names and e-mail addresses to a dissident group in the United States.
China, which signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last month, has managed to keep its dissident movement on the defensive through jailings, exile and intimidation.
But this is believed to be the first time China's use of the courts to block domestic dissent has collided with the explosive growth of the Internet.
"Lin Hai has associated with a hostile foreign organization," court documents said.
The group used his data "to disseminate large numbers of articles aimed at inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system," the documents said.
Lin, who was arrested in March, ran a now closed software company that set up web sites and provided job searches for multinational companies.
If Lin is convicted of the charge at the closed-door hearing this week, he could face anything from less than three years in jail to life in prison.
The state says he sent e-mail addresses to VIP Reference, a dissident publication sent to 250,000 e-mail accounts in China from various e-mail addresses in the United States.
Lin's supporters say he frequently exchanged or purchased e-mail addresses to build up a database for his online job search business.
"On the face of it, this does not appear to support the charges," said defense attorney Wang Wenjiang.
"Sending e-mail addresses is not undermining state security."
China now boasts some 1.2 million Internet users and their number is expected to swell to 5.0 million by 2000.
The state has embraced cyberspace, investing in everything from telecommunications infrastructure to Internet cafes, and has seen a sharp rise in revenue along with growth in the number of Internet users.
Dissidents have also embraced the Internet.
In addition to VIP Reference, numerous websites and "webzines" have sprung up from online publication Tunnel (www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/5598/intro.html) to the website of the newly formed dissident grouping, the China Democracy Party.
Some of these sites cannot be accessed without Chinese language software.
The publisher of VIP Reference, Lian Shengde, told Reuters via e-mail from his Washington base:
"We have a lot of e-mail owners who send us e-mails every day. Some of them provide e-mail addresses to us.
"We did not know Lin Hai was among them."
China uses so-called firewalls to block some of the objectionable Internet sites but cannot filter out all of them.
"The Chinese government cannot totally cut off the free flow of information," said Lian.
By WILLIAM KAZER, Reuters