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Posted at 9:13 p.m. PST Sunday, November 15, 1998

Trial will test China's grip on Internet

New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- 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, 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, Lin helped the newsletter ``carry out propaganda and incitement by distributing essays inciting subversion of state power and overthrow of the socialist system.''

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 debates 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 Lian, a software engineer in his 30s who moved from China after the 1989 military crackdown on student-led demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. ``I don't think there's any way they can stop us.''

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.

The sites, which require Chinese-script software, are at for VIP Reference and for Tunnel.

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 ``political netters.''

Over the last year, these newsletters, plus assorted online discussion groups, have become important means of communication among political activists, said Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights in China in New York.

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 political uses.

China uses an electronic ``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 disruptions, VIP Reference is mailed from a different American address every day.

Somehow, the authorities zeroed in on Lin. Last week, 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 telephone, ``I'm afraid the lawyers won't have much influence on the results.''

If convicted as charged, Lin may face a prison sentence of five years or more. He and his wife have a 20-month-old son.

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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