China and the Internet: A Virtual Road to Prison

Remarks before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing

November 7, 2007


I am privileged to be able to participate in this briefing this morning and thank the organizers for inviting me. My organization, The Dui Hua Foundation, has for many years been engaged in an effort to uncover the names of individuals imprisoned in China for the non-violent expression of their political and religious beliefs. Our database of prisoner information includes the names of more than 14,000 persons imprisoned for these reasons since 1980, of which 4,000 make up an “active registry” from which we develop prisoner lists designed to raise individual cases directly to the Chinese government and encourage better treatment and early release.

Dui Hua’s research helped to uncover three of the four individual cases in which Yahoo!’s Beijing office is known to have provided information to Chinese law-enforcement agencies. Yahoo!’s role was first revealed in court documents, beginning with the May 2005 verdict in the case of Shi Tao, and became even more plain through copies of police documents that we obtained in July of this year. Careful examination of those documents led us to conclude that they were most likely authentic, and we made them available to a wider public audience.

These requests from the Beijing State Security Bureau to Yahoo! Beijing led directly to yesterday’s hearing, at which Yahoo! senior counsel Michael Callahan acknowledged that his testimony in February 2006 had been incorrect. Yahoo! did, in fact, have information about the nature of the crime being investigated in Shi Tao’s case. Moreover, the police documents made public in July show that Yahoo! actually had the same amount of information about the crime being investigated in Wang Xiaoning’s case two years before. We infer from the similarity of these two documents that Yahoo! knew the crimes being investigated in the cases of Jiang Lijun and Li Zhi as well.

All four of these men were convicted of crimes that fall under the category of “endangering state security” in Chinese law. This category of crime, which, following legal reforms a decade ago, largely replaced the earlier category of “counterrevolution,” aims to protect the “security and interests of the [Chinese] state.” There is no purpose for the laws against subversion, inciting subversion, or “splittism” other than to repress politically dissident activity. The law against leaking state secrets outside of China that was used against Shi Tao has been used to silence journalists, rights-defending lawyers, advocates of religious freedom, and those who champion the rights of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans to seek greater autonomy or even independence. It is unconscionable for Yahoo! to have knowingly contributed to police investigations into such crimes for at least two years without a red flag being raised and closer scrutiny being paid to whether the price of their Chinese operation might have been too high.

Yet, while we must demand that foreign companies find ways to avoid being complicit in this sort of political repression, we should not overstate the role played by companies such as Yahoo! in the overall system of repression as it exists in China. Chinese police are adept at amassing multiple layers of testimony, physical evidence, written evidence, and confessions that make any single piece of evidence essentially superfluous. (And this of course, is giving the Chinese legal system the benefit of the doubt, assuming that courts carefully consider the evidence at all, rather than simply announcing decisions made behind the scenes, often in advance.) Chinese police have constructed massive intelligence-gathering networks to root out possible cases of political and social disruption, and surveillance over the Internet is but one part of this—albeit a part that’s obviously growing in importance in light of the Internet’s growing ubiquity.

These individuals and scores of others like them have been imprisoned for things they said or did using the Internet. Years earlier, they might have been arrested (indeed, many were) for expressing similar ideas via fax or through the mail. Or perhaps they would have been apprehended disseminating leaflets or putting up posters. When the crime is defined by the insecurity of the political system and when the rights of individuals are subordinate to the interests of the state, the medium through which these expressions are voiced is less significant than the repression with which they are inevitably met.

Thus, while it is important to pay careful consideration to the special nature of the Internet and Chinese efforts to control its use, we should not lose sight of the fundamental issue: What China considers “criminal” activity, at least as far as perceived threats to national security are concerned, is so broadly defined as to encompass all sorts of behavior that should be protected under international human rights law. Appeals to free speech provisions in the Chinese constitution consistently fail because China has never embraced one of the fundamental premises of international human rights law: that individual rights take precedence over the interests of the state. So China has enacted vague, all-encompassing statutes in the name of protecting national security and social stability and can thus point to those laws as the basis for imprisoning individuals it sees as threats.

The Internet, as a specific medium of communication, has in fact had a significant impact on the modes of oppositional political expression and organization in China—and on the nature of the state’s response. BBS postings may be the anonymous leaflets of the Internet age, with chat rooms serving as the new dissident salons. Without a doubt, the Internet has enabled an individual’s writings to cross boundaries and reach an audience far wider than any leaflet ever could and with unprecedented immediacy. Activists from different parts of China are more aware of each other than ever before, and they are able to share and absorb ideas with other activists overseas.

New technologies can help to thwart surveillance until they are in turn matched by newer technologies designed to aid police. This cat-and-mouse game will no doubt continue indefinitely, with the technological advantage always being on the side, however temporarily, of free expression. Achieving a situation in which the expression of dissident political views does not result in imprisonment will ultimately rely not on technology, but on laws. The only way to end China’s history of repressing free speech—a history that far predates the advent of the Internet—is for the Chinese government to embrace one of the fundamental premises of international human rights law: that individual rights take precedence over the interests of the state. There is a history hundreds, if not thousands of years old that works against China’s full acceptance of this principle, but there is hope that an expanding rights discourse among the Chinese people—a discourse aided by the Internet—will help to make it happen.