China's cyber-activists spin a risky web
By Verna Yu
Liu Feiyue spends most of his waking hours on the Internet and sleeps just six hours a day - but he is no Internet addict, he is one of China's new generation of Internet rights activists.
From his humble 20-square-meter home in central China's Hubei province, Liu runs the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (Minsheng Guancha)  website, which exposes cases of rights abuses across the country.
The 39-year-old former teacher uses a range of Internet communication tools, such as instant messenger programs and e-mail as well as mobile phone text messages and a fax to
receive complaints of rights cases.
Running from a server in the United States, his website is updated every day with new reports of rights abuse incidents - an important source of information for the foreign media and international rights bodies, though it is blocked in China.
In 2003, while Liu was still a teacher, he began to raise issues about the country's public heath system and called for reform. Because he was getting more deeply involved with his rights advocacy work, he was first demoted to a remote village school, then his salary was suspended. In 2005, he established his own website and in 2006 he became a full-time rights activist.
Living under surveillance is now part of daily life for him and his family. He is regularly followed and his neighbors are ordered by authorities to watch his movements. He has been detained several times during the past two years and in the months running up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, surveillance cameras were installed and guards were placed outside his home 24 hours a day.
"There is a price you have to pay, but I don't have a choice. I think rights advocacy work is very meaningful," he said. "I see it as our responsibility as citizens to push our nation towards a more healthy path."
Liu is just one of a few but growing number of people in mainland China who have started using the Internet in the past few years to speak up for the plight of powerless ordinary people who are oppressed by their local governments.
Helped and supported by scores of volunteers, many of whom are victims of human-rights abuse themselves, they hope they can exert pressure on the government to compromise and make changes by exposing injustice.
These Internet activists are typically in their late 30s, university-educated and 20 years ago were impressionable young adults who witnessed the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.
Liu said the movement, which ended in a brutal crackdown, sowed the seeds of democracy in his young mind. "That movement had a tremendous impact on me ... started rethinking China's political system and recognized that democratization is a world trend and only a democratic political system can prevent another massacre from happening," he said.
Chen Wei, who has a blog which also exposes rights abuse incidents on the overseas Chinese website Boxun , was a student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
He was imprisoned for 18 months for his involvement in the movement and again jailed in 1992 for secretly forming a political party seen as illegal by authorities. He says he sees his rights work as laying a foundation for China's democratization.
"In China today, ordinary citizens' rights are still not safeguarded, their basic human rights are not recognized and there is no limit on government officials' power so rights abuse is a very common phenomenon," Chen said.
"We first need to be care about people whose rights have been infringed, then we can talk about civil movement, and civil movement is the foundation of democracy" he said.
The rights abuse cases they have exposed range from land seizures and forced demolitions to news of activists harassed or jailed by authorities - all could not be reported in state media.
In a politically oppressive country like China, the Internet is a particularly powerful tool which enables people to break through the state monopoly of information and get their voices out to the masses rapidly and at a low cost.
Official figures show that the number of Internet users in China reached 298 million at the end of last year, surpassing the United States to become the world's largest Internet-using population.
Although the Chinese authorities have developed a sophisticated filtering and surveillance system for the Internet, with an estimated 50,000 cyber police monitoring the web, many users are still able to bypass the firewall using special software.
Despite China wanting to improve its international image in recent years, human-rights abuse is widespread, and it is common for officials to retaliate against whistle blowers.
AIDS activist-turned human-rights activist Hu Jia was under heavy government surveillance for several years before his arrest in late 2007. Blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who exposed forced abortions among women in Linyi City, Shandong province, was jailed in 2006 for four years.
And many more dissidents across China who exposed officials' wrongdoings are locked up every year for simply reporting injustices. According to the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, China is still the top jailer of journalists, cyber-dissidents, Internet users and activists in the world, with at least 33 journalists in its prisons as of January 2008.
With this year full of sensitive anniversaries such as the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement on June 4 and the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising on March 10, activists say they are facing stricter surveillance than ever before.
Last month, a social gathering of Chen Wei and three fellow activists were broken up by police. They were detained and questioned over whether their meeting was related to the Tiananmen anniversary.
And Liu has reported increasingly serious and prolonged interference of his website in recent months resulting in his site not being accessible for days at a time. The International Federation of Journalists has condemned this as a suspected government move.
Chinese authorities are aware of the Internet's potential to spread messages they see as subversive and, with its powerful Internet surveillance system, are quick to quash cyber-activism. In January, the government launched its latest round of a Internet clean-up campaign which was superficially aimed at eradicating pornographic and other so-called "vulgar" content and resulted in the closure of thousands of websites.
At the end of last year, authorities were so nervous about an online petition for greater freedoms and democracy, the "08 Charter", that they arrested dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was seen as the leader of the movement, and questioned hundreds of signatories.
However, critics say even though Internet activists are able to break through the state monopoly of news and spread the information rapidly, they still have doubts on how influential they can be.
"They have demonstrated that it can wage asymmetrical warfare against the authorities … but in terms of putting pressure on the [President] Hu Jintao and [Premier] Wen Jiabao leadership to come out with reform measures, I think the impact is very little," said Willy Lam, an independent China watcher.
"It actually might even be counterproductive because the manifestation of people's power might have the result of scaring the authorities."
But Internet activists are undeterred.
Liu Feiyue gave the example of an illegal land requisition in his native Hubei province which he reported on his website in 2007. His report alerted the state media and eventually forced local officials to pay out higher compensation to the farmers.
Lu Jun, a campaigner at the health rights advocacy group Beijing Yirenping Center, said the group's online petitions held a few years ago helped push the central government to make progress on an anti-discrimination law against hepatitis B patients.
"We are very proud of our achievement," he said.
The campaigners admit that relatively few Chinese people can access their pages and their websites are often blocked, but they say their achievements should not be measured in the short term. Bit by bit, they believe their work will slowly make a difference.
"Our work might be insignificant, but with everyone's efforts put together, at some point a breakthrough will come," Liu said.
Verna Yu is a freelance journalist from Hong Kong.