Nothing in Zheng Yichun’s upbringing foreshadowed his landing in a political prison. His English-speaking father interrogated captured American G.I.s during the Korean War, and as a teenager two decades later, Zheng led his middle school’s Communist Youth League. Only when the reform era hit China in the 1980s did the aspiring poet have what his family calls an “awakening.” China’s leaders were corrupt and tyrannical, he said, and he would fight them with words. Yet despite the provocative title of his self-published 2002 collection of poems, The Era of Brainwashing, his work went mostly unnoticed. If not for the Internet, Zheng, now 57, might still sit in his mildewed sixth-floor walk-up near the Manchurian city of Dalian, surrounded by bookshelves of Russian literature, tapping verse onto his Legend computer.
But Zheng also shared his thoughts on overseas Chinese-language websites. China’s one-party system is “the root of all evil,” he wrote in an essay that was one of 63 signed articles he posted on dajiyuan.com, a website popular among Chinese intellectuals. Even though Web surfers in China can’t normally access dajiyuan.com;it’s among a long list of sites blacklisted by government censors;police arrested Zheng last December on charges of inciting subversion. On Sept. 22, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Beijing had once again sent a stern message to Chinese who dared to use the Internet to express their political opinions. “Zheng’s arrest served as a warning to people like me,” said Yang Chunguang, another Dalian-based writer critical of Beijing, shortly before Zheng’s sentencing. “I e-mailed dajiyuan.com asking it to take down the things I had posted.”
A decade ago, the Internet was hailed as a breakthrough technology for promoting freedom and democracy because its pervasive reach would make it impossible for repressive regimes to control free speech and the flow of information within their borders. The Chinese government has proven this to be wishful thinking. Employing much of the same information-screening and filtering technology used worldwide to combat pornography and spammers, Beijing has built a Great Firewall of China that restricts viewing of scores of foreign websites (such as those for Amnesty International and numerous news sites); the government has also deployed tens of thousands of Internet police to investigate online crimes, including political offenses. While some tech-savvy surfers can find ways through the firewall and past Web police monitors, the vast majority of China’s 100-million online population will search in vain for Mandarin equivalents of the Drudge Report, blog screeds and independent journalism that define free online speech in most of the world. A recent study by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society concluded that “China’s Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world.”