Second Anniversary of Pioneering Blogger Program-Think’s Detention Passes

May 10, 2023 marked the second anniversary of the detention of program-think (Biānchéng suíxiǎng, 编程随想), an incisive and influential blogger who for twelve years managed to maintain his anonymity while maintaining a prolific output—penning hundreds of blog posts on topics as diverse as computer programming, Great-Firewall circumvention, political commentary, philosophy, historical analysis, e-book reviews, and current events in China and abroad.

Earlier this year, a court document published on the Chinese human rights website Weiquanwang revealed that program-think, whose real name is Ruan Xiaohuan (阮晓寰, Ruǎn Xiǎohuán), had been sentenced on February 10, 2023 to seven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” (a charge based on his online writings), two years deprivation of political rights, and a fine of 20,000 yuan. The harsh sentence was widely condemned, with PEN America’s China research and advocacy lead Angeli Datt commenting, “Blogging is not a crime and the heavy prison sentence on national security charges for his writing illustrates the dire situation for free expression in China.” Iris Hsu, China Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called on Chinese authorities to immediately release Ruan, and added that his “unjust sentencing highlights how the Chinese government employs brutal tactics to suppress critical reporting on its internet policies.” Ruan himself declined to accept the ruling and lodged an appeal on the day of the verdict, but the court refused to recognize his two selected legal representatives (Shang Baojun and Mo Shaoping, both well-known human-rights lawyers), and instead gave him two state-assigned lawyers.

After news of the verdict surfaced, Ruan’s wife Bei Zhenying gave a series of interviews to CNN, RFA, and the CPJ detailing the charges against Ruan, her surprise at discovering that her husband was the legendary blogger program-think, and her concerns for his well-being and hopes for his eventual release. Ms. Bei has also established a Twitter account which currently has over 22,000 followers. Her Twitter bio urges followers to pay close attention to Ruan’s appeal, and to express solidarity but avoid talking about politics. In one tweet, she describes her husband as “a person who immerses himself in research and treasures time,” and says, “I want him to be free, to come home, and to recover.”

CDT editors have compiled and summarized a number of tweets from Ms. Bei’s account, describing how people might offer support to Ruan Xiaohuan as he appeals the court’s verdict and stands up for freedom of speech, as well as some supportive responses:

  • Pay attention to his case, because your attention will help keep him safe.
  • Please retweet so that more people may learn about and pay attention to his case, and generate more support for his pending appeal and release!
  • No (monetary donations) needed, thank you. Your attention and support means everything to us.
  • As a blogger, or online diarist, he posted on overseas blogs, exercised his freedom of speech, and did not speak about “inciting subversion” within China. I hope that his supporters who speak out here [on Twitter] will keep this in mind as they express their solidarity. Avoid talking about politics.
  • There is no such thing as impeccable (i.e. invulnerable) online “security.” He is well aware of this himself, though his security skills and security awareness are top-notch.
  • He is a rigorous thinker. His blog imparts knowledge, encourages independent and critical thinking, advocates online freedom, and strives to be thorough and objective in the information it presents.

Some Twitter users expressed their admiration and support:

jinzhi06933742: My children and I are learning so much from your husband’s articles, thank you very much!! We stand with you, and we share your ideals and values. In my opinion, your husband is a great warrior and teacher. He has done what he can, and we will do what we can, striving to make China a more civilized society.

zhngsn0909: Thank you for your hard work! Regardless of the outcome, your husband will surely be honored with a great place in history.

stfrt3: Please tell your husband that many of us are paying attention and are supportive, and we hope he can stay healthy and keep his spirits up. Thank you.

cohlint007: “Man has but one short life; grass, but one brief springtime.” Mr. Ruan is worthy of inclusion in the history books. A true patriot, a human being writ large. Respect.

realcaixia: Pay attention to the plight of Mr. Ruan Xiaohuan (program-think) and his wife, Ms. Bei. The more witnesses, the better. Witnessing is solidarity.

Wei_inDe: Your husband is brave, clear-headed, and wise. He has the respect and gratitude of many Chinese people. That, at least, will never change.

fling_wang: It is people like Mr. Ruan who keep me from despairing about this country … Highest respects to Mr. Ruan! [Chinese]

It is difficult to overstate how influential program-think’s writings are. Over the course of 4497 days, Ruan Xiaohuan penned 712 blog posts on a dizzying array of topics. (Over one hundred of these were cited as “evidence” to justify the stiff seven-year prison sentence meted out by the court.) Below are a number of tributes collected by CDT that describe his essential contributions to Chinese online discourse over the years:

From an article by netizen “47小管家” upon the first anniversary of program-think’s disappearance:

program-think, hero of China’s Internet era and anonymous pioneer of resistance against the party-state, is destined to be recorded in history. Not only is he the “godfather of GFW-circumvention,” but also a great enlightener. The breadth of his knowledge is astounding, ranging from infosec to political science to psychology and beyond.

A comment from “OverthrowCPC” posted to the old version of the Quora-like website Pincong (品葱):

Of all the overseas “subversive” counter-brainwashing content out there, program-think’s blog offers by far the most in-depth, rational, objective, and highest-quality content, second to none. It is no exaggeration to say that this blog is essential reading for all those beginners who have just learned how to scale the Great Firewall.

A comment from netizen “co-memory”:

program-think is the “Tank Man” of the digital age. Even greater, perhaps, because a brief moment of courage pales in comparison to persistent, long-term success.

From an essay by China Digital Times Founder and Editor-in-Chief Xiao Qiang, upon program-think being chosen as the 2014 “Chinese Internet Hero of the Year”:

I hope that future generations will remember the real-life individuals—whether named, unnamed, or anonymous—who carried out those small acts of resistance that laid the groundwork for an era of freedom, and that they will recognize their wisdom, courage, persistence, and sacrifice. In each and every one of program-think’s blog posts, readers will find proof positive of 21st-century Chinese people’s online resistance to tyranny and their struggle for freedom. [Chinese]

In addition to his writings, program-think’s various interactions with readers in the comments section of his blog offer clues to his motivations for blogging, how he viewed his relationship with readers, and his philosophical attitude toward the possibility of being unmasked or apprehended by the authorities. CDT Chinese editors have compiled some of the comments to and from program-think in the comments section under one of his best-known blog posts, “A Security Guide for Political Activists”:

From: Anonymous, January 30, 2019 21:56:00

He finally updated the blog. I was really worried that something had happened to him.

From: Anonymous, January 30, 2019 23:32:00

Anonymous supporter here. Mr. program-think is the most enlightened person I have ever met.

From: 灭绝支那贱畜, January 31, 2019 00:23:00

It’s been a long time since his last blog update. What I appreciate most are the technical articles. This article is a great summary, because it systematically explains the key points about network security and anonymization. It will prevent many opponents of the regime from being locked up and thrown in prison. By saving people from that fate, the author of this blog has done us all a tremendous service.

From: 辛德林记, January 31, 2019 00:44:00

The CCP dictatorship is unyielding in so many areas, but it can’t do a damn thing about program-think. That’s fucking awesome, totally amazing.

From: 比你好五倍, January 31, 2019 20:18:00

You’ve survived the first decade, now what comes next? I have been following this blog for nearly 10 years. But when you oppose the powers-that-be for so long, there will be an inevitable day of reckoning.

From: program-think, February 1, 2019  18:36:00

To: dir. Even if I am exposed and physically annihilated tomorrow, it will still have been worth it. (I said something similar in the comments section a few years ago.) Because I have already influenced so many people.

From: Anonymous, February 1, 2019 16:47:00

I’ve been reading your blog for eight years, but never dared to leave a comment. I still remember what the person who taught me to “scale the wall” said to me: “Get a look at the wider world.” This blog was first recommended to me by him. For so many years, I’ve been quietly promoting GFW-circumvention technology to those who need it, just like how that person taught me back then. Today, reading program-think’s look back at the last decade, my eyes teared up a few times. It’s hard to imagine just how much pressure program-think has had to deal with all these years. I hope that one day program-think will become a shining symbol, encouraging more people to go forward!

From: program-think, February 1, 2019 18:17:00 

To: 61楼的网友. Thank you very much for your support as a long-time reader! Of course, I also want to thank the person who taught you to bypass the Great Firewall and who recommended my blog. Many readers are quietly helping me to spread the word about this blog and related tutorials. Like us, they too are the “gravediggers” of the CCP! [Chinese]

Not long after program-think was detained in 2021, CDT translated a representative selection of his writings, including a piece on the “Princeling Network Map” he published on Github; an essay on the origins of the meme “Zhao family member,” used to describe CCP cadres and those embedded in the power structure; and an account of how he managed to elude the authorities and maintain his anonymity for over a decade. CDT editors chose him as our “2021 Person of the Year,” and have also compiled Chinese-language summaries of his top-ten blog posts and a timeline with important milestones in his 12-year blogging career.

Tony Hu contributed to this post.

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