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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.