By Philip P. Pan Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 24, 2004; Page A01
GUANGZHOU, China -- When Wu Wei's Web site was shut down for the 23rd time, police in the western Chinese city of Chengdu replaced it with one of their own. For a few days last summer, people trying to reach his Democracy and Freedom discussion forum instead found an odd message in large red characters on their computer screens.
"Because this site contains illegal information," the message said, "the webmaster is asked to quickly contact Officer Hu of the Chengdu Public Security Bureau Internet Supervision Department." Helpfully, the officer left a phone number.
Wu, 34, a part-time college lecturer living hundreds of miles away in Guangzhou on China's southeast coast, ignored the request. But users across the country called and berated Officer Hu for closing the site.
Wu said the officer eventually called his cell phone and offered to reopen the site if he turned over data that could help police identify people who had posted essays there.
Wu refused. Instead, he found another company, in another city, selling space on the Internet for personal Web pages. And five days after it was closed, the Democracy and Freedom site was online again.
The authorities have shut down, blocked, hacked or otherwise incapacitated Wu's Web site 38 times in the past three years, repeatedly disrupting the discussions it hosts on political reform, human rights and other subjects the ruling Chinese Communist Party considers taboo. Each time the site has been closed, though, Wu and the friends who help him run it have found a way to open it again.
Their cat-and-mouse game with the country's cyberpolice highlights the unique challenge the Internet poses to the party as it struggles to build a free-market economy while preserving the largest authoritarian political system in the world. It also illustrates how the bounds of permissible speech in China are blurring.
Nearly three decades after the death of Mao Zedong, Chinese enjoy greater personal freedom than ever before under Communist rule, and they routinely criticize the government in private without fear. But people are increasingly using the Internet to broadcast their opinions in public, challenging a key pillar of the party's rule -- its ability to control news, information and public debate.
The party is swift to jail some people who criticize senior leaders or express dissent on sensitive subjects such as Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre; at least 55 people are in Chinese prisons on charges related to their Web postings. But others who express the same views go unpunished, because police officers are sometimes apathetic about tracking them down and local Internet businesses are often more interested in attracting customers than enforcing vague rules.
More than 80 million people use the Internet in China, according to official surveys, and the figure has been doubling every 18 months. Unlike authoritarian governments elsewhere, China's rulers have chosen to promote Internet access, aiming to nurture a tech-savvy workforce, stimulate economic growth and improve government efficiency.
But the Internet has become the most unpredictable and difficult to control of the nation's mass media. While Chinese newspapers, radio and television stations are all owned by the state and must follow the party's orders, the country's most popular Web sites are privately owned, driven by profit to expand their audiences and less strictly regulated by government censors. These Web sites are at the cutting edge of an epic struggle unfolding in China today between the authoritarian state and those seeking more freedom.