Several times, the sites have drawn national attention to incidents of perceived injustice, prompting ordinary people to flood the Internet with angry messages. In a country where public demonstrations are forbidden, the government has felt compelled to respond to these online protests. In one case, after an outcry over the death of a young college graduate in police custody, it repealed a decades-old law giving police wide-ranging power to detain people not carrying their residency permits.
Worried about these challenges, the leadership ordered tighter controls on news Web sites this year. The government has also upgraded the technology it uses to block content from overseas and, according to the state media, has begun to install new surveillance software in Internet cafes. Nationwide, China employs an estimated 30,000 people to enforce vague regulations against using the Web to spread rumors, organize cults or disseminate "harmful information."
"The most important battleground for freedom of speech in China is on the Internet now. The authorities realize that, and they are trying to suppress it," Wu said recently, peering at his smudged computer screen and giving a tour of his Web site. "At the same time, we are continuously challenging their bottom line, and pushing them back. . . . This is a critical time."
A New World
A trim man with a wide, square face and large glasses that sit a little too low on his nose, Wu talks fast, with a thick Cantonese accent. His tiny apartment holds only a bed and a small desk for a computer he assembled himself. A plastic cup he uses as an ashtray sits near his keyboard, and newspapers are taped on the only window to keep the sun from overheating the room. The neighborhood is a slum, located far from the college where Wu teaches a class on public administration once a week, and even farther from the factory where his wife works. But the couple chose the room because the rent was cheap and the landlord had wired the building for high-speed Internet access.
The eldest son of party officials, Wu joined the Communist Youth League in middle school and had planned to join the party in college because he believed it was China's best hope for a democratic and prosperous future. But as a freshman, he participated in the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the nation in 1989, and changed his mind about the party after the Tiananmen massacre.
Wu had his own brush with the power of the state. During the crackdown, party officials demanded he identify teachers who led protests at his university, threatening to kick him out of school if he refused, Wu recalled. After several days of questioning, Wu gave them a name. He immediately regretted it, and decided then he would never give in like that again.
After graduating, Wu was assigned a job in a local office in charge of libraries and bookstores. He was frustrated and bored, until one day in 1998 a colleague introduced him to the Internet. Before long, Wu stumbled onto bulletin board sites hosting lively discussions on history, politics and current affairs. At first, Wu said, he only read what others had posted. But he was drawn into a new world.
When a popular discussion site was shut down in June 2001, he and two doctoral students he met online decided to launch the Democracy and Freedom forum, using a free bulletin board site. "I felt if I didn't speak out, I might not speak forever," recalled Wu, who adopted the Internet name Yedu, from a Tang Dynasty poem describing an empty boat on a river in the wilderness.
The new forum drew hundreds of visitors daily. Wu and his friends moderated debates on such sensitive subjects as President Jiang Zemin's plan to allow entrepreneurs into the party, independence for Tibet and whether China deserved to host the Olympics. Every Friday night, users gathered in an online chat room to continue the discussions in real time.
But less than three months after the Democracy and Freedom forum opened, authorities suddenly shut down the Web site hosting it. Neither police nor the site's managers contacted Wu. He simply clicked on his forum's address one day and saw a message on a white screen indicating the page was unavailable.
Wu and his colleagues set up the forum again on another free discussion site, and it flourished undisturbed for six months. Then, one day, as a group of users planned to meet in person, agents of the Ministry of State Security visited one of Wu's two partners. They pressured him to stop participating in the forum and threatened to withhold his doctoral degree, Wu said. After the student's wife also urged him to stop, he agreed to quit.