"We all could understand his decision," said Wu, whose own wife has urged him to give up the Web site. "People have to make their own choices."
Over the next six months, the authorities shut down Wu's forum 12 times. On a few occasions, the entire Web site hosting it would disappear. Other times, only his forum was closed, replaced by a message that said, "This forum has already been deleted."
Wu said he was not afraid back then because the government had not yet arrested many people for Internet activities and because he believed he was doing nothing illegal. "I mainly felt angry," he recalled. "We had freedom of speech on the Internet, but now the authorities wouldn't even let us have that space."
Still, Wu began taking precautions. When posting his own essays, he used a software program that allowed him to sign on to the Internet through a proxy server, making it difficult if not impossible for the authorities to track him down.
Despite the shutdowns, his forum continued to attract new users. Each time it closed and opened, Wu sent out a mass of e-mails with its new location, and flooded the Internet with similar notices.
Then, in November 2002, police in Beijing arrested two of his site's regular essayists. The same day, Wu's supervisor at the library and bookstore oversight office accused him of keeping "extremely reactionary essays" on his office computer and suspended him pending a party investigation.
For the first time since setting up the site, Wu was frightened and nervous. He was ordered not to leave his home. "Any time an individual faces the huge state organ, you feel alone and weak," he said. So he stayed off the Internet.
As the months passed, his friends online grew anxious. "We were worried he might have been arrested," recalled Mou Bo, 28, a medical student in Shanghai and one of the site's co-founders. But Mou and others kept the forum running.
In the end, the officials investigating Wu never asked about his Web forum or inspected his home computer, which he used to manage it. Instead, he recalled, they examined the essays he had downloaded at the office from dissident Web sites overseas. That was enough for him to lose his job.
In April 2003, after moving to Guangzhou in search of work, Wu finally signed on to the Internet again. To his surprise, the Democracy and Freedom forum was thriving. Authorities had not shut it down in months. Wu said police appeared distracted by the SARS crisis.
The next time police shut down the site, in May 2003, Wu and his friends changed tactics. Instead of moving to another Web site hosting discussion forums for free, they decided to design a site of their own and rent space from an Internet service provider. More people could sign on simultaneously, and the discussions could be expanded and organized. Most important, they would be able to save a copy of the site so the material would no longer be lost every time authorities pulled the plug.