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Webmaster Finds Gaps in China's Net

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Wu Wei, 34, manages the Democracy and Freedom Web site from his tiny apartment located in a slum in the southeastern Chinese city of Guangzhou. (Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)


_____Graphic_____
Cat-and-Mouse Game in Cyberspace
_____Related Coverage_____
China Holds 54 Over Use Of Internet, Group Says (The Washington Post, Jan 28, 2004)
China Releases 3 Internet Writers, but Convicts 1 Other (The Washington Post, Dec 1, 2003)
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They named the main forum the Sound of Freedom and set aside another section to mark the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They also began offering downloads, including the texts of banned books and a variety of video and audio files. Among the recent offerings was footage of the huge anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year and a bootleg copy of the movie "1984," based on George Orwell's novel.

One page on the site, titled "Freedom of Speech is Not a Crime," highlighted the danger of their endeavor. It listed the names of 20 people jailed for expressing their views on the Web, including several who were regular essayists on the site. Wu never deleted their writings after the arrests. Unlike the hosts of most Chinese Web sites, he has also refused to employ a software filter to block messages with sensitive phrases such as human rights.

A dozen other friends scattered across 10 provinces were helping Wu and Mou now. They were civil servants and computer programmers, entrepreneurs and scholars, even a government official and a well-known novelist, all using Internet pen names. Only a few had ever met. Instead they communicated using Microsoft's free instant messaging system, which allowed them to hold conversations and meetings online.

They rented Web space, available in China for about $15 a month, and the new site debuted in June 2003. Two days later, it was shut down. The Internet firm explained that police in Beijing ordered them to do so, Wu said.

Wu and his partners tried again with an Internet firm in Chengdu a few weeks later. The site stayed up about two months before the message from Officer Hu appeared.

Over time, a pattern emerged. Wu used the Google search engine to find a company renting Web space on a monthly basis and using software compatible with his. The process involved clicking on link after link, and could take days. Then he contacted the firm by instant messaging, and a partner would send the payment electronically.

The company usually put up the Web site immediately, without asking questions. Then, within a few weeks, it would shut it down. Often, an employee warned that police had ordered the closure and launched a criminal investigation.

But only once did police follow through and question Wu or his colleagues. Last September, police in Jiangsu province detained the Web manager from Wu's site who had contacted and paid the last Internet firm. At about the same time, officers from the Ministry of State Security detained another of the site's managers.

Wu and the others prepared for the worst. They stopped trying to rent Internet space. They also destroyed personal letters and meeting notes that might be used against them or their friends.

As he waited, Wu began rereading essays written by dissidents who had spent time in prison. "This was the most tense time," he recalled. "We had already lost several Internet friends. We knew what was possible."

But then his two partners were released. Days and then weeks passed without a knock on his door or word of any other arrests. Eventually, Wu and his friends concluded they were safe. And they began renting Internet space again.

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