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A Trip Through China's Twilight Zone

One Woman's Quest for Truth In the Authoritarian Maze

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A01

BEIJING -- On the Web, she called herself the Stainless Steel Rat, after the swashbuckling hero of a series of American science fiction novels. But climbing the dimly lit stairs of a decaying apartment block on this city's run-down south side, Liu Di seemed more like a nervous mouse.

"I think this is it," the small woman with oval glasses whispered, stopping before an iron door with the number 407 on it. "I think this is it, but I can't be sure."

Liu Di, known as the Stainless Steel Rat in cyberspace, still does not know the true identity of the man who presented himself as a fan and friend but who she now suspects was a police spy. (Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)

It had been two years since police arrested Liu, 24, on charges of subversion, and a year since international appeals and an outpouring of support from China's Internet users prompted the government to release her. At the time, Liu was a college senior, and her many fans believed she had been jailed for writing essays that poked fun at the ruling Communist Party and posting them on the Web.

But Liu wasn't so sure. Two questions gnawed at her: Could one of her friends have been an informer for the government? Had he set her up?

For months, she investigated the circumstances of her arrest, proceeding slowly, afraid what the authorities might do if she dug too deep. At times, she worried she was being paranoid. Other times, she was convinced she had been deceived. But hard evidence was elusive, and the friend seemed to have disappeared.

Now she was outside his apartment. The corridor was dark and quiet, and dusk cast flitting shadows on the concrete walls. Liu rapped lightly on the door. No one answered.

"What else can I do?" she asked during the slow drive home through the city's evening traffic. She was running out of leads, nearing the end of a long search in the shadows of the government's sophisticated security apparatus, but no closer to the truth than when she started.

More than a quarter-century after the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party has built one of the most successful authoritarian governments in the world, delivering rapid economic growth while maintaining its monopoly on power. At times, it operates with brutal simplicity: A dissident crosses a clear line and ends up in prison.

But just as often, an encounter with the Chinese state can be arbitrary, irrational and as surreally incomprehensible as something out of "The Twilight Zone." This is especially true now, as the party struggles to adapt its old methods of social control to the challenge of maintaining authority over a society seeking and winning greater freedoms.

For individuals like Liu -- caught in the grip of this system in flux -- trying to make sense of what has happened to them can be like navigating a huge and terrible labyrinth, with suspicion and fear around every corner. This is the story of one young woman's brush with authoritarianism and her attempt to confront the mysteries it left behind.

A Shy Bookworm Finds Liberation Through the Net

Liu first logged on to the Internet as a sophomore in college, and it immediately drew her in. She was a bookworm and sci-fi geek, short and somewhat dowdy, with a hunched posture that reinforced her shy demeanor. Growing up in Beijing, she often felt like a misfit. But in cyberspace, she felt liberated.

Searching for a name to use online, she recalled a series of novels she had read in middle school about a con man recruited to save the universe, the Stainless Steel Rat. The rebel in her liked one line in particular: "We are the rats in the wainscoting of society -- we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules."

Exploring the Internet, Liu was drawn to sites with material outside the party's rules. She had always been interested in politics, perhaps because her grandmother was a reporter for the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper. Her favorite novels, "1984" and "A Clockwork Orange," explored the perversities of totalitarianism. But it was on the Web that Liu threw herself into the writings of liberal critics of China's own political system.

Before long, she was immersed in Internet discussions about political reform and other subjects the party considers taboo. At first, she read only what others wrote, but then she started posting her own writing and quickly developed a reputation for funny satires about the absurdities of life under Communist rule.

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