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A Trip Through China's Twilight Zone

Liu studied a copy of the judge's opinion convicting Jiang, who had pleaded innocent, and noticed something strange.

The inventory of physical evidence listed a photograph of her and Li inside his office, and another one of her, Wu and Li inside his apartment. But, she said, they hadn't taken any photos. Someone must have been watching them and taking pictures with a hidden camera. Did Li know?

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 was a chilling discovery, and Liu worried what the authorities might do if she kept asking questions. But she was also furious. "If all this was manufactured by him, then he had framed us all," she said. She also felt guilty about cooperating with police and helping them convict Jiang. "I let him down," she said. "The least I can do is find Li and figure out what this was all about."

And so the Stainless Steel Rat started digging. She left messages for Li on the Internet, but he never answered. Then she voiced her suspicions online and asked for help.

At times, it felt like looking for a ghost. A friend in the police department ran a search of the city's records but found no one with Li's name among Beijing's registered residents. Others combed Li's old Web postings for clues, but discovered that he had always forwarded other people's essays and never written any himself.

There was one tantalizing lead. An Internet user named xifenggudao -- a phrase from classical Chinese poetry -- had posted two essays urging the government to release Li. He had also later sent a letter to a magazine in Hong Kong reporting that Li had been released in late November, and that he had seen him.

The writer described himself as a friend of Li's, and Liu's father had exchanged e-mail with him while she was in prison. Now Liu tried to reach him. When he didn't reply, she wondered whether xifenggudao might be Li himself.

Then, one evening in early May, Liu's cell phone rang. It was Li. Stunned, she asked him what had happened to him. He replied that he had been released in January and now was looking for a job in Beijing. He also said he had been implicated in two cases and planned to post an explanatory note on the Web.

He suggested they meet in person to discuss it, Liu recalled. She agreed, and he told her to send a text message to his cell phone later.

But he disappeared as abruptly as he had appeared. Liu's messages went unanswered. She tried his cell phone repeatedly, but the line seemed to have been disconnected. Li never posted the promised explanation, either.

Liu tried going to Li's office, only to find the building had been demolished. She tracked down the company listed on Li's business card. The manager denied that Li had been an employee and said he had just rented an office from the firm.

Finally, Liu mustered the courage to return to Li's apartment. She found the address in a court document. It was in a building that housed employees of the city's prison system.

When no one answered his door, she tried asking his neighbors for help. None of them recognized Li's name or her description of him.

But Liu left a note, and a few days later the owner of the apartment called. He didn't recognize Li's name, either. Told that the address was listed on a court document, he said there must be a mistake. His family had moved into the apartment in 2001. They began renting it out in May 2003, but never to anyone who matched Li's description, he said. In any case, Liu had visited Li in September 2002.

Jiang's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, expressed surprise that Li had been released, noting police had described him in one document as "one of the prime culprits in a criminal gang involved in a violent terrorist activity case."

"If he was released, it's very strange," Mo said. "If he was released, Jiang should be released, too."

Liu said she has not given up on finding Li. But she is resigned to living with the mystery a long time. "Sooner or later, there will be a day when the government's files are opened," she said. "Maybe only then will we know the truth."

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