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  • China Special Report
  •   Chinese Sentenced In Internet Case

    By John Pomfret
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A19

    SHANGHAI, Jan. 20—In a landmark case underscoring China's desire to control the use of the Internet, a Chinese court sentenced a computer engineer today to two years in jail for selling 30,000 e-mail addresses to a Washington-based Chinese publication.

    The Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate Court convicted Lin Hai, 30, the owner of a computer software company, of "inciting the subversion of state sovereignty" when he sold the addresses to an electronic magazine, VIP Reference, that is based near Dupont Circle. His wife, Xu Hong, criticized the verdict, arguing that her husband had sold the addresses without knowing that they were being used to send anti-government material to China.

    "If someone stabs someone to death, do you convict the owner of the knife factory as well?" she asked. "This is a ridiculous logic."

    Significantly, however, the verdict today, which also included a $1,200 fine and the confiscation of "the tools of his crime" -- two desktop computers, one laptop, a modem and a telephone -- was the lightest sentence meted out since last month when China launched its toughest crackdown against dissent in several years.

    During that crackdown, several Chinese dissidents, who were not granted trials, were sent to labor reform camps for three years. But four veteran dissidents were slapped with sentences of 10, 11, 12 and 13 years after quick trials for attempting to establish an opposition party -- the China Democracy Party.

    In addition, those sentences were handed down days after the courts heard the cases. Lin's verdict was issued more than six weeks after the case was heard on Dec. 4, indicating that there was a protracted debate about the sentence. Chinese analysts said the relatively light verdict against Lin reflected the contradictory desires of China's authorities. Beijing wants to ensure that Chinese don't use the Internet as a political tool, but it also wants to avoid scaring people away from benefiting from the Internet as an educational or money-making tool.

    "We are in a bind," said an official working on the development of the Internet in China. "We need the information to enter the First World, but we have these security people who fear losing control. How can you control the Internet? You can't."

    Nonetheless, China has taken swift steps to try to limit the Internet's effect. Most major cities, starting with Shanghai, are now equipped with "cyberpolice," who have the technology to read e-mail and monitor the Web sites they browse. A large number of Web sites, including those belonging to The Washington Post and the New York Times, are blocked -- some permanently, some from time to time.

    Many Chinese, however, have devised ways around the blocked sites, specifically by using proxy servers from the United States and Eastern Europe.

    A large number of Web sites also are popping up in China filled with information that had not been available in the past.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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