A Brave Student Becomes a Symbol Of Modern China

A Brave Student Becomes a Symbol Of Modern China
By Sophie Beach

The Asian Wall Street Journal

November 7, 2003

By Sophie Beach

One year ago, 22-year-old Liu Di was a fourth-year psychology student at a Beijing university. Like many Chinese college students, Ms. Liu would spend her spare time surfing the Internet and posting her thoughts in online forums. Ms. Liu, using the online name “Stainless Steel Mouse,” had earned a reputation as a sharp-witted member of a small but burgeoning online community in China, where participants found a rare space to publicly express their opinions about social and political issues.

In one essay, Ms. Liu wrote about a fantasy world in which people’s souls and minds could exist inside cyberspace, while their physical bodies remained in the real world. “When most of human life is lived inside the cyber world, the Communist Party will still exert repressive control over the real world, but what meaning will it have?” she asked.

Last winter, Ms. Liu’s online friends noticed that she had been missing for several days and became concerned for her safety.They knew that the opinions Liu had expressed —including calls for freedom of expression and condemnation of the arrest of Web master Huang Qi, who was detained in June 2000 —would not be welcomed by the authorities. Indeed, officials at her university had already warned her to tone down her online writings.

As her friends soon learned, on Nov.7, 2002, security agents had taken Ms. Liu away from the home she shared with her 80-year-old grandmother. In the year since then, Ms. Liu’s family has not been allowed to visit her and authorities have not offered any explanation for her arrest, beyond saying that she had “endangered public security.” Ms. Liu has not been tried and is currently in a state of legal limbo in Qincheng Prison, where many of China’s political prisoners have wasted years of their lives. Last week, the prosecutor’s office returned the case to the police for further investigation, citing insufficient evidence.

In many ways, Ms. Liu’s case is unremarkable in a country where 39 journalists are currently in prison for their writing, and a sophisticated security apparatus monitors what citizens read and write online. Due process has been completely ignored in Ms. Liu’s case, as it has in many of the cases of the other imprisoned journalists. By denying her family visitation rights, officials are violating specific provisions in the Prison Law.Authorities’ failure to put Ms. Liu on trial or release her after a year violates the Criminal Procedure Law, which sets a two-month time limit for a suspect to be detained during investigation. However, loopholes in the law allow for an extended detention period under vaguely defined special circumstances. As a result, detainees in political cases are routinely held for months or even years before being convicted.So while Ms. Liu’s current situation is unjust and inhumane, it is not unfamiliar.

What makes Ms. Liu’s case unusual is the response it has generated within China—and in the universal world of cyberspace. Immediately after news of her arrest spread through the online forums where Ms. Liu had been a regular, her virtual network of friends sprung into action, launching a global movement for her release. A Web site was set up in Malaysia to post updates about her situation, articles she had written, and a petition demanding her release. The petition included thousands of signatures, many of which were individuals inside China who courageously used their real names. Prominent Beijing academics and writers, including Yu Jie and Liu Xiaobo, took up the cause and wrote essays supporting Ms. Liu. Sympathizers began to add the prefix “Stainless Steel” to their online monikers, in a sign of solidarity and defiance.

Most of China’s 68 million Internet users are, like Ms. Liu, young, educated, and living in cities. Many of the opinions Ms. Liu expressed were shared by members of her online community, and when Ms. Liu disappeared, some in China were aware that they could be next. Instead of being scared into silence by that knowledge, they were empowered to speak out.

On Oct. 9, Ms. Liu’s 23rd birthday, her supporters launched a month-long protest, ending on the one-year anniversary of her arrest. They pledged to spend one day in a darkened house, to symbolically join Ms. Liu in prison. On her birthday, they wrote articles in tribute and distributed them online. One prominent organizer of the campaign, Du Daobin, told journalists, “Detaining Liu Di is a violation of the freedom of expression. Why do we still have literary persecution in the 21st century?” In China, these efforts are filled with risk. On Oct. 28 Du Daobin was arrested, and several other petitioners have also been detained.

The Chinese government has made great progress toward becoming a respected global power, an achievement that was recently personified in Yang Liwei as he triumphantly returned from the country’s first manned space flight. Yet before the international community welcomes China to its ranks, we should remember that the same leaders who sent a man to space also sent a 23-year-old college student to prison because she wrote articles similar to this one. Yang Liwei may serve as a powerful symbol of modern China, but so does Liu Di.

Ms .Beach is the senior research associate in the Asia division of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based press freedom organization.

Reprinted from The Asian Wall Street Journal © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.