China fires first shot in Internet war

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The Independent Online
CHINA'S FIRST alleged Internet criminal goes on trial in Shanghai today, facing the possibility of five years or more in jail for "inciting the overthrow of state power".

The charges have been laid against Lin Hai, a 30-year-old computer software executive who is accused of giving 30,000 addresses to an electronic newsletter called VIP Reference. The newsletter is compiled by supporters of the Chinese democracy movement in Washington. It carries news of dissident activity, essays and debates on democratic topics and is said to reach 250,000 addresses in China.

Although most trials in Shanghai are open to the public this one will be held behind closed doors. Li Chunping, a spokesman for the Shanghai Foreign Affairs Office, said: "Because this case involves government internal affairs, it is not public."

The trial is being seen by dissidents as an opening salvo in the war waged by theauthorities to prevent the Internet from becoming an important source of anti- government information.

A growing number of Chinese dissidents based in the United States have seized upon the Internet as a means of circumventing China's tight censorship laws. Unlike most material on the World Wide Web, these sites are written in Chinese characters and often provide up-to-date news on political developments in China.

The overseas dissidents are beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities but people such as Mr Li, who are in a position to supply e-mail addresses within the country, are vulnerable.

Before Mr Li's arrest in March, China's main way of tackling Internet "infiltration of subversive ideas" was to set up so-called firewalls, which filter access to websites considered to be unacceptable. It does this by scanning the Web for key words such as "democracy" and "pornography" and putting a block on all sites that contain these words.

The firewalls can easily be circumvented by Internet users who link up to proxy servers - neutral websites that serve as links to other sites on the Web.

China has an estimated 1.2 million Internet accounts, which are shared by many more users. A cyber cafe craze is sweeping through China, giving Internet access to the majority of the population, who own neither a computer nor a private telephone line. Most of these cafes are linked to proxy servers to give users access to forbidden websites. This fact is well publicised.

Meanwhile the Chinese government is making efforts to create better- quality official websites to aid its propaganda effort and focus on non- controversial topics. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is the only foreign organisation to be actively involved in this effort. It has formed a joint venture with the Communist Party's mouthpiece newspaper, the People's Daily, called ChinaByte. It focuses on information technology news.

It was Mr Murdoch who said in 1993 that technological advances in communications were "an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere". With the trial of Mr Lin and other measures, such as co-operation with Mr Murdoch's company, the Chinese authorities are trying to prove him wrong.