Lin Hai, 30, who acted for business, not political, motives, becomes the first known person punished by China in connection with dissent on the Internet.
China is cracking down in an attempt to increase supervision over how the Internet is used. The number of mainland Internet accounts has soared from 1.2 million in July to 2.1 million according to figures leaked from the Ministry of Information Industries, and Internet cafes have opened around the country. This week the authorities announced that anyone establishing an Internet cafe must first register with their local public security bureau, claiming that some cafes were being used for "gambling and pornography".
Mr Lin's sentence was lighter than expected for China, probably because he was not involved in dissident activities. But his case coincides with a clampdown on such protests, which has seen four activists sentenced in the past month to prison terms of between 10 and 13 years.
Mr Lin apparently passed the e-mail addresses to the pro-democracy "VIP Reference" online magazine in an attempt to help his computer company to develop business contacts. "VIP Reference" is regularly e-mailed to a claimed 250,000 mainland computer users, each time from a different e-mail address so that it cannot be blocked by the authorities. It includes pro-democracy articles by exileddissidents and news suppressed in China. Court documents yesterday described it as a "hostile foreign organisation".
Mr Lin's court hearing took place on 4 December, but the authorities appeared uncertain about how harshly to punish someone who said he was just trying to make money. Yesterday's guilty verdict in Shanghai on charges of inciting subversion of state power was attended by Mr Lin's wife, Xu Hong, who emerged crying. It was the first time she had seen him since his arrest last March.
China's wish to manage the Internet runs far beyond what is technically possibly. The US-based publishers of "VIP Reference", for instance, had no difficulty e-mailing most of the foreign media in Peking about the impending sentence, which it described as a "landmark case of Internet persecution".
Meanwhile, the wider dissident clampdown continued yesterday with news that a founding member of the China Democracy Party had been expelled from Hangzhou University in central China days before he was due to finish his master's degree. Wu Yilong, 31, helped the dissident Wang Youcai to launch the party last June. In December, Mr Wang was sentenced to 11 years' jail for subverting state power.
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