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The Internet is God's Present to China

April 29, 2009

On the day he receives a human rights award, a
Chinese dissident reveals his gratitude to the web
Liu Xiaobo
Times Online (UK)
April 28, 2009

Today there are more than 100 million internet
users in China. The Chinese Government is
ambivalent towards it. On the one hand, the
internet is a tool to make money. On the other,
the Communist dictatorship is afraid of freedom of expression.

The internet has brought about the awakening of
ideas among the Chinese. This worries the
Government, which has placed great importance on
blocking the internet to exert ideological control.

In October 1999 I finished three years of jail
and returned home. There was a computer there and
it seemed that every visiting friend was telling
me to use it. I tried a few times but felt that I
could not write anything while facing a machine
and insisted on writing with a fountain pen.
Slowly, under the patient persuasion and guidance
of my friends, I got familiar with it and cannot
leave it now. As someone who writes for a living,
and as someone who participated in the 1989
democracy movement, my gratitude towards the
internet cannot be easily expressed.

My first essay on the computer took a week to do
- I was ready to abandon it several times. Under
the encouragement of my friends, I finished it.
For the first time, I sent an article by e-mail.
Several hours later I received the reply from the
editor. This made me aware of the magic of the internet.

With the censorship here, my essays can only be
published overseas. Before using the computer, my
handwritten essays were difficult to correct and
the cost of sending them was high. To avoid the
articles being intercepted, I often went from the
west side of the city to the east side where I
had a foreign friend who owned a fax machine.

The internet has made it easier to obtain
information, contact the outside world and submit
articles to overseas media. It is like a
super-engine that makes my writing spring out of
a well. The internet is an information channel
that the Chinese dictators cannot fully censor,
allowing people to speak and communicate, and it
offers a platform for spontaneous organisation.

Open letters signed by individuals or groups are
an important way for civilians to resist
dictatorship and fight for freedom. The open
letter from Vaclav Havel to the Czech dictator
Husak was a classic of civil opposition to dictatorship.

Fang Lizhi, a famous dissident, wrote an open
letter to Deng Xiaoping, China's leader, to ask
for the release of the political prisoner Wei
Jingsheng. This was followed by two open letters,
signed by 33 and 45 people. These three open
letters were regarded as the prelude to the 1989
democracy movement, when open letters rose up
like bamboo shoots after rain to support the protesting students.

Back then it took a lot of time and resources to
organise an open letter. Preparations began a
month before; organisers had to be found to look
up the people. We talked about the content of the
letter, the phrasing, the timing, and it took
several days to reach consensus. Afterwards, we
had to find a place to typeset the handwritten
open letter and then make several copies. After
proofing the document, the most time-consuming
thing was to collect the signatures. Since the
government was monitoring the telephones of
sensitive people, we had to ride our bicycles in all directions of Beijing.

In an era without the internet, it was impossible
to collect the signatures of several hundred
people, and it was also impossible to disseminate
the news rapidly all over the world. At the time,
the influence of and the participation in
letter-writing campaigns were all quite limited.
We worked for many days, and in the end we would
only get a few dozen people to sign. The
letter-signing movements in this new era have made a quantum leap.

The ease, openness and freedom of the internet
has caused public opinion to become very lively
in recent years. The Government can control the
press and television, but it cannot control the
internet. The scandals that are censored in the
traditional media are disseminated through the
internet. The Government now has to release
information and officials may have to publicly apologise.

The first senior official to apologise was in
2001 when Zhu Rongji, who was then the Premier,
apologised for an explosion in a school that
caused the death of 41 people. At the same time,
under the impact of internet opinion, the
authorities had to punish officials - for Sars,
mining accidents and the contamination of the Songhua River.

The internet has the extraordinary ability to
create stars. Not only can it produce
entertainment stars, it can also create
"truth-speaking heroes”. It has allowed a new
generation of intellectuals to emerge and created
folk heroes such as the military doctor Jiang
Yanyong (who publicly warned about the threat of
Sars and forced the Government to take action).

Chinese Christians say that although the Chinese
lack any sense of religion, their God will not
forsake the suffering Chinese people. The
internet is God's present to China. It is the
best tool for the Chinese people in their project
to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.

Liu Xiaobo will today be awarded the 2009
PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. He
is a prominent dissident writer who is being held
under house arrest in Beijing. This is an edited
version of an article he wrote in 2006 that was
translated by the EastSouthWestNorth blog
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