Force of technology could overwhelm dictatorship, Chinese dissident says

Monday, March 26, 2001

With a few striking words, a former Chinese student dissident managed to turn a conference on cyberspace and its assorted freedoms into a small rally for hope.

In his keynote speech for the First Amendment Online conference in New York on March 23, Li Lu said that over the past 10 years there had been “two tremendous, parallel symbols of progress: technology and the human struggle for dignity and freedom.”

“Find the connection between the two,” he told the gathering of journalists, lawyers, educators and innovators at the First Amendment Center, “and that connection is going to shape our destiny, our common destiny, in the coming decades.”

The son of a government critic who died in jail, grandson of a man sent to labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, Li led 3,000 other students to safety during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre that ended China’s pro-democracy movement.

But it was not heroics he talked about, it was fear, the fear that pushed more than a million people in 100 cities across China to rally for freedom.

“I had that fear. Everybody had that fear,” he said. “I remember here how desperate we felt in the early 1980s when we were growing up. … We were always told we live in a socialist paradise and people in the United States live in a capitalist hell.

“But, of course … we all thought, ‘Oh, gee, we wish we were in hell,’ ” Li recalled.

“We know there is a different life, that life could be entirely different,” he said. “If we’d never had that knowledge, like the previous generation, we’d be OK. But we knew it. And that is profoundly, profoundly depressing.”

Li said he finally overcame his own depression by the simple act of talking to others.

“And it was a great revelation that, till today, still forms my core belief — that I was not alone, ” he said.

“That was why we had the guts to do something like that … . We thought what the nation needed is a group of people who would dare to say ‘no.’ And who could say ‘no’ loudly enough, hopefully enough, that other people can see and hear and, therefore, be able to join. And maybe, maybe there’s a chance we can change the equation of three million soldiers dealing with one dissident into a billion people standing in solidarity hand-in-hand facing one dictator.”

Today it is China’s regime that still stands, ruling 1.3 billion people even as it liberalizes its private economy in a push for global clout.

And Li today is managing partner of Himalaya Capital, a firm he founded in New York City. But his homeland is never far from his thoughts.

“One out of five people today still live in fear, if they express any one of the freedoms that … are guaranteed in the Constitution of this country,” he noted.

For them, the Internet offers hope, he said. Already used by 20 million people in his country, he noted, by 2005-2006 “it is estimated that China could be the largest country with the largest Internet population — possibly 300 million people.”

Li hopes the sheer volume of that traffic alone might one day overrun the government’s current, “rather effective” policy of filtering its Internet. Using blacklists of URLs, and even Web policemen who randomly roam Internet cafes to read people’s e-mail, the regime has targeted “what they call indecent sites, that basically carry information, unbiased, independent-sourced information and news about China,” he noted.

Technology, he stressed, played a major part in the people’s push for democracy a decade age, from the fax and phone at first, to radio, TV and the Chinese newspapers later, spreading word and image of the struggle.

And new technology continues to carry the fight. Already, he noted, there are efforts to circumvent government filters, including a growing e-mail newsletter that carries news clips from abroad.

And there is enormous potential, he added, for a peer-to-peer Web network, inspired by Napster, in which any single computer user could essentially become a proxy server for others to get into sites that are now off-limits.

“For the Chinese government to really block those proxy servers, they would have to put millions of URLs on the blacklist,” Li noted. “That would essentially halt the Internet for China.”

“For that kind of innovative idea, there are a lot of people working very carefully at this very moment to make sure no authority, especially a dictatorship, will be able to suppress the free flow of information on the Internet,” he added.

To that end, he cited one recent success story, the contrasting reports of an explosion in a Chinese school that killed many students and teachers. The government’s official version of the events did not convey what was being widely spread through the Internet: that the children were forced to make gunpowder for the school’s profit, and that gunpowder had exploded.

It was “one of the first occasions that people have used the power of Internet to really force the government to back down,” Li noted. “Had it not been for the Internet, those things would never (have) come out.”

He also spoke of the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, which he said continues to use the Internet effectively “as its central nerve” to galvanize support both at home and abroad.

In what he called the “ruthless and cruel” government crackdown on the group, Li said that “140-plus people were killed, according to Falun Gong, and countless more arrested.”

Although he does not agree spiritually with the Falun Gong, Li said, he admires their courage and nonviolent protests. And, he added, the Internet’s ability to spread their message — “wave upon wave have agreed to go to Beijing to stage protests” — shows “the power of technology and faith.”

In the end, he said, there is a single, simple thread that ties technology to humanity.

“We all hope for the same things, we all fear for the same reasons … and that’s what technology does. Technology enables us to find that common strength,” he said.

Freedom, he reminded his audience, “is really like oxygen. You know, when you have it you never really think too much about it. But you can’t live without it.”

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