But the brute fact of cruelty
struck me down. Pain lacks the tenderness of moonlight.
Struggling, trapped in an iron box full of lies, I try to be a model patient,
to swallow a spoonful of spite down the throat of the motherland.
(From Shi Tao’s poem ‘Pain’, translated by Sarah Maguire and Heather Inwood.)
The use of pseudonyms or nicknames on the Internet is, for most of us, just some fun, but for Shi Tao – a Chinese poet, journalist and dissident writer – his pen name, ‘Nice Ears’, is more of a necessity. China is well known for its blatant monitoring of the Internet. As well as the many laws and regulations aimed at controlling the use of the Internet, the authorities are well equipped for widespread surveillance, and the constant threat of arrest is, of course, one of the most effective ways to silence critics.
Shi’s case is a classic example of a writer who has fallen foul of China’s repressive legislation governing the use of the Internet. On 27 April 2005 the journalist was convicted of ‘illegally leaking state secrets overseas’, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and two years’ deprivation of political rights. On 2 June, the Hunan Province People’s High Court rejected Shi’s appeal without allowing a hearing.
Shi’s prosecution stems from an email he sent to the editor of a New York-based website describing the various media restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities prior to the fifteenth anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Apparently the email contained Shi’s notes from an editorial meeting of the Changsha-based daily Dangdai Shang Bao (Contemporary Trade News) in April 2004, where the government document was read out.
Human Rights in China (HRIC), the international monitoring and advocacy group, received a copy of the writer’s appeal, which gives details of his arrest and subsequent trial. Shi describes how around noon on 23 November 2004 he was accosted in the street near his home, covered with a hood, and transported to Changshu, Hunan Province, thousands of miles away. Shi claims the police also searched his home, and seized his computer, journals and other documents, without producing any legal warrants.
Shi does not deny sending the email, but asserts that his notes merely recorded a newspaper executive’s description of the guidelines aimed at ensuring social stability at the time of the Tiananmen Square anniversary. The journalist maintains that the information he provided relates to public sentiment and so cannot be construed as a state secret.
As well as the obvious violation of Shi’s right to freedom of expression, guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the writers’ organisation PEN and other human rights organisations around the world were disturbed to learn that the main evidence used to convict Shi was information supplied by the global Internet service provider Yahoo! Inc.
According to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which presses for the release of political prisoners in China, its English translation of the court’s verdict reveals that Yahoo! Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd provided Chinese police with detailed information that enabled them to link Shi’s personal email account and the specific message containing the alleged ‘state secret’ to the IP (Internet protocol) address of his computer. The conglomerate has refused to offer any details beyond the following statement: ‘Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based.’ However, Yahoo! is not believed to be under any legal obligation to co-operate with the Chinese police. Many believe that Yahoo! is not legally bound to provide such information to the authorities since it is based in Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from mainland China.
Shi, born in 1968 in Yanchi City, north-west China, is known for his social and political commentaries, written for online media such as the overseas Chinese-language website Democracy Forum (www.boxun.com). He is also a widely published poet; he began writing poetry as a teenager and was active in university poetry societies while studying politics. In 1989 he took part in the wave of student demonstrations that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre. After graduating in 1991, Shi worked for a year as a teacher in Xi-An City, before moving into journalism. More recently he worked as a managing editor for Dangdai Shang Bao until May 2004, when he became freelance.
Shi’s case has raised widespread concern both inside and outside China and is seen as a prime example of the authorities’ relentless suppression of a free press and free speech. In November 2005, Shi received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Shi was transferred to the high-security Chishan Prison in Hunan Province on 5 September 2005, where he is forced to work in a jewellery factory. According to his family, many prisoners contract pneumonia or respiratory ailments as a result of the production process of cutting and polishing jewels. PEN has recently learned that the writer is already suffering from breathing problems and a skin inflammation as a result of the forced labour.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Shi Tao to:
Her Excellency Ms Wu Aiying
Minister of Justice
c/o Ambassador Zha Peixin
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49–51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981