SHANGHAI — In an attempt to extend political control into cyberspace, Chinese authorities put a young software entrepreneur on trial here Friday on charges that he tried to undermine the state through the Internet, the first trial of a "cyberdissident" in China.
Lin Hai, 30, is accused of inciting subversion by providing 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to "hostile foreign organizations," a charge that could bring a maximum penalty of life in prison. Lin pleaded not guilty.
Lin, who ran an Internet job search and marketing business in Shanghai, allegedly gave the addresses to the Washington-based VIP Reference, an Internet dissident magazine that e-mails pro-democracy essays and articles to hundreds of thousands of Internet users in China.
The four-hour trial was held behind closed doors at Shanghai's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, but a verdict may not be reached until next week, Lin's lawyer said after the trial.
"I'm afraid it doesn't look good for Lin Hai," lawyer Wang Wenjiang told the Associated Press by telephone Friday evening. "I think he's going to be found guilty."
Lin Hai's wife, Xu Hong, whom security officials apparently prevented from appearing at the courthouse, has been campaigning to clear her husband's name since he was arrested in May.
She maintains that exchanging e-mail addresses, which are public information like telephone numbers, was part of his Internet business and that he was not the one who sent the material the government deemed subversive.
"If someone is killed with a knife, should you arrest the knife-maker or the murderer?" she wrote in a letter of appeal to top authorities.
The case is being monitored carefully not only by international human rights groups and organizations that promote Internet freedom but also by businesspeople who hope to do e-commerce with one of the world's fastest-growing computer communities.
There are an estimated 1.2 million Internet accounts registered in China, many with multiple users, and authorities expect the number to reach 5 million by 2000.
Lin's case is an important warning to those using the Internet to spread information that would otherwise be censored on the mainland.
China's security apparatus is struggling to control the Internet. Special monitors survey electronic traffic, and the government has erected filters and "firewalls" to block sites deemed pornographic or subversive, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the BBC.
However, the blocks are not enough to keep groups such as VIP Reference from zipping their material into the country. The electronic magazine, known in Chinese as Da Cankao, was started by a handful of Chinese students in the United States last year.
They evade the firewalls by e-mailing their compilations of pro-democracy essays and articles directly to about 250,000 people inside China. The Internet address--http://+www.come.to/dck--changes frequently to sidestep filters, and the magazine is sent from a different e-mail address every day.
"China apparently considers us 'counterrevolutionary,' but we are not dissidents," said one of the founders, Feng Donghai, a software engineer in New York. "We are not a political party. We are only interested in freedom of speech. I never meant to be a dissident, but I am forced to be a dissident by China."
Feng said the magazine's publishers use a "spam strategy," sending the magazine to random addresses across China--even to top government officials--so no one can be accused of intentionally subscribing. He added that they trade and receive mass e-mail lists from many different sources; they did not know Lin, and Lin did not necessarily know what his lists would be used for, he said.
Other Internet magazines are written in China, then sent overseas to be e-mailed back into the country. One is Tunnel (http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Bay/5598), which relishes its role as a brash challenger to the party line.
The mainland editors of another political newsletter, Public Opinion, have gone underground since the government heightened a crackdown on dissent. This week, 10 members of China's first opposition party were arrested or detained on the same charges as Lin Hai: inciting subversion of the state.
VIP Reference's Feng said he believes that the government is not wrong to be afraid.
"If the students had e-mail [during the Tiananmen Square protests] in 1989, student leaders in different cities could have been united. The news of the massacre could have spread overnight; the authorities couldn't block the news. It could have been a very different situation," he said. "Right now, the Internet is becoming more and more important for the Chinese democracy movement. We never imagined the power."