BEIJING — Liu Di, a 23-year-old college student known online as "Stainless Steel Mouse," was recently released on bail after a year in prison. The Internet essayist jailed for her ironic musings about China's political shortcomings gave a big wave as her father picked her up.
Few saw in Beijing's move much evidence of a softer government line. The government is increasingly adept at blocking politically objectionable subjects from China's 78 million Internet viewers. When that fails, it reverts to the blunt approach. Even as Liu and two others were let go, several more have been locked up or sentenced on similar charges.
What is increasingly frustrating for China, however, is the budding resistance it faces to its ambitious, and some say futile, effort to control the Internet.
When the state blocks popular search engines such as Google, the ether buzzes openly with criticism. When a government official told a forum on Hainan island in November that the Internet was freer than ever, online bulletin boards blasted him -- arguably proving his point.
And when Beijing hauls in people, particularly the growing numbers who are not extremists and don't know they're doing anything wrong, officials often hear about it. After Liu's arrest, thousands of students, journalists and free-expression advocates signed three online petitions -- an unthinkable challenge in the past.
"When dissidents disappear, most people think, 'I'm not one of them,' " said Sophie Beach, senior Asia researcher with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "But when they see someone like Liu Di, they identify and think, 'That could be me.' "
Liu isn't the type you'd pick to be a poster child for Chinese democracy. An introvert while growing up, she never displayed much social outrage, said Liu Qinghua, her father. She did, however, show an enormous passion for a wide variety of books.
After entering Beijing Normal University, she decided to study psychology. In her sophomore year, she developed an interest in the Internet, where her shyness wasn't a handicap. She took her online name from a science fiction character. Over the next several months, she posted nearly a dozen essays from a school computer in a small online circle, ultimately attracting the attention of authorities.
In one essay titled "How the Ministry of State Security Harms the Security of the State," she questioned the unchecked authority of the security apparatus. In another, this one tongue-in-cheek, she called on those using the Internet to surrender to authorities because under China's rules anyone favoring free expression is a violator.
Liu's father didn't know what she was doing online. The Internet wasn't part of his world, and he figured her Web chatting was largely about boys.
A Father's Nightmare
She was arrested in November 2002. Security agents seized her at school, accusing her of belonging to an illegal organization, and took some books, papers and the family computer from their home.
It was the beginning of a nightmare for her father. Over the next year, he worried incessantly about his shy daughter alone in prison. Authorities refused to let him see her, and she was not allowed to see a lawyer for months, the family said. China's Ministry of Public Security declined to comment.
But the arrest also opened her father's eyes as he discovered her writings and the support that had built around her. The Chinese cyber community alerted foreign human rights groups and helped the family find a lawyer.
For a year, the government considered the case, teetering on the horns of a dilemma. If it admitted making a mistake, it would look fallible. If it went ahead in the face of growing opposition, it might weaken average people's faith in the justice system.
After extensive deliberation, the government released Liu and said it wouldn't charge her. But in late October, one of her most outspoken supporters, 39-year-old Hubei provincial official and fellow Internet essayist Du Daobin, was arrested, leaving another family divided.
"I don't know what they'll do to him," said Du's wife, Huang Chunrong. "My son and I find it very difficult to understand how he could be found guilty just for writing a few articles."
Another supporter, an unemployed worker, was also held.
China is deeply conflicted about the Internet. It has embraced its economic potential and now boasts the world's second-largest pool of users, after the U.S. Logging on is as easy as dialing a five-digit number from most private phones and no account is necessary.
At the same time, the state wants users to avoid areas it considers off limits, including discussions of high-level corruption and Taiwanese independence, criticism of the Communist Party and support for the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which China has outlawed as an "evil cult."