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Trip through China's twilight zone

The Chinese Communist Party has built one of the most successful authoritarian governments in the world, but it couldn't prevent a dissident blogger from seeking out the truth behind her arrest.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On the Web, she called herself the Stainless Steel Rat, after the swashbuckling hero of a series of American science fiction novels. But climbing the dimly lit stairs of a decaying apartment block on this city's run-down south side, Liu Di seemed more like a nervous mouse.

"I think this is it," the small woman with oval glasses whispered, stopping before an iron door with the number 407 on it. "I think this is it, but I can't be sure."

It had been two years since police arrested Liu, 24, on charges of subversion, and a year since international appeals and an outpouring of support from China's Internet users prompted the government to release her. At the time, Liu was a college senior, and her many fans believed she had been jailed for writing essays that poked fun at the ruling Communist Party and posting them on the Web.

But Liu wasn't so sure. Two questions gnawed at her: Could one of her friends have been an informer for the government? Had he set her up?

For months, she investigated the circumstances of her arrest, proceeding slowly, afraid what the authorities might do if she dug too deep. At times, she worried she was being paranoid. Other times, she was convinced she had been deceived. But hard evidence was elusive, and the friend seemed to have disappeared.

Now she was outside his apartment. The corridor was dark and quiet, and dusk cast flitting shadows on the concrete walls. Liu rapped lightly on the door. No one answered.

"What else can I do?" she asked during the slow drive home through the city's evening traffic. She was running out of leads, nearing the end of a long search in the shadows of the government's sophisticated security apparatus, but no closer to the truth than when she started.

More than a quarter-century after the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party has built one of the most successful authoritarian governments in the world, delivering rapid economic growth while maintaining its monopoly on power. At times, it operates with brutal simplicity: A dissident crosses a clear line and ends up in prison.

But just as often, an encounter with the Chinese state can be arbitrary, irrational and as surreally incomprehensible as something out of "The Twilight Zone." This is especially true now, as the party struggles to adapt its old methods of social control to the challenge of maintaining authority over a society seeking and winning greater freedoms.

For individuals like Liu — caught in the grip of this system in flux — trying to make sense of what has happened to them can be like navigating a huge and terrible labyrinth, with suspicion and fear around every corner. This is the story of one young woman's brush with authoritarianism and her attempt to confront the mysteries it left behind.

A shy bookworm finds liberation
Liu first logged on to the Internet as a sophomore in college, and it immediately drew her in. She was a bookworm and sci-fi geek, short and somewhat dowdy, with a hunched posture that reinforced her shy demeanor. Growing up in Beijing, she often felt like a misfit. But in cyberspace, she felt liberated.

Searching for a name to use online, she recalled a series of novels she had read in middle school about a con man recruited to save the universe, the Stainless Steel Rat. The rebel in her liked one line in particular: "We are the rats in the wainscoting of society — we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules."

Exploring the Internet, Liu was drawn to sites with material outside the party's rules. She had always been interested in politics, perhaps because her grandmother was a reporter for the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper. Her favorite novels, "1984" and "A Clockwork Orange," explored the perversities of totalitarianism. But it was on the Web that Liu threw herself into the writings of liberal critics of China's own political system.

Before long, she was immersed in Internet discussions about political reform and other subjects the party considers taboo. At first, she read only what others wrote, but then she started posting her own writing and quickly developed a reputation for funny satires about the absurdities of life under Communist rule.

In one essay, she spoke out on behalf of a webmaster jailed because of the political messages posted on his site, and suggested that Internet users turn themselves in to the police en masse. To ensure a "splendid triumph" for the authorities, she added, "those who have not yet posted subversive writings on the Internet should be persuaded to post them."

Liu said she was nervous about being punished for her writing but was also encouraged by the warm reception it received online. She spent hours in the campus computer lab, talking to fans and making new friends in Internet chat rooms. She hung out with her Web friends in the real world, too.

"Relatively speaking, I had more friends from the Internet" than college, she said. "Of course, I also knew people from school, but there weren't many I could have deep conversations with."

In April 2002, during her junior year at Beijing Normal University, where she studied psychology, Liu received a message from an Internet user who called himself Spring Snow. He said he knew one of her Web friends, a heating company employee in the northeast whose name was Jiang Lijun, and Liu recalled that Jiang had mentioned him once.

Over the following weeks, Liu chatted regularly with Spring Snow, who told her his name was Li Yibing and claimed to work for an investment firm in Beijing. He said he admired Liu's essays, and they discussed politics and traded jokes. Several times, he said he wanted to meet Liu in person. Eventually, she agreed.

A friend with dangerous ideas
They met outside Liu's university on a cool morning in May. He arrived first, carrying a newspaper as they had agreed online, and she spotted him right away: a tall, skinny fellow in his late twenties or early thirties, with relatively long hair and a face marked with acne.

"I thought with a name like Spring Snow, he should have been a handsome guy," Liu recalled. "But actually, he wasn't anything special. He was like a bamboo pole."

They talked over Coke and fries at a KFC, then had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Li mentioned that he enjoyed hiking and brought up his friendship with Jiang again. But Liu said she did most of the talking because he was so quiet.

Li did say he wanted to meet some of her other Internet friends. He seemed nice enough, Liu recalled, so she introduced him to several of them in the following weeks. Over time, she came to consider him a friend, too.

He seemed to share her views about the need for political change in China; if anything, he presented himself as more of a radical, she said. Once, he suggested trying to blow something up. Another time he spoke of starting an underground political party.

Liu said she considered his ideas dangerous, and told him so, but didn't take him too seriously. He seemed like someone who talked big but could never get anything done. "He came across as a person with wild ambitions but without any abilities," she recalled. "He may have been serious, but I thought it was stupid and laughable, and I told him several times."

When he showed her a party platform he had drafted, she dismissed it as poorly written. But then Li began pestering her to help him edit it. Liu was reluctant, but he kept asking and she felt it would be impolite to continue refusing a friend. Twice that summer, she recalled, she visited Li in his office on the weekend and helped edit the document on his computer.

Then one rainy night in September, Li took Liu and another of her Internet friends, Wu Yiran, to his apartment. He talked about starting an underground political party again, Liu recalled, mentioning that their mutual friend Jiang supported the idea. He also proposed issuing a prank bomb threat during an upcoming meeting of the Communist leadership. Liu said she and Wu laughed about it, but warned Li not to do it.

She had nearly forgotten about the conversation when two months later an official at her school summoned her to the campus security office. About a dozen plainclothes agents were waiting for her.

Questions and arrests
The men did not identify themselves, but Liu surmised they were from the secretive Ministry of State Security. For three hours, they asked politely about her essays and her Internet friends. She was nervous, and tried to buy time with long, rambling answers.

But as the questioning continued, Liu realized they were mainly interested in Li. They didn't seem to know much about him. They asked her to take them to him, but she couldn't remember his address. Then they thanked her and let her go.

Relieved, Liu returned to her dorm. But the nightmare was just beginning. The next morning, the college summoned her to the security office again. This time, uniformed Beijing police officers were waiting. They told her only that she was suspected of a crime and took her to Qincheng Prison, a notorious facility for political prisoners.

Liu was terrified — and confused. Why had the State Security agents released her the night before? Why were their rivals in the police department now involved? The mystery deepened when the police began interrogating her. Unlike the agents, they seemed to know all about Li. They knew about his plan to start a party, the platform she had edited for him and even the conversation about the bomb threat, Liu recalled. But to her surprise, they attributed all of Li's ideas to Jiang, the heating company employee.

The officers interrogated Liu seven or eight times over the first several weeks, and they implied that Li, Wu and Jiang had been arrested, too.

At one point during the questioning, Liu had to explain that an essay she wrote about "the Persimmon Oil Party" was only satire and that no such organization existed. But the officers didn't spend much time on her writings, and one investigator even told her there was nothing wrong with them, she recalled.

Instead, they pressed her to incriminate Jiang. Liu had met him in person only once. But frightened and under pressure, she agreed with the officers as they described him as an extremist willing to use violence to overthrow the government. "The police wrote it down, and I signed," Liu said, her voice trailing off. "I didn't dare not to."

As the months passed, sitting in a small cell with three other women, one of them a convicted murderer, Liu struggled to make sense of her situation. Her family was not allowed to visit, and a lawyer told her she faced a 10-year sentence if convicted of subversion. College and the Internet seemed far away.

But outside prison, news of her arrest was spreading. Her friends in cyberspace launched a petition drive, which attracted thousands of signatures. Some Internet users began adding "Stainless Steel" to their online names in a gesture of defiance. Human rights groups and foreign governments lobbied for her release.

On Nov. 28, 2003, days before a visit to the United States by Premier Wen Jiabao and more than a year after they were detained, the government released Liu and Wu. The same day, a court convicted Jiang, 38, of subversion and sentenced him to four years in prison.

Announcing the news, a human rights group in Hong Kong said a friend of Li's had contacted them and told them he had been freed, too. But Liu heard something different from the prosecutor handling her case. He told her Li was still in prison and couldn't possibly be released given the charges against him.

Looking for a ghost
Liu was bewildered by the conflicting information. Over a quiet dinner one night, her father proposed a theory: Li might have been an informer for the police.

He pointed out that prosecutors described Wu and Jiang as her co-defendants in court papers but had chosen to handle Li in a separate, unidentified case. He also noted that the families of each of the defendants had come forward and pressed for their release from prison -- except Li's.

Liu calmly accepted the suggestion that her friend might have been a police spy. But her mind raced through the possibilities: Was that why he wanted her to introduce him to others on the Internet? Was that why he kept asking her to edit the party platform? Did he set Jiang up, too?

Liu studied a copy of the judge's opinion convicting Jiang, who had pleaded innocent, and noticed something strange.

The inventory of physical evidence listed a photograph of her and Li inside his office, and another one of her, Wu and Li inside his apartment. But, she said, they hadn't taken any photos. Someone must have been watching them and taking pictures with a hidden camera. Did Li know?

It was a chilling discovery, and Liu worried what the authorities might do if she kept asking questions. But she was also furious. "If all this was manufactured by him, then he had framed us all," she said. She also felt guilty about cooperating with police and helping them convict Jiang. "I let him down," she said. "The least I can do is find Li and figure out what this was all about."

And so the Stainless Steel Rat started digging. She left messages for Li on the Internet, but he never answered. Then she voiced her suspicions online and asked for help.

At times, it felt like looking for a ghost. A friend in the police department ran a search of the city's records but found no one with Li's name among Beijing's registered residents. Others combed Li's old Web postings for clues, but discovered that he had always forwarded other people's essays and never written any himself.

There was one tantalizing lead. An Internet user named xifenggudao — a phrase from classical Chinese poetry — had posted two essays urging the government to release Li. He had also later sent a letter to a magazine in Hong Kong reporting that Li had been released in late November, and that he had seen him.

The writer described himself as a friend of Li's, and Liu's father had exchanged e-mail with him while she was in prison. Now Liu tried to reach him. When he didn't reply, she wondered whether xifenggudao might be Li himself.

Then, one evening in early May, Liu's cell phone rang. It was Li. Stunned, she asked him what had happened to him. He replied that he had been released in January and now was looking for a job in Beijing. He also said he had been implicated in two cases and planned to post an explanatory note on the Web.

He suggested they meet in person to discuss it, Liu recalled. She agreed, and he told her to send a text message to his cell phone later.

But he disappeared as abruptly as he had appeared. Liu's messages went unanswered. She tried his cell phone repeatedly, but the line seemed to have been disconnected. Li never posted the promised explanation, either.

Liu tried going to Li's office, only to find the building had been demolished. She tracked down the company listed on Li's business card. The manager denied that Li had been an employee and said he had just rented an office from the firm.

Finally, Liu mustered the courage to return to Li's apartment. She found the address in a court document. It was in a building that housed employees of the city's prison system.

When no one answered his door, she tried asking his neighbors for help. None of them recognized Li's name or her description of him.

But Liu left a note, and a few days later the owner of the apartment called. He didn't recognize Li's name, either. Told that the address was listed on a court document, he said there must be a mistake. His family had moved into the apartment in 2001. They began renting it out in May 2003, but never to anyone who matched Li's description, he said. In any case, Liu had visited Li in September 2002.

Jiang's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, expressed surprise that Li had been released, noting police had described him in one document as "one of the prime culprits in a criminal gang involved in a violent terrorist activity case."

"If he was released, it's very strange," Mo said. "If he was released, Jiang should be released, too."

Liu said she has not given up on finding Li. But she is resigned to living with the mystery a long time. "Sooner or later, there will be a day when the government's files are opened," she said. "Maybe only then will we know the truth."