On Friday, Chinese political dissident Wang Xiaoning was released from prison, after serving a 10-year sentence for publishing controversial material and carrying on political discussions via his Yahoo email account. At the time, Wang Xiaoning’s conviction represented the longest sentence ever handed down for “inciting subversion of state power,” a vague charge that enables Chinese authorities to bring criminal actions against anyone speaking out against the government — for instance, by discussing human rights or calling for democratic reforms.
Wang Xiaoning was convicted largely on the basis of information turned over to Chinese authorities by the American Internet giant Yahoo. Information supplied by Yahoo also played a role in jailing several other Chinese dissidents.
China represents the world’s largest Internet market, with an estimated 540 million Chinese Internet users. Western companies face a paradox operating in China: They cannot ignore it; but by participating in the Chinese market, they also run the risk of supporting a regime that suppresses human rights and will throw people in prison for a decade on the basis of what they say online.
Has the West learned anything from Wang Xiaoning and others who have been jailed for exercising their freedom of speech online?
Who is Wang Xiaoning?
Wang Xiaoning is originally from China’s northeast Liaoning province, and used to be an engineer in China’s enormous weapons industry. Wang had a long history of pro-democracy activity and protest against China’s single-party state: He was detained by authorities in the crackdown following the 1989 massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square, and for years was viewed by Chinese authorities as a subversive figure promoting disunity. Nonetheless, Wang continued to advocate for a multi-party system in China, and played a significant role in founding a fledgling political party — the China Third Way Party, a reference to China’s official “One country, two systems” policy. Former Chinese leader Deng Xoaoping advocated this stance in regard to incorporating capitalist regions like Macau, Hong Kong, and even Taiwan.
In 2000 and 2001, as part of his efforts to promote democracy and civil rights in China, Wang edited and posted to Yahoo forums electronic journals calling for democratic reform and separation of powers; Wang also distributed pro-democracy materials via email and corresponded with the leader of an overseas political party . Aware that Chinese authorities would take a dim view of his activities, Wang posted much of the material using false names.
On September 1, 2002, Chinese authorities arrested Wang Xiaoning at his home. Wang was accused of “inciting subversion of state power” — a lesser charge than actual subversion of state power, but still a serious offense.
A year later, Wang was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Although other prisoners had been sentenced to terms of up to eight years under the same charges, Wang’s sentence represented the first time a 10-year sentence had been handed down. Wang’s sentence has since been matched by sentences given to democracy activists like Liu Xianbin and Shi Tao, and exceeded only by the 11-year sentence imposed on 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Wang had never engaged in violent protest, nor in any acts of sabotage, fraud, or malfeasance. Unlike Shi Tao, Wang was never accused of revealing state secrets. Wang was, in essence, convicted of writing. Wang never contested the facts alleged by the prosecution, but maintained that they did not constitute inciting subversion.
Beijing Municipal No. 2 Prison
Wang served his sentence in Beijing Municipal No. 2 Prison, a facility where the Chinese government has detained several other political dissidents, including journalist Yang Zili, geologist and writer Jin Haike, Democracy Wall veterans Gao Hongming and Zha Jianguo, and Tiananmen Square activist Yang Jianli, among many others.
Fellow prisoner and Democracy Wall movement member He Depu has written of his interactions with Wang Xiaoning while in prison (Chinese). The essay paints a picture of a frail man who struggled to keep his strength up on sub-standard prison food (and was perpetually assigned to the “Sick Team,” a work crew for the infirm). Wang reportedly spent every night into a top bunk so he could read by the dim 20-watt bulb kept on 24/7 in every cell; Wang also refused to participate in the prison’s contraband economy or take advantage of official opportunities to spend his own money in exchange for better food, outside medicine, or most other amenities. He even declined to take advantage of increased official spending allowances for ill prisoners.
Wang Xiaoning also staunchly refused to confess his guilt in exchange for a reduced sentence. According to He Depu, prisoners who admitted their guilt and committed to a reform program could have their sentences reduced by up to one year for every year served, meaning Wang could conceivably have cut his prison time in half if he admitted he was guilty and participated in a points system to shave time off his sentence. According to He Depu, writers like Wang were considered valuable by the prison administrators: They could use their skills to write propaganda for the prison, dissuade budding activists and dissidents from protesting against the Chinese state.
Wang maintained his innocence.
Yahoo’s role and settlement
Wang Xiaoning was convicted almost entirely on the basis of information turned over to Chinese authorities by Yahoo’s wholly-owned Hong Kong subsidiary. The data connected the messages with Wang Xiaoning’s computer and identified Wang Xiaoning as the owner of the Yahoo account used to disseminate pro-democracy materials and a “large” number of email messages.
Yahoo China also turned over information regarding activists Jiang Lijun (arrested in 2002 and sentenced to four years) and Li Zhi (arrested in 2003 and sentenced to eight years). In 2004, Yahoo Hong Kong gave Chinese authorities identifying information for the journalist Shi Tao, who had used his personal Yahoo email account to describe an order from Chinese authorities that news media not report anything having to do with the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Falun Gong movement, or any calls for political change. When Yahoo turned over the information, Chinese authorities arrested Shi Tao and seized his computer. Unlike Wang Xiaoning, Shi Tao was accused of revealing state secrets; however, like Wang Xiaoning, he was also sentenced to 10 years in prison, to be followed by a two-year suspension of political rights.
Yahoo’s Hong Kong subsidiary never asked why the Chinese government wanted the information about its users, nor did it question the legality of the demands, despite the fact it had good reason to know why the Chinese government was requesting the information. Yahoo simply handed it over. These actions — or lack of action — led to organizations like Reporters Without Borders accusing Yahoo of effectively working as a police informant.
It’s worth noting that Yahoo is hardly alone: Google and Microsoft (through its MSN service) have also been accused of providing information to Chinese authorities that has been used to bring charges against pro-democracy activists. Google has since shifted its operations out of mainland China to Hong Kong and moved servers out of Chinese jurisdiction so requests for information become a matter a international law; Google also shifted its Internet search operation to Hong Kong so it would not have to comply with Chinese censorship requirements.
In February 2006, Yahoo was called to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee over its Hong Kong subsidiary’s disclosure of account and user information to Chinese authorities. At the time, Yahoo testified that, when it received the requests, it had no information about the nature of the Chinese investigation.
Nonetheless, in August 2007 the World Organization for Human Rights USA sued Yahoo in the United States on behalf of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning. As litigation proceeded, documents came to light that Beijing State Security Bureau had told Yahoo China, in its demand for information about Shi Tao, that it was conducting an investigation into leaked state secrets.
In November 2007, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chastised Yahoo for being “at best inexcusably negligent” in its conduct. Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and general counsel Michael Callahan publicly apologized to the families of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, who had travelled from China to attend the committee meeting.
A week later, Yahoo reached a financial settlement with both families. The terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.
Jiang Lijun was freed in November, 2006; Li Zhi was released in November 2009. Shi Tao is still in prison.
Wang Xiaoning is now 62 years old. His wife, Yu Ling, told the BBC her husband was in “good health and fine spirits.”
Although Wang is now out of prison and at home with his family, in many ways he has merely stepped from a small prison to a larger one. While he was in prison his family was subject to continued surveillance and harassment by Chinese authorities, and there’s no reason to believe that attention will cease now that Wang is home. In addition, Wang will be deprived of his political rights for two more years: That means he cannot speak to the media or comment on his experience in prison.
Cases like Wang Xiaoning’s highlight the dilemmas faced by U.S. Internet firms seeking to do business in China. On one hand, China is the world’s largest Internet market, and the country is on the way to being a true superpower — if it’s not one already. China’s economy is a major force in geopolitics, and that economic growth is fueling a new middle class with a demonstrated appetite for digital and Internet technology. Although other world markets cannot be ignored, it’s increasingly difficult for technology companies to position themselves as global leaders without a major presence in China.
Companies like Microsoft and Yahoo have defended their actions by noting — appropriately — that doing business in any market means complying with local laws. Just because a company might be headquartered in the United States (or the U.K., or Australia, or Brazil), that doesn’t give them carte blanche to selectively ignore Chinese laws they don’t agree with while doing business in China.
It’s just that, in China’s case, that can mean being required to turn over information that may be used to prosecute and imprison Chinese citizens exercising what, in the West, is considered a fundamental right: free speech.