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Interview with Ye Du, ICPC Webmaster and Network Coordinator

In the midst of the worst crackdown on freedom of expression in years, Ye Du, webmaster and Network Coordinator of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, was forced to leave his home in Haizhu, Guangdong Province, and was arrested on February 22, 2011. He has been under "residential surveillance" in Fanyu, Guangdong Province, since March 1, and is being investigated for "inciting subversion of state power." PEN American Center’s Larry Siems interviewed Ye Du about his work and ICPC’s web site in early 2010.

LARRY SIEMS: We know you and your work because you were in Liu Xiaobo’s verdict; they mentioned the ICPC web site several times. You were telling me before that, because you published Charter 08, you were “invited to tea” several times. Who invited you to tea and what did they say?

YE DU: It’s actually the Guangzhou City branch of the National Security Police, which is more or less like the FBI in the U.S, and deals with domestic issues.

SIEMS: Well that was very nice of them to ask you to tea.

YE DU: (laughs) In the past three to five years, the Chinese government have been using more flexible measures to deal with dissidents because they don’t want you to put up the pressure and give more grounds for dissidents to increase. Now the new term in China is the  “Drinking Tea Party.” This includes those people who are always being invited by the National Security Police to drink tea. After Charter 08, many people were invited to drink tea at the National Security Police, so they feel like the people become less fearful, they are not so scared of being invited by the National Security Police for drinking tea, because they know that, after all, what they have been invited to is just to drink tea. So everyone’s going to “drink tea” but nobody’s really drinking tea. [laughter]

SIEMS: And what do they say to you when they invite you to drink tea?

YE DU: They will ask you, “Did you sign Charter 08 by yourself? Who gave you Charter 08? Is Liu Xiaobo a key person in organizing this? Who are the organizers?” They asked me for my opinion, my comments on what I think of Liu Xiaobo’s sentence.

SIEMS: You are the webmaster of the ICPC web site, which I understand has come under cyber-attack several times. Can you tell me about that?

YE DU: Since the ICPC web site was established in October 2006, it has been attacked several times, pretty much every year, especially during what the government considers to be “sensitive periods”; for example, National Day (October 1), June 4, before and after Liu Xiaobo’s sentencing, and also during the National People’s Congress. It is believed it has been done by the Cyber Police of the Chinese government, because it is part of their duties to “preserve stability,” even online, on the Internet, during those sensitive periods. So it is considered a job well done when they can control some web sites and block some web sites.

SIEMS: So what kind of attacks are they? Do they block the site? Do they make it impossible for other people to visit the site?

YE DU: Their attacks are many and varied, but the most common is a DOS (Denial of Service) attack. DOS attacks render the site unresponsive to visitors. Furthermore, DOS attacks cannot be launched by a single individual using one computer. It requires large scale coordination on the scale of cyber warfare. Of course there are other ways to attack as well.

SIEMS: Is your web site available in China most of the time?

YE DU: It’s never been able to be accessed in China. Since it was established, it has been blocked by the GFC, the Great Firewall of China.

SIEMS: So who is your audience?

YE DU: My readers are for the most part Chinese. Using Google Analytics, I know there are visitors from over 100 countries, but most are from mainland China. They have found ways to cross the Great Firewall to come to my web site.

So many people have told me this, especially journalists. For example, a newspaper editor in Guangzhou told me that he is a frequent visitor to the ICPC web site. He said, when he looked at the left side of the web site, and saw all the names of the writers there, he was deeply moved. It was so touching that so many Chinese people actually stood up to speak out for their own rights.

SIEMS: What about you and your personal e-mail? Do you think that people are reading your e-mail? Do you think that when you’re online as an individual, you said that you have a Facebook page, right? You have Twitter. Is the government reading those? Are they reading your e-mail?

YE DU: Because I am a webmaster, I’m very careful with online safety, including my passwords, IP address, etc. I have never been hacked. Sometimes I get some strange e-mail messages, trying to lure me to change my password. But I’ve never been trapped.

SIEMS: How effective is the firewall? Do you think that most Chinese are restricted from getting the information that they want? Or are most Chinese skillful at getting around it?

YE DU: Yes, I feel the Great Firewall really does have an effect. If you look at the majority of Chinese netizens, they don’t have proxy servers or a way to get past the firewall. Because of the Great Firewall, everything from reading the news to understanding its implications has been hindered by it. But I feel in the past few years in the face of a growing awareness of rights, more and more people are looking for ways to hop over the Great Firewall, using both software and hardware. At the same time, there is a rise in people who want to disseminate the information to the netizens at large.

Look at this. I wear this to congratulate people who have been able to cross the firewall. [Gestures at his t-shirt, which says “Freedom” in Chinese, and then in English: “Congratulations! You are using Tor: Torproject.com”] Now many people in China are wearing this kind of shirt.

SIEMS: In Beijing?

YE DU: All over China.

SIEMS: Thank you very much.