On June 3, 2000 a computer engineer named Huang Qi, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, was detained for setting up China's first domestic human rights web site. It began as an electronic bulletin board to help trace missing persons, then last year was used to post messages on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Huang Qi was officially charged with subversion. When he was first detained, Human Rights Watch asked U.S. companies involved with the Internet in China to intervene on his behalf, to urge the government not to put him on trial. This was at the height of the debate over Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China, when some U.S. business groups claimed they were "sowing the seeds of democracy" by their presence in China.
But to our knowledge, no company was willing to intervene, even privately, with Chinese officials. We also asked the World Bank to intervene, since the Bank says it is interested in promoting more openness in China through free exchange of information via the Internet. When Huang Qi went on trial in February, the American consulate in Chengdu and the European Union tried to send diplomatic observers to the trial, but they were turned away. The trial was suddenly adjourned when Huang Qi was taken ill. It has yet to resume.
In mid-March, Yang Zili, another young computer specialist, was detained in Beijing by state security officials; his present whereabouts and legal status are unknown. While a student, he had set up a discussion group, and he also ran a website for exchange of ideas among intellectuals which was shut down after his arrest. Mr. Yang was known for his ability to run rings around firewalls and other government attempts to censor the Internet.