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Rights Group Charges China Will Prosecute Internet Activist - 2003-11-04

Human-rights advocates say a prominent Chinese Internet activist is being put on trial in Beijing.

The New York-based Human Rights in China group says Jiang Lijun was arrested a year ago. The group's Nicolas Bequelin, in Hong Kong, said the reasons are political. "The apparent reason for this arrest is related to his activities on the Internet, publishing of essays and comments on political issues in China," he said.

Legal officials say the trial will be held behind closed doors. The charge against him: incitement to subvert state power. Mr. Jiang is being held at Beijing's Qincheng prison, where China's communist authorities have traditionally kept the country's most prominent political prisoners.

A report by a U.S. university last year said China had the most extensive Internet censorship in the world.

But the Chinese government views the Internet as important to economic growth. While it blocks some foreign news and other websites it deems politically dangerous, business websites function normally. And the government actively encourages people to use the Internet, teaching it in schools and in training courses. Access to Beijing's public system is inexpensive and available without a subscription.

Micah Truman is an American businessman who started a successful e-mail marketing firm in China. He said China's government sees the importance of the free flow of information when it comes to business. "The Chinese government must deliver on the middle class revolution and the Chinese people insist, demand, and need to better their economic condition. The Chinese government is extremely savvy, and knows that the Internet is absolutely central," he said.

But internet advocates say that when it comes to political issues China has little tolerance.

Nicolas Bequelin said the prosecution of Jiang Lijun is the latest example of what he says is a deepening paradox. "There is this juxtaposition of a sort of "normal China" on the surface with people being able to enjoy much more individual space in their life and the fact that arbitrariness and the reality of political censorship is still very much there," he said.

Despite restrictions, Internet use is soaring in China. The government says the number of Internet users grew by 15 percent in the first half of this year, to 68 million. The figure makes China the second-largest Internet user in the world, behind the United States.