WASHINGTON — For those who followed the blog Program Think, it was little surprise that the China critic behind it had evaded authorities for over a decade.
Ruan Xiaohuan was just that good, and over time he became an icon, say those who followed his work.
“He’s a legend. He’s very famous among Chinese internet users who care about internet freedom,” said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “He was the epitome of internet savviness. But in the end, the government still got him.”
After 12 years and hundreds of posts that pushed back against the Chinese Communist Party and advised readers on how to hide their own digital footprint and circumvent China’s Great Firewall, the authorities finally caught their critic.
Shanghai police arrested the 45-year-old at his home in May 2021.
Nearly two years later, on March 21, 2023, the verdict against him was made public.
A closed Shanghai court had convicted him of inciting subversion and sentenced Ruan to seven years in prison.
A five-page verdict circulated online in March said that between 2009 and 2021, Ruan “compose[d] over  seditious essays of rumors and libel, which involved attacking and smearing of the current political system of our country, inciting subversion of the state power, and attempting to overthrow the socialist system.”
Ruan’s crimes were “grave,” the verdict said. But absent from the judgment was any mention of his blog or the specific articles.
That omission was likely by design, said Angeli Datt, who researches China at the free expression group PEN America. Beijing likely wants to avoid amplifying his work and the values he stands for, she said, adding that officials don’t want him to become a martyr.
“The more that they draw attention to him or the blog, there’s absolutely no reason that people would believe that he’s a criminal and that he incited subversion of state power,” Datt said.
China’s Washington embassy did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.
China is the world’s largest jailer of journalists, with press freedom watchdogs putting the number detained in the country between 40 and over 120. Many are bloggers.
In a tightly controlled media environment, bloggers have offered a rare independent voice. Then in 2021, the country’s internet regulator started requiring bloggers to have a government-approved credential before they could publish on certain topics.
The charge against Ruan is one commonly applied to critics, analysts said.
Subversion of state power “can be basically anything,” said Cedric Alviani, the head of the East Asia bureau at watchdog Reporters Without Borders. “It’s purely arbitrary. No matter what you do, you can possibly be sentenced for subversion of state power.”
Seven years is “a very heavy sentence, even for a national security crime,” Datt said. “Someone like him is one of these heroes that should be lauded, not imprisoned.”
Program Think may be well-known in the Chinese activist community. But Ruan’s wife, who identified herself only as Bei, said she didn’t know about his online identity until after police came to their Shanghai apartment to arrest her husband.
Police didn’t tell her much, so after combing through the internet, she found the blog and learned of its missing author. That’s when she made the connection.
The detention has taken a toll on Ruan, she said.
“When he was sentenced, I saw that he was extremely thin and his hair was mostly white,” Bei said. As he was escorted out of the sentencing hall, she said, he kept looking back at her.
In that moment, she decided she “had to be strong,” she said. “I am the only one who can save him.”
Bei is appealing her husband’s case in the hope that he “can regain his freedom soon.”
Why was he a threat?
To Datt, Ruan’s case may underscore Beijing’s vulnerabilities — or at least its insecurities. “If the state is so powerful, how can 100 articles topple it?” she asked.
In a country where censorship and political repression are the status quo, that question gets at the heart of why Ruan and his blog are so significant.
Ruan started the Program Think blog in January 2009. He first wrote about programming and software development, but he expanded to information security, China’s firewall, brainwashing and politics. He wrote about artificial intelligence and movies and Tiananmen Square.
In 2013, when he was nominated for best Chinese blog in Deutsche Welle’s Best of the Blogs awards, he wrote, “You might not care about politics, but politics will come after you.”
In 2019, he acknowledged that his blog had attracted attention from the government.
Pro-government trolls spammed his comment section. Twice he received Gmail alerts of government-backed attacks, according to reports.
His posts provided information not easily available inside China, according to Yaxue Cao, founder of China Change, a website that covers human rights in China.
Cao was a devoted reader of the blog. Program Think had the capacity to “empower people with free thinking,” she told VOA. “He’s a warrior.”
People in China still have other means to gather banned information and circumvent censors, but the silencing of Program Think and the detention of Ruan “is a great loss,” Cao said. “We’ve lost a powerful intermediary.”
Looking back, Bei believes her husband knew his arrest was imminent. But, she said, “he still insisted on updating his blog until the day before his arrest.”
In Program Think’s last post on May 9, 2021, he shared 97 e-books, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
“It is obvious that there are court lackeys who have been monitoring my blog for a long time, following every post and message I post,” he wrote. “For over a decade, the court has been unable to deal with me.”
Police arrested him the next day.
Source : VOA News