By Chris Buckley
Chinese Communist Party elders and U.S. lawmakers fired shots at China's powerful censors this week, but Li Xinde says muck-raking campaigners like himself are undermining the country's barriers to free speech every day.
Li is one of just a handful of Internet investigative reporters, exposing corrupt officials and injustice on his China Public Opinion Surveillance Net
Then he spreads his often outrageous, sometimes gruesome stories on some of the 49 blogs he uses to slip past censors.
"They shut down one, so I move to another," he told Reuters.
"It's what Chairman Mao called sparrow tactics. You stay small and independent, you move around a lot, and you choose when to strike and when to run."
Li, 46, lives in Fuyang, a city of 360,000 in the rural eastern province of Anhui, and he is far from a household name among Chinese readers, even Internet enthusiasts.
But some of the cases he first reported became notorious after other reporters, even state-run television, took them up. Li's Web site has become a magnet for discontented rural citizens hoping to turn his spotlight on their complaints.
In 2004, Li helped bring down a corrupt deputy mayor in the eastern province of Shandong after posting bizarre pictures of the official kneeling before his one-time business partner, apparently begging her to stay silent.
More recently, Li published the grisly story of a businessman apparently beaten to death while in official custody in the northern province of Hebei.
Recently, the Communist Party has sought to tighten its grip on information. Censors sacked editors from three bolder newspapers, and on Thursday removed the editors of Freezing Point, the China Youth Daily's combative investigative weekly.
But China has 110 million registered Internet users, and even rural towns have Internet bars where locals can email complaints to Li or, more often, play computer games. "Sometimes old farmers get their sons to write to me," Li said.
"CAN'T TURN BACK A RIVER"
Swelling popular demands for rights are combining with the spread of the Internet to make it harder for the Propaganda Department to shore up censorship, even as officials shut down newspapers and purge editors, he said.
"It's like the Yellow River. You can guide its course, but you can't block it and you can't turn it back. That's the Internet."
Before embracing the Internet in 2003, Li was a soldier who joined the Communist Party and then workend as a reporter for a series of small newspapers. Now payments from well-wishers and reporters who use his leads give him a small living.
Several Chinese journalists who have written for Internet sites abroad are in jail, and in two cases Yahoo provided evidence used against them.
Li said it might make business sense for international companies such as Yahoo and Google to comply with China's censors, "but morally it's wrong to sell people's freedom."
Li said he had published hundreds of reports on the Internet without direct trouble with police, but evading the censors had become more difficult in the past two years, as controls were tightened and his reputation grew.
His Web site was shut down for several months, and only recently reopened, and many of his blogs are regularly shut by nervous or intimidated operators. But Li said China had dozens of Web activists who shared news about corruption despite censors.
"I can still spread news across the whole country in just 10 minutes, while the propaganda officials are still wondering what to do," he said with a chuckle.
On Tuesday, 13 retired senior officials and scholars in Beijing, including a former aide to Mao Zedong, jointly denounced censorship. And members of the U.S. Congress this week proposed legislation to deter foreign companies' cooperating with Chinese censors.
Bu Li said Chinese people's demands for clean, accountable officials, and their salacious curiosity about bad ones, were the censors' ultimate enemy.
"Our party always said revolution depended on the gun and the pen -- the military and propaganda," said Li, echoing a slogan of Mao's. "The gun is still firmly in the party's hands, but the pen has loosened."
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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