Raging Against the Machine

The career of Xu Zhiyong, who has worked to advance the cause of civil liberties in China, illustrates how the Chinese government manipulates modern technology to hamper the work of human rights activists -- and provides a valuable lesson to Google in its own standoff with the regime.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Xu Zhiyong was watching the 2004 Democratic convention in a shared common area at a Columbia University dormitory when we first met. After just a few words, I knew he could understand little of the speeches on television. It is so different from China, he said. Political conventions in his home country were pageants: Officials waited their turn, sat erect in their seats, and clapped only on cue and never too wildly.

Last July, my friend was the subject of a different form of high stakes political theater when he was arrested, detained, and held incommunicado for one month.  As a young and extremely enterprising attorney in Beijing, he has represented a slew of disadvantaged clients in China, from a newspaper owner beleaguered by the authorities to the victims of the contaminated baby formula sold by the Sanlu company.  When he disappeared, the first news I received appeared on the New Yorker‘s website in the form of a headline that questioned directly, "Where is Xu Zhiyong?"

With Google’s threats last week to withdraw from China amid suggestions that the Chinese government was behind recent cyberattacks on its corporate infrastructure that specifically targeted the email accounts of prominent Chinese human rights activists, I was reminded again of my friend. This episode sheds light on the obstacles faced by those struggling to improve civil liberties within China and the consequences of Google’s potential withdrawal from that country.

In the summer of 2004, we lived across the hall from each other at Columbia University. A few nights a week, we held impromptu English lessons to improve his conversation skills.  We began by reviewing formal pleasantries, one of the first steps in English language courses for foreigners. Toward the end of our first week, I realized he had only introduced himself with an English name, Sunny, and that I knew very little about him. He typed the English spelling of his name, Xu Zhiyong, into my laptop.

He told me he was a lawyer, but he struggled to describe his work in English so he reached for Google. A few articles had already appeared on his work and career, including a profile in the New York Times covering his campaign for a seat on Beijing’s city council from the prestigious academic district of Haidian.  He also worked as an advocate for China’s disenfranchised petitioners who convene in the capital on the basis of an ancient tradition that allows citizens to petition the state for redress of grievances.

While we continued our formal classes, the conversation continued on the weekends, in nearby restaurants and bars. We watched gavel-to-gavel coverage on C-SPAN of both American political conventions. I will not forget how my new friend’s eyes grew wide when Bill Clinton spoke. When Clinton finished, to raucous applause, he offered just one reflection, "Wow!"

Originally from a rural village in the impoverished interior region of Henan, Sunny moved to the largest local city, Kaifeng, with his mother and brother as a young teenager. His mother was illiterate, and, as the issues that he tackled became increasingly sensitive, he resisted telling her about his work. He was concerned that she would fear for his safety and could be harassed due to his choice of career. His brother is a regional police chief.

Over time, his roster of sensitive cases, including the Sanlu melamine baby formula milk scandal, transformed him into something of a public-interest icon. He appeared on the cover of Mr. Fashion, the Chinese equivalent of Esquire. However, as he sat in an unknown Beijing jail, his name was not searchable by Google within China.

His release from detention in August was, in many ways, a greater surprise than his arrest. But he was still forced to contend with severe restrictions on his ability to communicate freely using modern technology. My friend abandoned one tampered Gmail account for another. For some time after his release, the authorities denied him access to an email account, blocking most all methods of communication but his cell phone, which we used to talk in those first few days after his detention suddenly ended.

For several years, we have communicated by Gmail accounts, knowing perfectly well that messages may be read, intercepted, and occasionally blocked. There is also nothing better; for now, we are able to communicate. If Google vanishes from the Chinese landscape, there might be no available alternative to such communication.

Google is learning a lesson my friend did years ago: There is no easy way to take on China’s ruling apparatchiks. If Google withdraws suddenly, as it has threatened, it will be abandoning China to authorities whose claim to power must be challenged, an outcome not in the interest of Google or the Chinese people. If there is a way to triumph over the authorities in China, Xu Zhiyong’s life and work reflects the need to vigorously challenge a system that has sought to fortify itself against internal and external attacks on its own terms. In the end, Google would do well to follow his strategy: displaying deference when the alternative is to be completely shut out from the country, but also pushing back hard when it is threatened.

Amanda Rivkin is a photojournalist and writer based in Washington D.C., where she attends the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Graduate School of Foreign Service.