The making of a cyber dissident

From esteemed college professor to one of China’s most recent prisoners of conscience, the fate of Zheng Yichun (47) has followed a familiar pattern for the country’s growing community of cyber dissidents.

The former English literature professor at a top provincial university in northeastern China’s Liaoning province was sentenced to seven years in prison in September for posting essays critical of the government online.

“He’s just an independent, patriotic intellectual,” his younger brother, Zheng Xiaochun, said last week.

“His case shows that China’s internet is definitely not free.”

Zheng’s case also shows that often China’s own limitations on freedom force people to become cyber activists.

Many internet dissidents are people with a strong sense of social justice who have no channel to express their views as Chinese media are all state-controlled and China-based websites that publish sensitive subjects are shut down.

A bachelor and son of a Korean War veteran, Zheng Yichun made a speech during a pro-democracy rally on a plaza in Liaoning’s capital Shenyang in 1989 which changed his life forever.

Following the government’s crackdown on Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989, Zheng’s employer, the Liaoning Economic Cadre College, immediately fired him.

He was forever blacklisted

Jobless but a published novelist who works include two novels on North Korean father and son leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, Zheng began submitting essays and poems to local newspapers, hoping to make some money so he would not have to rely on the generosity of his younger siblings.

“He was good at writing. His writings at the time were not even political, but none of the Chinese magazines and newspapers dared to use them,” Zheng’s brother said.

Zheng turned his energy to studying Chinese history and the injustices in Chinese society.

Then in 2001, Zheng discovered the internet and it was as if a whole new world was opened up to him. He found an outlet for his thoughts.

Over the next few years, Zheng submitted 300 essays and 1 000 poems to overseas websites, including dissident sites such as and, which are blocked in China.

His essays criticised the corruption in the Communist Party, the government and blamed China’s one-party dictatorial rule as the cause of many evils.

Zheng also demanded the government reassess the violent crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protestors, whom the government branded as counter-revolutionaries.

He spoke out against the government persecution of members of the banned Falungong group and advocated China adopt Taiwan or Western-style elections.

Zheng always used his real name.

Like other cyber dissidents, he accepted a fee from the websites, making as much as 2 500 yuan ($308) a month—his only income.

On December 3, police in Yingkou city where he was living arrested him.

Authorities accused him of writing 77 essays of “unhealthy thoughts” in which he “attacked” the socialist system, the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese leaders.
He was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power”.

Zheng’s brother denounced his sentencing, comparing it to a 1975 incident when the government used a knife to jab the throat of a Liaoning province party official, Zhang Zhixin, who openly criticised then leader Mao Zedong for starting the bloody Cultural Revolution. She was later executed.

“There’s no improvement. They are not kinder just because they executed Zhang then and are only giving Zheng Yichun a seven-year sentence now. It’s the same kind of human rights abuse,” Zheng Xiaochun said.

“While society is changing, there are still people [in the government] who don’t want the masses to know what’s going on,” Zheng Xiaochun said.

Zheng’s jailing has turned his family into avid internet surfers, able to circumvent government blocks, and potentially cyber dissidents.

“Every day I go online. There are so many falsities in state media,” said Zheng Xiaochun.

“I want to see what the world is really like.” - AFP

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