The Greatest Internet Crime Trial in China

It is said that China has built the largest and most sophisticated firewall in the world, dubbed the Great Internet Firewall of China.  It is said that China routinely filters web pages, BBS posts and e-mails on the basis of a list of banned keywords (see The List of Filtered Items).  It is said that China employs more than 30,000 Internet censors whose job it is to monitor web sites, bulletin board systems, forums, and so on.  It is said that, among the countries of the world, China has the largest number of people held in prison for exercising freedom of speech on the Internet.

Here is a photo of a public trial being held at the Number 1 Intermediate People's Court in the city of Hefei in Anhui province.  There are eleven defendants altogether.  They are being accused of being part of a criminal enterprise based upon an Internet forum.

    

Demographically, most of the defendants are high school graduates and five of them have university experience.  For example, one defendant is a fourth-year-student majoring in mathematics/applied mathematics at the Shandong Institute of Technology; another defendant is a teacher at Number 8 Secondary School in the city of Shangqiu, Henan province.

Perhaps as a reflection of the scholastic background, their website was organized in a hierarchical structure with job titles such as "school principal" (=the most senior level administrator inside China), "deputy school principal" (=middle-level admistrator), "teaching director" (=forum/board administrator) and so on.  New members are called "First year elementary students" and may eventually be elevated to Doctor of Philosophy.  Members get promoted by either paying more (30 RMB for first year elementary students and 500 RMB for the VIP members), or else they earn points by posting their own material (e.g. movies, pictures, stories).  It is also in the nature of the Internet that these defendants lived in 10 different parts of the country (e.g. Shanghai, Zhejiang, Shanxi, Hebei, Fujian, Xinjiang, Henan, Jiangxi, Shandong and Anhui, etc), and had previously known each other only on the basis of their Internet nicknames.  Thus, there were some confusion during these proceedings when defendants made their statements to the court while using these Internet nicknames.

So what exactly were they doing that constituted criminal behavior?  Well, this should have been easy to guess.  As a country, China has the second largest number of Internet users.  When Chinese people get on the Internet, most of them are not banging the keyboard to talk about freedom or democracy.  Similarly, as a country, the United States has the largest number of Internet users and most Americans do not get on the Internet to talk about the privatization of social security or the nomination of John Bolton as US Ambassador to the United Nations.  The common thing about the United States and China is that the most popular subject on the Internet is ... pornography.

The name of the web site in this case is "99bbs.com."  It was founded in 2002 by a 19-year-old Fujian resident named Wang Rong.  The web servers for the website are located in the United States, and therefore beyond the reach of Chinese law enforcement.  The web site may have begun as a general interest forum, but in 2003 it began to distribute pornographic movies, pictures and articles.  During this time, Wang Rong recruited the defendants over the Internet to manage various aspects of the operations.

At first, 99bbs.com was a free site.  In April 2004, Wang Rong decided to switch some sections to a paid subscription basis.  One of the paid sections contained pornographic movies, pictures and articles; another paid section was a directory of brothels all over China, including addresses, prices and reviews.

How good was business?

As a whole, the web site has more than 300,000 registered users who logged more than 400 million hits.  As of 5 pm on November 15, 2004, the computer records show that the pornographic section had 75,772 registered users.  It had 42,705 pornographic pictures which had been viewed a total of 32,734,600 times; there were 4,784 pornographic articles, which had been viewed a total of 24,340,060 times; there were 4,094 pornographic movies, which had been viewed 1,900,525 times.  The brothel directory section had 47,452 registered users, with 207 web pages which had viewed 252,731 times.  It is statistics such as these that caused the media to label this as the greatest Internet criminal trial in Chinese history.

These eleven defendants have been charged with knowing that 99bbs.com was a web site engaged in distributing pornographic material and still agreed to be recruited by Wang Rong to manage, operate and maintain the web site, to create more contents to attract customers and expand membership and hence to obtain immense amounts of profit.

Listed as defendant number 1 is the female Shao Yong, who has the job of "school principal" at the pornographic section of the web site.  Shao admitted to the charges by the prosecutor, but she said that she accepted the job only after persistent invitations from Wang Rong.  She said that Wang told her that she would only be responsible for the regular sections of the forum, and there is absolutely nothing pornographic there.  Shao was arrested less than one month after she was promoted to "school principal" and therefore her lawyer argued that she could not be held responsible for the entire history of the forum.

    

According to the prosecutor, 29-year-old Shao treated the operations management as her personal life.  Not only did she write erotic articles, but she also posted her own nude pictures on the website.  She is also said to have sexual encounters with netizens.  In her own defense, she said in court: "I have invested a great amount of effort in the section of the forum that I was responsible for.  I wrote a lot of short essays, but those essays are not pornographic in nature."

Listed as defendant number 2 is a male named Shi Xinghua, who claimed to have never asked for and never received any compensation.  There was a debate whether he should be charged under Article 363 (distributing pornography for profit) or Article 364 (distributing pornography).  Shi's main responsibility was to manage operations.  His job title as the "school principal" at the brothel directory was literally a title only.  There were three public notices sent out under his name, but he said those notices were actually sent by the first defendant using his Internet nickname. 

Defendant Sun Zhong explained to the court that he became friends with Wang Rong in January 2004 through chatting on the Internet.  In September, Wang asked Sun to collect membership fees on his behalf and promised that he would give 3 RMB to Sun for each instance.  Sun was supplied with the names and e-mail addresses of the registrants, he had to contact them and get them to send money to his account, he had to update the database to reflect payments and then forward the money to Wang Rong.  Between September 30 and November 1, Sun collected more than 70,000 RMB and therefore obtained 7,750 RMB for himself (that is, the average membership fee was just over 30 RMB).  Defendant Wang Yang also became friends with Wang Rong over the Internet, and agreed in July 2004 to collect membership fees at the pornographic section.  Wang had collected over 160,000 RMB and made about 16,000 RMB for himself. 

What about the person that everyone else blames -- Wang Rong?  He is still at large and believed to be living with his family in Charlotte, North Carolina, United States of America (here are his particulars).  The 99bbs.com website is still humming along nicely.  None of the other conspirators have ever met him in person.  There is an International Police warrant on him for violation of intellectual property rights.  Can Wang be extradited to China if found?  There is no extradition treaty between the China and the United States. Will Wang Rong be expelled from the United States as an undesirable alien?  He should ask for political asylum because he is being persecuted for exercising his freedom of speech.  Pornography may be banned in China, but it is quite commonplace (as well as big business) in the United States.

Even in the United States, freedom of speech is not absolutely guaranteed.  For one thing, if you issue threats to federal government officials, you will find the Secret Service knocking on your door in no time.  In terms of pornographic material, there is a line drawn in the sand.  But there is no reason to impose this arbitrary standard on the rest of the world, and that standard shifts over time even within the United States depending on 'community standards' and the opinions of the nine men and women on the US Supreme Court.  Where is that line these days?  The following is a list of pornographic topics which can be presented in the form of movies, pictures and texts.  You will have to guess which one(s) is(are) against American law at this very moment.

Human anatomy; soft pornography; fetish; hardcore straight sex; inter-racial sex; masturbation; fellatio; cunnilingus; anal sex; enema; homosexual sex; group sex; orgies; bondage; sado-masochism; rape; gang bang; incest; pedophilia (if so, what is the age limit?); bestiality; necrophilia; snuff.


How tight is the censorship control against pornography in China?  Here is a December 15, 2004 news report from Xinhua Net:

A member of the Guangzhou City public security bureau with responsibility in Internet public information security and monitoring was interviewed and described four major problems in dealing with pornographic web sites.

1.  Since Internet technology is diversified and changing, it is difficult to block illegal websites.  The Internet is highly connected, instantaneous, anonymous and transnational, and can use proxy services, automatic re-directs, dynamic connections and mirror technologies, so it is difficult for the public security bureau to block access within its present capabilities.  At the same time, the web site equipment, the entrepreneurs and the maintenance staff are usually in different locations, sometimes even using overseas servers to conduct business inside China.  This makes the investigation, blocking, arrests and prosecution of the offenders very difficult.

2.  Since the Internet service providers can see the high revenues from the web sites, some of these providers have formed business partnerships with the web sites and then they made it difficult for law enforcement to obtain criminal evidence.  Many Internet service providers even offer "bundled" packages for fee collection to the pornographic web sites.  For example, one Beijing-based telecommunications company enabled users to register via SMS to download member-only pornographic movies from a web site and then collect a 30 RMB monthly membership fee on their behalf.

3.  The related laws are incomplete, so that it is difficult to determine the legality of web sites.  The current law does not precisely spell out what constitutes pornography, so many web sites live on the edge with services such as "Adult interest issues," "The Beauty of the Human Body," "Sexual Knowledge" and other subjects to lure netizens.  The public security bureau has problems with classifying some of the web pages.  There is also some debate over the legality of electronic evidence.  Furthermore, it is extremely easy to revise or delete information, and web site operators can destroy the evidence against them quickly.

4.  The professional staff at the public security bureau have a tremendous volume of work.  Guangzhou has one of the highest Internet penetration levels in the country, with several hundred thousand users, several thousand web sites and more than 1,000 Internet bars distributed around the city.  The public security bureau only has a small professional staff and therefore suffers from lack of manpower and technology.  Since the telecommunications and Internet service providers are not cooperating, the staff is having a tough enough time trying to block these web sites and there is no time left to spend on collecting evidence and prosecuting these operators.  The battle is being lost if they can only block one web site at a time.

As usual, as an operations manager for a large corporation, I am more interested in the practical problems of organizing a crime squad to effectively deal with Internet pornography in a city like Guangzhou.  The answer is: Not easy.  Do not let that mythical figure of 30,000 Internet censors lull you into thinking that they have everything under control.  It is a lot more difficult than you think.  In most cases, though, they are relying on self-policing -- a China-based BBS, forum or portal will be held responsible for what was allowed to appear; the censor will only show up days, weeks, or months later to retroactively hold the operators responsible so that this is an incentive to be 'vigilant' up front to avoid such problems.  Overseas websites will have to be blocked via the Great Internet Firewall upfront, because the locals simply have no capability of coping as such.

Sources: Xinmin Wanbao (via 6Park); Wenxue City; Jianghuai Morning News (via Haikou Evening News); Hofei Evening News (via PC Show.net); Anhui Online; Shenzhen Legal Daily; China Economy; Sohu.com.


(Nanfang Daily, July 3, 2005)


(Xinan Wanbao via Wenxue City)

   

On July 1, 2005, the verdicts were returned on the so-called Greatest Internet Crime at Heife City's Intermediate-Level Court.  Zhao Yong, Shi Xinghua and 9 other defendants were sentenced to between 3 to 12 years in jail and 10,000 to 50,000 yuan in fines.  Afterwards, our reporter interviewed five of the defendants.

Zhao Yong is the only female among the defendants.  She is 29 years old.

According to the court, Zhao Yong and Shi Xinghua were in charge of the main forum which has 75,772 registered members, 42,705 pornographic photographs, 4,740 obscene articles and 4,094 pornographic videls.  The two were also responsible for the brothel forum which has 47,452 members and 207 obsene articles.  These two individuals were actively involved in the criminal activities and were the masterminds.  Both Zhao and Shi were sentenced to 12 years plus 50,000 yuan in fines.

At first, Zhao Yong did not want to be interviewed.  She said that certain media had reported irresponsibly about her, such as lies that she posted her own nude photos on the Internet and that hurt her and her family.

Q: Are you sorry to have reached this stage?
A: There is no such thing as being sorry in this world.  I just hope that everything will die down in time.

Q: What attracted you to this pornographic web site at first?
A: At first, I was just an ordinary reader.  Sometimes when I feel down, I would post some journals at the discussion board.  When netizens see them, they would reply to comfort or encourage me.  Since I like language, and I like to make friends over the Internet, I became immersed on the Internet in the eyes of some people.

Q: Do you feel good on the Internet?
A: This is the information age.  The Internet has become a part of people's lives.  Maybe I overvalued the importance of Internet life, but I like the pleasure of browing the Internet on my own.

Q: How did you get promoted from forum moderator to "teacher director" and then "school principal"?
A: It must be said that women are somewhat vain.  I was writing a post each day, and many members would look forward to the next one and communicate with me.  At that time, I really felt very good for being accepted.  Then I wanted to experience being a web site manager.

Q: Among all the "school principals", why did Wang Rong give you alone a monthly wage of 500 yuan?
A: At the time I was in Shanghai and my Internet bill was due.  I told Wang Rong that I did not want to do it anymore.  He asked to help out and said that he would help pay for my Internet bill.  He promised to give me 500 yuan per month.  That was nice.

Q: Did you know that Wang Rong had collected more than 200,000 yuan in membership dues?
A: I only found out during the trial.

Q: Why did you work so hard to manage to the website?
A: I did not do it for the money.  It is for personal interest.  Solely for personal interest.

Q: Why did you write three pornographic essays and published them on this website?
A: A netizen recommended some pornographic essays on the Internet.  I said that they were poorly written and I could do better.  I wrote those three essays on a dare.

Q: Did you realize that you were propagating pornography?
A: No.  That is perhaps my tragedy.

Q: Did you know that something like this was against the law?
A: When there was a crackdown of pornographic websites last year, Wang Rong told us that our server was located overseas and therefore the website is protected under American law.  As long as there are no pedophilia or bestiality, the website can exist.  At the time, I thought that it would be alright.  Perhaps this was my ignorance of the laws.

Q: Do you think that pornographic websites pose any dangers to society?
A: I began to think seriously about this issue after I was arrested.  I should think that it poses a threat to social stability, especially to youth people who do not have self-restraint.

Q: You have been sentenced to 12 years.  What do you think?
A: I can't imagine the more than 10 years of prison life ahead.  How shall I pass them?  For a woman, these 12 years should be the best moments of her life, but I must spend them in such a painful place.  It is really sad.

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Q: Shi Xinghua, you graduated from a famous university and you had a high-paying and respectable job.  How did you join a pornographic website?
A: I majored in computer science.  After I graduated, I was hired by a Hangzhou company to work on software development.  The work was light.  I lived alone in Hangzhou and I was bored, so I spent a lot of time on the Internet.  When I registered to become a member of 99bbs, my father had just passed away and I felt particularly down.  I was looking for a little excitement and solace.

Q: What is it about this website that attracted you?
A: After two months as a member, I was browsing the photographs and posts.  As an ordinary member, there are not many rights.  Then I read that one can accumulate more rights as one moves up the hierarchy, just like a game.  I used my special technical knowledge to crack the codes to overseas pornographic website so that our members can access them for free.  So many members thanked and praised me, and it satisfied my vanity.  When I got promoted from forum moderator to the school principal, I had the authority to manage the membership as well as appoint forum moderators, my vanity was even more appeased.

Q: As a computer science graduate from a famous school, do you need this sort of vain reputation?
A: An Internet reputation can come so easily.  Once I got in, I could not extricate myself.

Q: You spent a lot of time and energy on the website.  Did you get compensated?
A: Not a cent in compensation.  I actually put in 4 to 5 thousand yuan.

Q: Where was that money spent?
A: Dining and entertainment Internet friends.

Q: Did you know that you were committing a crime?
A: I did not realize that.  But I thought that I might be distributing pornographic material.

Q: What is your biggest wish right now?
A: I finally realize that one must obey the law in real society as well as the virtual Internet.  But the true mastermind of 99bbs is Wang Rong, who is in the United States.  Only if he is brought to justice under the law will his website disappear from the world.  Otherwise, he can change the name of the website and he will continue to attract weak-willed people and cause more damage.

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Cao Junkai is a fourth-year student at a certain university in Shandong.  He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and a fine of 50,000 yuan.

Q: If you did not commit the crime, you would be busy graduating from university.  Right?
A: I intended to go to graduate school.  I blame myself for not knowing the law and not using my opportunities.  I ask myself often, "How did I land in prison?"

Q: Have you accepted this reality yet?
A: From elementary school to university, I was always the class leader.  I grew up in a good environment and everything was too smooth.  But here I am and the contrast is too huge.

Q: How did you become a senior administrator for the website on the second day after you registered as an ordinary member.
A: Near the end of 2002, I registered under the name "chose" to become a member of 99bbs, and I posted a recommendation on how to construct the website.  When Wang Rong saw the comment, he promoted me to "vice school principal" the next day and he gave me administrative rights to oversee the posts and to add/subtract points for members.

Q: How did it feel to become a "vice school principal" so quickly?
A: There are so many members at the forum, and this raised my competitiveness.  It satisfied my inner needs for vanity and satisfaction.

Q: Did you realize that you were breaking the law?
A: That is the bad thing.  I was young and I did not know the law.  I just thought that I was helping someone else administer the website.  We managed the technical aspects and we had less contact with the others.  Actually, the tools for managing a forum are not criminal.  A forum is like a sharp knife, and we were the ones who sharpen the knife with a grindstone.  But we have no idea that the knife would be used to kill people.  The bottomline was that I was too na´ve and also ignorant of the law.

Q: Did you make any money as the "school principal"?
A: No.

Q: Then why did you spend so much energy in maintaining the website?
A: I wanted to prove the worth of my existence.  Among several hundreds of thousands or millions of people, I want to prove that I am the best.  When many people acknowledge me, I feel proud.  That was all.

Q: The court sentenced you to 11 years.  Do you accept it?
A: No.  I received no real benefits.  I only moderated the posts.  I did not do it for profit.  I did not break the law intentionally.  No matter what, this was a devastating lesson in life for me.  People say that it takes ten years of hard study to prepare for a career and love.  I think that I will find a new self in eleven years.  When I get to prison, I will learn again and I am confident that I will become a useful person to society.  I want to tell people of my age that when you seek excitement or purpose, the Internet is ultimately virtual and disconnected from reality.  If you want to show your exceptionality, you should spend your energy in real life rather than on the Internet.

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Wang Guangjian is a middle-school teacher in Shangyou City, Henan province.  He managed the "original erotic literature" section of 99bbs in which there were 97 pornographic articles.  He also published one adminstrative post as well as 13 pornographic photographs.  He was sentenced to 4 years in prison, plus 10,000 yuan in fines.  Wang claimed to be only a small-time forum moderator.  He graduated from university in 1991 and began teaching at the middle-school, serving as the school's Communist Party secretary and the school director, and was ready to become the school principal.  Now he has nothing.

Q: You were a teacher.  Why were you looking at pornographic websites so frequently at school?
A: I was responsible for the curriculum at school, and I work either early or late.  Sometimes, when I work until late at night, I get very tired and I get on the Internet to look for pornography for stimulation to keep me awake.  I began to learn about computers in my 30's, so I wanted to learn and use techniques.  When I became a member of that website, I followed the guide and try the techniques one after another.  I was a "forum moderator" for six months, and then this happened.  I registered under a female name.  When the police came and saw me, they were surprised.

Q: A teacher ought to set an example for the students.  Didn't you think that what you were doing was not consistent with your job?
A: The bottomline was that I had a hidden life.  To seek stimulation, I forgot about my esteemed position.  But I did not propagate these kind of information among my colleagues and friends.

Q: How will your students look at you after they hear what you did?
A: I am so sorry.  I will just have to let my tears flow silently.  It was like a dream.  A bad dream.  When I wake up, can I go back to the school?  For me to commit such a crime is like being cuckolded.  It is really embarrassing.

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Wang Yang was born on October 31, 1984 and is the youngest of the eleven defendants.  In 2001, he got acquainted with Wang Rong on an Internet chatroom.  Last July, Wang Yang began to collect member ship dues for 99bbs after Wang Rong promised to give him 3 yuan per member.  At the time when the case broke opn, Wang Yang had collected more than 150,000 yuan, from which he kept more than 16,000 yuan.  Wang Yang was sentenced to three years and six months, plus a fine of 20,000 yuan.

Q: After you graduate from junior middle-school, did you work?
A: No.  At most, I went to help out typing at my father's office.  Usually, I stayed home to get on the Internet, chat and play games.

Q: Does your family mind?
A: They were too busy with the business.  They didn't mind me.

Q: Have you even seen Wang Rong, who is in the United States?
A: I have seen him on chat video.

Q: How did Wang Rong come to ask you to collect membership dues?
A: We have known each other for some years.  We can be said to be good Internet friends.

Q: All those membership dues were sent to your three accounts.  Wasn't Wang Rong concerned that you might keep the money for yourself?
A: Wang Rong promised to give me 3 yuan per member.  People have to trust each other.

Q: Do you think that trust exists on the Internet?
A: Hard to say.

Q: What is your main reason for joining 99bbs?
A: Make money.  Make some money first.  I can't rely on my family forever.  I have to make some money on my own.

Q: Why can't you make money with some other kind of work?
A: I never thought about it.  Most work are hard and tiring.  I don't like that.

Q: Did you think that your activities were illegal?
A: I never thought about that.  I only wanted to make some money.  And I never thought that my activities may cause harm to society.

Q: What do you think of the court verdict?
A: It was reasonable.  I hlope these three years or so will go by quicky and then I can be free.  If I knew this beforehand, I would not have done it for any amount of money.  It is just too terrible to to lose my freedom.