Last week, in response to an appeal by Jerry Yang, Condoleezza Rice raised the cases of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao with Chinese authorities on her visit to Beijing. A Chinese version of Jerry Yang's letter to Rice is circulating around the internet. It's unclear whether Rice's intervention will result in an early release for the two men. But in the past, getting one's case raised by the U.S. Secretary of State has tended to boost a person's chances of early release. The Chinese have also agreed to resume a stalled human rights dialogue. This is no doubt tied to concerns about international criticisms in the run-up to the Olympics.
Another development that surfaced in the English-language media on Thursday and Friday this past week is a new lawsuit against Yahoo!. It was filed on February 21st in San Francisco by two men, Guo Quan, a Nanjing-based scholar and acting chairman of the underground New People's Party, and Zheng Cunzhu, head of the Western U.S. branch of the Democratic Party of China.
They are suing Yahoo! for a couple of reasons. Guo Quan says that Yahoo! China has removed his name from their search results without any legally valid reasons, after Guo published an open letter calling for political reform. Zheng Cunzhu claims that he cannot return to China for fear of arrest - because Yahoo!'s handover of e-mail records to the police also implicated him - and as a result has lost property.
According to Zheng who gave a press conference in Los Angeles on the 21st, the previous lawsuit against Yahoo! resulted in a secret settlement with the relatives of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao. However that lawsuit, Zheng says, claimed to include over 60 people who had been harmed by Yahoo!'s disclosure of personal e-mail information to Chinese authorities. These people included China Democratic Party Li Zhi, who is now serving an 8-year sentence. See Zheng's open letter to Jerry Yang in Chinese for more details about the reasons behind the lawsuit. For more Chinese-language reports on the lawsuit click here, here, and here.
Note that some of the English-language reports about this case have gotten facts wrong. A Computerworld story picked up by the Washington post erroneously reports that Guo Quan's part in the lawsuit relates to the handover of e-mail records. However the more detailed Chinese reports on the case make it clear that he is suing because search results about him were removed, and that this has an adverse impact on his business. Businessweek got the story right - also pointing out that Li Zhi (doing 8 years in prison thanks at least in part to a Yahoo! e-mail handover) is not a plaintiff, while the Computerworld story (amplified by the Washington Post) says Li Zhi is a plaintiff. Ars Technica has a more well-informed and detailed version of the story which are consistent with the Chinese reports I've seen - plus some decent analysis.
A few more useful bits of information not included in English reports about this lawsuit:
First, about Li Zhi: Li Zhi's case is more complicated than Wang Xiaoning's and Shi Tao's. Li Zhi wasn't convicted on evidence supplied by Yahoo! alone. In addition to Yahoo!, the Chinese e-mail service SINA also handed over e-mail records that were used as evidence against Li. This subtlety and a few other details were glossed over in the initial reports and press releases in 2006 about Li Zhi's case, leading Roland Soong to question the extent to which journalists and human rights activists care about facts. (In my response to Roland at the time, I agreed people messed up, but didn't think that meant Yahoo! was off the hook.)
About Guo Quan: One thing that the English reports over the past few days haven't mentioned is that Guo Quan recently announced the founding of the Chinese Netizens' Party. In January he launched the New People's Party, which caused him to lose his teaching job. He is a historian known for his work on the Nanjing Massacre. Jane Macartney interviewed him for a Times of London story in early February. At the time he was threatening to sue Google in addition to Yahoo! for removing his name from search results on Google.cn. However, Google soon resolved the problem and you now get results when you do a search on his name - though any dissident overseas websites mentioning his name don't appear in those results while they do appear in a Google.com search. Meanwhile, as of this writing you still get nothing when you search Guo Quan's name on Yahoo! China. Ironically, even Baidu does actually return results.
Back when Jerry Yang first made his appeal to Rice on behalf of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, Elinor Mills wrote on CNet:
Yahoo wasn't necessarily any worse than Google or Microsoft; Yahoo was just the first to have been publicly caught in the moral quagmire that U.S. companies face when dealing with repressive governments. It's unfortunate that several men were arrested and thrown behind bars before Yahoo changed its mind.
Actually, that's wrong. Yahoo was much worse. Neither Google nor Microsoft set up local Chinese-language e-mail services with the user data sitting on computer servers inside the People's Republic of China, under PRC legal jurisdiction. Gmail and Hotmail data are not subject to Chinese police order the way Yahoo! Chinese e-mail is. Google and Microsoft have said in public statements that the reason why they're not doing e-mail in China is to avoid being complicit in sending dissidents to jail. Also, as I found out when doing test searches for Human Rights Watch in 2006, Yahoo! Chinese search censors much more heavily than Google and MSN - and as we can see from the Guo Quan case, sometimes they even censor more heavily than Baidu!
For fun, here's the screenshot of the search I just did on Yahoo China with Guo Quan's name (click to enlarge):
For everything I've ever written about the Yahoo! China cases click here.