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Advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China through truth, understanding, citizen power, & cooperative action

Google, Feng, and Freedom

This morning a Chinese journalist from the Voice of America called our office in Washington, DC to report that the Chinese government had agreed to allow Mr. Feng Zhenghu, a noted human rights lawyer, to leave Tokyo airport and return to his home in Shanghai. This agreement ended a 90-day standoff between Mr. Feng and the Chinese authorities. It also highlights in a very and personal way, the power of an uncensored Internet to provide a counterbalance to the repressive inclinations of authoritarian governments.

Mr. Feng is a Chinese citizen with a valid Chinese passport. Between June and November, 2009, he had been refused entry into China on eight separate occasions. During his last attempt on November 3, 2008, Chinese authorities at the Shanghai airport forcibly put Mr. Feng on a plane to Japan. Upon his arrival in Japan, Feng voluntarily surrendered his Japanese visa and vowed to remain in the Terminal area until the Chinese government recognized his right to return home. Feng is a victim of “blacklisting”, a practice under which thousands of politically incorrect citizens returning from international travel are refused entry back into China. I, myself, am a victim of this practice, which is explicitly prohibited under Article 13 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which China is a signatory.

Feng’s 90 day “sit in” at Narita airport was sustained by “airlifts” of supplies and food brought to him by supporters from as far away as Australia. These supporters were galvanized through information on the Initiatives for China website, Facebook postings, as well as Twitter and email communications. Mainland Chinese became aware of Feng’s protest with the help of anti- censorship protocols such a Freegate, which allowed me and other activists to securely communicate with our friends on the Mainland.The growing international chorus in support of Mr. Feng, together with his tenacity, caught the attention of the Japanese press and ultimately the Japanese government. On Christmas Eve, I flew to Japan to see Mr. Feng and to seek the assistance of the Japanese government in negotiating a resolution to the situation. On January 23, officials from the Japanese government visited with Feng at Narita Airport. A week later, the Chinese government agreed to welcome Mr. Feng home.

The calculation of the Chinese government is clear: The growing visibility of Mr. Feng’s situation was attention that the Chinese government could do without. And attention that would not have occurred without an uncensored Internet. So it quietly agreed to allow Mr. Feng to return home, dismissing the situation as a ”misunderstanding” between Feng and local authorities in Shanghai.

I express my appreciation to the Chinese government for making the right decision. I applaud Feng Zhenghu for his bravery. And, most importantly, I urge the American government to learn from this incident that an Internet free of censorship is the best counterbalance to excesses of repressive regimes and that proven systems now exist for bypassing Internet firewalls. We have within our power to scale up, in a matter of months, proven systems and protocols such as thosedeveloped by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF) to enable millions of citizens to bypass censorship firewalls of repressive regimes, bringing freedom, and the ability to check government repression, to my fellow citizens in China, and my brothers in Iran and Vietnam, just as they did to my friend Feng Zhenghu. There is simply no better contribution that the U.S.can make to the cause of freedom and its own security than to provide the few million dollars required for the scaling up of proven Internet anticensorship protocols. I urge Congress and the State Department to act without delay on this matter.

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