As the Chinese government cracked down on online free expression over the last decade, blocking access to information, filtering content, surveilling users for social control, and unleashing malware disproportionately against its own people, there was one steady, anonymous voice on the internet speaking out against government censorship, calling for protests, and teaching netizens and activists how to protect themselves online.

It was a blog called Program Think, and its author’s identity was not known to the public. But their words touched many for their insightful political commentary, technical how-tos, frank discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and advocacy for free expression in China. As we mark the 34th anniversary of the protests this month, we are calling attention to Program Think, which for 12 years beginning in 2009 was the rare pro-democracy forum operating from within China, garnering tens of thousands of subscribers, all the while evading the internet police and keeping its author’s name secret—no easy feat. Even his wife didn’t know.

Today Ruan Xiaohuan, the blogger and cybersecurity expert behind Program Think, is in prison after being sentenced in February to seven years for alleged incitement to subvert the government. His situation was revealed in March by his wife Bei, who attended his sentencing hearing. She had not seen or heard from him since ten Chinese officers showed up at their home in Shanghai and took him in May 2021. He was tried in secret, his wife and family told little about his whereabouts or the charges against him. His name is banned on Chinese social media platforms.

Bei has hired two human rights attorneys to represent Ruan, 46, in an appeal, but Chinese authorities have blocked them and appointed two government lawyers. Meanwhile, Bei is speaking out to raise awareness about his case. “We will do what we can to make sure the second trial is fair and supervision by public opinion is one of the ways,” she told Vice.

Ruan is a target of an authoritarian regime that stamps out free expression and imprisons those who dare to speak out against the government. The Chinese government
has repeatedly utilized the offense of "incitement to subvert the government" to target and imprison individuals involved in political activism, human rights advocacy, and expressing dissenting opinions.

China is not alone in this practice. Regrettably, countries around the world continue to abuse such crimes and numerous others to target their people. We have documented bloggers in the Middle East, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and elsewhere who, like Ruan, have been thrown in prison and given outrageous prison sentences or subjected to physical violence by authorities, echoing a disturbing pattern of persecution against dissenting voices. Courageous bloggers, journalists, and writers are treated like criminals for protecting and enhancing free expression and privacy.

This is a grave injustice. EFF joins
free speech advocates around the world in calling for Ruan’s immediate release. States are obliged to uphold the right to free expression enshrined in Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Human Rights Council has affirmed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, including the right to privacy and free expression. The right “to seek, receive and impart information” includes a right to devise and share tools that enable and protect those abilities.

Ruan’s journey to becoming one of China’s most well-known and courageous bloggers began amid a successful career as a cybersecurity expert. A college dropout with a passion for computer science, Ruan worked for cybersecurity companies, and later landed a government job as chief engineer for the information security system of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He continued his career in industry, but eventually decided to pursue open-source software development. He quit his job and started his blog in 2009.

At first, he focused his writing on software development. But that year was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and the government began blocking foreign websites, including the website that hosted his blog.

He found a way around the blockage, and published tutorials so his followers could continue seeing his posts. It was at that point that he began blogging about how to hide your online identity, how to circumvent China’s Great Firewall, and, increasingly, politics. As China clamped down even further, banning Western social media platforms and mandating censorship software on new computers, he wanted to speak out. “I don’t want to keep silent anymore, and I don’t want to avoid these issues anymore,” he blogged, according to an English translation. “It’s time to write something other than technology.”

Over the next 12 years, Program Think published over 700 posts about politics, security, and corruption, from building a database of hundreds of wealthy individuals and their ties to the Chinese Communist Party to “how to overcome the wall,” seemingly undetected or outwitting China’s internet police. In 2013 Program Think was nominated for the Deutsche Welle International Best of Blogs Award.

In prescient comments to Deutsche Welle, Ruan said two incidents—the suspicious death of a villager protesting a land grab to make way for the government-approved construction of a power plant, and pro-democracy protests where marchers were beaten and arrested—led him to call for public marches on his blog and focus on politics to raise awareness about China’s corrupt government. “At the time, blog posts calling on netizens to take to the  streets were in nature ‘inciting subversion of state power,’” he noted. “But I have been safe because I am more experienced in concealing identities.”

In explaining his decision to write about politics instead of just technology, he said everyone is touched by politics, even if they don’t realize it. “Many netizens have always had a misunderstanding, thinking that politics has nothing to do with their own lives…But everyone has to understand one thing: You don’t have to care about politics, but politics will care about you.”

Ruan urged people to speak out against injustice, putting himself at risk to inform, inspire, and motivate others to challenge attacks on freedom of expression. By silencing Ruan, imposing such a severe punishment, and denying him the ability to choose his own counsel to challenge his conviction, China’s playbook for stamping out criticism and free expression is on full display. We condemn this injustice and call for Ruan’s release.