The mystery of the missing Chinese blogger "Program Think"
For 12 years, the anonymous Chinese blogger Program Think has been openly challenging China's strengthening authoritarian control and expanding state surveillance.
This free blog offered a mix of technical cybersecurity advice and sharp political commentary – including advice on how to safely bypass the "Great Firewall of China" of internet censorship, develop critical thinking, and resist the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party, reports "CNN".
The blogger prides himself on his ability to cover his digital tracks and avoid detection, while at the same time a growing number of government critics are caught up in Chinese leader Xi Jinping's crackdown on dissent.
But in May 2021, Program Think suddenly went silent.
The blog stopped being updated and its Twitter and GitHub accounts became inactive. The author has promised his followers that he will never be inactive for more than 14 days. Many feared that the blogger had been struck by an accident or illness, or that the authorities had found him and taken him into custody.
Speculations abound, but no one can offer concrete answers.
The Tink program guarded its identity so tightly that none of its supporters knew who the blogger was—except that he was a developer in China with a decades-long career in information security.
Now, nearly two years later, the wife of a blogger recently sentenced to seven years in prison in China for "inciting the subversion of state power" believes she has an answer to what happened to Program Think.
The woman, surnamed Bei, is the wife of Ruan Xiaohuan, a 45-year-old man who was taken by police from his home in Shanghai on May 10, 2021 – a day after the last post on the Think Program blog.
Ruan's detention left Bei completely stunned. She was even more shocked when she learned that her husband wrote blogs about politically sensitive topics.
"The police told me that his case was very serious, and I didn't understand how that was possible. He is a tech geek and loves working with technology. How could he have so much energy to write articles about current political events?'' Bei told CNN.
During the investigation and court case, Bei was unable to learn many details about her husband's case because authorities told her it was "state secrets." Ruan was tried in secret and Bei did not see him again until the sentencing in a Shanghai court on February 10 this year.
"He was abnormally thin and his hair was almost completely gray. Ruan didn't say a word, and half of his face was covered by a mask. After the verdict was pronounced, he turned and looked at me as if expressing his disagreement and asking for help. The punishment was much harsher than he expected. "I told him to file a complaint," said Bei.
What does the verdict say?
According to a copy of the ruling obtained by CNN, the court ruled that Ruan had "long harbored dissatisfaction" with China's political system and social governance.
"Since June 2009, Ruan has used his computer to write more than one hundred seditious articles that spread rumors and slanders, attack and defame the country's political system, incite subversion of the state government and intend to overthrow the socialist system," reads the verdict. .
It added that the articles, published on foreign platforms, attracted "large numbers of users to read, comment and share them, causing disastrous consequences".
But the court documents do not mention the name of Ruan's blog, nor do they provide details about the content considered subversive. After the sentencing, the judge asked Bey to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which she refused.
Determined to find out what the authorities are keeping from her, Bei learned how to use a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, to bypass China's strict internet restrictions. She searched for media reports about Chinese bloggers who had disappeared, until she came across a blog with a picture of Rodin's sculpture The Thinker.
Then it became clear to her. All the information about the blog matched the information about her husband. The blog started in 2009, and its last post, a long list of book recommendations, was published on May 9 – the day before Ruan was arrested and his laptop confiscated.
There was also a four-month period, Bei recalls, when Ruan was ill and bedridden, which coincided with a lull in publishing.
The author's writing style and aspirations seemed quite familiar, as did his openness and confidence that sometimes bordered on arrogance, his wife explains. During the police investigations, she learned that her husband had published more than 700 articles on a foreign platform – just as she had done on Program Think.
"I realized how much pressure he was under for such a long time. He was doing all these dangerous things, carrying so much weight on his shoulders alone. "Even after he was caught, no one could help him because no one knew him to be behind Program Think," Bei said.
Bei is convinced the blogger and her husband are the same person and said she regrets not learning about what she believes to be her husband's online identity sooner. If she had known, she says, she would have immediately sought help from human rights lawyers who have expertise and experience in representing defendants in sensitive political cases.
In February, Bei hired two of China's best-known human rights lawyers, Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun, to defend Ruan in his appeal. But the Shanghai court rejected them on the grounds that Ruan had requested legal aid and that the state had already appointed two lawyers.
Despite official pressure on her to remain silent, she decided to go public with Ruan's case, hoping that media exposure and public attention might help her husband get a fair appeals process.
"I lost the opportunity to help him with his first trial. "I can't miss the appeal process, it's the last chance, I have to make sure it's fair," Bei said.
Who is Ruan?
Born in Fujian province on China's southeast coast, Ruan first came into contact with a computer in high school. He was interested in software viruses and taught himself to program. He went on to study at the prestigious East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, where he met Bei, his future wife.
Both majored in chemical engineering, but Ruan had by then become obsessed with computer science. He spent all his free time reading about it in the library. He and his roommates bought a computer so they could take turns using it in their dorm.
Ruan was so eager to join the IT industry that he gave up his studies.
"He told me that computer science was developing too quickly and that academic qualifications could not represent one's ability," Bei recalled.
Ruan's career quickly took off. He started working for well-known Chinese cyber security companies. He worked as the chief engineer for the information security system of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. He was then employed by the network security company Venustec.
Ruan later joined another company and was promoted to Chief Technical Officer. In an interview with a state magazine at the time, Ruan said, "I'm fascinated by technology, only new technology makes me full of passion."
But he became increasingly frustrated with the limitations on research and development in companies due to their relentless pursuit of profit. In 2012, Ruan quit his job to focus on open source software development. Until his arrest, Bei recalled, Ruan spent hours working from his study, typing or reading.
Ruan never cared much for money or material comfort. Instead, he longed for what he called "the spirit of open source" – freedom, openness, sharing and collaboration, Bei explains.
Ruan was working in his study when police knocked on the apartment door on May 10, 2021. Bei thought it was a delivery of bottled water and asked her husband to open the door. Ruan was taken away by force and his glasses were broken. Several police officers rushed into their apartment to search. The search lasted from noon until the early hours of the next morning, Bei said.
Ruan's laptop was still working at the time, and police kept the device turned on when they transported him to the police station to seize all of his data, the court ruling said.
Now, thinking back, Bei thinks she may have overlooked some early warning signs.
About a year before Ruan's arrest, the Internet service at their home became unstable and dropped frequently. When they went out for a walk, Ruan would sometimes suddenly rush home, as if checking for intruders.
If she had known what it was all about, Bei says she would not have supported her husband's decision to write about politics: “I think he would have contributed more to human society if he had spent his time on technology.
Program Think also didn't start out as a blog expressing political dissent. In his first post, published in January 2009, the author introduced the blog as a place to share software and programming language development skills and experiences. But it didn't take long for content to collide with politics.
On the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing on June 4, 2009, the blogger shared instructions on "how to bypass online restrictions and how to hide your identity online."
A week later, in another post, the author condemned China's tighter internet censorship. A number of international social media platforms, including Twitter and Flickr, have been added to the banned list, while Chinese authorities issued a directive requiring the mandatory installation of censorship software on all new computers.
"I don't want to be silent anymore, I don't want to avoid these questions anymore, it's time to write something other than technology!" reads the statement.
Soon after, Program Think began publishing more overt political commentary. "In China you don't have to worry about politics, but politics will come and pay attention to you," Program Think wrote on June 4, 2011, explaining the decision to release a series of announcements to quell the Tiananmen protests.
After the release of the Panama Papers in 2016, Program Think collected publicly available data that allegedly detailed ties between Communist Party leaders and their relatives.
The data, which Program Think wrote was intended to "expose the powerful families" of China's ruling elite, prompted the China Cyber Security Association to send a takedown request to GitHub. GitHub has not accepted this and the database is still available on the platform.
As Program Think became more popular and outspoken in its reporting, so did surveillance by Chinese authorities.
In a 2019 post titled "Why the Authorities Can't Catch Me – A Summary of My Security Experience After Ten Years of Anti-Party Activities," Program Think wrote that government hackers had twice tried to attack his email account. There were many posts in the comments that the blogger suspected were written by Chinese government employees. But Program Think was undeterred and continued with the blog, until the posts seemingly disappeared without a trace.
Chinese officials have never publicly mentioned Program Think. But many Chinese human rights activists, China experts and blog followers believe that Ruan is really the missing blogger.
Several international human rights groups, including PEN America and Human Rights Watch, have also linked Ruan to Program Think and called for his immediate release.
Zhou Fengsuo, a student leader of the Tiananmen movement in 1989, said the official secrecy surrounding Program Think betrayed the government's fear of the influence of bloggers: "Under the omnipresent surveillance of the Communist Party – both online and in real life, it managed to operate in 12 years – that's just a beautiful legend in itself."
Program Think could easily have enjoyed a comfortable life, yet he chose to use his expertise to spread the idea of freedom, Zhou said: “He influenced many people – hundreds of thousands. One man against the state machine."
For Program Think supporters, the blog's very existence served as an open challenge to the party's authority, both ideologically and technologically.
Some have compared the blogger to "V", the masked freedom fighter in Alan Moore's novel "V for Vendetta". Others called it the "cybernetic Prometheus".
After Ruan's sentencing, his name was also banned from Chinese social media platforms. "The authorities don't want people to talk about him, and the last thing they want is a solidarity campaign and a call for his release," writes the American media.
While there may never be official confirmation that Ruan and "Program Think" are the same person, many followers are convinced that this is indeed the case. Even though authorities have taken him into custody, they say the knowledge and ideas shared on the blog have already spread far and wide.
"You have already become a well-deserved hero in the hearts of countless people, and we will live on with the torch you lit," said a follower on the Think Program Twitter account.