The List

Dissidents to Watch in 2012

Five notable Chinese activists who are pushing the boundaries of dissent ... and on whom China is pushing back.

Name: Ai Weiwei

Profession: Artist, tweeter, professional provocateur

Crime and Punishment: Authorities charged him with "tax evasion," saying that a company registered to his wife owed 2.4 million dollars in taxes, and disappeared him for almost three months starting in April 2011. More likely, authorities disapproved of his campaigning for victims of the Sichuan earthquake, his outspokenness in criticizing China to the foreign press, and the real and proverbial middle finger that appeared throughout his art work. 

In an interview, he explained how he dealt with the isolation:

I realized you need information to stay alive. When there's no information, you're already dead. It's a very, very strong test -- I think more severe than any physical punishment."

Desperate for interaction, Ai began to needle the guards to provoke a response. But they "just sat and stared at me with no expression. They were very young, and clean, and emotionless, like you were not there," he says. With nothing to do, Ai paced back and forth in his cell, covering some 600 miles and losing almost 30 pounds during his 81 days of confinement. "All I wanted was a dictionary, even the simplest one," he says, adding that passing the time was "impossible." "I really wished someone could beat me. Because at least that's human contact. Then you can see some anger. But to dismiss emotion, to be cut off from any reason, or anger, or fear, psychologically that's very threatening."

Reaction: Ai remains a celebrity both inside and outside of China. In November, the Chinese government again ramped up its case for the charges of tax evasion, which Ai fought in a creative, populist manner: He offered netizens the opportunity to lend him money. Hundreds of thousands contributed. Most recently, Ai, who has more than 120,000 followers on Twitter, said that if the site starts censoring tweets, he'll stop tweeting.

Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

Name: Ni Yulan

Profession: Lawyer

Crime and Punishment: Ni advocated for people forcibly evicted from their homes in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. In a cruel irony, her house itself was razed, leaving her and her husband homeless. Repeated torture in prison over the years crippled her. Ni went on trial in December 2011 accused of fraud, falsifying facts to steal property, and causing a disturbance at a hotel. Ni, who was also charged with "provoking trouble," has yet to be sentenced.

Reaction: The Netherlands government awarded the imprisoned Ni the 100,000 euro Human Rights Defender Tulip award on Tuesday, Jan. 31. That same day, police barred Ni's daughter from visiting the Netherlands to collect the prize. The jury's chairwoman said "Economic interests must never be a reason to close our mouths on human rights. We should rather have one Human Rights Tulip Award than one exported tulip to China."

Getty Images

Name: Liu Xiaobo

Profession: Literary critic, professor

Crime and Punishment: Xiaobo is charged with "inciting subversion of state power." The criminal court verdict released after his trial in December 2009 says that "defendant Liu Xiaobo, due to his dissatisfaction with the political and socialist system of our country's people's democratic dictatorship," published articles with titles like "Can It Be that the Chinese People Deserve Only 'Party-Led Democracy?" and "Further Questions about Child Slavery in China's Kilns." He was also one of the lead authors of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for more rights in China.

The verdict went on to detail the "rumors and slanders" in Liu's articles, including: "Since the Communist Party of China took power, generations of CPC dictators have cared most about their own power and least about human life." He is now two years into an 11-year prison sentence.

Reaction: Despite Chinese authorities' slippery behavior in sentencing him on Christmas Day 2009, when many diplomats and journalists stationed in Beijing were away, his arrest still drew widespread attention. But when the Nobel Committee decided to award him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, it was a public relations disaster for the Chinese regime, which called the decision "a blasphemy to the peace prize." Some commentators compared China's reaction to that of Nazi Germany in 1936, which called the award given to German dissident Carl von Ossietzky "preposterous."


Name: Yu Jie

Profession: Writer

Crime and Punishment: Never charged, he drew official ire for his outspokenness and for writing a book entitled Wen Jiabao: China's Greatest Actor, which criticized China's premier for his insincerity. He told a news conference in Washington, D.C.  in January, just weeks after he fled China, that the day before the Nobel ceremony recognizing Liu Xiaobo, he was taken from his home, shoved into a car, taken to an undisclosed location, stripped naked, and kicked and slapped. "Right now, foreigners are awarding Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, humiliating our party and government. We'll pound you to death to avenge this," Yu said the head security officer told him.

Reaction: Yu described at his D.C. news conference how security forces had also told him, "There are no more than 200 intellectuals in the country who oppose the Communist Party and are influential. If the central authorities think that their rule is facing a crisis, they can capture them all in one night and bury them alive."

The more sarcastic activists of the Chinese Internet seized on this, and "to be buried alive" became an online catch phrase. One online novelist even included the phrase in his Spring Festival greeting: "Happy New Year -- hope you make it onto the bury alive list!"

Yu is now writing another controversial book, this one with the title Hu Jintao: Cold Blooded Tyrant, from the safety of the United States.


Name: Chen Guangcheng

Profession: Legal advocate

Crime and Punishment: Chen, a blind, self-taught activist, defended peasants who were sterilized and forced to have late-term abortions under the one-child policy. He was sentenced to four years and three months in prison in 2006 for "damaging property and organizing a mob to disrupt traffic." Upon release, authorities forced him to remain in a small village in Shandong province, surrounded by plainclothes security officials, who deny him contact with the outside world.

Reaction: Chen's village has become somewhat of a human rights shrine and adventure tourism destination. Actor Christian Bale, in China to promote a film, attempted to visit Chen in December only to be attacked by the security guards. Author Murong Xuecun described  in the Guardian his attempt to visit the village:

"We're here to see a man called Chen Guangcheng. May I ask if he lives here?'

Taken aback by my directness, he paused. Then covertly he leaned in towards me to say, 'Well, there have been some robberies recently here in the village. You know, chickens, cows. So I can't let you in.'

I chuckled: ‘Oh we're not here to steal anything. Don't worry. We're just here to see Chen Guangcheng. We'll leave immediately afterwards.'

His expression turned stern. A few others came out of the house, among them a middle aged man wearing a black corduroy jacket. The man had a mild face but his words were brusque: ‘It's harvest season. All the men are gone. We're afraid of losing things so you can't come in.'"

When Murong insisted, the men attacked him.

Many other Chinese, including a carload of physically disabled men and women, emboldened by Chen's work in defending the disabled, have also attempted to visit Chen's village. Although guards did not attack the disabled citizens, they did try to steal their milk.

The List

Social Networks in Exile

The $100 billion Facebook juggernaut is going public. But remember Friendster and LiveJournal? They never died. They just fled overseas.


Social networking giant Facebook debuted on the stock exchange on Feb. 1with an initial public offering of $5 billion, a small fraction of the up to $100 billion the company is thought to be worth. With over 800 million users, Facebook is (at least in the English-speaking Internet) the undisputed king of social networking.

But the ascendance of the site Mark Zuckerberg launched only eight years ago in his Harvard dorm room was not guaranteed. It has vanquished a number of competitors along the way. Some, like Myspace, are fading into obscurity. Others, like Twitter, have settled comfortably into a more specialized role. But some of Facebook's onetime foes have found an unlikely second wind in some unexpected places. Like aging American rock stars who can still pack the house in Kiev or Yokohama, the sites have attempted, with mixed success, to reinvent themselves for their new audience.


Popular in: Southeast Asia

Founded two years before Facebook, Friendster was how many users first experienced social networking. Within months of its launch in 2003, the site attracted 3 million users and became the darling of the tech media.

But being first doesn't necessarily mean best. Over the course of the decade, the site was eclipsed by the more user-friendly MySpace and Facebook. (Turning down a $30 million buyout offer from Google in 2003 wasn't a great decision in retrospect.)

Luckily, the San Francisco-based site caught on in a major way with Asian-Americans in the Bay Area and then spread quickly to Southeast Asia. By 2008, the region was the source of 89 percent of Friendster's traffic and was the most visited website in the Philippines and Indonesia. It was acquired by the Malaysian-based web payments company MOL Global in 2009 and is now headquartered in Kuala Lumpur.

Last year, the site shut down its original social networking format and relaunched as a gaming site aimed almost exclusively at the Southeast Asian market. Today's Friendster is basically unrecognizable to the U.S. users who set up their first profiles in high school or college, but the new site does seem to be gaining in popularity.


Popular in: Russia

A predecessor of both MySpace and Blogger, the social networking and blogging service LiveJournal was founded in 1999 by a University of Washington computer science student. The site quickly exploded in popularity due to its ease of use, and the "friending" function that soon became an inherent feature of social networking sites.

Though it's fallen out of favor in the United States today, LiveJournal boasts almost 2 million active users worldwide (plus almost 33 million accounts that are no longer active) but the site remains wildly popular in Russia and Russian diaspora communities. With over 2 million users, LiveJournal is by far the most popular blogging platform in Russia. It was sold to Russian internet company SUP in 2009 and now -- except for a handful of U.S. employees -- operates from Moscow.

President Dmitry Medvedev is an avid LiveJournal user. So is leading dissident Alexey Navalny. Last year, the site suffered a massive denial-of-service attack that many believe was targeted at Navalny and other opposition leaders who use the site.


Popular in: Brazil and India

Before there was Google+, there was Orkut. The social networking site was developed by Google engineer Orkut Büyükkökten and launched in 2004 as a competitor to Friendster. (Yes, I know it sounds weird now.) The site, which differs from Facebook by making profiles viewable to all users and allowing members to rate their friends in categories like "cool" and "sexy," never really made waves in the United States, but caught on massively in Brazil, and to a lesser extent India. Within months of its founding, Brazilian users outnumbered Americans four to one. Google moved all Orkut operations to Brazil in 2008.

Today, the site has over 60 million users worldwide. 60 percent of its traffic comes from Brazil with nearly 25 percent from India.

But the good times may soon be over. Last summer, Facebook overtook Orkut to become the most popular social networking site in India. Orkut is still the leader in Brazil but Zuckerberg's unstoppable juggernaut is gaining fast and, according to some metrics, may already be more popular.

For now, Orkut is coexisting with Google+, but the company seems to be leaving its options open about merging the two services in the future.


Popular in: Latin America mostly

Few sites have had a stranger journey than Hi5. Launched in 2003, it was originally meant to be a matrimonial social networking site aimed at the Indian diaspora in the United States, but quickly converted to an all-purpose social networking site complete with friending, photo-sharing, and status updates.

While rarely mentioned in the same conversation as Facebook and MySpace, Hi5 was the world's third most-popular social networking site in 2008, shortly after receiving $20 million in venture capital. The site was most successful in Spanish-speaking Latin America, leading its competitors in Peru, Colombia, and Central America, and a few seemingly random countries such as Mongolia, Romania, and Tunisia.

The site has focused its efforts on the Latin American market, but once again proved no match for Facebook, and rebranded as a gaming site in 2010. It was acquired last year by the U.S.-based social network Tagged. As of today, the majority of Hi5's users are in Thailand. As Gawker put it in 2008, it truly is "the most international of all the social networks." Which is not to say the most successful.


Popular in: Britain

Founded by a British-American couple living in San Francisco in 2005, Bebo, which stands for "Blog Early, Blog Often" tried to position itself as a less crass, more creative alternative to MySpace and Facebook, with tight privacy controls and quirky features such as allowing users to draw pictures on each other's profiles.

In the United States, the site is best known for what has been called "one of the worst deals ever made in the dotcom era" -- its $850 million purchase by AOL in 2008. It was sold to a private equity firm for a fraction of that price two years later. (Of course, the sale was later eclipsed by even more dubious business decisions by AOL.)

But Bebo really hit its stride the British Isles. It was, for a time, Britain's most popular social networking service and the most popular website of any kind in Ireland. But since its peak in 2007, Bebo has been trounced by Facebook, falling to .2 percent of British web traffic in 2010 compared to Facebook's 6.2 percent.

On Jan. 30, 2012, the Bebo website went down -- prompting users to speculate that the site had finally met its demise, with many taking to Twitter, ironically, to share memories of the site. It's back up now, with a spokeperson blaming the outage on a "technical clusterfuck" and promising new products launched at its niche audience in Britain soon.