For 12 years, Program Think, an anonymous Chinese blogger, mounted an open challenge to China’s tightening authoritarian grip and expanding surveillance state.
The freewheeling blog offered a mixture of technical cybersecurity advice and scathing political commentary – including tips on how to safely circumvent China’s Great Firewall of internet censorship, develop critical thinking and resist the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The blogger took pride in their ability to cover their digital tracks and avoid getting caught – even as a growing number of government critics were ensnared in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strident crackdown on dissent.
Then, in May 2021, Program Think suddenly went silent.
The blog stopped updating and its Twitter and GitHub accounts turned dormant. Its author had promised followers to never stay inactive for more than 14 days. Many feared the blogger had been struck by an accident or illness, or tracked down and detained by authorities.
Speculation abounded, yet no one was able to offer concrete evidence.
Program Think had so closely guarded their identity that no supporters knew who the blogger was – except that they had been a programmer inside mainland China with a decade-long career in information security.
Now, almost two years later, the wife of a blogger recently sentenced to seven years in a Chinese prison for “inciting subversion of state power” believes she has the answer to the question: What happened to Program Think?
‘How is it possible?’
The woman, surnamed Bei, is the wife of Ruan Xiaohuan, a 45-year-old man who was taken away by police from his Shanghai home on May 10, 2021 – one day after Program Think’s final blog post.
Ruan’s detention caught Bei completely dumbfounded. And she would be even more shocked to learn her husband was blogging about politically sensitive subjects.
“The police told me his case was very serious, and I thought, how is it possible?” Bei told CNN.
“He’s a tech nerd and he loved delving into technology. How could he have so much energy to write articles on current political affairs?”
Throughout the investigation and court procedures, Bei was unable to learn much detail about her husband’s case as authorities told her it involved “state secrets.” Ruan was tried in secret, and Bei only saw him again at his sentencing at the Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate Court on February 10 this year, she said.
“He was abnormally thin, and his hair has turned almost all white,” Bei said. Ruan didn’t say a word and half of his face was covered by a Covid face mask.
“After the sentencing, he turned around to look at me as if expressing dissent and seeking help. I could tell the sentence was much heavier than he had expected,” she said. “I told him: ‘Appeal.’”
According to a copy of the verdict seen 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 a hundred seditious articles that spread rumors and slander, attack and smear the country’s current political system, incite subversion of state power, and intent to overthrow the socialist system,” the court verdict said.
It added that the articles, published on overseas platforms, attracted “a large number of internet users to read, comment and share, causing pernicious consequences.”
But the court documents did not mention the name of Ruan’s blog, or provide details on the content it deemed subversive. After the sentencing, the judge asked Bei to sign an agreement not to publicize the verdict, which she refused, Bei told CNN.
Determined to find out what authorities had withheld 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 went missing, until she came across a blog with a picture of Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” as its avatar.
Its name: Program Think.
‘It can’t just be a coincidence’
It was, by Bei’s own admission, a light bulb moment.
All the information about the blog matched up with that of her husband.
The blog started in 2009 and its last post, a long list of book recommendations, was published on May 9 – a day before Ruan was taken away and had his laptop confiscated. There was also a four-month period, Bei remembered, when Ruan was sick and bedridden that coincided with a lull in publishing.
The author’s writing style and aspirations seemed all too familiar, so did his bluntness and confidence that sometimes bordered on arrogance, Bei said.
She learned during police investigations that her husband had posted more than 700 articles on an overseas platform – just as Program Think did.
“It can’t be just a coincidence,” Bei said.
She burst into tears at an internet cafe the moment she drew what she believes to be the connection between her husband and the influential blogger, she recalled.
“I came to realize how much pressure he had been under for such a long time. He was doing all these dangerous things, carrying so much weight on his shoulders all by himself,” she said.
“Even after he was caught, no one could help him because nobody knew he was Program Think.”
CNN has been unable to confirm Ruan’s online identity and messages to the email address listed on the dormant Program Think blog have gone unanswered. CNN made multiple phone calls to the Shanghai No. 2 Intermediate Court, but couldn’t reach anyone who was willing to comment on Ruan’s case or answer whether his conviction is linked to the Program Think blog.
Bei, however, is confident the two are connected and said she regrets not knowing earlier about what she believes was her husband’s online identity.
Had she known, she said, she would have immediately sought help from human rights lawyers who have the expertise and experience in representing defendants in sensitive political cases.
Last month, Bei appointed two of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun, as Ruan’s defense attorneys for his appeal.
But the Shanghai High People’s Court turned them away, claiming Ruan had asked for legal assistance and the state had already appointed him two lawyers.
CNN has reached out to the Shanghai High People’s Court for comment. In politically sensitive cases, the state often denies family-appointed attorneys and assigns its own lawyers instead.
Despite official pressure on her to stay quiet, she decided to go public with Ruan’s case, hoping the media exposure and public attention might help her husband receive a fair appeal.
“I’ve wasted the opportunity (to help him) for his first trial. I can’t miss the appeal too, it’s the last chance – I have to make sure it’ll be fair,” she said.
‘Fascinated by technology’
Born in the province of Fujian on China’s southeastern coast, Ruan first came into contact with a computer at junior high school. He was interested in software viruses and taught himself programming, he said in an interview with a state-affiliated academic journal.
He went on to study at the prestigious East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, where he met Bei, his future wife.
They both majored in chemical engineering, but by then Ruan had become infatuated with computer science. He spent all his free time reading about it at the library. He and his roomates also bought a computer so they could take turns to use it in their dormitory, Bei said.
Ruan was so eager to join the industry that he gave up on completing his university degree.
“He told me computer science is developing too fast and academic qualifications can’t represent one’s ability,” Bei recalled.
The move paid off and Ruan’s career took off immediately.
He went on to work in some of China’s most renowned cybersecurity companies. He served as the chief engineer for the information security system of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when he was working for the network security firm Venustech.
Ruan later joined another company and was promoted to chief technology officer.
In his interview with the state-affiliated journal at the time, Ruan said: “I am someone who is fascinated by technology, only new technology makes me full of passion.”
But he grew increasingly frustrated by the restraints on research and development in companies due to their unrelenting pursuit of profits. In 2012, Ruan quit his job to focus on developing open source software.
Up until his arrest, Bei recalled, Ruan would spend his hours working from his north-facing study, typing away at his keyboard or reading.
Ruan never cared much about money or material comfort. Instead, he longed for what he called the “open source spirit” – freedom, openness, sharing and cooperation, Bei said.
“He thinks one must pursue spiritual values in life. For him, it is technology – that’s what he finds valuable. But only recently did I discover that his (quest) for freedom had also morphed into a (longing for) political freedom,” she said.
Ruan was working in his study when the police came knocking on the apartment door on May 10, 2021, Bei said. She thought it was a bottled water delivery and asked her husband to answer it.
Ruan was taken away by force, shattering a lens of his eyeglasses. More than half a dozen police officers stormed in to search their apartment. The search lasted from noon to the early hours of the next day, Bei said.
Ruan’s laptop was still running at the time, and police kept the device on when transferring it to the police station in order to seize all of its data, according to the court verdict.
The court documents said police also seized an iPhone, a Xiaomi phone and Huawei laptop, but Bei said those were her devices.
Now, thinking back, Bei said she might have overlooked some early warning signs.
About a year before Ruan’s arrest, the internet service at their home became unstable and disconnected frequently, she said. When they went out for a stroll, Ruan would sometimes suddenly hurry back home, as if to check whether they had any intruders.
Now, looking back, Bei said if she had known, she wouldn’t have supported her husband’s decision to blog about politics.
“I think he would have made a greater contribution to human society if he spent his time on technology,” she said.
‘Politics will come and pay attention to you’
Program Think didn’t start blogging to voice political dissent, either.
In its first post, published in January 2009, the author introduced the blog as a place to share skills and experience on software development and programming language.
But it did not take long for the contents to intersect with politics.
On June 4, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the blogger shared how-tos on circumventing internet restrictions and how to conceal your identity online.
A week later, in another post, the author decried China’s tightening internet censorship. A series of international social media platforms, including Twitter and Flickr, were added to the banned list, while Chinese authorities issued a directive demanding the mandatory installation of censorship software on all new computers.
“I don’t want to keep silent anymore, I don’t want to avoid these issues anymore, it’s time to write something other than technology!” the post concluded.
Soon after, Program Think started posting more overt political commentaries.
“In China, you don’t have to care about politics, but politics will come and pay attention to you,” Program Think wrote in a blog post on June 4 in 2011, explaining the decision to start a series on the Tiananmen crackdown.
In 2016, following the release of the Panama Papers, Program Think compiled publicly available data allegedly detailing connections between Communist Party leaders and their relatives.
The data, which Program Think said was aimed at “exposing the powerful families” of China’s ruling elite, prompted the Cyber Security Association of China to send GitHub a takedown request. Github did not comply, and the database is still accessible on the platform.
As Program Think’s profile grew, so did the scrutiny from Chinese authorities.
In 2019, in a post titled “Why the Authorities Can’t Catch Me – A Summary of My Security Experience After Ten Years of Anti-Party Activities,” Program Think said state hackers had twice tried to attack his Gmail account; and the comment section of the blog had been flooded by what the blogger suspected to be government-employed commentators.
But Program Think remained undeterred and carried on blogging, until they seemingly vanished without a trace.
‘One man against the state machine’
Chinese authorities have never made any public mention of Program Think. But many Chinese rights activists, China experts and followers of the blog believe Ruan is indeed the missing blogger.
Several international 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 during the 1989 Tiananmen movement, said the official secrecy surrounding Program Think betrayed the authorities’ fear of the blogger’s influence.
“Under the Communist Party’s ubiquitous surveillance – both online and in real life, he managed to carry on for 12 years – that is a marvelous legend in itself,” said Zhou, Executive Director of Human Rights in China.
Program Think could have easily enjoyed a comfortable life, and yet, he chose to use his expertise to spread the idea of freedom, Zhou said. “He has influenced many people – in the hundreds of thousands,” he said. “It’s one man against the state machine.”
To Program Think’s supporters, the blog’s very existence served as an open challenge to the authority of the party, both in terms of ideology and technology.
Some compared the blogger to “V,” the masked freedom fighter in the Alan Moore graphic novel “V for Vendetta.” Others called Program Think China’s “cyber Prometheus,” the ancient Greek god who stole fire from heaven and gave it to humanity.
Eric Liu, an analyst at China Digital Times, a US-based news website tracking censorship in China, said he had followed “Program Think” from early on.
In the beginning, the blog did not stand out as particularly sensitive because critical voices abounded on the Chinese internet at the time, according to Liu.
“It is the rapid shrinking of China’s political space over the past decade that pushed him to the forefront of so-called anti-Communist Party activities,” he said.
Searches for “Program Think” are heavily restricted on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. In an oblique reference to the blogger, a Weibo user posted on Friday: “(One) can only program, but not think.” That post has since been deleted from search results.
Following Ruan’s sentencing, his name has also been banned on on Chinese social media platforms.
“The authorities don’t want people talking about him, and the last thing they want is a solidarity campaign (to call for his release),” Liu said.
While there may never be official confirmation on whether Ruan and Program Think are the same person, many followers are convinced they are. And regardless of his detention by authorities, they say the knowledge and ideas shared in the blog have already spread far and wide.
“You are already a well-deserved hero in the hearts of countless people, and we will live with the torch you ignited,” a follower said on the Program Think Twitter page.