It wasn’t as if Bei Zhenying didn’t know that her husband was unusual, or even that he had some secrets.
He was a talented computer programmer, and she fell for his inquisitive intelligence and playfulness when they met at university in Shanghai. But he was also proudly nonconformist — refusing to use social media or buy new clothes — and intensely private, disappearing into his study to do work he wouldn’t discuss.
Ms. Bei, 45, accepted those quirks as the habits of a professional geek, someone engrossed in a world that she, a corporate business manager, didn’t understand. But she never imagined just how little she knew about her husband, Ruan Xiaohuan, until the Shanghai police stormed into the couple’s apartment and took him away.
The authorities accused Mr. Ruan of plotting to overthrow the Chinese government, by writing articles “smearing our country’s political system.” In February, a judge sentenced him to seven years in prison. Ms. Bei was left to try and piece together the life that he had kept from her.
What she learned, over the following months, was more than a personal secret. Ms. Bei now believes that Mr. Ruan was the writer behind one of the most mysterious blogs on the Chinese internet, which for 12 years had ridiculed the ruling Communist Party from within the country — a seemingly unthinkable feat under China’s hard-line leader, Xi Jinping.
The blog, Program Think, had a near-mythical status among its fiercely devoted following. The anonymously written posts mapped the hidden wealth of China’s leaders, one of the government’s most sensitive topics. They shared tips on covering digital tracks, mocking the authorities for failing to unmask the author. And they urged readers to think for themselves, in defiance of the society around them.
Then, the blog went silent in May 2021 — the same month Mr. Ruan, now 46, was arrested.
Whether Mr. Ruan was Program Think is virtually impossible to confirm. The court that sentenced him did not name his website, probably to avoid drawing attention to it. China treats national security cases with absolute secrecy, and Ms. Bei has not been allowed to speak to Mr. Ruan. Program Think offered almost no identifying details.
Either way, the fates of Program Think and Mr. Ruan are part of the same story, about the drastic measures of subterfuge that Chinese citizens must take to offer dissenting opinions under Mr. Xi. They ultimately may also point to the near impossibility of doing so in an ever-expanding surveillance state.
But their stories also show how independent thought continues to emerge, despite — or, at times, because of — Mr. Xi’s unrelenting campaign against it. Ms. Bei had no interest in politics before her husband’s arrest, she said when we met earlier this year, after she decided to publicize her belief about Mr. Ruan’s identity. She didn’t even bother circumventing China’s internet censorship. But as she was forced to search for answers, she found herself on a journey of awakening — much like the kind Program Think had set out to inspire.
“Before, I really hadn’t experienced any great adversity, and I just wanted a quiet and happy life,” she said. “Now my view on reality is totally different. I can understand the things he wrote in his blog.”
An eccentric behind a closed door
Two years after Mr. Ruan’s arrest, his study still bears signs of the hours he spent there, covertly building an alternate life.
His black roller chair wore a groove in the floorboards. Yellowing programming books and a Chinese pocket constitution line a metal shelf. A spare bed rests against the wall.
In retrospect, Ms. Bei acknowledged when I visited in April, it was clear that Mr. Ruan was hiding something. He turned snappish if she opened the door, citing the need to focus while coding.
But she chalked it up as devotion to his work — and his skill there was clear. He oversaw information security for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, according to a certificate from his company at the time. A government-backed magazine profiled him in 2010: “I am a person who craves new technology. Only new technology excites my passion,” he said.
At times, Ms. Bei did chafe at his eccentricities. Mr. Ruan became increasingly reclusive, complaining that he couldn’t find intellectual peers. Around 2012, deeming his job insufficiently challenging, he quit. He started spending even more time in his study, reading and working on open-source software, she said.
He refused to install WeChat or AliPay, the ubiquitous Chinese payment and social media apps, citing security concerns. When an air-conditioning repairman visited their home, Mr. Ruan insisted that both he and Ms. Bei supervise the whole time.
Still, Ms. Bei attributed Mr. Ruan’s apparent paranoia to his line of work. He sometimes mentioned political news, such as government corruption, but didn’t seem focused on it.
One day in 2020, Ms. Bei outright asked Mr. Ruan for the first time what exactly he did all day in his study. She had begun spending more time at home, too, during the coronavirus pandemic, and they had grown closer after years of drifting apart.
Ms. Bei guessed that he was on a foreign website, because he had mentioned contact with overseas programmers. His caution made her suspect that it might be sensitive. But it also made her think he would avoid anything serious.
“He just looked at me,” she recalled. “Then he said it was just programming stuff, I wouldn’t understand.”
A visit from the police
Shortly after noon on May 10, 2021, the doorbell rang.
Ms. Bei asked Mr. Ruan to answer it, then heard a scuffle. Rushing to the door, she saw a crowd of police officers. Her husband had already been shuffled out of sight.
For 12 hours, the officers searched the apartment, warning a dazed Ms. Bei that Mr. Ruan had committed the crime of subverting state power — a vaguely defined offense in China that is often used to punish critics. After it became clear that she hadn’t known about his blog, they eventually left.
At first, Ms. Bei was furious at Mr. Ruan — for keeping secrets, for putting her at risk. But she ultimately decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially since the police had told her so little.
She and Mr. Ruan’s parents speculated that he had been a small-time blogger, and the authorities were just trying quiet criticism before the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary that year. They expected he would be released soon. Ms. Bei didn’t try to find his blog, figuring she had too little to go on.
But the court kept delaying the case, then suspended it indefinitely last spring during Shanghai’s coronavirus lockdown. Then, on Feb. 7 — 21 months since she’d last seen Mr. Ruan — Ms. Bei was abruptly notified that she could attend his sentencing three days later.
Mr. Ruan, when he was brought into the courtroom, was gaunt. His hair had gone mostly white. They briefly made eye contact before guards turned him to face the judge.
“Until then, I still blamed him a little. But when I saw him like that, I didn’t have any other thoughts,” Ms. Bei said. “No matter what he did, nobody should treat him that way.”
Ms. Bei listened in shock as the judge sentenced Mr. Ruan to seven years, citing Mr. Ruan’s “long-term dissatisfaction” with the government in the written verdict.
Even more shocking to her was that the verdict did not name the blog or describe its content. It said only that the supposedly subversive articles began in June 2009, numbered more than 100, and had reached “a large number of internet users.”
For the first time, Ms. Bei decided she needed to circumvent China’s online controls, to find what the government seemed so desperate to keep hidden. Visiting internet cafes for added security, she learned to install anti-censorship software, then typed into Google the few clues she had: “2021, missing, blog.”
The first result in Chinese was an article from an overseas publication, wondering what had happened to a blog called Program Think.
A familiar voice
As she opened Program Think’s blog, Ms. Bei was scared. The news article had described it as “exposing the secrets of China’s powerful insiders.” If her husband was responsible, had he been plotting subversion after all?
But as she pored over the blog, she grew sure of two things. First, that Mr. Ruan had written it. And second, that he had done nothing wrong.
The posts began in January 2009 as the wonky musings of an industry insider, recommending books on software engineering and griping about common coding mistakes.
But five months later, the blog took on a sharper edge. The blogger wrote that China’s censors had started blocking more websites, including Twitter and Blogspot, where Program Think was hosted.
“This is terrible news!” the author said. “It’s time to write about something other than technology!”
The blogger began uploading e-books like George Orwell’s “1984” and sharing instructions on encrypting data files. Posts explained the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and showed how the Chinese government manipulated historical photographs.
To Ms. Bei, it was not just the timeline that matched, or the recommendations of books that she knew Mr. Ruan liked. It was the voice: eager to learn and teach, but also swaggering, even arrogant.
“My priority is to be a gravedigger for the party-state,” the blogger wrote about the project mapping Chinese leaders’ financial relationships, which drew on foreign news reports.
The arrogance grew as the blog became more prominent, and thus a target for Beijing. A 2019 post titled “Why the government can’t catch me” noted multiple attempts to target the blogger, including attacks on an affiliated Gmail account. The Chinese government had also formally asked Github, the open-source platform where the mapping project was hosted, to censor it — which Github said was its first-ever takedown request from Beijing.
“Police comrades, work harder,” said another post, with a smiley face.
It was precisely that mix of bravado and erudition that had made Program Think an “online legend,” said Xiao Qiang, a researcher on internet freedom at the University of California, Berkeley. In the hundreds of comments under each post, fans compared the author to Julian Assange, or the hero of “V for Vendetta,” the graphic novel about a masked anti-totalitarian vigilante.
Readers were awed that “there’s such a person in China that can challenge the Chinese authorities — mentally, politically and morally,” Mr. Xiao said.
But the authorities harnessed increasingly sophisticated technology to hunt down critics.
Ms. Bei believes now that Mr. Ruan saw his arrest coming. In the months beforehand, he often complained that their internet was unstable. Once, he said that a police officer had approached him at a Burger King he frequented, asking if he went there often.
Program Think’s final post, on May 9, 2021, was an updated list of e-books the blogger had uploaded.
The next day, Ms. Bei’s doorbell rang.
Ms. Bei’s first feeling, as she read the blog, was jealousy. She envied Mr. Ruan’s readers, who had occupied so much of his attention, unlike her.
But she also felt renewed admiration for him. And outrage, at the harshness of his sentence.
She decided to change her approach. She hired two prominent human rights lawyers in Beijing to file an appeal. She spoke to foreign journalists about her belief that Mr. Ruan was Program Think. She opened a Twitter account to rally support from the blog’s fans.
She also plunged more deeply into the uncensored internet, learning the names of persecuted activists, lawyers and citizen journalists.
“I used to think that news from outside China and inside would use two angles to report something. I never thought it’d be like two entirely different worlds,” she said.
Pressure immediately mounted. When she traveled to Beijing to meet her lawyers in April, officers blocked her from leaving her hotel, she said. When I visited her home, Ms. Bei blasted Handel arias to block potential listening devices.
I asked Ms. Bei whether she still had faith in the legal process, after awakening to China’s political reality.
“I guess it depends how you look at it,” she replied. “If just because you’ve seen a lot of abnormal things, you think the normal is abnormal, that would be a tragedy.”
In late May, Ms. Bei was particularly upbeat. The court had abruptly indefinitely postponed its ruling on the appeal. That signaled the authorities were considering lightening the sentence, she texted me.
But in Mr. Xi’s China, leniency is rare.
Two weeks later, Ms. Bei’s Twitter account disappeared. One of her lawyers said he could not reach her; after several days, he said she was safe but could not comment further — a sign that the authorities had most likely warned her into silence. She has not spoken publicly since.
One of her last texts to me before she went quiet was about her determination to continue speaking out for Mr. Ruan.
“I feel very strong today,” she wrote. “I’ll keep working hard.”