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A woman in China was left to learn her husband's secret identity when police took him

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now to China for a story about a mysterious blogger and a woman left to discover who her husband really was after the police hauled him away. NPR's John Ruwitch has more from Shanghai.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Police came to arrest Ruan Xiaohuan on a hot day in May 2021. His wife, Bei Zhenying was in the kitchen.

BEI ZHENYING: (Through interpreter) That day at midday, he was in his study. He was always in his study. I was preparing lunch.

RUWITCH: The police separated them and confiscated their phones and computers. They told Bei her husband had an overseas blog and was suspected of subverting state power.

BEI: (Through interpreter) I was really scared. I couldn't imagine my husband could write such things, if he'd done what they said.

RUWITCH: Bei was incredulous at first. Her husband was a nerd - a computer programmer who had worked on internet security during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He was an independent thinker, but he wasn't openly political and generally minded his own business. He would hole up in his study for hours doing what he said was work.

BEI: (Through interpreter) I talked with his parents. We thought my husband wouldn't have been scared to write a few sensitive things, but it was impossible, given his character, that it could have been very extreme.

RUWITCH: Bei didn't know it at the time, but her husband had apparently been keeping a blog called Program Think. It taught people how to scale China's so-called Great Firewall to access blocked overseas websites. It mapped out the connections and wealth of senior Communist Party members, and it pushed back hard against Beijing's propaganda. Xiao Qiang with the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information says the blog was eloquent, logical and important.

XIAO QIANG: His blog became a magnet - attract, actually, hundreds of thousands of people who read this person who, just like them - they live inside of China, within the Great Firewall, but are capable of thinking independently to see through the propaganda.

RUWITCH: And Program Think pulled off something extraordinary, he says. The blogger used his cybersecurity expertise to stay anonymous and keep active for 12 years. It was a period of ever-tightening restrictions on speech in China.

QIANG: So all of those element added together made him a sort of mystical status.

RUWITCH: Bei Zhenying didn't know any of it. Months went by after Ruan's arrest. His lawyers refused to divulge details about the case, saying it involved state secrets.

BEI: (Through interpreter) After I learned how to get over the Great Firewall, I went to an internet cafe to get online.

RUWITCH: She went to a foreign search engine blocked in China and typed in the words missing blogger. An article popped up about Program Think.

BEI: (Through interpreter) My husband is so straight that he wouldn't pick a fun or fancy blog name. It would be something direct, like Program Think. And I thought, huh, it might be him.

RUWITCH: The writing style was familiar too. There was a reference to "V For Vendetta," which was one of her husband's favorite films. Then she looked at posts around the end of 2017 and early 2018, a time when Ruan was sick in bed.

BEI: (Through interpreter) I checked, and in the posts around that time, each one said, sorry, I've been really busy these days, so I'm late in posting this. And then I knew for sure it was him.

RUWITCH: It was too big a coincidence. And so is this - Program Think's last post was on May 9, 2021. Police took Ruan Xiaohuan away the next day. This February, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Bei is working on his appeal and trying to support him in every way she can. So this past spring, on weekends, Bei would drive her scooter up to a towering wall in an apartment complex in Shanghai. On the other side is the detention center where her husband is locked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: She turned on a loudspeaker with a prerecorded message.

BEI: (Through interpreter) I am telling him we know he's Program Think.

RUWITCH: The message says his friends and the international community are now following his case.

BEI: (Through interpreter) And it says, we hope he won't be down and that he can relax because his family is still safe.

RUWITCH: Bei is determined to fight for her husband's freedom. But if indeed Ruan Xiaohuan is Program Think, as is widely suspected now, the chances seem slim that a legal appeal will lead to him being released.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.