Today there are more than 100 million internet users in China. The Chinese Government is ambivalent towards it. On the one hand, the internet is a tool to make money. On the other, the Communist dictatorship is afraid of freedom of expression.

The internet has brought about the awakening of ideas among the Chinese. This worries the Government, which has placed great importance on blocking the internet to exert ideological control.

In October 1999 I finished three years of jail and returned home. There was a computer there and it seemed that every visiting friend was telling me to use it. I tried a few times but felt that I could not write anything while facing a machine and insisted on writing with a fountain pen. Slowly, under the patient persuasion and guidance of my friends, I got familiar with it and cannot leave it now. As someone who writes for a living, and as someone who participated in the 1989 democracy movement, my gratitude towards the internet cannot be easily expressed.

My first essay on the computer took a week to do – I was ready to abandon it several times. Under the encouragement of my friends, I finished it. For the first time, I sent an article by e-mail. Several hours later I received the reply from the editor. This made me aware of the magic of the internet.

With the censorship here, my essays can only be published overseas. Before using the computer, my handwritten essays were difficult to correct and the cost of sending them was high. To avoid the articles being intercepted, I often went from the west side of the city to the east side where I had a foreign friend who owned a fax machine.

The internet has made it easier to obtain information, contact the outside world and submit articles to overseas media. It is like a super-engine that makes my writing spring out of a well. The internet is an information channel that the Chinese dictators cannot fully censor, allowing people to speak and communicate, and it offers a platform for spontaneous organisation.

Open letters signed by individuals or groups are an important way for civilians to resist dictatorship and fight for freedom. The open letter from Vaclav Havel to the Czech dictator Husak was a classic of civil opposition to dictatorship.

Fang Lizhi, a famous dissident, wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, to ask for the release of the political prisoner Wei Jingsheng. This was followed by two open letters, signed by 33 and 45 people. These three open letters were regarded as the prelude to the 1989 democracy movement, when open letters rose up like bamboo shoots after rain to support the protesting students.

Back then it took a lot of time and resources to organise an open letter. Preparations began a month before; organisers had to be found to look up the people. We talked about the content of the letter, the phrasing, the timing, and it took several days to reach consensus. Afterwards, we had to find a place to typeset the handwritten open letter and then make several copies. After proofing the document, the most time-consuming thing was to collect the signatures. Since the government was monitoring the telephones of sensitive people, we had to ride our bicycles in all directions of Beijing.

In an era without the internet, it was impossible to collect the signatures of several hundred people, and it was also impossible to disseminate the news rapidly all over the world. At the time, the influence of and the participation in letter-writing campaigns were all quite limited. We worked for many days, and in the end we would only get a few dozen people to sign. The letter-signing movements in this new era have made a quantum leap.

The ease, openness and freedom of the internet has caused public opinion to become very lively in recent years. The Government can control the press and television, but it cannot control the internet. The scandals that are censored in the traditional media are disseminated through the internet. The Government now has to release information and officials may have to publicly apologise.

The first senior official to apologise was in 2001 when Zhu Rongji, who was then the Premier, apologised for an explosion in a school that caused the death of 41 people. At the same time, under the impact of internet opinion, the authorities had to punish officials – for Sars, mining accidents and the contamination of the Songhua River.

The internet has the extraordinary ability to create stars. Not only can it produce entertainment stars, it can also create “truth-speaking heroes”. It has allowed a new generation of intellectuals to emerge and created folk heroes such as the military doctor Jiang Yanyong (who publicly warned about the threat of Sars and forced the Government to take action).

Chinese Christians say that although the Chinese lack any sense of religion, their God will not forsake the suffering Chinese people. The internet is God’s present to China. It is the best tool for the Chinese people in their project to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.

Liu Xiaobo will today be awarded the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. He is a prominent dissident writer who is being held under house arrest in Beijing. This is an edited version of an article he wrote in 2006 that was translated by the EastSouthWestNorth blog