A Chinese freedom of speech activist in New York said Friday that Chinese authorities have “abducted” his family on the mainland, highlighting Beijing’s growing determination to silence critical voices overseas.
Wen Yunchao, an influential Communist Party critic with more than 220,000 followers on Twitter, said Friday that authorities detained his parents and younger brother in their hometown of Jiexi County, southern China’s Guangdong province, on Tuesday. He said that he has been unable to reach them, and that “the situation is unclear.”
Although Chinese authorities have placed increasing pressure on critics living abroad in recent years, the detention of an activist’s full family is extremely rare.
Wen said that police suspect that he helped disseminate an open letter demanding that Chinese President Xi Jinping step down. The anonymous letter, posted March 4 by Wujie News, a Chinese media website, blamed Xi for creating “unprecedented problems and crises” by adopting a hardline authoritarian leadership style. It was signed "loyal Communist Party members.”
“The police wanted to know if that letter was by me or distributed by me,” Wen said in a phone interview. He denied any involvement in the letter’s drafting or distribution.
Censors have scrubbed the letter from the Internet. On March 15, Jia Jia, a Beijing-based freelance writer, vanished while preparing to board a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong; his lawyer later confirmed that he had been detained on suspicion of drafting the letter.
At least 16 other people have been detained in connection with the letter, including several Wujie News employees, the BBC reported on Friday. It remains unclear who wrote the letter and how it appeared on Wujie News, an otherwise unexceptional site funded by the e-commerce giant Alibaba and the government of Xinjiang, a region in China's far northwest.
On March 19, U.S.-based blogger Liu Gang penned an online post claiming that Wen had also been behind the letter. “[Liu] said that I wrote this letter, and since then, the government has been harassing my family, trying to get me to acknowledge that the letter was by me,” Wen said.
“I don’t think the letter itself is a big deal, but it seems the party thinks it is," said Qiao Mu, a media scholar at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "They think the letter is a result of a collusion of domestic anti-Xi forces and overseas anti-China forces ... the letter itself hasn't spread widely within the Great Fire Wall, [China's Internet censorship apparatus], so a lot of people didn’t know about it at all. But disappearing people makes things bigger."
Human rights groups say that Xi Jinping has steered China into a new era of “hard authoritarianism,” marked by a dramatically reduced space for even mild forms of dissent. Authorities have detained scores of critical lawyers, activists and journalists within China’s borders, and used intimidation tactics to silence dissenting voices abroad.
Over the past half year, five Hong Kong booksellers who specialized in salacious tomes about top Communist Party leaders have vanished under mysterious circumstances; one was in Thailand and another in Hong Kong when they went missing, raising fears of political abductions. The booksellers have since reappeared, but the incidents have cast a chill over the city’s once-freewheeling publishing industry.
Since 2014, Chinese authorities have detained three brothers of Shohret Hoshur, an ethnic Uighur reporter for Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-backed broadcaster in Washington, D.C., possibly in retaliation for his reporting on the ethnically riven western region of Xinjiang. Two of the brothers have since been released; one is serving a five-year jail term for “endangering state security.”
“First of all it’s absolutely egregious that they’re doing this,” said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based spokesman for Amnesty International, “because it shows they’re really going after family members of dissidents, and people who they believe to be troublemakers. This is a worrying pattern, because it appears to be on the rise over the past year or so.”
“I think disappearing a whole family is taking it to the next level,” he continued. “There are lots of cases in which state security might have tea with family members, and put pressure on them. But actually disappearing a family, if that’s true — and I think Wen Yunchao is a good source, and I don’t see why he would lie about his own family — then that really is an escalation of the tactics that have been used over the past year or so.”
Yingzhi Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.