Families of Dissidents Threatened Over Open Letter

As the police in China continue their search for clues to the provenance of a sharply-worded open letter calling for President Xi Jinping’s resignation and appearing to threaten his life, family members of journalists and living overseas have been targeted and threatened. Deutsche-Welle commentator Chang Ping (whose given name is Zhang Ping), a prominent journalist formerly with Southern Weekly, reported that his siblings had been detained and threatened in Sichuan after Chang wrote a column criticizing the detention of another Chinese journalist, Jia Jia, over the open letter. Chang wrote on China Change:

On March 19, 2016, I published an article in Deutsche Welle titled “Jia Jia Was Disappeared for the Crime of Seeing,” criticizing these illegal abductions carried out by Chinese authorities. I was also interviewed by Radio France Internationale in which I shared my views on the Communist Party’s ongoing power struggle.

Following my article and interview, my direct family members and numerous relatives in China have been subject to investigation, harassment, and threats. On March 27, during a trip back to my father’s home in Duofu Township, Xichong County, Sichuan province (四川省西充县多扶镇) to celebrate my father’s birthday, my two younger brothers and a younger sister, who are based in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, were taken away by officers from the township police station. The police showed no legal warrant for detaining them. I have not been able to contact my family members directly, but through other sources I’ve learned that the police asked my family to contact me and demand that I immediately cease to publish any articles that criticize the Chinese Communist Party, especially my Deutsche Welle column known as “ Observation” (“长平观察”) or the government would find ways to charge my family members.

I hereby state:

1) All of my family and relatives in China have no understanding of my political beliefs, columns, and the media work I engage in, nor are they in any way related to it. Currently they have no communication with me, therefore they will be unable to meet the unreasonable demand of the police. I’d be in support of them, should they wish to cut off all ties with me at any point.

2) Apart from the above column and interview, I personally have no other connection to the open letter. I didn’t help draft it, I didn’t publicize it, and I only read it after it had already been widely promulgated. It’s just like I said in my column: I don’t get involved in internal Party power struggles, and I’ve no interest in doing so. [Source]

He then goes on to list three more personal statements related to the case. In a later post, Chang again condemns the local police officers’  behavior after one brother was able to contact him to relay their demands:

After lunch in my parents’ home, Zhang Wei managed to get in touch with me. Before that point, police had repeatedly asked my two detained brothers to contact me but, they didn’t have a means of doing so. [During my exchange with Zhang Wei], I told him that I did not believe the police’s promise, but he loudly went on to relate their message. It was clear that our exchange was being recorded.

The Chinese police made three demands:

Delete the news I posted online, because the police “didn’t kidnap my relatives”;
Confirm that I was indeed the author of “Jia Jia Was Disappeared for the Crime of Seeing,” and withdraw it from Deutsche Welle;
Cease to publish any articles, or make any comments, criticizing the Chinese government.

I told Zhang Wei that:

The police are kidnapping my brothers when they detain them for over 20 hours without any legal warrant. Even if I was wrong in characterizing the event, it had nothing to do with my brothers, and it’s illegal for the police to punish them by association;
I’m indeed the author of that article, but DW will not withdraw an article just because police in China demand it, not to mention that this is an utterly ridiculous and rude demand;
Whatever I do has nothing to do with my brothers, and the police should have a perfect understanding of this legal concept. [Source]

In subsequent interviews with journalists, Chang reiterated his opposition to official attempts to get Deutsche-Welle to remove his column and to involve his family in the case. From Stuart Leavenworth at The Guardian:

In an email on Monday, Chang said his sister had just been released but his two brothers were still in detention. Chinese authorities, he said, were attempting to trade the release of his brothers for Chang agreeing to withdraw an article he wrote in Deutsche Welle.

“I am concerned for their safety,” he wrote in the email. “They might be prosecuted for other things framed to them.” [Source]

Didi Tang at the AP spoke with Chang and with the local police in his hometown:

“It’s horrific that a local Chinese police station should stretch its arm toward German media and demand an article be removed,” Zhang said. “That’s interference with press freedom.”

Asked by phone about Zhang’s siblings, Duofu police said they were holding several people on suspicion of causing a fire while paying their respects to their ancestors but refused to give details. Zhang said it was common for people to set off fireworks when visiting ancestors’ tombs and believed there was no real damage. He said police were simply using that as a pretext to hold his brothers and sister. [Source]

New York-Based blogger also recently reported that his family members in China were taken away by police and interrogated about his connection to the letter, even though he claims none. Simon Denyer of The Washington Post reports on similar cases of relatives of government critics being harassed inside China:

Although Chang’s sister has now been released, Chang said this was merely an attempt to use his family as hostages to negotiate for the withdrawal of the articles. “I can’t take the blackmail,” he wrote in an email Monday. “I have to go on.”

It is not entirely new for China to put pressure on the relatives of exiled dissidents – the tactic has been used in recent years against blind “barefoot lawyer” Chen Guangcheng after he fled to the United States in 2012, against Miss World Canada titleholder and Falun Gong practioner Anastasia Lin last year, and against Washington-based Radio Free Asia reporter Shohret Hoshur.

But it does show how China’s crackdown on free speech is spreading across the globe.

[…] “It seems the authorities will stop at nothing to silence those outside their borders who they can no longer fully control,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “It bears repeating that the persecution of family members of dissidents is a draconian and unlawful tactic that makes a mockery of China’s claims to respect the rule of law.” [Source]

While the origins of the letter itself—signed only by “loyal Communist Party members”—are still unclear, some observers believe its potential impact has already been made evident by the authorities’ harsh response. Philip Wen at Sydney Morning Herald writes:

The open letter has attracted intense interest from watchers of elite Chinese politics for the way it eloquently criticises Mr Xi for excessively centralising power, an anti-corruption drive that has crippled the bureaucracy and poor handling of China’s economic slowdown.

China’s strict internet censorship has largely limited the letter’s spread, and analysts have cast doubt on whether the letter originated from disenfranchised party members within China.

Political analyst Willy Lam said the government’s heavy-handed crackdown highlighted the level of paranoia within the Xi administration that the letter’s content could resonate if allowed to spread to a wider audience within mainland China.

“The sentiments do overlap with what many people who are critical of Xi Jinping think,” the Chinese University of Hong Kong academic said. “If you add the people affected by the anti-corruption campaign and also relatively liberal cadres who are unhappy about the personality cult being built around Xi Jinping, then it’s quite a substantial number of party cadres.” [Source]

Words and phrases related to the open letter have been censored from Weibo search results in an effort to limit its online presence.

Chang Ping was demoted and then forced out of his editorial position at Southern Weekly in 2010, and then denied permission to work in Hong Kong for iSun Affairs, which has since folded. He is now based in Germany and writes for Deutsche-Welle. Read more by and about Chang Ping, via CDT.