On March 4, the opening day of the annual top political meetings in Beijing, the state-linked Watching News (Wujie News 无界新闻) website posted an open letter signed by “loyal Party members” calling for the resignation of Xi Jinping. The letter was quickly removed from the website, and prominent journalist Jia Jia, who claimed to have nothing to do with the document, was detained by authorities on March 15 while trying to board a plane to Hong Kong. Several search term combinations related to the open letter were blocked last week on Weibo, and several more related to Jia Jia’s disappearance were found to be unsearchable this week. The BBC’s Jon Sudworth reports that while Jia Jia now appears to have been released, a total of 20 people have been detained in connection with the open letter:
There was no news from Mr Jia until 25 March, when he wrote on social media that he had been released, and thanked his supporters.
However, the BBC has spoken to a staff member at Wujie who has asked to remain anonymous and who has told us that in addition to Jia Jia, another 16 people had been “taken away”.
The source said they included six colleagues who work directly for the website, among them a senior manager and a senior editor, and another 10 people who work for a related technology company.
And a well-known Chinese dissident living in the US said three members of his family, living in China’s Guangdong province, had also been detained in connection with the letter. […] [Source]
Hong Kong Free Press reports that the recently launched news site Watching News may now be facing shutdown:
A source told the [Apple Daily] newspaper that Watching is to be closed and the company liquidated following a meeting held on Wednesday. Staff members have also been allowed to hand in their resignations.
[…] Apple Daily also reported that four members of staff, including President Ouyang Hongliang, Executive Editor Huang Zhijie, and two computer security staff members were “missing” and the company has not published any original news since March 15.
It has been reposting articles from media such as Xinhua and People’s Daily.
[…] Watching was set up last March by the government of Xinjiang, Alibaba, as well as SEEC Media Group. According to Apple, it was poised to be supportive of the “One Belt One Road,” a trade network initiative which the Chinese government hopes will connect China with the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe via land and sea. [Source]
The well-known, U.S.-based dissident whose family has been detained is Wen Yunchao, aka Bei Feng (北风), who appealed to U.S. President Barack Obama to raise the detentions with his Chinese counterpart at meetings next week:
My families, parents and young brother live in Mainland were kinapped by Chinese authorities since this Tuesday, disappeared.
— 温云超（Yunchao Wen，北风） (@wenyunchao) March 25, 2016
— 温云超（Yunchao Wen，北风） (@wenyunchao) March 25, 2016
Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam translates Wen Yunchao’s Chinese tweet announcing the disappearance of his family members:
My parents and my brother were kidnapped and disappeared on March 22. The [Chinese] authorities had been harassing my family asking them to pressure me into confessing my involvement with the open letter. They said they knew that I was not the writer, but they believed I helped distribute it. They wanted me to tell them who was the writer and how the person gave me the letter. [With a confession] they would not hold me liable. But I could not admit to something that I was not involved in. [Source]
The New York Times’ Edward Wong and Chris Buckley interviewed Wen on the disappearance of his family members and his denial of involvement in the letter’s distribution:
[…] Wen Yunchao, a Chinese activist living in New York, said in a telephone interview that his parents and younger brother in southern China had been missing since Tuesday, after police officers and officials warned his parents that Mr. Wen should tell them what he knew about the letter. Mr. Wen said he had nothing to do with distributing the letter on the Internet, and so refused to bow to the demands.
[…] Mr. Wen said in the interview that he had been told by his sister-in-law that his parents and his younger brother, Wen Yun’ao, a driver for a local government, were all missing. Mr. Wen said his sister-in-law had given no details of when or how his parents had disappeared but had said that Wen Yun’ao, her husband, had been taken away by officials.
[…]“At the start, they said they wanted to know if I had anything to do with the open letter calling for Xi Jinping to resign,” Mr. Wen said. “But on the 17th, they said directly that they knew I hadn’t written the letter but believed I had something to do with spreading it. They promised that if I told them who wrote the letter and passed it on to me, and how I spread it around, then I would not be held culpable and it would not be held against my family. Otherwise, they said, my younger brother might lose his job.”
Mr. Wen, a vocal critic of the Chinese government who is also known by the pen name Bei Feng, said he had passed on a message to the officials through his parents that he had nothing to do with writing or distributing the letter.
“I told them very clearly that I could not admit to something that had nothing to do with me,” Mr. Wen said. “I told them very clearly that I didn’t write the letter and had not helped anyone to distribute it, and I had not issued the letter on any websites.” […] [Source]
Amid Xi Jinping’s drive against dissent from members of the Party or the public—another major point of concern cited in the open letter—authorities have pressured overseas critics with smear campaigns or by detaining family members in China. Three brothers of Washington-based Uyghur journalist Shohret Hoshur were detained in 2014, and faced trial in August of last year. Two were released for unknown reasons ahead of the verdict, and the third is serving a five-year sentence for endangering state security. China-based activists and critics too have reported authorities’ targeting their family and friends. Confessions have also been extracted through threats to family members, as was the case with journalist Gao Yu.
Reporting on the detention of Wen Yunchao’s family members for The Los Angeles Time, Jonathan Kaiman relays comments from experts and human rights activists on the significance of the open letter, and on the troubling lengths Beijing is now willing to take to silence dissent at home and abroad:
“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.
[…] “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.” [Source]
In a press release, Amnesty’s William Nee stated: “The authorities should call off the political hounding of those suspected to be behind the open letter and release all those detained in connection with it. […] 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.” Also see a release from the Committee to Protect Journalists positioning Wen’s situation into the greater trend of pressuring overseas critics.