An annual census of detentions by the Committee to Project Journalists has identified China as one of the most prolific jailers, and highlighted ongoing mass detentions in Xinjiang as a current focal point. CPJ’s Elana Beiser noted the detention early last month of award-winning photographer Lu Guang in that context, and argued that the continued climb in the number of detentions worldwide suggests that “the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike.”
The past three years have recorded the highest number of jailed journalists since CPJ began keeping track, with consecutive records set in 2016 and 2017. Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row.
[…] The higher number of prisoners in China–with 47 behind bars–reflects the latest wave of persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region. At least 10 journalists in China were detained without charge, all of them in Xinjiang, where the United Nations has accused Beijing of mass surveillance and detention of up to a million people without trial.
In the highest-profile example, Lu Guang, a freelance photographer and U.S. resident whose work on environmental and social issues in China has won awards from the World Press Photo Foundation and National Geographic, disappeared in Xinjiang in early November. Authorities later confirmed his arrest to his family, but have not disclosed his location or reason for detaining him.
More broadly, President Xi Jinping has steadily increased his grip on power since taking office in 2013; this year, authorities stepped up regulation of technology that can bypass the country’s infamous firewall, issued lists "of "approved" news outlets, and disbarred lawyers who represent jailed journalists, CPJ has found. While President Trump has continually pressed Beijing over its trade and technology practices, human rights–such as press freedom and the crackdown in Xinjiang–have not figured into the headlines. [Source]
The report’s warnings about “fake news” as justification for oppressive media control echo those of Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report last month. For more on Chinese media controls, see Freedom House’s Sarah Cook at The Diplomat this week.
This week, the presidents of the National Press Club and its non-profit journalism institute published an open letter to Chinese ambassador Cui Tiankai calling for Lu Guang’s release.
On behalf of more than 3,000 communications and media professionals we are requesting that you tell us where our colleague is being held, what he is being charged with and what the next steps are in his case. We see no reason that he should not be allowed to do his job in freedom.
Frankly, we are concerned that Lu’s case is just the latest example of a disturbing trend: journalists being jailed by China as a way to silence them. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 41 news professionals were imprisoned in China at the end of last year–the second highest total of any nation. As China expands its media presence across the globe, journalists for your country’s news agencies have been able to take advantage of press freedoms here and in other host countries to report critically about government institutions. We would hope that members of the media would be able to do the same in China.
We would appreciate it if you would provide us with a prompt and full explanation of what has happened to our colleague. And we thank you for your consideration. [Source]
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Lu’s wife had finally received notification of his arrest:
Authorities informed relatives of award-winning photographer Lu Guang, whose work focuses unsparingly on the harshest realities of life in China, that he was arrested in Kashgar city in the country’s far west region of Xinjiang, his wife Xu Xiaoli told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Xu, who lives in New York, said police contacted family members Wednesday. They have yet to receive a written notice with his charges, which are unclear.
Lu disappeared while travelling in Xinjiang on Nov. 3, according to Xu. He had connected with photographers in Urumqi, the capital, one week before and was scheduled to see a friend in Sichuan province on Nov. 5, but he never showed up for the meeting. [Source]
Last week, Robert Y. Pledge, co-founder of the photography agency representing Lu, highlighted Lu’s detention in a New York Times op-ed illustrated with examples of his work:
Five weeks ago, he was invited to travel to Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, in Western China. He went there to share his passion for photography by leading an informal, weeklong workshop with local photographers. The Chinese government has been conducting what it describes as a large-scale antiterrorism campaign in Xinjiang, targeting the Uighur ethnic group.
According to local sources, the security services detained Lu Guang, along with his local host, on or about Nov. 3. He was supposed to travel a day or two later to Sichuan Province, where he regularly does charity work. He never made it.
[…] Lu Guang is a deeply concerned citizen. He works almost solely in China, for both linguistic and cultural reasons. His photographs have depicted some of the harsher sides of life in China — AIDS, environmental destruction, pollution and poverty.
[…] In some ways, these are typical of Lu Guang’s images. They mirror similar circumstances elsewhere in the world, and so they carry a broader universal significance. He believes, in the tradition of the great American photo essayist, Eugene Smith, that photography “is a small voice” that can help change the world. We hope that he will soon be returned to us, safely. [Source]
At The News Lens, Hilton Yip placed Lu’s case in the context of the broader trend of recent disappearances, including those of former Interpol president Meng Hongwei, and movie star Fan Bingbing:
What is clear is that no Chinese is safe from the power of the authorities to secretly detain its citizens.
Lu is the latest notable Chinese to have suddenly gone missing this year, following the former head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, and movie starlet Fan Bingbing. Both were later announced by authorities to be in custody, though Fan may be free now.
[…] That Lu’s disappearance occurred in Xinjiang, where he had gone to meet other photographers, is very ominous.
In this northwestern region, China has carried out secret detentions on a much greater scale than ever before. As many as one million Uyghurs are believed to languish in security camps, for no reported crime or reason.
[…] The ongoing mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Lu’s disappearance both demonstrate the unchecked power of Chinese authorities to clamp down on individuals, whether actresses or award-winning photographers, and entire swathes of society, whether lawyers, activists or Uyghurs.
In doing so, the Chinese government can shore up its rule and suppress any criticism or activism among its citizens, but at the cost of hollowing out its society. [Source]
The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Chris Buckley wrote on Friday that these recent disappearances, as well as those of two Canadian residents of China, Protestant pastor Wang Yi, numerous rights lawyers, and others, “suggest that the ruling Communist Party no longer cares much about the risk to its international stature posed by harsh actions against its opponents.”
Already there are signs that this hard-line approach might be costing China support overseas, alienating even the moderate voices in the United States and elsewhere who have for decades argued that engaging the Chinese leadership is vastly preferable to confronting it.
“It undermines the work of those who have tried to be neutral,” said Kerry Brown, a professor at King’s College, London, and author of a 2016 biography of China’s leader, “C.E.O., China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.”
“All sorts of people — academics, business people and others — will be wary now: ‘This can happen to anyone.’ It creates a corrosive sense of doubt.”
[…] That in turn has bolstered arguments of hawks in Washington and other capitals who say that China’s behavior warrants far harsher responses. The danger is a downward spiral in relations with the West that could lead to still more unpredictable confrontations. [Source]