By Fred Hiatt, Editorial Page Editor
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive
A Chinese journalist calls his wife in China as he boards a train in Thailand. Then he disappears.
Everyone loves a good mystery, but this one has two flaws. First, it’s nonfiction. Second, a principal character already is pretty sure she knows what happened.
“I think he was brought back by the Communist Party,” the wife told the Guardian newspaper last week.
If so, Li Xin’s disappearance would fit into a pattern of increasingly brazen Chinese lawlessness overseas, as agents of the Communist regime track down critics, kidnap them, bring them home and dump them in prison.
The only puzzle is the muted response of the Obama administration and other governments. Though maybe that’s not such a mystery either.
Li was a human rights activist and columnist for the Southern Metropolis Daily. His wife told reporters that he left China in October, after the regime pressured him to inform on other activists. After failing to win asylum in India, he was trying in Southeast Asia.
Reaching across borders to track down perceived enemies is not a new tactic for China’s regime. In June 2002, Chinese agents lured a democracy activist living in North American exile, Wang Bingzhang, to a meeting with other human rights campaigners in Vietnam.
“They were conferring over lunch in a restaurant near the China-Vietnam border when several men speaking Chinese ordered them into a car,” Wang’s daughter, Ti-Anna Wang, recounted in a Post op-ed. “Beaten, blindfolded and gagged, my father and his two colleagues were abducted into China by boat. They were left in a Buddhist temple in Guangxi Province for the Chinese authorities.”
Wang Bingzhang was sentenced six months later to life in prison and has been confined ever since — going on 14 years. He is 68 years old.
For years, Wang’s case was outrageous but unusual. Now, as The Post’s Emily Rauhala and Simon Denyer reported last week, overseas abduction is becoming almost routine.
None of the victims has engaged in violence or committed crimes. Their offense is to criticize or simply report on China’s rulers. Those abducted include five men connected with a Hong Kong publisher that was working on a tell-all biography of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Abductions apparently took place in Hong Kong, though China had promised Britain it would not send police there, and Thailand, a neighboring and (ostensibly) sovereign nation. One missing man held a Swedish passport, another a British passport, but those proved no deterrent either.
Gui Minhai, the Swedish passport holder who was kidnapped from Thailand, resurfaced in a Stalinist televised “confession” in China, intoning that he had returned voluntarily because he felt guilty about his involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run accident.
The kidnappings may be a natural foreign policy for a regime that is increasingly cracking down at home — and facing no consequences from abroad for the repression. As Human Rights Watch noted in its annual report published last week, in 2015 Xi led “an aggressive campaign against peaceful dissent.”
As if to punctuate that assessment, on Friday authorities shuttered, without explanation, an organization that had emerged from the famous conference on women’s rights held in Beijing in 1995, the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center. The center’s founder and director, Guo Jianmei, is on the advisory council of Vital Voices, a women’s rights organization that grew out of Hillary Clinton’s advocacy during her time as first lady.
Jerome Cohen, a professor at New York University law school and leading expert on law in China, links the kidnappings with the crackdown at home and China’s disregard for international norms in territorial disputes — all of which, he said, “have gravely damaged Xi Jinping’s reputation for respecting the rule of law.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry might have had China in mind when he spoke eloquently at the dedication of The Post’s new headquarters last week shortly after returning from Beijing.
“No government, whatever its pretensions and whatever its accomplishments, can fairly call itself great if its citizens are not allowed to say what they believe or are denied the right to learn about events and decisions that affect their lives,” Kerry said.
Yet for all his eloquence, Kerry did not mention China, nor has China had to pay any price for its lawlessness. It expels foreign reporters, but the agents of its propaganda machine are welcomed in the West; it denies visas to scholars of whom it disapproves, but party mouthpieces travel wherever they choose outside China.
Britain may feel slighted when China makes a mockery of their agreement on Hong Kong autonomy. Sweden might wish that its passports would be respected, and the United States might regret China’s increasing repressiveness.
But business, apparently, come first. As long as that remains true, it appears that no critic of China, of any nationality, in any nation, will be safe.
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