Property Rights Advocate Arrested in China

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 19, 2005

BEIJING -- Police in China's northern Shaanxi province have arrested one of the nation's leading advocates of private property rights after officials posed as journalists and forged an e-mail from a prominent Hong Kong reporter to lure him out of hiding, friends and relatives said.

The arrest is a major setback for the plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit against the government that analysts said has emerged as an important test of President Hu Jintao's willingness to promote rule of law and private property rights. The governing Communist Party has endorsed those principles as part of its drive to build a market economy.

A police official in Yulin, a city in Shaanxi, confirmed the arrest of Feng Bingxian, 60, a businessman who has led investors throughout the country in a civil suit that accuses the Shaanxi government of illegally seizing thousands of oil wells from them worth as much as $850 million. But the police official declined to discuss the methods used to apprehend Feng or the charges against him.

The Shaanxi case is one of the largest class-action lawsuits ever brought against the Chinese government. It involves some 60,000 investors who dug and developed oil wells in a 400-square-mile area around Yanan, the former revolutionary base of Mao Zedong, beginning in the mid-1990s. Local authorities allegedly approved the oil exploration, then confiscated the wells in 2003 after they began showing steady profits.

Feng's detention is the latest sign that Shaanxi officials have decided to maintain state control of the oil and quash the lawsuit. In May, police stunned the Chinese bar by arresting Zhu Jiuhu, a prominent Beijing attorney representing the investors, and charging him with disturbing social order through illegal assembly, apparently referring to meetings he held with his clients.

With Feng's arrest, police have also detained 13 of the 15 businessmen serving as lead plaintiffs in the case. The local authorities had made a priority of capturing Feng, a former party official from Inner Mongolia province who often traveled to Beijing to lobby for help and acted as an unofficial spokesman for the investors. At one point, officials offered a reward of nearly $40,000 for his arrest.

The local authorities' apparent decision to pose as journalists and tamper with e-mail to catch Feng suggests they were confident the party leadership supported their campaign to suppress the lawsuit as a threat to stability.

Feng's son, Feng Yanwei, said police notified him of his father's arrest Monday with a document indicating he was detained July 26 on suspicion of assembling to disturb social order. He said his father knew Yulin police were after him and had been in hiding for months, communicating with friends and relatives only by e-mail and instant messaging on the Internet.

Feng was last seen by the public in a special report on the case broadcast July 17 on Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, which is widely available on the mainland. "There are times when police come around and I have to move from place to place," he said. "Things have gotten serious recently . . . I've become the main target they want to arrest now."

But he added: "I'm not afraid of being captured, just afraid of the consequences for our struggle if I am."

Soon after that appearance, friends and relatives said, Feng received an e-mail from a person who identified himself as Liu Bo and presented himself as an editor with China Central Television, or CCTV, the state broadcaster. Liu said he had seen the program and wanted to interview Feng, adding that his boss had already approved a show about the case, according to a copy of the e-mail exchange that Feng sent a friend before his arrest.

Feng asked how Liu planned to get around the ban on coverage of the case imposed by party propaganda authorities. Liu replied that his boss had not been informed of the ban and wanted to put together the program and broadcast it before censors could stop them.

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