No matter whether you are in New York, rural Germany or Hong Kong, you’d better think twice before criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In the past few days, Chinese dissidents in the United States and Germany say close relatives back in China have been taken away by police, as part of an expanding manhunt into the authors of a mysterious letter calling on Xi to resign.
The letter, published on a government-linked website and signed by “loyal Communist Party members”, has clearly struck a nerve: Around a dozen employees of the website and a related technology company in China are also reported to have been detained.
On Sunday columnist Chang Ping, who lives in Germany, wrote that police had Sunday detained his two brothers and a sister in southwestern Sichuan province.
The authorities, he said, had asked his relatives to contact him and demand he cease writing articles critical of the Chinese Communist Party – especially an article published by Deutsche Welle in which he wrote about the letter in Chinese. He was also interviewed by Radio France International, giving his views on what he sees as a power struggle underway within the Communist Party.
On Friday, New York-based blogger Wen Yunchao, also known as Bei Feng, said his brother and parents were also taken away in southern Guangdong province, after he tweeted a link to the letter.
Both men, who regularly publish openly critical articles, said they had nothing to do with the anonymous letter.
The incident underlines how China’s security services are determined to silence critics – even if they live outside the country -- especially if they write in Chinese and take on the nation’s increasingly autocratic president.
It may also show how sensitive the Party has become to talk of internal rifts.
The wave of detentions also follow last year’s disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers, including a Swedish citizen apparently abducted from Thailand and a British citizen seemingly kidnapped in Hong Kong: Their apparent “crime” to publish gossipy books critical of senior Party figures, including Xi himself, and – allegedly – to export those banned books into mainland China.
The booksellers have effectively now been silenced.
British citizen Lee Bo appeared back in Hong Kong last week after more than two months in mainland China, and was quoted by a Chinese website as saying he would never run a bookstore again or sell “fabricated” books.
Sweden’s Gui Minhai has been paraded on state television, making an apparently forced confession in relation to a decade-old drink driving case. On Sunday, the South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong airport is planning to cut back on the number of bookstores at its terminals, eliminating Singapore-based chain Page One and bringing in mainland chain Chung Hwa.
But the writers may be tougher to silence.
Chang, whose real name is Zhang Ping, had a distinguished career a a journalist and editor in China, before being demoted and finally fired from Southern Metropolis Weekly in 2011 for work deemed “inappropriate.”
In an article on the U.S.-based China Change website, Chang strongly condemned the Communist Party’s attempts to influence foreign media and the “barbaric kidnappings” of his relatives.
“I’ve always done what I think is right, and have always been willing to accept whatever fate brings as a result of that,” he wrote. “The harassment and threats of the authorities allow me to see even more the value of my writings, and encourage me to work harder in future.”
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."
Just as the detention of the Hong Kong booksellers alienated many residents of the former British territory, so the latest assault on exiled dissidents could also backfire.
“Conducting an aggressive manhunt against anyone allegedly involved in commenting on the letter only serves to put more attention on the letter, giving it a shelf life and a wider audience than it ever would have had otherwise," Nee said.