Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu took a question at a press conference on Tuesday about the disappearance of another dissident. Her response, which quickly pinged around the Chinese online community and its English-language China-watching counterparts, was to blithely assert: "I have not heard of that person."
While standard practice, Ms. Jiang's denial was especially disingenuous in this case, given that the missing man was well-known Australian-Chinese blogger and novelist Yang Hengjun, one of China's most prominent online commentators. Also, Dr. Yang previously spent 20 years working at the same Chinese Foreign Ministry as Ms. Jiang, and the government of Australia had been asking her ministry since Sunday about his whereabouts. (More about Dr. Yang's work here and here.)
Dr. Yang went missing last weekend soon after he tweeted that he was being followed by three strange men at the Guangzhou airport. He subsequently managed to send his sister a coded message that he was having "a long visit with his old friends." Translation: he was being detained and questioned by the secret police. Yesterday, he reportedly made another brief phone call, in which he claimed to be free but in a hospital, and that he had been sick and having mobile phone problems during the unaccounted days. After the Australian government made yet another public demand for consular access following the news of his "release" (raising new questions about whether he was actually free), there were further indications by evening in Beijing that Dr. Yang was going to be leaving China in the coming days.
If true, Dr. Yang can be considered one of the lucky ones, whose celebrity, connections, and foreign passport seem to have ensured him a fate no worse than involuntary exile. We likely won't know the details of what transpired over the past week until he is on Australian soil but his many Chinese and Western friends are now breathing a sigh of relief that he seems likely to come out of this relatively unscathed.
The same cannot be said of two of his fellow bloggers, Ran Yunfei and Chen Wei, both of Sichuan province. After five weeks in unacknowledged custody, they were formally charged this week with "incitement to subvert state power," the same thought crime that Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and dozens of other dissidents have been charged with or imprisoned for committing. Yang's bizarre disappearance and the charges against Ran and Chen fit squarely within a sweeping crackdown on activists across China. Since February, dozens of lawyers, writers, journalists and activists have been detained, disappeared or charged with serious crimes. The ChinaGeeks website has compiled a helpful, if admittedly incomplete, list of recent disappearances and detentions. This list is populated with both little known activists and high profile ones, such as Teng Biao, arguably one of China's most well known weiquan or rights lawyers, who disappeared in mid-February along with fellow lawyer Jiang Tianyong. While this surge in recent cases appears to be part of the authorities' paranoid response to the so-called "Jasmine Revolution," it should be seen more accurately as the intensification of a crackdown on dissent that has been gaining steam over the past 2-3 years. This crackdown has been marked by a number of high profile dissidents and activists who first disappeared for months then were later given heavy prison sentences for political activities. The most famous of these is Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose year-long disappearance finally ended with a kangaroo court proceeding and an 11-year prison sentence on Christmas Eve 2009.