■ Chiang Mai, Thailand — On the 10th day of Peter Dahlin’s captivity in a secret Beijing jail, Chinese state security officers sprang one of their big surprises — something he found even more astonishing than hearing a colleague being beaten in a room above his cell.
They showed him a document about the organization he had started inChina to promote access to legal services, complete with names of employees, associates and grant recipients. But it was not written by the officers. It appeared to have been prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the United States Congress.
The internal report laid out how Mr. Dahlin’s small organization had received financing from the nonprofit for the last five years, and it discussed his programs in detail. It seemed to have been meant for circulation only among the nonprofit’s top directors.
“I realized it must have come straight from N.E.D. itself somehow,” Mr. Dahlin said in an interview, adding that he had never seen the document before.
Mr. Dahlin, a Swedish citizen, was detained and interrogated for 23 days this year by China’s Ministry of State Security, a powerful spy and counterespionage agency. The authorities showed him on national television apologizing for unspecified crimes. Then they deported him.
|Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in
May. Mr. Dahlin was deported from China after being detained
and interrogated for 23 days by the country’s Ministry of State
Security. Adam Dean for The New York Times
His ordeal, which he described for the first time in an interview with The New York Times, offers an unusually clear view into the suspicion directed toward foreign nongovernmental organizations by the Chinese security apparatus and the lengths to which it goes to police such groups.
President Xi Jinping has warned that Western nongovernmental organizations dedicated to building civil society — through training for lawyers and journalists and programs to address income inequality, for example — are working to undermine Communist Party rule. He has overseen a broad effort to both restrict Western influence and clamp down on grass-roots Chinese activism.Continue reading the main story
In April, the government passed a law requiring all foreign nongovernmental groups in China — about 7,000 by one estimate — to find an official Chinese sponsor and register with the police, who will have new supervisory authority over them.
Mr. Dahlin’s relatively obscure Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, which he helped found in 2009 to promote the development of an independent judiciary in China, is exactly the type of organization that Mr. Xi is trying to stifle.
After Mr. Dahlin’s expulsion, a colleague and I tracked him down in northern Thailand, where he was trying to make a fresh start. The authorities have used televised confessions with growing frequency tointimidate foreigners and their Chinese colleagues, and few have dared speak publicly about the experience afterward.
But Mr. Dahlin, 36, who had studied political science and worked in government in Sweden, agreed to an interview after concluding that his Chinese friends would not face retaliation.
Mr. Dahlin said he and a Chinese lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, had established their organization in Hong Kong as a private business, because there were no regulations for registering foreign nongovernmental organizations in mainland China before the new law was adopted. They employed about 15 to 20 people, most of them part time and all of them local Chinese except for Mr. Dahlin and an American.
The group quietly held seminars for lawyers and others interested in suing officials and agencies, and it offered crisis legal aid. It specialized in explaining China’s freedom-of-information statutes and ran a training program for investigative journalists.
Mr. Dahlin knew the security apparatus was watching the organization, he said. But he said the scrutiny intensified in 2013, soon after Mr. Xi took office. Then came a broad crackdown on activist lawyers last year. Several who had worked with Mr. Dahlin’s group were arrested, including Mr. Wang, who had already left the organization.
Security officers had surveillance photographs of Chinese citizens arriving for a training session the group held last year in southern Thailand, Mr. Dahlin said.
Mr. Dahlin was detained on Jan. 3, just hours before he planned to leave the country to renew his visa. More than a dozen officers showed up at his home in an alleyway in Beijing with warrants for him and his girlfriend, Pan Jinling, a Chinese citizen.
They seized computers, phones, hard drives, bank cards, receipts, a safe with about 175,000 renminbi, or $26,000, in cash, and medicine that Mr. Dahlin takes daily for a rare adrenal disease. They rushed him to an unmarked detention center — known as a black jail by many in China — near an airport. All the rooms were padded.
Mr. Dahlin said he was questioned daily, usually in a single session lasting for hours at night, when he was tired. The interrogations took place in a separate room with a desk and glaring lights.
The officers did not beat him, he said, but tried different tactics to pressure him.
Early on, they tried to deprive him of sleep, keeping the fluorescent lights on in his cell at night. Mr. Dahlin told a woman running the center that this amounted to torture under international conventions, and the practice soon stopped.
Mr. Dahlin said he had deduced that he, Ms. Pan and at least three colleagues were being held in the center but kept in isolation. At one point after the first week, Mr. Dahlin heard loud noises coming from a floor above. It sounded as if the officers were “roughing up someone quite badly,” he said, adding that he was almost certain it was a colleague. That continued for a couple of days. (He later learned that the victim had indeed been a colleague.)
Mr. Dahlin said the officers had wanted to tie him and his group to gatherings that an activist in southern China, Su Changlan, had organized in support of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2014. They also sought to implicate his group in an effort tosmuggle to Myanmar the teenage son of a lawyer who had been arrested.
Mr. Dahlin denied any role in those activities, and the officers eventually focused their questions on the workings of nongovernmental organizations in mainland China and Hong Kong, especially the relationship between international groups and those in China.
They appeared intent on gathering information about groups financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, for example, even though the European Union had given more money to Mr. Dahlin’s group, he said.
The National Endowment for Democracy said in a statement that it had not determined the origins of the document shown to Mr. Dahlin nor how the Chinese authorities obtained a copy.
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The officers also mentioned or showed Mr. Dahlin the names of almost every lawyer in China who had worked with his group, as well as recent emails exchanged by the group’s employees.
Despite such access, the officers appeared to have a “limited understanding of how NGOs operate, how international funding operates, how you transfer funds, what’s the project plan,” Mr. Dahlin said. “They’re basically trying to understand this field so they can counter it.”
After two weeks in custody, Mr. Dahlin said, he was told to sit in front of a camera and face a reporter for China Central Television, the state broadcaster. Both were ordered to read from a script.
“When I saw the questions and answers, it became even more clear that, O.K., this is part of a P.R. campaign. This is going to be on CCTV,” he said. “I’m going to be a star.”
The script had seven or eight questions and answers. Mr. Dahlin said he had agreed to cooperate because the authorities already signaled they would deport him, and he wanted to expedite that process and get Ms. Pan released.
In less than an hour, Mr. Dahlin said that his group had acted illegally and that he had stolen money. He also said he had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” But he refused to label three associates as “criminals” as the officers had demanded.
CCTV broadcast the confession the night of Jan. 19. Two days later, Mr. Dahlin was told that he was being granted a medical parole and would be sent home. The police returned almost everything they had confiscated, except about $3,500 that they said they had used to kennel his cats and to buy him a one-way ticket to Stockholm.
On Jan. 25, Mr. Dahlin was blindfolded and driven to the airport in a five-car convoy.
In a reception hall there, an official read an order barring him from China for 10 years. Then the officers escorted him to the plane and a seat in first class. A flight attendant handed him a glass of Champagne.
The day of his deportation, the Foreign Ministry said that Mr. Dahlin was suspected of “funding criminal activities harmful to China’s national security.” Ms. Pan was released the same day.
“I think the era for effecting change in China seems to be over for now for NGOs,” he said. “It seems for now that the scope of civil society to try to influence is getting smaller and smaller.”
Follow Edward Wong on Twitter @comradewong.
Jonah Kessel contributed reporting.