The Sydney Morning Herald
China correspondent for Fairfax Media
Date October 14, 2015 – 3:52 pm
Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia: The knocking on the heavy-set steel door was coming from the inside, where a scared and desperate grandmother was trying to keep her teenage grandson – and us – out of harm’s way.
“I’m giving you good advice – you are in danger,” Tong Yanchun told me through the closed door. “We are being monitored.”
|Bao Zhuoxuan pictured with his grandmother Tong Yanchun
(right), in an undated photograph. Photo: supplied
The octogenarian’s modest apartment in this small, quiet town in northern China had on Tuesday become a microcosm of the Chinese government’s sweeping crackdown on the nation’s human rights lawyers.
Family friends have held grave concerns for the welfare of Ms Tong’s grandson, Bao Zhuoxuan, who had been uncontactable since October 6, when an attempt to smuggle him out of the country failed after he was caught at a border town in Myanmar along with two human rights activists, Tang Zhishun and Xing Qingxian.
Zhuoxuan’s mother, prominent human rights lawyer Wang Yu, and his father, legal activist Bao Longjun, have been held incommunicado since July 9.
‘We are being monitored’: The door of the apartment in
Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia, where Bao Zhuoxuan is staying with
his grandmother. Photo: Philip Wen
The 16-year-old remonstrated with his grandmother as she refused to open the door. But she was adamant.
“You’re too young, you haven’t experienced the Cultural Revolution, you wouldn’t understand,” Ms Tong told her grandson.
“I’m not scared of trouble,” he replied. “They just want an interview.”
His mobile phone, he started to explain, had been confiscated by local police. It was at this point that his grandmother began pounding frantically on the door to drown out his voice, urging us to leave “for your own good”.
|Prominent human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who has been
detained by Chinese authorities since July 9. Photo: supplied
Four plainclothes policemen soon arrived. Despite producing press credentials and identification, this reporter, Fairfax Media’s photographer and a third journalist from a Japanese publication were told we needed to go with them to verify our identities. All but one of the police refused to show identification or provide their names when asked.
At the local public security bureau, while asking basic questions about who we were, who we worked for and what we planned to report while in Ulanhot, the officers largely refused to answer questions about Zhuoxuan’s welfare – and when they did, they provided conflicting accounts.
One said Zhuoxuan had a cold and was running a high fever; another said he was in school. Three policemen said the teenager had been “tricked” into crossing the Myanmar border, and “regretted” doing so. The two activists who helped him with his journey were now being investigated.
|The outside of the apartment building where Bao Zhuoxuan is
staying in Ulanhot, a small town in Inner Mongolia, northern
China. Photo: Philip Wen
Most of the next seven hours was spent sitting around in waiting rooms, under the watch of bored policemen, who insisted they needed to consult their superiors and wait for verification of our identities, even if this felt like a blatant ploy to interfere with our reporting.
Finally the police were able to declare that we were indeed in Ulanhot legally and had not contravened any regulations. But in China, foreign journalists must obtain the permission of an interviewee before conducting interviews. The police said both the boy and his grandmother had declined to be interviewed, and escorted us to the airport for our return flights to Beijing.
Despite China’s seemingly inexorable rise as a global economic, military and political power, it remains acutely thin-skinned when attempts are made to pry into its darkest corners at home.
|Bao Zhuoxuan, 16, the teenage son of detained
human rights lawyer Wang Yu. Photo: Supplied
Zhuoxuan’s mother, Wang Yu, is best known for defending members of the Falun Gong – a spiritual group banned as a cult in China – and her legal work for feminist causes and for Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur rights activist who was sentenced to life in jail last year on charges of separatism. Both Ms Wang and her husband are detained under allegations of “inciting subversion of state power”.
Rights activists and family friends of Bao Zhuoxuan orchestrated the high-stakes escape for fear that threats against his welfare may be used as leverage against Ms Wang.
Lawyers for veteran journalist Gao Yu, jailed for seven years in April for revealing state secrets, condemned a televised confession used against her, saying it was given under duress after implicit threats were made against her adult son.
Family members in China have also been pressured by mainland authorities to convince those wanted in criminal and corruption cases who have fled overseas to return.
At best, family friend Liang Bo says, Bao Zhuoxuan faces limited prospects in China, with a black mark against his name.
“What kind of life is it if you don’t even dare to open your door?” she said.
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