Family of Chinese blogger taken away after being questioned over critical letter

New York, March 25, 2016–U.S.-based blogger Wen Yunchao told CPJ today he believes that government officials have detained his parents and brother after two weeks of police questioning the family about his alleged connection to an open letter calling on President Xi Jinping to resign.

Wen, a Chinese blogger and freedom of speech advocate who is based in New York, told CPJ that several unidentified people took his parents and younger brother from their homes in Jiexi county, Guangdong province. “My sister-in-law told me this news [today] and she said she has no idea where my brother and parents are now,” Wen said. Police and officials had visited Wen’s family several times in the past two weeks, questioning them about the blogger’s alleged involvement in the publication and dissemination of the open letter, he said. Wen denies any involvement in the letter, which was published on Wujie News (Watching News) on March 4.

CPJ attempted to reach the Jiexi Public Security Bureau for comment but at the time of publication its calls had not been answered.

“Detaining family members of independent journalists living outside China is nothing but blackmail. We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Wen Yunchao’s parents and brother,” said Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy executive director. “China is clearly resorting to such tactics at home to intimidate critics abroad.”

Wen, who helped CPJ research its annual prison census two years ago, said he believes government authorities were threatening and harassing his family to pressure him into admitting he helped the letter’s author disseminate it. Wen said authorities told his family that his brother could lose his job as a driver for the local government. His family passed the messages on to him.

“I have absolutely nothing to do with the letter. I saw it on Wujie and I tweeted the link. That’s it,” said Wen. The open letter, signed by “loyal Communist Party members,” criticized Xi for abandoning collective leadership and concentrating power in his own hands, as well as for what it called his failed economic and foreign policies, The Washington Post reported. The letter disappeared soon after it was published. Before it appeared on Wujie News, the letter was published on the overseas Chinese-language news and human rights website Canyu.

Wujie News is jointly owned by the privately owned companies SEEC Media Group and Alibaba, and authorities in Xinjiang, northwestern China. It is unusual for critical material to appear on a partially government-owned news website.

At least four employees of Wujie News, including two senior editors, and 10 employees of a technology company that worked with Wujie News have also been apparently detained by authorities, according to reports. Jia Jia, a journalist who disappeared on March 15, and was believed by family to have been arrested over the letter, was released today, his lawyer, Yan Xin, told CPJ. Police told the lawyer they had detained him. CPJ was not immediately able to determine if Jia Jia faces charges.

Earlier this month, CPJ reported on smear campaigns and cyberattacks against Wen and Canada-based Chinese journalist Sheng Xue. Both said they could not prove who was behind the attacks, but they suspected the Chinese government or its affiliates were responsible.

In 2014, Chinese police detained three brothers of Shohret Hoshur, a reporter for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia, in retaliation for his reporting on ethnic conflicts in China’s western region of Xinjiang. One of the brothers was sentenced to five years in prison for “endangering state security.” The other two were released in December last year, Radio Free Asia told CPJ. The harassment of Hoshur’s family started in September 2009 after he reported on the death of a Uighur who was allegedly tortured, according to Radio Free Asia.