NEW YORK/BEIJING – A New York-based Chinese Internet activist said Friday that authorities in China have detained three members of his family in connection with an open letter calling for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
In an interview in New York where he lives, Wen Yunchao said his parents and younger brother were “taken away” by authorities Tuesday and have disappeared, days after the government “harassed” his family to investigate his suspected involvement in distributing the letter.
Wen denied writing the online letter, which was signed by “a loyal Communist Party member” and circulated widely at the beginning of China’s parliament session this month. Wen also said he did not help distribute the letter, and had only linked to it on his Twitter account after the letter had been published by a Chinese news website.
It was not possible to independently confirm Wen’s account about the disappearance of his relatives or to determine if he had any broader involvement in producing or publicizing the letter.
Calls to the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing seeking comment went unanswered.
“There is no reasonable excuse for them to take away my parents and my brother, no matter how you look at it,” Wen said, referring to authorities in China’s southern Guangdong province where his family lives.
“I’ve told them very clearly I’m not the author of the letter, I did not aid anyone in broadcasting the letter, and third, that I did not post the letter on any website,” he said.
The online letter had called for the immediate resignation of Xi and blamed him for “unprecedented problems.”
The letter, seen in a cached form, berated Xi for centralizing authority, mishandling the economy and tightening ideological controls.
Media criticism of top leaders is almost unheard of in China, where the media is strictly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
“Due to your gathering of all power into your own hands . . . we are now facing unprecedented problems and crises in the politics, economics, ideology, and culture,” it said.
The BBC on Friday cited sources as saying a total of 20 people have been detained in connection with the document.
The Chinese government has consistently and strongly denied any complicity in human rights abuses, but says those who break the law must be punished.
Amnesty International has condemned reported Chinese detentions linked to a letter
William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said Friday: “The authorities should call off the political hounding of those suspected to be behind the open letter and release all those detained in connection with it.
“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,” he added.
Wen said authorities visited his family after Liu Gang, a former student activist of China’s 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protest, wrote in a blog post that Wen had authored the letter. Liu could not be reached for comment.
On Saturday, a lawyer for a well-known Chinese writer linked to the investigation of the petition confirmed that his client had been released.
Jia Jia, who was taken away by police on March 15 from a Beijing airport, on Friday night informed friends in a private social media group of his safety. His lawyer, Yan Xin, confirmed that Jia was free, had met his wife and — although he was staying in a hotel — could return home any time.
Jia apparently is part of the high-profile investigation into the anonymous letter, which briefly appeared on the government-controlled news site Watching.cn earlier this month.
Two top editors of Watching.cn, including editor-in-chief Ouyang Hongliang, and two site technicians have been reported to be out of contact for days and believed to be under investigation.
China’s State Internet Information Office referred inquiries about the letter and Watching.cn to the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda committee for the western region of Xinjiang, which directly supervises the news site, but the propaganda office there claimed no knowledge of the matter.
Chinese overseas media, quoting inside sources, say the news site is falling apart, but its newsroom appeared to be operating normally this week. Its journalists declined to speak about their editors and the future of the site, which was launched last year to promote Xi’s economic plan of “One Belt, One Road.” The plan is aimed at increasing China’s overseas investment and trade.
Jia’s friends believe the writer might have unwittingly implicated himself when he warned Ouyang, a close friend, about the publication of the letter.
Yan said he hoped that Jia’s release is proof that his client had nothing to do with the letter.
For several days following Jia’s disappearance, there was no word at all about the writer, adding to public anxiety about his whereabouts and raising questions over China’s rule of law when authorities failed to account for Jia’s situation in a timely manner.
It was only five days later when Yan learned from airport police that Jia was taken away.
Xi has embarked on an unprecedented effort to clamp down on the Internet and censor opinions that do not reflect those of Communist Party leaders, including by imposing tougher penalties for what the Chinese government calls spreading rumors.