China's political crackdown: How my visit with Li Datong was thwarted by police

Just before my interview with former journalist Li Datong, his wife told us he had been taken away by five policemen. The police let him go, but said they would be back.

David Gray/Reuters
Bicycles sit parked on a footpath in front of locals reading Chinese newspapers displayed on a public notice board in central Beijing on March 23.

I got a close-up perspective of what the current political crackdown in China means on Tuesday, when I went to interview Li Datong, once an editor at a Communist party youth magazine but out of work since he was fired from the post a few years ago for being too daring.

I couldn’t find the cafe where we had agreed to meet, so my translator rang his cellphone to get instructions. His wife, Jiang Fei, picked up. Li Datong, she explained, had been taken away by five policemen an hour or so earlier.

So we went to meet Ms. Jiang instead. “If you are writing an article about human rights you’ve come to the right place,” she told us.

She recounted how a secret policeman had telephoned earlier to tell Mr. Li that he wanted to talk to him that morning. Li explained that he was busy and hung up. Five minutes later, the policeman called back to say that it could not wait and that he was already in Li’s residential compound.

“My husband went to take our son to kindergarten and he was gone quite a while,” Jiang told me. “Then I heard some voices downstairs. I looked out of the window and saw him talking to two men.

“A little later I looked again and found that there were five men with him, four in plainclothes and one in uniform. As they took him away, I called to ask where they were going. Li Datong said the compound administration office.”

So my translator and I accompanied Jiang to the office. Li Datong emerged from the building for a moment, but was quickly shepherded back in by a burly man, so we decided to wait for him at his home.

In the end, he came back after about half an hour. The policeman had tried to get him to talk about his personal views on the “jasmine revolutions” and what kind of impact they might have in China, he said. “I just ignored him. I said I didn’t know anything about North Africa.

“They said I have a nice house and a happy life and I wouldn’t want to lose that, would I?” Li recalled. “They combined threats with persuasion. They said they did not want me to say things that might harm the state’s stability.”

In the end, they let him go, but they said they would be back on Friday. “I complained that I didn’t want to talk to them, that they were forcing me to talk to them,” Li said. “One of them replied that they would be forcing me to talk to them quite often in the future.”

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