A few weeks ago, on March 4, a letter appeared on Chinese news sites that quickly circulated around the web. It was addressed to President Xi Jinping.
“We ask you for the good of the Party, for long-term stability and for the safety of you and your family to resign from all positions of the Party and the country so that the CPC Central Committee can choose another person who can aggressively guide us into the future.” Signed: “Loyal Party members.”
On March 15, the reporter Jia Jia, who has 87,000 followers on Twitter, vanished while in Beijing airport en route to Hong Kong. No one heard from him for days until March 20, when his lawyer confirmed Jia was detained because of an investigation. It’s not clear is he is a witness or a suspect.
Those familiar with Chinese politics have no doubt there is a connection between his disappearance and that of at least another 19 people connected to the letter. Jia’s friends say he had merely alerted an editor to the letter’s existence. The news of his release on Friday, confirmed by his lawyer, did not shed any light on the case. Who really wrote the letter? And above all, how did it end up on Watching.cn, a website funded by the government?
The roundup of journalists and their families is the latest installment of a crackdown that seems to have no end. Activists, lawyers, journalists and dissidents — anyone who questions the authority of Xi — finds himself or herself behind bars or on CCTV, the state broadcaster.
Lately, China has been in the midst of a sharp slowdown, and the economy is one of the most sensitive topics on the censors’ black list. Of course, a weak economy threatens all-important “social harmony,” as the number of labor protests has surged in recent months. It goes without saying that in delicate moments for the Chinese Communist Party, publishing is among the most affected areas. Introduced initially as part of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign (news blackouts are often induced through generous bribes), the muzzle is now being applied by much more crude means.
As often happens in the case of sensitive content, the letter was made to disappear from the web, though a cached version is available. This time, however, much of the Watching.cn staff has also disappeared. According to The Washington Post, family members in China of a New York blogger who tweeted a link to the letter have disappeared. And the BBC reported that six editors and 10 web developers for Watching.cn have gone missing.