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Background on Zhao Yan’s arrest

September 29, 2004

Sources in China have told Human Rights in China (HRIC) that journalist Zhao Yan may have been detained to prevent his carrying out a hunger strike for the release of peasant activist Zhang Youren.

Zhao Yan was arrested in Shanghai on September 16. At the time, he was working as a researcher for the Beijing bureau of the New York Times, and there have been reports that the Chinese authorities suspect Zhao of leaking confidential information prior to the official announcement on September 19 that Jiang Zemin was resigning as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

However, sources familiar with Zhao Yan said that shortly before his arrest he had approached social activist Yu Meisun to join him in launching a hunger strike to pressure the authorities into releasing Zhang Youren, who was detained on July 6 after leading a group of peasants in Tangshan, Hebei Province in protesting the terms of a massive relocation scheme. Zhang Youren is now being confined to his home under residential surveillance. In his previous capacity as a journalist for China Reform magazine, Zhao Yan had written many articles on peasant rights, and earlier this year he had joined with Yu Meisun and others to distribute a petition signed by more than 17,000 Tangshan villagers calling for the removal of a local official suspected of having misappropriated funds earmarked as compensation for the loss of their farmland.

Zhao Yan and others assisting the peasant protesters have come under increasing pressure since Zhang Youren’s detention. In the meantime, Zhang Youren is reported to be almost blind with glaucoma after a worsening of his diabetic condition, and because of his inability to have contact with others under the terms of his residential surveillance he has been unable to obtain medical treatment. Upon learning of Zhang Youren’s situation, Zhao Yan approached Yu Meisun a number of times urging him to joint in a hunger strike calling for the release of Zhang Youren and another detained peasant activist, Wu Zhongkai. Zhao Yan initially planned to begin the hunger strike in Beijing after the annual plenary session of China’s Central Committee this month, and had told friends on September 10 that he would begin the hunger strike on his own even if Yu Meisun declined to participate. Sources say word of Zhao Yan’s plans quickly spread, and may have prompted Public Security police to detain Zhao Yan while the Central Committee session was still in progress.

According to a friend of Zhao Yan, Zhao had picked up signs that he was under surveillance in Shanghai over the previous two days before his arrest. The friend said that Zhao Yan was detained around 9:00 in the evening of September 16 while he was having dinner with this friend at the Yaohan Shopping Center in Pudong. Two men approached Zhao Yan, identified themselves as Shanghai State Security Bureau officers, and presented him with some kind of written notice that the friend was unable to read. Soon afterward around a dozen men in plain clothes led Zhao Yan away, while the friend was taken to a sedan and driven to a safe house in Pudong. There the friend was subjected to a lengthy interrogation, during which police said that Zhao Yan had lied and was not really working for the New York Times. The friend was forced to surrender property belonging to Zhao Yan. The next day, police led the friend to a detention center near Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport. There the friend saw Zhao Yan looking exhausted and accompanied by a senior official from the Beijing State Security Bureau. Zhao Yan is now believed to be held in the Beijing State Security Bureau Detention Center in the Dahongmen area.

“This is clearly another example of the authorities invoking State Secrets Law to detain a human rights defender,” said HRIC president Liu Qing. “Zhao Yan’s situation is very similar to that of the Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong, who was imprisoned on charges of leaking state secrets, but whose real offense in the eyes of the authorities was clearly his assistance to disadvantaged groups defrauded in redevelopment schemes. If the authorities have any real evidence that Zhao Yan has leaked state secrets or committed any other crime, they should initiate formal charges and allow Zhao Yan the opportunity to defend himself against the allegations. If there is no such evidence, the authorities should release Zhao Yan immediately and stop harassing him for his human rights related activities.”