The detention of a retired Chinese academic who was taken into custody during a live television interview with VOA has sparked criticism from human rights activists and analysts who worry the Chinese government is increasingly cracking down on dissent.
Sun Wenguang, a retired Shandong University professor who is critical of China's human rights record, is believed to be in detention in a military-run hotel in Jinan, eastern China. He was taken away during a telephone interview on the VOA Mandarin television show Issues & Opinions on Wednesday morning.
Chinese authorities have disclosed no information about why the professor was detained. VOA tried to reach the Information Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China for comment, but the mobile phone open to the public was turned off, and the landline was not answered.
The Public Security Department of Shandong University and the Shanda Road Police Station of Jinan's Public Security Bureau were also contacted. Neither would comment.
Sources told VOA's Mandarin service that Sun was being detained at Yanzi Mountain Villa at Jinan Military Region, a military-linked hotel and reception center.
On Friday, VOA's Beijing reporter visited Sun's home in an apartment building and spoke with his neighbors. They said the professor has long had security officers staking out his apartment and watching his movements. None said they understood why he drew such scrutiny.
One of the neighbors said Sun was "a good person and a good neighbor."
The detention of the retired Chinese academic has sparked criticism from human rights activists and analysts, who worry that the government is increasingly cracking down on dissent.
"There is no question that since taking and consolidating power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not only cracked down harder on dissidents, but has in effect changed China's social contract, which had offered a significant amount of personal freedom — if you stayed outside the political realm," Atlantic Council senior fellow Robert Manning said Friday. The changes narrow "the bounds of the acceptable in terms art, culture, social expression, civil society."
Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson said the news about Sun was distressing on a number of levels.
"This is a man who has a long and laudable track record of peacefully criticizing the government," said Richardson, "so it's bad enough the government is persecuting him at all. It's worse still for them to do so as a result of surveilling his communications with media outside of the country, to break through his apartment to take him away while being interviewed live."
"We are certainly extremely concerned about the treatment of him. He is not a young man. And the fact that he is being held routinely is very worrying," she added.
Chen Guangcheng, a well-known blind civil rights activist and lawyer, related this incident to his personal experience. Chen escaped his house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2012. He left the embassy for medical treatment in the U.S. after U.S. officials negotiated with the Chinese government.
"I've had a similar experience. Those Communist Party minions … one grabbed the phone, others grabbed his hands and forced him to the side. Such a scene just jumped out in my mind," Chen said.
Entry by police
While Sun was being interviewed, criticizing China's foreign aid and diplomatic strategy in Africa, he suddenly said that local police had forcibly entered his residence and demanded he end the interview.
When Sun refused, the phone line went dead. Subsequent efforts by VOA to reconnect with him have been unsuccessful.
VOA was interested in interviewing Sun because he had written an open letter critical of Xi on the eve of the Chinese president's trip last month to Africa and the Middle East.
In the letter, Sun urged Xi to stop spending money overseas on aid, loans and investments, saying the money would be better spent in China. Sun also criticized Xi's authoritarian rule. Xi consolidated his power at the National People's Congress in March.
On the show, Sun said Xi "wants to make nice with African countries, and that's not what we are against. But there are so many other things for him to take into account. China has got a huge population, and there are still so many people living in destitution. You need to consider your own economic capability when providing for others. If you don't actually have the scale of capability to match up with the scale of things you are trying to do, just don't do it."
Xiao Yu, Nike Ching and Yibing Feng contributed to this report.