Wang Jingyu didn’t think he would become an enemy of China for his online comments.
The 19-year-old left his hometown of Chongqing in July 2019 and is now traveling in Europe. On February 21, netizens on the popular micro-blogging website, Weibo reported him to Chinese authorities for questioning the actions of the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as official media reported an incident in the disputed Himalayan border regions.
On February 19, China revealed that four of its soldiers died during a bloody Himalayan border clash with Indian troops in June last year. State media said the men “died after fighting foreign troops who crossed into the Chinese border.”
On the same day, China's military news outlet PLA Daily named the "heroic" Chinese soldiers who “gave their youth, blood and even life" to the region. China’s official media outlet, the People’s Daily, said the soldiers were posthumously awarded honorary titles and first-class merit citations.
Wang posted his comments on February 21, questioning the number of deaths and asking why China had waited nearly eight months before making the deaths public.
“That very night, around 6:50 p.m., Chongqing police and some people without uniforms knocked on the door of my parent’s condo,” Wang told VOA.
In a statement, police in Chongqing city said Wang had “slandered and belittled the heroes” with his comments, “causing negative social impact,” according to The Guardian. “Public security organs will crack down on acts that openly insult the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs in accordance with the law.”
According to Wang, the police handcuffed his parents, and confiscated an iPad, cash and computers. Then they took his parents to the local police station, where the couple was told to tell their son to delete his Weibo posts.
“And since then, they take my parents to the police station every day around 6 a.m., put them in separate interrogation rooms without providing any food, and only let them return home around 6 or 7 p.m.,” he said about being “pursued online.”
“The police keep asking them one thing: ‘When will your son come back?’ 'Think twice before you answer me.’”
“The police even texted me directly, asking me to return to China within three days, otherwise my parents [situation] ’won’t end well,’” Wang said.
In 2018, China passed the Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law. According to the official English-language outlet, the China Daily, the law “promotes patriotism and socialist core values, bans activities that defame heroes and martyrs or distort and diminish their deeds.” An amendment set to take effect this month could mean those who violate the law could be sentenced to up to three years in jail.
Apart from Wang, the authorities have also detained at least six people for posting critical comments online about the same incident.
China’s government is expanding its censorship controls by targeting Chinese citizens overseas who criticize Beijing on social media. The tactic, which predated the Communists, is known as “zhulian” or “guilt by association.” Today, it usually involves police threatening family members in China for the actions of their relatives overseas.
Teng Biao, an academic lawyer and a human rights activist affiliated with Hunter College in New York City, told VOA via Skype that he has seen an increasing number of cases like Wang’s.
"In any normal society, there is no such thing as zhulian," he said. "No one, other than yourself, is responsible for your own actions. Chinese laws state that everyone is responsible for their own actions. Yet in practice, it’s a different story.”
Wang, who is now traveling in Europe, has been worried about his parents’ safety. Yet during a brief video chat on February 25, he said his father told him to withstand the pressure.
“Don’t give in. Even if you lose your life for this, you have to hold on to your dreams,” his father told him. “History will remember you.”
Wang said his family has always been on the “rebellious side.” When he was a little boy, Wang said his father showed him how use a virtual private network (VPN) to remain anonymous while accessing information outside the Great Firewall of China.
He told VOA he would not go back to China and that he plans to keep speaking out for those on the other side of the Great Firewall.
“Maybe 99% of the people won’t understand why I’m doing this,” he said. “But as long as I can wake up 1%, it’s worth it.”
Shih-Wei Chou and Lin Yang contributed to this report. It originated on VOA Mandarin.