HONG KONG - A prominent Chinese journalist mysteriously disappeared from the Beijing airport Tuesday night while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong.
Friends of Jia Jia, 35, believe the politically engaged columnist's disappearance may have something to do with an open letter published earlier this month that called for the resignation of President Xi Jinping.
According to Mo Zhixu, a writer and personal contact of Jia, the columnist had confided to a number of friends that he feared he would soon be detained for questioning over the missive, and that some of his family members had already been questioned by Chinese security personnel.
According to family friends, the journalist's wife received a call from him around 8 p.m. on Tuesday to say he had passed through customs and was ready to board the flight. His phone was shut down some 15 minutes later, and Jia never arrived to give a lecture scheduled for Thursday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Jia has written for numerous publications and has more than 80,000 Twitter followers. He had lived in Hong Kong for many years, but had quit his media job last month to take up a teaching position at China's Zhongshan University.
His wife refused to be interviewed by the media, for fear it would adversely impact her husband's situation.
Open letter link?
According to a report by Reuters, Jia's lawyer, Yan Xin, said the journalist — who writes a regular column for Tencent Online — had warned Ouyang Hongliao, a former colleague and an editor at Wujie News, after Wujie had re-posted the letter calling for President Xi to resign.
Yan also told Reuters that Jia, "had told him that he had no connection to the letter, which was signed by a 'loyal Communist party member.'"
Chinese security officials said they initially suspected the site that published the open letter had been hacked by foreign opponents of China's communist party, but a technical check of the server showed no signs of a hack, leading officials to speculate the letter had been posted by someone writing for the site as part of a "political conspiracy."
Mo told VOA's Mandarin Service on Thursday that Jia's friends believe that although the columnist has done nothing wrong, the current environment in China is such that nobody knows how long he may be detained for questioning.
"Many friends believe [Jia] has nothing to do with the open letter incident," Mo said. "All he did was to alert his friend, but if [the government] wants to carry out a big investigation, individuals are too small [to do anything to stop it]."
Beijing: No comment
Whether Jia has been taken into custody has yet to be confirmed, and Beijing law enforcement officials have not responded to requests for comment. Jia's apparent disappearance comes amid mystery over five Hong Kong booksellers who dealt in gossipy books about Chinese leaders, and went missing only to resurface in Chinese custody.
Xi has embarked on an unprecedented effort to clamp down on the Internet and censor opinions that do not fall in line with those of Communist Party leaders, including by imposing tougher penalties for "spreading rumors" via social media.
"So we are very concerned," Mo said. "His mental state and his life will be greatly affected."
The website, Wujie News, is jointly owned by SEEC Media Group, Alibaba, and the government of Xinjiang, a province in China's northwest.
Jia has worked for media outlets in Hong Kong and on the mainland, including China's official Xinhua News Agency, Hong Kong's "Phoenix Weekly," China GQ magazine, Hong Kong's Sun TV, and other news organizations.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.