BEIJING -- Outside the small restaurant where he was having dinner, Huang Qi
saw men he recognized, plainclothes police officers. He got on his cellphone to
alert colleagues: Something might happen tonight, he said. We were followed.
Huang, who had already served a five-year prison term for political material
posted on his Web site, had just published an article about China's latest forbidden topic: shoddy construction of school
buildings in Sichuan province, where more than 9,000 children were killed when
their classrooms collapsed in the May 12 earthquake.
As Huang predicted, when he and two friends walked out of that restaurant in
Chengdu on June 10, the police closed in. He is being held in a detention house
in the city, the capital of Sichuan province, charged with illegal possession of
state secrets, a catchall term often used to stifle dissent.
Huang, 45, is among dozens of Chinese writers and lawyers who have been
convicted, detained, placed under house arrest, tailed or otherwise harassed as
part of China's broad crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the Olympic Games in
Beijing next month. At least 44 writers are in Chinese prisons in violation of
their rights to free expression, more than at the beginning of the year,
according to a report released Tuesday by the PEN American Center, an advocacy
While much has been written about the political stakes involved, less well
known is the personal toll that opposing the official Chinese government line
these days can take. Huang's friends are often harassed and sometimes detained;
his wife, Zeng Li, has been forced to change apartments frequently after police
pressed landlords to evict her; frequent beatings when he was in prison left
Huang with brain injuries that now spark bouts of violent anger and other health
problems. The stress eventually became too much for Zeng; she separated from
Huang in 2006.
She remained in touch with him, however. Before his arrest last month, "I
begged him not to post anything sensitive, not to oppose the government," Zeng
said in an interview this week. "Huang's personality is always to hold out until
the end. He feels his conscience needs to speak for those who have
His life did not have to be one of hardship. The communications engineer was
just 36 and a successful businessman in Chengdu when he stepped off the path
taken by China's budding capitalist elite.
In 1999, he established a Web site that publicized the grievances of the poor
in Sichuan province, where he lived with Zeng and their son. Conceived as an
online site where families would share information about missing relatives, it
quickly became a place to read about common people attempting to defend their
rights: seven local girls who were sold into prostitution; thousands of area
farmers sent overseas to work and then refused pay; a mother fighting for
compensation for a son whose death was linked to the suppression in 1989 of
democracy protests on Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Shortly after that last article was published in 2000 -- Tiananmen, like the
Sichuan school collapses, is a forbidden subject in China -- Huang was arrested
and convicted of "subverting state sovereignty."
Although he was recently quoted as saying the human rights situation in China
is better now than 10 years ago, on June 10 he again became an example of what
happens to activists and their friends when someone crosses the government.
"Run!" Huang yelled to his two friends as he was knocked to the ground
outside the restaurant and surrounded by plainclothes officers. They dragged him
to a waiting car and drove off -- the last time anyone outside China's security
apparatus has seen the Web journalist.
Huang's companions, Pu Fei, a volunteer worker on Huang's Internet site, and
former teacher Zuo Xiaohuan, tried to get away but did not make it far. Zuo was
bundled into another car. His whereabouts are unknown.
Pu hopped into a taxi, he recalled in a telephone interview, but it was
quickly blocked by three unmarked police cars. Officials pulled Pu out and
stuffed him into a vehicle. His watch and cellphone were smashed in the
"I remember thinking this might happen, since at dinner Huang Qi realized we
were followed," Pu said. "But I was still very, very angry. What they did was
totally beyond all reason, very inhumane and uncivilized."
In the car, "they used their feet to press my head down between the front and
back seats," Pu said, so he could not see where he was being taken.
After three days in a detention chamber, Pu was moved to what looked to be a
hotel room at a resort, he said, with a single bed and an attached bath. At
least two guards were in the room with him at all times.
He was allowed to shower and sleep, but his food was limited -- only two
steamed buns a day, with water. The guards prevented Pu from looking out the
He was told to read the Communist Party-run newspaper, People's Daily, and forced to watch an endless loop of propaganda
video showing people the government considers heroes rescuing earthquake
victims. Pu had recently traveled with Huang to the quake zone, distributing
water and other essentials to victims and talking with parents whose children
had died in collapsing schools.
Pu's captors read, played games and listened to music, he said; he was stuck
watching the video. They told him it was a "law study seminar" intended to
correct his misconceptions about the law, Pu said.
Various interrogators came and went, asking the same questions over and over:
"How did you meet Huang Qi?" "Who did you meet in the earthquake areas?" "Were
you in contact with any overseas people?"
"Mostly I didn't answer," Pu said.
After 12 days, he was shoved back in a car, his head again held down between
the seats. He was driven for two or three hours before being pushed out of the
car at a sports stadium in Chengdu. His captors warned him not to talk about
what had happened.
Fuming, Pu walked to his office at a computer company. There, he was told he
had been fired. Police had confiscated his computer and hard drive.
"I wasn't afraid, because I have faith in democracy and freedom," Pu said.
"When Mr. Huang is out, I might still work with him."
But no one expects that to happen soon. Although Huang's wife, mother and
attorney have tried to see him, the Chengdu Public Security Bureau has denied
their requests. The bureau referred a call for comment to the local propaganda
ministry, where an official, Jia Xiaobing, said he had no information about
Under the state secrets provision of Chinese law, Huang can be held
incommunicado for more than six months, said Mo Shaoping, Huang's attorney.
Human rights advocates say Huang is on a U.S. short list of "priority cases,"
meaning his detention is specifically raised by U.S. officials when they meet
Chinese counterparts to discuss human rights.
As the Olympics draw near, Chinese security officials appear to be targeting
people who could channel information about rights abuses and government
corruption to foreigners by publishing, as Huang's Web site does, in Chinese and
English. The site, http://www.64tianwang.com, is hosted on a server in the United
States and is blocked in China by government censors.
"The government has locked itself into a fictional account that the Chinese
population has no interest in human rights and no criticism against the
preparation of the Olympic Games," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based
researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Since that's not the reality and thousands
are involved in human rights activities, they have to silence quite a few
Bequelin added, "They've been very systematic, very effective."