How my assistant got into trouble with Beijing’s security apparatus and I got to know the Chinese authorities
Beijing Journal on a Personal Matter
We have held off from publishing this story for a long time: A Chinese woman working as an assistant to DIE ZEIT has been detained for more than 12 weeks. We didn’t want to complicate diplomatic efforts being made to secure her release. But since these have yet to yield any result, we consider it necessary to make public now the fate of our colleague Zhang Miao. Angela Köckritz, our Beijing correspondent, is no longer in China. In this article, she describes her experiences with Chinese authorities.
One day three months ago, on October 1, 2014, I saw my friend and assistant Zhang Miao for the last time. It was 9 a.m. when she knocked on the door of my hotel room in Hong Kong. I was still in my pajamas. We had been out until late at night reporting on the Occupy Central protests. Miao was on her way back to Beijing, but I wanted to stay longer. We hugged. "Take good care of yourself," I said. "I will," she assured me with a smile. "And you, too. We’ll see each other again soon, anyway."
Since then, Miao has disappeared. She’s being held in custody.
During my four years as a correspondent, I’ve often had to write about justice and injustice in China. I’ve attended press conferences at which government officials have told us that China is a country based on the rule of law, or what’s known in specialist circles as a Rechtsstaat. I’ve spoken to farmers who’ve been expropriated, who’ve tried to seek redress but failed, and instead been beaten and carted off to a black jail for supposedly fomenting unrest. I’ve interviewed civil rights activists who’ve sought, with infinite tenacity, to make China into what it pretends to be: a country based on the rule of law. I’ve visited dissidents who’ve been threatened and then vanished one day. Flipping through my telephone book, I see the names of many who are simply gone. When I mentioned this to a Chinese acquaintance, he shrugged his shoulders. Those kind of things happened to dissidents, but not to normal people, he said. Still, after a series of unfortunate circumstances, even the most guileless person can run into trouble with the justice system and security apparatus. It’s like with cancer: Everyone thinks they won’t get it. It’s always other people who are put in prison.
This time, it happened to Miao. And therefore to me, as well. I’d already known that laws in China are only valid when they serve the government’s interests. But experiencing it firsthand was something altogether different.
Miao is 40 year old; I’ve known her for six years. She lived in Germany for a long time. She had a German residence permit. In Hamburg, she was my Chinese teacher. We became friends. When she went back to Beijing two years ago, she started working in the office of DIE ZEIT. Returning wasn’t easy for her. Much seemed foreign to her, and she had grown apart from some of her old friends. But she soon made new friends in Songzhuang, an artists’ colony she lives in near Beijing.
Miao and I traveled frequently for the newspaper. We’d been through a lot together. In self-mockery, we and our photographer sometimes called ourselves san jian ke, the Three Musketeers.
Miao and I had flown to Hong Kong on Sept. 24, 2014. We’d been able to track how the protests had changed. On Sunday, Sept. 28, the police fired tear gas for the first time. We spent that night running through the streets until 5 a.m.
Troubled by the news that police had used tear gas, Hong Kong residents were driven into the streets. The crowds grew larger by the minute. The urban expressway, streets, pedestrian crossings and bridges were full of people. No one would have dreamed that there would be so many. That night, many– including Miao – believed Beijing would send in tanks. She kept on shaking her head in disbelief. "It’s just like back then," she said. "In ’89, we also would’ve never thought the tanks would come."
Miao was in grade school in 1989 when students demonstrated on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. She lived nearby, and she often took water to the protesters. Late on the night of June 3, when the tanks started advancing, they passed by her apartment building. One can make out bullet holes in the building’s walls even today.
But on that night in Hong Kong, no tanks would come. Nor would they come on the next night or the one after that. Instead, in the following days, more and more people crowded into the streets. Fear gave way to euphoria. Strangers smiled at each other and took countless photos because they just couldn’t believe it: crowds of people wherever they looked, the biggest demonstrations on Chinese soil since 1989. "Wow! That's incredible," Miao kept saying. She was exhilarated, happy. A girl handed her a yellow ribbon, the symbol of the movement. She pinned it on herself. I could understand her, but I still asked her to take it off. "We’re journalists," I said, and she took it off with a smile. A few hours later, she’d put it back on in another place.
Like so many people from mainland China, Miao had bought an iPhone 6 in Hong Kong. She would take photos with it and then post them on WeChat, a Chinese social network. Miao is an Internet addict. I’ve never met anyone who posts and comments online as much as she does. But we’d learned that the Chinese police had been questioning and detaining people from mainland China upon their return after taking photos in Hong Kong and transmitting them via WeChat. "Miao, please stop doing that," I begged her repeatedly. She would just smile and put her phone aside. And then start back up again shortly thereafter.
After a week, Miao’s visa for Hong Kong had expired. She had to go back to Beijing, but I wanted to stay. She left on October 1, China’s National Day.
The next morning, I was in the middle of an interview when I received a WeChat message from Miao. It was a photo taken the previous evening. It showed Miao and four men. All of them had pinned on yellow ribbons and crossed their arms over their chests just like the student leader Joshua Wong had done on the morning of October 1 when the Chinese flag was being hoisted in Hong Kong. "The one on the left has been arrested," Miao had written below the photo. "A poet."
"Oh, God!" I thought. Then I checked to see if she had posted the photo on her public account. She had. And she had also changed her profile picture. It now showed a yellow ribbon.
I wish I could turn back the clock on what happened in the next 45 minutes. At some point during that span of time, Miao must have gotten out of a car in Beijing even though she saw police on the side of the road. I’m not sure I could have stopped her. I would have at least liked to try.
During that 45-minute period, I had finished one interview and rushed to the next. The day was jam-packed with appointments. Internet reception was poor on the subway. I couldn’t find the place I had agreed to meet the next interview subject. I was wandering through a huge shopping center. I absolutely wanted to speak with Miao, but I couldn’t find any time to do so. In retrospect, it seems like my brain was preoccupied with the dumbest trifles. I was like someone racing though the city to a dry cleaner’s to pick up a clean shirt while utterly failing to notice the tidal wave rising above me.
At last, I’m standing in front of the café we had arranged to meet at. I try Miao’s number as my interview subject hurries toward me. We had hardly sat down for coffee when the news about Miao’s arrest reaches me almost simultaneously via two channels. The editorial office in Hamburg was on the line, saying: "One Mr. Zhang from the Chinese security authorities called. He says Miao has been arrested." Miao’s brother sent me a message with the same news. No one knew exactly what had happened.
I’m glued to the phone. In the days to follow, I hardly do anything else. I barely eat; I barely sleep. I have to get Miao out, somehow. I contact the German Embassy, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Miao’s family, friends, the editorial office, Mr. Zhang from the security services. Zhang works for the Exit & Entry Administration of the Ministry of Public Security, which issues visas to foreigners. It also occasionally summons foreign journalists and threatens not to extend their visa if the government doesn’t like their reporting. So far, I haven’t had any trouble with them.
"Mr. Zhang, what’s going on?" I ask.
"I’m not exactly sure," he replies. "She was involved in a village squabble. Inciting a public disturbance or something like that."
"Village squabble? I can’t imagine that. Could you please give me the number of the police station in charge?"
"I can’t do that."
"How can I get it?"
"I can’t tell you that, either."
"But someone must have called you."
"You know what? I’ll ask around. Then I’ll call you back."
In the meantime, I make another round of calls. I find out that Miao was arrested in the artists’ colony while on the way to a reading of poetry in support of the demonstrators in Hong Kong. At that point, no one can tell me anything more.
Mr. Zhang is back on the phone. He sounds triumphant. "Zhang Miao is a Chinese citizen; she doesn’t have a German passport," he says. "And she wasn’t officially registered as your assistant."
"No, she wasn’t," I admit. Quite a few editorial offices haven’t registered their assistants for some time because that would have meant more monitoring from the Ministry of State Security – and it’s also more expensive. Now I’m wondering if that would have somehow protected her. The authorities will undoubtedly exploit this fact. I feel guilty.
"What happened has nothing to do with you," Zhang says.
"Of course it does," I respond. "She’s my assistant. I’m responsible."
"The case has nothing to do with journalistic work. I was told that she was abusive," he says with disgust. "That she shoved police officers and bad-mouthed them wildly. Appalling."
"Excuse me, Mr. Zhang, but I can’t imagine that," I say.
"In any case," he answers, "Zhang Miao is a completely normal Chinese citizen. And we will treat her like we deal with Chinese citizens."
The next day, I fly to Beijing late in the evening. I get home at around 4 a.m. It’s Saturday, October 4. When I get up at noon, I see on my display that Mr. Zhang has already called several times. "Come by," he says. "We want to chat." He uses the word liaotian, to chat, as if one were going to meet with friends in a café.
By this time, I have figured out which of Miao’s friends has information about the course of events. I call them, as I want to be prepared before going in for questioning. Three witnesses tell me the following: On the morning of October 2, Miao goes with some friends to the house of the poet, who had been arrested the previous day. They want to visit with his family. When they get there, the police are already waiting, and a heated exchange of words ensues. Afterwards, Miao and a friend want to go to the reading in support of the Hong Kong protests. An artist friend drives them there and stops to drop them off. Police are already standing at the entrance to the road. Miao and her friend get out of the car. The artist friend watches as they hasten toward the event venue. The police chase after them. The women make a run for it. The police catch them. They are slammed against the police vehicle. That’s all the driver was able to see. The police ordered him to drive away. Miao apparently succeeded in getting away, as she called another friend a few minutes later. The conversation is interrupted several times. "They want to arrest us!" she shouts. "They hit us!"
Then the line goes dead. Miao is no longer reachable. All traces of Miao have been lost.
In the following months, more and more people across China are arrested for supporting Occupy Central. According to information from civil rights activists, there are more than 200 of them. Ten people have been arrested in Songzhuang. All of them are somehow connected to the poetry reading. I know four of them.
I drive to Mr. Zhang’s police station. He escorts me to a windowless room. Two young colleagues are already sitting there: one Mr. Xu and a male clerk. They have notebooks in front of them. I take mine out and write down their identification numbers. "What’s that all about?" Zhang asks. "This is not an interview!" They speak Mandarin with me.
"I’d like to document this case," I say. "I read a lot about the development of the rule of law in China, and now I’m experiencing it in person. I hope to be able to write an upbeat story."
"Yes," Mr. Xu responds, "be upbeat. You’ll see that the Chinese constitutional state will give you every reason to do so."
They question me: How did I meet Miao? What did we do in Hong Kong? Who did we interview? Did I know about what had happened in Beijing? During the course of the interrogation, Miao goes from being a suspected agitator to a de facto one.
"Why do you always say ‘the agitator’?" I ask. "There hasn’t been any court ruling yet."
"I already said ‘alleged’!" Zhang barks at me. "Am I supposed to repeat that now every time or what? This here is a conversation among friends. But you’re not behaving that way. And enough with all that note-taking. This isn’t an interview!"
"Sorry," I say, "but the word ‘alleged’ is a very important word."
Now Zhang gets even more furious. "What’s that about?" he asks. "Who do you think you are, anyway? Are you really German? You’re very different from the other Germans!"
"They are honest."
"And I’m not?"
"No, you aren’t. You’re odd. Very odd. It has always been very pleasant with the other German journalists."
"That’s not what they’ve told me."
"With you, it’s not pleasant at all. If I were in your position, I’d pull myself together."
While Xu gradually assumes the good cop role in this conversation, Zhang morphs into the bad cop. When I mention that to the two, Zhang flips out. "You’ll be dealing with us more often," he says. "Such as when you apply for your visa for next year. There could be problems. Pull yourself together!"
"I’d like to know where Miao is," I respond. "According to China’s Criminal Procedure Law, the family must be informed within 48 hours of arrest. But we haven’t heard anything yet."
Mr. Xu smiles at me beamingly. "Her case has absolutely nothing to do with you," he says. "Don’t let it be a concern to you. Have faith in the rule of law in China. It is perfect."
Zhang leaves the room angrily, while Xu escorts me out. He shakes my hand, but then he doesn’t release it. "Don’t worry about Zhang. He can get emotional sometimes. You see, he studied in Germany, and he has a very high opinion of Germans. Next time, I’ll invite you for a coffee, OK? A little chat?"
The next day, we still know nothing about Miao. Her brother gets a tip that she might be in Beijing’s First Detention Center. A few hours later, we are standing outside the building: me, her brother and her stepmother. She has brought along a bag full of warm clothes, as the nights have grown cold. The prison is on the outskirts of Beijing. In front of it are dreary yellow apartment buildings. Tall trees grow behind a high wall. We can’t see much.
The security guard is a young guy in a ragged uniform.
"We’d like to inquire about the whereabouts of a prisoner," I say.
"Come back after the holidays," he responds.
"After the holidays?"
"Yeah, in a few days."
"But there aren’t any holidays in the prison, are there?"
"No, there are."
"Are the prisoners on holiday?"
"And the guards?"
"Not them, either."
"Then there has to be someone who can provide us with further assistance."
"Come back some other time," he says with a yawn.
"I’m writing a story about the rule of law in China. Do you want me to quote you as saying that and mention your identification number?"
The security guard springs to life and lets us through to the doorman. He also mentions the holidays. After what seems like an eternity, he calls his superiors: two men and a woman. One of the men writes down detailed personal information about us. He takes his time flipping through his notebook before shutting it with a grave expression.
"I could look to see whether she is there, but there are holidays," he says, before starting to turn away.
"But," I say, "according to Chinese regulations for criminal proceedings, you are obliged to notify us within 24 of the arrest. The 24 hours are up."
He eyes me with a bored expression before saying: "There are holidays."
"And the rule of law?" I reply. "Is it on holiday, too?"
Now he looks almost disgusted. "I have absolutely nothing to say to you," he replies. "You aren’t a family member or a lawyer. Go away."
I telephone Mr. Xu. "Didn’t you say that China as a state under the rule of law is perfect?" I ask. "I’m experiencing a situation here right now that doesn’t seem so perfect to me. I’m standing in front of the prison…"
"Listen, just let it go, OK?" he says. "This is none of your business. We’ll deal with it."
"This is my business," I reply. "I’d like to speak with someone in charge now, someone higher up."
"We can’t help you. We don’t have a name or a number."
"But there has to be a department. Which department is entrusted with this case? Which public prosecutor?"
"We don’t know. Just go home," he says. And then he hangs up.
The police officers outside the prison won’t speak with me anymore. They treat Miao’s family condescendingly. We go away. As we are sitting in the car, I am beside myself with rage.
"These guys…," I say.
Miao’s brother shrugs his shoulders. "They weren’t so bad," he says. "At least they didn’t scream at us like usual…"
Meanwhile, Miao’s lawyer, Zhou Shifeng, is working feverishly to get an appointment to meet with the detainee. The meeting isn’t approved, so Zhou keeps at it and files a complaint. Things will go on like this for months.
"How can that be?" I ask him.
"The law says that state security officials have to notify the family within 48 hours of the arrest," he says. "But then there is the passage ‘unless further investigation is required.’"
"So, does that mean that the police can always invoke an exception?" I ask.
"When lawmakers make laws, they do it for their own interests and not because they are concerned about those of the public."
"Do the security authorities have to announce that they are invoking an exception or get it authorized?"
"No," Zhou responds. In principle, he continues, the security apparatus can find an exception clause for every law. Citizens don’t have any legal entitlement to be protected vis-à-vis the state and its representatives.
On Wednesday, October 8, the family is served the formal detention order. It says that Miao is being held in Beijing’s First Detention Center, that she’s suspected of inciting a public disturbance. Law enforcement likes to use this criminal offence whenever they take aim at nonconformists. In the worst cases, it can be punished with up to 10 years in prison. We continue to hope that Miao will be released in a few days.
That week, the German and Chinese governments are preparing for Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to Germany. He will travel to Berlin on Thursday, October 9, with several of his ministers. This is being billed as the biggest government consultations in the history of both countries. In the preceding days, several media outlets have telephoned me, including the South China Morning Post and the New York Times. They want to publish stories about Miao. Her family asks that only a little be made public. Now the question arises whether I should writes stories about Miao’s situation in the run-up to Li Kequiang’s visit. Everyone gives me different advice. The more I think about it, the clearer it is: No one can tell if reporting on it will do any good. This is a state ruled by arbitrariness. The agonizing uncertainty I’m feeling is intentional.
The German Embassy in Beijing is working hard on Miao’s behalf. I’m learning to highly appreciate the diplomatic service. The Federal Chancellery and the Federal Foreign Office are dealing with Miao’s case, and all of the federal ministers have been informed about it. On this Thursday evening, the German wire service dpa will report on Miao’s situation. I will write a small piece for ZEIT ONLINE myself.
On Thursday morning, I get a call from Mr. Xu. I’m supposed to come by – to chat. As I enter the small, windowless room, there are already three men sitting there: two investigators and a clerk. They are of a different caliber than Zhang and Xu, older, more experienced. The investigators say their names are Li and Guan. Li is the talker. He has dark rings around his eyes and an unusual face. He can alter his expression in seconds – now enticing, now flattering, now threatening. Guan is more of the bulldog type, hard-nosed, monosyllabic, persistent. Li says he is the deputy head of the division. But I’m guessing he’s from even higher up the chain. I’m not given a chance to check their real identities.
Li evidently wants to start with a relaxed conversation. He wants to talk about hobbies, about philosophy and culture. It’s not clear to me why we have to do this in a windowless room at the police station. And, in any case, the security apparatus already knows how I spend my free time.
"I’m a passionate equestrian," Li says. "In your opinion, what makes a good equestrian?"
"I’d imagine perhaps sensitivity," I respond.
"A good rider knows how to bring his horse under absolute control," he says while looking at me intensely. "Then it does everything he wants."
Mr. Li loves equestrian metaphors. He will frequently use them during the conversation, and he always looks at me when he does, as if to say: I am the rider; you are the horse. Li chats a bit more and then threatens that my journalist visa won’t be extended. I shrug my shoulders and say: "Then I’ll just go to Hong Kong and report from there."
"Then I will visit you there," he responds sharply. "Do not believe that you can elude me."
He repeatedly asks me how I met Miao, whether I trust her.
He follows several threads of conversation at the same time. His voice has different registers, different pitches. He tries to lure me out of my emotional shell. I ask him why our lawyer can’t see Miao. "You shouldn’t have such overblown worries. We’re investigating the case. It just needs a little time," he says.
Mr. Li wants to know what German reunification was like for me. Whether I was happy when the two Germanys grew back together. Whether I am a patriot. He says that he is fervent patriot. "The unity of the fatherland is more important to me than anything else," he says. I try to explain to him that most Germans have had a problem with the term "patriotism" since Hitler. That there are things I love about Germany and other things that I find problematic.
"I love everything about Chinese culture," Li ardently says.
"Everything?" I ask.
"Everything," he responds in a sure voice.
"Even the Great Leap Forward? Even the Cultural Revolution?"
Li closes his notebook without saying a word and leaves the room. I think he’s mad.
The bulldog takes over. He doesn’t want to chat about philosophy. He asks hard, terse questions. At the end of the interrogation, he insists that I sign a statement. It’s written in Chinese on four or five pages. I decline. He insists. This back and forth seems to last forever.
I slowly read through the document three or four times. Mr. Xu, the nice guy, comes back in. He generally comes in whenever the mood has hit rock bottom. He is Mr. Sunshine at the police station. Now he’s not wearing a uniform. He talks to me while I’m reading in an attempt to distract me.
I say to Guan, the police officer, that there will be reporting on Miao before Li Keqiang’s visit.
"That could have negative consequences," he says.
"What kind of negative consequences?"
"Negative consequences. Think it over."
The questioning has lasted four and a half hours. Exhausted, I step out of the room and into the hallway, where all the policemen are standing.
They laugh. They joke. All of a sudden, they are incredibly nice.
Mr. Li says he would like to invite me out for a private meal some time. "It’s so nice to chat with you," he says.
"To be honest, the questionings with you are enough for me," I respond.
"Nevertheless, we’d like to see you tomorrow. We would like to speak with you about the coverage," he says with a laugh.
Xu takes my hand again and adds: "We’re all old friends, aren’t we?"
Back in Germany, Li Keqiang lands in Berlin at noon local time. At that very moment, the dpa story is running on the ticker. Other media sources pick up the story. Amnesty International calls for Miao to be released. The next morning, a German journalist asks Li Keqiang about the case during a joint press conference with Angela Merkel. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier brings the issue up with Li.
But Miao doesn’t go free.
On the morning of Friday, October 9, I get two calls at once. Security officials want to see me, and so does the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "How am I supposed to manage that?" I ask the foreign ministry employee. "My interrogation yesterday lasted four and a half hours."
"Come right afterwards," he says. "It’s urgent."
I start making my way to the police station. The rings around Mr. Li’s eyes are even darker than they were yesterday.
"We were sitting here until two in the morning," he says. "We thought a lot about you. We asked ourselves who you are – I mean, who you really are."
We’re alone in the room.
"We won’t be beating around the bush today," he says. "Let’s get to the point."
"What’s the most important thing in horse racing?" he asks.
"The jockey must win the horse’s trust within a very short time."
"Do you trust me?"
"Don’t take it personally, but no."
"But you said you trust Miao, right?"
"What if she’s completely different than what you think?"
"I don’t believe it."
"Miao has testified that you organized everything. The events in support of Occupy Central. That the two of you went to Hong Kong to organize protests there. That she worked for you personally, and not for the newspaper."
"She never said that!"
"But she did. We have proof."
"I’d like to hear that in person from Miao’s own mouth. We all know that confessions in Chinese prisons often aren’t voluntary."
"You organized everything."
"I did not."
"We know you did."
"As I see it, there are three possibilities," I say. "Either Miao was forced to give this testimony. Or she didn’t tell the truth. Or you aren’t telling the truth."
"There’s a fourth possibility, as well," he replies softly. Then he suddenly shouts: "You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re lying!"
He stands up and grows louder: "You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re lying!"
He seems threatening.
I turn to the side. Does he seriously think that? Will he declare that I’m an agent provocateur, a spy?
Possibility one: He’s trying to intimidate me, to destroy the trust between Miao and me.
Possibility two: They really do want to brand me a spy. One thing speaks against this conclusion: Relations with Germany are important to China. If they were looking for a scapegoat, it would probably be someone of another nationality, a Japanese person perhaps. On the other hand, these are special times. State security is in a state of alarm. The leadership is about to pass a big new anti-espionage law. From the beginning, it has said that Occupy Central is a "color revolution" backed by foreign powers. Its argument would be more credible if it could produce a suspected spy. Maybe me?
They don’t have any proof. But the Chinese security apparatus has plenty of options: It can use other laws as a fallback, twist evidence, launch character-assassination campaigns or resort to mafia methods. An American journalist was informed through back channels that he and his family were no longer safe in Beijing.
"I’d like to break off this conversation now," I say. "I will only speak with you in the presence of an embassy employee. I’m calling the press attaché."
The first press attaché promises to send the second one over.
"We won’t let him in," the police say.
"Whatever," I respond. "He’s on his way over now."
Li leaves the room, and Guan takes over. He wants to learn everything about Miao’s activities on WeChat. He wants me to name names. I refuse to say anything. He gets pissed. I walk to the door, but the policemen rush over and block my path. The phone rings. It’s the foreign ministry. They want to talk with me now.
"Yeah, yeah. I know your matters with her are also important," Guan says like a big brother talking to his little brother. He’s annoyed. He wants me to sign a statement. I refuse to do so.
Waiting for me outside is Mr. Sunshine himself, Xu, in a stellar mood. "You’re just too sensitive," he says.
In comparison, my meeting with the Chinese diplomats is positively pleasant. They’re not thrilled that reports about Miao’s case have been published right when there’s a state visit, but they remain polite, civilized. The difference between them and my new acquaintances with state security could not be bigger. Sitting in the foreign ministry are the doves, the worldly people; but their ministry is the weakest in China. The Ministry of State Security, on the other hand, is extremely powerful.
On the next day, Saturday, October 11, I get yet another call from Xu. I’m supposed to come in for questioning. For a chat.
"I’m ill," I tell him.
"Come anyways," he responds.
"That doesn’t work. I’d infect you all."
On Sunday, he writes me a text message, saying: "Dress warm. The weather is going to change. Don’t forget to rest. Your policeman, Xu."
That weekend, I read a lot of upbeat newspaper articles about how China is a country based on the rule of law. The third party plenum is about to be held. Its motto is "The Rule of Law." We still haven’t heard anything about Miao.
On Monday, October 12, it’s Xu on the phone again. He wants to chat. This time, I insist that we don’t speak Chinese anymore. I’m accompanied by a press attaché from the embassy and a translator. "You should get yourself a lawyer now," the diplomat says on the way there. "If they want to put you in pretrial detention, we can’t do anything about it – except protest."
Three men are waiting in the interrogation room. One is the investigator who has been questioning Miao. Short hair. A broad, fleshy face. The skin of a chain-smoker. To the right of him sits a man in a Nappa leather jacket who doesn’t introduce himself. We ask who he is. He smirks mysteriously.
"I am everywhere," he says. "I know you all. One can see me in many photos."
Though he says little, he is the menacing one. He must hold the highest rank. None of the men say which division they belong to. When I ask the brawny one that question, he smiles in such a flattered and humble way that what he says just can’t be true: "I’m just a simple cop."
His questions are terse and tough. Lying in front of him are pages and pages of statements taken from Miao’s WeChat account, a whole pile of them. His questions are pointed in the following direction: Miao was my private assistant. I’m more than a journalist. I’m pursuing an entirely different agenda. We met with critics of the regime. Separatists. We gave them money.
I notice how he is fastening the noose tighter and tighter around my neck. His questions are supported by facts. Yes, I did meet with regime critics. Yes, after an interview, I gave 70 euros to a severely ailing civil rights lawyer for medicine; state security had beaten her so badly that she is now confined to a wheelchair. But I was always traveling as a journalist and not a spy or agent provocateur, as the brawny one keeps insinuating.
Now I’m starting to experience firsthand something that I’ve read a lot about: their skill at twisting the meaning of things. They might have enough material on me. They’ve been eavesdropping on me for four year – on my phone, in my apartment. They read my emails and monitor what I post on social networks. They sometimes let me know that they’ve searched through my home: The box of business cards I keep on my desk will have somehow ended up outside on the mailbox. A door I’d locked is now open. The time setting on my computer has been changed from Beijing to Seoul. These things happen to other correspondents, too.
It’s an ugly thought, but I usually didn’t let it bother me all that much. How else was I going to be able to live here? But now that I know they aren’t just gathering information, but are also going to use it, things are starting to look different. I think about all the sensitive work-related data from Miao’s cellphone and email account. Now the state security has it. I start feeling sick. The Internet makes citizens transparent to Chinese authorities.
I ask how Miao is doing, why the Criminal Procedure Law is being ignored.
"Don’t worry about that. She’s doing fine."
"I doubt it."
"You journalists think Occupy Central is the reason. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the security of the state, about its territorial integrity. That’s why the Criminal Procedure Law doesn’t apply."
"I was told that she was merely involved in a village squabble."
"This is about inciting unrest, and that’s a matter of national interest."
The brawny one’s questions about Miao get more and more persistent. I demand a lawyer. Now they want me to sign a 10-page statement written in Chinese. They don’t supply a translated version, nor are we allowed to take an original copy with us to get it translated ourselves. We remain steadfast in our refusal.
"Translate it here. Verbally. We have time. We can stay here all night."
We argue for another hour. They eventually let us go. We are incensed.
"Phew!" the translator says as we’re leaving. "They sure did pile it all on you: separatism, antagonism, Hong Kong. Sure doesn’t look good for you at all."
"I wanna fly out tomorrow," I say.
"Hopefully you’ll even make it out of there tomorrow," says the press attaché accompanying me. "We should escort you to the airport gate so they don’t still try to nab you."
That night, I frantically pack all my things together: notebooks, data, letters. I know there will be an orgy of searching once I’m gone. The next day, two embassy employees take me to the airport gate.
While I’m at the airport, a fellow correspondent calls me. She tells me that Phoenix TV, a station in Hong Kong, has mentioned a German journalist who was traveling on the island as an agent provocateur. Right after I hang up, I get a text message from Xu, the policeman: "What’s your WeChat ID? Send it so we can keep in touch for a long time. Welcome back to Beijing."
We don’t hear anything about Miao for a long time despite countless attempts by the lawyer. In the course of his inquiries, he learns that she is no longer being held in the First Detention Center. We fear she’s ended up in a black prison. These illegal prisons are beyond the reach of the law. Security personnel can do whatever they like; inmates are often beaten up or sexually assaulted.
Several days later, we find out that Miao has been transferred to the prison in Tongzhou, a suburb of Beijing. The law forbids police officers and guards to abuse inmates. But they often avail themselves of certain cell mates who will mistreat other inmates in the knowledge or at the request of the guards.
On December 10, the lawyer is finally allowed to see Miao. He indicates that we can’t speak freely on the phone, but he does share with me that Miao is suffering both physically and psychologically. Her spirit is strong, he says, adding that security officers want to force her to sign a statement in which she declares that our ties have been severed.
She hasn’t done it.
The hashtag on Twitter is #freemiao
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Correction: The friend who visited the poetry reading with Miao was not an assistant of BBC