The Chinese Communist Party has long felt threatened by overseas Web sites and social media outlets, but the recent detention of a California physicist who said he was beaten by Chinese security agents seeking the password for his Twitter account suggests how far the government will go in its battle against a freewheeling Internet available only beyond its borders.
The man, Ge Xun (葛洵), 53, a naturalized US citizen who moved to the US from China in 1986, said he was abducted from a street in Beijing this month and was roughly questioned by public security officers at a secret location. During 21 hours of interrogation, Ge said, the agents peppered him with questions about his blogging activity, his membership in an organization that promotes dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese and his role in maintaining a Web site that supports a blind lawyer living under house arrest in China’s rural northeast.
However, Ge’s greatest sin, it appears, was his zealous embrace of Twitter, which has long been blocked in China along with Facebook, YouTube and tens of thousands of other Web sites that the government deems a threat to its hold on power.
In a telephone interview on Monday from his home in Fremont, California, Ge described how the agents, infuriated by his assertion that bloggers in the US were volunteers and not government-sponsored agitators, demanded that he turn over his Twitter password. When he refused, two of them unleashed a torrent of kicks and punches that lasted 30 minutes, he said.
“The more they beat me, the less I felt like cooperating,” he said.
In the end, Ge and his captors came up with a compromise: He did not reveal his password, but logged on to Twitter and allowed them to peek inside his account.
“The truth is I have nothing to hide,” he said.
Although Ge was released and promptly deported on Feb. 2, the incident highlights the risks that foreign passport holders of Chinese origin face when ensnared by China’s nebulous and omnipotent public security apparatus.
A number of US citizens remain in Chinese prisons on questionable charges, including Xue Feng (薛鋒), a geologist serving eight years for industrial espionage. Another naturalized US citizen, Hu Zhicheng (胡志成), has been blocked from leaving the country while he battles accusations of commercial espionage lodged by a former business associate. Hu spent a year-and-a-half in jail, but was released after Chinese prosecutors acknowledged that the case had no merit.
“Having an American or an -Australian passport and having Chinese blood puts you at a disadvantage to those who are white,” said Wang Songlian (汪松鐮), a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
A US Department of State official declined to comment on Ge’s detention, but said the plights of Xue and Hu would be raised during the visit to the US by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), who arrived in Washington from Beijing on Monday afternoon.
The incident involving Ge was unusual because many ehtnic Chinese who hold foreign passports and publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party are denied visas to return home. Ge, who applied and received an emergency visa to attend the funeral of his mother, said he had returned to China numerous times over the years.
During a visit in 1997, he said, public security agents briefly and politely questioned him about his lapsed membership in an organization of Chinese students seeking leniency for those arrested during the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests.