Belgian envoy to China working to free detainees

The Guardian, BEIJING

Wed, Oct 02, 2013 - Page 6

Belgium’s ambassador to Beijing is in talks to free 1,000 detainees, after Chinese officials announced they were holding racing pigeons in a dispute over import duties.

Officials impounded 1,600 birds sold to Chinese enthusiasts at auction in Belgium, including Bolt, bought for a world record price of 310,000 euros (US$419,200). He and about 400 others have been released following negotiations, leaving their compatriots still incarcerated.

Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the ambassador was mediating to free the remaining birds, which have been held for two months.

Pigeon-keeping was banned in China for many years as a bourgeois decadence, but, like other traditional pastimes, it has resurfaced as a popular, if pricey, hobby.

Sun Yan, deputy director of the Beijing Changping district racing pigeon association, said the last survey, in the 1990s, had found 300,000 pigeon fanciers in China, and numbers had risen vastly since then.

Bolt, named after the Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, was bought by a Chinese businessman in May at an auction held by the Belgian pigeon traders Pipa.

Officials from the two countries hoped to simplify the negotiations by finding a single party to represent the various buyers of the other birds, he added.

Bolt cannot race in China because he would try to head back to Belgium, so he will be used for breeding.