OPINION: Missing Photographer Is China's Latest Victim of Arbitrary Detention

OPINION: Missing Photographer Is China's Latest Victim of Arbitrary Detention
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

Lu Guang, missing since Nov. 3 after traveling to Xinjiang, is the latest in an increasingly long list of forced disappearances.

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After Chinese photographer Lu Guang went missing in Xinjiang early last month, it is now widely believed that he is the latest high-profile Chinese citizen to have been “disappeared” by the country’s authorities.

Lu is an award-winning photographer whose work has been published locally and abroad, as well as a U.S. green card holder. Lu’s wife, having not heard from him since Nov. 3, was told that he had been taken by local officials. Even one month after his disappearance, the authorities have still not said anything.

What is clear is that no Chinese is safe from the power of the authorities to secretly detain its citizens.

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Credit: Reuters / Stephane Mahe
Chinese actress Fan Bingbing was 'disappeared' by authorities earlier this year.

Lu is the latest notable Chinese to have suddenly gone missing this year, following the former head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, and movie starlet Fan Bingbing. Both were later announced by authorities to be in custody, though Fan may be free now.

Arbitrary detentions of Chinese have intensified under Xi Jinping in the years since he came to power in 2012. Xi notably launched a mass crackdown against corrupt officials, which proved to be popular among the public. In 2015, Xi also launched a crackdown against hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists, which occurred with hardly a peep from the public. The government has even cracked down on a growing movement of university “Marxist” students who have engaged in activism on behalf of laborers, with several having gone missing since August and believed to be in custody.

Even Hong Kong residents such as booksellers have been secretly kidnapped and taken into custody from outside mainland Chinese soil. Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲) also fell victim after he was detained in March 2017, then charged and jailed for five years for “subversion” for discussing democracy with Chinese friends on social media. Chinese dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners, and even foreign expats in the country, have long been subject to arbitrary detentions and imprisonment.

No Chinese is safe from the power of the authorities to secretly detain its citizens.

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Credit: AP / Chiang Ying-ying
Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), wife of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che, answers questions at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport on Mar. 28, 2018, one day after visiting her husband in prison in China.

Lu may not be a journalist or human rights lawyer, but his photography focused on the victims of China’s economic development such as villages affected by industrial pollution, drug addicts and AIDS victims. For his stark and powerful photography, Lu won three World Press Photo awards.

That Lu’s disappearance occurred in Xinjiang, where he had gone to meet other photographers, is very ominous.

In this northwestern region, China has carried out secret detentions on a much greater scale than ever before. As many as one million Uyghurs are believed to languish in security camps, for no reported crime or reason.

China originally denied this mass detention, but international criticism finally led authorities to claim the camps were merely “job training centers.” Chinese state media have also claimed that the detentions were necessary because the Uyghurs were “extremists” and “terrorists.” Nobody in the international community is fooled by this cover story, but unfortunately, no concrete action has been taken by the international community to force China to stop its state-sponsored atrocities in Xinjiang.

The plight of the Uyghurs has received the attention of governments, journalists, and NGOs around the world, but in China, this is not a major issue. For one, it is not widely reported since all domestic media is heavily restricted and censored. Second, sympathy for Uyghurs is not widespread within the country, especially as many Chinese believe the government’s frequent attempts to paint Uyghurs as “terrorists” and “extremists.”

However, the mass detention of Uyghurs has a lot of relevance for Chinese since it shows the authorities have no qualms about continually expanding the scope of their repression. Already, there are concerns China could clamp down on Muslim minorities in other regions and Tibetans in a similar manner.

No concrete action has been taken by the international community to force China to stop its state-sponsored atrocities in Xinjiang.

The ongoing mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Lu’s disappearance both demonstrate the unchecked power of Chinese authorities to clamp down on individuals, whether actresses or award-winning photographers, and entire swathes of society, whether lawyers, activists or Uyghurs.

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Credit: Reuters / Thomas Peter
A police officer talks to men on the street in Kashgar, Xinjiang.

In doing so, the Chinese government can shore up its rule and suppress any criticism or activism among its citizens, but at the cost of hollowing out its society.

China’s trade war with the U.S. may dominate the headlines, but as China suffers a downturn in exports, it is only increasing the domestically produced domination of the rights of its own citizens.

Read Next: In Xinjiang, China Is Re-Engineering the Uyghur Identity

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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