Jack Ma criticised banking regulation and was ‘disappeared’ as a result
Thousands of people have been snatched from their homes and off the street by Chinese authorities as part of a secretive and sinister program to ‘disappear’ those who fall foul of the regime.
It doesn’t matter how rich and powerful a person is, nor how anonymous and low-profile they are, anyone who dares criticise the Communist Party or not espouse its values can be targeted.
The most minor of indiscretions, like uttering a frustrated remark in the street that’s overheard, to serious missteps, like speaking out about government policy at a business conference, are not tolerated.
One of the most high-profile victims, billionaire tech guru Jack Ma, founder of the mammoth Alibaba Group – China’s version of eBay, Amazon and PayPal, rolled into one – spoke at the Bund Summit in Shanghai in October 2020 and expressed frustration with banking regulation.
He was summoned to Beijing to meet CCP officials, who then pulled the plug on the IPO launch of his Ant Group fintech, which would’ve been one of the biggest stock market launches in history.
Ma then vanished, while his company was hit with billions of dollars in fines and forcibly restructured and scaled down.
When the billionaire eventually re-emerged more than three months later, it was in a brief video released by the CCP showing him at a rural school espousing the values of charity and nation-building, in which he referred to having been “re-educated”.
Increasingly of late, merely being wealthy and influential can be cause for scrutiny by Beijing, with authorities concerned about ‘celebrity’ being a kind of creeping Western ideology.
Zhao Wei is a billionaire actress and singer who was suddenly erased from Chinese social media and streaming platforms, for no apparent crime at all – just for being popular.
The CCP has since banned music charts that indicate and promote popularity, and imposed limits on how often children and teenagers can play video games.
It’s part of efforts to move away from the recent era where fame and fortune are desired, and towards a goal of ‘common prosperity’.
As well as the powerful, ordinary citizens who step out of line are also at risk of being snatched from their homes and whisked away to undisclosed locations.
The human rights group Safeguard Defenders said on average at least 20 people a day are ‘disappeared’ by authorities across China for offending or upsetting the system and its gatekeepers.
Victims have no contact with loved ones and no access to lawyers during their detention.
“There is virtually no oversight, torture is common,” Safeguard Defenders said. “This is mass state-sanctioned kidnapping (that constitutes the) widespread and systematic use of enforced disappearances.”
President Xi Jinping was the architect of laws that gave authorities extraordinary and chilling powers to indefinitely detain people who fall foul of the regime, stripping them of basic rights.
In a 2020 report, Safeguard Defenders estimated that some 30,000 people have been ‘disappeared’ since 2013 when the laws were enacted.
Many are held for a few days or a few weeks, some for months – or longer. A few never come back at all.
Fang Bin, a businessman in the city of Wuhan, posted videos to social media showing a local hospital overflowing with Covid-19 patients and victims in the early weeks of the pandemic.
He was detained and hasn’t been seen since.
Often, the disappeared who return must then face court for dubious ‘crimes’ and are swiftly found guilty and sentenced to yet more punishment.
Zhang Zhan, a journalist who travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to interview locals about how they were coping in lockdown, also shared videos to social media about her observations.
In one, Ms Zhang mentioned that Wuhan locals seemed more scared of the government than the virus, which seemingly landed her in hot water.
She was detained and not heard from for several months, before being sentenced in December to four years in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
It’s not just Chinese citizens who are targeted, with a number of foreigners also caught up in Beijing’s barbaric reaction to perceived criticism and its apparent political retaliation.
An open letter signed by friends and colleagues of the Australian journalist Cheng Lei, detained in China on August 13, 2020 and not heard from since, has expressed grave concerns for her wellbeing.
Ms Cheng, the face of China Global Television Network’s English language news service, was growing in popularity with viewers, before she was abruptly arrested on suspicion of “illegally supplying state secrets overseas”.
“We are confident she has done nothing wrong …” the letter, produced with the support of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, reads.
Should Canberra do more to free Aussies detained in China?
The MEAA and Ms Cheng’s supporters say: “We are concerned about the chilling affect her arrest has on the practice of journalism, which has never been more critical.
“Cheng Lei has, in her career, earned respect of her colleagues for her straightforward business reporting.”
Ms Cheng’s two children, aged nine and 11, are in Australia, now in the care of family members.
“They have been separated from her for well over a year now and she’s had no contact with them since her arrest,” the letter reads.
The status of her case is unclear, as is her current location.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Another Australian, author, blogger and political commentator Yang Hengjun, is currently awaiting a verdict in his espionage trial.
During his one-day hearing, held in secret, Dr Yang insisted he was “100 per cent innocent” and revealed he had been subjected to 300 interrogations by authorities and had been tortured.
He has been held in detention since January 2019, when he was arrested after arriving in Guangzhou with his wife and child.
These kind of ‘disappeared’ do not include the estimated 1.5 million Uighurs imprisoned throughout a vast network of camps across China.
The persecution of the Muslim minority has been the subject of international condemnation for years, as well as various independent inquiries that liken it to genocide.
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