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  • Incident Reports | 27 February, 2009 (15:30)

    US Reporters Covering Tibetan Unrest Manhandled In Gansu

    LOCATION: Gansu Province, Maqu County
    TYPE OF INCIDENT: Manhandling, detention, intimidation
    TOPIC: Tibetan unrest
    NATIONALITY/ORGANIZATION: New York Times, United States

    QUOTE: “Li suddenly exploded in rage and hit my right arm as I took his photo. The blow knocked the camera to the ground. Li yelled at me as he did this. I later discovered that the incident had broken by camera’s focusing mechanism, and the camera no longer works properly.”

    DESCRIPTION: Edward Wong and Jonathan Ansfield, two reporters for The New York Times, were detained by members of the People’s Armed Police and the Public Security Bureau in Gansu Province for a total of 20 hours, starting on Feb. 27.

    We were also watched by the PSB for an additional 16 hours while being forced to stay in a hotel in Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu. A Japanese traveling companion and a local driver were also detained with the two reporters during the same period. The driver was subjected to interrogation and threats. The incident began at 11 p.m. on Feb. 27, Friday, as we were driving through southern Gansu Province. We were on a snowy mountain road heading south to the Gansu-Qinghai border. We were on our way between two points in Qinghai and were passing through Gansu for several hours because the most direct route between the two points ran through Gansu. We had no intention of stopping and doing any reporting in Gansu. We had just finished reporting a story in a Tibetan area of Qinghai, and our purpose now was to report on the situation in other Tibetan areas, but not in Gansu. We were stopped at a checkpoint at a bridge along the road at 11 p.m. There were a half-dozen members of the People’s Armed Police guarding the checkpoint, which was in the mountains about two hours south of Maqu. The officers took our passports, then told us to wait in the car until a senior officer from the PSB in Maqu arrived. When asked, the PAP officers did not give a reason why we were detained, and they did not allow us to turn around and drive away from the checkpoint. At one point, our driver, a Tibetan man whom we had hired in Qinghai Province, was pulled into a police car and questioned for the better part of an hour. It was snowing on the road the entire time, and we had to keep the car’s heater running. The PAP officers gave us additional gasoline and cups of hot milk. We were unable to sleep while in the car. At 4 a.m., two local police cars pulled up. A senior PSB officer who had arrived in one of the cars took our passports from the PAP officers. We had not choice but to follow the police cars back to Maqu. We arrived at about 6:30 a.m. at the police compound there. The three foreigners in our party were put into one room while the driver was taken into a separate room to be questioned by the police. The driver later told us he was asked to describe our activities in Maqu. The police, who had discovered Jonathan and I were journalists by looking at the visas in our passports, asked the driver whether we had interviewed anyone in Maqu. The driver said we had done no reporting. None of the police officers spoke to us or questioned us. At no point during the process were we given any explanation for why we were being detained or why we had been stopped, even though we repeatedly asked the police to explain our detention. Foreigners do not require special permits to travel in China except in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR. Furthermore, journalism rules made permanent by the Foreign Ministry in Oct. 2008 do not require reporters to obtain permission to travel anywhere in China other than in the TAR. Qinghai and Gansu are both outside the TAR. In other words, we had not violated any rules and were acting according to the law. At 6:45 a.m., I called Tang Rui, an official at the Foreign Ministry, to ask him to help get us released. He said he would have his counterpart in Gansu start working on it. The interrogation of our driver continued for a couple hours. He later told us that the police in Maqu did not have a harsh attitude during the interrogation. Around 10 a.m., we were told to drive north to the town of Hezuo, the seat of Gannan Prefecture. An officer in Maqu said we would have to meet with the foreign affairs officer for the Gannan PSB and with an official from the prefecture’s foreign affairs bureau. We drove up to Hezuo under police escort. The trip took about two hours. During the drive, I called Tang Rui again to tell him the detention was dragging on. I reiterated to him that the police had yet to tell us why we were being detained. “Really? Really?” he said, as if he couldn’t believe that the police had not given us a reason. He then told me that my attitude was making him “uncomfortable,” that I was being “unreasonable” and that I was making too many demands of him. He accused me of making threats. “Maybe you should listen to the advice of the police,” he said. As soon we pulled into the front yard of the PSB compound in Hezuo, the PSB foreign affairs officer, Li Sheng (李胜), and a plainclothes policeman began filming us. Li had a videocamera, and the other man had a digital still camera. Jonathan and I pulled out our own digital cameras to document the detention process, in case there would be a dispute about it later. Li suddenly exploded in rage and hit my right arm as I took his photo. The blow knocked the camera to the ground. Li yelled at me as he did this. I later discovered that the incident had broken by camera’s focusing mechanism, and the camera no longer works properly. At no point before hitting me did he ask me not to take photos. Minutes later, we were led into Li’s office. He denied that he had hit me and quoted a Chinese saying: “You have to fight to know each other.” He then pulled out a book and quickly flipped to a phrase that was underlined in red ink. The phrase was in Chinese, and it said that foreigners or foreign journalists (I forget the exact wording) can travel in Tibet or Tibetan areas once they’ve met “certain conditions.” Li then quickly took the book away. We asked to see it again so we could record this, but Li never brought the book back again. I suspect the rule he had shown us was an old one that had been made moot by the Foreign Ministry’s new rules allowing foreign journalists more unfettered access to most of China. We then had some long arguments with Li, during which he refused to give us a reason why we were being detained. He said that we would be set free if we could show him that we had taken no photos in Gannan Prefecture. Jonathan and I agreed, since we hadn’t taken any photos in the area. Although my camera’s focusing function was broken, I could still show Li that I had no photos of Gannan on my camera. Li appeared satisfied with the fact that we had no such photos, but he still refused to let us go. At this point, a Tibetan official from the foreign affairs bureau, Cairang Dao’erqu, arrived. He also declined to give us a reason for our detention. The two said we would have to go have lunch with them at a nearby hotel. We asked to be allowed to check into a hotel room somewhere in town to take a shower and recover from our sleepless night rather than eat lunch, but they refused. We spent about an hour at lunch. Li said we would have to all go together to Lanzhou, about four hours north of Hezuo. We told him we would go to Lanzhou with him, but asked him to allow our driver to drive directly back to Qinghai, where the driver lives, but Li refused. He said the driver would have to take us up to Lanzhou under police escort. We were concerned for our driver’s safety on the roads because he had already spent one night without sleep, and we wanted him to return home as soon as possible. We drove the four hours to Lanzhou. We were tired and wanted to catch the last flight back to Beijing, but missed it because we did not arrive in Lanzhou until the evening. Li and his colleagues followed us to a hotel that we chose. We checked into the hotel and bought plane tickets for a flight scheduled to leave the next morning. We showed these to Li and told him to let our driver return to Qinghai. Li had been holding the driver’s driving license. At this point, Li pulled our driver into his police car and drove around the parking lot while talking to our driver. He continued to interrogate the driver on our activities and threatened to make life hard for the driver. He told the driver he could take away the driver’s car. At about 7 p.m., he gave the driver back his license and told the driver to leave immediately. Our driver began driving back to Qinghai alone. Earlier, when we had first arrived in Lanzhou and realized we would miss the last plane to Beijing, we had asked Li whether we could accompany our driver to Xining, the capital of Qinghai, which is three hours west of Lanzhou. We were concerned that our driver might get into an accident if he drove alone because he had gone a night without any sleep. Li refused, saying we had to stay in Lanzhou. After making sure our driver left Lanzhou, Li and his colleagues checked into our hotel, no doubt to make sure we stayed in Lanzhou and got on our morning flight to Beijing. We boarded a flight to Beijing at 11 a.m. on March 1, Sunday, a full 36 hours after we were first stopped at the checkpoint south of Maqu. At no point did anyone give us a reason why had been detained. On March 2, the Foreign Ministry summoned me to a meeting the next afternoon. At the meeting, held on March 3 at the International Press Center, two ministry employees criticized an article I had written the previous week from a Tibetan town in Qinghai. They said the article was not “objective.” They urged me to be more “objective” when reporting on sensitive political matters. They also asked me to describe details of the detention. Like everyone else we had encountered during the process, they could cite no legal reason for our detention.