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  • Incident Reports | 14 September, 2015 (00:38)

    March 2015 Tianmu Village, near Tianjin Matt Sheehan, Huffington Post

    March 2015
    Tianmu Village, near Tianjin
    Matt Sheehan, Huffington Post

    I first learned of protests in Tianmu village on March 5th from this article on Radio Free Asia. After reading it I emailed Radio Free Asia and they put me in touch with someone in the village. He invited me to come to the village to observe the protests, gather information, and stay at his home if needed.

    The next morning I took the Beijing-Tianjin train, telling my contact in the village what time I was arriving. As I was getting off the train I received a message from my contact saying he was now at the police station and would contact me later. As I was walking out of the station I noticed that a plainclothes man next to me was trying to discreetly take my picture with his cell phone.

    Suspicious that I was being followed, I stopped and reversed direction, quickly realizing they were trying to follow at a discreet distance. I went to directly approach them and they scattered. Over the next 15 minutes I realized there were four young men following me. I did a lot of misdirection, walking, changing direction, leaving the station, entering the station, boarding the subway, getting off, and eventually felt sure that I’d lost all four of them.

    I then took a taxi to the site of the protest, outside the offices of the Village Committee in Tianmu Village of Beichen District. There were several hundred people gathered outside the office, holding up banners demanding corruption investigations of Mu Xiangyou, the Tianmu Village Party Branch Secretary. Within about 30 seconds of getting out of the cab I was surrounded by 5-7 men who were grabbing my jacket and pushing me backwards. They demanded to know what I was doing and tried to push me backwards to where a car was waiting on the curb. One of them self-identified as a member of the Village Committee but gave no name or credentials. He was demanding to see my journalist credentials, but I couldn’t take them out as men on both sides were holding my arms.

    After about 30 seconds of pushing back and forth, some of the protesters intervened, stepping between me and these men and breaking me free. They told me to take pictures of the protest. I began taking out my camera when another man (who was plainclothes but I later learned was a member of the local Public Security Bureau) told me not to “do anything” or “cause a disturbance”. Soon a uniformed police officer came over and told me I needed to come with him to the police station to “verify my credentials.”

    After futilely trying to argue that this was unnecessary, I eventually agreed to get in the waiting police car and was driven to a police station 15 minutes away that dealt with foreigners. There members of the Public Security Bureau took down all the information on my passport and journalist credentials and called the Foreign Ministry, which verified my right to work as a journalist.

    I asked to go, but they told me I had to stay and speak with representatives of the local propaganda bureau and the office for dealing with foreigners. After about 30 minutes these people arrived and began trying to convince that I could not go back to the protest without first receiving approval from the Village Committee or propaganda bureau. They also said members of the Village Committee had declined to speak with me or grant authorization.  When I cited Chinese laws that disproved this theory (journalists only need the approval of the person they are interviewing), they changed tactics and tried to tell me it was not in my interest and was too dangerous to go back to the protest. They kept offering to take me back to the train station but wouldn’t let me leave the police station on my own.

    We argued this point in circles for over an hour, with my main demand being that if they would not allow me to return due to “public safety” concerns they needed to present some kind of formal declaration along these lines. Eventually the woman from the local propaganda department asked if it would help if she got a representative of the Village Committee to sit down and talk. I said yes, and about 45 minutes later she came back with two men, one of whom she introduced as a member of the Village Committee.

    The man from the Village Committee said “This is problem within the village and we’ll resolve it within the village. It has nothing to do with you and you’re not welcome here.” I began writing this down, but when I began writing the other man (who wasn’t identified) began shouting, demanding to know why I was writing this down, who I was, what country I’m from, etc. I stopped writing and said I thought there had been a misunderstanding and that I didn’t need to record anything. He grew increasingly angry, shouting that he had seen me at the protest and that I wasn’t welcome here.

    At this point the woman from the propaganda department stepped in between us and tried to calm him down, but he wouldn’t be assuaged. He kept shouting and started pushing the woman. The other man told him that she was an official at the propaganda department but he shouted that he didn’t care and kept pushing her. At this point I felt the situation was spinning out of control, so I left the room and went into the hallway where there were more police officers. They stepped in and kept the man in the room, not letting him out into the hallway.

    I told the police that I was ready to go back to the train station and they started arranging a car. As they arranged the car, I overheard them saying that the man shouting in the room was making phone calls, and they were worried that he was calling other people to block the roads that we were going to take from the police station to the train station. They were worried that there were only a few roads out of the area around the police station, and that if they were blocked there was “no telling what would happen.” As they discussed what backroads to take, I asked that one of the police officers I’d spoken with come with me in the car. Eventually they assigned two officers to the car and we left the station. As we drove, the police officers kept receiving phone calls about what roads to take and what roads to avoid.
    Eventually we got to the train station and the two officers walked with me to the ticket booth, entrance, and all the way to the train. They promised that they wouldn’t share any of my personal information with the man at the police station, and saw me off.
    I got back to Beijing still unsure of what happened to my contact in the village who had been detained. That evening he eventually sent me a message saying that he’d been detained all day but was now back home. He said his phone had been tapped. Since then he’s continued to post information about the protests on his social media account so I believe he’s OK.

    Matt’s story from Tianmu is here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/12/china-leaders-corruption_n_6852596.html