There’s an old Chinese proverb, “watching a fire from the other side”, meaning you can’t take action excepting for watching, when an emergency is happening afar. I often think of this and feel helpless and hopeless when I write about and share stories of injustice and cruelty occurring daily on that piece of land named People’s Republic of China. The desperate feeling is the most intense when I’m actually in direct contact with the people who are suffering -- hearing their voices on the phone and reading their words on a screen...
On March 5, I was chatting online with Xinna at our scheduled rendezvous. A few greetings words later, I saw these: “Wait a minute, I need to address some emergency.” My heart sank. “Not again!” I almost screamed. I sat there, watching the clock tick. The morning before, Xinna and her whole family went missing, as well as a Canadian journalist and his assistant who traveled from Beijing to meet them in Hohhot, capital city of Southern Mongolia (Chinese: Inner Mongolia).
That morning I sat by my laptop for hours, thinking they might be too busy chatting among themselves. By 5am, which was 6pm in Hohhot, I called the reporter. He said calmly: “I’m in a police station.” He assured me that he and his assistant were fine, and he saw Xinna’s son Uiles was in the same police precinct. Xinna’s husband Hada had been intercepted by the police on the way to the shopping mall where they were supposed to meet. It was a tug of war between Xinna and the police as they were trying to force Uiles into a car. The Canadian reporter and his assistant were mobbed by about eight plainclothes police officers as soon as they left the meeting with Xinna, who’s now unaccounted for.
The reporter asked me to call back in an hour. I sat there, tears spewed out of my eyes. I sobbed for a long time. I couldn’t believe people would vanish just like this. All they wanted was to meet at the McDonald’s...the journalist was about to interview Hada. The day before, Hada had issued an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council urging it to pressure the Chinese government to reopen his bank accounts. They had used up all their savings but couldn’t receive donations to them as authorities froze their bank accounts.
The family has been under 24/7 watch with several surveillance cameras installed outside their apartment and the front gate of their living compound, their phones tapped and Internet connection blocked. For months, they have to go outside to a wifi zone for sporadic Internet communication.
Hada, Xinna and Uiles are not the average family. Hada was released last December after 19 years of imprisonment. He was convicted for “separatism” and “espionage” for founding the South Mongolian Democratic Alliance, and then jailed for another four years with no charge after his 15-year term was up. When he was sentenced in 1996, Hada was 41, Xinna was 40, Uiles was 11.
For nearly two decades, Hada suffered from continuous torture and solitary confinement. He had many illnesses and lost almost all his teeth. Xinna, who had co-managed a bookstore with Hada on Mongol culture was detained for a few years under the charge of “illegal business activities”. Uiles was jailed for drug trading, Xinna said it was a set-up as the police had planted the drugs in their home. After Uiles was released, he wasn't allowed to work. The police tailed him when he traveled south to other provinces looking for jobs.
|Left to right: Hada, Uiles, Xinna, over Lunar New Year, Feb, 2015|
Southern (Inner) Mongolia has been an information blind corner and there’s very little news about or from there. Suffering decades of colonization by China, Mongols have been made minorities in their country. The official Chinese census in 2012 shows 79 per cent of its some 24-million population are Han Chinese, there’re only four million Mongols, counting for about 17 per cent. In other words, they have been made a pathetic minority in their own country, now the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of China. Many herders were forced off their land to make way for mines and military bases.
I started to look for information on Southern Mongolia two years ago but found very little. As I was researching for a memoir, I discovered through interviews with relatives, and genealogy and government records that my mother’s side are Mongol descendants from the now Ural Mountains in Russia. They migrated to China at some point and at the fall of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century they changed their surname to a Chinese name. Now Mongols aren’t allowed to have surnames at all.
Most of the news about Southern Mongolia was a small number of sketchy news reports about Hada from a few years back. Last July, on Facebook I came across an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping from a woman named Xinna who wrote she’s Hada’s wife. Xinna has been very active on Facebook, posting articles, statements and open letters to the United Nations and U.S. Congress and Xi Jinping. We became Facebook friends and chatted online a few times.
Xinna came back online and said eight plainclothes police officers appeared out of the blue when her cousin and nephew arrived at the front gate of their apartment block. The relatives had driven from Beijing to visit the family for the New Year’s celebrations. The police filmed the relatives and demanded their ID. “Visitors to other families were never stopped,” she wrote to me.
She said probably the police had known about the visit from tapping their cell phones. The police abused them with curse words. Her nephew argued back. Xinna scolded the police and pulled the nephew away. She knew the police were trying to provoke the young man so they could have more of an excuse to take them to the police station. “This means the government has mobilized a lot of resources to watch us. They don’t want us to get in touch with people from outside world. They want to eliminate our influence. They’re afraid of us inciting...” she said.
The day before, when I was anxiously waiting in front of a computer in New York, it was a much bigger drama in a shopping mall in Hohhot. When Hada arrived at the Wanda Plaza around 3pm, two cars rammed his taxi from both sides. “About six or seven police from the Domestic Security branch dashed out of their vehicles, shouting and dragging the driver out of the taxi,” Uiles told Radio Free Asia on the phone shortly after his release that night. The plainclothes officers blamed the driver for crashing their cars.
Uiles who went to greet Hada recognized some officers were the same ones who had detained two French reporters attempting to visit them at their apartment ten days before. “The officers were the ones in charge of foreign affairs and security,” Uiles recalled. All of a sudden another half a dozen plainclothes officers appeared out of no where, swamped them, opened the back doors of the taxi and tried to push Hada back in.
Uiles shouted: “Domestic Security officers are kidnapping my father! The Police are hitting us and robbing our phones!” He shouted and shouted until he lost his voice. People gathered and watched but no one came to their rescue. None of the officers showed police ID. Hada later told RFA: “They were pushing me back into the taxi, I refused. My son was dragging me out. But the officers outnumbered us.”
As the police jammed Hada into the car, locked the doors and guarded both sides, Uiles crawled underneath the taxi in the front and frantically dialed Xinna, who was talking with the Canadian reporter at McDonald’s inside the mall.
About five officers reached under the car, dragged Uiles out and snatched away his phone. By the time Xinna arrived, the police had forced the taxi to drive Hada away. Xinna asked the officers to show ID but was ignored. She shouted: “My husband has been kidnapped and now you’re trying to get my son!” She dashed to grab Uiles from the claws of the officers.
A few bystanders wondered if it’s mafia and asked Xinna to call the police. Xinna replied: “They ARE the police!” She recognized one officer named Gao, who had visited her in jail years before.
Unfortunately all of the bystanders were Han Chinese and none recognized Hada. Xinna told me most Mongols knew about Hada and looked up to him as an icon. “I told them my husband Hada was recently released after being jailed for political reasons but hasn’t been free. I said he was kidnapped and banned from meeting friends.”
Xinna struggled with the police who were trying to push Uiles into a vehicle. Finally she broke him free. “I was going nuts,” Xinna told me. “The police were also afraid, because they didn’t have any reason (to arrest us). They didn’t want to create a scene because so many people were watching.” Another eight officers appeared, this time in uniforms. They told the bystanders to leave, saying someone had called them.
“They’re looking for an excuse to disperse the crowds,” she wrote to me. The officers told Uiles to go to a police precinct to give a witness report and get his phone back. “Their real purpose was to keep him there,” she said.
Concerned for the reporter’s safety, Xinna left and continued her conversation with him in another cafe. Little did she know the reporter and his assistant were rounded up by eight plainclothes officers as they walked out of the cafe after Xinna left. As she returned home, she discovered Uiles was no where to be seen, nor was he answering his phone. She looked around frantically and finally found Uiles at the Xibazha Police Precinct. She filed a complaint to the police, accusing domestic security officers of kidnapping and robbing (Xinna's statement to Hohhot Police).
By the time Xinna and Uiles returned to their apartment block, Hada was in the same taxi at the front gate, along side a police vehicle. He had returned from the Zhongzhuanlu Police Precinct and was kept in the car for two hours.
It was already after 10pm by the time the family returned home, exhausted and starving. No broken bones but plenty of sore muscles. Xinna contacted me around midnight.
By then, the Canadian reporter and his assistant had been made to go to the airport, flying back to Beijing. They never caught a glimpse of Hada. “At least the foreign media witnessed our life,” Xinna says.
The next morning Uiles’ cell phone started to receive numerous harassing calls and texts. The family had a short “phone break” during the Lunar New Year after months of phone harassment. “Now it’s starting all over again,” Xinna told me. Then another kerfuffle with the police when the relatives arrived.
“Uiles is next to me. I just told him you cried last night. He’s smiling. He said it’s a good physical exercise. His humor,” she wrote. “Cruelty is our everyday life."