China’s practice of “disappearing” political dissidents, corrupt public officials and virtually anybody deemed a threat to Communist Rule has been widely documented in the Western media (but not so well-documented in state-controlled mainland media). But in 2018, the regime of President Xi Jinping widened its dragnet to include a broader mix of high-profile figures, including a movie star, foreign nationals and even the head of the an international law enforcement organization.
Even prominent Marxists weren’t spared the most terrifying of judicial punishments – a clandestine rendition to a Chinese “reeducation camp” (where most of the missing presumably ended up). This year more than any other in recent memory laid bare the lengths to which the Communist Party will go to quash any perceived threats, be they activists and dissidents, or senior level bureaucrats.
China threatened “grave consequences” if Canada did not release hi-tech executive Meng Wanzhou, shortly after the Huawei chief financial officer was detained in Vancouver in December for possible extradition to the US.
The apparent consequences materialised within days, when two Canadian men went missing in China. Both turned up in the hands of state security on suspicion of endangering national security, a nebulous category of crimes that has been levied against foreigners in recent years.
Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig was taken by authorities from a Beijing street late in the evening, a person familiar with his case said. He is allowed one consular visit a month and has not been granted access to a lawyer, as is standard for state security cases.
Also detained is Michael Spavor, who organises tours to North Korea from the border city of Dandong.
Fan Bingbing was living every starlet’s dream. Since a breakthrough role at the age of 17, Fan has headlined dozens of movies and TV series, and parlayed her success into modelling, fashion design and other ventures that have made her one of the highest-paid celebrities in the world.
All this made her a potent icon of China’s economic success, until authorities reminded Fan – and her legion of admirers – that even she was not untouchable.
For about four months, Fan vanished from public view. Her Weibo social media account, which has more than 63 million followers, fell silent. Her management office in Beijing was vacated. Her birthday on September 16 came and went with only a handful of greetings from entertainment notables.
When she finally resurfaced, it was to apologise.
“I sincerely apologise to society, to the friends who love and care for me, to the people, and to the country’s tax bureau,” Fan said in a letter posted on Weibo on October 3.
She admitted to tax evasion. State news agency Xinhua reported that Fan and the companies she represents had been ordered to pay taxes and penalties totalling 900 million yuan (US$130 million).
“Without the party and the country’s great policies, without the people’s loving care, there would be no Fan Bingbing,” she wrote. It was a cautionary tale for other Chinese celebrities.
Xinhua concurred in a commentary on her case: “Everyone is equal before the law, there are no ‘superstars’ or ‘big shots.’ No one can despise the law and hope to be lucky.”
Unlike most swallowed up by China’s opaque security apparatus, Meng Hongwei knew exactly what to expect.
Meng (no relation to the Huawei executive), a vice-minister of public security, was serving as head of Interpol, the France-based organisation that facilitates police cooperation across borders.
When he was appointed to the international post, human rights groups expressed concern that China would use Interpol as a tool to rein in political enemies around the world.
Instead, he was captured by the same security forces he represented.
In September, Meng became the latest high-ranking official caught in Xi’s banner anti-corruption campaign. The initiative is a major reason for the Chinese leader’s broad popularity, but he has been accused of using it to eliminate political rivals.
Xi pledged to confront both high-level “tigers” and low-level “flies” in his crackdown on corruption – a promise he has fulfilled by ensnaring prominent officials.
Meng was missing for weeks, before Chinese authorities said he was being investigated for taking bribes and other crimes. A Chinese delegation delivered a resignation letter from Meng to Interpol headquarters.
His wife Grace Meng said she did not believe the charges against her husband. The last message he sent to her was an emoji of a knife.
Lu Guang made his mark photographing the everyday lives of HIV patients in central China. They were poor villagers who had contracted the virus after selling their own blood to eke out a living – at a going rate of $7 a pint, they told Lu.
A former factory worker, Lu traversed China’s vast reaches to capture reality at its margins. He explored environmental degradation, industrial pollution and other gritty topics generally avoided by Chinese journalists, who risk punishment if they pursue stories considered to be sensitive or overly critical.
His work won him major accolades such as the World Press Photo prize, but his prominence likely also put him on the government’s radar.
This November, Lu was travelling through Xinjiang, the far west region that has deployed a vast security network in the name of fighting terrorism. He was participating in an exchange with other photographers, after which he was to meet a friend in nearby Sichuan province. He never showed up.
More than a month after he disappeared, his family was notified that he had been arrested in Xinjiang, according to his wife Xu Xiaoli. She declined to elaborate on the nature of the charges.
In the past, political activists jailed in China were primarily those who fought for democracy and an end to one-party rule. They posed a direct ideological threat to the Communist Party.
This year, the party locked in on a surprising new target: young Marxists.
About 50 students and recent graduates of the country’s most prestigious universities convened in August in Shenzhen, an electronics manufacturing hub, to rally for factory workers attempting to form a union.
Among them was Yue Xin, a 20-something fresh out of Peking University. Earlier this year, she made headlines by calling for the elite school to release the results of its investigation into a decades-old rape case.
This time, she was one of the most vocal leaders of the labour rights group, appearing in photographs with her fist raised in a Marxist salute and wearing a T-shirt that said “Unity is strength” – the name of a patriotic Chinese Communist song.
Yue, a passionate student of Marx and Mao Zedong, espoused the same values as the party. She wrote an open letter to Xi and the party’s central leadership saying all the students wanted was justice for the workers at Jasic Technology.
Her letter quoted Xi’s own remarks: “We must adhere to the guiding position of Marxism”.
Yue called Marx “our mentor” and likened the ideas of him and Mao to spiritual sustenance.
Nonetheless, she ended up among those rounded up in a raid on the flat the activists were staying at in Shenzhen. While most have been released, Yue remains unaccounted for. She has been missing for four months.
Some of these individuals might resurface in 2019 (particularly the foreigners whom the Canadian government has demanded be released). But most of those who are disappeared by Beijing are never seen or heard from again.