Activists have condemned the interruption of a prominent Chinese dissident, Sun Wenguang, by police at his home in Shandong on Wednesday as obstructing his right to freedom of speech.

During an on-air interview over the telephone with US-backed broadcaster Voice of America (VOA), 84-year-old Sun is heard confronting the security officials: “Let me tell you, it is illegal for you to come into my home. I have my freedom of speech,” he said before the line goes dead.

Sun Wenguang
Photo: Screenshot.

Sun – a retired professor at Shangdong University – is a well-known critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was appearing on the VOA’s programme “Issues & Opinions” to discuss an open letter he had written, urging Xi to stop overseas investments, when four to six security officials reportedly forced their way into his home and asked him to end the interview immediately.

“What did I do wrong? Listen to what I say, is it wrong? People are poor. Let’s not throw our money in Africa,” he said.

Xi returned from a trip to the African nations of Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Mauritius last week to solidify the countries’ diplomatic and economic ties as allies. China has been pouring money into African nations as part of its Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to expand the country’s infrastructure through a network of global trade routes.

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The incident has been condemned by human rights activists and groups.

Basic human rights

China researcher at Human Rights Watch Maya Wang told HKFP: “The incident gave a glimpse into the daily realities of human rights defenders in China – that at any moment, the police could barge into their homes to take them away, for having done nothing wrong but to exercise their basic human rights of free speech to speak publicly about human rights abuses.”

Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng said in a tweet: “Condemn the actions of the Chinese Communist Party! Ask your friends to watch out for Professor Sun Wenguang.”

Scholars at Risk (SAR), an academic freedom organisation, also said in a tweet that they were deeply concerned about the professor’s detention: “[It is] a grisly example of state efforts to intimidate those who engage in critical inquiry and dissent.”

In a separate statement, the group said: “[SAR] is concerned about state efforts, including arbitrary detention, aimed at preventing a scholar from engaging in public expression — conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a party.

Free expression watchdog Reporters Without Borders also criticised the incident: “This arrest is a chilling message from Beijing to its people and the Chinese community overseas that the regime is ready to do anything to silence independent voices,” says Cedric Alviani, director of the East Asia bureau. “Pressure on journalists’ sources is a new strategy of the Chinese government to control its image abroad.”

VOA said that they have reached out to Sun on the phone and through WeChat – a popular social media app in China – but had not succeeded in contacting him since the interview.

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.