Chinese dissident disappears ... during phone interview

“I have my freedom of speech!” Those were the last words captured in a Voice of America interview with Sun Wenguang (rendered in the reverse in Western media). The dissident Chinese activist has since disappeared since police broke into his home during the interview, and no one will say where he is now:

As he was carried away by Chinese authorities, Wenguang Sun could only say: “I am entitled to freedom of speech.”

The retired Chinese professor and activist was being interviewed by U.S.-funded Voice of America when police officers burst through the door of his apartment. Sun was criticizing Chinese leader Xi Jingping’s billion-dollar investment in African infrastructure, arguing that Xi had ignored the poor in his own country.

Viewers listened as Sun recounted his ordeal live on air. “Here they come again, the police are here to interrupt again,” Sun said in Chinese. “Four, five, six of them.”

Sun asked what the men were doing in his home and threatened to get a knife. “It is illegal for you to come to my home,” he said. He defended his VOA interview and called on the security officials to respect his rights.

Then the line went dead.

It’s not the first time that Sun has displeased Chinese authorities, AFP notes. His supporters just hope it won’t be the last. Thus far, no one can contact him or his wife, and government officials won’t answer any questions:

Sun, who is one of China’s oldest activists, is kept under regular surveillance.

He was a co-signer of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08 — a quickly censored document that landed co-author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in prison. Liu died last year, the first Nobel winner to die in custody since Nazi Germany.

In 2009, Sun was viciously beaten by authorities when he snuck past guards watching his building in an attempt to pay his respects to ousted Communist leader Zhao Ziyang — who opposed the use of force to quell the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests — on the fourth anniversary of the former premier’s death.

Repeated calls by AFP to his mobile and home phone number went unanswered Friday, as did messages sent via social messaging app WeChat. Calls to the Jinan public security bureau and the publicity department of Shandong University, his former employer, also yielded no response.

The Washington Post also tried to get some comment from Beijing to no avail. It’s not even clear whether Sun is still alive, let alone whether he’s been formally charged or detained. Had Sun not been on the phone with VOA at the time of his capture by police, no one might ever have known how he disappeared.

As Sun no doubt understood, he doesn’t have freedom of speech in China. As dissents go, Sun’s complaints in this VOA interview were fairly mild; he was criticizing Beijing’s spending on aid in Africa, arguing that those resources would be better spent at home. It’s the kind of debate that barely raises passions at all in modern democratic republics, but in China it’s viewed as subversion. And punished harshly, perhaps in this case even fatally.

That raises the issue once again of Google’s apparent desire to re-enter the Chinese Internet market with a platform that abides by Beijing’s censorship authority. That platform won’t be used for free speech and to illuminate the lives of the one-billion-plus Chinese who live in a society where dissidents disappear into the darkness. It will be used to marginalize and silence the Sun Wenguangs of China, and to help ensure that other people in China don’t get to hear those last words about freedom of speech, if indeed that turns out to be Sun’s valediction.

Perhaps Google, with its now-expired motto of “Don’t be evil, should consider just what it’s enabling. This audio clip should be on autoplay in the executive offices of Alphabet.