Artist Geng Xiaonan for years quietly helped dissidents and liberal intellectuals who’d crossed China’s Communist Party and lost their jobs or their freedom – most recently ordering online groceries for former Tsinghua University scholar Xu Zhangrun, who was blacklisted by vendors following his arrest in July.
So when Geng and her husband were taken away by police in Beijing's Haidian district on Sept. 9 on suspicion of running an "illegal business operation" after the film producer and publisher made public her support for Xu, it was the legal scholar himself who led the charge to publicize the couple’s plight.
“Xiaonan is a brave woman… Let’s speak up for her; voice our concerns,” Xu told RFA.
Since party general secretary Xi Jinping began an indefinite term in office in March 2018, his administration has stepped up a purge of liberal intellectuals from higher education institutions.
Authorities in Beijing detained Xu on July 6 after he had published strident critiques of Xi and calls for political reforms online, on allegations of "seeking out prostitutes."
He was released a week later, but told the media that he had been fired from his teaching post and subjected to public sanctions for "moral corruption" by Tsinghua University's law school.
Geng, the owner of a private art and culture salon in China and an independent film producer, has championed dissidents who have taken great risk in Xi’s China.
Dissidents who have been aided by Geng include Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who called for Xi’s resignation and was sentenced to four years in prison; Early Rain Covenant Church Reverend Wang Yi, who was sentenced to 9 years in jail for inciting subversion of state power and for running an illegal operation; and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi, who sneaked into Wuhan during its lockdown to report from epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been missing for since March.
After his release, from detention, Xu Zhangrun was fired from Tsinghua University losing his livelihood, while an on-line blacklist stripped him of the right to receive donations from the public.
Geng Xiaonan began to order groceries online for Xu on August 26th to relieve his financial burden. She found that Taobao, TMall, and Hema -- the three grocery order apps owned by popular e-Commerce merchant Alibaba – had set “Xu Zhangrun” as a “prohibited” search phrase.
“She was arrested because of me!” Xu told RFA.
Xu said Geng had texted him last week, saying that police has arrested several employees of her husband’s publishing company on Sept. 6, and two days later, authorities blocked her husband’s his company’s Weibo accounts.
Geng then told Xu early on Sept. 9 that she was out running errands, and went incommunicado, along with her husband, Xu said, calling it “definitely unusual.”
Friends of Geng told RFA’s Mandarin Service before her disappearance, a series of events pointed toward gathering trouble for her, beginning in early August with a police visit to her father’s house in Sichuan.
On Aug. 14, police in Beijing’s Haidian district visited Geng’s home, checking on exit routes and the electricity breaker box. On Aug. 27, police secretly searched warehouses of the publishing company that Geng Xiaonan’s husband runs in Beijing and neighboring Hebei province, warning the warehouse managers to keep the search secret from the couple, friends said.
Geng told RFA in early September that she thought these actions did not pose great danger and there was no need to report on these incidents
Intellectuals back Geng
Several well-known Chinese female intellectuals, including Tsinghua Professor Guo Yuhua, former China Party School Professor Cai Xia, and Hoover Institute visiting researcher Li Nanyang, have all taken up Geng’s cause.
“Xiaonan is a good friend of mine for years. She’s kind and righteous,” said Cai, who was expelled from party’s top training academy and stripped of her pension in August over speeches she made criticizing the country’s direction under Xi.
“For many years she has been so kind to help senior political dissidents,” she said, mentioning former Zhao Ziyang aide Bao Tong, who remains under house arrest since supporting 1989 student demonstrators, and other liberal figures.
“Her chivalrous courage is admirable. She has worked so hard to rescue Xu Zhangrun and other persons of conscience. She is a talented writer of remarkable style. Now that she is being placed in great danger. We call for her release. “
Analysts noted that charges of "seeking out prostitutes" have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics and activists, or anyone who runs afoul of local officials and powerful vested interests. Xu has lodged a legal challenge, and denies the charges.
Rev Wang Yi was also jailed on charges that included “running an illegal operation” – the same accusations Geng and her husband are facing.
“Under the authoritarian dictatorship, the kind suffer while the wicked run rampant. Random citizens may lose their freedom for the sake of conscience and justice,” said Xu.
“Geng Xiaonan spoke for justice. She cried for the political dissidents who lost their lives,” he added.
“We cannot just sit back and let it be. We shall make our voices heard and call for her release,” he told RFA.
Reported by Bei Ming for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Min Eu. Written in English by Paul Eckert