A former columnist at a top newspaper who disappeared in southeast Asia earlier this month after fleeing China to seek political asylum is now back in the country, "assisting police with an investigation," his wife said.
Li Xin, who once wrote for the cutting-edge Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper in Guangzhou, fled China last July, initially traveling to New Delhi where his application for political asylum and his U.S. visa application were both turned down.
He later left India, and was last heard from on Jan. 11 after boarding a train in Thailand en route to Laos.
His wife, He Fangxian, who remained in China with the couple's only child, said she spoke with Li by phone on Wednesday from a police station near the couple's current home in the central province of Henan.
"He told me he was submitting to investigation on a voluntary basis, and that it would be concluded very soon," He said. "He told me to relax and have a happy [Chinese] New Year."
He Fangxian said she went to a local police station to take the call.
"When Li Xin spoke to me, he didn't say where he is right now; he didn't want me to know," she said. "He just said he is back in China under investigation."
"He said it would be better for him and for me if I took it easy, and that he hoped there would be a result soon."
But Li said nothing about where he is currently being held, nor the reason for the investigation, she said.
"I am guessing he's probably in Xinxiang [Henan province], because the state security police who called me were from Xinxiang," He said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Xinxiang police station declined to comment on Li's whereabouts.
"We don't know where he is ... his wife asked us to look into it, and we made enquiries with the relevant authorities," she said.
"We only know what they told us. There were several higher departments involved, and we couldn't even figure out where he is."
She said the case against Li hadn't originated in his hometown.
"This isn't our case. We were just helping [He Fangxian] because she reported him missing, and we were trying to find out for her."
She said local police had had no direct dealings with Li. "Only his wife spoke with him directly," the officer said.
Pressured to inform
Li Xin, a former campaigner for democratic reform and human rights, said state security police pressured him to become an informant by threatening him with criminal charges after he posted comments online in support of blind Shandong rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who is now a visiting scholar in the United States.
After arriving in New Delhi, Li had also revealed some of the inner workings of the Chinese propaganda regime, including a secret list of topics and sources off limits to media organizations.
China's police force recently set up a special unit to detain "fugitives" who flee the country, sparking fears that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is expanding its law enforcement activities far beyond its borders to target dissident asylum-seekers.
Li's repatriation comes amid growing concerns among rights activists and lawyers over the clandestine detention of critics of the Chinese government outside the country, several of whom have been picked up in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Hong Kong by means of opaque and undocumented procedures in recent months.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.