Chinese police pressure family of U.S.-based student over support for 'Bridge Man'

Han Yutao's brother told him not to be a 'traitor to China,' likely to protect himself from retaliation by proxy
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin, Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
Chinese police pressure family of U.S.-based student over support for 'Bridge Man' Han Yutao, a Chinese student at Bellevue College in Washington state, expressed solidarity with the "Stone Bridge Warriors."
Credit: Han Yutao

Police in Beijing have contacted the family of a Chinese student studying in the United States after he expressed support online for the "Bridge Man" protester, who unfurled banners on a Beijing bridge calling on ruling Chinese leader Xi Jinping to step down on the eve of the 20th Communist party’s congress.

Police in Beijing's Zhongguancun district contacted the parents and brother of Han Yutao, a student at Bellevue College in Washington state, after he posted a video clip on social media expressing solidarity with the "Bridge Man" protester, who has been identified as Peng Lifa. 

Han, 23, also walked around the Bellevue campus with a placard, telling everyone he met about Peng, who has been hailed as a hero similar to the 1989 “tank man” for his brave and rare public protest.

Within a day of his video appearing, Chinese police had contacted Han's family, putting pressure on them to persuade him not to be a "traitor," and to distance themselves from him, Han told RFA.

"On Oct. 19, police from Zhongguancun West district found my family and knocked on their door," Han told RFA. "They asked for my mother's phone number, then called her and asked her where I go to school, when I left China, what I'm studying, then asked for my phone number in the U.S."

"Everyone in my family was telling me [not to do any more protests]," he said.

"My brother was trying to talk me out of [my views], telling me not to be a traitor, and not to be used as a 'hitman' by others," Han added. "He said he wanted nothing to do with traitors to China, or those who took their money, which wasn't nice to hear."

"But I understand ... he was trying to protect himself," he said.

An officer who answered the phone at the Zhongguancun West district police station declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Thursday.

Han said police also confiscated a number of his books that were published on the democratic island of Taiwan, which isn't subject to China’s censorship. 

"If they contact me, I don't plan to give in to their arrogance," Han said. "I will start by telling them how evil the Communist Party is first ... to try to prod their conscience."


Han said he had his eyes opened to the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, after hearing family members talk about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre by the People's Liberation Army, which used machine guns and tanks to suppress weeks-long mass, student-led protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

He said Peng -- who goes by the social media handle Peng Zaizhou in a reference to popular anger with governments -- struck a chord because of his sheer bravery.

"Why do I support Peng Zaizhou? Because I don't want to be afraid of the CCP any more," Han said. "I felt very ashamed even back in China that I was being suppressed by the CCP."

"Why did I show my face? Because justice should be upright," he said.

Former 1989 student leader Zhou Fengsuo, who founded the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said the tactics used by the Chinese government are redolent of the criminal underworld.

"Han Yutao showed his face and used his real name, which is very risky," Zhou said. "That the CCP is threatening the family members of international students shows [the government's] anger." 

Zhou said the timing of Peng's banners, which also called for an end to COVID-19 lockdowns and for democratic elections ahead of a party congress that will likely approve Xi Jinping's precedent-breaking third term in office, made the authorities even more nervous.

"They are panicking even more right now, showing that this regime has no legitimacy. They're a gangster regime that resorts to kidnapping," he said.

Rights groups say China increasingly engages in unofficial renditions of overseas critics from compliant nations, while Beijing was widely criticized for engaging in "hostage diplomacy" with the arrests and sentencing of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in the wake of the 2018 arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

"Peng Lifa had a kind of Tank Man energy, and his upstanding actions inspired a lot of people," Zhou said. "Courage really is contagious."

Meanwhile, Han said he had received support and solidarity from non-Chinese students at Bellevue, but not from fellow Chinese nationals, who remain under threat of being reported to the authorities if they step out of line politically while overseas.

"I showed my placard to a lot of Chinese students here, but they mostly acted indifferent, as they are really afraid of getting into trouble," Han said. "So they would look at my placard with scorn, as if I were some kind of weirdo."

Chinese students studying overseas risk having similar repercussions as Han experienced against loved ones back home, as well as the prospect of being invited for "tea" with the state security police when they go home. State security police have also been known to call them and threaten them outright during their studies.

Han said he was well aware of those risks before he acted, but felt he couldn't stay silent.

"I thought, why should I fear the tyranny [of the CCP] here in the U.S.?" he said. "Does that mean I have to keep quiet for the rest of my life?"

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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