China Hunts Source of Letter Urging Xi to Quit
More than 10 people reportedly missing after letter was published on Chinese news website early March
The letter, whose authorship remains unclear, appeared on the eve of China’s legislative session in early March, the most public political event of the year.
Since then, at least four managers and editors with Wujie Media—whose news website published the missive—and about 10 people from a related company providing technical support have gone missing, according to their friends and associates, who say the disappearances are linked to a government probe into the letter.
A U.S.-based dissident author said authorities have also taken away his family in southern China over claims that he had helped disseminate the letter—an allegation he denies. The editor of an overseas Chinese website that also published the letter said he has received harassing phone calls and anonymous death threats.
Wujie Media—which is based in Beijing and partly owned by the government of China’s far western Xinjiang region—hasn’t published any original news content since mid-March, while its social-media accounts have also gone silent. Many among its more than 100 employees worry that the company may soon be shut down, according to a Wujie employee and two people familiar with the situation.
China’s main media regulator didn’t respond to a request for comment and the chief Internet censor referred queries to Wujie’s management. Wujie, also known as Watching, didn’t respond to requests for comment and a reporter who visited its offices was turned away.
Analysts said the incident highlights the party’s concerns over the letter and a broader pushback against Mr. Xi’s domineering style of leadership.
The response “shows a real brittleness of power and of high levels of nervousness,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London. “If this sort of complaint spreads, then there could be real problems,” he said.
Since taking office three years ago, Mr. Xi has concentrated more power in his hands than his recent predecessors, upending the consensus-driven, collective leadership that prevailed for two decades. In recent months, the effort to unify the party and the country behind Mr. Xi has intensified.
Mr. Xi has increasingly called on officials, academics and journalists to demonstrate allegiance to the central leadership, while the party commission that led a crackdown on corruption has widened its purview to enforce discipline on the rank and file. State media and other outlets have stepped up portrayals of Mr. Xi as a strong and caring leader.
All that has unsettled some party members, some of whom see it as an unwelcome return to the mercurial, dictatorial style of Mao Zedong.
“The concentration of power in Xi’s hands, as well as the budding personality cult, have come to arouse dissent among party circles,” said Daniel Leese, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Germany’s University of Freiburg.
Over the past two months, divisions between the disgruntled party members and Mr. Xi’s camp have spilled out into the open. After prominent real-estate tycoon and party member Ren Zhiqiang questioned Mr. Xi’s demands for loyalty from the media, party news outlets savaged the retired businessman. An expert from the Central Party School, an elite training academy, then leapt to Mr. Ren’s defense in an online article, saying the party’s charter and rules enshrine the right of members to voice their opinions. That article was then expunged.
The letter’s provenance isn’t clear. Signed by “Loyal Communist Party members,” it criticized Mr. Xi for excessively centralizing power, paralyzing the bureaucracy with his anticorruption campaign, for an adventurous foreign policy and for insufficient attention to China’s economic slowdown.
First published on March 4 by an overseas Chinese website called Canyu, which features reports on political and human-rights issues in China, the letter then appeared on the website of Wujie News—Wujie Media’s journalism arm—that same day before becoming inaccessible hours later. A cached version of the letter on Wujie’s website showed that it was a republication of the Canyu post.
Canyu’s chief editor, Cai Chu, said he published the letter after receiving it via email from an unidentified sender, but didn’t know how it came to be republished on Wujie’s website.
That day, an anonymous user posted the letter on a blog hosted by Mingjing, an overseas Chinese website known for reporting on mainland political gossip. Mingjing’s founder, Ho Pin, said he received the letter but decided not to publish it on his main website because of its murky origins. Even so, the letter “appears to have struck a nerve in Zhongnanhai,” Mr. Ho said, referring to Chinese leadership compound in Beijing.
The Wall Street Journal didn’t receive a response to queries sent to the email address from which the letter was sent.
Within China, online discussions of the letter were swiftly censored. Among the journalists to go missing was Jia Jia, a writer who was “taken away” by police at a Beijing airport on March 15 while on his way to Hong Kong, according to his lawyers, Yan Xin and Chen Jiangang.
Before his detention, Mr. Jia told friends he had informed Wujie News editor Ouyang Hongliang, who is also a friend of Mr. Jia’s, about the letter’s appearance on Wujie’s website and advised him to remove it. Mr. Jia has denied any involvement with the letter, his friends said.
Mr. Jia was released Friday, his lawyers said. Beijing police didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Ouyang has gone missing in recent days, as have Wujie’s chairman, another editor, and a supervisor, people familiar with the situation said. One of the people said two web technicians are missing as well. About 10 people from Wujie Xinhui, an information-technology-services provider partly owned by the Xinjiang government, have also gone missing, according to two people familiar with the matter.
‘The concentration of power in Xi’s hands, as well as the budding personality cult, have come to arouse dissent among party circles.’
Another friend of Mr. Jia’s, New York-based writer Wen Yunchao, said police began investigating his family in China’s southern Jiexi county in mid-March over suspicions that he was involved in the dissemination of the letter.
Mr. Wen denied any involvement with the letter. Jiexi county’s public-security bureau didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Wen said his parents told him Chinese authorities wanted him to admit to distributing the letter, and divulge information about its authors. His parents and younger brother were also taken away by security officials this week and have been out of contact since, he said.
Write to Chun Han Wong at c