German Newspaper Details Detention of Its Researcher in Beijing

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Originally published by The New York Times on January 14, 2015

A correspondent for the German newspaper Die Zeit who left China after her Chinese researcher was detained in October, and security agents said they thought she herself might be a spy, has now published the harrowing details of the ordeal.

In her account in Die Zeit on Tuesday, Angela Köckritz describes how the researcher, Zhang Miao, became absorbed with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year, wearing a yellow ribbon — a symbol of the protests — while reporting and posting photos of the demonstrations on her WeChat account.

The police detained Ms. Zhang in October while she was trying to attend an event in Beijing in support of the Hong Kong movement. She was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” her brother told The New York Times at the time. Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, lists Ms. Zhang among 112 people who were detained in mainland China for expressing support for the Hong Kong protests. Of those, 42 remained in some form of custody as of Tuesday, according to group’s latest tally.

In her article, titled “They Have Miao,” Ms. Köckritz describes her extreme difficulties contacting Ms. Zhang in detention and how the police became increasingly accusatory in a series of meetings in October. In one passage, describing a meeting with an investigator with the surname Li, Ms. Köckritz describes how the police suggested that she had helped organize the Hong Kong protests herself:

I start making my way to the police station. The rings around Mr. Li’s eyes are even darker than they were yesterday.

“We were sitting here until two in the morning,” he says. “We thought a lot about you. We asked ourselves who you are — I mean, who you really are.”

We’re alone in the room.

“We won’t be beating around the bush today,” he says. “Let’s get to the point.”

I nod.

“What’s the most important thing in horse racing?” he asks.

“No idea.”

“The jockey must win the horse’s trust within a very short time.”


“Do you trust me?”

“Don’t take it personally, but no.”

“But you said you trust Miao, right?”


“What if she’s completely different than what you think?”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Miao has testified that you organized everything. The events in support of Occupy Central. That the two of you went to Hong Kong to organize protests there. That she worked for you personally, and not for the newspaper.”

“She never said that!”

“But she did. We have proof.”

“I’d like to hear that in person from Miao’s own mouth. We all know that confessions in Chinese prisons often aren’t voluntary.”

Chinese officials and some state news media outlets have said they believe foreign forces helped instigate the protests that led to the occupation of several key roadways for nearly three months last year. But there has been little evidence presented to back up those claims. Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, said in October that he would reveal information on foreign support “at the appropriate time.”

While reporting conditions for foreign journalists in China can be quite difficult, direct accusations of espionage are not common. Chinese researchers for foreign news organizations, however, face more extreme pressures than their foreign colleagues. Their families can be targeted by the authorities, they have no consular representation if they are detained and, unlike the foreigners they work with, they cannot easily leave the country if things get difficult. Any sign of political activism, such as Ms. Zhang’s posting of a photo showing herself with four men wearing yellow ribbons in support of the Hong Kong protesters, would have placed her under additional scrutiny.

A lawyer who visited Ms. Zhang in detention on Dec. 10 said she was “suffering both physically and psychologically,” Ms. Köckritz wrote.

Ms. Zhang’s detention came amid highly publicized efforts by the Chinese government to promote the rule of law. Ms. Köckritz tells how she employed the phrase “rule of law” when negotiating with the police, who prevented Ms. Zhang from meeting with friends, family or a lawyer. But this yielded little results.

“Don’t let it be a concern to you,” an officer told Ms. Köckritz when she asked about her colleague’s whereabouts. “Have faith in the rule of law in China. It is perfect.”

Ms. Köckritz considered how to raise her colleague’s case during Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to Germany in October, but she was left feeling uncertain whether anything would help.

“Everyone gives me different advice,” she wrote. “The more I think about it, the clearer it is: No one can tell if reporting on it will do any good. This is a state ruled by arbitrariness. The agonizing uncertainty I’m feeling is intentional.”

Die Zeit said it had held off publishing its lengthy story on Ms. Zhang’s case out of concerns it might complicate efforts to secure her release.

“But since these have yet to yield any result, we consider it necessary to make public now the fate of our colleague Zhang Miao,” the newspaper said in an introduction to the story.

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