Fury in China after the disappearance of Li Tiantian, an outspoken professor


Chinese social media sites echoed for days with a question that was greeted in silence by Communist Party officials: Where is Li Tiantian?

Ms. Li, an outspoken but previously little-known teacher at a rural school in southern China’s Hunan Province, disappeared after telling friends that police forced their way into her home and were taking them to a mental hospital. She told them authorities accused her of violating the boundaries of officially acceptable social media comments.

In recent weeks, Ms. Li had publicly sympathized with a teacher in Shanghai who was hounded online and fired after he said there should be a more rigorous study of the official death toll in China for the Nanjing massacre, the murder by the Japanese army of inhabitants of this city in 1937.

“I have been targeted by public security,” Ms. Li said in a message to Cui Junjie, a friend who galvanized support for Ms. Li on the Internet. Mr. Cui shared screenshots of Ms. Li’s messages with The New York Times.

“I haven’t committed any crime, so I can never admit one,” she told Mr. Cui. “But they want to take the opportunity to condemn me.”

Ms. Li, 27, complained of bouts of depression. But many friends and supporters believe she fell the victim of a decades-old practice in China: using psychiatric isolation to stifle dissent. Even though she was not feeling well, they said, forced isolation was not the answer.

Authorities were mostly silent on Ms. Li’s disappearance on Sunday and did not respond to repeated phone calls from the New York Times.

Unusually, however, censors have not ended the nationwide wave of anger over his disappearance, perhaps because central authorities view the matter as a messy controversy best left behind. to local authorities to clean up.

Many comments come from supporters who see her as a symbol of the damage caused by the Chinese government’s severe censorship under Xi Jinping, which demanded political loyalty, including from teachers. Her supporters also criticized nationalists who attacked Ms. Li online for violating official orthodoxy. Ms. Li also said she was four months pregnant, adding to fears for her safety.

“Restore her freedom and issue a formal apology,” Huang Jian, a commentator on Weibo, another popular social media platform, said in a video statement. “Your ignorance, your foolishness and your barbarism are a total disgrace to China. “

Hu Xijin, the recently retired editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a popular newspaper run by the Communist Party, urged Hunan officials to explain what happened to Ms. Li, although he also said readers should hold their judgment until there is more information.

Later Thursday, Mr. Hu shared a video online in which a woman who describes herself as Ms. Li’s mother said that a relative working at the local education office took Ms. Li to a mental hospital for treatment. his depression.

In previous decades, Chinese authorities have routinely sent petitioners and persistent protesters to mental hospitals, drawing criticism from human rights defenders and doctors. Gao Jian, a Chinese writer who recently published a book on the subject, said in an interview that the practice is less common, but still takes place.

“This tool for treating someone with mental illness is still very useful for local governments,” Gao said in message replies to questions. “It’s a way to completely circumvent the law.

Some studies have indicated that the general number of people detained for involuntary psychiatric treatment in China has declined since the introduction of a law in 2013 to regulate mental health policies.

Yet the abuses persist. If local authorities suspect someone of having committed a crime, they could put the person in psychiatric isolation without the family’s consent, said Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at the University of New York law school. York, an expert in Chinese law who studied Chinese law. publish.

In this and other ways, Professor Cohen wrote by e-mail, “My overall strong impression is that arbitrary detentions have increased under the reign of Xi Jinping.”

In a memoir posted online, Ms. Li described how she aspired to be a writer since childhood in Xiangxi, a leafy but poor neighborhood in Hunan.

As she joined her mother working in a factory in southern China, Ms. Li recalls, she read avidly at night while other workers played cards. She then studied at a normal school and found work as a rural teacher. She wrote poems and essays about her experiences and posted them online.

“Zhang’s parents divorced, Li’s parents too, and Wang’s too,” she wrote in a poem about her students. “But in their compositions, they all love this great era.”

Ms. Li first came to the country’s attention in 2019 when she denounced local education officials for drowning teachers’ creativity and commitment with constant inspections and red tape – a sentiment that found wide support.

This time, in the days leading up to her disappearance, Ms. Li sent increasingly urgent online messages about threats from local police and education officials who stated her comments on the Nanjing massacre. were “inappropriate”. Ms. Li has also become the target of nationalist anger for her comments, which are a visceral touchstone for Chinese memories of the war against Japan.

Local officials and police demanded that she sign a statement admitting a mistake and threatened to fire her, she told Mr. Cui. She has resisted – at times denying having made the comment – and has not heard from her since alerting friends that a group of people were taking her away, Cui said.

“Citizens have freedom of expression,” Cui said in an interview. “If I’m wrong to say that two plus two is five, you can correct me. But you shouldn’t condemn me. I hope she can go home safe and sound.

Li you contributed research.


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