BEIJING (AP) — China worked with police in neighboring Myanmar to nab the 16-year-old son of a detained rights lawyer and send him back home because he had been coerced into a plot to illegally migrate, Chinese state media said Monday.
Activists have said the boy was trying to flee from house arrest within China after his parents — rights lawyer Wang Yu and legal activist Bao Longjun — were detained in July in a sweeping crackdown on civil society.
The teenager, Bao Zhuoxuan, at the time was at the Beijing airport on his way to Australia to attend high school when he and his father were intercepted by Chinese police. Since then, Chinese authorities confiscated his passport and placed him under house arrest in Inner Mongolia with his grandmother.
A network of activists then tried to help Bao escape to the United States, where he had hoped to study, activists have said. However, he was detained along with two men in northern Myanmar last week and returned Monday to his grandmother's house where foreign journalists have been barred from speaking with him.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it was concerned that the boy was being held under house arrest, and by a "seemingly systematic campaign" to target family members of those who "peacefully challenge official policy."
"If Bao Zhuoxuan's family wishes him to study abroad like hundreds of thousands of other Chinese students, China should permit him to leave the country," department spokesman John Kirby said.
China's Foreign Ministry said the government would handle the case according to law. "No countries should intervene in China's judicial independence, sovereignty and domestic affairs for any reasons," ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
On Thursday, the state-run Global Times, quoting unidentified police sources, said overseas dissidents had raised money and hired a smuggler for Bao's escape via Thailand but that the plot was thwarted by Chinese police. It said police acted on intelligence and formed a special operation to catch Bao.
The newspaper said Bao and two accompanying activists all admitted to the act of illegal immigration after they were caught by Myanmar police and that Chinese police had collected evidence against the trio, including their phone contacts with foreign personnel and a video of them crossing a border checkpoint.
The Global Times also quoted Bao's parents — who are being held in secret detention on suspicion of inciting to subvert state power — as saying they were opposed to foreign forces taking their son out of China.
The newspaper article suggested that hostile foreign forces were using the boy to smear China. Critics say Chinese authorities have unfairly punished the teenager by intimidating him and depriving him of his right to travel by confiscating his passport.
Calls to the Ministry of Public Safety to confirm details of the report were not immediately answered.
A long-running network has helped persecuted Chinese activists and their family members leave China, including the wife and two children of prominent rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng in 2009 and, recently, a daughter of jailed Christian minister Zhang Shaojie.
In the case of Gao's family, the three made a harrowing trip across Southeast Asia before reaching Thailand, where they were accepted as refugees by the U.S. government. Family friends apparently had hoped Bao, the teenager, could follow a similar route.
Chinese authorities have been known to hold the children of activists and others hostage to force their cooperation.