BEIJING (AP) — The wife of a Chinese journalist who disappeared while seeking asylum abroad said she was able to speak to him by phone Wednesday and he told her he had voluntarily returned to China for investigation, but she believes he was forced back and spoke against his own will.
Li Xin's disappearance in Thailand is the latest example of Beijing's increasingly strong reach beyond the mainland for people wanted by authorities.
His wife, He Fangmei, said she spoke with him after being summoned to a police station to receive his call.
Several people believed to be wanted by Chinese authorities have disappeared over the past year while overseas or in Hong Kong, and some critics allege that Chinese agents are abducting them without proper authorization to bring them to the mainland for interrogation.
"Beijing used to take into account foreign governments and respect other countries' laws, but in tandem with its rising strengthen in economy and expanding political influence, Beijing is becoming more overt in its operations and feels it can lord over some neighboring countries," veteran dissident Hu Jia said.
Li fled China in October and told the AP in an interview from India that he left because he had been forced to spy on fellow journalists, and that he wanted to stop. He later sought shelter in Thailand before disappearing Jan. 11.
"He won't tell me where he is in China, but asks me to stay rested and live my life. He asks me not to contact any outsider for it does no good to him or me," his wife said in a voice and text message exchange with AP from the Henan province town of Xinxiang. "But I know that's the pattern, and Li completely spoke contrary to his own will."
Local police reached by phone said they had no knowledge of the case.
The case shows the "growing length of the Chinese government's long arm beyond its borders" in cracking down on dissenters both at home and abroad, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Last October, a publisher of the Hong Kong gossip publishing house Mighty Current vanished from his apartment in Pattaya, a Thai beach resort. Gui Minhai resurfaced in January on China's state broadcaster CCTV, where he said he returned to China to turn himself in for an old crime.
Four other members of the publishing house also disappeared one by one. The last one was Lee Bo, who was believed to have been picked up while in Hong Kong, although he has sent notes to his wife that claimed he returned to the mainland voluntarily.
Pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmakers and human rights activists allege they were abducted by Chinese agents, and that any such detentions in Hong Kong violates the territory's autonomy under the "one country, two systems" model.
Beijing also has managed to have the Thai government repatriate dissidents and Uighur refugees.
When a 16-year-old son of a detained rights lawyer tried to flee the country after his passport was confiscated, Chinese agents were able to track his escape route and nabbed him in Myanmar. Bao Zhuoxuan has since been brought back to China and placed under house arrest, while his mother faces the charge of state subversion and his father the charge of inciting state subversion.
State media outlets then told a story of how Beijing rescued a misled teenager from being illegally smuggled out of the country.
In the latest case, Li was riding a train from Bangkok to Nong Khai in northeastern Thailand, where he planned to cross over into Laos and then re-enter Thailand for visa reasons, his wife said. Li was seeking refugee status in Thailand.
His wife said she had been banned from leaving China and was recently sent back from the border city of Shenzhen to their hometown in the central province of Henan. There, she was told she would soon hear from Li.
On Wednesday, she was summoned to a police station and the call from her husband came through on a police landline. The incoming number was not shown, she said.
Disappearances are a cunning tactic to subdue the activists, said Hu, the dissident.
"First of all, when someone just disappears, it's impossible for lawyers and family members to intervene," Hu said.
It also places "huge psychological pressure" on relatives unsure of the status of their loved one, as well as opening the detained person to possible torture and mistreatment that could alter their personality and outlook, Hu said.