According to an announcement by the Wuchang District People’s Court on Wednesday, a Chinese student named Luo Daiqing was sentenced to six months in prison in the summer of 2019 for posting “comments and inappropriate images insulting to the leader of this country.”
More specifically, Luo was jailed for comparing China’s rotund dictator Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, a comparison Xi dislikes so much that he banned Pooh’s image from Chinese media years ago. The most disturbing detail of the case is that Luo posted these images from the United States in 2018 while he was a student at the University of Minnesota.
When Radio Free Asia (RFA) reached out to Luo for an interview on Thursday, he confirmed that online reports of his arrest and imprisonment are “pretty factual.”
Those reports said Luo was arrested when he returned to China from the United States for summer vacation in July 2019. He was confronted with his social media activity by the authorities, which included various critical and satirical references to Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which he made while studying at the University of Minnesota in September and October of 2018.
Luo was given a six-month jail sentence by the Wuchang District People’s Court in November 2019 and remained in jail until two weeks ago. He told RFA he is “taking a break” and declined to say whether he remains under police surveillance or travel restrictions. He might be under travel restrictions that have nothing to do with Winnie the Pooh, because his hometown happens to be the unfortunate city of Wuhan, which is currently under quarantine due to the outbreak of a deadly virus.
Critics of Communist China’s oppressive policies and their global reach noted that since Twitter is banned in China, Chinese Internet users could not even have seen the satirical posts Luo was jailed for. As U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) put it, “The only people who even saw these tweets were the goons charged with monitoring Chinese citizens while they’re enjoying freedom here in the United States.”
“This is what ruthless and paranoid totalitarianism looks like,” Sasse said.
Freelance journalist Liu Dasheng told RFA the Luo case is a chilling example of Beijing’s “long-arm jurisdiction” and arguably a violation of U.S. sovereignty as well as free speech rights.
“If this case is handled in this way, won’t it then be possible for them to retaliate against any Chinese person overseas on their return to China?” Liu asked.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune on Friday reported that the University of Minnesota “held off on taking a stance on the student’s situation, saying officials are still trying to learn more about it,” an odd position given that Luo himself seems willing to confirm the story to anyone who asks. University spokespeople would only confirm that a student named Luo Daiqing was enrolled during the 2018-2019 academic year but is no longer enrolled. The university reportedly had no plans to issue any further statement on the matter.
“More than 3,100 students from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan attend the U’s campuses. They account for 45% of the university’s international student body, making them a significant campus constituency,” the Star Tribune noted.
The Star Tribune quoted Minnesota’s congressional representatives denouncing Beijing’s treatment of Luo:
On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Ilhan Omar, all Minnesota Democrats, called on the Chinese government to release Luo. Smith said she was concerned about Luo’s safety and had contacted the U.S. State Department about what she described as an “extremely troubling situation.” Klobuchar called Luo’s treatment “unacceptable” and said her office would push for his release.
In her statement, Omar said, “This is what ruthless totalitarianism looks like. Luo Daiqing made these posts while he was in the U.S. — attending college in my district. Here in the United States, we believe in free speech.”
Free speech activists were outraged as well, including deputy director James Tager of D.C.-based PEN America. Tager told the Star Tribune that Luo’s imprisonment was an obvious effort to show Chinese citizens “there is no place where they are free from state censorship and surveillance.”
“Luo’s case has implications for every Chinese student studying abroad, and for every academic institution that seeks to safeguard its students’ freedom of speech,” Tager said.