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China’s Khashoggi Can Still Be Saved
Photojournalist Lu Guang has fallen victim to an old vendetta in his homeland.
In early November, the renowned Chinese-born photographer Lu Guang traveled from his home in New York to the city of Kashgar, in China’s western region of Xinjiang. He was there to give a workshop for local amateur photographers, one of many he’s conducted in recent years. Lu’s photos have helped the world to understand the fate of some of China’s most vulnerable people, including coal miners and cancer patients poisoned by industrial pollution.
But Lu’s arrival in Xinjiang rang alarm bells in the Chinese state. The photographer, a three-time winner of World Press Photo awards, is known for his images of lives of people on the margins. In Xinjiang, where the authorities have interned at least a million people in so-called reeducation camps, he was a dangerous element. Agents from the Ministry of State Security, China’s equivalent of the KGB, detained him and others; his arrest—though no specific crime—was confirmed on Dec. 10.
Yet Lu’s arrest may not just be because of the security paranoia that now seizes Xinjiang, or the general climate of repression in Xi Jinping’s China. Instead, it may go back to coverage of the catastrophe that made him famous—and that the official in charge of Xinjiang’s brutal repression also presided over.
Lu, born in 1961, grew up in Zhejiang province, where as a young man he worked in a silk factory but after learning to use a camera started a photo studio. He subsidized his documentary work by doing wedding and family portraits, cutting a very unusual path in China—where most photographers work for censored publications—as an independent photojournalist. This independence, coupled with his drive to highlight the lives of China’s most marginalized people, has made Lu a hero to some and a target to others—including officials.
“Lu is a born educator. He’s someone who gives back. He realizes that he was very fortunate to have been given a camera once in his life, and how it changed his life,” said Robert Pledge, the president and editorial director of Contact Press Images, the agency that represents Lu.
In 2002, after spending months recording the horrors of an AIDS catastrophe ripping through China’s heartland of Henan, Lu sent off a package of his pictures to the World Press Photo competition, one of the world’s top prizes for documentary photographers.
The images he had made showed the ravages of a deadly calamity the Chinese government had tried to keep quiet. He put faces to the crisis: a 13-year-old orphan lighting incense at the grave of his parents, both dead from AIDS; a woman caring for her dying husband; seven toddlers bundled up in a row in a village orphanage.
While some of Lu’s pictures were published, they never made it to the international prize judges that year. Instead, it seems, they were intercepted by officials eager to conceal the disaster he illustrated in devastating detail. He entered the same series again a year later, and won first prize in 2004 for contemporary issues, establishing his place as China’s most influential documentary photographer.
“People saw the pictures. When we talked about dying people and orphans—Lu Guang helped people to see it,” recalled Wan Yanhai, an activist who started his career with the Chinese Ministry of Health and now lives in the United States. “Without the photos, I think the world might not have been shocked. It might not have been awakened.”
The importance of China’s homegrown AIDS epidemic, born out of government malpractice in a rush to profit off the blood of poor people, is often overlooked. The Henan AIDS catastrophe killed uncounted thousands. It also embarrassed government officials across the country, and while many of them still rose through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party after the scandal, every activist who exposed the deadly epidemic was silenced or pushed into exile.
Li Keqiang, the governor of Henan during the crisis as it evolved from 1998 to 2004, is now the premier of China. And Chen Quanguo, the deputy party boss in charge of managing the AIDS crisis, moved on to manage the government’s crackdown first in Tibet, now in Xinjiang.
News of China’s AIDS catastrophe, untold thousands infected with HIV after the government established a program to encourage farmers to sell their blood plasma in poor, rural parts of Henan, first emerged in 2000. China had painted AIDS as a foreign disease, and the result was a whole country unprepared to deal with the virus when it entered the blood-selling system. Chinese investigative journalists first broke the story, and some of Lu’s photos were published in the mainland not long after, even before he won the World Press Photo prize.
“When the photos were published, people understood what was happening,” Wan said.
Chinese officials also have long memories, and Lu’s arrest may stem from a grudge stemming back to that first triumph. The party official in charge of Xinjiang is the same man who was charged with handling the AIDS crisis all those many years ago. Over the years, Chen Quanguo has taken on some of the party’s most unsavory jobs—the Henan AIDS crisis, a crackdown in Tibet, and now Xinjiang. As one source close to Lu Guang said, given the security state in Xinjiang, there is no chance that Chen didn’t know Lu was in town.
First in Henan, and later in Tibet, Chen has been a hard-line enforcer of some of the Communist Party’s worst tendencies. In 2007, the physician and AIDS activist Gao Yaojie, who now lives in exile in New York, told Reuters that when Chen visited her, he denied ever meeting anyone with AIDS in Henan—at a time when people were dying by the thousands.
Chen’s police state now holds the photographer who exposed the AIDS crisis with documentary evidence. According to the statement from Lu Guang’s wife, police in Xinjiang have admitted Lu is in their custody, but so far there is no news about what charges he might face.
In similar cases, international pressure has helped push China to follow the rules, rather than simply disappearing critical voices. Like the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Lu is a legal permanent resident of the United States. Perhaps also like Khashoggi, he’s vulnerable to the dangers of retribution for an old feud in the country of his birth. This is the time for international, and especially American, organizations to speak up on behalf of Lu. He deserves better than to be disappeared into the depths of an increasingly unaccountable security state.
“He should be released. They have to come to grips with the fact that he is who he is, a documentary photographer with strong journalistic instincts,” Pledge said. “There’s nothing criminal about that activity.”