Recently, the Beijing police took my brother sightseeing again. Nine days, two guards, chauffeured tours through a national park that’s a World Heritage site, visits to Taoist temples and to the Three Gorges, expenses fully covered, all courtesy of the Ministry of Public Security. The point was to get him out of town during the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held in early September. The capital had to be in a state of perfect order; no trace of trouble was permissible. And Zha Jianguo, a veteran democracy activist, is considered a professional troublemaker.
While President Xi Jinping played host to African dignitaries in the Great Hall of the People, the police played host to my big brother at various scenic spots in the province of Hubei, about a thousand kilometres away. A number of other Beijing activists and civil-rights lawyers, including several whom Jianguo knows well, were treated to similar trips. Pu Zhiqiang headed for Sichuan, Hu Jia to the port city of Tianjin, He Depu to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, and Zhang Baocheng to Sanya, a beach resort on Hainan Island. Kept busy in the midst of natural beauty and attended to closely, they had no chance to speak to members of the foreign media or post provocative remarks online.
This practice is known as bei lüyou, “to be touristed.” The term is one of those sly inventions favored by Chinese netizens: whenever law enforcement frames people, or otherwise conscripts them into an activity, the prefix bei is used to indicate the passive tense. Hence: bei loushui (to be tax-evaded), bei zisha (to be suicided), bei piaochang (to be johned), and so on. In the past few years, the bei list has been growing longer, the acts more imaginative and colorful. “To be touristed” is no doubt the most appealing of these scenarios, and it is available only to a select number of troublemakers. In Beijing, perhaps dozens of people a year are whisked off on these exotic trips, typically diehard dissidents who have served time and are on the radar of Western human-rights organizations and media outlets. Outside the capital, the list includes not just activists but also petitioners (fangmin)—ordinary people from rural villages or small towns who travel to voice their grievances to high government officials about local malfeasances they have suffered from.