Photojournalist Lu Guang, who has won numerous international awards for his coverage of pressing health and environmental issues in China, has been detained in China since November 3 without word from authorities about his whereabouts or the reason for his detention, according to the BBC and other news outlets in Europe and the U.S.
“Nobody has heard from him in any form or fashion in 25 or 26 days,” says Lu’s agent and long-time friend, Robert Pledge of Contact Press Images. According to Pledge, Lu’s wife, Xu Xiaoli, last heard from her husband on November 2 as he was traveling to Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang province.
Xu learned her husband was missing after being notified that he failed to show up at a charity event he was scheduled to attend on November 5 in Sichuan province. Xu eventually contacted officials in Lu’s home province of Zhejiang, who confirmed that security officers in Xinjiang had detained Lu.
Xu finally decided to publicize her husband’s disappearance after weeks of futile efforts to get any additional information from Chinese authorities, according to Pledge. He adds: “There has been no official or informal notification [from authorities] to his next of kin” regarding Lu’s whereabouts, condition or the reason for his arrest.
“After having tried everything, [Xu] decided to inform people in China through social media. That’s how the story was picked up by foreign media,” Pledge explains.
Although Xu risks angering authorities by publicizing Lu’s plight, her hope is that a groundswell of concern about Lu’s well-being will put pressure on Chinese authorities to at least provide more information. “He’s such a hero on China,” Pledge says. “The social media response has been amazing. People are asking: What happened?”
Lu, a Chinese citizen, is widely admired in his homeland for his documentary projects about environmental pollution in China, as well as projects about the SARS epidemic, AIDS in China, and other issues. His work initially angered the Chinese government. But Lu has won major awards including the W. Eugene Smith Grant, the Prince Claus Fund Award, and several World Press Photo Awards.
The Chinese government eventually came around to praise Lu for his work, says Pledge, who adds that a museum named after Lu is currently under construction in his home province of Zhejiang.
Considering Lu’s status in China, Pledge says “we have no idea” why Xinjiang security officers picked up Lu. He had been traveling in the province for the first time on an invitation from a friend to talk to a group of local photographers, according to Pledge.
Security is particularly tight in Xinjiang province because authorities there consider ethnic Uyghurs in the region to be a threat. China recently admitted widespread reports that it has interned thousand of Uyghur people in “re-education” camps.
Pledge says “you can do some guesswork” that authorities in Xinjiang are particularly sensitive to journalists with cameras. “[Lu] has a camera, he goes around taking pictures, he’s nosy,” Pledge says. “He gets into trouble with local provincial authorities, because they don’t want bad publicity.”
Pledge hastens to add, however, that he doesn’t want to speculate on why Lu was detained. “Since we know nothing we can’t pretend we do.” Pledge says Xu’s hope is that a social media campaign puts pressure on Beijing officials to get involved. Pledge says the campaign “is less about protesting against arbitrary detention” than asking why Lu is being held, and expressing concern for his well-being.
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