Eventually, Long went public. First, Long says, she posted on her blog details of her story. In June 2011 she escalated her campaign by talking with journalists from the Hong Kong magazine Phoenix Weekly. The "petitioning mayor" caused a sensation. "How terrible and evil it is when privilege loses all control," read the most popular online comment on the story, which received more than 4,000 likes on Phoenix's website. It continued, "Only when one becomes an ordinary person can they know why democracy is important."
Response was swift -- but not of the kind Long hoped for. A journalist who works for Phoenix Weekly and was involved in the story told Foreign Policy that thugs attacked him soon after publication. A few Hong Kong journalists from Phoenix Weekly and other publications say that when they were in Guizhou for the Ethnic Minorities Games in September 2011, the province's ambitious Communist Party secretary, Li Zhanshu, called them in to deliver a special warning about not "harming Guizhou's image," a message the journalists linked to Long's story. (Li has since received a major promotion in Beijing).
The Chinese news portal Sohu interviewed Zhou in July 2011; he denied all rape charges and said he and Long had an extramarital affair. (Long says she never had consensual sex with Zhou.) He said he would step down from his standing committee position on the CPPCC government advisory body because he was causing a headache for the leadership, which he promptly did, even though he said he was guilty of no wrongdoing. Long says her parents came under great pressure to sign statements denying they had ever petitioned.
On July 20, 2011, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece newspaper of the Communist Party, printed a full denial of the story of the "petitioning mayor," which relied in part on comments Long says her stepfather never made. It did not contact her for the story, but it did publish her real name for the first time. That's when she escalated the case to the highest level possible in China -- by contacting me.
Long, now 22, speaks softly but forcefully. She carries herself with chin high and shoulders back. She let me finish an anxious spiel about the likely consequences of reporting her story and then gave a far stronger warning in return. "You don't understand [the system's] methods of operation," she said. "I do, and that's why I am so scared."
* * *
This July, after we had spoken dozens of times, Long sent me a series of increasingly frantic text messages saying that authorities had cut off her phone and had threatened her friends and landlord, and that people were beating on her door. Then she vanished. When my assistant and I arrived at the Liupanshui train station on Aug. 30, we knew that the stability-preservation bureaucracy would have been alerted by my journalist identification from the moment we booked our tickets.
My assistant and I walked from the train into a crowded car park. We saw roughly half a dozen burly men in polo shirts wrestling two short adolescent boys to the ground, just next to us, pulling their shirts over their heads and handcuffing their wrists amid shouts and general mayhem. One of the men turned to me and flashed police identification. "We have been watching those guys for a long time, and we just prevented them from picking your pockets," said the man, later identified as Detective Wang Linjun, head of the plainclothes division of the local police station. "You must now come with us to the station to sign a statement because you are witnesses to a crime." There was a standoff, for perhaps half an hour, as I pointed out that I had not witnessed even the apparently mock crime they had staged for us. But our compliance was not optional. We spent most of the day in police company before a police cavalcade escorted us straight onto a first-class carriage of a Guiyang-bound train.
In mid-September, Long re-established contact for the first time since July. In emails she detailed how she had been detained for two days in Beijing, where she says she was beaten and then met at 3 a.m. on July 23 by a top Guizhou official, who personally ensured her removal to Guizhou. Neighbors at Long's Beijing apartment recall an incident involving a large number of police at the time. Her mother secured her informal bail in exchange for guaranteeing that she would not leave the family home until after the 18th party congress, the annual meeting of top Chinese Communist Party officials, so that the appearance of stability could be preserved for the unveiling of China's new generation of leaders. As of this article's publication, that is where she likely remains.
"China is a country of rule of law," the head of Liupanshui's foreign affairs department had assured us, after rushing to welcome us at the police station. "She hasn't broken the law. If she hasn't broken the law, why would she have an issue of safety? A Chinese citizen has a right to petition!"