Two years ago, on June 4 -- the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre and the most sensitive date in the Chinese political calendar -- Ji Pomin received a text message from a high-placed friend: It said that former president Jiang Zemin had been taken to a military hospital in a critical condition. Ji fired off a coded message to hundreds of people in his address book to seek confirmation, asking: "The Supreme Old Master ascended to heaven?" Many of Ji's politically connected friends forwarded the text to their friends, who misinterpreted the cryptic question as a statement. By June 6, overseas Chinese websites were reporting that former president Jiang Zemin was dead.
In established democracies, a false rumor about the health of an ageing Ronald Reagan or a Margaret Thatcher would be promptly debunked and have little bearing on the workings of government. In China's powerful but brittle dictatorship, built on almost invisible lines of patronage, the false reports of Jiang's death immediately became a major matter of national security. Chinese officialdom is extremely paranoid about anyone releasing unauthorized information about the leaders. The 67-year-old Ji, a princeling -- a term that refers to the sons and daughters of high ranking leaders -- had long disliked Jiang for clinging on to power after his retirement, which he felt hurt China's ability to institute a system of laws. And when security agents kidnapped him three days later, his fears were vindicated. But that Ji was able to survive the kidnapping unscathed, and even criticize Jiang with near impunity, shows how the party state still protects its own.
At that point in 2010, high-profile extra-judicial abductions, such as the very publicized disappearance of artist Ai Weiwei in mid-2011 had not yet become common. (Ai has survived as a critic for so long in part because his father, Ai Qing, was a leading poet for the party.) Since Mao Zedong's death in 1976, children of top leaders have been mostly immune from not only the law but also the teeth of the secret security apparatus, a freedom of which Ji is well aware. Over a series of several meetings over the next two years, Ji recounted the events that followed his fateful text message, on the condition it would not be reported until after China's leadership transition -- the twice-a-decade Party Congress, which ended on Wednesday Nov 14. Ji had told his captors he would not publicize his ordeal, and he told me he wanted to delay the release of his story until a less politically sensitive time.
Ji Pomin grew up in a family well aware of the mercurial nature of power and those that wield it. We talked in Ji's living room -- the old bedroom of his mother, now deceased -- surrounded by Qing Dynasty wooden panels, decorated with dragons, leftover from a time when Empress Dowager Cixi's most powerful eunuch used the home as his headquarters. Ji's father, a former member of the elite decision-making Politburo known for his honesty, had been moved there from a more prestigious home in 1980 after being purged. Because his father fell from power, Ji Pomin didn't get the same advantages as other princelings; he studied aeronautical engineering and worked as a scholar at the state think tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences before retiring in 2006. He is one of China's dozens of forgotten princelings who continues to enjoy status but not power.
A few days after Ji's text message, he received a phone call from someone claiming to be from a parcel delivery service. They said the package was too big to fit down the lane in which he lived, so he walked to nearby Dongdan, one of Beijing's busiest shopping areas, to collect it. Standing there, he said, in the blind spot between two security cameras outside an upmarket wedding photography store, were two burly men. They pulled a cloth hood over Ji's head and bundled him into a car.
Ji told me that his first thought was that a triad had abducted him for ransom, but his captors assured him that was not the case. His second thought was that the black cloth hood had been used many times before and never washed. "That hood really stunk," he said. After a long drive, they arrived at an isolated luxury villa, where the hood was removed, and his eyes adjusted to a room filled with plain-clothed officers who he presumed to be from the Ministry of State Security -- an agency that Ji's father used to oversee.