NEW YORK—Widely known as the New York Times researcher who was jailed in China for three years for “divulging state secrets,” Zhao Yan, now a refugee living in the United States, is a champion for China’s dispossessed.
Zhao has made it his life’s work to investigate land grabs in China, educating farmers on how to fight back against rapacious officials.
Previously an art critic and then a policeman (he was expelled from the police force in 1987 during the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign), Zhao became interested in farmers’ rights in 1997.
A good friend and journalist, Sheng Xueyou, had been framed by the party secretary in Northeastern Harbin for exposing land grabs from farmers. He was being put through a show trial, and Zhao came to his aid.
“I had to study the law myself to assist him. I worked on the case for over a year,” he said. Zhao sent a letter to the city party secretary explaining the case, warning that his predecessor had inflicted a grave injustice, and exhorted release of his friend—which promptly came.
Through that experience Zhao Yan learnt what Chinese in the countryside suffered, and switched career paths. “The experience changed my life,” he said. From then on it was journalism and activism.
In 2002 the journalism part was formalized with a position at the magazine China Reform, which is published by the National Development and Reform Commission, a department of the state council.
“They were all doing research, but their journalistic skills weren’t strong. I did serious investigations for them,” including on the question of land grabs from farmers, he said.
It was his gumshoeing on behalf of the marginalized in Chinese society that caught the attention of the New York Times. “There was almost no one in the Chinese media focusing on the plight of minority groups then,” Zhao said.
Joseph Kahn, then Beijing bureau chief, took him on board as a researcher when Zhao Yan stepped down from China Reform in early 2004. Kahn did not respond to an email requesting an interview.
Zhao’s main job was to prepare primary research that Kahn or others would later go over, verify, and write reports from.
He also leveraged his network of contacts for gossip on intra-Party rivalry. A handwritten note he produced on that front landed him in jail for three years, between 2004 and 2007, for “divulging state secrets”—at least according to the official explanation.
The jail time was actually punishment from Hu Jintao for Zhao’s work on behalf of farmers, Zhao said. The state secrets claim was a useful excuse.
Next … He learned to take advantage of loopholes in the law to help farmers.