In the meantime, SPIEGEL had also begun researching the case of the five dead children. In late December, my colleague Wu Dandan and I traveled to Bijie. We didn't know Li Yuanlong's whereabouts, but shortly before we arrived in the city we managed to establish contact with him without alarming his minders. We met him on a street corner and, without greeting each other, followed him to his apartment, careful to keep a distance of a few meters. Only one room in the apartment was heated, and only sparsely at that. It was the room where Li kept his computer, to which he had attached two pennants, in the colors of the British and the American flags.
When Li told us about his arrest, his research and his abduction, it was with the muffled fury of a journalist who has been repeatedly prevented from reporting on what he knows. When he talked about his son in Ohio, he paused and swallowed. And when he reached the point in his story when the police came knocking on his door, there was another knock on the door. Li placed his finger over his mouth, disappeared for a few minutes, returned and said quietly: "That was one of the neighborhood security men. He had noticed movement." A few days after his return from Hainan, Li said, outgoing President Hu Jintao was in Bijie, and after that he was no longer guarded as closely as before. But that, he said, would likely change again.
We stayed there until shortly before midnight, by which time Li had received numerous calls on his mobile phone. We agreed to meet him discreetly the next day in a busy part of the city, near the underpass where the five boys had spent time in the days before they died.
"Just next to it are a police station and a district administration building," said Li. "The officials saw the children every morning for three weeks when they arrived at the office, but no one paid any attention to them."
When we left Li's apartment, we saw the outline of a man behind the stairs, and we also noticed an SUV parked in the dark alleyway, its windows slightly opened. When we returned to our hotel, there were five police officers waiting for us. They filmed our arrival, checked our papers and then accompanied us to the doors of our rooms. They wanted to question us, but we asked them to wait until the next morning and went into one of the two rooms. After a while, the police officers left our floor.
Li seemed tense when we met him briefly the next morning. That afternoon, he contacted us and suggested that we continue our research without him, because there were security officials at his door and he would only cause trouble for us.
Intimidation of Potential Sources
We had trouble anyway. When we spoke with neighbors and passersby at the site where the boys' bodies were found, men and women who hadn't been involved in the interviews intervened after a while, urging them not to speak with us and suggesting that there would be consequences if they did.
Many allowed themselves to be intimidated, but some didn't. Mao Hai, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student, told us that he remembered the children well. "It was cold, and they were sitting on the steps here. They didn't harm anyone." Others, like a woman named Lu who runs a restaurant, noticed how quickly the police had cleared everything away from the site where the boys' bodies were found. By 8:30 a.m., when local merchants had arrived at their shops, there was nothing left to see, and the five dumpsters were removed soon afterwards, said Lu.
A man named Zhao introduced himself as the deputy director of the local office for foreigners and overseas Chinese. He spoke some English and said that he had been assigned to work with us. We asked him to let us work in peace, but he continued to impose himself. When we requested interviews with officials from the city administration, the welfare offices and the school authority, he turned us down, but he did say that he could arrange a trip to the village the boys had left.
The three-hour drive gave us an impression of the challenges involved in governing Guizhou Province. The muddy roads were filled with bathtub-sized potholes, and hundreds of children stood shivering in the cold fog. China's one-child policy doesn't apply to its ethnic minorities, many of which live in Guizhou. At the same time, the region is so poor that about 2 million of Bijie's population of 7 million people are forced to work in the wealthy coastal cities, like the father of four of the dead boys.
When we arrived at the village, neighbors prevented us from meeting with the boys' family. It was unclear to us whether this was because the family didn't want to see us, or whether the presence of Zhao and our other escorts intimidated them.
When we returned to the city, one of the police officers from the hotel joined us for dinner. After apologizing for the rude reception on the previous evening, he tried to ascertain what our next plans were. He also suggested that we refrain from reporting too critically on conditions in Bijie, noting that criticism is bad for the investment climate in the region. We remained under observation, and government agents sitting in the lobby filmed us whenever we left the hotel.
The next morning, people whom we had planned to meet suddenly failed to appear. Others received calls warning them about us as we were speaking with them. When Zhao interrupted a conversation we were having with a local resident, I asked him to leave us alone. He responded: "Okay. But then you will not be my business anymore." We weren't sure whether to interpret this as a promise or a threat.
That afternoon, we hailed a cab for the trip back to the provincial capital Guiyang. Minutes later, our driver received a phone call that he didn't really want to discuss. The drive took six hours, and by the time we arrived we had missed our return flight to Beijing. We decided to spend the night in Guiyang. It was only while taking another taxi back into the city that we chose to stay at the local Kempinski Hotel. After we had checked in, I loaded the remaining pictures I had taken in Bijie from my camera's memory card onto my laptop. We went to the hotel restaurant for dinner at about 9 p.m..
Reporters' Equipment Destroyed
When we returned at 10:30 p.m., the light was on in my room, the bedspread had been pulled back and the curtains were closed. When I switched on my camera I noticed that my memory card was empty. My iPad had been plugged in incorrectly and I couldn't switch it on anymore. Water was dripping from the plugs for the headphone and the charger. A mobile phone that I had left in the room had also been submerged in water. All the files on the desktop of my computer -- and that of my colleague -- had been deleted. Someone had broken into our rooms while we were out and manipulated and destroyed our devices.
I informed the management. After half an hour, the manager on duty came to the room and urged us to leave Guizhou Province and refrain from filing charges. I declined. Instead, I photographed the surveillance cameras installed in the elevator and the hallway. The cameras covered the doors to my room and that of my assistant, which meant that the people who had broken into the rooms must have been recorded.
We filed a complaint the next morning. The officers were friendly and cooperative, and when I told them about the surveillance cameras, two of them returned to the hotel with us and asked for the tapes. The hotel's head of security and one of the officers went into the surveillance room, but we weren't allowed to join them.
When the officer returned after half an hour, he told us that -- regrettably -- nothing had been recorded between Dec. 26 and Dec. 30. I suggested that they check the electronic door lock logs, and the officer asked a hotel employee to give him the logs. The man disappeared for a moment, and when he returned he said: "Our hotel doesn't keep such logs."
We flew back to Beijing on Sunday, Dec. 30. On Monday, Dec. 31, the New York Times reported that Chris Buckley, one of its China correspondents, was being forced to leave the country on the last day of the year.
We heard from Li Yuanlong for the last time on Thursday. We had asked him to send us two photos that had been stored on the erased memory card. I had saved other photos in a safe spot on my hard drive. Li told us that he had sent the pictures, and that he was doing well.
But the photos never arrived, and we haven't been able to reach Li since.
In keeping with tradition, Zhonglin, Zhongjing, Bo, Chong and Zhonghong were buried without a ceremony. The two fathers who had come to the funeral from Shenzhen have since returned there, where they work as garbage collectors.
An assortment of discarded items remains behind on the construction site along Huandong Lu, where the children slept for three weeks: a badminton racket, a broken broom, a crushed chocolate-milk container, a dirty ice-cream cup.
Shortly before the end of the year, the Bijie official in charge of city cleaning reacted to the drama of the five dead children by having the following notice affixed to all dumpsters: "Strictly off-limits to people and animals. Violate at your own risk." China's bloggers were speechless at first, but then they protested. The signs have since been taken down.