Chinese social media sites have echoed for days with a question that has been met with silence by Communist Party officials: Where is Li Tiantian?
Ms. Li, an outspoken but previously little known teacher at a rural school in Hunan Province, southern China, disappeared after telling friends that police officers had forced their way into her home and were taking her to a psychiatric hospital. She told them the authorities had accused her of violating the bounds of officially acceptable comment on social media.
In recent weeks, Ms. Li had publicly sympathized with a teacher in Shanghai who was hounded online and fired after saying that there should be more rigorous study of China’s official death count for the Nanjing massacre, the Japanese Army’s murder of residents of that city in 1937.
“I’ve been targeted by public security,” Ms. Li said in one message to Cui Junjie, a friend who has galvanized support for Ms. Li on the internet. Mr. Cui shared screenshots of Ms. Li’s messages with The New York Times.
“I didn’t commit any crime, so I can never admit to one,” she told Mr. Cui. “But they want to seize the chance to convict me.”
Ms. Li, 27, has complained of bouts of depression. But many friends and supporters believe that she has become a victim of a decades-old practice in China: using psychiatric confinement to stifle dissenters. Even if she was unwell, they have said, enforced confinement was not an answer.
The authorities had stayed mostly mute about Ms. Li’s disappearance on Sunday and did not answer repeated phone calls from The New York Times. The local government of Xiangxi, the area of Hunan where Ms. Li lives, broke its silence on Friday, saying in a statement that she had checked into a hospital for psychiatric treatment at the behest of her family.
Unusually, China’s censors did not shut down a nationwide outpouring over several days of anger about Ms. Li’s disappearance, possibly because the central authorities saw the case as a messy controversy best left to the local authorities to clean up.
Many of the comments have been from supporters who see her as a symbol of the damage wrought by the Chinese government’s heavy-handed censorship under Xi Jinping, who has demanded political loyalty, including from teachers. Her supporters have also criticized nationalists who attacked Ms. Li online for bucking official orthodoxy. Ms. Li has also said she is four months pregnant, adding to fears for her safety.
“Restore her freedom and formally apologize,” Huang Jian, a commentator on Weibo, another popular social media platform, declared in a video statement. “Your ignorance, idiocy and barbarity are an utter disgrace for China.”
On Thursday, Hu Xijin, the recently retired chief editor of Global Times, a popular Communist Party-run newspaper, shared a video online in which a woman who described herself as Ms. Li’s mother said a relative working in the local education bureau had taken Ms. Li to a psychiatric hospital to treat her depression.
The Xiangxi government said in its statement on Friday that Ms. Li’s mother had agreed to her hospitalization after Ms. Li “suddenly lost control of her emotions and tried to take excessive steps” when officials came to her home. It said that Ms. Li still faced repercussions for her comments.
“As for her issuing inappropriate statements, after she leaves hospital, she will undergo education and counseling in line with the laws and regulations,” the Xiangxi government said.
The statement, however, failed to quell widespread skepticism on the Chinese internet about Ms. Li’s treatment.
In previous decades, Chinese officials regularly committed persistent petitioners and protesters to psychiatric hospitals, drawing criticism from human rights advocates and doctors. Gao Jian, a Chinese writer who recently published a book on the topic, said in an interview that the practice was less frequent, but that it still took place.
“This tool of treating someone as mentally ill is still quite a useful one for local governments,” Mr. Gao said in messaged responses to questions. “It’s a way of completely skating around the law.”
Some studies have indicated that the general numbers of people held for involuntary psychiatric treatment in China has fallen since a law was introduced in 2013 to regulate mental health policies.
Still, abuses persist. If the local authorities suspect someone of committing a crime, they could consign the person to psychiatric confinement without any family consent, said Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University School of Law who is an expert on Chinese law and has studied the issue.
In that and other ways, Professor Cohen wrote by email, “my strong impression overall is that arbitrary detentions have increased under Xi Jinping’s rule.”
In a memoir published online, Ms. Li described how she had aspired to become a writer since her childhood in Xiangxi, a verdant but poor area of Hunan.
While joining her mother working in a factory in southern China, Ms. Li recalled, she read voraciously at night while other workers played cards. She later studied at a teachers’ training college and found work as a rural teacher. She wrote poems and essays about her experiences and posted them online.
“Zhang’s parents divorced, Li’s parents too, and Wang’s also,” she wrote in one poem about her students. “But in their compositions they all love this great era.”
Ms. Li first came to nationwide attention in 2019 when she denounced local education officials for drowning the creativity and commitment of teachers with constant inspections and red tape — a sentiment that found broad support.
This time, in the days before her disappearance, Ms. Li sent out increasingly urgent online messages about threats from local police and education officials who said her comments about the Nanjing massacre were “inappropriate.” Ms. Li also became a target for nationalist ire for her comments about Nanjing, which is a visceral touchstone for Chinese memories of the war against Japan.
Local officials and police officers demanded that she sign a statement admitting error and threatened to dismiss her, she told Mr. Cui. She resisted — at times denying that she had made the comment — and has not been heard from since alerting friends that a group of people were taking her away, Mr. Cui said.
“Citizens have freedom of speech,” Mr. Cui said in an interview. “If I misstate that two plus two equals five, you can correct me. But you shouldn’t convict me. I hope she can return home safely.”
Li You contributed research.