It was a simple enough question. Could the Foreign Ministry spokesman confirm that China's most famous political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, was still alive? The official sensed a trick: "Well, if I would assure you, you might quickly follow up on his health. So therefore perhaps it's best for you to go to the competent authorities for this information,'' said Chen Jian.
Saturday was the first anniversary of Mr Wei's current detention. No one knows where he is and no one will clarify if charges have been brought. All Mr Chen would say yesterday was that the case was an internal affair.
Detention without charges for a year breaks even China's regulations but Mr Wei's own family are as much in the dark."We haven't seen him since his arrest and for nine months we haven't had any news,'' a relative told Agence France-Presse.
Mr Wei, 45, emerged as one of China's most prominent activists at the time of the 1978 Democracy Wall movement. His posters criticising Deng Xiaoping earned him a 15-year sentence for "counter-revolution". He was paroled in 1993 as part of Peking's abortive attempt to host the 2000 Olympics. Mr Wei infuriated the leadership when in February 1994 he met the visiting US under-secretary of state for humanitarian affairs, John Shattuck. On 1 April last year he was arrested and has not been seen since.