American Basketball Player Imprisoned in China Looks at His Rice, Discovers the Horrific Reality of the Country


If you’re a basketball player who can’t make it in the NBA, this doesn’t necessarily mean you go into coaching or the middle-management path at Verizon. Instead, there are a few elite basketball leagues where one can earn a decent living — including the Chinese Basketball Association.

While the CBA limits the import of foreign players — there can only be two per team and they can only play a total of six quarters combined in any game — they still play an important enough role that, as Bleacher Report has noted, the Beijing Ducks erected a statue of former NBA star Stephon Marbury outside their arena.

With playing in China comes risk, however, something which Jeff Harper has firsthand knowledge of — and he’s never played a game in the CBA.

Harper, a professional basketball forward who’s played mostly internationally after graduating from Iowa Wesleyan University, spent eight months in a form of jail China calls “residential surveillance in a designated location” after he says he witnessed an altercation between a man and a woman in Shenzen in January 2020.

According to the Des Moines Register, he’d been playing in a tournament there with hopes of landing a contract with an international team.

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After the initial assault was over, Harper said he went to check on the woman. When the assailant approached, Harper shoved him away.  He was later told by Chinese authorities that the man had showed up at a hospital five hours later with injuries, where he lapsed into a coma and died.

Harper was detained for seven months on a charge of “causing death with negligence,” the Register reported. Prosecutors eventually decided against bringing the case to court — a good thing, because the acquittal rate in Chinese courts is only slightly higher than it was in Stalin’s 1930s show trials.

Even after the decision, Harper said he stayed on the move for three weeks, while his exit visa was processed. Staying in hotels, he moved around because the dead man’s family was looking for him, and seeking compensation amounting to about $300,000, the Register reported.

In the Register piece, which was published in September, after Harper had returned to the U.S., Harper said the Chinese “treated me well,” though he’d lost 30 pounds on a rice-based diet.

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal for a piece published Tuesday on the process of “residential surveillance in a designated location,” Harper was a bit more forthcoming.

First, let’s talk about that term, because it brings to mind something like house arrest, except a bit more spartan. Instead, it involves being locked in a room with a filthy mattress and a plastic chair.

As for the rice dishes, Harper said they were sometimes infested with bugs.

NBA stars who run cover for China for the sake of business — like the Lakers’ LeBron James, might want to keep that picture in their minds:

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A fellow basketball player looking down at his insect-infested meal of rice in a Chinese prison and getting an up-close-and-personal view of the horrific reality of life in a country under communist rule.

Former detainees have provided English-language pamphlets of rules for those in the residential surveillance program to Safeguard Defenders, a Madrid-based organization that focuses on human rights in China. One rule: “Sleep on your back and keep both arms above the blanket at all times.”

“Terms of release are spelled out in another document, which requires a pledge from the subject to not reveal any details of the residential-surveillance experience to anyone, specifically media and foreign missions,” The Wall Street Journal’s James T. Areddy reported.

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“The benign term ‘residential surveillance’ denotes the system’s origins as a type of house arrest. But accounts by detainees and findings by human-rights groups suggest it may be a more systematized process that can feature purpose-built jail-like facilities with dedicated staff, sometimes referred to as black jails. Mr. Harper says he was held in what appeared to be a residential building for police officers.”

“They do their justice system totally different than we do ours,” Harper told The Journal. “I’m not a fan of it.”

The problem is that most people in residential surveillance aren’t basketball players or high-profile detainees, The Journal reported: Most are low-level criminals, members of the banned Falun Gong sect or Christians accused of running underground churches. Most are Chinese citizens.

However, the process has received international attention after high-profile opponents of the Chinese Communist Party have ended up there.

Liu Xiaobo, a dissident literary professor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, died in residential custody at the age of 61 in 2017, according to The Journal; world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei was held in residential detention for 81 days.

That last one may have been a significant miscalculation, considering Weiwei subsequently produced scale models of life in detention:

It got to “Isolation is one of the hardest things for the human mind,” Harper said. His calls to the United States were limited and he didn’t even know about the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2016, China’s so-called “human-rights action plan” pledged limits on the period one could be held in residential detention and what the conditions were, among other things. That, like most human rights pledges made by Beijing, has apparently been ignored.

The case of Jeff Harper should serve as a warning for other professional basketball players, however. Harper never played a game in the Chinese Basketball Association; he simply showed up at a tournament, says he tried to do the right thing and found himself in a form of solitary confinement sold to the outside world as “residential detention” for eight months without charges.

You could end up with a statue outside your home arena like Stephon Marbury. Or you could end up locked in a room with a filthy mattress and a plastic chair, eating bug-infested rice.

Middle-management at Verizon seems a much safer bet than that.

And as for the multi-millionaires in the NBA like LeBron — the ones who are so willing to cover for China when anyone in the league criticizes Beijing and its human rights record  — maybe they might want to think Jeff Harper’s case before attacking their own country.

The prospect of uncertain detention, and insect-infested meals, might make the United States look a whole lot better.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture