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Lessons from Ge Xun’s forced disappearance

Over the past few days I’ve received emails from long-time readers of the blog telling me to “stay safe” after publishing Ge Xun’s account of his detention. In the past I would have said that for the most part, China deports troublesome foreigners and is content with keeping them outside of its borders and labeling them as “hostile foreign forces” (this is not the case with drug charges, China routinely executes foreign “smugglers”). Now though, it seems that the Party is expanding its search for activists that it deems a threat to stability, even if they have been living outside of China for 25 years, and is willing to subject them to violence and intimidation.

We published Yaxue’s translation of Ge Xun’s account, not only because it is important for his story to be told, but it also serves as a case study that forces us to confront some uncomfortable realities while showing embarrassing truths about present day China.

China is becoming bolder in its violation of human rights

Just a few years ago it would have been hard to imagine Chinese agents arresting a foreign citizen for creating a website (especially one that is not accessible on the mainland by default) and participating in activities overseas; yet this is precisely what happened just over a week ago.

Furthermore Ge Xun’s crime was not calling for the overthrow of the Party, or even challenging stability, his message is apolitical. His crime was the amorphous claim that he was damaging China’s image overseas. As the Chinese agent said, “Non-violence against the Chinese government is unacceptable as well.”

Ironically, just two days before Ge Xun was forced into the back of a van, People’s Daily published an article defending China’s progress in human rights, it stated that “According to the 84th article of the draft amendment, the public security departments must present detention warrants when detaining anyone,” it later added that “forced confessions” are also prevented. These are indeed changes that have been made to the laws, but, as evidenced by Ge’s detention, have made little difference in protecting individuals from these forms of abuse.

The state is fully aware of its activists, and actively supports their detention

Another aspect of Ge’s detention that surprised me was the amount of information they had gathered about his activities abroad. This reflects an effort on the part of the state to monitor individuals like Ge Xun. His former questionings show that this has been a sustained effort on the part of State security, and that the Party is deeply insecure about their image abroad.

While issues like his involvement in Tian’anmen square and Tibetan groups are mentioned in his interrogation, they do not seem to be the chief complaint of the agents. Instead it is Ge’s website focused on Chen Guangcheng that seems to have been the central factor leading to his detention. The fact that they were willing to beat Ge Xun (and spend the political capital) to learn the names of those involved with that website, should remove all doubt that the state is keenly aware of Chen’s detention and is complicit in it.

Note: As of last night, Chen Guangcheng, his wife, and young daughter, have been missing. After nearly a year of illegal imprisonment, it is unknown what has happened to them. 

This sends the dangerous message to local governments that “we will support your illegal actions, if they align with our interests.” In fact the Party still clearly believes that the dilemma is between maintaining stability and improving human rights; this is a false choice. Without allowing for the idea that stability might be improved by increasing the flow of information and allowing for lively discussion of ideas, the Party is doomed to assume that one must be sacrificed for the other.

The state fundamentally misunderstands activists

The most revealing lines of Ge Xun’s account comes from one of the interrogators as he presses Ge about the Chen Guangcheng site, “What is it all about? You are the initiator, correct? Who are the members? How much money have you spent on it? Who gave you the money?” And later, “How can a website belong to no organization, no leader, not spending money? Impossible!”

This shows that the Party does not understand activism at its most basic level. This naivete though is understandable from a totalitarian gov’t that relies on paid commentors to shape public opinion.

If the Party does not understand what drives overseas Chinese like Ge Xun to focus the public lens on the deterioration of rights in the country of his birth, how can they see the obvious solution? That illegally detaining and beating individuals is what is damaging China’s image overseas, not the act of documenting it. As Ge Xun told me later, “The beating I endured only made me more determined to work harder. It made me see reality.”



40 Comments

  1. Vam says:

    One aspect of ge xun’s ordeal that is precedented is the really bad treatment dished out to detained chinese expats – chinese who have got residency in another country. This was discusse a few years ago, i think by john *the deity* garnaut, in relation to a cluster of torture cases against chinese migrants to australia. And youre right to raise the point about ccp inability to comprehend some pretty basic stuff about how the world works. They have strong intelligence gathering but their analysis is really weak.

  2. Just one thing from me on this fascinating account, the problem with Westerners getting involved in human rights issues here – is that we’ve lost much of our moral highground – forced rendition of US, UK and other European citizens to states that torture as a standard and the horrors of Guantanomo and other places, undermine our case to argue for other’s rights. It shames me.

    I support your decision to publish, but find myself in the situation where I feel our efforts would sometimes be better spent at home – howling at the moon is easier under familiar skies.

    • Chopstik says:

      There is no reason not to focus your efforts “at home” to deal with the issues you describe. But you personally have not participated in such actions so why do you feel guilt by association of national identity? How does that disqualify you (presumably as a Westerner) from pointing out the problems that exist elsewhere (in this case, China specifically)? This is a specious argument that I would expect from supporters of the government and you only feed into it by allowing them to dictate to you the guilt they presume you should feel. You can be appalled by such illegal and immoral (though I use that word hesitantly) actions by your own government without being beholden to them by circumstance of national identity. You also have the right to address them without fear of being illegally detained, beaten, jailed or worse in your own country than @GeXun (and others) have in China.

      • Partly because pushing boulders uphill doesn’t really appeal to me as a part-time job, I left home at least in part because the political system distresses me – post 9/11 (which being American is the wrong way round) our government has been pulling the biggest land grab in terms of civil rights that I’ve ever seen. But I’ve stopped protesting, stopped campaiging – because it does no good whatsoever, voters are all about short-term interest.

        In China the same’s true, there may be no real vote, but the last 30 years have been pretty kind to the vast majority. They don’t want change – at least not in any significant form, so why should I spend my time worrying about it?

        All told I’ve been pretty good about campaigning and working towards a better world – I’ve spent nearly 5 years of my life working for charitable organisations trying to achieve that, I used to donate 10% of my salary (I don’t earn enough now to be able to afford to – that’s what working for yourself gets you) to causes I believed in – PLAN, Amnesty, Liberty, Water Aid and more and I don’t feel like I achieved a damn thing. But what I do know and I’m not in the slightest bit religous is that people who don’t tend to the planks in their own eyes don’t have much of a leg to stand on when pointing out the motes in others’.

        Change comes from within – not without, everytime a Westerner gets involved with poking about in China, it makes it that little bit harder for change to be achieved – it’s almost bloody minded “sod you” stuff, China’s been improving – including on the human right’s front for thirty years – it’s not perfect, but at least it’s not going backward like the West…
        s/

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        @Chopstik, you always find this line of argument offensive. I’ve avoided asking the questions that follow to date, but those of us accused by you in this manner deserve to know: do you believe that renditions and other such actions and such are ok because undertaken by so-called democratic governments? Do you agree with secret detentions, extrajudicial murder, and torture?

      • Chopstik says:

        Lorin,

        With all due respect, you either have not read all of my posts or you have chosen to ignore the points behind my arguments. I have, on more than one occasion, agreed with you that abuses have also occurred in the US and in other Western countries and that they are wrong. The reality is that these abuses have often been highlighted and efforts have been made toward righting those wrongs – some more successfully than others. But the key point is that those who have been wronged have the ability (in most cases) to seek justice in some form as well as to publicize in those Western nations whom you so readily condemn in some attempt to point out that China is not unique in human rights abuses. China does not permit any form of justice for those who have been wronged yet you persist in attempting to compare the situations.

        This is not suggest that Western justice is perfect or even that it works all the time (an assertion with which I am sure you will readily agree). But the fact that it is a possibility that is guaranteed with more than empty words (such as in China) should offer some hope of redemption that should be sought after and used as a positive example. Your persistent assertions that the US (and other Western nations) are the same as China in committing rights abuses without recognizing that such abuses can be redressed only in the US and Europe only serves to, in the words of Lao Why, “exculpate” China from making any effort to improve the situation.

        That being said, I feel I have seen enough of your posts to believe that you do not truly believe this but I cannot fathom why you would persist in this argument if not for the sake of pushing an anti-US/West agenda that is used by many supporters of the Party to justify its behavior against its citizens (not to mention even foreign citizens as recently shown by @GeXun). I am not suggesting that you are not entitled to a negative view of the US or the West – but on a China blog, such comments only serve to echo comments that are more commonly heard from the Party itself. I hope this clarifies my view of your commentary in many instances. It is not intended as a criticism of you directly so I hope you do not take it as such but instead as simply an interpretation of your own views expressed here.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        It’s fine, Chopstik, but I felt you ought to make yourself clear. I’m going to make myself clear as well, though, perhaps by echoing in part something that you just said. Extra-legal thuggery and abuses committed with impunity are wrong no matter who commits them. Pointing out that all such cases are wrong and deplorable has everything to do with strengthening the ground upon which one stands indignantly against injustice. It has nothing to do with trying to defend the obvious wrongs that take place in China. When we cluck our tongues at people for pointing out ongoing hideous abuses that so-called world leaders commit, we undermine the very condemnations we wish to make. Clearly there are ways of standing on the side of justice without slipping into he said/she said arguments, or “your Bush is worse than my Mao” type arguments. In fact, I don’t see anyone (on this blog at least) making those kinds of arguments.

      • Chopstik says:

        Lorin,

        Taken in a vacuum, it is easy to accept your argument. However, in view of the fact that your points are the same ones brought up by the proponents of such extra-legal thuggery and abuses in China only lends credence to their argument – it does not strengthen the ground upon which one stands indignantly against injustice because the comments must be taken in the context of also being the same argument made by defenders of the Chinese government and its actions. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t point out such facts but be aware that they can and are interpreted as such.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Well, I guess misinterpreters will misinterpret, won’t they? I’ll happily stand on higher ground. Some day Cheney will shake hands with the Violent Man and share stories of terrorists thwarted.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    If they are willing to do this to a foreign citizen whose activism is mild in every way, imagine what they would do to Chinese ciitzens.

    I will be writeing a piece soon about Chinese netizens being 喝茶 by the police, what it is like, to shed more light on the working of Chinese security police.

  4. Chopstik says:

    Tom,

    That the state does not understand activists and takes a heavy handed approach (particularly to those of Chinese descent regardless of citizenship) should be warning enough. They fear what they do not understand and what they perceive as a threat (a normal human reaction) and therefore react accordingly. Highlighting abuses and corruption may be the goal of those like @GeXun but they are only perceived as threats to the maintenance of power by the Party and therefore must be crushed. At the risk of being cliche, it reminds me of Star Wars where the Empire is the Party and the Rebel Alliance are those who try to stand up to it.

    As you have noted yourself, tread carefully.

  5. sinostand says:

    Hats off to both of you for publishing that account. It’s not an exaggeration to say it was brave. That the site hasn’t been blocked is a good sign. With all the links that have been floating around it’s hard to believe it hasn’t come across some “official eyes.” Some government departments are markedly more liberal than others, as evidenced by the allowing of info on Wang Lijun to spread recently. So hopefully that and allowing your site to stay up are evidence that the liberal wing is making it’s case heard.

    Again, thanks so much for putting yourselves on the line to get this out. While this Edmund Burke quote is a bit cliche, it’s worth repeating:

    “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

  6. C.A. Yeung says:

    Tom, this is Catherine from Under the Jacaranda Tree Blog. I just have a question for you about your note in italic, which says that as of yesterday the Chen family has gone missing. Would you be able to confirm your source of information for me? Someone from RFA asked me about it earlier today. But so far I am still unable to track it down. Many thanks.

  7. justrecently says:

    But I’ve stopped protesting, stopped campaiging – because it does no good whatsoever, voters are all about short-term interest.

    It’s alright to stop protesting, shardsofchina, but I don’t think this is a matter of a “high ground”. When rights are violated, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out. Many East German dissidents said that the knowledge that people outside the German Democratic Republic were aware of them gave them tremendous encouragment – just to be thought of, and even if nobody outside the country could do a great deal for them. So, while it’s alright to stop protesting against bad things abroad or at home, I believe it’s wrong to criticize those who continue to protest.

    As for stuff at home to care about, I probably know what you mean. I’ve followed a story about changes at Germany’s foreign radio for a while now, and it seems that a lot of things are going wrong there. The silence in most of our media – with some noteworthy exceptions – is deafening. But should that be a reason for me to look the other way when things go wrong in China – and much more fundamentally so? I doubt that.

    We are doing business with China, China’s leaders decided that to get involved in global affairs suits them better than staying outside – but that means that we, too, are involved – and Ge Xun has family there.

    • du depp says:

      But why stop at China, there are places just as bad or worse than china such as syria and other middle eastern and african countries , yet i never heard a squeak from foreign protestors prior recent events. Where were the protests about oppression in the middle east? last 10 years have been free tibet, free taiwan and free uigurs? Blindly focussing on issues on China doesn’t make sound reasoning either.

      Although i personally dislike the ccp handling of china’s affairs, protests from foreign groups come out as condesending and arragont, your only aim is to criticise and that only rallies chinese people just as outside criticism of america would rally americans. It’s not like nobody in china knows how retarded the government, it’s just that they don’t really care enough to force change or/and most have ccp connections (most would have had grandparents who served in the army who after retirement would have gained certain privilages).

      As you may have noticed the recent uprising in the middle east were sparked off by the people, you may remember Libiyans wanted their own revolution, not a western intervention. if citizens feel oppressed, eventually it explodes like the arab spring, if they
      need help, they’ll ask. With the dramatic change of china in the last few decades, i believe china will change by itself. Generations of high education dont churn out idiots in china, regime will change naturally.

      • Tom says:

        It’s important to make a couple of notes here. 1 being that a large number of American’s involved in China’s human rights discussions are ethnically Chinese, this is something that is never disclosed in Chinese media. 2 protesters in Syria (and Yemen) have asked for intervention, especially the ones that threw rocks at the Chinese embassy after their veto.
        “Foreigners” have a role in any time a gov’t uses its power to abuse its citizens, regardless of the country.

    • East Germany is a strange example – the country was an occupied one, with the old USSR playing the bad guy, it’s also worth noting that it is also the one area of the old eastern bloc where the locals spent most of their time actively collobarating with the occupiers rather than resisting them. (As shown from the files recoved from Stasi records).

      The situation in China is a markedly different one – the country is not occupied by a hostile force, it is occupied by its own people. The majority of whom are happy with the current situation – because year in, year out China has been improving.

      When my own country feels it is entitled to lock you up for 30 days without charge, stop you on the street and search you when it feels like, or even send you off to somewhere else where you can be tortured so that it doesn’t inconveniece the law back home – it’s time to stop wasting my time on China’s issues and concentrate on our own problems which in may ways are worse.

      And while I do work from China, because my wife is Chinese and likes being here, I don’t do business with Chinese firms – I write for a living and my client list is exclusively Western and the majority of my business comes from outside of Asia let alone China.

      • justrecently says:

        East Germany is the example closest to me – and the experience of being isolated from the public is a specific national experience. In that context, I don’t think it matters if your own people (Germans, for example) or foreigners (the Soviet Union) enable those who suppress you, shardsofchina. Human rights are universal.

        You mentioned a moral highground, in your first comment. But this is no matter of a highground. It’s a matter of individual conscience.

      • justrecently says:

        correction: the experience of being isolated from the public is not a specific national experience

      • Sorry I completely disagree. There’s a huge difference between being isolated from the world by an occupying power and being isolated by your own government.

        The rule of law (however shady those interpretations are) is not the same as an illegal act of war and enslavement.

        I mentioned moral highground in the specific context of the West no longer occupying it, please stop referring to it outside of context – it doesn’t make your argument any stronger by doing so.

      • justrecently says:

        shardsofchina: I don’t think that I could misrepresent your position in a thread, even if I wanted to. Both your and my comments are available to be read.

        When you are in custody, without a right to contact a lawyer, you have a problem, no matter which powers ignore your rights. A nationalist may feel the difference between occupying and national powers more strongly, even in custody – but that makes no difference when it comes to human rights.

  8. justrecently says:

    And youre right to raise the point about ccp inability to comprehend some pretty basic stuff about how the world works. They have strong intelligence gathering but their analysis is really weak.

    The CCP would probably like to have a more positive image abroad, but I believe that Chinese diplomats will care most – the politbureau may have quite different priorities. Xi Jinping will be in Washington DC tomorrow, and it will be business as usual.
    What’s there to lose for the CCP, in international relations, if we leave image issues out?

  9. justrecently says:

    Although i personally dislike the ccp handling of china’s affairs, protests from foreign groups come out as condesending and arragont, your only aim is to criticise and that only rallies chinese people just as outside criticism of america would rally americans.

    I think there’s a difference. When China, France, Germany, and Russia opposed the invasion of Iraq, there was a strong American minority that actually agreed with the opponents – and they were noticeable opponents, in public and in the press.
    It isn’t practical to remain silent in the hope that the Chinese people, for example, would rather push change if there are no voices from abroad. Things aren’t that isolated. Authoritarianism has some appeal abroad, too – among business people, politicians, etc.. “How China gets things done”, etc. That gives rise to a global debate, and rightly so. Every country has a right to be part of the global economy. But no big country should be surprised that it is looked at closely.

    When a person is mistreated – whereever -, and you are told not to open your mouth because it could “anger someone”, to speak up is usually exactly the thing to do. Why should it anger people? Does China need to be afraid of an invasion? If it angers people, we should ask why that’s so. I believe that at least part of the explanation is that it is easier in China to vent ones anger at foreigners, than at ones own regime.

    When I’m angry about someone who is neither in a position to threaten me, nor to make my life more difficult, that anger should be my own problem.

  10. Lao Why? says:

    The fact that abuses in the US does not give China a free pass to trample the rights “guaranteed” in its constitution. If I were from, pick a country, Norway, would you then set about to find some singular rights abuse that my government committed only to say “there, see? You’re country is not so holy (to use Lorin’s term)” It does not excuse at all the significant human rights abuses going on in China or anywhere else for that matter. If you buy this line of argument, then you play right into what the CCP and the Wu-maoers want you to think.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Not sure which comment this is directed at.

      • Lao Why? says:

        Sorry, should be “abuses happen in the US”. As to what comment it is directed at, it is directed at those that seem to argue that because they can point to isolated instances of denial of rights in home countries of those critical of China’s abuses, this somehow exculpates China. It doesn’t.
        When does a person have a right to speak up and criticise a government for abusing its citizens, denying them the rights it guarantees under the constitution? When one person is harmed? 30? 500? 10,000?
        @Du Depp, the fact you didn’t hear a squeak doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Many in the US have been highly critical of the rights abuses in Africa and the Middle East.

    • MAC says:

      If I were from, pick a country, Norway, would you then set about to find some singular rights abuse that my government committed only to say “there, see? You’re country is not so holy.
      ——-
      Yes, actually, this is exactly what many Chinese do. Witness how many Chinese become overnight experts on Corsica after the protests of the Olympic torch in France.

  11. […] Lessons from Ge Xun’s forced disappearance | Seeing Red in China – Over the past few days I’ve received emails from long-time readers of the blog telling me to “stay safe” after publishing Ge Xun’s account of his detention. In the past I would have said that for the most part, China deports troublesome foreigners and is content with keeping them outside of its borders and labeling them as “hostile foreign forces” (this is not the case with drug charges, China routinely executes foreign “smugglers”). Now though, it seems that the Party is expanding its search for activists that it deems a threat to stability, even if they have been living outside of China for 25 years, and is willing to subject them to violence and intimidation. […]

  12. […] Seeing Red in China is really turning into a great blog- after translating Ge Xun’s account of his detainment, Tom has drawn some conclusions from it. Namely: China is becoming bolder in its violation of human rights The state is fully aware of its activists, and actively supports their detention The state fundamentally misunderstands activists […]

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    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  14. Kev says:

    I am the most cynical bastard you will ever meet and the only things I can say are…Ge Xun was an idiot for coming back to China…and….the only reason that people scream “human rights violations” in other countries is to distract the world from the human rights violations in their own. As for “Free Tibet”, the only reason to free Tibet is so other corporate countries can go in and strip it of it’s natural resources under the guise of “aiding a newly formed democratic(what a laugh) country”. Look to your own countries, people. Medical treatment for the wealthy, Education for the wealthy, Housing for the wealthy. Our so called democracy is a sham. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Our laws protect the rich and we point the finger elsewhere….nice. Fix your own backyard before you try fix other peoples.
    Lastly, I am so sick of hearing the underlying tones of “China should be a Democracy”. China has the Government it deserves in much the same way as Iraq had Saddam.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I didn’t find his reasons for going to China idiotic at all. Did you read the two posts describing his ordeal?

      • du depp says:

        i read his ordeal, and it was obvious that he was mistreated badly. However this is something i’ve come to expect as there have been numerous stories in the media of ccp “officials” man handling and using crude interrogating tactics.
        The “idiotic” thing was him coming back with a record of being involved, with what the ccp deem to be, uprising/destabalise china groups, technically making him a wanted man and he was probably tracked ever since his passport was scanned.
        Did you hear about the british couple who tried to enter america, but were denied because they’d written key phrases in a blog which made them seem like a threat. it wouldn’t suprise me if the ccp have databases which worked in a similar fashion on tracking people.

      • Kev says:

        His reason for going back wasn’t stupid but if I decide to be actively involved in extremist moslem groups, I certainly would expect to be bundled into a non-descript van and questioned using techniques frowned upon human rights groups if I visited the good ‘ol USA.

  15. du depp says:

    @tom, the protesters may very well be largely chinese, however i feel that western one’s shout more loudly. Even though you may say this, i question how many westerners use these issues to stir china hate rather than concentrate actual human right violations, i don’t watch chinese media, western media and political debates/ads are enough evidence to tell me that there is a large number of westerners involved in smearing everything china does, from pollution to trade.
    In Syria, i largely believe china and russia’s veto are tied by trade agreements, rather than support of oppressive regime. in syria, i was making the point that if or when revolution comes global(western) intervention should come after the people decide to and need it.

    @Laowhy, perhaps, but my point was people are so obsessed with china, that they turn a blind eye to more turbulent problems.

    Just as a general question, do people seek destabalisation or reformation of ccp?

    • justrecently says:

      Just as a general question, do people seek destabalisation or reformation of ccp?
      I believe this is a too general question, because there is more than one answer to it. Those people will differ from each others, their motivations will differ. Asking about “people” in general seems to be based on the assumption that there’s one (sinister) plan guiding all of them.

    • Lao Why? says:

      @Du depp,
      I think the ones that directly confont the power of the ccp are either brave or crazy or both. Others realize they cannot change the system without risking personal harm and so they seek to maximize their personal benefit by working outside the system, be that bending the rules, buying off corrupt officials or simply “getting over” on one another through whatever means possible. They are driven to do so by a suffocating system wherein they have no chance if they have no guanxi.
      How is it that westerners are smearing China on pollution? Because the US embassy in Beijing reports 2.5 microns even after being asked by Beijing officials not to because it might not be harmonious?

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