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.”