In an interview with the New York Times in late May when his “probation” ended, China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, recounted the details of his forced disappearance in April, 2011. “The policeman yanked the black hood over Ai Weiwei’s head. It was suffocating. Written in white across the outside was a cryptic phrase: ‘Suspect 1.7.’ At the rear of a white van, one policeman sat on each side of Mr. Ai. …They clutched his arms. Four more men sat in the front rows.”
It must be jolting enough to be pulled out of the crowd from the bustling Beijing International Airport. But there was something else that bewildered Ai Weiwei. “‘Until that moment I still had spirit, because it didn’t look real,’” Mr. Ai said. “It was more like a performance. Why was it so dramatic?’”
It turns out the Ai Weiwei’s scene is only mildly dramatic by comparison. There are far more dramatic ones.
On August 15, 2006, Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) was in Gaoying, Shandong (山东高营) visiting his sister and dying sister-in-law when police surrounded his sister’s apartment building. By then he and his family had already been tailed and harassed for over 300 days for his investigation into the persecution of Falungong practitioners and other rights defending activities.
“Around 12 o’clock my sister came back to make lunch for me,” Gao Zhisheng told his interviewer sometime later. “She saw that policemen filled the entire stairway, leaving only a path for people to pass. All of them were bare chest, wearing dark glasses. They were all shirtless.”
Gao Zhisheng continued from a sofa chair in his home during one of the brief periods thereafter when he had restricted freedom. “At the very instant when my sister unlocked the door, three men kicked the door open…with thundering noises.” When they came in and seized Gao, “one man sat on my mouth, another pulled my hair backward, quickly wrapping my mouth with yellowish tape. Then they pulled me on the floor, two big men stepped on my calves to keep me in a kneeling position. Then they wrapped the same tape around my eyes. After that, they put a sack over my head.”
He was taken to Beijing, barefoot, in a pair of shorts. His T-shirt had been torn into pieces. The same night in the 2nd Detention Center of Beijing (北京第二看守所), he was interrogated, locked in a metal chair by metal shackles with bright light shining on him on both sides. He was no longer referred to by his own name, but the number 815.
Four interrogators came in. One of them, who Gao Zhisheng believed was the head of the pack, paced back and forth in front of him. “815, now you have an idea how powerful our party is, don’t you? From what has happened today, have you not seen how powerful our party is?”
To apprehend a bare-foot man in his shorts who was not known for extraordinary martial prowess, two policemen would suffice. Okay four. But instead, you have dozens. Instead of wearing their uniforms which represent the legitimacy, dignity and authority of their job, they resorted to bare chests and dark glasses. From the head interrogator we know that the whole sequence was choreographed to show force. A lot can be said about the need to “shock and awe,” but why bare chests? Why dark glasses? What’s going on? Why does the head interrogator sound like a mafia boss? Why did he talk like that?
I felt like I was watching a gangster movie as I typed Gao’s account. Histrionic-intolerant, I would have laughed heartily except it’s not funny when the gangsters here are China’s law enforcement officers and the criminal is a courageous human rights lawyer who would later be subjected to unthinkable tortures such as being poked in the genitals with tooth picks.
Why? Like Ai Weiwei, I wonder, why was it conducted so theatrically?
While you ponder on the answer to this question (please do; I’m seriously puzzled), I’ll show you another movie.
Li Zhuang (李庄) is a Beijing-based lawyer who represented one of the “criminals” in Chongqing’s “crackdown on criminals” campaign during Bo Xilai’s tenure. In time, he himself was charged with perjury and sentenced to one year and six months in prison in early 2010.
Early this year, when Chongqing’s top law enforcement official Wang Lijun (王立军) escaped to the US Consulate in Chengdu, ending his career as well as that of Bo Xilai, Li Zhuang recounted his arrival in Chongqing after Chongqing police had secretly arrested him in Beijing and flown him to Chongqing late at night on December 12, 2009:
“At the foot of the airplane gangway at the Chongqing airport, Wang Lijun was in waiting along with over a hundred riot policemen and a crowd of journalists. Dozens of police cars with flashing lights surrounded the airplane.”
“The riot police, in battle fatigues, steel helmets and leather boots, stood in a three-row formation, each carrying a light submachine gun. Li Zhuang stepped down the gangway with cameras flashing and came face to face with Wang Lijun (whom he had met once before and had a nodding acquaintance) who wore a light yellow trench coat.
Wang Lijun: Li Zhuang, we meet again!
Li Zhuang: Not the first time, and probably not the last time either.
Wang Lijun: Don’t assume that we are unable to tear your net open.
Li Zhuang: I have no net. The one net I know of is the net of the law.
Wang Lijun: No one is to stand in Chongqing’s way to crack down on criminals and eradicate evil.
Li Zhuang: I am all for cracking down on criminals, but I resolutely oppose unlawful crackdowns. With such pomp, are you receiving Obama or have you captured bin Laden? How much taxpayers’ money are you wasting on this? I am only a worthless lawyer, undeserving any of these.
Wang Lijun: Any job has its cost.
The police motorcade hurled, in speed and noise, towards the detention center. Li Zhuang saw that the entire journey, tens of kilometers, was sealed and guarded.
Li Zhuang told his interviewer that he was indeed intimidated, but at the same time, he felt that “Wang Lijun made such a show out of nothing and indulged in such dramatic display.”
Now, according to other accounts, Wang Lijun is a man of considerable vanity. From one of those accounts, I remember seeing a picture of Wang atop of police jeep in battle fatigues, pointing a submachine gun toward the sky. But vain personality aside, what else accounts for such grotesque excesses?
Not all dramas, it turns out, are on the mafia-like or royal-sized grandiose side. There are those that are so humble that they are also puzzling. Just the other day, one of China’s prominent dissidents Hu Jia tweeted that, when the security police came to his home to arrest him in late December, 2007, one of them posed as the water-meter reader from the water supply company. When the unsuspecting Hu Jia opened the door……well, you can supply the rest. Hu Jia was subsequently tried, secretly, and sentenced to three years and six month in prison in the spring of 2008, a few months before the Beijing Olympics, for “inciting to subvert the state power.”
In Hu Jia’s case, why was the law enforcement so sly? Why can’t they just announce themselves and order Hu Jia to open the door?
One way or the other, in each case, why does it have to be so dramatic?