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“Why Was It So Dramatic?”

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?


11 Comments

  1. To scare the populace I imagine. So childish really.

  2. Chopstik says:

    To quote former tennis star Andre Agassi, “Image is everything”

    In some circumstances, leadership is done under the power of the gun. But even with the power of the gun, they must put forth an image that will enable them to maintain such power. Power is nothing more than a facade put forth by some to maintain control over others. The drama is merely a tool used by those with the power to maintain such.

    • Chopstik says:

      I suppose it is when it is “dissidents” in China and “anarchists” in the US. Perhaps a review of the terms used might help to clarify that situation.

      Besides, a review of the drama in China versus the article you provided might also help to provide some context on the differences between the two.

      • Dave says:

        So the political label of those the state persecutes makes all the differences? This just seems to be another moment of obfuscation that happens in liberal states where the use of violence or imprisonment becomes ideological justified. ( For example crimes against property such as theft are seen as non-political despite property being a political relationship)
        What about the the imprisonment of Maoist activists in China? More or less dramatic?
        http://chinastudygroup.net/2011/01/labor-lawyer-imprisoned-in-xi%E2%80%99an-for-organizing-against-corrupt-privatization-of-state-enterprises/

      • Chopstik says:

        A very good example and one I was not previously aware of. However, it could be argued that the difference between Zhao Dongming, Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng and other Chinese dissidents (use whatever political nomenclature you wish) were all arrested and imprisoned dramatically for trying to non-violently change a system of order that imposes itself upon a populace that has little other recourse as the power of the gun resides almost solely with the government. The anarchists who have, in many cases, violently opposed democratically elected governments do have other recourse to address their grievances and choose not to do so and are thus “dramatically” dealt with by their own governments.

        Political labels are semantics – think of the term “terrorist” and how it has evolved over the last 30+ years in the West. I think the difference here lies in the relatively peaceful and “law-abiding” (such as the laws are in China) actions of the dissidents who are treated so “dramatically” in China and the anarchists in the West that invite “dramatic” government reactions with their own (often violent) actions. I’m not entirely sure that it’s a fair comparison in terms of abuse of government power (which is how I understand your point).

        However, I will admit that I have little patience for the abuse of power by governments (much as I suspect you do and feel that we are probably in agreement on this issue). But I think context here would be very important in differentiating the two examples.

      • Dave says:

        Chopstick ( I hope this comment appears after yours) your argument rest a priori on what you think of the politics of those being arrested.
        I generally agree with the anarchist critique of liberal democracies – that despite whatever electoral processes these societies are in no way democratic in a meaningful sense being as they are so deeply unequal with so much power accumulated in those that own capital. The recourse offered in liberal democracies is no real recourse at all.
        Nor is the violence of anarchists that violent – compared to the violence of the state.
        Also what is the difference between the use of the label ‘violence’ and the use of the label ‘chaos’ by the CPC?

      • Chopstik says:

        I don’t want to get bogged down into other issues but will just add this:

        The drama that the original post was referencing was an abuse of power by the state that cannot be redressed via the laws of the state as those laws are enforced arbitrarily and therefore the underlying issue. You attempted to equate that drama to the police raids of homes belonging to “anarchists” (your word) in the US which seems to be an inaccurate comparison based on the fact that the anarchists can choose to work within the laws which are enforced far more uniformly in the US than they are in China (I am not stating that the US is fair or that the laws always work but that laws are not enforced arbitrarily as they are in China in most cases). Disregard the labels that have been discussed to this point as I am sure neither of us appreciates an abuse of power by the government – look only at the fact that said “dramatic abuse” has a chance of being redressed in one nation while it is not at all possible in the other. If you don’t agree with the laws in a liberal democracy, you can work to change them. In China, you cannot and those who try (peacefully) have the dramatic abuses committed against them as pointed out by Cao Yaxue in her original post.

  3. […] a fascinating post over at this website that I’ve added to my daily read list about the way China often goes about arresting […]

  4. […] “Why Was It So Dramatic?” | Seeing Red in China.     Print       […]

  5. Dave says:

    Hi Chopstick,
    I completely disagree with you, but I think you have presented a fine summary of liberal ideology. The problem is that you assume that the law function as the law, failing to notice how in liberal societies the law only functions because there is always a necessary hidden obverse, an underside to the law, that whilst formally contravening it, ensures social cohesion. So despite the formal freedom of liberalism since liberal society is cut by class (a big topic) such a society can only be maintained by an array of violence, state and non-state. A cursory glance at US history – from the Pinkertons to Cointelpro to the current green scare show this.
    Also what can be allowed within liberal democracy ( I prefer capitalo-parliamentarism to quote Badiou) is never a form of politics that can really over come liberal society, that is the form of society that masks the capital-relation itself.
    But there is a deeper difference here, I don’t think either case is a question of abuse of government authority. They are examples of how capital accumulation ( despite what Friedman et al say) always requires state violence to reproduce and guarantee its reproduction. This takes different flavors in different geographies, but these geographies are linked – that is if you are going to have accumulation on a global scale that relies on the forms of production that exist in China, you need to have the kind of heavy handed state that the CPC enforces. If you want to get rid of this state you have to question the form of accumulation that produced it and it enforces. And whilst I am not a Maoist, it is among some sectors of Maoists in China that you find people who are asking these questions ( see http://sanhati.com/excerpted/3894/). It is unfortunate that Chinese liberals caught as they are in the ideology of liberalism fail to see that the state they oppose and that oppresses them is the very logical and consistent product of the kind of world that they support. This of course doesn’t justify their horrible treatment.

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