By Yaxue Cao, published: March 18, 2014
Her name in Chinese means “smooth,” but her life, which ended on March 14, 2014, had been anything but smooth.
Exactly six months ago on September 14, 2013, Cao Shunli was disappeared in the Exit & Entry area of Beijing Capital International Airport where she was en route to Geneva to attend human rights training. It wasn’t until late October when her arrest was confirmed.
“Ms. Cao Shunli’s secret abduction was due to her participation in a two-month sit-in action in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that began on June 2013,” a dozen or so rights lawyers wrote to demand that the government publicize Cao Shunli’s condition after she fell into a coma in Beijing Chaoyang Detention Center and was rushed to an emergency room on February 20.
“The action in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a rights-protection action which Cao Shunli and 60 other petitioners were left with no choice but to take after having applied to the State Council Information Office requesting to participate in the drafting of the ‘National Human Rights Action Plan’ civic human rights report, and also applying for the information office to disclose relevant governmental information, but receiving no response whatsoever and having judicial avenues blocked off,” the lawyers wrote. “Their actions were entirely for the protection of civil rights enshrined in the third clause of Article 2 and in Article 42 of the PRC Constitution and they were in line with the principle spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which China has signed.”
Two months after China detained Cao Shunli for her cooperation with the UN, China was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council on November 12 over the opposition of activists on the ground and international human rights organizations.
Despite rapidly deteriorating health (in Chinese), in December, Cao Shunli’s case was sent to the prosecutors for indictment and the recommended charge was switched from “illegal assembly” initially to “picking quarrels to create disturbances.”
Indeed, when it comes to persecuting citizens for disobeying or opposing the regime in any shape or form, picking a charge is just like flipping a switch or changing lanes.
According to New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC), Cao Shunli had focused her efforts on two specific areas over the last few years: formulating the country’s domestic plans to advance human rights, and reporting the progress to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of its Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR).”
An organization also taking part in the UPRs, HRIC compiled documents Cao Shunli had prepared and submitted to the UN between 2008 and 2013. The group of documents reflects “Cao’s systematic pursuit of her goal using the law and the court system, as well as the international human rights mechanisms, to press for greater transparency and accountability, and the Chinese authorities’ systematic resistance to such participation by invoking, among other reasons, state secrecy.”
In March, 2013, Cao Shunli submitted a report to the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the UPR through Human Rights Campaign in China (权利运动), a mainland China-based rights organization. It was also the year when China bid to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council again.
On the very day Cao Shunli’s secret detention was made public, the head of the Chinese delegation Wu Hailong (in Chinese) told the UN that, in 2009 when China underwent the first universal periodic review on human rights, China accepted 42 recommendations made by member states and promised that “when the time comes for China to be reviewed again, the world will see a China that is more prosperous, more democratic, improved in rule of law with a more harmonious society and happier people.” Mr. Wu went on to tell the UN panel that, four years later, all of the 42 recommendations have been, or are being, implemented and China has by and large fulfilled its promises.”
From the way China secretly detained Cao Shunli and subjected her to inhumane treatment that led to her eventual death six months into her detention, one can gauge how much the Chinese government hated her and how it would rather see her die.
From a Law School Graduate to a Petitioner
“Cao Shunli was born in Beijing in 1961 to a worker’s family with four siblings,” Cao Shunli’s brother Cao Yunli told the overseas Chinese website Boxun recently. When she was ten in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution, her family was forcibly deported to her father’s ancestral home in Zhaoyuan, Shangdong (山东招远), because her father’s family was landowners—one of the enemy classes–before Communist rule. Six years later when Mao Zedong died, the Caos were allowed to return to their home in Beijing.
In 1979, she was admitted into Beijing College of Political Science and Law (now China University of Political Science and Law). After graduating, she became a graduate student in the Department of Law at Peking University. Three years later, she was assigned to work at a research center in the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources (now Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security).
During China’s housing reform in 2002, Cao Shunli exposed corruption in housing distribution in her work unit and eventually lost her job as a result of reprisals from her supervisors.
She became a petitioner. As nearly all petitioners in China, she was subjected to all manner of suppression and frequent surveillance and house arrest. More than once, she was given administrative detention. Because of her own experience, her attention turned to China’s human rights conditions, especially the conditions and demands of petitioners.
According to a recent published account (in Chinese) about Cao Shunli’s life, having collected a large number of petitioners’ cases from 2006 to 2008, she thought of a new way to seek solutions: Submit them to the Foreign Ministry to be part of the human rights report China was to submit to the UN and China’s National Human Rights Action Plan.
Cao Shunli and her petitioner friends began to make appeals, and send documents, to the Foreign Ministry as well as the State Council’s Information Office.
In summary, they appealed to the Chinese government, in its preparations for the National Human Rights Action Plan and the UPR State Human Rights Report, to “[include] the participation of non-governmental organizations and representatives from vulnerable groups,” and to [include] in the two documents “descriptions of the rights violations suffered by petitioners and rights defenders over more than a decade” and “the government’s responsibility and concrete measures to solve these problems.”
It didn’t go well.
On February 16, 2009, she organized the “Beijing Rights Defense Walk.” According to the announcement, the purpose for the walk was to demand that “the State Council’s Information Office respond to the application by petitioners and rights defenders for participating in preparing China’s Human Rights Action Plan” and that “Beijing Public Security Bureau Dongcheng branch return the Human Rights Condition Surveys filled and signed by 323 people that the PSB branch illegally confiscated.”
From late 2008 all the way to Cao Shunli’s arrest in September 2013, Cao and her petitioner group would make the same appeals over and over again in writing and through demonstrations, futilely. In the course of five years, she would be put in labor camps twice for a total of 27 months and subjected to numerous arbitrary detentions and disappearances. During the CCP’s 18th Congress in the fall of 2012, they disappeared her using the infamous “black hood” and detained her and many petitioners. Inside the detention center, she told RFI, people were subjected to savage beatings that broke their bones.
Two Stints in Reeducation-through-Labor
In the March 23, 2009, issue of China News Weekly (《中国新闻周刊》), an associate professor of Peking University named Sun Dongdong (孙东东) penned an article (in Chinese) advocating forceful incarceration of people with mental illness in hospitals to ensure social order. By “people with mental illness,” he meant “99% of the chronic petitioners.”
The comment was widely condemned for its absurdity and alleged attempt to justify what the government had been doing: forcefully putting petitioners in mental hospitals. After all, the year before in 2008, professor Sun defended the overall safety of Chinese milk formula in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk formula scandal that victimized more than 300,000 infants.
For days petitioners gathered outside Peking University’s west gate to protest Professor Sun’s comment. On April 10, Cao Shunli was detained while protesting outside Peking University, her alma mater. On April 12, the day before after China announced its National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2010 (in Chinese), Cao Shunli was sentenced to reeducation-through-labor for 12 months for “picking quarrels to create disturbances” in the police station.
“I was so saddened,” she told RFI last summer. “I thought: you are such a big government, but you do this to one individual. I don’t understand it.”
2009 was also the year when China underwent the UPR on human rights.
During RTL, she refused to obey the rules, and she refused to be treated as a criminal, she told Boxun upon release in April 2010. To punish her, she was denied food for five days and was force-fed. “Nose feeding is to stick a tube into your nose and feed fluid through it,” Cao Shunli told RFI last July. “They said to me: since you don’t obey, you will have to eat from your nose. You cannot eat from your mouth.”
Her friend Zhou Li (@lee91741 ) tweeted the other day: “I asked Cao Shunli when she was released from RTL that year, ‘Did they torture you?’ She said, ‘I had never been on a hunger strike, but they still force-fed me, from the nose, very painful. But forget about it. We’ll still do what we do.’”
Ten days after Cao Shunli was released in April 2010, she was detained again and sentenced to another 15 months in RTL. According to right lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪), who defended Cao Shunli in her case, a neighborhood police testified that Cao Shunli was a “key person” in the neighborhood, and that the “relevant organ” detected that Cao Shunli and others had bought train tickets to Shanghai and tickets to visit the Shanghai Expo (世博会). To prevent her from going to Shanghai, they obstructed her application for an ID card, forcibly detained her in a warehouse where, to defend herself, she smashed the window glass. All the time the police recorded her on video and used it against her.
Quoting Chinese law and regulations, Teng Biao also argued that Cao Shunli, suffering from multiple illnesses, should not be put in a labor camp to begin with, and that the Beijing RTL Commission’s refusal to allow her to get medical treatment outside the camp was illegal and inhumane.
“They killed her; they actually killed her, slowly, one stab at a time, they tortured her to death”
Out of the RTL camp in 2011, Cao Shunli picked up her work where she had left off. “Beijing has a judiciary open house day,” she told RFI. “After I was released, I took petitioners to visit RTL camps. We did this twice. I said I must expose this. What they did was to humiliate you and to destroy your dignity. Through my time in RTL camps, I learned about China’s human rights conditions from another aspect.”
She continued to collect human rights condition questionnaires, she prepared requests for information disclosure from the State Council about China’s National Human Rights Action Plan, and she once again petitioned to participate in the writing of this action plan.
“She collected several thousand cases of human rights abuses,” her friend Zhou Li tweeted, “Can you imagine how much work that was?”
“She even translated over a thousand pages of international laws,” Ms. Zhou said in another recent tweet.
On June 18, 2013, Cao Shunli organized a group of mostly female petitioners, known as the “Cao Shunli team,” and they went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They demanded that they be included in the writing of China’s human rights report to the UN Human Rights Council due on July 22. The international conventions that China signed require a country’s human rights report to be written by diverse stakeholders and to represent the true picture of the country’s human rights situation.
“We are appealing to the MOF because we want to let them know, through communication and consultation, that during the four years from China’s issuance of National Human Rights Action Plan to the human rights report China will soon be delivering in front of the UN, human rights conditions in China have not improved,” Cao Shunli told RFI.
The MOF first gave them the runaround, then rejected their request outright. Cao Shunli and her group decided to take turns to sit in day and night on the sidewalks outside the MOF gate.
“During the 24/7 camp-out in front of the MOF,” Ms. Zhou Li tweeted, “when people were tied, they would lie down on a piece of cardboard off the sidewalks, but Cao Shunli never did. She always sat up in the chair and she sat straight. She told everyone: ‘Take a break when you are tired, but as for me, I should sit. We don’t want them to see we are all lying around. We want them to see that we are legitimate, we are serious.’ She sat there, for ninety days and nights.”
Labor camps damaged Cao Shunli’s health, and she had suffered liver problems for a long time and other illnesses. But after she was detained in Beijing Chaoyang Detention Center, she was denied treatment, and even the medications she had carried with her were confiscated, according to her lawyer. Her health deteriorated rapidly. A checkup demanded by her lawyer last November found Cao Shunli was suffering from tuberculosis in both lungs, pleural effusion, and hysteromyoma. Repeated applications for medical parole by her lawyer and family were denied.
Prominent activist Hu Jia has learned that, when she died, Cao Shunli was in a state of Cachexia — dramatic weight loss and muscle atrophy seen in patients with terminal illnesses. Her body was covered in black patches and her skin showed scale-like cracks. “Doctors at 309 Hospital were shocked to see Cao Shunli’s bedsores,” Hu Jia told Deutsche Welle.
Human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who has in-depth knowledge of the Chinese government’s use of torture, warned against the hasty conclusion that Cao Shunli died of “delayed medical treatment.” “It’s unlikely that she died without being tortured and treated inhumanely. Keep in mind of Gao Zhisheng, Xue Jinbo, Sun Zhigang, Perma Norbu, Li Shulian, ‘hide-and-seek‘ in a long list of Chinese citizens who were tortured badly, or tortured to death, in detention centers and prisons.”
Since Cao Shunli’s death, the hospital has been under heavy guard to prevent mourners from gathering. Netizens who signed a signature campaign demanding the truth about Cao Shunli’s death were interrogated by police, according to reports on Twitter. As of now, the family does not know the whereabouts of her body. Activists in Beijing have been placed under house arrest that prevents them from leaving home to organize vigils and attend Cao Shunli’s funeral.
As soon as the news of Cao Shunli’s death broke, Sina Weibo censored her name; the Chinese propaganda authorities instructed that “concerning so-called rights defender Cao Shunli dying of illness while awaiting trial: the media must not report the story, and interactive [online] platforms must take care to thoroughly delete all related images and commentary.” A search for Cao Shunli on Baidu, the Chinese search engine that thinks it is Google, gives the search result of “according to relevant law, statues and policies, the search results shall not be displayed.”
Cao Shunli died, and she must die anonymously in silence. The Chinese government does not want anyone to see a trace of her anywhere.
Indeed, she is little known. Writing this profile I had trouble finding direct quotes from her except in a handful of pieces. But going through the reports to different offices of the Chinese government, to the UN, she had prepared all these years, one is shocked by their volume and more so by the persistence behind it. On Twitter, when a veteran activist expressed bewilderment at how little she knows about Cao Shunli, one tweep replied, “she looks just like a petitioner.” And Ms. Zhou replied, “[she] worked. She just worked.”
Since her death, the US, Britain, EU, Canada and more governments and international human rights organizations expressed sadness and “disturbance.” But I feel there is a general inertia and hollowness in all the condemnations. It is like the only thing the world community has left to do is talk the talk.
Last fall during the UPR at the UN Human Rights Council, Cao Shunli’s name was never mentioned, yet she was the one Chinese who had had faith in the UN system, whether the institution or the collection of nations or both, who connected ordinary Chinese victims of rights abuses to the UN’s human rights framework, who inspired many more Chinese to demand their universal political and civil rights, and who paid the ultimate price for it.
American first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters will arrive in Beijing Wednesday for a visit. The White House officials announced that the first lady will “avoid contentious topics, including China’s human rights violations.”
That is a shame. When the first lady sit down with China’s first lady and have a good chat, enjoying China at its “finest,” they will avoid talking about Cao Shunli, one of China’s most courageous woman warriors who happens to be about the same age as the two illustrious first ladies, or any Chinese languishing behind bars for daring to envision a different China and fight for it. Too bad Michelle will not be seeing the real China, because Cao Shunli is China, China is Cao Shunli.