By Yang Zili, published: December 13, 2014
The Transition Institute researcher is on the run, and his letter provides clues (or no clues) about the recent detention of Guo Yushan and other TI personnel. – The editor
Dear Officer Li,
This is Yang Zili (杨子立), a veteran employee of Transition Institute (传知行社会经济研究所). For lack of a safe way to reach you, I decided to write you this open letter, which I hope you will see, to let you know my thoughts and my position. Out of my own initiative, I also want let the public know what has happened to Transition Institute (TI), now that all of its main leaders have been detained.
Among the current employees of TI, two are detained, and one is criminally detained. If we are to include former colleagues of TI, there are a total of six who have been taken into custody, if we don’t count Xia Lin (夏霖), the lawyer who represents Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), the founder of TI. One after another, TI employees were taken away or summoned for interrogation, and in most cases, their homes were raided. Some have been released, perhaps out of sheer luck, while others have not been heard from. Like a herd of sheep waiting to be slaughtered, we watched our colleagues disappear without protest, indeed without so much as a whimper. We are merely confused and afraid.
We don’t understand why a blow like this is being dealt to a NGO such as TI that engages in social policy research. We did not advocate for street action. Even when we were holding a purely academic seminar, we tried not to do anything that would tick off the domestic security police officers. On the struggle for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, thousands of miles away, TI was nonetheless careful not to take any sort of public stand Why, then, did this strike fall on our heads, out of the blue? We are afraid because we don’t know why. Nor do we know what to expect next. Didn’t the Communist party emphasize rule of law in its recent 4th Plenary Meeting? How can your colleagues disregard the basics of the Criminal Procedure Law? Guo Yushan and Huang Kaiping (黄凯平) have been detained for over 50 days already. If they have been formally arrested, why have the authorities not notified their families in accordance with Article 91 of the Criminal Procedural Law? If they are not being arrested, you should have released them.
When, than rather the shield that protects civil rights and liberties, law is reduced to a weak pretext to be wielded at the pleasure of the proletarian dictatorship, how can we not be afraid? You probably know more about the case of Guo Yushan and TI than I do, since your job used to include monitoring TI. But still, I would like to explain to you how fear has, step by step, come over everyone working at TI.
The first domino that fell was the energetic young woman Ling Lisha (凌丽莎). About two years ago she came to work at TI, following her boyfriend Chen Kun (陈堃). In honor of her lively humor, we called her Little Hot Pepper. She did illustration, design and typesetting, and was a big help to us researchers. She left TI after a few months but we have always regarded her as a little sister of ours. It was said that she was detained because she staged performance art on October 1st in support of the Hong Kong students and Occupy Central. There was nothing surprising about our Little Hot Pepper showing solidarity for the student movement in Hong Kong. After all, nowadays trendy youth and forward-thinking artists all express their individuality in unconventional ways. As her friends, those of us at TI did not protest her detention; instead, we wanted to help this young woman, full of naïve notions, to get out of custody as early as possible. Of course our efforts were in vain, and the detention center did not even accept the money and supplies we tried to deposit for her.
At that time, we did not worry about ourselves at all. After all, TI didn’t have anything to do with Occupy Central. And according to past experiences, people who were taken away for “picking quarrels and creating disturbances” would be released in a few days, or at any rate no more than 37 days. But a week had passed, and Lin’s mother called TI to ask about her situation. By then each one of us was feeling uneasy, so much so that we forgot to comfort Lisha’s mother over the phone. I later called her up to apologize for our behavior. By now Lisha has been detained for more than 60 days, way beyond the legally prescribed duration for criminal detention, but her family has not received any notice of arrest. [Ling Lisha was released on probation on December 11, 2014, two days after this letter was written. – Editor]
From October 6the onward, we were no longer able to reach Lisha’s boyfriend Chen Kun (陈堃). We grew more anxious, but not yet fearful. Chen Kun was in charge of organizing conferences, and as recently as this March, helped me to put together a training session on how to interview the underprivileged and downtrodden members of Chinese society. Mid-year this year, he had left TI to go work for Liren Academy (立人大学). To me, both Liren Academy and Liren Libraries are public interest projects, similar to what TI does, except that they serve the public even more directly. Though we seldom saw him after he left, we were still shocked by Chen Kun’s detention. Given that more than 20 Liren Libraries had recently been shut down, we thought his detention was part of the destruction of Liren Academy. We didn’t speculate what would happen to him.
Two weeks later, Chen Kun’s family received notice of his criminal detention that says he is detained in Haidian Detention Center, but his lawyers made four trips there without being able to meet him. The detention center told the lawyers that Chen Kun wasn’t there. In other words Chen Kun has been disappeared. According to Chinese law, he should not have been disappeared for so long no matter what crimes he has committed.
Fear struck us only when Guo Yushan was detained. He was taken away at 2 am on October 9th, and his home was searched. TI’s office was also raided around the same time. I did not find out until I was called up the next day to go attend a meeting at our office. Even though we all had foreboding that the authorities were going to finally settle score with TI, we still held out a ray of hope, little justified as it was. At the time the rumors had it that Lisha had a receipt that she put in TI’s name, but the truth remains that what she did had nothing to do with TI. If this was the reason Guo Yushan was detained, he should have been let go in at most 37 days. Even if this is about settling scores, Guo has broken no laws; TI had paid taxes for every penny it made. Don’t tell me that the government waited a whole two years to punish Guo Yushan for his role in the Chen Guangchen incident, whose persecution at the hands of the security forces was manufactured in a flagrant abuse of power by the disgraced ex-chief of the secret police Zhou Yongkang (Guo and friends picked up Chen Guangcheng from Shandong and helped him to enter the U. S. embassy in Beijing in April, 2012. – Editor].
But the fact remains that Guo Yushan has already been detained for over two months, and his wife has not received a detention notice. A leading figure in growing nascent civil society in China, Guo Yushan has made an enormous contribution, and his reputation, ability and connections are unparalleled. If even he is denied the due process under the law, how can the rest of us expect fair treatment?
By the time Huang Kaiping, director of TI, was “disappeared,” fear spread among all of us. On October 12th, your colleagues took him away and there has been no word of him since. In order for TI to survive, Guo Yushan and the Institute have learned to bite the bullet over the years, and Guo Yushan even resigned from the directorship and withdrew from TI projects. Huang Kaiping, a young man born during the eighties, was completely absorbed in his research projects. None of us ever saw this coming. The day after Guo Yushan was detained, Huang Kaiping filed for the dissolution of TI, giving up everything its researchers have done over the past seven years, willingly putting up with low salaries. Having embraced so much sacrifice and paid such a high price, TI still did not manage to preserve itself. Is that the fate of Chinese NGOs?
It came as no surprise, then, when He Zhengjun (何正军), another TI employee, was summoned for questioning and ended up detained. What surprised us was that other TI employees actually made their way out again after interrogations and even house raids. If these detentions were not about Occupy Central, then this can only mean that TI is now being treated as a criminal group. It is then no wonder for you to detain He Zhengjun, the administrator and financial officer of TI. It’s possible that each one of TI employees has now become a criminal suspect.
So, when your colleagues looked for me urgently on November 27, I had to weigh it carefully: Do I go or do I not go? If I go, I would no doubt be detained as well, and I don’t know for how long I would be in custody. I will absolutely not be providing witness testimony regarding Guo Yushan, so I would not be making a simple trip to the police station. In my interaction with you, I believe that as an individual you have some goodness in you, but since all of my colleagues who have thus far been detained have not received fair treatment in accordance with legal procedure, how could I trust the system in which you work? If I don’t go, I will have to choose self-exile. After consideration, I chose the latter. It means that I will not be able to go home to my wife and child; I will not be able to find a job to support my family and myself; I will have to constantly worry about being captured; and at the same time I will not want to cause my old parents to worry about me. This is exactly my current situation. But if I were thrown into jail, the situation will be worse. Luckily, I have a lot of friends and, wherever I go, I can get help from them.
It was only after I chose self-exile that I heard about my ex-colleague, Liu Jianshu (柳建树). It turned out he has also been criminally detained, in secret, for several days already. He is a stellar law graduate who studied overseas [at Oxford University]. We have not seen much of each other recently, and people told me he was doing public interest law projects. News on the Internet has it that he is being indicted for “illegal business operation,” which I suspect the government pulled out of a hat, since to my knowledge he has never done anything like that. His arrest convinces me once again that I was right to get out.
You may be thinking: If I were confident I had broken no laws, why don’t I just explain everything to the authorities? It would all come out alright then. Well, that is exactly what I would have thought myself fifteen years ago. The price for my naivete was eight years spent in prison. The group we started, the New Youth Study Group, was nothing more than an amateur get-together of recent college graduates, where we talked about the problems rural areas faced and what we came across in our research. For that, the four of us received a total of 36 years.
Was it possible that Liu Yong (刘勇), the head of the Pretrial Office, did not know the truth about our case? That the two procurators, Li Leisen (李磊森) and Han Xiaoxia (韩晓霞), as well as the two judges Bai Jun (柏军) and Jin Xing (金星), did not know that we never planned or did anything? Can anyone who looks at the mission of our group, “proactive exploration of social reform,” bring himself to say that we were there to overturn the government? However, anything that we were allowed to say or was brought in as evidence in court went to prove our guilt. All it took was an airily trumped-up charge for the four of us to turn into middle-aged men behind bars, where our health, willpower and intellect all suffered.
I had the good luck to meet Guo Yushan the day after I left prison. Joining the organization he founded, Transition Institute, helped me get back into society. My first marriage fell apart after my sentencing, and now I was able to remarry and have a child. Even though we could not afford a house, which meant our son was unable to have the Beijing household registration that would have entitled him to enroll in school, at least I had a stable job that pulled me out of severe post-prison depression.
At Transition Institute, my job was to research the problems that rural areas and migrant workers face. I am sure you know all about our reports and workshops. Over the last three years, I organized some twenty lectures and workshops, wrote seven research reports and three analysis papers. I also organized almost two hundred interviews of grassroots Chinese with the help of volunteers I trained, and we published three volumes of these interviews. If you had taken me against my will, I may not have told you as much for your interrogation record, so I might as well tell you about what I did at TI in this letter.
You may also want to know why I often find lawyers for human rights activists. The reasons are very simple. First of all, as someone who has suffered deeply from political persecution, I understand all too well that only genuine rule of law can guarantee the rights of citizens. I particularly feel sympathy for the victims of power abuses by the underlings of Zhou Yongkang, the disgraced ex-chief of the secret police. Secondly, I got to know a lot of human rights lawyers through the Internet; they know about what happened to me, and trust me. I believe that these lawyers, whose ranks keep swelling, will be the mainstay of China’s progress towards rule of law and attainment of a civilized society. I cannot become a lawyer myself because of my criminal record, but I can be a good friend to lawyers.
Finally, please convey my apology to your colleague, E. I promised to meet with him, but could not keep our appointment in the end. In a life-or-death situation, our first reaction is going to be to run for our lives. That is not quite where I am at, as I am only sidestepping danger for the moment being. Lies are often told in order to get to a suspect, but to date no one who has told such lies in order to catch somebody has ever apologized to those he arrested.
I would have liked to, if I could, come off as a fearless hero, but my disastrous past warned me that I still have to do my duty by my family. I have parents and a child, our monthly rent poses quite a burden, and my wisest option is to avoid prison. I can also believe that Officer E would not wrong me on purpose. But in my mind, all of you must put the orders from your superiors above the law, since you have no other way to a promotion as police officers.
If my crimes are indeed egregious and a warrant for my arrest is put on the Internet, I will turn myself in immediately. Otherwise, I will continue to be on the run, until the case against Guo Yushan and TI is over. You may tell me that if I were guilty I would not be able to get out of it, and if I were innocent, there would be no need to go into hiding. Theoretically, you are quite right, but the gap between theory and China’s reality is rather too wide.
I can tell you about an example I experienced personally. Haike, my New Youth peer sentenced to ten years for subversion, has a classmate Yanhua who participated in New Youth Study Group alongside Haike every step of the way. However, he was not formally arrested. Yanhua wrote to the judge saying that since Haike got ten years, as someone who took part in everything Haike did, he asks for a ten-year sentence for himself. He never got a response.
The real reason for the discrepancy in the way they were treated was that Haike was picked up in Beijing and Yanhua in Tianjin. The Beijing Security Bureau wanted to make a big deal out of our case to score a success, while the Tianjin Bureau looked at the exact same thing and thought it did not constitute a crime.
Many of the Beijing officials who slapped together the wrongful conviction against us have since gone to jail for corruption, but the system that allowed them to trap the innocent has never changed. After leaving prison in 2009, I had the occasion to deal with the domestic security police force, and feel much better about these interactions than my dealing with the National Security folks. The former are people you can at least deal with. However, it is still undeniable that political power operates above the law. My boss and colleagues, now in custody, have personally testified to that fact. So I ask you and Officer E to please understand my choice.
Even though I chose to run, we can still be in touch. This can only be done through my Google email, email@example.com. The more advanced Chinese Internet technology becomes, the more I believe only Gmail can guarantee both my privacy and safety.
Researcher, Beijing Transition Institute
December 9, 2014
Yang Zili (杨子立), born in 1971 and has a master degree in mechanical engineering from Peking University in 1998. In August 2000, he and a group of young intellectuals formed the New Youth Study Group (新青年学会) to “explore ways to reform the society.” He and three others (Xu Wei, Jin Haike and Zhang Honghai) were detained in March 2001. On May 28, 2003, a court in Beijing convicted them of “subversion of state power,” and Yang was sentenced to eight years in prison while Xu Wei and Jin Haike were sentenced to ten years, and Zhang Honghai eight years, in prison. Yang Zili was released on March 12, 2009. He has since been working at Transition Institute.
Just Man Guo Yushan, by Xiao Shu, November, 2014
Friends Gone to Jail – Chinese Activists Kou Yanding and Guo Yushan, by Zeng Jinyan, October, 2014
Few Clues in Chinese Editor’s Detention, Sinosphere, the New York Times, December 3, 2014
Rural Library Chain Closes, Citing ‘Tremendous Pressure’, Sinosphere, the New York Times, September 22, 2014
Chinese Government Moves to Limit and Eliminate Public Service NGOs: the Case of Liren Rural Libraries, by Song Zhibiao, November, 2014
Young, Idealistic and Caught Up in a Wave of Detentions, Sinosphere, the New York Times, December 10, 2014
Civil Disobedience in Sodom – A Letter to Xu Zhiyong, by Guo Yushan, August, 2013
More on the New Youth Study Group:
Two Chinese Dissidents Freed After Years in Prison, the New York Times, March 14, 2009.
New Youth Study Group Members to Become Eligible for Parole, CECC analysis, March 16, 2006.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang and Yaxue Cao)