By Yaxue Cao, published: September 23, 2015
On March 31, when China’s youngest political criminal Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) heard that Xi Jinping was going to visit America, he wrote President Obama a letter. He had just turned 25, and had been held in a police lockup awaiting trial in Chibi, Hubei Province, for one year and ten months (as of this writing, it’s over two years and four months). In his letter, he told his own story and also tried to get Americans to “learn about a different China.” He seemed to truly believe his letter would make it in front of President Obama, and apologized for occupying the president’s precious time. But he reasoned: this could be counted as “a time for international moral responsibility,” and so wasn’t a waste.
The letter has been on my mind for months, because it’s my job to bring the voice of Huang Wenxun and those like him to the world. But his letter was too long, so I decided to transmit the essentials. Then I thought I would also include the accounts of two other “political criminals”: Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄).
I’m under no illusions that President Obama will read this letter, even though I sit just four miles from the White House as I write. “To Obama” is just the title of this essay.
Huang Wenxun grew up on the coast of southernmost China, in the city of Huizhou, Guangdong Province. During senior high school (around 2008) he and his schoolmates wrote down their aspirations in life. Huang’s was grand: “to establish a democratic China.” He launched a student club dedicated to drawing Manga comics that made light of contemporary politics. But soon before graduation he dropped out of school: “I could no longer stand that wretched socialist-communist political education.”
I’ve read his letter several times, and I became conflicted every time I get to this part. One half of me reproached him: why didn’t you go to college? (I’m old enough to be his mother, so my reproval is that of a parent.) The other half of me understands deeply his torment, having been forced to mechanically memorize answers for political class examinations. I scored very high marks on the political portion when I took the national college entrance exam, but failed it badly when I took exams for graduate school—the revulsion I felt was such that swallowing flies would be a more pleasant experience than memorizing the Party’s brain-dead dogma.
In 1990 when Huang Wenxun was born, China was still cloaked in the deathly stillness that followed the bloody massacre of students on the streets of Beijing in 1989. That enforced silence has since clung to the air in China, noticeable to anyone in the least bit sensitive. But having spent a couple of years in Guangzhou, this post-1989 young adult came to the firm belief that street activism was his mission in life. “There need to be people constantly taking to the streets, making more and more Chinese people aware of their rights and civic consciousness. A public that refuses to slumber anymore is the ultimate force for toppling a dictatorship.”
Indeed, a phrase has been circulated for years among China’s opposition circles: “A thousand complaints and cries does less than standing on the street once.”
But this young man gave me a scare. On March 10, 2013, during the Communist Party’s annual ‘Two Sessions’ (两会), Huang Wenxun took to the street in Shenzhen, holding an enormous placard overhead.
Have no fear!
Overthrow the Communist Party!
Topple the dictatorship!
Long live democracy, freedom, constitutionalism, human rights, and equality!
The year prior he and his friends staged a similar event in Guangzhou, though the message that time was considerably milder: “No vote, no future.” Every time he did this he would be detained for a short period. He once also handed out flyers on the street, making extemporaneous speeches about voting rights, democracy, and the disclosure of officials’ private assets. In May 2013 he was in Chibi, Hebei Province with a few friends when he was arrested. He had by then visited ten cities and seen and made many friends.
He said his fear didn’t recede despite doing more activities. But every time the police came to get him, he’d shout what he wanted to say, “enjoying an authentic feeling from the depth of my soul.”
On the day he was arrested and thrown into the detention center in Chibi, he was repeatedly shocked with high-voltage electric batons by police—simply because he kept questioning the legality of their procedures. That night he saw police officers beating a few female prisoners outside the fence, and yelled at them to stop. So the police came in and gave him another round of electrocution.
He told President Obama about life in the detention center: He was moved between two cells, the bigger one of the two is about 6×6 meters; the open space where he gets fresh air is about 4×4 meters. “Inside the four high walls, I could see the sky through metal bars.” Detainees were made to work over 10 hours a day, and in his prison, they make paper money used for worshiping the dead. In other prisons, he reported what he had heard, prisoners made Jack & Jones, Adidas, Metersbonwe, Camel and other name brands. Medicines were sold to sick prisoners at high prices, and if they didn’t have money in their accounts, they wouldn’t get treatment. “I have seen with my own eyes that prisoners with edema due to malnutrition working over ten hours a day without any medication. And those who have connections or money receive ‘humane’ treatment.”
Compared to jails in China, Shawshank looks like Heaven on earth.
Huang Wenxun requested that Obama tell Xi Jinping: “The Chinese people are going to wake up,” and “we hope the Communist Party abandons and ends one-party rule.” He said that he also hoped that the international community will always be vigilant when dealing with dictatorships. “Don’t rely on them,” he cautioned, “and don’t be kidnapped by profit!”
He wasn’t sure whether the letter to Obama would bring him retaliation, or more charges, from the authorities. But, “I’m not scared anymore. The longer I’m locked up, the more darkness I see, the little bit of fear in my heart should die away, especially when they grabbed from me the family letter notifying me of the death of my grandmother two days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. She wanted to see me on the holiday for family reunion.”
He “truly wishes that America will become stronger, and that its leaders, like in the past, adopt a clear and firm stance against dictatorships.” He also believes that “between the two camps of the free, democratic world and the dictatorships, freedom will ultimately prevail.”
At the end of the letter, he becomes elated as though he would fly free of his cage and out of the high walls. “Suddenly I thought of my hometown and my father… my yearning for light and freedom has never been this strong.” He propose that a World Freedom Day be established.
I can’t bear to tell him: there’s already a Human Rights Day, a Democracy Day, an Anti-Torture Day. Adding a Freedom Day won’t change anything. China and the United States hold human rights dialogues every year, but China’s human rights situation has gotten worse and worse. On Friday September 25, President Obama will welcome Xi Jinping to the White House with a 21 gun salute. Even if the American president and people shrug their shoulders at human rights in China, or at the large-scale arrest of human rights lawyers and activists, this is the head of a regime that has hacked the personnel records of millions of federal workers. It’s tantamount to a terrorist attack. I’m also American and I want to know: What is wrong with America?
This isn’t all. There are reports saying that when Xi visits, the White House is going to shut Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House, forcing protesters farther away. Lafayette Square, I heard, is hardly ever shut down for protesters; it’s the very symbol of free speech in the face of power, and it belongs to the people. Is White House enforcing a request from the Chinese government? What’s wrong with Obama?
Now let’s turn to Tang Jingling. In 2014 he was arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and was brought to trial this summer. His sentence hasn’t been announced.
This year Tang turns 44, but he looks much younger, bearing all the traces of “a youth from the plains of the Yangtze River and Han River who was shy and proud.” He used to visit Twitter often, the earliest impression I got of him was from this tweet: “Has there ever been law in the eyes of the communist bandits? In late 1996 when I passed the bar exam and became a lawyer, determined to commit myself to social justice, I went to the Shantou court in Longhu, Guangdong, to attend a court hearing. It was my first time to a court hearing. There was a young man on trial, accused of rape. He painfully described how, in custody, he had his testicles smashed by police to force a confession. The judge interrupted him hastily. This was how I began my career as a lawyer.”
I was new on Twitter when I read that. As a short story writer, I was drawn to his story, imagining the feelings and thoughts passing through the newly licensed young lawyer sitting in the back of the courtroom. I wanted to interview him, and began to prepare. I even made a Tang Jingling folder on my computer where I saved his articles I found online.
But I got busier and busier. I was constantly dealing with more urgent things, and always felt that he wasn’t in imminent danger and the interview could wait. In the end, I never talked to him.
According to his self defense and final statement at trial, he was an early adopter in using electronic bulletin boards, emails, independent websites, online communities, and microblogging platforms to enlighten the public about democracy. He became an active warrior against the Communist Party’s constant campaigns to censor and destroy such information. He believed that the arrival of the Internet, coupled with the unstinting efforts of liberals to express themselves, “have redrawn the map of China’s political ideology, broken the monopoly of the Party’s mouthpiece media on China’s public opinion sphere, and created an opportunity for the next stage of China’s democratic transformation.”
In 2003 during the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case, netizens mobilized a signature campaign to abolish the Custody and Repatriation system (收容遣送制), and he was the legal adviser. In 2004, Tang and lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) provided defense for two shoe factory workers in Dongguan who led a strike. Both were among the earliest rights lawyers. He was the counsel for villagers in Taishi village, Guangdong, who revolted to impeach corrupt village heads. Soon he was disbarred and his short career as a lawyer ended.
But that was only the beginning of his struggle. Many in opposition circles were beset by despair and saw no viable path and strategy following the bloody crackdown in 1989 and cruel prison terms for those who tried to organize opposition parties in the 1990s. But Tang Jingling believed that “China’s democratization requires a strategy and it is possible.” He found inspiration in Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience. In 2006, he started the “Buy-back My Ballot” campaign: In 2006 and 2007, China held the first county and township-level elections across the country that involved 900 million mostly rural Chinese. The campaign encouraged citizens to openly state that they would not take part in the local vote registration, nor would they vote.
There have been no real elections under the current regime, and citizens have never been given the right to elect their leaders. The campaign reminded people not to give up their rights silently; instead, protest the lack of meaningful elections by making a statement.
In the spring of 2007, he initiated “June Fourth Reflection Day,” hoping to activate the dormant seeds of the 1989 movement. In 2008, he started with friends the “April 29 Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit” in Suzhou. Lin Zhao was a student at Peking University when she was declared a rightist, and on April 29, 1968, she was executed in Shanghai. Lin Zhao’s name in today’s China has become a symbol of opposition, thanks to a wave of scholastic and documentary studies by liberal intellectuals and filmmakers.
The Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit lasted seven years, drawing more and more activists each year. It has become such a standard “pilgrimage” for many that the authorities have installed surveillance cameras over the tomb. When the visitors arrive, the road leading up to the tomb is flanked by black-clad police.
Tang discovered, with joy, Dr. Gene Sharp and his non-violent resistance handbooks. He and friends wore T-shirts with the words “democracy” and “freedom” in Baiyun Hills, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou, to “bring elements of democratic culture into daily life.” It didn’t work in China. Unsurprisingly each one of them was summoned by police and threatened. From 2009, Tang initiated social projects such as “my 583,” “the abolition of household registration apartheid” and the proposal of a “basic retirement plan,” to mobilize ordinary people to demand their basic rights to livelihood.
He was one of the 303 Chinese who first signed Charter 08, and was among those arrested during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown in 2011. The police held him for 6 months and tortured him. They also turned his apartment into a prison for his wife. In 2013, there was another round of sweeping arrests which continued into this year with the disappearance of scores of rights lawyers and activists—Tang Jingling was once again swept up.
In the detention center he was locked up with embezzlers, gangsters, smugglers, gamblers, con artists, murderers, and rapists. “More than 20 people are locked in a closed cell of a little over 20 square meters with one toilet and one cold water tap… Here it’s a luxury to see the sunlight, the clouds, the moon, the stars, or a blade of grass. Such ravages are beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it first hand.” He continued: “It’s like being tossed into a fire pit, or trampled underfoot.”
Strictly speaking, what he and his colleagues have done is not that much, and the impact they had is also minuscule. He knows this. “My assessment of what I have done is just the first shovel of dirt the foolish old man dug to move the mountain in front of his house, or the first rock Jingwei dropped to fill a sea.” But the charge against him is grand: he is a subverter.
By comparison the careers of Gandhi and Mandela, two great freedom fighters, were luxurious. As lawyers, they were able to practice normally. As political leaders, they were able to organize. As activists, they could demonstrate on the streets. As “criminals” on trial, they could defend themselves eloquently. When I saw a photograph of Mandela doing carpentry in the open, sunny yard of a prison, I thought that compared to what goes on in China, his oppressors were rather merciful.
More than once I’ve heard China watchers dismiss China’s opposition movement. They shake their heads impatiently: “You don’t have to like the Communist Party, but there’s no viable alternative.” Listening to them, you get the sense that the opposition is incompetent and worthless—their reading of China barely conceals their unthinking acceptance and adoration of power.
The 49-year-old Guo Feixiong (A.K.A. Yang Maodong) is a product of the Western liberal thinking that surged through China in the 1980s. The genesis of his political opposition came from the 1986 student movement, which he took part in as a philosophy student in Shanghai, and the 1989 movement when he was a teacher in Hubei Province. He described the exploration of peaceful opposition during the 1990s as “the god of medicine tasting a hundred plants to determine their properties.” In the rights movement that was born and shaped between 2003 to 2005, he saw an expandable path for Chinese political opposition that’s “highly original, deeply rooted, and indelible.”
In the seminal Taishi Village incident (太石村罷免事件) in which villagers revolted to remove corrupt village heads, he became the brain and the nerve center. “We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open and procedurally proper. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and participation from society at large.”
In his own words, he is “one of the earliest definers, makers, and foot soldiers of the rights movement.”
His prison career started almost as soon as his leadership in the rights movement. Since April 2005, he has been incarcerated four times, and the third time he was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal business operations.” He enjoyed a short-lived, surveilled “freedom” from September 2011 to August 2013, when he was imprisoned again.
Because of his refusal to compromise, “my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling ‘You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is tougher here – you or the Party!’ Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few ‘standard bearers,’ as they put it, to accept parole.”
“For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an ‘illegal business operation.’ I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote about the Mandela trial in the paper’s obituary of him: “His legend grew when, on the first day of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.” I don’t know what a Xhosa leopard-skin cape looks like, but I can imagine Mandela walking into the court, wrapped in a leopard-skin cape, noble, tall, and irresistibly charming.
But Guo Feixiong lamented: “In 2007, an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.” In fact, more than stripping dissidents of their freedom, the Communist Party has always used extreme cruelty to strip them of their dignity.
This time around, Guo Feixiong has been incarcerated simply for urging the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and for taking part in the call for press freedom during the Southern Weekend incident in 2013. He has been denied yard time for 776 days, since the Chinese authorities secretly detained him on August 8, 2013. Liu Yuandong (刘远东), who was arrested and tried without a verdict for his participation in the same incident, has not had yard time for 924 days. China’s tyrannical rulers use these methods to destroy the lives of dissenting citizens.
To fellow political prisoners who buckle under torture, Guo Feixiong has only tolerance and understanding. “We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and a dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule,” he wrote.
Guo Feixiong is a doer. “For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators, and that we did not give up the purity we cherish the most… The chief and greatest punishment we have for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity.”
He also saw himself as “Sisyphus who rolls an immense boulder up a hill, Prometheus who steals the fire, the hero Kuafu who dies chasing the sun, or the foolish old man who is determined to move the mountain.”
The court statement he issued on November 29, 2014, following his trial thus concludes, “our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front lines of the movement for freedom, torturous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man.”
Quite frankly, I cannot imagine how he could have written this in his prison cell.
“Why doesn’t China have a Mandela?” Following the passing of Mandela at the end of 2013, I asked Mr. Hu Ping (胡平) whose pamphlet “On Freedom of Speech” enlightened many young students during the 1980s. He said, “One of the greatest ironies of history is that the most famous freedom fighters were famous because, to a great extent, the oppression they revolted against was not tyrannical and cruel in the extreme.”
I also noticed that, on Twitter, many Chinese tweeps pointed out the opponents of Mandela’s struggle. “What formed Mandela’s greatness,” wrote lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, “apart from his belief and perseverance, was more importantly the fact that the rulers respected a bottom line: Mandela was almost never beaten in custody. Just think: having been imprisoned for over 20 years, he was still able to walk out of jail in good health and without having to confess to his ‘crimes.’ This is simply unthinkable in dictatorships.”
In other words, the Communist Party is so savage and despicable that any Mandela in China would be destroyed before they had the chance to become Mandela.
On the day of Mandela’s funeral, I turned on the television for once. President Obama was speaking. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.” All of a sudden, our president looked to me like an actor—saying the most beautiful words on an occasion that demanded no courage or leadership. I jumped up and turned the television off.
Of course, there is another part of Mandela’s funeral I remember: that the sign language interpreter next to President Obama, gesticulating vividly, was in fact an impostor.
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the founder and editor of China Change. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
2015 Front Line Defenders Award Presented to Chinese HRD Guo Feixiong, September 11, 2015.
Albert Einstein Institution Statement, June 25, 2015.