Li Heping, Ai Weiwei, August 21, 2016
This is a translation of an Ai Weiwei interview of lawyer Li Heping (李和平) in July 2010 (here, here, here, and here) that was released only recently. Beginning from his first involvement in “sensitive” cases around 2002, Li Heping went through the trajectory of his years as one of China’s earliest rights lawyers, including police brutality against him in 2007. Over the past decade or so, many early rights lawyers have withdrawn from the scene under duress, but Li Heping is one of the few who have persevered. He was arrested in July, 2015, as one of dozens of rights lawyers in what is known as the “709 Crackdown” of human rights lawyers and activists. After a year of secret detention with no access to legal counsel or to family, his case has recently been sent to prosecutors for indictment, but earlier this month, Chinese state media seemed to have already charged him with “using funds from a certain overseas NGO to engage in subversion of state power.” If the spectacle of the four show trials in early August is any indication, the entire 709 crackdown is spurred by unfounded fears and is a mockery of the rule of law. – The Editors
My name is Li Heping (李和平), and I love being a lawyer. I’ve served as counsel in many cases that have met with success, and that feeling of accomplishment makes me really happy.
Starting in 2002 I started getting involved in cases that were deemed sensitive — for example, cases involving Article 105 of the Criminal Law, “subversion of state power.” The first case I took at that time was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会) where the Procuratorate had charged Yang Zili (杨子立) and three others of “subverting state power.” The first time I defended them was when I came to understand issues associated with politics and prisoners of conscience, and I was really shocked. At first, I was really at a loss as to how to defend them. Back then I didn’t know much about politics, democracy, republicanism, constitutionalism — I only knew how to mount a defense from the perspective of criminal law and the criminal process. But I later found that this sort of criminal procedure defense is simply useless.
When the young migrant worker, new college graduate Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) was beaten to death in police custody in 2003, we also paid close attention. Back then Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Yu Jiang (俞江), the three PhDs in Law from Peking University, wrote a citizen petition demanding that the National People’s Congress abolish the draconian “Custody and Repatriation Regulations” (《收容审查条例》). And later, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, who had just assumed office, did abolish these regulations. We were really happy. In 2004 and 2005 it seemed that the internet was so dynamic and active, lots of people and cases would be exploding online, and we’d always be following them. Although, at the time the number of cases I actually participated in was quite few. I heard that there was a Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) who’d written three open letters about Falun Gong cases. He’d written a letter to Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), head of the NPC, demanding that the NPC examine Article 300 of the Criminal Law, about “using a heretical religious organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” He also demanded that they stop this sort of campaign-style persecution against Falun Gong. The impact of these three letters was huge. In 2004 there was also the lawyer Guo Guoting (郭国汀), who was punished by the judicial organs for representing sensitive cases — they threatened him with shutting down his legal practice. I was rather baffled: He’s a lawyer defending a client, and you’re going to shut down his firm? I really didn’t get it back then.
The Yang Zili Case and the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield Case
In 2005 when Yang Zili appealed, his wife Lu Kun (路坤) also asked Gao Zhisheng for help, who then notified me. That’s how I came to know Gao Zhisheng, and we got involved in Yang Zili’s appeal together. While that was underway, I also came across the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield case (陕北油田案), which is where the Shaanxi provincial government attempted to nationalize privately-run oil wells, and the owners of those wells didn’t agree. There was a lawyer, Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), who went and offered legal services to those well owners and was arrested by the local government. At that point myself and Gao Zhisheng, as well as some other lawyers who also got involved, went to represent Zhu Jiuhu. We had all the paperwork in order to visit Zhu, but were denied visitation by the local officials. A lot of interesting things happened — for example right outside the door of the police station, the armed police came and surrounded us. But thankfully six months later they released Zhu.
The ‘Dongyang, Huashui’ Case
Afterwards there were a series of similar cases — for instance, the incident in Huashui township, Dongyang city, Zhejiang (浙江东阳画水). On April 4, 2005, in Huashui the authorities mobilized over 3,000 police in order to expel villagers who had come to petition in defense of their rights. The villagers let off firecrackers, and before long about 30,000 more villagers materialized, completely surrounding the police. The police then began firing canisters of tear gas, but the wind was blowing it right back at them. In the end they simply fled under the blows of the citizens. A lot of police were injured, including a deputy mayor who was seriously hurt. The police later arrested and sentenced nine people, and we defended them.
The Chen Guangcheng Case
AI WEIWEI: Was it you who took on the Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) case?
LI HEPING: At the beginning it was me who represented him.
Let me explain how the Chen Guangcheng case happened. Linyi Township in Shandong Province (山东临沂) is a well-known “old revolutionary base” of the Communist Party, and they were extremely horrible in carrying out the birth control policies. For example if there was one person in a village who had already given birth, hadn’t been sterilized, and got pregnant again with the second child, then the authorities would take away not just the family of the woman’s husband who didn’t submit to sterilization, but even arrest everyone in the entire village — collective punishment (连坐). Only after the woman was handed over would they let everyone else go. And when they arrested villagers, it was not a simple detention — there were beatings, and they also fined them 100 yuan ($15) a day. For peasants, 100 yuan a day is no mean sum. They also beat several people to death.
At this point Chen Guangcheng, a blind man, thought that this was wrong. He looked for a lawyer, and right away found me, and I asked Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富) and a few other lawyers to go and investigate. The investigation found that the problem was indeed extremely severe. Later, Teng Biao and some other people also went, and also there was Guo Yushan (郭玉闪). Everyone wrote articles about it, and then foreign journalists also went, turning it into a big deal. The local government thought that they were just losing too much face, so they shut Chen Guangcheng up in his home, surrounded him with a large number of guards, and made sure he was under watch.
But Chen Guangcheng was really an amazing person. Despite his blindness, he scaled the wall in his courtyard, made his way to Shanghai by himself, and then came to Beijing. In Beijing he hid out in our home for quite a while. The Shandong authorities came to Beijing looking for him, and they figured that he’d have come to Beijing to stay with one of us. They found him hiding out in our compound, and abducted him back to Shandong.
After he was taken back they put him under even stronger guard, and Chen Guangcheng could no longer escape. At one point a lot of friends traveled to see him, and he wanted to go outside. On that occasion, I don’t know exactly what happened, but the police let him leave the house. Right outside was an intercity highway, and when he got to road the police blocked it off. Cars kept coming, and the road was blocked. So the police charged Chen Guangcheng with obstructing traffic and destroying public property. The latter charge was because they said that someone had smashed a police car. So we lawyers also defended that case at the time.
A lot of lawyers have been beaten in an attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng. We were the first batch, and later there was Li Jingsong (李劲松), Li Fangping (李方平), also Zhang Lihui (张立辉) — a group would go and be beaten and repelled before another batch going again. A lot of lawyers went. At that time the Ministry of Justice started exerting pressure on us, saying that if you still try to represent Chen’s case, you might not pass your annual lawyers’ qualification review. I thought that since there were new people getting involved, I’d just recuse myself from the case.
Later Li Jingsong, Li Fangping, Zhang Lihui, and Xu Zhiyong took on the case. The whole case was really interesting — Shandong police ended up complaining about us to authorities in Beijing. In the end when this case went to court, I didn’t go.
The “Three Grades of Servants” Case
There was a similar kind of case up in northeastern China, the “Three Grades of Servants” case. The Ministry of Public Security made this a “top priority” case for 2004, what’s known as a “thunderbolt case.” The police said this house church was a cult and grabbed more than 300 people. Eventually, they convicted 64 people, 22 of them sentenced to death and 10 executed. So it was a really big case. But at the time, the authorities placed extremely tight restrictions on any information about the case. They’d make sure to grab anyone who dared contact a lawyer. No information could get out.
I remember my first interaction with the case was February 9, 2006. They told me the trial would start in just over 20 days and asked me if I could be a defense lawyer. As soon as they found me, I went and found four other lawyers and we headed to the Northeast. When we got to the court, they refused to give us access to the case files. So we sent two formal letters to the court saying that if they weren’t going to let us read the case files we wouldn’t act as defense lawyers. There was nothing else to do. Then they said okay and let us selectively photocopy parts of the files. Before we got involved, no other lawyer had been able to photocopy documents from the files in that case.
We worked on the “Three Grades of Servants” case for all of 2006, representing the top two defendants in the case, Xu Shengguang (徐圣光) and Li Maoxing (李毛兴). Both of them were executed. We all felt that this was a miscarriage of justice and that there was no basis to sentence them to death. We worked the case, but we had huge doubts about so many issues.
AI WEIWEI: Where did this case take place?
LI HEPING: This was a case with national scope. Including Heilongjiang there were probably eight provincial high courts involved, all handing down verdicts. It was quite a big deal!
AI WEIWEI: Why?
LI HEPING: The authorities considered them to be an underground church, very well organized, and the government was scared. On top of that, there were conflicts between this church and the “Eastern Lightning” church, which was always trying to recruit and even kidnap their followers. Occasionally, members of “Eastern Lightning” would infiltrate their church and “Three Grades” people would detain them. One of these detentions led to a person dying, but there’s no proof that church leaders Li Maoxing or Xu Shengguang were responsible for that. There was no evidence, not a shred. But they put bullets in their heads anyway.
AI WEIWEI: So they used this incident to wipe out this church.
LI HEPING: That’s right. And they said that all the funds church members had contributed to the church had been obtained through fraud and confiscated more than 30 million yuan. That itself was also a pretty big deal.
2007 Kidnapping and Beating
In 2006 Gao Zhisheng’s law firm was given a one-year suspension. I was an attorney at that firm at the time and took part in his hearing. That probably upset folks from the judicial administration bureau and the guobao (domestic security police). I wanted to act as Gao’s defense lawyer in 2007, but the police had started following me in 2006 so that whenever I returned to Beijing there would be police at my door. Wherever I went, I’d be surrounded on all sides by eight policemen who never left my side.
I was living in the Lido Employees Apartments on Jiangtai Road in Chaoyang District. When I went to work, they’d sit across from the office and keep watch. It was quite a deployment! They never said anything, only “We just do what the higher-ups tell us to do,” that kind of thing. When they arrested Gao Zhisheng, they were afraid that there’d be a chain reaction so they started following all of Gao’s friends around like that.
It was September 29, 2007, just before the National Day holiday. Just like they now do whenever a “sensitive period” comes around, all of the guobao started taking their posts outside our homes and putting us under 24-hour surveillance. One guobao, two police officers from the local station, and two security guards—five men in all.
AI WEIWEI: Did you know any of their names?
LI HEPING: Sure, I knew their names. That night there was Liang Jiu, a guobao from the Chaoyang Precinct. The two officers from the local station were new, and I didn’t know them. One of the security guards was named Zhang Qing. I don’t recall the other guard’s name.
Ordinarily, the cops from the local station would change shifts around 8 p.m. To make things easier for them, they would change shifts after I got off work. But on that particular day, Liang Jiu sent the local cops away a little after 3 p.m., leaving only himself. I guess they must have sent Liang some sort of notice.
When I got off work, Liang Jiu said I didn’t need to drive and that I should ride with him. At the time, I thought I got along reasonably well with Liang so I got in his car. Outside my office building there was a newsstand. Liang told me to go over there and wait for him to pull up. Then he left and never came back.
Suddenly, another guy ran up to me. He was over six feet tall and had a scar on his face. He grabbed my right hand and asked: “Are you Li Heping?”
I said: “Yes.”
“Come with me. You’re just the scumbag I’m looking for.”
After he grabbed me, he tried to push me out in front of him but I refused to move. So up comes another guy and grabs my other hand, and soon I had what I guess was a cloth hood placed over my head. Then they forced me into a waiting car that I happened to glimpse had no license plates.
They sat on either side of me, and I sensed that there was another guy in the passenger seat up front. When they grabbed me, they searched through my pockets and took away my briefcase and computer. There were probably two cars. I feel like we probably drove for an hour. They had my hands pinned behind my back and forced my head down almost to my crotch so it was difficult to breathe.
It was the evening rush hour. I couldn’t figure out where they were taking me, but I sensed that we were on the highway and went through a toll station. Later, I sensed that we had gone up into the hills or something like that, probably to a site of theirs. They had to sign in at the gate, so we stopped for a bit before entering. After entering, I felt like we were going underground, perhaps to a basement. Inside the basement, I remember there were between 6 and 10 men, who all started taking turns beating me.
AI WEIWEI: What did they say to you in the car? How did you get out of the car? How did you get into the basement? Did they remove the hood?
LI HEPING: They never said anything in the car, only: “Behave yourself. Move and we’ll beat you to death.” They raised my hands up very high, putting pressure on the blood vessels inside. My legs went completely numb. They removed the hood only after I got in the basement. What color it was, I never really noticed.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of room was it?
LI HEPING: It was like a room in a guesthouse, but without a bed. The floor was tiled, and there was a table with a tablecloth and a leather baton and an electric prod. They took turns beating me—first three would take a turn and then the next three. It was like that.
AI WEIWEI: What do you mean by “took turns”? How did they beat you? Were you sitting or standing? What was it like?
LI HEPING: When I got there, they tried to strip off all my clothes, but I wouldn’t let them. Several of them got together to strip off my clothes, leaving me in my underwear. Then they took the electric prod and “ZAP”—they started giving me shocks! The day after I got out, Li Fangping saw a bunch of marks from where they’d zapped me.
AI WEIWEI: How many times? What did it feel like?
LI HEPING: They zapped me many times. For six hours, they mostly hit me with the electric prod. They also hit me in the head with full water bottles and slapped me. One slap to my left ear pierced my eardrum. They also kicked me and stomped on me. I collapsed on the floor and they were surrounding me, kicking and stomping.
AI WEIWEI: You collapsed?
LI HEPING: Yes, I fell to the floor. I was rolling around and they chased after me to beat me some more. They were even laughing, they seemed perversely happy.
AI WEIWEI: Could you tell what sort of people they were?
LI HEPING: They were pros at this sort of thing. They said they were from state security, but I think they were probably guobao.
AI WEIWEI: Why would they say they were state security?
LI HEPING: I have no idea.
AI WEIWEI: Were there any other conversations?
LI HEPING: Yeah. The first thing they did was interrogating me: “What’s your name? Where are you from?” I said they knew who I was already and I wasn’t going to answer. They grabbed me by the head and said: “Are you going to talk or not?” Then—“POW”—they started slapping me.
They said: “You’re in our hands now, so don’t even think about when you’re going to get out. You are lucky if you ever see a courtroom, but there’s no way we’re sending you to prison. We’ll just say you’ve disapppeared without a trace.” That sort of thing.
AI WEIWEI: You said that they kept taking turns beating you in groups of three. How did you keep track of time?
LI HEPING: I know that it was around one in the morning when they let me go.
AI WEIWEI: You were beaten non-stop up to that point?
LI HEPING: Yeah. I’d gotten off work at 5 p.m. Once I got there, they beat me and kicked me without a break.
AI WEIWEI: When they were beating you like that, was there any point when you couldn’t stand it or you fainted? I mean, what did it feel like?
LI HEPING: Let me put it this way. Of course it hurt a lot, and it was humiliating. But I also thought: “You’re already in their hands, and there’s nowhere to run. So there’s no use in being afraid.” That’s all I was thinking at the time. “Even if they beat you to death, what can you do about it? Nothing.” That was what I was thinking, because I figured there was nothing I could do, right? When you’re getting beat up in a place like that, it doesn’t matter what sort of skills you might have—what can you do? You can only put yourself at their mercy.”
AI WEIWEI: Did you ever think to yourself: “I’m a lawyer. I ought to give them a piece of my mind for the way they’re violating the law”?
LI HEPING: Are they interested in talking with you about law at that moment? They’re already acting like the mafia. If you’re going to talk about the law it ought to be in an open setting, where everyone acts according to the law and the facts. Of course that would be great, but at that moment that’s not the way things were going.
I did say to them at the time: “I’ve got no beef with you, so why are you doing this to me?”
They said to me: “It’s you bunch of outsider lawyers that’s giving us no peace in Beijing! Go back and sell your apartment, sell your firm, and get the hell out of Beijing! We say whether you can practice law, and there’s no way you’re going to practice law without our say-so!”
Afterwards, they took away my lawyer’s license and my passport. They also took my portable hard drive and my laptop hard drive. When I got home, I couldn’t turn on my laptop. I thought maybe they’d reformatted my laptop. When I went to the computer mall to get it fixed, the guy said: “Is this your computer? How come it doesn’t have a hard drive?” It’s like they’re trying to burrow into your head to check out what you’re thinking, they’re so afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What could they find out by looking inside your head?
LI HEPING: They couldn’t find out anything. What can a single lawyer do? It’s just that they took my case files and destroyed the fruit of 10 years of work.
AI WEIWEI: I wonder what was going through your mind as they were beating you. When they beat you over and over, did you ever feel despondent? What was going through your mind? Or was there nothing to think in that moment?
LI HEPING: I really wasn’t thinking anything at the time. I recall telling them that I wasn’t going to hate them, no matter what they did to me. “It’s okay,” I said. “After I get out, the next time I see you I’ll treat you to a meal.” Those guys just laughed and said: “You’ll treat us? A pauper like you?!” That’s because at the time I truly had very little cash on me, so they called me a “pauper.”
AI WEIWEI: Were you poor?
LI HEPING: I can’t say one way or the other. In any case, once I began taking on public interest cases my income dropped dramatically. I had to spend my own money in case after case. If you’re going to put your heart and soul into public-interest lawyering in China, it’s pretty much a dead-end road as far as profit is concerned. If you don’t take on a few commercial cases to make up the difference, then you’re definitely done for. I’m a little better off, because I handle a lot of commercial cases and can use that money to fill the gaps. Overall, I’m doing all right. I may not have had a lot of cash in my pocket, but I had money on my bank card.
AI WEIWEI: How did they finally let you go? Did they get tired of beating you?
LI HEPING: I don’t know. In any case, one of them was in charge, a guy in his forties who was wearing a suit. He was the one giving out the orders. When he said “move,” they moved. When he said “stop,” they stopped. When he told someone to beat me, they beat me.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of a person was he?
LI HEPING: He looked like a nice, gentle sort of guy. He wore a linen suit. I don’t remember whether or not he wore glasses. When they had beaten me to a certain point, he said: “Let’s take him out.” I had no idea where they were taking me, but they put the hood over my head again and bundled me into the car. We drove quite a ways. I thought they were taking me to a new location. Then the car stopped somewhere and they told me to get out. Back at the basement, they’d said: “Let’s go. We’re going to search your place.” At the time, I thought: “Even if you kill my entire family, there’s nothing I can do about it, right? What options do you have living in this kind of society? They will do whatever they will do to you.”
Getting out of the car, they said: “Just wait and see what we’ll do to you if you go back and hold a press conference.” They meant that they didn’t want me to reveal that I’d been beaten and wanted me to keep it a secret. They dropped me off in a wooded area—I don’t know where, but it was still quite far from the city. I thought: “I have no clue where I am, so I guess I’ll just walk in the direction of wherever I see the most light.” I saw lights way off in the distance, in the Beijing suburbs. So, I started walking towards the lights of Beijing.
I walked for a few kilometers before I got to a road, where I saw a sign that read “Xiaotangshan” (小汤山). I found a taxi there and took it back to my home. I remember that the fare was more than 80 yuan, something like 89 yuan. I had just enough in my pockets to cover it.
AI WEIWEI: What time did you get home?
LI HEPING: Probably between 1 and 2 in the morning. My wife was already asleep when I got home, and I didn’t wake her.
I looked myself over in the bathroom mirror. I’d lost a lot of hair. I’d been zapped here [points to neck], my face was swollen, and I had marks all over my body from the electric baton. But I didn’t say anything to my wife. The next day, I told Jiang Tianyong and Li Fangping, and they came over to see me.
On September 30, I wrote everything down. I was really nervous when I published my account of what happened. I remember it was October 1 when it got posted online. That day, Jiang Tianyong and several other lawyers accompanied me to the “Ladies Street” Police Station (女人街派出所) next to my office to file a report. When we filed the report, the police officer said: “Eh, you mean this kind of thing can happen in Beijing? Such a vicious and serious case ought to be fully investigated.” But nothing ever came of it.
Another thing happened when we were at the police station. Jiang Tianyong called Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) to tell him what had happened to me. As they were talking, there was a click, and the call was routed somewhere else. Li Xiongbing couldn’t hear anything and Jiang Tianyong could hear someone on the other end laughing and saying that Li Heping got what he deserved. Our mobiles, email, and telephones are all being monitored.
AI WEIWEI: How do you know for sure?
LI HEPING: There’s noise on the mobiles, you can hear it clearly. There are times when we’re unable to send text messages, especially when we’re working on big cases. Sometimes we can’t make calls, our phones are specifically targeted. Then, when the moment has past, they unfreeze the phones.
There are even stranger things. Back when Li Jinsong (李劲松) and Cheng Hai (程海) were in Shandong working on Chen Guangcheng’s case, the police detained Li Jinsong. A few of us lawyers back in Beijing were discussing how we should respond, and the discussion got pretty heated. Suddenly, I got a text message from my wife. It was probably 2006, but the message was one that my wife had sent me in 2004 or 2005—the same exact text! It read: “Dear, you’re always working on these public interest cases! Not only do they pay less, but they bring danger to our family and there are threats to your physical safety. What’s a wife supposed to do? If you won’t think of yourself, think of your wife and child! If something were to happen to you, what will become of the two of us?” My wife rarely uses that tone of voice with me, so I remember this text very clearly. But one year later, the people that monitor us sent it out again with the exact same timestamp. It’s really incredible!
[Ai Weiwei asking about more examples of kidnapping and brutality and Li Heping’s answer are abbreviated.]
Only Institutional Protections Can Prevent Torture
Under the current Chinese system, no citizen can fight back once he falls into their hands. If you resist, you become a target for torture. They have cameras at the Pingfang Police Station in Beijing, but they decide whether or not to save the footage or make it public. The way to prevent use of torture to coerce confessions is the right to have a lawyer present during questioning and the right to remain silent.
Without the right to remain silent, no one can hold out. Take Guo Feixiong, for example. He’s a real tough guy, but faced with electric shocks to his genitals he had no choice but to confess. Gao Zhisheng is another really tough guy, but was forced under torture to write a statement of regret. Then there’s Li Zhuang, a guy with a military background. When he was thrown into that Chongqing jail, he had no choice but to admit to crimes. What can you do? Humans are made of flesh and blood. When you’re being tortured, you don’t want to go on living. There’s no protection for human rights under this system.
After I went public about being beaten, that sort of thing happened much less frequently. For instance, when they kidnapped Teng Biao for three days, they didn’t harm him physically—they just held him for three days. Torture certainly needs to be made public, because publicity is a deterrent. If no one ever went public about what happened to them, then who knows how arrogant with power the authorities would become. So, I think that the film you’re making here is very important.
AI WEIWEI: When we heard what happened, we were very angry and felt it was all so hard to believe. What we can do is give a clear and factual account. Once it’s made public, then it becomes part of history. There’s no other way.
LI HEPING: In some religious cases in the Northeast, they soak you to the bone and then throw you in a freezing cell in the middle of winter. Torture is everywhere in China.
AI WEIWEI: You’re a lawyer working on behalf of justice who has experienced this kind of thing yourself. You still have some compassion and a capacity to act, and you’re willing to do this kind of work as a lawyer. But do you ever feel desperation or fear?
LI HEPING: Speaking of fear, one of the guys who beat me put it very clearly: “I’m going to give you nightmares.” They want to make it impossible for me to sleep, to have nightmares when I think of them. That’s their goal. But fortunately, I’m the kind of person who thinks that you have to sleep, even in hell.
It’s not so easy for them to give me nightmares. But it’s caused much more harm as far as my family is concerned. I can bear it, but how about my family or my wife? They’re under considerable pressure. When I would turn my phone off, my wife would go crazy with worry if she wasn’t able to reach me, searching all over thinking that I’d been taken away by the police. My friends are like this, too, worrying that if they can’t reach me by phone I must’ve been taken away by the guobao. They get really worried!
AI WEIWEI: How many times have you been detained, in all?
LI HEPING: The first time was the time I was beaten up. Later there were a number of temporary “conflicts.” For example, the Pingfang Police Station called me in to give a statement. It lasted four or five hours. They wanted me to stick around, but I refused. So there was trouble. “You have to remain here!” They grabbed my arm and made me stay. Then they put a chair in front of me and said, “Sit there!” I refused to sit. But all of them insist that I sit, so what could I do? Are you going to fight them? For this kind of official business, why do I have to sit there? But if you don’t sit, those guys will lift you up and carry you over there and your arms will get hurt.
So, individual protest isn’t enough: without institutional protections, there’s no way that China will prevent torture.
AI WEIWEI: Why does the system allow them to act this way? What are they trying to achieve? The regime is supposed to be a public good, but they control all of the resources. What are they trying to do?
LI HEPING: These days, many police will say: “We just follow orders. We do what our superiors tell us to do. We’re just trying to put food on our tables.” The time I was beaten up, the leader of the police said something really funny: “Now that you’re in my hands, you just watch how I’m going to torment you and fix you! When you guys take charge in the future, however you want to take your revenge is up to you!”
I said: “What are you talking about, ‘take charge’? Aren’t I just a lawyer?” They have no confidence in their own system, that’s the truth.
[Discussion about how to fight back police’s denial of brutality is abbreviated.]
Citizens’ On-the-Scene Support and Social Media
AI WEIWEI: Is it useful for citizen activists to gather at the scene to voice their support?
LI HEPING: Of course, it’s extremely important. When someone does something wrong, he worries that others will remember. Don’t you see how police hide their badges and serial numbers when they’re doing bad things? They’re afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What do you think of the public discussion taking place on blogs and Twitter? What impact will that have on China?
LI HEPING: I think that instant communication tools like Twitter and Skype are extremely important for China, because China completely lacks any civil society. It’s like a plate of loose sand, without any platforms for formation of any general will. In a certain sense, Twitter helps citizens create a kind of public opinion by gathering and expressing people’s views. When it reaches a certain point, it can lead to action. I think that in the future these will truly change our society.
Only when citizens are able to make contact with and trust one another can they work together to build their own country. Moreover, consensus is ultimately achieved through people’s exchange of ideas, through agreement and compromise with each other. This needs time. Twitter and other Internet tools provide citizens with a convenient platform for communication. But you know what the limitation is? At present, only some elites are on Twitter, but many elites within the system don’t use it. But I think this is only a matter of time.
[Editors’ Note: This was when Sina Weibo, launch in the fall of 2009, was yet to take off.]
I believe the Internet can break down the iron curtain of China’s totalitarian regime, so still have some confidence in China.
AI WEIWEI: What religion are you?
LI HEPING: I’m a Christian.
AI WEIWEI: Are you devout?
LI HEPING: I’m— . . . My wife is extremely devout. I’d like to be a bit more devout, but I’ve still got a ways to go, still have some doubts. I think it would be a lot easier for me if I were a devout Christian.
AI WEIWEI: When did you start being religious?
LI HEPING: I was baptized in 2003. Religion really helps make humanity stronger, braver, and wiser. It gives you a much greater capacity to withstand pressure. Otherwise, you just have the strength of an individual—it’s not enough.
AI WEIWEI: So, on that day when you were rolling on the ground and they were beating you, did you think of Christianity?
LI HEPING: I really did—and I also prayed. It’s like when Teng Biao was detained—he hadn’t even been baptized yet—he prayed: “Lord, hurry up and rescue me.” It’s different when you’re religious. At the time when they were beating me, I even laughed. I truly laughed, I kid you not.
AI WEIWEI: That must have frightened them, no?
LI HEPING: That I don’t know. I suspect it didn’t frighten them—after all, there were a lot of them. I felt that I hadn’t done anything wrong. They can do what they want, I’m still going to be me. What they did was really foolish, but that foolishness has its origins in the system. They committed heinous sins but don’t have to take any responsibility, because they have the Communist Party to protect them. It’s foolish because it’s the reputation of the party and the government that gets damaged.
AI WEIWEI: I’ve said the same thing, too. If you allow a minority to damage the interests and reputation of the state through their unlawful behavior, there’s no way that ordinary people will continue to have any faith in it. You’re just like the mafia, I said to them.
LI HEPING: Yeah, their actions certainly do call into question the legitimacy of their rule. But these days access to information is blocked and many people know nothing about these kinds of incidents. But if you go online or have access to more channels of information, you’ll soon become aware of these things. Especially petitioning. After trying it a few times, everything will become clear. When they hear stories about houses being demolished, many people still think: “There’s no way the government could be this evil, like a bunch of gangsters!” But when it happens to them, they finally realize the government’s brutality.
China Is a Foxcomm Regime
AI WEIWEI: When it comes to certain fundamental questions of principle, the government acts with a kind of primitive brutality and can’t be reasoned with.
LI HEPING: I feel that they currently lack the ability to make necessary distinctions when it comes to these kinds of things. They lump a bunch of things from different areas together without any distinction. If they were to make clearer distinctions, I think they’d have no need to do things this way.
There are some matters where they ought to loosen up. There are some areas where, even loosening up quite a bit wouldn’t cause any problems. But in other areas where there are fears of social problems, it’s understandable to want a bit of control. But I think that they’re unable perform this kind of analysis.
They take some of the most fundamental issues and give the greatest power to the most idiotic people. Think of citizens’ rights to liberty or property—these are big issues. But they give the police control over people’s personal liberty. Police can detain and lock you up however they please and even send you away for a few years. Where else in the world do you see that? If you’re going to punish someone by taking away their freedom, you at least have to bring them before a court! This is a stupid, stupid way of doing things. [The editors can’t help pointing out how ironic this is!]
There’s another way they do things: they put the courts under the control of the party out of a belief that this helps preserve social stability. They never imagine that allowing courts to rule on cases independently would make society seem a bit fairer and that the courts would be able to resolve conflicts when they arise. But because the Communist Party manipulates the courts, by linking the entire system together you push conflict into other areas until it fills the whole system. I think there’s a problem with their way of thinking on this. . . .
AI WEIWEI: So, you’ve arrived at the subject of judicial independence.
LI HEPING: Judicial independence. Now whenever I see them, I make another suggestion: China should adopt a system of citizen juries and let citizens decide as to whether or not a crime has been committed. When you try to control and take charge of everything yourself, can you really have control?
To put it bluntly, China is currently a Foxcomm regime. China is like Foxcomm—it looks awesome from the outside, but too many restrictions are put on people’s freedoms and it’s like living in a prison. It’s unsustainable.
AI WEIWEI: Are you worried for this country?
LI HEPING: I think for sure that no good will come of continuing on like this.
AI WEIWEI: How old are you?
LI HEPING: Forty.
AI WEIWEI: What year were you born? What’s your birthdate?
LI HEPING: October 26, 1970. We Chinese say, “At 40, I had no more doubts.” Since I turned 40, my doubts have only just begun. Everything that you once thought was correct turns out to be mistaken. Now that I’m 40, I’ve slowly come to realize: “Oh, so many things turn out to be false.” I’m only starting to extract my mind out of the pit that my past education’s dug for me. “Oh, see—it turns out that this is the way the world is!” It’s different. The pit they dug for you is so huge, it takes you 40 years to crawl out. So at 40, I’ve just begun to have doubts [laughs]. Slowly but surely!
AI WEIWEI: You’re a real optimist!
LI HEPING: I guess I’m more-or-less optimistic [chuckles]. There’s no way to do this sort of work if you don’t have this kind of personality. The police are always coming to find you. Since 2005, they’ve been following me now for five years. I’d reckon that for more than a year of that time the police were following me around the clock, come rain or shine. When they follow you like that, what can you do?
AI WEIWEI: It’s such a waste of money!
LI HEPING: Yeah. I calculated it for them once. At first there were eight police watching me—how much do eight police make a day? A hundred yuan a day, per person, so at least 800 yuan. Those eight police use three cars, at 300 yuan per day that’s 900. What about meals? To follow me, they have to spend at least 3000 yuan a day.
AI WEIWEI: That means the state spends more than a million to follow you for a year.
LI HEPING: That’s right! And that doesn’t include the cost of monitoring my phone or my Internet! Then there’s all the secret stuff—who knows how they’re doing this stuff?
I consider myself to be this kind of person: no matter what I do, I do it in accordance with the law. There’s no need for all this stuff! It’s like a guobao from the Beijing Public Security Bureau said to me during the Beijing Olympics: “Lawyer Li, the Olympics is very important to us. Security standards during the Olympics are very high, so you mustn’t go out of bounds!”
I said: “Who’s drawing those boundaries, you or me? Why do you need to draw boundaries for me? What gives you the right? How about you observe the boundaries, too? Don’t bother drawing boundaries for me. You respect the law and I respect the law, then there’ll be no problems. Don’t mess around!”
He replied: “It’s like having sand in your shoes. Just put up with it for a while and it’ll be gone. We have orders from above.”
So what can you do? They do these things without any plan. It’s truly unwise to treat lawyers this way. I’ve spoken to people at the judicial administration bureau about this. I tell them I’d like to be able to communicate with you guys, including the police. I’d like to communicate, because we have so many suggestions about how to solve many of society’s problems. We’re on the front lines. We’re not radicals. We can give you solutions for how to solve these kinds of problems. If you follow our suggestions, the problems will be resolved. Isn’t that great? So why must you send security guards, police officers, guobao to watch us? Are guobao necessarily better at solving these problems than lawyers? In what way are guobao better?
[The interview is interrupted by a woman passerby . . . ]
Passerby: Excuse me, what are you filming here?
AI WEIWEI: This is a private film. I’m interviewing him.
Passerby: What do you mean, “private”?
AI WEIWEI: It’s for my personal use.
Passerby: For personal use? Do you have a permit for this activity?
AI WEIWEI: Personal use. Hey, you must be from Beijing TV.
Passerby: Did you contact anyone before doing this?
AI WEIWEI: No, we’re just individuals. We came here for an interview—it’s like having a chat.
Passerby: But this . . . individuals?
AI WEIWEI: Yeah. Don’t you see people carrying cameras all the time and filming each other? We’re interviewing him. He’s my friend.