China Change, November 29, 2016
“A lawyer who was born at just the right time; a lawyer who’s willing to take any case; a lawyer hated by a small political clique; a lawyer who wants to win the respect of regular folk; a lawyer who kept going even after being stripped of his law license.” – Jiang Tianyong’s Twitter bio
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) has been incommunicado for nine days as of today, and repeated attempts by his wife and lawyers to confirm his whereabouts and the circumstances of his disappearance have been met with obstruction. He’s believed to have been abducted by the Chinese government and fear is mounting that he is now, once again, being subjected to brutal treatment.
On November 21, after meeting with the wife of detained lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳) in Changsha, Jiang notified his wife and friends that he was returning to Beijing by the D940 train, due to arrive at the Beijing West Railway Station at 6:30 a.m. He never arrived, and no one has been able to reach him by phone since the evening of November 21.
Jiang Tianyong has been a prominent figure in the struggle for the rule of law in China over the past decade. While he only practiced law for a little over five years before being stripped of his license, he continued his legal activism tirelessly. Of most recent note, Jiang led the campaign to free rights lawyers detained in the mass July 15 crackdown last year known as the “709 Incident.”
International media have reported his disappearance (AP, Reuters), over 60 lawyers in China issued a statement demanding information and explanation, and France, Germany and the United States urged the Chinese government to provide information about Jiang. German Vice Chancellor and trade minister Sigmar Gabriel, who visited China recently and met with Jiang and eight other lawyers and relatives of detained lawyers, was shocked to learn about his disappearance, and vowed to put pressure on Chinese leaders.
As Good as the Company He Keeps
Jiang Tianyong was born in Luoshan (罗山县), the southernmost county in China’s central province of Henan. “The area around our hometown was beautiful — the land of milk and honey surrounded by mountains and lakes. But from the time I can remember, we were very poor. We never had enough to eat or wear, and despite working long hours doing non-stop manual labor, year in and year out, we were always hard up.”
In 1991, Jiang enrolled in what’s now Changsha University and after graduation became a high school Chinese teacher in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. “Even though teaching is an important profession, I never found it interesting enough, and it never quite sated my curiosity. I was, on the other hand, deeply drawn to questions of power, the law, and democracy,” he told an interviewer in 2010. His high school classmate Li Heping (李和平), already a lawyer and one of those detained in the 709 arrests last year, encouraged him to take the bar exam. He did, and passed.
In 2004, Jiang moved to Beijing to practice law. He became a human rights lawyer inspired by the barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng. In 2005 when Chen was tried and sentenced to four years in prison, Jiang was there by his side defending him.
“It was only with the Chen Guangcheng case that I truly entered the ranks of the human rights lawyers,” he said. “Later on the Internal Security police came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Your problem is that you’re not careful enough about choosing your friends, and you’ve been led down a wrong path. If you didn’t make friends with people like Chen Guangcheng, Li Heping, and Teng Biao, you wouldn’t be in the trouble you are today.’ Haha.”
Soon after, Jiang ramped up his human rights work, representing a clutch of sensitive clients: Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), a persecuted rights lawyer; private oil well owners in the Shanbei oilfields (陕北油田) who had their assets expropriated by the state; farmers in Taishi village, Guangzhou (广州太石村), who sought to sack local Party officials for corruption; and dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) who went on to receive the Sakharov Prize in 2008, among other cases. After 2008 Jiang began taking on Falun Gong cases. “I’ve been involved in more than 20,” he said.
In late 2005, at the height of a HIV epidemic in China caused by contaminated blood transfusions, Jiang was one of the lawyers who collaborated with an NGO to represent poor rural victims, according to a recent article by Wan Yanhai (万延海), the head of Aizhixing (爱知行).
In 2009, Jiang represented Jigme Guri, a senior monk at Labrang monastery in southern Gansu, who was arrested after providing a video recording of unrest on March 14 to Voice of America.
In late 2009, Jiang was one of the eight lawyers in Beijing stripped of their licenses to practice. The reason, he said, is because they had represented Falun Gong practitioners and been part of a campaign to directly elect the officials of the Beijing Bar Association, a Party-controlled body that regulates the profession. The experience of Jiang and others is portrayed in the film “Disbarment” (吊照门) by the documentarian He Yang (何楊).
Jiang says he has enormous respect for the legal profession. “History shows us that lawyers have played a crucial role in modern times: for instance, the role of lawyers was indispensable and its traces everywhere in the American declaration of independence and the War of Independence; the French Revolution, though given to an excess of violence, saw lawyers play a very significant role. There’s nothing more important for defending democratic rights than the law, and there’s no one more involved in that than lawyers.”
60 Days of Secret Detention
Jiang Tianyong is no stranger to secret, forced disappearances.
In February 2011, when an anonymous call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China’s major cities made the rounds online, Chinese authorities detained hundreds of lawyers, activists, and dissidents across the country. Jiang Tianyong was one of them. He was released in April, but remained silent about what he went through. In September that year he decided to speak out, revealing the details in an interview with Voice of America.
On February 19, Jiang was dragged away and shoved in a car as he family watched on, then driven to a secret detention center for interrogation. He told his captors that what they were doing was illegal. After demanding to know the legal basis for interrogation, he found that “in that small room, the law of the People’s Republic of China had been annulled.”
In the two months he was detained, neither he nor his family were given any formal notification of his status, no one knew where he had been locked up, and his family didn’t even know if he was dead or alive. He didn’t see the sun once while in custody. The only light he was exposed to was the harsh glow of the bulb in his dark cell.
His interrogators pummeled his body hard with plastic bottles full of water, pinched his face, and screamed abuse and threats in a constant stream. On the third day, the police decided that Jiang would get out of bed according to their rules: He would be made to rise, yell “Report!” and then say “I am willing to be educated by the government!” Then, he had to recite from memory three so-called patriotic songs decided by his jailers. If he made an error, he had to start again.
He was deprived of sleep the first five nights in detention while being interrogated from midnight to 6:00 a.m.
He was also forced to “self-reflect,” which took the form of sitting in front of a wall, hands on knees, where he was attacked if he so much as flinched. He could be called in for “talks” by public security personnel at any moment, where they would try to brainwash him with what they described as “remedial education.” He had no choice but to listen as they went on and on. Jiang said he lingered on the cusp of losing his mind at any moment — he could have had a mental breakdown, leapt up and lashed out at his jailers, or anything, he said.
Wan Yanhai described the state Jiang was in over the months after his disappearance. “When I spoke with him on the phone he’d interrupt and tell me to stop talking, because he had to report everything back to the security police. I told him not to worry, and that I could help him write the report. So our interactions mostly resumed their normalcy. We didn’t have any particular secrets to keep anyway.”
Coming out with the details of his detention was also part of the healing process, if one can be “healed” at all after such traumatic experiences.
Ruptured Eardrum and Eight Broken Ribs
On May 4, 2012, after Chen Guangcheng made his daring escape from his village in Shandong to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Jiang went to visit him in the Chaoyang Hospital in the capital. For that, he was bailed up by at least five Internal Security agents, and in the course of the beating had his left eardrum ruptured.
On March 20, 2014, Jiang, along with his colleagues Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) traveled to a notorious “legal education base” (a.k.a. brainwashing center) at the Qinglongshan Farm, Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation District (建三江农垦总局), in the far northern province of Heilongjiang, demanding that the Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained there be released. They also submitted a complaint to the local Procuratorate. The following morning they were all taken away by local public security authorities, and administratively detained for 15 days for engaging in so-called “heterodox religious activities.”
In an interview with VOA, Tang Jitian described the police torture and beatings he was subjected to. “They refused to show their police badges, explain our legal rights, or to have two police present when questioning, nor did they turn on their audio-video recording equipment. I was of the belief that the procedures violated the law, and refused to cooperate. Immediately a few police began thumping me in the ears and face, then used a plastic bottle full of water to start hitting me in the cheeks, knocking a tooth out. When they finished striking me they asked whether or not I’d sign the interrogation transcript. I said that it was illegal, and I wasn’t going to sign it. They cuffed my hands behind my back, hooded me, and dragged me to an anonymous room in the Daxing Public Security Sub-Bureau compound. Then they strung me up by the hands — still behind my back — and started punching and kicking.”
Tang Jitian continued: “About five or six police were involved. As they were beating me they threatened that they were going to cut out my kidneys while I was still alive. The main thing I remember is the pain of being repeatedly hit in the chest — it was excruciating. I immediately began sweating uncontrollably, and I felt darkness start to close in. In the end I had no choice but to promise to cooperate. So they dragged me back to the interrogation room and started slapping me in the face again and hitting me with the water bottles. Left with no other option, I signed their transcript. Still they left me handcuffed in one of the duty rooms at the Daxing Sub-Bureau until later that evening. From the morning of March 21 when we were put under police control, until that night, I was only given two steamed buns. On the evening of March 22 I was taken to the detention center, which was the first time I had a proper meal.”
All four lawyers were subjected similar brutalities and suffered injuries. Eight of Jiang Tianyong’s ribs were broken.
A Veteran Activist, Determined to Stay
Jiang Tianyong has been living in danger for years. Internal Security agents follow him nearly every day, and his door lock is glued shut by thugs with the government so often that he’s gotten used to replacing it. At his exhortation, his wife and daughter left the country — and he’s simply happy that they don’t need to live a life of fear anymore.
An individual close to Jiang recently wrote the following in a group chat on the secure messaging application Telegram: “Lawyer Jiang is truly one of the very few veteran activists to both stay in China and continue the work. Friends regularly tell him to leave and go into hiding, because there’s no hope for saving China at this stage. But he always says: As long as there’s room to do something, he doesn’t want to leave China and fritter his time away overseas. ‘Leaving is easy, but coming back is hard,’ he said. After the mass arrests of lawyers in July last year, many of Jiang’s friends were once again secretly detained, tortured, and tried. Political activists, rights defenders, lawyers, NGO workers, all vanished. Jiang was the fish who escaped the dragnet — but he hardly took heed of the danger, continuing to swim against the current, consoling 709 families and helping them however he could.”
When a close friend urged him to leave, he said, “Li Heping and the others are like brothers to me. How could I possibly leave at this point?”
Jiang told the Associated Press in June that he feared he could be detained at any moment, and rarely spent more than a few nights in one place.
Friends and colleagues describe him as warm, caring, and selfless.