Chen Jiangang, April 24, 2017
This article was written in December, 2015. Between then and now, the 45-year-old but youthful looking human rights lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳) performed a rare act of courage: revealing his torture in full detail while still behind bars, and despite the perpetrators’ repeated threats. The author Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), a friend, became Xie Yang’s defense lawyer in December 2016, recording the torture in a series meetings earlier this year. Then in an equally courageous action, Chen published them. The revelations caused an international stir, providing a rare but clear glimpse of the “709 Crackdown” on human rights lawyers, while also showing how the Chinese authorities routinely use unspeakable torture to extract confessions. “[Xie Yang’s] thought was that he wanted to maintain the final dignity for Chinese lawyers as a whole,” Chen Jiangang said in a home recording on March 7. “He also thought that right now a nationwide crackdown and persecution of human rights lawyers is taking place, and that he would spare no effort to fight his case and push back against the persecution. If they succeeded easily in Xie Yang’s case, they would unscrupulously harm and persecute other lawyers in the future. He was willing to use himself to ‘test the tiger.’ Today in Changsha, Xie Yang stands trial for “subverting state power.” — The Editors
When Xie Yang was imprisoned it was height of summer; now cold winter beats on our doors. In a flash, five months has passed and we’ve heard nothing. Over the past two years dissidents, online opinion leaders, journalists, and rights lawyers have been dragged onto state television and humiliated with forced “confessions.” Every few days there’s someone new on screen, crying bitterly, pleading guilt, accepting punishment, apologizing to the nation and the people… The scripts are pre-written, and CCTV news crews are on standby awaiting orders. Yet to this day there have been no “Confessions From Mr. Xie.” It looks like Xie Yang has not cooperated, and the producers had no actor for their stage play.
Whenever I think of Xie Yang, his smile always comes to mind. No matter the situation he’s in, there it is: a sunny, wide smile that brightens the day. Xie Yang’s smile is probably the first impression of him that many are left with.
Xie Yang, with his swarthy features and slow and careful speech, always seems to surprise. But everything he does comes from the heart, and is motivated by his deepest feelings. With Xie Yang, it’s never just for show.
Hunan Mule Versus the Bandits of Shandong
The phrase “Hunan mule” (湖南骡子) passes for a compliment for the Hunanese, along with sayings like “if your tooth is broke, swallow it with the blood.” “Hunan mule” is a reference to the unbending character of the people who hail from the region. They toil and suffer without complaint, and they’re strong of mind and full of courage. Sometimes, they’re also a bit excitable, and apt to “kick their hind legs.” Xie Yang is a classic Hunan mule, and thus earned the sobriquet “Xie Yang the Stubborn.”
In 2011, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) had just finished a four year prison term, earned for exposing the Communist Party’s brutal birth control practices in the countryside. He was then put under house arrest in Dongshigu village, Linyi, Shandong Province. Keeping him under guard became a cottage industry for local thugs: some were in charge of watching the family courtyard, others for making sure every approaching road was sealed off, others for dishing out beatings to visitors, others for delivering food. They worked shifts, 24/7. It didn’t matter who came to voice support, whether netizens, foreign journalists, or movie stars — whoever approached was beaten and chased away.
When Xie Yang heard about it, he didn’t believe it, and decided to pay Chen a visit himself. But before he could even enter Dongshigu, he was caught. The thugs began slugging him, tore apart his clothes, took his money, then bailed him into a car and dumped him in the middle of nowhere, a few dozen kilometers away. Poor Xie Yang had no ID, no money, and hardly any clothes left. Later, he told me that while he was in the car, tied up, hooded, and being beaten, his captors told him again and again that they were going to drive him out and bury him alive. He said the fact that he lived to tell the tale felt like a new life. Later still, I came to learn that this technique used by the thugs had its own term of art: “tossing to the wild” (“野抛”).
Xie Yang told me that what happened to him in Dongshigu had a profound impact on him. It hit him so hard, he said, that it brought about an internal rebirth. On the soil of Shandong — the cradle of Chinese civilization — Xie Yang came to a deep understanding of the state of the rule of law in China. It was a turning point in his journey to becoming a rights defense lawyer.
Defending the New Citizens
In 2014, with international attention focused on the prosecution of the New Citizens Movement in Beijing, Xie Yang appeared in court as counsel for Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), one of the four defendants. Lawyer Ge Yongxi (葛永喜) did most of the talking for the defense, and Xie Yang didn’t have much occasion to offer an opinion. When it was his turn to question the evidence, that Zhang Baocheng held up a placard calling for officials to make public their personal assets, Xie Yang responded in thick Hunan vernacular: “My client’s done a belter job.” The judge didn’t get it, and again asked for him to raise any questions about the evidence. Xie Yang repeated his remark. The judge then began thumping his gavel, demanding he provide an opinion on the evidence. Xie Yang didn’t react, and again said the same sentence: “My opinion of the evidence is simply that my client’s done a belter job.” (i.e., “My client has done a great job.”)
The demand that officials make public their assets is common sense in a democratic country. In China, it’s enough to land one in jail. That was all Xie Yang had to say about the evidence.
In March 2014, four human rights lawyers — Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) and Wang Cheng (王成) — traveled to the remote, far northeastern town of Jiansanjiang (建三江), Heilongjiang Province, to represent a number of Falun Gong practitioners locked in a black jail. When they got there the lawyers were taken captive and brutally beaten, sparking lawyers and citizens from around China to begin traveling to Jiansanjiang in protest and support. To deal with the flood of supporters, local authorities stationed about a dozen vehicles and dozens of fully-armed personnel on the only road leading there. It was early April, but the region had been hit with sudden snowfall, and visibility was low. The road there was desolate, empty fields stretching out into the distance, with no villages in sight — so the dozens of defense lawyer and citizens who went to protest were easily captured. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) was hooded and had his head rammed into a wall; Wang Shengsheng (王胜生) was hooded and dragged away while still in his pyjamas; Li Jinxing (李金星) told me that he got so cold in Jiansanjiang that it damaged his internal organs and took months to recover.
Xie Yang had arranged to travel there with a few other lawyers in early April. He was the first to arrive in Harbin where they were to meet. He could have waited for the others and gone together, so at least if they were buried alive there’d be company. But instead, as he recounted later with a grin, he thought: “What am I waiting around for? Forget it. First to come, first to go!”
With his authorization letter making clear he was an attorney on a case, he traveled by himself through the snow. As expected, he was picked up halfway there and searched. He didn’t try to hide anything and told them: “Haven’t you boys arrested a big crowd already? I’m with them!”
‘I Want to File the Case!’
Human rights lawyers are the chief offenders in China’s “New Five Black Categories,” (新黑五类) because they often serve as the defenders and guardians of the other four (political dissidents, believers, free speechers, the disenfranchised). The state sees them as a threat. Lawyers are willing to forgo income and personal safety in order to seek redress for wronged citizens — but on many occasions even filing the case is a battle. As for those who have their homes demolished, or those beaten by urban enforcement officers, or those who have family members killed by them, or by police — how many can actually file their cases?
Once, Xie Yang went to file an administrative lawsuit on behalf of a plaintiff who was treated unjustly by the state. If the administrative court doesn’t first of all even report the matter to their superiors, if it hasn’t contacted the defendants, researched countermeasures beforehand and is confident about the outcome, the court won’t even accept your filing.
Xie Yang, with his complaint and dossier of evidence in hand, again tried to talk to the judge, but the judge still wouldn’t register the case. If you won’t register the case, will you at least provide a “Formal Notification of Refusal to Register a Case”? Sorry — no. That’s just not how we do things. Why not? Why doesn’t the judge follow the law? Judge, have you seen the law?
The judge looks down at his cell phone, giving Xie Yang the cold shoulder: how amusing that this lawyer actually thinks the law is for real!
Everyone in the legal community, from veterans to rookies, has been through this. Everyone has their reservoir of pent-up rage.
Xie Yang the Stubborn tried to get his point across in every possible way, with no result. After being ignored and humiliated, he was ready to kick his hind legs. The story goes that Xie Yang the Stubborn stood in the court with his hands and legs pointed out, in the shape of a big “X,” and yelled at the top of his voice: “EVERYONE. BE. QUIET.” The court instantly fell silent. All eyes were locked on Xie Yang. Then, his face lit up with fury, he raised a finger toward the presiding judge, and bellowed: “I want to file the case!”
Even after all that, they still didn’t put the case on file for him. Instead, the bailiffs took their cue to rough him up.
I once asked Xie Yang about where this incident took place. He sniggered and said: “Don’t remember.”
In China, there are quite a few lawyers who don’t approve of Xie Yang’s way of going about things. Indeed, roaring at the judge in the courtroom isn’t known to solve problems. But that’s Xie Yang.
‘Who Pays Your Salary?’
The professional environment for human rights lawyers in China is terrible. Everyone knows it. The number of lawyers who’ve had to move firms, or who’ve even been persecuted and run out of the industry, is countless.
In October 2013, after Xie Yang began taking on sensitive cases, the firm he was under contract with in Changsha forced him to transfer out. He then filed an application with the Changsha Justice Bureau to work at another firm. The law stipulates that both the Hunan Provincial Department of Justice, as well as the Changsha Justice Bureau, must examine and approve his application within 30 days. If they approve, he receives a new lawyer’s license; if they reject the application, they must provide a written explanation. But after seven months, the two Bureaus hadn’t processed the paperwork. This amounted to stripping Xie Yang of his right to practice his profession. In May 2014, he lodged an administrative lawsuit, suing the Changsha Justice Bureau and the Hunan Provincial Department of Justice for failing to carry out their duties.
Xie Yang’s complaint became a cause célèbre in the rights defense community in China. Two lawyers with national profile represented him, and 200-300 lawyers and interested citizens came from around the country to observe the court hearing. Because of the number of attendees, the court had to change the venue three times, eventually using their largest — and rarely used — courtroom. The Furong District Court in Changsha (长沙市芙蓉区法院) had never seen this many observers at a trial before.
When it was plaintiff Xie Yang’s turn to speak, he made an exhaustive list of everything the two judicial agencies had done to harass, persecute, and humiliate him. Then, with righteous indignation, he said: “You justice departments aren’t sons of bitches, you’re sons of lawyers — we pay for your living!”
As soon as these words fell from his lips, the entire courtroom erupted in applause. The judge knew that the reaction couldn’t be halted, and didn’t try stopping it.
I was traveling at the time and couldn’t attend, but photos of the scene in the courtroom were circulated online. Xie Yang could be seen, his dark face set off by his white clothes, with his classic smile, standing in front of his peers, looking every part the victorious hero.
Xie Yang told me later that he saw this case as one of the biggest achievements of his life. He said: “Even if I can’t be a lawyer anymore, it was worth it!”
A Black Robe and Bent Knees
Xie Yang’s stubbornness is legendary. After the trial, there was no judgement. After multiple abortive attempts at trying to prod the court for a verdict, he once again struck out on his own, though this time attracting more controversy than support: Xie Yang announced that he was going to don his lawyer’s gown, plant himself in front of the courthouse, and kneel. He said he’d do this every week, 15 minutes each time. When the news came out, many lawyers were pained to hear it. His own defense lawyer publicly distanced himself from the initiative. When the number of people trying to talk him out of it grew, he stopped picking up his phone. But Xie Yang makes good on his word, so he did end up doing the protest once.
Of course, the gesture was by no means to signify that he had come to kneel down, begging the authorities to toss him a lifeline. It was because he thought that the sight of a lawyer in a black robe kneeling at the doors of a courthouse would turn into a news event, and shame the court into acting. But the system Xie Yang was facing doesn’t share these ideas of honor and shame. Fortunately he later did receive a new lawyer’s licence and was able to continue plying his trade.
Let the Bullets Fly a Bit Longer
There were around 10,000 households in Hunan who were forced to evacuate due to the construction of the Tuokou reservoir (托口水库). The migration destroyed the properties of many families, and they were left with no avenues to seek redress. Some villagers killed themselves in despair. Xie Yang organized a group of lawyers to begin defending the villagers’ rights. The hearing was no more than a show, as the defendant — that is, the government — had never found themselves at the losing end of a forced demolition lawsuit.
But something unexpected happened in the courtroom: contained in the dossier presented by the government was a record of a conversation personally prepared by two government officials. Participants in the conversation included a Party secretary, the Public Security Bureau leader, the president of the court, and the official in charge of demolitions. They were discussing how they were monitoring the two main lawyers in this case, Xie Yang and Luo Lizhi (罗立志), including their schedules and chats together. Each of the officials spoke, according to the meeting record. The public security leader explained how he was preparing to mobilize so many people and vehicles, ready at any time to apprehend the lawyers; they referred to the “important instructions” of the Party secretary; how the court president was going to wrap up the case, how he was going to sort out Xie Yang and the other lawyers and then report back to the Party secretary, and so on.
Friends: If you want to know why it’s so hard to get administrative lawsuits filed, why it’s so hard to win them, and why officials are so complacent and treat the people like dirt, then you should examine the meeting records revealed in this case. Is this sort of lawsuit fair? Has the world ever seen its like?
When these records were discovered, Hu Lizheng (胡林政), one of the lawyers, demanded the court recuse itself from adjudicating the case. The defendants went pale, and bailiffs dashed forward to seize control of the evidence. When the Tuokou villagers who’d come to observe the trial realized what was going on, they began shouting and weeping at how unjust it all was. They filled the courtroom with cries.
The court session was adjourned. What would be the next step? Xie Yang had a head for pacing and said: “Let the bullets fly a bit longer” — that is, to watch and wait. But before there could be any next step, Xie Yang was arrested on the grounds of “gathering a crowd to disrupt court order” (聚众扰乱法庭秩序罪).
The bullets fell to the ground as soon as Xie Yang was taken into custody. The court announced that the lawsuit was dropped.
Xu Chunhe, or When Human Life is Cut Down Like Grass
Another case Xie Yang was involved in was the shooting of Xu Chunhe (徐纯合) in early May, 2015. This case was one of the key factors leading up to the mass arrest of rights defense lawyers and citizen activists on July 9, 2015.
Xu Chunhe was a petitioner from the city of Qing’an, Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江省庆安). He was traveling by train with his eighty-year-old mother and three kids when he was shot dead by a police officer at the train station. The well-known activist Wu Gan (吴淦) exposed surveillance footage from the scene online, and what had taken place was clear.
Xie Yang traveled to Qing’an and was hired by the family to file the complaint. After he was commissioned, Xie Yang demanded that the police make public the full surveillance footage, and also that they begin an investigation into the matter. These demands met with no result.
At this point, Xie Yang and a few other lawyers stood outside the Harbin Railway Public Security Bureau and unfurled a big-character banner saying: “You’ve No Option But to Release the Full Surveillance Video!”
Following this, the citizens and lawyers who got involved in the case were jailed one after another. These included Wu Gan, who sought out the truth of what happened, and the lawyers Xie Yang and Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), who tried to obtain justice for the family of the man wrongly killed.
Xie Yang’s Tenderness
Xie Yang has two daughters, one about ten years old and the other a toddler. He often had to travel around China, from one case to the other, and hardly had the leisure to enjoy his girls’ company. When I was with him, on more than one occasion Xie Yang pulled out his cellphone and began watching videos of the girls playing at home, his face and eyes lighting up with cheer.
You can’t say he’s a good husband. He was hardly home; he took on cases that placed him in physical and political danger, causing his wife to fret about him and fear for the family. Though a loving father, he’s been detained for more than five months now, and I heard that his daughters have constantly asked: “When will daddy come back?” Does a good father put himself in such danger and risk letting down his children?
Having come to the end of my account, just what kind of person is Xie Yang?
The official indictment, on December 16, 2016, after he was detained for 17 months, charges Xie Yang with the crimes of subversion of state power and disrupting court order.
Confucius, some 2,500 years ago, said that “men of principle are sure to have courage,” and that “to see what is right and not do it is want of courage.” He also said, “Men with aspiration and with benevolence do not sacrifice benevolence to remain alive, but would sacrifice themselves for benevolence.” Mencius said, “To live is my desire, and to be righteous is also my desire. If the two can’t be had at the same time, I’d give up life to achieve righteousness.” In our time of moral poverty, Xie Yang is such a man whose actions and choices befit the ideals of Confucius and Mencius.
Chen Jiangang (陈建刚) is a human rights lawyer in China.
Translated from an abbreviated version with author’s permission.