From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi

March 19, 2020

Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) was reluctant when I asked for an interview. It was in the fall of 2017, a year after he was released from prison as a leader of the New Citizens Movement. He was visiting his wife and two daughters in Alfred, a village of 5,000 souls in Upstate New York, and would go back to China in a few days. He didn’t want to bring attention to himself; notoriety, he said, will only impede his work. I said, “Please leave your story behind. At some point, people will want to and need to know who you are.” Now is that point. On December 26, 2019, Ding Jiaxi was detained in Beijing, along with three others in other cities for their presence at a gathering in Xiamen, Fujian Province, earlier that month. He has since been placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” China’s legal term for secret detention. He has been denied access to his lawyers, his family has not even received a legal document announcing his whereabouts or charges against him. He may be subjected to torture. The interview was conducted on October 27, 2017, via Skype. It’s 9,800 words and will take you 60 minutes to read. In this time of the coronavirus havoc, I hope this will make a good read on multiple levels. — Yaxue Cao, China Change Editor

Prison, from April 2013 to October 2016

Yaxue Cao: Hello Mr. Ding. I’m glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. You’ve been out of prison for exactly one year, and you’ve just reunited with your wife and daughter. How does it feel to be in America?

Ding Jiaxi: It’s too comfortable here. I feel restless.

YC: Are you really going back to China?

Ding: Yes, I will return at the end of the month.

YC: Where do we start? Let’s start with your three and half years in prison. From what I’ve heard, no one went to visit you during these three and half years; I was very sad when I heard that.

Ding: In the beginning, my lawyers could still see me. Later on, both of my appeal lawyers, Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) and Liu Weiguo (刘卫国), came twice but weren’t allowed to see me.

YC: Why did the authorities treat you like this?

Ding: According to law, appeal lawyers could see ordinary criminal offenders anytime. But the authorities wanted no information about me to get out, so as to destroy my influence, because as soon as a lawyer meets me, some information will spread on the internet. They didn’t want this to happen.

YC: How have you been these three and half years? You were at a prison in Tianjin?

Ding: Yes, there were two phases. Initially I was held in a detention center, then in a prison. The detention center was Beijing Third Detention Center. The cell was approximately 3 meters by 8 meters, 24 square meters, and it held about 15 or 16 people. On one side there was a rectangular platform running from one end of the room to the other where everyone slept. The rest of the room was an aisle about 1.2 meters wide. Your bed was where you sat, ate, and slept. Only a thin strip of space belonged to you. So when I just got there, I immediately thought of Julius Fučík’s “Notes from the Gallows.” His cell was 7 steps from the door to the window at the end, while my cell was 10 steps from the door to the window. But for Fučík, it was three people per cell. Later on, one person left, and soon the other did too, which left him alone in the cell. In other words, when his cell was at its capacity of three people, the conditions were still better than the cells in China. When I was at the detention center, each person had less than 2 square meters of personal space. The conditions were better in prison. We slept on bunk beds and each inmate had a bed. It was a lot better.

YC: How big was the prison cell, and how many people were held in it?

Ding: It also held around 15 to 16 people. The room was approximately 30 square meters.

YC: How long did they keep you at the detention center?

Ding: One year and four months. Besides being interrogated, they forced you to sit and didn’t allow you to do anything.

YC: God, time must’ve passed by excruciatingly slowly! Just sitting there not doing anything and not being allowed to do anything.

Ding: It didn’t feel slow for me. I would sit, adjust my breathing, and meditate quietly. I found that time passed by very quickly. During the two hours I had between dinner at 4:30pm and CCTV news at 6:30pm, I would walk back and forth along the aisle. In prison, I walked even more.

YC: There are all sorts of criminals in detention centers and prisons. There are prisoner bullies. How did you do in their midst?

Ding: In the first cell in the detention center, I quickly became buddies with everyone. The guards didn’t like that and moved me to another cell. At first the “touban” [头板, the prisoner bully who occupies the first, and often wider, strip of the bed] was very rough with me, but I avoided clashing with him. After about a month, he learned my situation and became very nice to me, taking care of me. He even gave his touban to me to sleep on. The guards frowned again, moving me to yet another cell. Conditions were much worse there. All inmates were destitute, many couldn’t even afford toilet paper. The next day guards watched me from their control room and found that inmates sat around me listening to me chatting. A guard said, “Lao Ding, you get along with people everywhere you go. Are you telling stories to them?” 

YC: I also heard other accounts, such as that of Professor Xu Youyu (徐友渔), of inmates showing extraordinary respect for political prisoners. Did they allow you to go outside every day?

Ding: At the detention center, I was not allowed to have yard time. So I couldn’t see the sun. On sunny days, right after lunch time, there was sunlight from the window for a short time, so I would stand there with my shirt off to get some sunlight. In prison, they allowed me to have yard time, but for a period of time I was prohibited from going out. At the end of the cell there was a small 30 by 50 centimeter window where the sun shone through in the morning, so I got half an hour of sunlight each day there. This was really important to keep myself healthy.

YC: Yes, many political prisoners had their teeth fall out in prison due to severe vitamin D deficiency. In your three and half years in prison, did they force you to labor?

Ding: When I was transferred to prison, they told me that I didn’t have to work because I refused to confess. The new policy was that those who refuse to confess actually didn’t have to work, because only when you had confessed were you qualified for “earning points” in exchange for reduced sentences. Those who had not confessed were not eligible for reduced sentences, so we didn’t have to work. Besides, we had a service brigade, and lots of people wanted to work in it, so there were more than enough people to complete the tasks.

YC: What did they do?

Ding: They sewed clothes. At the time, there was an international conference in Beijing, and the prisoners made the volunteers’ yellow uniforms. In 2015, when APEC was held in Beijing, the prisoners made 700,000 volunteer uniforms. They also made the red traffic safety hats. When I first arrived in prison, the prisoners still mostly worked on business orders. Many garment factories signed contracts with the prison, and they put their labels on the finished products once the prisoners are done making them. A famous Chinese brand that I used to like, Gentleman dress shirts, their products were made by prisoners.

YC: Were you able to read any books? Did your friends send you any?

Ding: No, not even a book teaching shorthand that a friend sent me. They kept it from me. I just read newspapers every day. I also read books left behind by other prisoners. One of them, for example, was called I Ching Wisdom and had many typos. After I finished reading it, I wrote a 30,000-word essay on my understanding of it.

YC: How would you summarize your understanding?

Ding: I believe the most valuable part of I Ching is Tuan Ci (彖辞, Judgment). It is full of wise sayings and had many excellent points, such as “the superior man who has breadth of character carries the outer world” (君子以厚德载物), “the superior man makes himself strong and untiring” (君子以自强不息)[1], etc. Even if we remove I Ching’s The Image and The Lines and read only the Judgement, it is still an extremely insightful piece of literature. In 2015 during the seven days of the Chinese New Year, I finished my essay. Inmates were off work during the holidays and having fun outside, but I sat in the cell, having all the space to myself.  

YC: Prisoners could go outside for fun?

Ding: They went to the corridors to entertain themselves. A small portion of the corridor was sectioned off and a few tables were set up so that the prisoners could play poker, Chinese chess, and Go. This was only allowed during the holidays.

YC: Wasn’t there a library in the prison?

Ding: Yes, but there weren’t any real books, just the so-called “re-education materials.” Then I read Ci Hai (《辞海》, Word Ocean, or the Encyclopedia of Chinese Words) , which was also left behind by another prisoner. I read it three times; it was pretty interesting. Later on, I wrote a longer essay called The General Theory on Boundaries and Explanations (《边界与解释通论》). It consisted of my philosophical reflections. It included a reference book list for my daughter Doudou [Doudou is Ding Jiaxi’s older daughter currently working towards a PhD in physics at Stanford], and it shows where I got the inspiration for my ideas. I spent nearly a whole year writing this essay and went through nine or ten drafts. In the beginning my ideas were very scattered, but I pondered them slowly and gradually grasped and connected them. In the prison I met a police officer who studies philosophy in college. He was very surprised after he saw my essay: Why do you think about these kinds of things? He was interested and took it to read it, but I don’t know if he understood it or not.

Actually, in life, rarely do we get the time to think about these things. If I didn’t go through those unusual three years, I believe that many things wouldn’t have become so simple to me now, nor so clear.

YC: Such as?

Ding: Existence in a mathematical sense. In prison, I had an epiphany when I watched the door open, close, open, close. I suddenly realized that such existence is everywhere, which is the core of my essay. This question has perplexed me for years. In college, there was a question in Theoretical Mathematics, that is, given a particular set of conditions, what would have to exist to equate to something? This is the existence proof. At the time I was baffled by it, but when I was sitting in my prison cell and saw the door open and close, I suddenly understood it completely.

YC: Please elaborate. What exactly did you get from watching the door opening and closing?

Ding: When you see something like this, for example, there are air currents, with the right conditions they form a correlated and thus stable structure. For another example, even though the circumstances for activism have deteriorated a great deal, we can still find ways to push for progress in society. There’s always a way. We can always find a way based on the conditions we are in. Such existence is everywhere, and besides, there isn’t only one solution but infinitely many solutions. This is my understanding of social movements in modern time. No matter how challenging the conditions are, there are infinitely many solutions if we think hard and try hard, despite the fact that they can also be few and scattered at the same time. 

YC: Looks like challenging totalitarianism is for you a mathematical problem to be solved.

Ding: The way to approach it is to find one path, then many paths, and keep on trying. There is no limit to trying.

YC: Your wife said that you wrote many letters to her and to your daughters, and your letters didn’t sound like they were written by someone from prison.

Ding: I missed them very much, but at the same time I was happy that they weren’t held hostages.

Ding Jiaxi in detention center in 2013.

Growing up, and college years as the 1989 generation

YC: Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about where you grew up and your college years. You are from Hubei, which part of Hubei?

Ding: I’m from Yidu County of Hubei’s Yichang District (宜昌地区宜都县), a poor area in the mountains of western Hubei. Historically, Yidu County was where Lu Xun’s (陆逊) army defeated Liu Bei (刘备). Lucheng township, the county seat, was where Liu Bei stationed his army. So where I’m from, we have lots of ruins from the Three Kingdoms Era (220–280 AD). There’s a place called Ma’anshan (马鞍山), a little west of my hometown, and the historical records show that it was where Zhao Yun (赵云) stationed his army to receive Liu Bei’s defeated army fleeing to Sichuan. As such, my hometown is deeply embedded in that famous part of history.

In the past, my hometown village used to be Xiangkeyan village (香客岩村), or the Pilgrims’ Cliff. In ancient times, a group of pilgrims went there to offer incense to the Buddha, but a mudslide hit them and buried them in the river. My village was named after this event. It was very remote; social changes had rarely impacted it until the Communists took over. They have been so permeative that their control has reached every corner of the country.

YC: When were you born?

Ding: In 1967. When I was a child, we still irrigated the crops using the same kind of wooden water mill from the Three Kingdoms Era. We didn’t have any modern tools — we still used primitive stone tools to grind corn and wheat, which was very inefficient. Life was hard. Sometimes I think that, in my own lifetime, I have lived from the Three Kingdoms Era to modern times. Now when I go back home, there is the internet and computers. I wrote letters from jail to my older brother and described this immense change. I said, “30 years ago, the village was our whole world, but now, the whole world is a village. So much has changed in 30 years.” My brother couldn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing. I said, if you don’t understand, just watch; you don’t have to have an opinion. I explained that, despite the progress, we face a big problem: Chinese people have no political rights, zero political rights. So even though people now possess tremendous material wealth and things seem prosperous, there is no guarantee that they can protect their wealth. The government can take away everything from you overnight, leaving you with nothing. People like Xu Ming (徐明) and Liu Han (刘汉) all had their property completely wiped out overnight.

YC: You attended Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Beihang). Which years? And what was your major?

Ding: I went to Beihang in 1986 and studied the engineering of aircraft engines. I’ve always wanted to study things that are hard as well as practical. I didn’t want to study things that were hard but not practical, or things that were practical but not hard. And even now China hasn’t solved the technological challenge aircraft engines pose.

YC: So you are of the 1989 generation.

Ding: Yes, I was a college junior in 1989, and I went to the demonstrations with my classmates. In the first two years in college before 1989, I read a lot of books. It was a time when there were a lot of reflections on the Cultural Revolution. I remember when I went home for Chinese New Year after the first semester of my freshman year, I brought three books for my head teacher. They were a collection called History Contemplates Here and Now (《历史在这里沉思》) that reexamined the Cultural Revolution. They were something that you couldn’t get in my small hometown. All this was my initial understanding of the Cultural Revolution, and I learned more from newspapers and magazines. When the students started protesting in 1989, I wholeheartedly supported what they advocated for, such as anti-speculation by privileged officials, anti-corruption, democratization, and anti-gerontocracy. I fully agreed with their views. We went to demonstrations; we shouted slogans; we went to Tiananmen Square for sit-in protests.

YC: Did you yourself participate in the sit-ins?

Ding: Yeah, I did sit-ins for several days. Later on, as the protests became a protracted affair, my classmates took turns to sit in the Square. On the night of June 3rd, someone asked me to go again, but I didn’t because I had to finish a translation assignment from a professor. I said to them that I would finish it that night and go tomorrow to replace them.

YC: Then there wasn’t a tomorrow.

Ding: By accident I missed that monumental moment, for better or worse.

YC:  But you are very familiar with the Tiananmen movement and the massacre.

Ding: The longest stretch I stayed at Tiananmen Square was three days and three nights. Two of my classmates joined the hunger strike, but now they work in the government system. Two other classmates left the Square with bayonets pointing at them — pointing directly at their foreheads. These two have since immigrated, one’s in the UK, the other in Canada.

YC: Are they still interested in the democratic movement? Have you stayed in touch with them?

Ding: Not really. The one in England became a supporter of the Communist Party. I saw him in Shanghai in May. He said that China’s developing so quickly and has achieved so much, the communist system is pretty good, your ideas are unrealistic, haha. I think that’s what time does to all of us. When time passes, some people don’t change, some people change for the worse, some people change for the better. It’s different for everyone. For me, I don’t think the choices I have made are directly related to the 1989 movement. At least I don’t think so. On the contrary, I feel that my choices presented themselves to me rather naturally.

YC: What did you do after graduation?

Ding: I went to work for Shenyang 606 Institute (沈阳606研究所), an aircraft engine research institute. It belonged to the military in the past, and later on to the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. At that time, I genuinely wanted to research aircraft engines. Two years later, I was sent back to Beihang for graduate school. Halfway through my graduate studies, I transferred to the Department of Aircraft Design. I also took the bar exam and passed it.

YC: Sounds like you had a lot of spare time.

Ding: I was bored with my graduate coursework and wanted to do something else. I realized that I didn’t like working in the lab, nor did I like handling numbers and equipment every day. During college, besides my coursework, I mostly read about the social sciences. I read a lot of philosophy, especially on epistemology and cognition. For example, I read lots of Jean Piaget and western works on cognition, it was fascinating. I was intrigued by the question of how people learn about the world around them. So when I was in jail, I wrote about that in my essay. When I mailed my draft out, the jail intercepted it. They were probably desperate to know what I was thinking about.

YC: They probably found you and what you wrote baffling.

Ding: After I got out, I shared the essay with my college classmates. Lots of them were very curious to see what I was contemplating about in jail. Upon reading it, they said they couldn’t finish reading it, it was too hard to understand!

Ding Jiaxi in 2010.

Ten years as a business lawyer

YC: What kind of lawyer did you work as? I understand you were a very successful business lawyer.

Ding: I don’t think I can be considered successful. It’s just that I got my practicing license when I was in grad school. Exams are a simple thing for me. I won three first-class scholarships in college and scored full marks in many of the major courses. Later, I changed plans and focused my energy on passing the judicial exams for lawyers. I didn’t find it difficult, and passed easily.

In June 1996, I formally resigned from the 304 Research Institute in Beijing to become a lawyer. The Institute was also part of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry, and located in Wenquan Town of Haidian District. Back then it was still relatively in the outskirts, now it’s a very well-developed area. At that time, being new to a completely new profession, I had few resources, but I was pretty confident and believed I could do a good job.

Rather fortunately in 1997 I joined a law firm that was then called the Weiyu Law Firm (威宇律师事务所), where they had a special program in connection with the Lawyers’ Mailbox Program run by Central People’s Broadcasting Station (中央人民广播电台律师信箱节目). The program staff would forward letters from the audience to our law firm. We would select some representative cases to reply to and our replies would be broadcast via the CPBS. I worked on this program for 11 months, writing nearly 140 replies of 800 to 1,000 words each. That period proved a very good training for my new career as a lawyer.

YC: I can see that because every case requires careful research and thinking, and there are all sorts of cases.

Ding: These articles of mine were broadcast by the CPBS. If you look for the  recordings now, I think you can still find them, each one was written by me. At that time, I mainly relied on a 12-volume set of laws and regulations, which basically contained all the laws in China at the time, including some local regulations. As long as it was legislation at the level of the National People’s Congress, it was in there. Then there was a collection of civil and commercial law books, including various cases and legal opinions.

YC: So you were mainly a civil and commercial lawyer.

Ding: Yes, mainly civil cases and commercial cases. When I was working as an assistant lawyer, I was involved in criminal cases, such as a case in Tianjin in 1998, but the experience left me very sad and disappointed. We provided such solid evidence, but the judge ignored it. So slowly I gave up on criminal defense. I was at an advantage in civil and commercial cases. I have a technical background, so I later ended up taking more intellectual property cases. This was where my strengths lay. I think it was 2011 that I was awarded one of the top 10 intellectual property lawyers in Beijing.

YC: You were making strides in your lawyer career.

Ding: It was a gradual process. In 2001 I worked with others and formed a partnership firm. In 2003, I started another law firm. It was also a partnership in name, but I was the one behind it, and it was called Dehong Law Firm (德鸿律师事务所). I directed this law firm for exactly 10 years.

YC: That is, when you were arrested in 2013 for your participation in the New Citizens Movement, you were still a lawyer and the director of Dehong Law Firm.

Ding: Dehong Law Firm was formally approved on April 16, 2003.

YC: And you were arrested on April 17, 2013.

Ding: Yes, exactly 10 years. So sometimes I think there is no better arrangement in life than this. When I set up this firm, my dream was to see it making a name for itself in Beijing 10 years later. In the 10 years that the firm was under my management, our income for the first year was 2 million [RMB], and 25 million [RMB] by the end of 2012.

YC: How many people did Dehong Law Firm hire around 2012?

Ding: At that time, the total staff numbered more than 30, and we had nine partners, the number of practicing lawyers was about 20, for Beijing this was mid-to-upper scale.

YC: Then what happened to the law firm after you were incarcerated?

Ding: The remaining eight partners continued to operate after I left. I remember it was probably in May [2017], I met and chatted with several old partners. I said, I had accomplished the goals for the first 10 years, you guys have taken over for the next 10 years. To go yet another 10 years may require a younger generation. I hope you guys do well so that when someone mentions Dehong in the future, they will remember that Ding Jiaxi was the founding partner of this firm, and it will reflect well on me. So sometimes I feel like there is something driving me to where I am now.

Ding Jiaxi, shortly after being released from prison in October 2016.

YC: This actually leads to my next question: I saw a picture of you before, from the time you were a lawyer. You were at an event in Beijing’s Zhongguancun. You were wearing a linen suit, speaking at a podium, looking full of spirit. When you were released from prison last year, it looked like you had just returned from a Nazi concentration camp. You were bald, thin and dark, and there was a big swollen lump on your forehead. You were making a good living as a business lawyer, and had ambitious goals. What is it that drives you?

Ding: After I became a lawyer, I found that I really enjoyed dealing with different kinds of people and handling practical matters. Especially after I set up my own law firm, I basically interacted with company chairmen, chief executives, and those who have decision-making power. I often spent evenings drinking tea with them, listening to them talk about how they did business, how they made decisions and judgments. This was a huge step up for me, giving me a broader perspective on society and how to deal with wide-range problems with flexibility. I think something like this was more suitable for me. Then in the process of practicing law, I would encounter various unjust cases, and each case involves miscarriage of justice. This prompted me to think about the commonality behind these cases and how to change things. One of my initial choices was to join the China Democratic League.

YC: Why did you join the China Democratic League? What is it?

Ding: The CDL is a political party, presumably, one of the so-called participating ruling political parties. I didn’t want to join the Communist Party. Through the CDL, I intended to submit motions on social issues that would be brought to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) or the National People’s Congress (NPC). Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was also a CDL member. I wrote eight proposals within a year after joining.

YC: What year was that?

Ding: It was 2002 I think. From 2002 to ‘07 I was a member of the CDL’s Central Rule of Law Committee (民盟中央法制委员会). 

YC: Could you give a couple of examples of the proposals you submitted?

Ding: The one that I remember very well was the proposal to beef up regulations for the quality of milk powder. There were horrendous problems with milk powder at the time. Three months after I submitted this proposal, the scandal about melamine-tainted milk powder erupted.

YC: That is to say, your proposal presaged the toxic milk powder scandal.

Ding: Yes. Another proposal I made called for streamlining the transferral procedures for used cars, because we could expect that in the future, there would be a large number of motor vehicles and a large number of used vehicles in China. At the time, the process for transferring a used car was very cumbersome. I wrote eight similar proposals in my first year, but the CDL Central Proposal Committee was not interested at all.

YC: So what were they interested in?

Ding: All they cared about was living in comfort.

YC: You didn’t know, but they themselves understood perfectly that they were only there for decoration.

Ding: I figured it out later. I spoke privately to the CDL people, I said, you guys are worse than eunuchs. They agreed, saying that’s right, we are worse than the eunuchs. I also remember submitting a proposal at that time that advocated the centralization of all enforcement cases to the Supreme People’s Court, making them public on a website, so as to make it accessible to everyone and improve social integrity. After I put forward a proposal, I also gave notice to the people in the proposal department for their attention. I said that this is very important because we encountered many difficult problems in enforcing rulings, and hoped that they would be able to help pass it on.

I pressed the guy in the proposal department about this three times. One day after  that, I went to the People’s Court Daily and met with the head of their network department. I asked him, are you not interested in this topic? He said, I know, I am going to a meeting this afternoon, and the discussion is on how to build a website to make enforcement cases public. I had great hopes at the time and thought that this idea might be implemented soon. But it would take more than 10 years for it to happen. It was when I was in prison that I saw such a website had been set up and the public could search it for information.

YC: Enforcement cases are cases with effective court rulings. In China, does it happen that even binding verdicts handed down by courts may not actually be carried out?

Ding: Very often. This is why things need to be open to the public. In the second year I wrote five more proposals, in the third year I wrote three, and then after that I stopped. If the rules governing the system are broken, it will cause a lot of problems and a lot of unfairness. These are systematic errors. When there are many systematic errors, we can only eliminate them by adjusting the system. There are also accidental errors and human errors. For example, in one verdict, the judge made mistakes in the determination of evidence; this can be counted as an individual’s error. Such errors exist in any country. We need to improve the quality of judges so as to minimize the occurrence of such errors, we can reduce it to a relatively low proportion, or we can pass some institutional reforms to make it easier to correct errors and provide remedy. But such errors will always exist, and the system can be continuously improved. But in our country, if you trace all the rules back to the source, and in the end there is only one fundamental problem: one-party authoritarianism. If this fundamental problem is not resolved, none of the kinks in the other rules can be solved. So in 2011, I visited Fordham University in New York, and stayed for more than 7 months as a visiting scholar.

YC: Wait. Why did you suddenly decide on this stint as a visiting scholar? What did it have to do with your career?

Ding: I wanted to make new choices again. From being a researcher and then practicing law, it had been 20 years since I left college. I constantly felt that I was being confronted with one issue after another that I didn’t know how to resolve. But I wanted to solve them. To do that I need to change my trajectory. At Fordham there were some scholarly activities, and it was easy to get access to information.

YC: You wanted to have some time to think, right? Or did you have a specific goal in mind when you went?

Ding: At that time, my basic thinking was to get involved with social activism in China. I wanted to take some time to make needed adjustments. During those seven months I basically shut down all calls from clients and other such distractions. As my daughter Shasha described it, “All I could see every day was my dad pacing to and fro with his hands clasped behind his back.”

YC: That’s how she described it?

Ding: Right, because it takes a great deal of brain power and concentration to figure out how to solve and handle many problems, after all! Those seven months determined my decisions thereafter. The time that I spent in America just so happened to coincide with the rounding up of Chinese activists during the Jasmine Revolution.

YC: From when to when were you at Fordham University?

Ding: From February to September. I went back on October 1. So I had very good information about what was happening in China; it was then that I realized that there were so many people in China willing to stand up and resist.

YC: You didn’t know before then?

Ding: No, I had no idea at all. A few days after I returned, on October 10, I met with Xu Zhiyong. We knew each other before, as we had both been on the rule of law committee at the CDL. He was there for the ninth committee, I was there for the ninth and 10th. The reason he was there for only one term was because, in 2003, he wrote an open letter calling for the abolition of the custody and repatriation practice against migrant workers. As a result CDL couldn’t tolerate him anymore.

YC: You mean he was expelled from the CDL just for that?

Ding: That’s right, from this you can tell what kind of “political party” the CDL really is. It’s a small circle even further to the left and more politically reactionary than the Communist Party. The people there live comfortably on the CCP’s payroll, and that’s that. Calling them “vassals” of the CCP gives them too much credit. In 2011, after I returned to China, I went to my last CDL end-of-year event. I told them to stop notifying me of any more future activity, and that I quit. On October 10, when Xu Zhiyong and I met, he said that he and his friends were holding a seminar on constitutionalism and asked if I wanted to take part. So I went. This was my first connection with them, and it was also their first seminar on constitutionalism.

Ding Jiaxi and his wife Luo Shengchun (@luoshch) in October, 2017.

Becoming a civil rights activist

YC: Who was organizing this constitutionalism seminar?

Ding: There were Zhiyong, Wang Jianxun (王建勋), Teng Biao (滕彪) and a few others. There were seven people at the first meeting in a restaurant. After that, I began to help Zhiyong. I booked venues for each meeting. I sent out invitations. I helped compile a contact book. The constitution seminar was held about a dozen or so times, once every other week. That was the beginning of my involvement in their circle. Starting May, 2012, we began to promote citizen logos and organize citizen dinner gatherings in multiple cities across the country. If there was a date marking the beginning of the New Citizens Movement, the exact date would be May 5, 2012. 

YC: I know about this point of time. That May Xu Zhiyong published “The New Citizens Movement,” an article that sounded like a manifesto. At the time I was co-blogging at an English-language website, and we thought it was an interesting article and by July we published a translation.

Ding: Many ideas were born at these dinner parties. Whenever people get together, ideas breed ideas. So we made citizen T-shirts, citizen umbrellas, and so on and so forth. Later on someone said we could launch a campaign demanding that government officials publicize their assets. So on December 9, 2012, we launched it. At the time the Communist Party had just concluded its 18th Congress, and the 204 members of the Central Committee had been selected. So we called upon these 204 people to publicize their assets as a way to curb corruption. In our formal iteration, we call upon 204 ministerial or higher level officials to disclose their assets. These were also government officials, and their Party identity was actually irrelevant. According to modern political theory, only people who hold public power need to be held accountable by making their assets public. We chose that date only because it was Saturday, and we thought there were more people online around noon on Saturdays so that we could get more people to sign on. But later on when I was interrogated, the interrogators seemed very sensitive about the date.

YC: Why is that?

Ding: It turned out that December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. But we really had no idea when we picked that day. When I learned about this coincidence, it did feel as though we had premeditated something. Like other incidents I told you, on the 10th anniversary of my law firm’s founding, I signed all the papers to turn the firm to others, and the next day I was arrested. I also accompanied my wife and children to get their visas the day before I was arrested. It was as though I was taking care of everything and getting ready for prison.

YC: But you didn’t actually quit the firm.

Ding: I didn’t. I just quit being the director; I only wanted to be a partner.

YC: In other words, all of your civil activism before your arrest was amateur.

Ding: Right, but the authorities gave me the amateur a very high evaluation. The preliminary interrogators told me that, look, Xu Zhiyong has done citizens’ activities for 10 years, then you came and got involved for a year, and we have this. How can we let you loose? 

YC: After you were imprisoned, more than one person said that you were the brain, the strategist, and the implementer — something like that.

Ding: I’d say that’s a difference between me and Zhiyong. We complement each other. Zhiyong has been at it for many years and is very experienced. His ideas are clear and he’s determined. I, on the other hand, am a lawyer. Lawyers are good at operations. When like-minded friends got together, a lot of ideas and options were proposed. We would find many of them unfeasible, and we would leave these ideas out and implement ideas that were doable. When implementing an idea, people would find it hard to accomplish, but if you break it down into smaller tasks, it became very simple: some did this and others did that, and putting them together it was done. My ability to implement ideas complements Zhiyong very well. This is also a belief of mine, that is, the citizens movement is not something lofty; instead, it is something simple and substantive, such as posting an article, reposting something, posting a video online. As simple as that. When more and more people are making themselves heard, there will be a non-linear expansion that draws more and more people to do the same. Change is not effected by shouting a slogan and expecting people to follow you en mass. When the New Citizens Movement just started, the authorities didn’t pay much attention to it, and we grew very quickly. At the time we estimated that we would need about two years to continue our activities and grow our strength. The Guobao (domestic security police) also had an estimate. They said if we give you two years we will lose control of you, so we have to clamp you down.

After wave and wave of crackdown, right now we face a problem, that is, the civil society is very scattered and completely atomized. 

YC: That’s just what I meant to ask you.

Ding: Now we need to look for the right timing, the right opportunities, or the right activities, to first of all connect people and restart. This process of restarting and regrowing is probably going to be harder and take longer than we thought before. But there are many opportunities. We had successes before, like the campaign for equal education that Zhiyong had worked on for a number of years. Wang Gongquan (王功权) was the one who first proposed it, but Zhiyong was the one who had persisted with parents who did the real organizing. They started in 2009, and by now children in all cities across China, besides Beijing and Shanghai, can go to school where they live and take the college exams without local household registration. It is a very successful social movement.

We launched the asset disclosure campaign at the end of 2012. Our idea was to promote related legislation at the National People’s Congress through the campaign. It’s a completely legal activity. Similar topics abound. For example, after I was released, I established a WeChat group for smog. Under the umbrella of environmental pollution, land pollution and water pollution were all potential topics that could pull people together. In the first half of this year, I went to many places across the country, and I discovered two very good areas where everyone can take part. One is property owners’ rights defense. A lot can be done to organize property owners to have their own management committees.

YC: This sounds interesting and promising, because everyone has the motive and drive to defend their property.

Ding: Across China, only 1 percent of residential communities have their own property owners’ committees. If our goal is to have 60 percent of property owners establishing their own management committees, how much work is to be done? I met a young man in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, who has been very successful in leading property owners to defend their rights. He said to me, very simply, “If you can’t even replace your property management company, how can you possibly replace your government?” Through forming their own committee, property owners fire the property management company that they don’t like, and hire a new company. For property owners, this is a very good way to raise awareness of their rights.

When you have the support of property owners, in the next people’s representative elections, you will have the staunchest supporters who will sign on to support your candidacy. You only need 10 of them. They will distribute fliers for you, and lobby for you in the neighborhood.

This brings us to the other thing we think we could legitimately do: take part in the next people’s representative elections. In the 1980s when I was in college in Beijing, there were as many as 300 independent candidates taking part in the district-level elections of people’s representatives. When I came out of prison in 2016, an election year, there were only 56 independent candidates in the entire metropolitan Beijing. That’s too few. The government could afford to watch and suppress each one of them. But I told friends, if there are 500 independent candidates, it would be much harder for the authorities to suppress. If 5,000 people are taking part as independent candidates, how are they going to suppress you? I said, let’s start preparing for the people’s representative elections four years later (in the fall of 2021). I hope everyone at this dinner party as well as your friends will participate as candidates. This is a very good way to get involved. I say we still have room to do things. We can use the elections in 2021 as a way to display our strength. In the next four years, we need to work patiently to grow our force, we need to engage in a variety of activities to connect with more people and build effective communications. We also need to adjust our habits and renew our way of thinking so that we keep abreast of changes of our time. We need to explore new technologies to expand our abilities. 

So that’s how life is for me. When you discover and find the thing that suits you the best, you experience a sense of pleasure. All difficulties and all pains are no longer a problem. Again, that’s a difference between Zhiyong and I. For Zhiyong, it’s a political ideal, and has always been.

YC: Please elaborate.

Ding: According to what the Guobao told me, when Xu Zhiyong was a teenager, a junior high school student, he wrote in his diary that the Communist Party was the biggest obstacle to his political career. He had a political goal in mind. For me, I feel the reason why I’ve taken this path is that my views have come to this point, and I am willing to make this choice, which is consistent with my understanding of my life.

YC: Isn’t that also a political goal?

Ding: But it’s a goal that is a fruit of my personal experience and thinking. It’s not that I set a goal first and take this path to reach that goal. No, I came to it naturally, just like the water flows down its course, naturally into the pond, naturally into the river, and naturally into the sea.

YC: Do you miss playing golf? Do you still play?

Ding: I don’t miss it at all. I absolutely have no thoughts about it at all.

YC: You’ve been in the U. S. for such a long break, and you never played a game?

Ding: No. Actually, I played golf well and won several championships. I’d say that I was an outstanding amateur golfer. But now I don’t have the desire to play it anymore. I have only one idea now, and that is to do what I am doing now.

YC: So we can say that in the foreseeable future, you will basically be something like a professional revolutionary. In terms of lifestyle, you will basically be driving around everywhere in your car and seeing people and doing things. Is that right?

Ding: Yes, I will continuously see all kinds of people, hoping to establish various connections.

YC: Let me ask you a private question. You used to be a successful business lawyer who had a handsome income. Now you have no regular job and no income. What do you live on?

Ding: I have some savings from the past. My life is simple now, I have enough to support myself; it’s not a problem.

YC: You don’t feel any regret at all?

Ding: No regrets. I used to spend at least 100,000 yuan a year on golfing. I stayed in five-star hotels and ate bird’s nest, shark fin, abalone and other things every day, and I didn’t think it was anything special. I also didn’t find it hard to eat prison food every day. I feel that, for me, it seems that the first half of my life is over. The life of an average person is over. From now on, I am like a freshman, starting from scratch, living the other half of my life. Before coming to the United States, I had a very strong feeling, and I said, look, I had left prison but it seems that the process of leaving prison isn’t over. Why? Because I haven’t seen my children, I haven’t seen my wife. It seemed to me that only after seeing them again and after living the life of an ordinary person for a while, only then would my process of leaving the prison seem to be over.

YC: That is to say, you are about to finish this process.

Ding: Yes, it’s over. When I go back, I will live a completely new life, another way of life — I will be a professional activist; this is how I am positioning myself. I don’t want anything else. In the past I always wanted to do this and try that. Now I feel everything I did in the first 50 years of my life was in preparation for what comes next. As they say, “I am ready.” Ha ha.

In Alfred, New York, community members wrote letters to the police chief in Yantai, Shandong, where Ding is believed to be held, calling for his release.

The Citizens Movement

YC: When you were released from prison in October 2016, the “709 Incident” had entered its second year. After you came out, you must have analyzed the mode of crackdown during 709. What is your analysis and conclusion?

Ding: Judging from the 709 arrests, first of all, the authorities have adopted a zero-tolerance attitude towards offline activities; they will eliminate any and all offline activities. So over a relatively long period of time we are going to give up offline activities like “weiguan” [group gatherings to show support for human rights defenders or lawyers] and focus on online activities. The second point is that the authorities treat these kinds of actions that bring together various forces and resources and combine into one movement as extremely “sensitive.” For individuals or groups who observe their boundaries, the authorities will be relatively tolerant. But as soon as different groups begin to coalesce, it will not be tolerated.

For example, some of the “Big V” intellectuals have spoken out online for a long time, and the authorities can tolerate them to a certain extent because they each appear as an individual and do not collaborate with others. We feel that we can continue to speak out this way, but from the perspective of gathering social forces, we cannot be satisfied with this state of affairs. We can look as if we are speaking individually, but we must have mutual communication and cooperation, and gradually form a community and gradually expand our influence.

YC: Does the term New Citizens Movement, or rather, does this movement still exist, or has it already been broken up?

Ding: The label, the “New Citizens Movement” is something others gave us after we were detained. Xu Zhiyong wrote some articles advocating for a new citizens movement, but for the vast majority of us, we believe that what we are doing is a civic movement, neither new nor old. It’s still the same now. We hope to play down this label and the sense of a small circle, because we hope that everyone who strives for the overall goal of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law for China can come together.

YC: When you go to meet people all over the place, your goal is to establish this kind of connection, right?

Ding: Correct. Before I get to a place, I’d send a message in the relevant circle. The circle may be 30 or 50 people. I will send a message to each one of them and tell them, “I’m here, are you free for a meal gathering?” In August, [2017] when I went to Xi’an it was just like that. That night, at first, eight people signed up to come, but in the end 32 people showed up. Some of my offline friends knew that I was in town, so they called friends and came together. Many of the people have been inactive for many years; they also came. Some introduced themselves as veteran democracy activists from before June 4th; some as dissidents who took part in the 1998 campaign to form an opposition party. Some were netizens, and some were human rights lawyers. To me, a common identity for each of us is that we want to be Chinese citizens who truly have the rights of citizens and each will do our part to promote the betterment of society.

YC: More than 30 people gathering for a dinner party, didn’t the Guobao find out?

Ding: They knew beforehand. A former political prisoner invited a few friends on his phone, which was monitored by the Guobao. At 9 o’clock in the evening, a Guobao chiefcame in and said that they received a report that some people were doing drugs here. As he spoke, the door was flung open and a swarm of policemen crashed in. There were probably more than 60 of them. Then several buses parked outside took all of us to the police station.

YC: Such a big posture?

Ding: Yes, some policemen even carried submachine guns. Once at the police station, they grabbed our cell phones from us and started interrogating us one by one. When they were questioning me, the officer told me, “We received a report saying that you were there engaging in pyramid selling. People heard your group speaking and applauding. Pyramid selling is illegal.” Meanwhile, netizens from around the country were calling the police station asking why they had detained us. The police then replied that we were having an illegal gathering. For detaining us, they concocted three different reasons.

YC: How long were you detained?

Ding: From 9:30 in the evening until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning the next day –– about 6 hours. The last one left the police station at about 5 am, because they still had to go to work in the morning. Most of the people had regular jobs.

YC: Were the newcomers nervous?

Ding: The people who came are basically people who care about social issues. Twelve of the 32 people were former political prisoners. Another third of the people had previous “tea drinking” experience [with police]. For the remaining third, this was their first encounter of this nature with police. They felt uneasy. But after it was over, they felt they could deal with it.  After going through it once, they will have more courage to face this kind of special measure. 

YC: I recently interviewed Wang Dan (王丹). He taught in Taiwan for several years and just moved back to the U. S. While in Taiwan, he conscientiously built connections with the post-90s generation of mainland students studying in Taiwan. He said that 90 percent of this group are potential opponents of the communist regime. Wang Dan and you are the same age, he said that he will definitely see China change in the hands of this generation in his lifetime.

Ding: I also have the same confidence, and it will definitely be done in the hands of our generation. Maybe we need to struggle for 25 more years to complete the change, and we may not have the opportunity to participate in the building of a democracy. But it doesn’t matter; we will see the change for certain.

YC: Just now you mentioned that Xu Zhiyong is different in terms of temperament and style of doing things. I know Xu Zhiyong has a goal to be a future political leader. If the change you are working for is realized, do you have any plans to be in the future politics?

Ding: No. When I reach a certain time, I want to be free and unfettered, and I don’t want to participate in subsequent matters. If the biggest obstacle is removed, my mission will be completed. Zhiyong has political ambitions. Maybe he wants to run for president? I don’t; truly, I don’t; I don’t have any of this kind of idea at all. The reason why I am doing what I’m doing is that I can’t stand this thing cognitively, psychologically, and viscerally. And it is totally incompatible with my life.

YC: I know the kind of physical aversion you are talking about. I’ve always said that the most thorough objection is probably an aesthetic objection: you are repelled by it and you can’t stand it for a moment.

Ding: You are repelled by their look, their discourse, and the lifestyle they impose on you. You are nauseated when you get close to it.

YC: I’m not sure I understand the choices you have made. But it seems to me that you have reached a certain freedom and you are not afraid of that freedom.

Ding: My philosophy of life is that all possibilities exist. I’m not bound by any social conventions, but I do have a bottom line, and it cannot be violated. This is also what the Guobao did not understand when dealing with me, including during the first trial. They said, “You are a commercial lawyer. We know that you are very flexible. You are always seeking a balanced solution through compromise, and we believe that you will make such a choice for your own destiny.” So they looked forward to me eventually repenting and admitting guilt. They don’t understand why I didn’t make this choice. For me, some principles cannot be broken. All transactions, all compromises, all balances must occur above these principles. Beyond that, there is no room to negotiate. For example, they want me to admit guilt, but I’m not guilty. From the bottom of my heart, I don’t think I have an iota of guilt. I also don’t think I have done anything wrong at all. They want me to admit guilt, repent, and promise I will never do it again. If I make such a promise, I’m putting a yoke on myself, and I can’t do that. So don’t talk about it with me. After the first three months in detention, they spent all their time trying to change my mind.

YC: I don’t understand. They have absolute power; they have the law at their service; they detain anyone they want; they make up whatever crime they want against you, and they dole out whatever sentence that’s convenient for them. Why do they care so much about admitting guilt? They forced the 709 detainees to admit guilt one by one, and to achieve this, they spent months on end and used all sorts of unscrupulous methods, threats and temptations. Why?

Ding: A confession of guilt has a prominent psychological effect on the person, and at the same time the social impact is also very great. Psychologically speaking, after you make a guilty confession, in a sense, you completely negate your character and what you have done. It’s very damaging, and you feel very uncomfortable after coming out of detention. It’s very difficult to bear. In my opinion, many people have fallen into this situation.

YC: Without exception, the 709 lawyers were subject to extreme torture during the six months of “residential surveillance at a designated location” and beyond. The authorities seemed bent on breaking them. I think it will take a long time for the meaning of these atrocities to sink in. It’s heart wrenching. But for some reason, neither you nor Xu Zhiyong were tortured. What’s the difference?

Ding:  I think there are two reasons why they didn’t torture the detained New Citizens. First,  what we did, what we said, what they knew, and what we told them during the interrogations were consistent. This was one of our operating rules at the time: we do not hide or conceal what we do and what we say. 709 was different. The police wanted the 709 detainees to explain things they thought existed but in fact didn’t. So, they tortured them. They believed something was hidden. Second, at our time, having us admit guilt was not a set goal, they sentenced us regardless we admitted guilt or not. But with the 709 detainees, the police made admitting guilt one of their goals. You must confess. And in 709, confessions were used as a leverage: if you confess, I will release you. We have had no news about Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) since July 2015, so I believe that Wang Quanzhang has not confessed guilt. Such is the current situation. If the New Citizens Movement detainees are handled now, people like us who refuse to admit guilt probably would be treated the same as Wang Quanzhang, still imprisoned, and also tortured. It seems that forcing political detainees to admit guilt is consistent with Xi’s character.

YC: I hope you will be able to visit the U.S. in the future, at least once a year, without obstacle.

Ding: I believe that if I can come, then I’m destined to come. If I can’t, then I can’t; so be it.[2] 

[1] The Richard Wilhelm translation, rendered into English by Cary F Baynes.

[2] Ding Jiaxi was blocked at Beijing Capital Airport from leaving China on May 3, 2018. He was due to attend his daughter’s college graduation.  


To Be a Citizen Who Speaks Up and Has an Attitude: Lawyer Ding Jiaxi Speaks from Prison, April 6, 2014.

8 responses to “From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi”

  1. […] a crowd to disturb order in a public place.  He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.[1]  Released in 2016, he courageously resumed his social activism, helping and encouraging people who […]

  2. Spiros says:

    in every country of the world that the “$” arrives, the freedom and the democracy has to run to safety, or suffer existential consequences .- Martirs suffer the most…!!

  3. […] But to my father, this was only the beginning. He wouldn’t have been happy if he stayed in the U.S. After seeing so much injustice as a lawyer, activism is a path that naturally came to him, and naturally, he will follow it, like rivers flowing into the sea.  […]

  4. […] From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi, March 19, 2020. […]

  5. […] From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi, China Change, March 19, 2020. […]

  6. […] household registration is, served four years in prison from July 2013 to July 2017. Ding Jiaxi, a lawyer-turned-activist, served a three-and-half-year prison term from April 2013 to October 2016 for demonstrating with […]

  7. […] From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi, March 19, 2020.   […]

  8. […] a decade-long successful career as a successful commercial lawyer in Beijing, Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) joined the New Citizens Movement in 2011 led by legal scholar Xu […]

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