Ten Years Disbarred

Tang Jitian, April 30, 2020

Tang Jitian (唐吉田) grew up in the mountains of the northeastern province of Jilin, a Korean autonomous prefecture, not too far from Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, and North Korea. He enrolled in the Politics Department at Northeast Normal University in Changchun in 1988, just in time for the 1989 student democracy movement. He became a teacher after college and, a few years later, a prosecutor. He was ill-fit for the latter job — making arguments in favor of death sentences and watching men being executed at point blank range was only part of it. In 2004 he passed the bar exam and started practicing law. He went to Beijing in the most euphoric year of 2008, found the burgeoning scene of civil society exciting, and was among the first 303 signers of Charter 08. He was one of the lawyers most active in the campaign for the direct election of Beijing Bar Association from 2008 to 2009. This, he believed, was the key reason for his permanent disbarment on April 30, 2010. For the ten years after being disbarred, he has stayed involved in the growing “rights defense” movement, having no regular job and no place to call home. He has been a scout for more lawyers joining the cause of human rights, one of the founders of China Human Rights Lawyers Group, and a self-appointed liaison between lawyers and citizen activists. His colleague, lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), recently described him as a “freebooting hero” who fought alone and belonged to no particular clique over the years. While his laundry-list account of the ten years of disbarment, translated by China Change, omits many details to protect the safety of those involved, it stands nevertheless as important testimony of “the Other China,” the China that has been constantly suppressed, cracked down, and made to disappear. — The Editors

At the end of 2019, the outbreak (of novel coronavirus) erupted in Wuhan, and in the beginning of 2020 it spread across the world. In mainland China, and indeed the whole world, economic production and the rhythm of life now revolve around fighting the pandemic. Normalcy seems a long way off. As for me, 2020 marks not only ten years since I lost my job, but also ten years that I have been unable to leave the country, ten years that I have been disbarred, and ten years that I have been single.


Before and After Disbarment; Rights Defense in Guangxi; Wang Yu’s First Imprisonment; Helping Eight Lawyers in Harbin

On April 30, 2010, the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau announced on its website that I and Liu Wei (刘巍) would no longer be licensed to practice law, on the grounds that we had “disrupted order in the courtroom.”

I wasn’t particularly surprised by this decision: in 2009 the Justice Bureau failed to approve my annual assessment. I was really waiting for the official shoe to drop after I got an anonymous phone call warning me to “be careful, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission is going to get you.”

While I knew my fate was inevitable, I wasn’t content to sit around waiting for my execution. I went several times, both on my own and with Liu Wei, to the Beijing Justice Bureau and the Beijing Bar Association to try to negotiate with them. They did whatever they could to get rid of me. They couldn’t care less.

Around the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, we met with Feng Xinquan (冯新泉) and Zhu Yuzhu (朱玉柱) from the Office of Lawyers Management of the Beijing Justice Bureau: Feng and a number of his colleagues were discharged military cadres, and they treated lawyers as if they were soldiers. I asked them to let me pass my annual assessment, if I in fact qualified, or otherwise to just stop dragging their feet. They told me: Don’t worry, we’ll reach a decision soon.

Around April 10, we were notified that a public hearing on the motion to disbar us would be held on the 22nd.

I braved a cold rain to get to the hearing. The police were all over the neighborhood of Xizhimen, where the Justice Bureau is located, stirring the pot. The government did not allow our supporters to enter the courtroom, but the seats were filled by staff from justice bureaus from every district and county in Beijing. In court that day were Liu Wei, myself, and our representatives: the late Prof. Zhang Shuyi (张树义), lawyer Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), and Dr. Teng Biao (滕彪). We offered a well-grounded rebuttal to the motion. During the hearing the Justice Bureau failed to produce video of the trial at the Luzhou Intermediate People’s Court [translator’s note: Tang and Liu had been accused of and punished for “disrupting order” in that court]. Afterwards, they dispatched someone to make a video recording of us.

After the hearing, I went back to my hometown in Jilin. A colleague told me about the information on the Justice Bureau website. In the beginning of May, I was told that Zhu Yuzhu and his colleagues had served my writ at the Beijing Anhui Law Firm in Beijing’s Chongwen District, where it was posted on the wall outside their building.

I’d lost my livelihood. I had no choice but to think about the future. Mulling it over, I decided that I would not completely abandon my work as a lawyer, and I would continue providing legal services for those in need while fighting to defend my own rights. A friend invited me to Hong Kong to cool my heels, but as soon as I arrived at the Lo Wu Control Point on the evening of May 5, I learned that I’d been banned from leaving the country because I “could endanger national security.” I had travelled outside China only three times before, once to Europe, and twice to Hong Kong, because I’d been tied up with my caseload and promoting direct election of the Beijing Lawyers Association.

Since I couldn’t leave, all I could do was go back to Beijing and work on the administrative appeal of my disbarment. Within the statutory limit, I went to the municipal government to seek correction to the Justice Bureau’s mistaken decision. In the end, though, the government overruled my request. Liu Wei and I also went to the Xicheng Procuratorate to report Xiao Lizhu (萧骊珠), the head of Lawyers Management Office of the Municipal Justice Bureau, for probable abuse of power, but nothing came of it.

At the end of May, officers from the Pingfang police station and from the Domestic Security Department (Guobao) were posted to the entrance to my home in the Guomei Diyicheng development in Chaoyang. With the help of a friend, I snuck out and stayed away for ten days or so. Li Heping (李和平)[1] went to get a few things for me, but the lock on my door had been jammed. He called a locksmith to come fix it, but then he was brought to the Pingfang police station for suspected burglary. The police would hear no explanation. They yanked the new keys out of Heping’s hand and gave them to the landlord. When I returned, the landlord told me he couldn’t afford any trouble with the police, and that I should pack up and leave immediately. I didn’t have the key, and my rental contract was still in my apartment. I had no choice but to leave the place I had called home for less than three months. I was always getting kicked out before my lease ended. I couldn’t take it anymore. I haven’t rented anything in my own name since then.

On September 9, I went to the Xicheng court to ask that they revoke the Justice Bureau’s illegal punishment, but the court rejected my complaint. Eventually, they wouldn’t even pick up the phone.

In between filing the redress and the complaint, on July 26, I went back to Yanji to handle my divorce proceedings. On my part, I was inconsiderate, a bad communicator, and unwilling to give up my so-called cause, and thus was too much trouble for my wife. After the divorce, I was totally unmoored. I had no place to call home. My situation has negatively impacted my daughter as she has grown up, especially her academic career.

By Chinese traditional values, I have neither cultivated my character nor kept my family in order, let alone anything else in my life.

Before I was disbarred, Mr. Guo Xuju (郭旭举)[2] introduced me to a series of rights defense cases in the village of Baihutou in Beihai, Guangxi Province (广西北海白虎头村), where I’d befriended the rights defense leader Xu Kun (许坤) and others. There was an anti-torture action in Beihai in the latter half of that year. Well-known lawyers Chen Guangwu (陈光武), Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), and Chen Youxi (陈有⻄) were invited down, where they met local lawyers such as Yang Zaixin (杨在新). There is perhaps no small connection between their participation in the action and the mobilization later on of fifty or so lawyers from around the country to support four of their peers who had been detained defending the villagers.

Not long after I was disbarred, I remember lawyer Li Fangping (李方平) passing on information about Bao Longjun (包龙军), who I learned had gone through hell seeking justice for his wife. I kept up with their case as Wang Yu (王宇)[3] was framed by the Tianjin railway police. Early on the morning of December 7, 2010, the Beijing Guobaokidnapped me from Honglianbei and took me to the Liaoning Hotel at the edge of North Third Ring Road. That afternoon I was escorted back to Yanji. Later on I heard this may have had to do with a crackdown in the lead up to International Human Rights Day.

When I was sent back to my hometown, I learned that eight lawyers in Harbin (哈尔滨) had been attacked by court officials outside the Nangang district courthouse. One of the lawyers had been so frightened that she miscarried. I drafted a letter to the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice, the All China Lawyers Association, and the All-China Women’s Federation, demanding that they investigate and seek justice for the victims. I’d visited all of the aforementioned establishments except for the Women’s Federation, and was particularly acquainted with the Lawyers Association. I had met their president, the late Yu Ning (于宁), and their former secretary-general, Deng Jiaming (邓甲明). I heard that the pressure on the eight lawyers was so great that they eventually dropped their case.

While I was following cases like Wang Yu’s, I also got in touch with the family of Song Meiying (宋美英), a lawyer formerly with the Zhongyin law firm. From them I learned about Song’s case of being sentenced to reeducation through labor for practicing Falun Gong. Lawyer Song was illegally disbarred by the Beijing Justice Bureau in 2010.


Forced Disappearance in the Jasmine Revolution; Tuberculosis; the Jasmine Clause of China’s Amended Criminal Law

As soon as I got back to Beijing on February 16, 2011, I went to meet friends for lunch near Xizhimen. I “bumped into” Mr. Sun, a top lieutenant of Beijing Public Security’s domestic security division, and his subordinates, before I went into the restaurant. There was a VIP table set outside our private room–and the VIPs were not there for the food. Inside our room, we discussed, among other things, how to help Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚).

In the afternoon I planned to pick up the rest of my things in Honglianbei, then visit a colleague, but instead I got a knock on the door from someone who said they were from the Guangwai police station. I had gone back to my place with Zhang Yongpan (张永攀), where we were waiting for Big Sister Ye Jinghuan (野靖环) to come help. When it got dark, a swarm of police came barging in and took us to the station.

After an hour or so, they put a black plastic bag over my head, pushed me into a car, and drove off premises. I don’t know how long we drove for, or exactly where they were taking me, but I guessed from the sound of farm vehicles that we were on the outskirts of the city. The next day, the snap of firecrackers reminded me that it was the Lantern Festival.

They ferried me to three different places and gave me “special treatments,” such as deprivation of sleep. After nearly 20 days without seeing the sun, they sent me to the capital airport on March 5. As I approached the ticket counter I sneezed ten times in a row, drawing strange looks from the passengers around me.

Just days after I was forced back to Yanji, I was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis in both lungs. Injections and pills became a daily necessity: the medicine I started with wasn’t very effective, so I had to switch to a better, more expensive medication. When I wasn’t nursing my illness, I was “cared for” by cadres from the Domestic Security police, both local and from Beijing, the community secretary, the building head, etc. They didn’t like it when friends like Liu Shasha (刘沙沙)[4] came to see me, but I couldn’t worry about that too much. At the very least, the people who cared about me knew I was still alive.

I was so emaciated that friends said I didn’t look like a human, and one of them said I looked like I’d been pulled out of a smelting furnace.

At the end of the year, when I was no longer contagious and had gained some weight, I finally dared to go back to Dunhua and see my parents.

Besides my health, I was following news of the amendments to the criminal code, in particular regarding residential surveillance at a designated location (also known as the “Jasmine Clause”) and the use of technology in criminal investigation. I even sent recommendations by express mail to the National People’s Congress. 


Followed by Guobao across the Country 

As 2012 arrived, my strength greatly improved. I channeled my regained energy onto Weibo and other platforms. The authorities told me to stop, but I didn’t make them any promises.

When summer came, I didn’t accept their orders to “keep away from Beijing and report all travel outside of Yanbian prior to the 18th Party Congress.” I went to Dalian to see a few friends. When the Guobao found out they were furious. They told me to go back to Yanji immediately, or else they would take me back themselves.

I lost my temper, too. I told them when I was done in Dalian I was going to Changchun for an alumni gathering, and if they didn’t agree to that I would go straight to Beijing for medical treatment. Deadlocked, they could only agree to let me go to my alumni event, then immediately return to Yanji.

Before Changchun, I used my time to go see lawyer Chi Susheng (迟夙生) in Qiqihar, where I advised her to bring outside lawyers onto a case in Jilin City involving organized crime to try to get past local interference. I don’t know if someone gave them a warning or what, but a few of the organizers of the alumni reunion pulled me aside to tell me I should just enjoy the party, and not, under any circumstances, get involved in useless matters.

In the fall I went to Nanjing to see my daughter. When the train got to Chuzhou I was apprehended by the railway police and taken to the Nanjing Railway police station. I was kept at the station until the evening, when the Yanbian Prefecture Guobao police came to get me. I had also planned to visit relatives in Shanghai, but they wouldn’t let me go, no matter what. I stopped there just for a night before I was carted back to Yanji. A few days later, they came to take a written record and made some nasty threats. Finally, I was picked up by the Yanji municipal domestic police.

After the 18th Party Congress, I told the Guobao I wanted to go back to Beijing to try to resume my practice, as I needed a livelihood. They agreed to let me go. Before this, I had posted on Weibo that a certain organization’s holding companies had changed their regulations, so that all the board chairs could now benefit themselves. I guess they thought I was mocking revisions to the Party constitution, because they deleted my account with no warning! Since then, I haven’t been able to register on Weibo using my name. Truth be told, I didn’t have the energy to fight with Weibo, so I lost my opportunity to speak publicly online under my real name.

When I finally got back to Beijing, I saw some old friends, in particular some who had been put in black jails during the so-called Jasmine Revolution of 2011. It turned out that many of my acquaintances had already left the country. I’m not a sentimental person, but this time emotions welled up inside me.

One day in late December, I went to see rights activist Zhang Jianping (张建平) in Wuxi. I was followed by someone who I’d met at the Nanjing Railway police station who claimed to be a Guobao from the Jiangsu Public Security Department, then blocked at the entrance to the development where Zhang lived. The police officers said to me, “You can come back to Jiangsu for business or pleasure, but you can’t get mixed up in what goes on here. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if we disregard kinship” — they must have found out that my ancestral home is Ganyu, Jiangsu (江苏赣榆). I didn’t budge. I told them that I was a native son and had the right to go anywhere and do anything, and I wouldn’t bow to other people’s unreasonable demands. We parted on bad terms. When they saw Mrs. Zhang and her daughter coming down to get me, trying to photograph the scene, they scurried off.

At the end of the year I went to Guangdong to convalesce. Since I had been introduced to Wang Dengchao’s (王登朝) case[5], the officers from the Guiyuan police station took me for a few hours of interrogation. In Shenzhen I had a long private meeting with Wang’s defense lawyer, Wang Quanzhang (王全璋)[6], where we talked about everything from the case to our personal lives.

One day in Guangdong, I got a phone call from lawyer Zhu Ruling (朱汝玲) asking for help: the authorities had a grudge against her because she had been involved in rights defense activities. After her internship, the Beijing Justice Bureau and Lawyers Association blocked her from her credentialing interview. Now she was in dire straits, and her landlord had kicked her out. I collected some emergency funds for her from Li Heping, Jiang Tianyong (江天勇)[7], and Li Fangping. After all these years, no one has heard from her. What a waste for such a talented young lawyer to be thwarted before she could even begin her career!

A screenshot of Hooligan Sparrow with Wang Yu on far left and Tang Jitian far right.


Changsha Symposium; Luo Xi Case;  Ziyang Legal Education Center; Protesting Sexual Crime against Elementary School Girls in Hainan; Beach Serenades; The Satellite Dish Case; Founding of China Human Rights Lawyers Group; Trip to a 610 Office and Five-Day Administrative detention; Fan Mugen Case and Ge Jueping

In mid-January 2013, I went to Changsha for a symposium on the implementation of the Criminal Procedure Law, where I made many new friends. Lawyer Yang Jinzhu treated us all to dinners during the event, and my colleagues showed off their many talents: Xiao Yunyang (萧云阳) acted, Ran Tong (冉彤) sang “red songs,” Zhou Zhuhua (周祝华) danced. Lawyer Weng Guangzong (翁广宗), an old-guard attorney and the scion of a family of the law, put on an incredible performance, too. He passed away several years ago in Shanghai.

After my trip to Changsha, I represented 1989er Luo Xi (罗西), whose score on the legal examination had been nullified, at his hearing and first and second trials. Working closely with the litigant, we were able to successfully argue his case and come up with a fairly good result. I came out of the case with a deeper understanding of the Party’s rule, “Those who don’t obey don’t get to eat.”

In 2013, after the lunar New Year, I went to Qingdao to see friends. Before I could climb Mount Lao, the Guobao found me. They knew I planned to go to Nanjing and demanded that they come with me. I didn’t give them a straight answer. But when I got off the plane, they appeared. There was nothing I could do. They followed me from Nanjing to Suzhou, to Shanghai, to Fuzhou, to Xiamen, and finally to Dongguan. After the “Two Sessions,” they wanted me to go back to Yanji. I refused. I waited for them to leave, then went to Shenzhen to see if I could get into Hong Kong. I was blocked once again. On hearing about my attempt, one of the officers who had followed me chuckled on the phone, “Since you know you can’t leave, why don’t you come with me back northeast?”

On May 13, I went with a small group to visit the Ziyang Legal Education Center in Sichuan (四川资阳法制教育中心), also known as a “brainwashing school,” where they had also hung a shingle as the “Ziyang City Discipline-Inspection Commission Base” (资阳市纪检委双规基地). The local police held me for 24 hours. Afterward, I heard that someone registered on Weibo using my name that same evening. People who didn’t know the inside story followed the account, then soon called foul. The same thing happened on Facebook. Whoever created these accounts used them to post lots of writing against Guo Wengui (郭文贵). I had to set things straight, but I couldn’t say anything from behind the Great Firewall.

At the end of May I ran into Ye Haiyan (叶海燕), Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏), and Shan Lihua (单丽华), who were going to Wanning, Hainan Province, to protest elementary school girls being taken to a hotel room to be with their unscrupulous principal. Still recovering from my illness, I accompanied Ye and her colleagues to the gates of Wanning No. 2 Elementary School. We stood there, sweating, for a long time, and the locals were moved.

One night, in Sanya, someone brought us to the beach for a sing-along. I remember Jia Lingmin sang “Green Island Serenade,” Wang Jianfen (王建芬) sang traditional opera, Wang Yu sang “Story of a Small Town,” Xiang Li (向莉) sang “Let Me Tell You Softly,” and I sang “The Sun in My Heart.” Even though tuberculosis had depleted my lung capacity, I still gave it my all. I don’t know if it was because my singing was so terrible or what, but when I was done everyone stayed silent for a long time.

I’d once said that if it weren’t for growing up in the country without music education, I may have become a wandering singer, sharing my dreams with the people whose lives were intertwined with mine.

When I left Hainan, I planned to visit Yangshuo in Guangxi. But less than two days after I arrived in Nanning, four police officers from Yanji came to keep me in my hotel. The only reason they didn’t take me back to Yanji the next day was because I had to go to the hospital for my TB medication.

On August 2, I went to Dalian in the hopes of going to the hearing for the “Satellite Dish Case” (安锅案) — a local had been criminally prosecuted ex post facto for using a satellite receiver to watch foreign TV shows. I barely escaped getting beaten up by plainclothes officers. They weren’t nice to the foreign observers there, either. Chai Lei (柴磊) and Chen Yinghui (陈萦辉) from the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau came to the hearing — this is characteristic in mainland China: for every “sensitive” case, cadres from the Justice Bureaus, even the Political and Legal Affairs Commissions, from all different levels, invariably come to sit in the public galley or the central control room. Chai and Chen asked how I was doing. Was I feeling better? I told them, “With the blessing of your Party, life isn’t bad, and my health is good enough.” Then they brought up my disbarment. They said they were both underlings and couldn’t do anything about it. I replied, “That’s all in the past. Next time I hope you won’t be so quick to follow the leader.”

On September 13, Wang Cheng (王成)[8], Jiang Tianyong and I created the China Human Rights Lawyers Group from the legal aid group for Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄)[9].

On October 16, I accompanied Yang Kaicheng (杨开成) to the “610”[10] office in Jixi City. His wife, Yu Jinfeng (于金凤) had been illegally taken into custody. There, I was picked up by an officer. One day later, I was sentenced to five days of administrative detention and sent to the Jixi No. 2 Detention Center: a one-story lock-up. With the support of friends from all over, especially those that went to the scene, I was released on time.

On December 3, I was on my way to meet friends for lunch after paying my respects at Lin Zhao’s grave in Suzhou, when I heard about Fan Mugen’s case (范木根案)[11]. We quickly ate a few bites, then rushed to the Technology City police station. I would be involved in Fan’s case for a long time. Ge Jueping (戈觉平)[12] and other friends from Suzhou who supported Fan Mugen at that time were arrested a couple of years later, and are still in prison today. Ge Jueping,  who had gone to Jiansanjiang to support myself and three other lawyers, missed his medication and consequently developed salivary gland cancer. My heart is heavy with the weight of his suffering in prison.

Four lawyers in Jiansanjiang. From left to right: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng, and Tang Jitian.


Beaten in Jiansanjiang; Statement by All China Lawyers Association; Zhang Xiaoyu Case

Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng, Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), and I had been working on an illegal detention case in Jiansanjiang (黑龙江省建三江) for some time. On March 20, 2014, we were beaten up and hooded by the local Guobao, then thrown into Qixing Detention Center for 15 days of administrative detention. With the support of friends from home and abroad, especially those who came to the detention center, Jiang, Wang, and I were released on April 6. Zhang had been detained five days earlier, and had already returned to Henan by that time.

I went back to Beijing for testing at a number of hospitals and was diagnosed with ten broken ribs and lumbar spinal tuberculosis. My surgery was scheduled at the Beijing Military General Hospital (now the Army General Hospital), but they gave me all kinds of forced reasons for asking me to leave early. After that, I opted for more conservative treatment.

In late June, I filed a lawsuit with the Heilongjiang High Court against the Jiansanjiang Reclamation Corporation’s public security bureau for violation of personal rights. I sent the court my case materials by express mail, but I never heard anything back from them. Compared to 2010, I did pretty well this time: back then, I sent my documents to Huaibaishu Avenue, the official address listed on the Beijing municipal government’s website for receiving administrative review requests. The post office returned everything to me, claiming there was no such address.

On July 2, the All China Lawyers Association issued a “statement”[13] in the Legal Daily asking the public not to be misled by seven disbarred lawyers, including Liu Wei and myself. I quickly sent a statement refuting the ACLA for adding insult to injury, when it ought to be protecting human rights lawyers. I emphasized that we had never overtly concealed our disbarment.

In the fall of 2014, I attended a seminar in Yanqihu outside Beijing on the case of Zhang Xiaoyu (张小玉), where I met Ding Yu’e (丁玉娥) and her younger brother, Ding Chao (丁超). I also started following Ding Hanzhong’s case (丁汉忠案), in particular the defense work of lawyer Xi Xiangdong (袭祥栋) and Zhang Junjie. Around the same time, I also focused on the cases of people who were detained for supporting Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement.


The 709 Arrests

During the mass arrests of my human rights lawyer friends in July 2015, I got knocks on the door of my friend’s place where I was staying; someone had shut the electricity on and off so many times that it finally broke the refrigerator.

Shortly before 709, I joined lawyer Wen Donghai (文东海), Bao Longjun, Wang Qiushi (王秋实), and Tong Chaoping (童朝平) in accompanying lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) to a rights action in the Liujiayao District, where the Beijing office of the Shenyang Heping District is located. Lawyer Li, who is over 60 years old, is still being held in the Shenyang Detention Center, and the allegations against her for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” remain unresolved.

I had nothing to do at the end of the year, so I forced myself to take a break and read some books. Over the years, laziness had eroded my reading habit, so this was my antidote.


Hit by a Motorcycle; Convalescence in Shenzhen

Before Spring Festival 2016, Beijing Guobao stopped me in front of a friend’s house. I had developed a serious case of gout from my tuberculosis medication, and had just left to see the doctor. They told me gravely, “If you keep working so brazenly with your human rights lawyers group, especially on Wang Yu’s case and other people who’ve been arrested, we won’t be so nice to you anymore!”

I remember one day in June when I missed the train back to Beijing because I had been eating and chatting too long with friends. I had to cancel my ticket and book another train. Before boarding, I ran to a shop in the station and bought a small bun for five yuan for lunch, leaving me with only 50 cents. When I got back I wrote a short piece called “I Was a ‘Fifty Center‘ for a Day” and posted it to my friend circle with a picture of the bill.

At 8:50 p.m. on September 2, 2016, I was walking on the sidewalk along the fence of Xinglong Park, northeast of Gaobeidian Bridge, when I got hit by a motorcycle. I was admitted to the Civil Aviation General Hospital nearby. On September 9 I underwent a day of surgery on my thighs and elbows. I was released before October 1. I spent the end of the year at a friend’s home in Shenzhen to avoid the cold and smog of Beijing while I recuperated.

When I was just released from the hospital I used a wheelchair. I was barely moving, and quickly gained weight. By the time I got to Shenzhen I was nearly 90 kilos (198 pounds). It was tough for people to push my chair, especially for women. It was my friend in Shenzhen who patiently taught me to use crutches. Finally, my left leg started to regain strength.

Twice while I was in Beijing I had hopped on one leg to get the door for someone or to use the toilet. Once I fell in front of the urinal, and one of my hands went into the bowl. The other time I was reading on the balcony when a friend came to the door. I hurried over, forgetting to drop the book in my hand. I fell head-first into the room, my feet still on the balcony. Both times it was hard to get back up, but fortunately neither fall was serious.

At my first checkup in Shenzhen, the doctor found that my left wrist had also been injured, but the bones were already set. He told me that if he corrected it I’d be in a lot of pain, and suggested I not worry too much about it. I thought about it, then took his advice.

My few months in Shenzhen caused a lot of trouble for my friends: the local police approached them in the name of friendship and told him to focus on making money and minding his own business!


Convalescence in Shanghai; Sudden Passing of Three Lawyers; Years of Exit Ban

In April 2017, after I got in Shanghai, I weaned myself off the cane. As soon as I settled down in Shanghai, I learned that lawyer Liu Rongsheng (刘荣生) had passed away. So I hurriedly wrote “Mourning Lawyer Liu Rongsheng.” I went on to write similar eulogies for another two human rights lawyers, Li Subin (李苏滨) and Li Baiguang (李柏光).

In the fall, I returned to Dunhua to see my parents. I hadn’t told them about my injury, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to bear the news. It was unusual for me to stay at home for more than a week. This time, I stayed for ten days: while in Shanghai, I had gone to my classmate Xu Songhe’s mother’s funeral in Shanghai, then learned of the death of one of my aunts, and worse, that Ge Jueping’s mother-in-law had jumped off a building while he was still in prison. All of it shook me hard. The deaths of my colleagues, friends, and older relatives, along with my own injuries, had a profound effect on me. I was so perturbed that in Heilongjiang I carelessly sprained my ankle, and was forced to recover at a friend’s place for over half a month.

In mid-November, I was stopped in Shenzhen trying to leave the country. The official reason for blocking my passage had changed from endangering national security to ongoing court cases, and then finally to no reason at all.

In late November, as an outstanding member of the “low-end population” of Beijing, I joined the petition against their mass deportation. At the end of the year, I joined the call to “let Quanzhang go home.” Yu Wensheng (余文生), Wang Quanzhang’s defense lawyer, had failed to open a firm, and was facing enormous pressure from his wife and children, so I hurried over to his house.

Perhaps the two events were too closely linked, because I found out that someone had taken a post downstairs from the friend’s place where I was staying. I couch surfed for a while, quickly got my things in order and left Beijing.

2018 – 2019

Arrest of Yu Wensheng; Second Surgery; Resigning as Liaison to the Human Rights Lawyers Group; French Human Rights Award; Rounded up with Xu Zhiyong; Coronavirus Petition

Yu Wensheng was arrested in January 2018 for proposing amendments to the constitution and the like. He is still being held at the Xuzhou Detention Center, thousands of miles away from Beijing.

At my second surgery in May 2018, they removed the steel plate. In early August of the same year, I resigned as liaison to the China Human Rights Lawyers Group.

Since then, I’ve been lending a hand to those in need of legal services while I recuperate, just as I did when I first lost my job. At the end of 2018, I was awarded the “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” Human Rights Prize of the French Republic. Before the end of the year, I went to Qingdao for the memorial service of lawyer Zheng Xiang (郑湘), who is just a few months my senior. The prize and my friend’s departure were bittersweet.

In the middle of the night on March 3, 2019, Xu Zhiyong (许志永)[14] and I were rounded up in Zhengzhou and taken to the Changxing Road Public Security branch office, where we were kept until morning. A young friend teased me, “Sometimes old comrades need to brush up on their homework, too.”

Just last month, I signed a petition about the current coronavirus epidemic. These efforts may not change anything in the short term, but all of us, the authorities and ordinary people, have the right to live free of fear.

Afterward: What Must Be Said

From the day I lost my job, I have hoped the same would not befall my colleagues. It is far better to have professional opportunities than to have no way to take on normal work. The handful of people who have been able to practice law after having their license revoked are special cases and difficult to emulate.

Looking back on the last ten years, I have accomplished some things within my power, but for the most part I have been either sick or injured. In this decade, especially while I was convalescing, I got more than my share of help from my friends. I am ashamed that I have no way to repay them. I feel only more guilty towards my family.

I would like to thank the people who have helped and visited me, especially in my years of recovery in 2014, 2016, and 2018: the family of Dr. Zhao (赵大夫), Mr. and Mrs. Li Hai (李海), Ye Haiyan (叶海燕), Du Yanlin (杜延林), Lin Xiao (林萧), Li Wei (李蔚), Lu Yong (陆勇), Liu Yong (刘勇), Zheng Yuming (郑玉明), ZHeng Jianhui (郑建慧), Tong Chaoping (童朝平), Wu Fangcao (吴芳草), Liu Shugui (刘书贵), Lin Zi (林子), Ji Xinhua (季新华), Zhu Zhongxiao (祝忠孝), Qi Yueying (⻬月英), Ye Jingchun (野靖春), Shan Yajuan (单雅娟), Mr. and Mrs. Wang Yi (王译), Wang Heying (王和英), Peng Jian (彭剑), Wen Donghai (文东海), Li Jinfang (李金芳), Wang Jianfen (王建芬), Deng Chuanlin (Huanghuang) (邓传彬), Yu Yanhua (于艳华), Wang Yu (王宇), Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), Yu Wensheng (余文生), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Yan Xin (燕薪), Fu Jingdong (付敬东), Tang Zhishun (唐志顺), Wu Jinsheng (吴金圣) and the many people whose names I cannot write here. They are all ordinary people facing their own challenges, but they have all overcome their own difficulties in order to help me.

The lingering effects of my [Communist] Party cultural education, my personal limitations, my lack of self-cultivation, and accidents of circumstance have all led me, knowingly or not, to neglect, even hurt, many of my friends. I would like here to give them my deepest respect and apologies, and to invite friends old and new to give me their criticism and advice openly and without hesitation, as I have always wanted.

In the past ten years, the space for legal workers, especially lawyers, in mainland China has continued to shrink. The Chinese government, previously dead-set on integrating with the world, is now re-imagining itself as the world’s leader, and exporting its dictatorship. In terms of law, especially legislation, China has been moving further to limit, even strip away, the few rights that citizens do have.

If we take the broad view, China’s antipathy toward universal values and democratization, complemented by its power-grabbing oligarchs, comes into focus. In reality, the good days are numbered for the whole world, especially mainland China, as if we’ve come to the edge of a bottomless chasm…

Yet those forces that defy humanity and the laws of nature, unimpeded for now, will always meet their limit. I still have hope for a better future for mainland China.

I believe that history should not only be a record of the ruling class, their lives of luxury, their rise and fall, their passions and revenge. History should include the millions of ordinary people, their struggles to get by, their exiles and reunions, their vagrant lives.

This is how I, a lawyer ten years out of work, look back on the time that has passed.  

Ten years ago I was 40, the age at which one “no longer suffers from perplexities.” At 50 now, I have reached the age of knowing “the biddings of Heaven.”[15] My memory has been atrophied by years of medication and two surgeries under general anesthesia, so that I only have a vague impression of many events. But I am sure that Father Time will bear the mark.

March 11, 2020, Dunhua, Jilin

[1]              Li Heping has been a prominent human rights lawyer since the early 2000s, and was a 709 detainee in 2015. He was subject to torture during detention and released in May 2017.  Read “My Name is Li Heping, and I Love Being a Lawyer,” an interview with Ai Weiwei in 2010. 

[2]              Guo Xuju is a Beijing-based activist.

[3]              Wang Yu would go on to become one of the best known human rights lawyers. She was also the first lawyer detained during the 709 crackdown. In 2016, Wang Yu was the recipient of American Bar Association’s inaugural human rights award. Read her 709 account, “The Nightmare.” Bao Longjun was also a 709 detainee.

[4]              Liu Shasha is an activist who later sought political asylum in Canada.

[5]              Wang Dengchao was a Shenzhen policeman who was sentenced to 14-and-a-half years in jail on corruption charges in November 2013 after he tried to organize a pro-democracy rally in a local park.

[6]              Wang Quanzhang would go on becoming one of the best-known 709 detainees.

[7]              Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer who was disbarred in 2009. Jiang was detained in November 2016 and later sentenced to two years in prison for supporting victims of the 709 arrests. He’s been under house arrest in his parents’ home in Henan since his release in February 2019. 

[8]              Wang Cheng is a Chinese human rights lawyer.

[9]              Guo Feixiong is a prominent activist based in Guangzhou and a pioneer of the rights defense movement. He was imprisoned from 2006-2011, and then again from 2013-2019.

[10]             610 Offices were created within China’s public security system on June 10, 1999, to oversee the persecution of Falun Gong. 

[11]          On December 3, 2013, Fan Mugen, a veteran and farmer in Suzhou, killed in self-defense two workers sent to demolish his property as part of the city’s development plan. In May 2015, Fan was sentenced to eight years in prison. A number of human rights lawyers, including Wang Yu and Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原), defended Fan.

[12]             Ge Jueping is a rights defender in Suzhou. He was arrested in September 2016 during the G20 meeting in Hangzhou and tried in May 2019, but has not received a sentence.

[13]             The statement says that Tang Jitian, Liu Wei, Zheng Enchong, Tang Jingling, Wang Cheng, Jiang Tianyong, and Teng Biao are disbarred, and their activities have nothing to do with the legal profession.

[14]             Xu Zhiyong is a prominent legal scholar, dissident and activist, who was imprisoned from 2013-2017 for his work on the New Citizens Movement, and detained again in February 2020 and held under “residential surveillance at a designated location.” 

[15]             From The Analects of Confucius: “The Master said, at fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ears. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.” (translation by Arthur Waley)

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