Interviewing Liang Xiaojun: Representing Political Prisoners Is an Honor for China’s Lawyers

Liang Xiaojun, Yaxue Cao, May 15, 2020

The sudden outbreak of the novel coronavirus has culminated in a pandemic spreading across China and the rest of the world. A semi-living organism, invisible to the naked eye, has halted the activities of billions of people, forced them to take shelter in their homes and avoid contact with others. And more, the trajectory for the future has been altered. Yet outside our windows, spring has come — its flurries of rain and breaks of sunshine announcing that the world still breathes as before. It’s a bit much to take in. Perhaps we should tell stories. China Change has decided to run a series, “How I became a human rights lawyer,” which we may hope will become something of a Decameron for the rights attorneys of China. Today we present the first story, that of Beijing lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军).  — The Editors

Yaxue Cao: Hello, Mr. Liang. Are you still quarantining yourself at home?

Liang Xiaojun: No, I’m in my office.

YC: You’ve resumed work?

Liang: Not yet. But I come here every day, I can’t sit at home all day. I come to the office to read and do things.

Growing Up and Become a Lawyer

YC: First, let me thank you for giving this interview with China Change. As the title of this series implies, we are interested in the origin story. Let’s start with where you were born and raised.

Liang: I grew up in a military family. My father was a soldier. He was stationed in many different places. So I was born in Guangdong and lived there until I was two, then was in Hunan from two to seven years old. Then my father was discharged and we went back to Zhangjiakou (张家口), his hometown. Before the age of seven, I had been living, studying and growing together with many of my dad’s colleagues’ children in army compounds. After that, we lived at a higher vocational school where my father had his civilian job. That was my background growing up.

I was in the second year of high school when the Tiananmen movement happened. I knew about the events, but only vaguely, because after all I was in Zhangjiakou and the environment was still relatively closed. I saw students marching on the street, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. What was happening, and why? I didn’t know. From TV, from my father’s remarks, I only heard them say it was a “counter-revolutionary riot,” so I didn’t know what it actually was, or how to judge it.

YC: Where did you go to college? It was the China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学), if I’m not mistaken.

Liang: Actually, I went to two universities. The first was Hebei Normal University (河北师范大学) in Shijiazhuang (石家庄, Hebei’s capital), which I attended from 1991 to 1995. My father had been a cadre of political work in charge of Party affairs. He thought that studying politics was a good path to a secure job and a promising future. He chose the major for me, so I went to the Normal University’s Department of Political Education.The year I graduated, it was renamed the Department of Politics and Law. The current chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, Li Zhanshu (栗战书), graduated was an alum of the Department.

This kind of school put a lot of emphasis on political education to begin with, spending lots of energy strengthening political thought work among the students, but the year I started college just happened to be the second year after the June Fourth incident, given what I was majoring, my core coursework was dominated by study of Marxism, Mao Zedong Thought, and such.

After graduation, I spent three years working as a teacher, then was admitted to the China University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学, CUPSL) to do a double bachelor. It was two years just for accelerated courses in law, with no subjects of general education. So in fact, I really studied all the undergraduate courses for law major during the two years, and it made a huge impact on me.

From 1998 to 2000, it was the Jiang Zemin era, and there was still a push for rule of law. At CUPSL, as I listened to professors’ lectures, I was really enlightened. I realized that this was how the government was supposed to function, how the law was supposed to work, what a democratic and constitutional state should look like, and what value and philosophy of the law were. From that time on, I began to understand the true meaning of law and politics.

YC: I imagined that the discussions at law schools at that time might have been more open and active. Did any professors in particular make a deep impression on you?

Liang: Things were better back then, the professors were free to say what they wanted. The reason I felt enlightened precisely was because these teachers were able to speak. When they were lecturing in various law courses, they would delve into ideas that were new to us.

There was this senior professor teaching the history of western legal thought who’s probably retired now.  I would always sit in the first or second row in his class and listen carefully. There was also a professor who taught criminal law, and his lectures were very popular with the students. Among other things he talked about the humanitarian and humanist aspects of criminal law. The concept of criminal law is humanistic. It is not about killing people, torturing them, or giving them long sentences, but also about tolerance and restraint. Criminal law is not to be used just for governing society or managing the people.

YC: Doesn’t this fly in the face of the ideas and practices of the Communist Party, or the ancient Chinese Legalists?

Liang: Yes, in fact, this is a basic concept of criminal law. Since the 17th and 18th centuries, around the time of Cesare Beccaria, the field of modern criminal law has been talking about a “principle of necessity.” There can be no death penalty or torture. This had a great impact on me; at least, I was very impressed with it.

YC: So let’s talk about how you became a lawyer. There are many career choices for someone with a law degree from CUPSL, right? You could be a judge, prosecutor, or attorney. How do you choose your career following graduation?

Liang: First of all, I want to tell you that I am someone who follows the course of nature. I couldn’t picture what I was going to do in the future, I never imagined I was going to be a lawyer. It wasn’t something I considered doing. I thought I was best-suited to be a teacher, because I feel that being a teacher is a simpler lifestyle, and I wanted to live a simpler life. It was only because during the time that I was studying at CUPSL, many students were taking the “lawyer qualification” exam. At that time, it was called the lawyer qualification exam, now it’s called the judicial examination. Everyone said the exam was difficult. So I also bought a set of books, studied it, and took the exam, following what everyone else was doing. Thankfully, I passed the exam. I think that my being able to pass the exam was due to my attentiveness and careful study in those two years, and my grasp of the spirit and philosophy of law. While memorizing the laws and regulations had its importance, more crucial, I think, was that I had found a path for studying law and understanding how law should work.

Given that I got the second bachelor’s degree as an on-the-job student, I couldn’t transfer my residential registration, or hukou, to Beijing, so when I graduated there was no way for me to take a civil service exam and find employment in the government  agencies. Even though it was a time when finding a job was relatively easy, but it was still hard to be accepted by a good school or company, so I did what the other students did, and applied for work with law firms. The salary was quite low; anyway, this was how I started working at a law firm.

YC: Which law firm did you start out at?

Liang: I worked for several firms. There was Dangdai Law Firm (当代律师事务所) , then Zhengtai Law Firm (证泰律师事务所), and later I was at Yixing Law Firm (易行律师事务所). Some were mid-sized and others were pretty big.

YC: In other words, you started practicing in 2000 or 2001, right?

Liang: Yes, I graduated in 2000 and began a one-year internship at the law firm. After that I began my formal legal practice in 2001.

YC: The New York Times feature mentioned that you did not take your first human rights case until 2008. That’s a gap of a few years from when you started practicing, could you talk a little about your career during that time? The Times report said that in those years you had been engaged in business cases, but you “struggled with the work.” What happened there?

Liang: In fact, my lawyers’ work from 2000 to 2008 was sporadic. In 2005, I went to the United States for a while, so my legal work was put on hiatus. At the time, I was mainly engaged in civil and commercial cases, but also provided legal counsel for marriage, family, and corporate disputes. All these made me suffer. Because since childhood I was taught to be honest and trustworthy, to tell the truth, to be a good person. But when you become a lawyer, you find that your clients are not necessarily good people. Sometimes he is telling lies, but when you go to court, you have to help him to tell lies, fill in the lies, and help him win the lawsuit. For me, this process was particularly agonizing. But this kind of work also involves a lawyer’s ethics, and needs a lawyer to do it. In other words, professional ethics and traditional morality sometimes conflict. This kind of conflict is very uncomfortable, which caused me distress. I had to spend a lot of time getting used to it.

YC: Did you have many conflicts with the courts back then?

Liang: There wasn’t much conflict with the court. The conflicts were mostly from within.

YC: You came to the United States in 2005 for a brief period of study. How was that?

Liang: Yes, I came to the United States and stayed for half a year. I applied for an F1 visa, but I didn’t complete my studies. Because the school I went to, in Indianapolis, it was an LLM, Master of Law program, and recruited a lot of Chinese students. I felt like it was selling a degree. I didn’t like it and came back.

YC: Your English must be pretty good, then.

Liang: No, my English wasn’t that good, for lack of a good environment.  Only when I visited America in 2014 did my English start to get better.

YC: I saw a tweet of yours saying that you were reading The Kite Runner. This is an award-winning novel written some years back by an Afghan writer. I was very pleased to see your tweet. I thought, “Mr. Liang is storing up some English.” You will have use for it. Speaking of learning English, Mr. Liang, I recommend to you the audiobook version of 1984 on YouTube. I just listened to it, it was narrated very well.

Liang: Yes, sure, I’ll keep it in mind. Thank you!

YC: A lot of things were happening in the first few years of the 2000s. Before you started to represent human rights cases, were you aware of human rights cases and human rights lawyers in Beijing and or the rest of China?

Liang: Because of my background in political education, then in law, I have always been very keen on political developments. As far as political matters are concerned, from when I was a kid to when I was in college, I was dissatisfied with the Communist Party’s rule, I felt the problems were huge. So when I went to the United States in 2005, I thought I might just not go back to China, and in this way I’d reconcile with the Communist Party by ignoring this country and this government. But I returned later, so I continued to follow the situation. But back then, I didn’t find a way to use my talents or satisfy my interests.

But I was watching and paying attention to things. For example, in 2003, in the case of the Sun Zhigang incident (孙志刚事件)[1], the three doctorates wrote a letter requesting the abolition of detention and exile in executing the law; when I was in the United States in 2005, I saw Gao Zhisheng’s (高智晟) open letter to Jiang Zemin about Falun Gong[2]; in 2008, when lawyers in Beijing advocated direct elections of the Beijing Lawyers Association, I agreed with them and supported their actions, signing my name and participating in their activities.

In 2008, the Open Constitution Initiative, or Gongmeng (公盟) called for a legal defense team for the Sanlu poisonous milk powder victims, asking lawyers to join. I was at their dinner gathering near Gongmeng. I remember the speeches made by Teng Biao (滕彪) and others. I also signed up, but when the list of defense team members was finally announced, I was surprised to see that my name wasn’t on it. Maybe I was still very much on the margin and nobody paid any attention to me. In 2008, I also signed up to defend Tibetans after the March 14 incident in Lhasa, I wasn’t included either.

YC: I think I can roughly guess why. When Gongmeng was first established in 2003, it was already an organization with lawyers as its main body. There were already Yang Huiwen (杨慧文), Li Fangping (李方平), Li Jinsong (李劲松), Peng Jian (彭剑), and quite a few others.

Liang: Yes, you are right. It is actually very easy to understand, because at that time, Gongmeng had already had a group of experienced lawyers, and meanwhile, I was a newcomer, and I had not taken any human rights cases. I was indeed a bit rusty. So I could understand them.

The First Human Rights Case — Representing Alimjan Yimit

YC: Let’s now talk about your first human rights case, from 2008. From the New York Times report I read, you represented a man from Xinjiang?

Liang: It was called the Alimjan case (阿里木江案).

YC: Oh, it was a well-known case.

Liang: It was a famous case, but the fame is not with me. Alimjan is a young Uyghur, very talented and speaks English. He converted to Christianity and set up a house church in Kashgar, which was suppressed by the local ERAC. The ERAC (民宗委), short for Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission (民族宗教委员会), is the government agency specially tasked with carrying out ethnic and religious policy. They considered it apostasy for a Muslim to take up Christianity. And for daring to organize a house church and attract other members, he got caught up in the ERAC’s dragnet and was arrested. They charged him with two crimes: one was inciting separatism, and the other was divulging state secrets to foreign nationals.

Alimjan Yimit and wife and son.

As you’re aware, there were so-called Christian lawyers in Chinese Christianity, and a well-known Christian lawyer, young and passionate, went to Kashgar. There he was blocked from seeing the client. Instead the local police went to the hotel and made inquiries about him. He quickly packed his luggage and hurried back to Beijing. He was afraid to go back to Kashgar, believing that  he would be arrested. In this situation, they needed to find a lawyer who was not a Christian like them. Because I had worked with the young lawyer when he was interning at a law firm, so he asked me if I could represent the case. I said yes, no problem. So I took over the case, and a colleague and I went to Kashgar.

I had no religious background, no organizational background, no overseas connections, no recognition, and no idea of ​​the risks I was getting myself into when I decided to take this case. I was completely in a state of ignorance and fearlessness. In Kashgar, we were also denied a meeting with Alimjan, so we went to the procuratorate every day and stayed there for a week. We arrived on Monday, but it was only on Friday afternoon that the Procuratorate finally granted us an audience with Alimjan.

During the trial we demonstrated the absurdity of the charges against Alimjan. I said, considering his Christianity, it might be understandable if he was trying to work towards separation of powers in government. But how could he be trying to incite separatism and establish an “East Turkestan Republic?” The court conceded that East Turkestan was a country advocated by Islamists. With regard to the other charge, we asked the court for evidence that Alimjan provided state secrets to foreign nationals. What evidence do you have? Where is it? In the end, the court admonished the chief prosecutor and suspended the trial.

I thought the reason the trial was suspended was because of our defense, but Radio Free Asia reported at that time that the trial was adjourned because there was a human rights dialogue between China and the United States that day. A year later, the trial resumed, they still didn’t want to use me as the defense, and found another Christian lawyer. It was 2009, just after the “July 5th” incident [the Uyghur riots and subsequent massacre by PRC military police in Urumqi]. The trial began in August. This lawyer didn’t dare to go, so he called me and told me to go with him. I asked him how it was that the lawyer had changed, when had I been swapped for him?

YC: You didn’t even know you had been replaced?

Liang: Right. There’s a reporter with RFA who followed this case throughout. I accepted many interviews by her, she was always asking me what I thought of the case, and I always updated her on how things were progressing. Then one day I read on RFA that a consul of the U.S. Embassy in China had met with the defense lawyer of Alimjan, and asked him about Alimjan’s case, and it was a third lawyer! So in this case, I saw that I was just an auxiliary tool: they would use me to do things, and let their favorite Christian lawyers get the publicity and recognition.

YC: And after that?

Liang: When the trial went to court again a year later, the charge of inciting separatism was dropped, as they also found it ridiculous, but they still charged Alimjan with providing state secrets to foreign nationals. I asked the prosecutors in court: Where’s the evidence? The prosecution said that they had gotten it through wiretapping. I said, could we listen to the wiretapped content? The judge said that he himself hadn’t even heard it, and that it had been authenticated, and there wasn’t a need to hear it. Then the court handed down a sentence of 15 years. Alimjan will be released in two years from now.

YC: My god, as lawyers, aren’t you flabbergasted by this kind of verdict? They didn’t even present their wiretapping evidence, and the court handed down a 15-year sentence to a man?!

Liang: Yes, this case had a great impact on me. On the one hand, seeing a citizen steamrolled by the entire state machine in all its naked brutality and a gratuitously harsh sentence slapped down like that is truly shocking. On the other hand, I also realized that truth could be manipulated by some overseas media outlets.

YC: When you took Alimjan’s case, had you thought that it would be unlike any case you’d taken before, that it’d be a choice you made that could change your life?

Liang: No, I thought it was just a case like any other. For me, everyone is entitled to a legal defense. This is just what I do, I do a good job, and do my duty as a lawyer. I have always approached it this way, plain and simple, without lofty ideals or aspirations.

Founding the Daoheng Law Firm

YC: In 2009, you founded your own law firm. Why did you want to start the Daoheng firm (道衡律师事务所)?

Liang: In the years that I worked in Beijing, I changed law firms several times. With some cases you had to get approval from the firm and were subject to many restrictions. I felt that moving from firm to firm was not the way to go, I’d rather start my own and have fewer obstacles in doing what I wanted to do.

YC: Who were the lawyers working with you at the Daoheng firm?

Liang: I founded the firm with two others. They were people I knew, just ordinary lawyers who did not necessarily share the same ideals and values. In 2009, after I started to get involved with a large number of human rights cases, they resented me, and felt that I was impacting their ability to make money and develop their careers. After I started taking human rights cases, I was often summoned by the Justice Bureau, they also came to my law firm to inspect our work, and gave us a hard time during the annual reviews. My colleagues hated me for this and didn’t want to be around me anymore. Starting in 2014, they stopped paying for the law firm’s expenditures, leaving me to cover everything. When I came back from the United States in 2013, the two of them had another talk with me, telling me to quit and leave the law firm to them. They could give me 20,000 or 30,000 yuan as compensation. I said there was nothing to discuss. I had put in sweat and tears to found the law firm; I’d rather shut it down than leave. This created a deadlock. When they saw that I didn’t want to quit, they quit. Later, I found new partners, leading to our current situation. My current partners are Guo Haiyue (郭海跃) and Dong Qianyong (董前勇).

They shared my ideals, since they both dealt with human rights cases. I feel that in general the people you work with should share your values, or things will be awkward. They also felt very good about partnering with me, because other law firms would be sure to restrict their involvement in human rights cases, but here I would shield them from the elements, so to speak.

YC: What are your fellow alumni from the CUPSL doing?

Liang: Among my fellow alumni at the CUPSL, some became lawyers, some went to the procuratorates, some went to the courts, some entered government agencies, some remained in academia or found corporate jobs. But mostly they either went to the procuratorates and courts, or became lawyers.

YC: Are there other human rights lawyers among your fellow alumni?

Liang: No, just me. Of course, some classmates support me, but very few. Think about it, those who went to the courts and procuratorates — when I was doing Falun Gong cases, they are the very people who review the cases. They know what I do and would never associate with me. I returned the favor. Everyone goes their own way.

YC: I went through your Twitter page. You started Twitter in May 2010, around 2010 or 2011, you responded to major events around the time — expressing your views about things happening to people like Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), or Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), when he won the Nobel Prize. It seems that you were aware of and paid attention to civil activism and political resistance. So I would like to ask you, what kind of atmosphere was there in civil society at the time, especially now that we have them in hindsight.

Liang: I have been taking Falun Gong cases since the end of 2009. Many human rights lawyers in China started by handling Falun Gong cases. Li Heping (李和平) once said that many of the Chinese human rights lawyers who take Falun Gong cases are associated with him, but Liang Xiaojun started it on his own. Because after Gao Zhisheng was persecuted, Li Heping and his firm started taking these cases. Later, they ran into problems with the annual review, I think it was 2008 or 2009. As a result Jiang Tianyong, Li Heping, Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Li Chunfu (李春富), and Wang Yajun (王雅军) could not represent Falun Gong cases. But the Falun Gong adherents needed help, so they found me, and I started to represent them. It was then when I realized that there were so many Falun Gong cases and that these clients were in need of help.

The atmosphere at the time was better than it is now, but not by much, or almost as bad. At that time, it was difficult to meet with the clients in Falun Gong cases. Seeing them at all was a huge struggle. There was also a huge amount of pressure on you during the defense, since police officers would fill the courtroom. But the development of civil society was less suppressed back then, and some activities were possible. Now it’s hard to organize anything.

Civil Society Around 2010; The New Citizens Movement Trials

YC: I recall you’ve written about Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), about Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), not too long ago about Hao Jingsong (郝劲松); it seems you’ve had a lot of interaction with like-minded lawyers.

Liang: At that time I’d started to participate in some of their gatherings, some activities, I guess they gradually accepted me as one of their own.

YC: When you say “they,” you’re referring to…?

Liang: I mean the more active people in that space, the ones more in touch with everyone. For example, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong… there was also the Beijing Yirenping Center[3] (益仁平), as well as Christian groups. Gongmeng had a circle of people who later formed the core of the New Citizens Movement (新公民运动). At that time, Tang Jitian was fighting alone. I thought he was something of a grassroots hero; he had no affiliation with the Christian groups, nor with any NGO. He was just a disbarred lawyer, but he was active among lawyers, scouting those with potentials, building contacts with them, and recruiting them. I think he had considerable impact in this regard, because, as you can see, he did this conscientiously.

YC: Lawyer Chen Jiangang (陈建刚) has said that he was recruited into the movement by Tang Jitian. At the time he was working on a case in Yanji, where Tang was also from. He noticed Chen on Weibo, and brought him to Changsha and Qingdao for symposiums of human rights lawyers. Chen later became a well-known human rights lawyer.

Liang: Right. Speaking of that time, it was a “Weibo Era.” That period was very impactful. A lot of people went on Weibo to make their opinions known and find fellow travelers. The reason why Weibo was censored is because it was developing too quickly, too many people were on Weibo showcasing their ideas and thoughts, and using Weibo to establish contacts and networks. After Xi Jinping came to power, he started to crack down on Weibo and debilitated it for free expression. People scattered, and many just kind of disappeared after that.

YC: The first few years of Weibo’s existence might have seen the most freedom of speech that the average Chinese person ever enjoyed, even though it was monitored and censored from the start. In the fall of 2011, I opened a Weibo account and managed to use it for about a month before it was shut down. I’d been away from China for so many years that I wasn’t familiar with what was going on there, and didn’t have a mental yardstick to measure the changes that were taking place. One day I logged onto Weibo, found my account had been closed, and said to myself, “After all, nothing has changed.”

It seems you had a lot of contact with the New Citizens Movement. I remember very clearly that in Ai Xiaoming’s (艾晓明)[4] documentary about a New Citizens Movement trial, you were dragged away by a few men right outside the court.

Liang: I participated in the New Citizens Movement from beginning to end. It started with Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), and a few other scholars holding discussions about constitutionalism. Ding would rent a place on the weekends, Xu even wrote a draft constitution. I was there for all of these. I suggested that we shouldn’t spend money to rent meeting venues, but organize dinner meetings instead. After that, the form of the get-togethers changed. At around 2 in the afternoon, we’d find a restaurant, reserve a private dining room, first discuss constitutional governance and society, then eat together, talking through the meal. We had more time this way, and our discussions were broader.

Shortly after, the slogan “Freedom, Justice, Love” was decided upon, and was the “citizen” word/logo. It was recommended that everyone change their Weibo avatar to this Citizen logo. After that, participation started to grow.

With the exception of the street activism, I participated in every other aspect of the New Citizens Movement, including the legal aid work. The most important was the 331 case[5], when Yuan Dong (袁冬) and three others were arrested for speaking publicly in Xidan. I started on the case on the second day, signed for power of attorney with Yuan’s wife, so on the second or the third day, I went to Beijing’s Third Municipal Detention Center to see him. There is a photo of Yuan Dong in an orange jail shirt online. I took that picture. At the time the police still allowed us to take photos when meeting with clients. Later on, because Xu Zhiyong’s video and pictures leaked out and caused a lot of publicity, they stopped permitting photos or recordings of people in detention. So I was the first attorney to step up and represent the New Citizens Movement in court. Afterwards, other lawyers came in to represent the other three. The first time I went there, I deposited 300 yuan for each of them.

Yuan Dong. Photo: Liang Xiaojun

Later on, as more members of the New Citizens Movement were arrested, many more lawyers got involved, as did many other people. Yuan Dong’s wife one day called me and told me she had retracted my power of attorney but declined to tell me why. After that I didn’t have an opportunity to represent other defendants either, but I stayed deeply involved by helping organize defense lawyers, arranging meetings, discussing defense strategies, and etc.

Xu Zhiyong’s trial began in Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court, just a block from my office. Ai Xiaoming and Tang Jingling’s wife came to Beijing and stayed in my office. The next day, we went to court to film, first walking together, then separately. When I arrived I found some people had come out to voice support. The security guards and some local riff-raff kicked up a fuss and got into a fight with the well-wishers. I didn’t want to get involved, but thought they’d gone way too far, and wound up arguing with them myself. At this point the crowd had started to swell; there were reporters there, and foreign diplomats. The police arrived shortly after and took us to their cars. There’s an iconic photo of that scene, with two cops dragging away a woman wearing glasses.

A supporter was dragged away outside the court where Xu Zhiyong was tried. Photo: Reuters

So anyway, the police put us in a vehicle, an Iveco van, and drove us to a bus parking lot. They’d grabbed a lot of the people who came out to support Xu Zhiyong as well. There, they moved us to a bus, and dropped us at various local police stations to hold us. I ended up at the local station in Babaoshan (八宝山). I don’t know how word got out, but once people found out I was there, many called the police station to voice their support. They kept a security guard around specifically to watch me, fed me bread, which I didn’t eat, and let me keep my phone, though I wasn’t allowed to make calls. I was held there from the morning until after 4 p.m., when Xu Zhiyong’s trial wrapped up, then they let me go.

I had recommended lawyer Liu Shuqing (刘书庆)[6] for the appeal of Xu Zhiyong case. Liu is an excellent writer, and he was also very sympathetic to Xu’s ideas. I had also introduced the lawyers representing defendants in the other New Citizens Movement cases. Chang Weiping (常玮平)[7], for instance, made a name for himself during this case, because at the time he was still interning in Baoji, Shaanxi province. He was very supportive, accompanying us to the detention center. When more of the New Citizens were arrested, he’d just gotten his bar license; I remember I invited him to my office and told him I hoped he’d represent some of the New Citizens cases. He said that he’d just gotten certified to practice law, had no experience, and he’d be taking a big risk, to which I replied that none of this was a problem, it was a big human rights case, and it would surely be advantageous to him down the line. We talked for an hour or more, maybe the whole morning. I remember it was snowing a bit, and I walked him to the subway station. He ended up being Li Wei’s (李蔚) defense attorney.

The Authorities Increase Pressure

YC: I want to ask, when did you start to feel pressure from the authorities? Did it start right after you began doing human rights cases?

Liang: Actually, I felt this pressure when I was in Kashgar doing the Alimjan case. At the time, the Justice Bureau didn’t contact me directly, but called up my law firm’s director, asking where I was and what I was doing, and warning me to “be careful and handle the case according to law.” The most direct contact I had with the Justice Bureau was probably in 2010, when I started taking a large volume of Falun Gong cases. The Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau called me and summoned me for a consultation, which was repeated a few times. Their intention was to either not let us take these cases, or to discourage us from doing so. There were simply too many Falun Gong cases, and a pressing need for lawyers to represent and help them. I would have the other two lawyers at my firm handle these cases too, but they got scared and stopped taking them after a couple of visits from the Justice Bureau.

One line that I remember very clearly from the meetings with the Justice Bureau was spoken by a deputy director of the bureau’s Office overseeing lawyers. He said, “if you keep doing this, it won’t be us you’ll be having consultations with anymore.” I thought, “if not you, then who else would it be?” But in any case, whoever it was, it would be all the same to me.

YC: He meant the Guobao[8] (国保, Domestic Security Division), right?

Liang: Indeed, it was the Guobao who later showed up.

YC: When did they appear, roughly?

Liang: Probably also in 2010. Around that time, the EU Embassy was putting on events for World Human Rights Day, and invited various people to participate. A number of speakers were invited. I was arranged to give a speech introducing the human rights situation in China. I prepared the text; that morning when I got up and prepared to leave, around 8 a.m., someone knocked on the door. It was the Guobao and the police. They said, “You shouldn’t go today. Come with us.” It was the first time I encountered them, and I was very scared, so I went with them to the police station, but I emailed my prepared speech to the organizer of the event. The police had me sit down for a chat over tea. At noon they took care of lunch. When the EU event was over, around 4 p.m., they let me go home.

YC: They didn’t threaten you or they treat you badly, they just put you under watch?

Liang: Right, they just wanted to stop me from going to the event. 

YC: How intriguing. Where did they get such detailed information?

Liang: I have no idea. Their intelligence is very capable now. It should be easy for them to find out who is scheduled to speak at the EU conferences.

YC: At that time, the Justice Bureau started asking you not to handle these cases or something. Were you afraid?

Liang: I didn’t feel scared at that time, anyway I continued to do it, whether they liked it or not. I am a lawyer, what’s wrong if I take these cases? I have repeatedly stressed to them that anyone has the right to legal defense. They asked me how I felt about Falun Gong. I said that I think those who practice Falun Gong are the kindest people. They should not be persecuted. That’s how I responded to them.

The Cases of Tian Xi and Chen Wei

YC: I want to ask you to choose two cases that you did in the early stage that were relatively impressive. How about this: I choose one, you choose one. I chose the Tian Xi (田喜) case.

Tian Xi.

Liang: Yes. Tian Xi’s case is connected with Yirenping (益仁平). They mainly handled AIDS cases, and had a lot of contact with Tian Xi at that time. When the case got started, Yirenping asked me to be the attorney. Tian Xi had been infected with AIDS during a blood transfusion, but he was not able to get compensation. He got angry and smashed some equipment in the hospital, for which he was charged with the crime of property destruction. I wrote several blog posts about it at that time, and many people were concerned about the case. The Southern Metropolis Daily, a domestic Chinese media outlet, reported on it often, and quoted my posts at length. I got to know Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) through handling this case. Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) followed the development of the case and filmed it. Tian Xi died the year before. He was 31.

YC: So young. I saw your description of the “AIDS village” you posted on Twitter when you went to Henan. You mentioned how there was a farmer sitting next to you on the bus; when he took his medicine, he ripped the label off the container because he didn’t want people to know that he had AIDS and discriminate against him. This kind of record shows sensitivity. From the reader’s point of view, particularly someone like me living overseas, we are very appreciative of this, as it adds a human dimension to the legal case.

Chen Wei in Nanchong Prison during the 1990s.

Liang: I’ll talk about the Chen Wei (陈卫)[9] case. Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years and was released from prison only recently. This case made a strong impression on me. I began handling it in the later stage, and there was also a lot of political pressure involved. At the time of the court hearing, I was staying at Ouyang Yi’s (欧阳懿)[10] home in the city of Suining (遂宁). The Beijing Justice Bureau called me directly, saying, “Come back. Can you stop representing this case?” I said that I’d already handed in the paperwork, and that court would begin in two days. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to leave. I had to remain on the case. There was nothing they could say but, “Anyway, handle it according to the law, also, don’t give interviews with reporters.” This was a reminder they gave every time.

Before the hearing, I had just finished breakfast and was about to leave, but in front of me, several people guided Ouyang Yi (欧阳懿) to a car and took him away, so I went to the court alone. There was a strict security check before entering; they made us take out everything so they could see it, and we did not have the right to refuse.

YC: Who was the lawyer accompanying you?

Liang: It was a lawyer in Chongqing. Later, when we got into the court, I saw Chen Wei being brought in. About one or two kilometers of the surrounding roads had been closed, and nobody was allowed to come near the court. Several Armed Police officers donning helmets, body armor, and submachine guns escorted Chen Wei in. To sum it up, they intended to create an atmosphere of terror, and make you mount legal defense under this atmosphere.

YC: How was Chen Wei’s condition?

Liang: He was in handcuffs and leg-irons. It was the first time I saw a client of mine treated like this. In none of the cases I had taken in the past was everything so overwrought. The city of Suining, Sichuan Province, had really taken the state’s ability to suppress dissidents and create terror to a new height.

YC: What stood out for you during the court hearing?

Liang: There wasn’t anything special about the hearing itself, I just gave the defense as usual. At the time the judge still allowed the defense attorneys to talk normally. The court would control who was allowed to sit in at the hearing — that’s how all these cases are.  

YC: Have you been in contact with Chen Wei since his release?

Liang: No. I met him only a few times and didn’t get to know him well. With many cases, I only performed my lawyer’s duty and did my job. The main thing is to represent the client, to express their thoughts and feelings, so that it draws attention to their case.

Beijing Lawyers Association, Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau

YC: You talked about, in a tweet in the fall of 2010, participating in a discussion about the “Regulations on Detention Centers” at the Constitution Committee of Beijing Lawyers Association. You described a scene where some academics and lawyers with close ties to the government who dominated key positions of the Constitution Committee spooled platitudes, the moderator ingratiated himself with everyone, and beckoned the audience to clap hands all the time, and you regretted wasting a whole morning there. It was amusing for me. I want to ask you: As a Beijing lawyer, you apparently were interested in taking part in the activities of the Beijing Lawyers Association. What are your interactions with the Lawyers Association and the Justice Bureau like?

Liang: I really haven’t had much to do with the Lawyers Association. I’ve been mainly interacting with the Justice Bureaus. Before, it was the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau, now it’s the Shijingshan District (石景山区) Justice Bureau. In the Municipal Justice Bureaus, the official who oversees management of lawyers also concurrently holds the position of the General Secretary of the Lawyers Association, so us lawyers are really dealing with the same set of people. Our annual review has to be approved and stamped by the Lawyers Association, but the latter acts on the behest of the Justice Bureau. Sometimes I’d go to the Association and ask, “Why are you still not approving my annual review?” They would say, “Go ask the Justice Bureau.” So they are really one and the same.

Members pay annual dues to the Lawyers Association, and the Association in turn holds activities for members, having various committees is part of it. But the Constitution Committee that I took part in was disliked by the Association because in it there were a lot of “thorny heads,” people who were not obsequious to the authorities. There were a dozen or so members in the Constitution Committee. At first there were some meaningful events, such as inviting Professor Zhang Qianfan (张千帆) to lecture on the Constitution. Even though they imposed lots of limits on these events or cancelled some altogether, the members back then were pretty good, and wanted to do something to promote constitutional rights or human rights. But the Lawyers Association or the Justice Bureau apparently wanted to control the Committee, and later, when the Committee held another election, they “parachuted” in two lawyers. One was the candidate for the Committee Chair and the other for secretary. Two candidates for two positions, and they were the only ones you could vote for. Those of us who submitted our candidacy were for one reason or another not allowed to be candidates. Everyone was outraged. Several members gave scathing speeches in front of the Association’s leadership and then just left. I too gave a speech and left. A domestic media outlet reported this scandal. The new Constitution Committee didn’t hold any event, and I have had nothing to do with it since.        

YC: I see. All mechanisms are in place to suppress and control.

There Will Always Be Human Rights Lawyers

YC: Before and leading up to 709, the human rights lawyers often held symposiums to discuss laws or cases. They were rather vibrant. Can you give us some description of them? 

Liang: It’s very important that we get together and connect, especially under the current situation. It hardly matters what the format or topic is, as long as we can get people together. Because of the China Against Death Penalty program, I was able to hold some events. I remember we had activities in Guangdong and Suzhou that pulled in a lot of people. We’d invite like-minded lawyers to discuss the death penalty, we’d have dinner meetings where we talked about social issues and human rights issues.

It was such a happy time. I remember clearly that, in 2011, there was the Jasmine crackdown, a lot of people, including Teng Biao and Tang Jitian, were rounded up and then released by the end of the year. Teng Biao proposed that we get people together to reconnect. It had to be done secretly. So I scouted venues and did the planning. We chose Chicheng in Hebei Province, not too far from Beijing, where there are hot springs. I made all the arrangements for picking people up from other parts of the country and carpooling to the place. I thought it was so important for us to have such a gathering immediately following the Jasmine crackdown when the surveillance was still tight. Because of it, many people got back in touch with each other and became active again. They were encouraged that they could still come to such an event and still do something. Slowly, the civil society started reviving. This was around the end of 2011. By 2014, many activities were going on. The Christian groups likewise had their own activities. For example, some were organized by Hu Shigen (胡石根).

YC: What kind of work does China Against Death Penalty do? Outside China, there is a big debate on abolishing capital punishment.

Liang: It’s not that prominent in China, because nobody has enough time to focus on it. What we have been doing is to introduce to Chinese lawyers the UN resolutions and documents, as well as ideas and trends, regarding capital punishment, facilitate effective defense in death penalty cases, and discuss related statutes in Chinese law. We could also provide assistance to defense lawyers in death penalty cases and cases of wrongful conviction. But I also feel the most important thing is for us to connect with one another and to immerse ourselves in these ideas. 

YC: You wrote in a recent article that, “Within the current legal framework, lawyers are unable to provide any effective defense for clients who are placed under residential surveillance at a designated location for allegedly ‘inciting subversion of state power’ or ‘subverting state power,” and it’s a tragedy for lawyers and a tragedy for the rule of law in China. But then you said, in all the cases of citizens being charged with endangering national security by exercising civil rights, “each and every client deserves our defense, and as Chinese lawyers, it’s an opportunity and an honor to defend them.” This last statement left a very deep impression on me. Could you elaborate on this sense of honor?  

Liang: It’s true. When you represent a client in an average case, your clients are average people. But when you are involved in human rights cases, you would find many noble souls whom you admire and whose ideas you share. This in fact is my biggest reward. I learn from them. Defending them is not about myself getting fame, but about me being their advocate. For a period of time, I was frustrated by the futility of defending them in court — they would be convicted no matter how I defended them. But then I thought, they need us lawyers, because their ideas are not known by the world at large. As their lawyer, we get to know them and convey their ideas through our mouths, our pens, so that people know them and the sacrifices they make, and know what they did to promote change. That’s what I cherish the most.  

YC:  You have worked on so many human rights cases over the years, such as the Hua Yong case (华涌案), Song Ze case (宋泽案), Tashi Wangchuk case…. We can’t go over all of them. Let’s talk about a couple of the most recent cases that you were involved in. One is the case of Qi Yiyuan (祁怡元).

Liang: Qi Yiyuan was sentenced to two years in prison just last week. His family was from Wuxi, Jiangsu (江苏无锡), but his parents went to Weihai, Shandong (山东威海), at some point, and he followed them. He stayed in Australia for two years, possibly having not earned a degree. 

Sometimes I marvel at how some of these vibrant lives and noble souls emerge in our society seemingly from out of nowhere. Qi Yiyuan is very bright. Every time I went to see him in the detention center, he’d ask a lot of questions and pour out a lot of thoughts, and he thinks about things that people who can freely obtain information wouldn’t think about. For example, he would ask me about the latest situation in Hong Kong. I told him that the U.S. had passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. He asked, “Has Trump signed it yet?” I said Congress passed it unanimously. He noted that in that case, it would pass into law whether Trump signs it or not, as that’s what the U.S. Constitution stipulates. He said, at the detention center a Falun Gong practitioner was on hunger strike, shouting, “Falun Dafa is good!” He said, “I’d shout it with him to show my support.” He said he also watches news but he does so in reverse and discerns other messages.     

YC: How old is he?

Liang: He was born in 1991. They are the hope. But I told him that he moved too fast and got thrown in jail before anyone knew anything about him. He probably didn’t know too much about publicity or how to promote ideas. He’s inexperienced. He believed that the human rights lawyers should be released, their practice resumed; that Xi Jinping shouldn’t be a dictator, and he should allow freedom of speech. So at home in Weihai, he wrote his appeals in white characters on a black shirt, and came to Beijing. He attended a small gathering, and asked someone to take photos of him wearing that black shirt. He said, I’m going to wear this to Tiananmen Square, to Xinhua Gate, to show it to Xi Jinping. Those present tried to stop him, but he was determined. That’s how he was. He knew he was going to be detained.  

YC: Now that he is sentenced, can you still see him?

Liang: Not after the verdict takes effect. 

Qi Yiyuan.

YC: Since the 709 crackdown, human rights lawyers have been under continuous assault. The authorities have been using a combination of methods to disable them, such as secret detention, torture, imprisonment, and disbarment. Can you talk a little bit about your own situation now, and your assessment of the Chinese human rights lawyers and the judicial environment they find themselves in?

Liang: My situation is this: almost every month the Justice Bureau would summon me for a talk, either they come to my firm or I go to them, ten to eight times a year at the very least. They say to me, Don’t post on Twitter, don’t give interviews to journalists; if you want to say something, you come to us, we welcome you anytime to and talk about whatever you want. Each meeting of this sort lasts one to two hours. They always want to convince me that China is doing good, the political outlook is good, the Communist Party is good. I always tell them: I let you sing the [Party’s] praises, and you let me voice my criticism. How about it? 

Then they would say, You have to voice your criticism and recommendations through the normal channels, not by giving interviews to the media or posting on Twitter. You might have noticed that sometimes I would delete some of my Twitter posts, that’s because they took notice of them, they would call or summon me, saying “you have to delete this and that,” so I have to delete them. Because of this, I delete a number of tweets every year. 

YC: You don’t want to clash with them head-on, right?

Liang: I think it’s not all that necessary. Besides, what’s the use of it? Not very useful. Under the current circumstances, I agree with what Prof. Jerry Cohen said to us, which  you once relayed [in a WhatsApp group]: while the space for us is shrinking and treacherous, we should focus on preserving ourselves and improving our professional skills as we wait for a better time to come. I don’t want to make meaningless sacrifices. I don’t need to do that, right? After all, I can still practice. I can compromise by deleting a few tweets to satisfy them in exchange for some space to do my work.  

YC: I also don’t think it’s a good idea to set your own castle on fire. The human rights lawyers as a group have sustained terrible losses. What are the things that you can do? What are the prospects like? Before you answer, I want to say that I’m very moved that many of you have not been cowed at all and are holding out strong in their capacity. It’s admirable.

Liang: That’s right. Many human rights lawyers are continuing doing what they believe they should do out of their personal conviction. They still defend clients in human rights cases, they still take part in human rights incidents and make themselves heard. Think about it: some of us can still persevere under such severe repression; if and when the repression abates somewhat, human rights lawyers will flourish, and some who have left the scene probably will come back. 

YCHow about prospects for the judicial environment?

Liang: I have yet to see signs of improving in thejudicial environment. But given the changes of the international environment, such as the impact of Covid-19, I’m somewhat hopeful for the future. As a matter of fact, I have always thought this period of harsh repression will pass, the question is how. We have to keep our faith. I have a laissez-faire philosophy, I’m a more relaxed and go-with-the-flow kind of person. Yes, I’ll wait. I told the officials at the Justice Bureau: Do what you do, and I’ll watch you on the shore. I said, Let’s all just live our separate lives and see what the future will bring.

YC: Since we brought up the historical perspective and the larger picture of the world, the last 40 years of Reform and Opening up is no doubt a special period, but historically, 30, 40 years is short. The rise of human rights lawyers in China is a very short period in the flow of history. How do you see the roles of human rights lawyers in this time of tectonic change?

Liang: Human rights lawyers are a group of lawyers who emerged and have grown naturally under dictatorship. Because there is repression and persecution, lawyers with conscience and reason stand out to defend and help human rights victims based on their beliefs. So I think their emergence was a historical inevitability, and their future depends on the political situation and reality of human rights in China. As long as there are human rights violations, there will be human rights lawyers, because you have to know that our conscience, our reason, as human beings can never be obliterated by suppression and force. Therefore, there will always be human rights lawyers.

YC: Could I conclude then that this belief of yours is essentially the belief in human nature?

Liang: Yes, it is.


[1] Wikipedia: The Sun Zhigang incident (Chinese: 孙志刚事件) refers to the 2003 death of the migrant worker Sun Zhigang in Guangzhou, as a result of physical abuse he suffered while being detained under China’s custody and repatriation (C&R) system. The case received massive attention in the media and on the Internet in China, resulting in the abolition of the C&R system by the national government. Read more.

[2] A popular Chinese spiritual practice, banned and persecuted by Jiang Zemin in 1999.

[3] Yirenping was a public interest NGO in China that provided legal and humanitarian assistance to victims of descrimination. In 2015, Yirenping was outlawed by the Chinese government in a wave of crackdown against a host of rights NGOs in China.

[4] Ai Xiaoming is a retired literature professor and prolific documentary producer. Her films concerning human rights struggles in China, made under difficult circumstances, are a priceless asset to us all.  

[5] On March 31, 2013 (331), four New Citizen activists Yuan Dong, Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), Ma Xinli (马新立), and Hou Xin (侯欣) were arrested in Xidan, a bustling commercial district in Beijing, where they campaigned with banners and speeches for government officials to disclose their assets.

[6] Liu Shuqing is a human rights lawyer based in Jinan. He also taught chemical engineering at Qilu University of Technology. He was disbarred in 2016, and later also removed from his teaching position. 

[7] Chang Weiping is a young lawyer known for representing human rights cases as well as workplace discrimination cases. He was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for 10 days from January 12 to January 21. While under RSDL, his license was revoked by the Baoji Municipal Justice Bureau. 

[8] Guobao (国保) is domestic security police, a special division in China’s police system responsible for political security.

[9] Chen Wei was a student leader during the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing. In 1992 he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for organizing an opposition party. In March 2011 he was arrested again for writing articles critical of the Communist Party and sentenced to nine years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” He was released in March 2020. 

[10] Ou Yangyi is a dissident in Suining and a close friend of Chen Wei.


Related:

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

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