Ding Jiaxi and Alfred

Luo Shengchun, August 31, 2020

In Alfred, New York, the community speaks out for my husband Ding Jiaxi, a political prisoner in distant China.

I

I was in Hawaii with my daughters on Christmas break when I heard that Jiaxi (丁家喜) had been detained. I was climbing a hiking trail by the sea, my girls splashing in the water at the beach below. The sky and the sea were a brilliant blue; the white sand beach stretched endless in the afternoon sun. A friend, in whose Beijing apartment Jiaxi had been staying, called telling me that on the evening of the 26th, police with Shandong accents took Jiaxi away, searching the house inside-out in the process. They destroyed the combination lock and didn’t give any kind of legal documentation for the police action.

Our family had been planning this trip to Hawaii for years. My daughters and I waited for Jiaxi until we couldn’t wait anymore, and decided to go on our own this Christmas break. “Are you OK, Mom?” my daughters kept asking me. My mind was heavy and slow as if I were in a dream but I knew this was real.

The following evening, we flew to Boston to transit back to Alfred. In Boston, I talked to my best friend Carla, who cares for me like a mother. Carla asked, “They’ve been watching him all along, right? Have they been looking for a reason to detain him the whole time? What was the reason they found this time?”

According to Chinese law, family members of a detained individual must receive notification within 24 hours of their detention, indicating the reason the individual is being held, the location where they are in custody, and the legal basis for their detention. We have received nothing. Two weeks after Jiaxi was taken away, a notice denying lawyers’ access to Jiaxi was the only written document the family and the lawyers have received before June 23.

On that day, we were notified that Jiaxi was formally arrested.

Eight months have passed since Jiaxi was taken away and I still don’t know the legal reason for his detainment besides the fact that it was related to his December gathering with his friends in Xiamen. In these eight months, he was kept in secret detention for six months under the notorious “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). In these eight months, his lawyers’ requests to meet him were repeatedly denied. On June 19, the three individuals who were arrested with him were released on bail, but he and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) were formally arrested and moved to Linshu Detention Center in Linyi, Shandong province. He has been detained there under a fake name, and the police again denied his lawyers’ request to meet him in Linshu. The outside world has been kept completely in the dark as to his situation.

My family, from left to right: me, Doudou, Shasha, Jiaxi in 2017.

II

The last time my whole family was together was in the fall of 2017. After Jiaxi was released in October of 2016, he immediately applied for a visa but was denied. He eventually got the visa in September 2017. He asked me to buy the round-trip plane tickets for him, and he told me he planned to stay with us only for two months. I was heartbroken. I said, I waited for you for four years, you only give me two months—that’s not fair at all.

Most of the time he was here, I was at work and very busy. The kids were busy with school, too. Every day, he would cook, do laundry, read, talk with his friends, and listen to many different news channels. Alfred has always been very lively during September and October, he and I went on walks, met my friends, and went to church. He was happy to meet the people I know. He went with me to folk dance nights, galleries, concerts, and even morning yoga classes.

All my friends knew that he used to be a lawyer before he was arrested on a false charge and served three years in prison. They also knew that he didn’t give up his ideals after his release.

Almost every day, we discussed whether he should stay in the US or go back to China. But I knew it was useless to try to convince him to stay because he was determined. I just wanted him to stay for longer and not go back so quickly. I was upset how little time he spent with us. He could have stayed until Christmas when the kids will be both home for winter break. If he just stayed two more months, we could have spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year together.

My younger daughter Shasha was in high school at the time. He played tennis with her and went to see her matches. But my elder daughter Doudou was in college and rarely had time to see her father. They only had two or three meals together.

Doudou has never really gotten over the choices her father has made. She thought that he was not a competent husband and father because he neglected family responsibilities. When Shasha was writing her college application essays, she was reluctant to mention her father because she was in pain, too. She couldn’t understand why her father said he loved us but still left for China.

I argued with him, over and over again: “Why do you have to go back to China? Your own power is too limited, only God can change China for the better. You can stay in the US and see the changes happen in China while doing what you can.” In response to my arguments, he explained to me again and again why he could not leave the country: he needs to be grounded in China to be able to do meaningful work.

After staying for a month, he began to feel restless. He was in a hurry to go back, as though he wouldn’t be able to return if he stayed in America any longer. I really wished that the Chinese government would bar him from entering the country. My colleagues at Alstom even said, “Can’t you just burn his passport or throw it away? Why in the world are you letting him go back?”

But I believe in God. I thought since he wanted to go back so badly, it meant that God chose him. It meant that the choice was not his or mine. I remember the movie Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳), and just as the great opera artist didn’t only belong to his own family, Jiaxi does not just belong to ours. He belongs to the greater Chinese family, and I am powerless to keep him to myself.

When Jiaxi was in Alfred, we got together a few times with my friends Joe, Nancy, Vicky, Emrys, Bonnie, Bob, Laurel, John, and Genie. Just before he left, we invited them to our house for a farewell dinner party. Jiaxi talked about his life in the prison, his plans after his release, his ideals, and the necessity of a democratic society in China. Everyone asked him why he decided to go back, so Jiaxi repeated what he said to me to them, explaining that his roots are in China and that he needed to be with the people.

On the day of his departure, I drove him to the Buffalo airport by myself. His departure was so painful to me that it felt like a knife cutting through my heart. I didn’t know how I drove back to Alfred.

In May of 2018, Jiaxi tried to come to the US to attend our elder daughter’s graduation, but he was stopped by customs at Beijing Capital International Airport, who told him that his travel would “endanger national security.” I couldn’t sleep for a week; I felt broken inside. I thought that we would never see each other in person again in this lifetime. 

Londonderry Prayer at my church.

III

The first time I came to Alfred was in August, 2000. When booking my ticket, I had to zoom in on the map multiple times to find this college town with a population of 5,000 near Rochester, NY. I studied at Alfred University for my Master’s in materials science, where I did research for Dr. Linda Jones. After graduation I worked at Alstom for one year, and in 2004 I returned to China. After Jiaxi’s arrest in 2013, I brought my two daughters back to Alfred, where I have lived and worked since. Alfred is the only place in the US where I’ve lived. It is my home.

Just days after we drove through the snow back to Alfred, Shasha’s high school friends, under the guidance of their teacher Jami Snyder, wrote an article about Jiaxi and his situation in their high school magazine Observe.

Church friends began to record videos to express shock, anger, and worry about Jiaxi’s detainment. Our pastor Laurie said, “Our congregation is very concerned about Sophie’s husband. We are worried that he is treated unjustly and that his basic rights are not guaranteed. We will do all we can to find out what happened to Sophie’s husband.” Jami Snyder, Sarah Coty, Larry and Jan Casey, Robert Reginio, Janis Porter, Jen and Tom Smith family, Debbie and Rick Steven, Amie Acton, Cathy Rees, and many others recorded video messages. What Peter O’Connor said is a consensus of our community: “We in the United States are very angry that injustices like these happen in China. Every country should support human rights, we will continue to pay close attention to Ding Jiaxi’s case until he is released unconditionally.”

Many church members, whose name I can’t list one by one, and the Sunday school kids held up “Free Ding Jiaxi!” signs with me for photos. I posted all of them on Twitter and Facebook.

In January, a few friends and I went to Washington D.C. to see officials from the White House, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and the State Department. I did an interview with Voice of America. In New York City, I met various Democratic Congressmen, Co-Chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China Jim McGovern, and Professor Jerome Cohen from the New York University US-Asia Law Institute.

In February, I gave a talk at Alfred University. Among the audience were professors from different departments, students, friends from church, and my neighbors. AU President Mark Zupan, a scholar of economics, also attended. Joe, who was part of my host family when I studied at AU twenty years ago, drove six hours from Ohio, where they had later moved to, just to see me. My friends from folk dance and yoga classes also came.

With my friends, neighbors, AU students, Congressman McGovern, and Prof. Jerry Cohen.

I talked about the bond between Alfred and my family, the crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013-2014, the China Citizen Movement, and how Jiaxi and his friends were secretly detained for a meeting.

At the time, Dr. Li Wenliang (李文亮) in the city of Wuhan had just died of COVID-19. He had been disciplined by the hospital administration as well as the police for trying to warn the public of the emergence of the SARS-like coronavirus in the city in late December 2019. He was a member of the Communist Party, but his last words to the world, a costly realization, were: “A healthy society should not have just one voice.” Indeed, a country that oppresses free speech, oppresses dissent, and denies transparency is not only a threat to its people but to the whole world.

Jiaxi and Dr. Li Wenliang have never crossed paths with each other, but on this point they agree.

In April, the Alfred Sun reprinted China Change editor Yaxue Cao’s 2017 interview of Jiaxi. The interview is the most complete narrative from Jiaxi himself. More people in Alfred learned about Jiaxi’s story.

For the first time in years, I was about to miss the tax deadline. I called up my tax accountant, and she said, “I understand completely because I know what happened to your husband. I saw your video and the newspaper’s article on Jiaxi. I hope I can help you lighten the burden.”

Paying my water bill, the staff said she read Jiaxi’s story. “If I can do anything, just let me know,” she said.

The small grocery store clerk asked me if there were any news about Jiaxi. “Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you.”

Not many Chinese live in Alfred. There is only a Chinese restaurant with moderate business at the corner of Main Street. Other than that, the only Chinese people are those at Alfred University’s Confucius Institute. They are affiliates of the Chinese government, and they kept their respectful distance when I spoke up for Jiaxi at AU. One of them seemed sympathetic, saying that she will contact the Chinese Consulate in New York to see if she can help me find out more about Jiaxi. However, she told me later on that the Consulate said that they only help Chinese people who are facing difficulties in the United States. I said, “I’m still a Chinese passport holder, I live in the US, my husband has gone missing, don’t I count as a Chinese person facing difficulties in the United States?” She didn’t know what to say.

Every week, our congregation and I prayed for Jiaxi and his friends together. After services, we went to the church center across from the sanctuary to write letters. Before New York issued the stay-at-home order, we mailed out nearly 60 letters to the Yantai Public Security Bureau, and my two daughters at school each received nearly 30 letters and cards of encouragement, condolences, and support. Towards the end of March, I mailed the petition demanding unconditional release of Ding Jiaxi and his friends to the Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi (赵克志), Director Zhao Feng (赵峰) of Yantai Public Security Bureau, and Ambassador Cui Tiankai (崔天凯) from Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. This first batch of signatures contained a total of 329 signatures on 32 pages from six states (NY, CA, MA, MN, OH, PA) in the US.

In mid-April, the family of those who were detained with Jiaxi received letters from their loved ones. A hope was sparked within me. Maybe I would receive letters from Jiaxi, too. But there were none. So I decided to write letters to Jiaxi. I sent the letters to Jiaxi by texting them to police officer Liu Xinyu (刘新宇) who was the designated point of contact from Yantai Public Security Bureau for family members of the detained, but there were no responses from him or Jiaxi. I then posted my letters on Twitter and Facebook. In my letters, I told Jiaxi how COVID-19 began in China and is ravaging the world, how his mom knows that he is innocent and who are the real criminals, how this year’s spring came unhurried, how the kids and I enjoyed work and life during the pandemic, how the forget-me-nots, bleeding hearts, orchids, and chives bloomed one by one in our backyard, and how our life is full of beauty and hope.

We wrote letters at the church center.

IV

Jiaxi’s first trip to the U.S, was in January 2001, when he came with our five-year-old elder daughter Doudou to visit and stayed for an entire month. I was very busy at school, but during my down time and on the weekends I took Jiaxi and Doudou to dinner parties with my friends. Winter here is bitter-cold and buried in snow, and parties are one of many special things in Alfred. Joe and Nancy took us skiing. Jiaxi and Doudou picked it up very quickly and loved it. They often went skiing together while I was in class.

When they weren’t skiing, Jiaxi spent lots of time attending court sessions in the towns around Alfred, taking Doudou with him. Jiaxi wanted to understand the US justice system and the jury system. He would tell me all about it when I got back from class.

Then we had our younger daughter Shasha. When she was born, Jiaxi came back to Alfred with Doudou and stayed for 100 days to be a devoted full-time dad.

In April 2004, the girls and I moved back to Beijing. Jiaxi had just started his own law firm. He wanted to prove that he can succeed. In its first year, the firm had a revenue of two million yuan. In its tenth year in 2013, it brought in 25 million yuan. With twenty associates and nine partners, it was bigger than the average mid-sized firm in Beijing.

Jiaxi is an aerial engine engineer by training but has always concerned himself with changing the system for the better in gradual ways. Some years he made fervent recommendations to the government through written proposals, like strengthening quality regulations [baby] milk powder (predating the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal in 2008), simplifying the process for transferring ownership of used vehicles, and establishing a national website for cases whose verdicts were not enforced. Those recommendations received either no responses or became policy many years after he raised them.

On the other hand, Jiaxi was not an overly political person in those years. Although he’s from the 1989 generation (as am I) and participated in the Tiananmen Square protests during his junior year in college, he knew little about the big picture of human rights struggle, and he didn’t even know about Liu Xiaobo or Charter 08.

However, this changed in 2011. That year, he came to the US for a 7-month research fellowship at Fordham University’s law school. He was able to access a large amount of free information that was censored in China, and began to learn about the rights defense movement while he was busy lawyering in the field of intellectual property. In the words of our younger daughter who was with him then, “all dad does is pace around in the living room every day.” Recently I dug up his writings on an old hard drive from that time, and I saw he was thinking about the relationship between rights and power, how to “clean up” China’s legal system, and the issues of free speech, social security, and the right to private ownership of property.

When he came back from the US, Jiaxi started to meet regularly with New Citizens Movement advocate Dr. Xu Zhiyong, Beijing lawyers, and intellectuals. The focus of his life shifted. Sometimes he would share his thoughts with me about why he did this or that, and I always approved and understood. At first, I didn’t think much of this change in him. But when the Domestic Security Department (“Guobao,” the political security police) started following him, I began to feel uncomfortable. The Guobao often summoned him for questioning, and then the harassment became constant. It disrupted our family life and daily activities like picking up and dropping off the kids at school. In 2012–2013, when the New Citizens Movement began to call for officials to publicly disclose their personal assets, the Guobao even stationed themselves outside our door.

In the spring of 2013, Jiaxi transferred directorship of the law firm to other partners in order to devote more time to his activism. On the night of April 13, the Guobao raided our home and searched Jiaxi’s office. Then they took Jiaxi.

Jiaxi in detention center in Beijing in 2013. Photo was taken by his lawyer.

IV

On June 9, I fled China with our girls. It was Jiaxi’s hope that we should leave China and go back to the US. He didn’t want us to be hostages. But for me, leaving for America was the same as divorcing Jiaxi. I hesitated for a long time, because I knew that he would be staying in China. Amid my indecision, I applied for a job in Alstom Hornell and was offered the position, and I returned to Alfred. Alstom is a French subway and high-speed rail manufacturing company. I am in charge of the traction system projects of trains, which is the heart of trains and subways. Earlier when I graduated from Alfred University, I worked at Alstom in the US for more than a year. I also worked at Alstom for nine years after returning to Beijing, where I participated in manufacturing China’s first fleet of high-speed rail trains.

Jiaxi was in prison for three and a half years. Those were also the three and a half years in which our daughters and I adjusted to life in the US. There was so much we each had to learn and to experience. The older girl was deeply hurt by her father’s arrest. She had been uprooted in her final year of high school, and going from one of the best high schools in Beijing to a small town in America was incredibly disorienting and painful for her. My own graduate advisor Dr. Jones, Joe and Nancy, Bonnie and Bob, and students and teachers from Alfred-Almond high school all pitched in to help her out of her antisocial period by bringing her skiing and helping her apply for colleges. At the end of the year she was accepted to Cornell, where she majored in physics (she’s now in the Ph.D program in physics at Stanford).

We moved into our own house that autumn. I also went back to the church. My office at Alstom is in Hornell, ten miles outside of Alfred, right next to the factory. I go to the factory nearly every day to check in with the workers and to resolve issues related with production and delivery.

We kept up correspondence with Jiaxi during his three years in prison. My longing for Jiaxi’s letters was just like one of the married couples in Downton Abbey. If no letter came for a while, I’d feel really down, and would do anything to distract myself. It was a holiday when a letter came. I’d read it over and over again. The fastest Jiaxi’s letter arrived was in eight days, the slowest forty or more, even two months. The date of a letter’s arrival did not correspond to the date it was sent. Jiaxi wrote to me, to our daughters Doudou and Shasha. He wrote about everything and with great enthusiasm; you wouldn’t know they came from a Chinese prison.

In those three years, I didn’t really have time to think of how to speak out for Jiaxi, and I didn’t know how to do so effectively either. Not a single person visited Jiaxi in those three years. The outside world paid little attention to him.

I sent numerous complaints to Chinese authorities, and have gotten no response whatsoever.

V

According to Chinese law, Chinese citizens are guaranteed freedom of correspondence, including criminal suspects. The public security bureaus and the procuratorates may inspect the correspondence but none can intercept it. However, as of now I have written 14 letters to Jiaxi, and none has reached him.

According to Chinese law, lawyers are guaranteed the right to see and communicate with their clients, but three times Jiaxi’s lawyers formally requested to meet Jiaxi and were denied access each time. The public security bureaus also prevented the lawyers’ letters from reaching Jiaxi.

According to Chinese law, the public security bureaus should promptly inform lawyers of the case’s basic facts and evidence of crime. However, eight months have passed and Jiaxi’s lawyers have not been briefed by the responsible public security bureaus about the case.

According to Chinese law, the public security bureaus should disclose to family members the health status and conditions under watch of the detained. However, when I requested this information from the Linyi Public Security Bureau, they told me that the information I requested is “not the type of the government information specified in Article 2 of the Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information of the People’s Republic of China.”

According to Chinese law, when the police investigation period expires, the public security agency should notify the lawyer whether to extend the investigation or begin prosecution. The investigation period for Jiaxi expired on August 19, but Jiaxi’s lawyers have heard nothing.

The Chinese authorities responsible for Jiaxi’s case have shrouded the legal process in complete secrecy. If other similar cases are any indication, next they will forcefully replace lawyers I engaged with for Jiaxi and replace them with lawyers who collaborate with them, secretly hold court, and secretly announce sentences. If it were not for my personal experience, I would never believe that a country’s government could manipulate its law so brazenly and shamelessly.

Jiaxi’s lawyer Zhao Yonglin (middle), in Linyi, Shandong, in August has not been allowed to see Jiaxi. Xu Zhiyong’s lawyers Liang Xiaojun (left) and Zhang LeiXu (right) have been blocked too.

VI

I got some news about Jiaxi from informal channels towards the end of June and beginning of July. They confirmed my worst fear: Jiaxi was tortured.

In Yantai, Jiaxi was subjected to long periods of sleep deprivation, all-day noise harassment, 24/7 exposure to strong lights, fixed sleeping positions, long periods of sitting in the same position, interrogation on a “tiger chair” covered with a metal cage, and food deprivation.

The group in charge of his case not only gathered more than one hundred police to watch, interrogate, and torture Ding Jiaxi and others, but also tried to build a subversion case out of a meeting of less than two dozen people. At first, they tried to frame Jiaxi and his friends as “terrorists in possession of firearms.” Then they dropped that and tried instead to portray the non-violence training some of the participants had attended before as training to subvert the regime. The police want to portray the Xiamen gathering as a meeting to establish an illegal organization.

Through friends in China, I filed ten complaints to the Linyi Municipal Procuratorate, the People’s Procuratorate of Shandong Province, the Public Security Department of Shandong Province, the PRC Supreme Procuratorate, and the PRC Ministry of Public Security.

My younger daughter started an online petition for her father, demanding the Chinese authorities conduct Ding Jiaxi’s case in an open, fair, and transparent manner. At the time of writing, 635 people from 17 countries have already signed. Dear reader, I hope that you will add your name to the petition as well.

This spring, my friend Emrys Westacott, a philosophy professor at AU, published an article titled “Free Ding Jiaxi!” He wrote: “In his 2011 work, The Honor Code, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that a key factor responsible for ending the traditional but ghastly practice of foot-binding in China was the shame felt by the ruling class as they became aware that the rest of the civilized world viewed this custom with contempt. The strategy of giving maximum publicity to prisoners of conscience like Jiaxi Ding also seeks to use shame as a lever to promote change. Cynics may say that those who govern China have no sense of shame; but that is not true. The very fact that they feel the need to clothe some of what they do in secrecy, and their sensitivity to international criticism over their human rights record, indicates a degree of moral anxiety. And for heroic individuals like Jiaxi Ding who languish in dungeons, publicity is sunlight­–it warms, it reveals, it disinfects.”

This time, I will not stop speaking out until Jiaxi is freed.

In Alfred, I am not alone.

Alfred, New York

Related:

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

Op-ed: China must release Ding Jiaxi, civil rights activist and my father, Caroline Ding, Tufts Daily, July 27, 2020.

The Aftermath of a Gathering: Arrest, Flight, Hiding, and Family Separation, Yaxue Cao, January 27, 2020

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

Indictment of Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei by Beijing Municipal Haidian District People’s Procuratorate, December 13, 2013.

 

One response to “Ding Jiaxi and Alfred”

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