Yaxue Cao, December 22, 2020
I saw this cartoon and can’t get out of my head. It’s the work of Polish illustrator Pawel Kuczynski but it struck me as a succinct portrait of China. In the coming days and weeks, I will write a series of stories illustrating the mowing down in action, and I will start with the story of Chang Weiping, a young lawyer.
Out of curiosity, I searched Baidu Map the other day for Baotai Guesthouse (宝钛宾馆) in Baoji, Shaanxi province in northwestern China. As Chang Weiping (常玮平) described in a vlog, it located at the foot of the Qinling Mountains on “the nicest avenue of the city.” Indeed, the groomed bushes look as pretty as what you would find in a European garden, patches of vegetation and lines of trees gleaming in the sun flanked the entrance of the guesthouse. There, from January 12th to the 23nd, Chang was locked in a metal restraining chair 24 hours a day for the entire 10-day duration for alleged “inciting subversion of state power.”
“They asked every case I have ever handled, everyone I have had a connection with, everything I have ever said online, and every overseas trip I have ever taken,” Chang said later. They didn’t find anything criminal. He was released after 10 days “on probation,” with his father guaranteeing to the police that he’d follow the “rules” they set and do nothing prohibited by them.
The direct cause for Chang’s detention is a meeting he attended in early December 2019 in Xiamen, Fujian Province. Two dozen people, including a number of human rights lawyers, dissidents, and activists, had a two-day get-together. They discussed the current affairs, things to do, and had a good time. On December 26, the police rounded up four of the participants, causing the rest of the participants who got the words of arrest to flee and hide. Chang Weiping hid for about two weeks in Xi’an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province, where he was based. When he was apprehended on January 12, he was spooked among other things that police had footage, gleaned from the city’s “Snow-Bright Surveillance Project” (雪亮工程), of him walking on a street.
He practiced law from 2013 to late 2018, when his license was suspended. The authorities didn’t give him a reason, but he himself, and the China watchers, knew that it is part of China’s campaign to disbar human rights lawyers following the 709 crackdown on this particular group of lawyers. Chang Weiping career as a lawyer began from defending the New Citizens Movement activists in 2013, and over the next five years, he defended dissidents, petitioners, believers, victims of discrimination in work place. He enjoyed what he did, and has never considered himself a radical. Among the cohort of human rights lawyers, he is known to be conscientious, thorough, and even-handed.
He was grateful that the police released him after 10 days of interrogation. But just these ten days changed his life drastically. Police demanded the company he had been a legal counsel for some years to sever ties with him, and it did with fright and speed. His wife’s employer was warned. Friends and neighbors wondered what he had done.
He was restricted in his parents’ house in a village in Fengxiang county, part of the Baoji municipality, not allowed to reunite with his wife, a microbiologist, and their six-year-old son, in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, or to travel anywhere outside Baoji. Every morning at 9 o’clock, an officer from the local police station called him to check his whereabouts and his plans for the day; every week, two or three guobao, or domestic security police, paid a half-hour visit. Nothing new, but they would show up like the new hours on a clock. They asked him to submit a daily write-up of his thoughts on this and that event, a task to which he grudgingly obliged, knowing that rejection was not an option if he wished them to give back his freedom at the end of one-year “probation.”
Chang played basketball every day in a community court with whomever happened to be there, sometimes college students on vacation, sometimes little kids. He reconnected with friends from school days. He started a vlog to record his daily life and musings, and in one of the posts, he remarked that he had never realized spring is so pretty in the countryside even though he had grown up there. For a while he tried to host a daily current affairs discussion on TikTok, but one day his account was abruptly banned. In the summer he started making a movie, filming with his cellphone, “about a group of friends starting a business and their love stories.” “I have to do something to keep life going,” he said. Judging from his 216 vlog posts on YouTube, he’s full of hope and humor, and had a keen interest in people around him, whether it was his uncle and cousins, the yoga teacher across the street, the barber, the retired music teacher, or the woman growing flowers in the field. “Fengxiang was the seat of China’s First Emperor,” he said in one video against the blueish backdrop of Qinling, “not without reason.”
He tried to make light of the weekly guobao visitors but sometimes he couldn’t conceal his disgust and annoyance. Now and then he was clouded by a sense of malice. On April 23, he stood on a sidewalk in Baoji and told us about the name and the location of the guesthouse down the street, after leaving the police bureau where he had been summoned to for several hours.
“They asked me how overseas reports on me had occurred. Did you contact the reporters? When you were released on probation, you promised not to accept interviews, not to talk about your case. Your father made promises on your behalf, so if you violate these promises and we will take you back, your father will be implicated too.” The interrogation lasted for about an hour and half, but they didn’t let him go until 6 p.m. “I suppose they wanted to refresh my memory of losing freedom, by doing so, remind me that I’m still under their control.”
“The threat is palpable and unmistakable today,” he said, “with the strong smell of soot of a third-rate city.”
By October he finished shooting his movie and was having a lot of fun learning how to edit it. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t be able to practice law anymore, he had been thinking about another career going forward. Start an online business with friends? Build a platform for lawyers to discuss cases? “I don’t want my life to be wasted or ruined,” he said. He’s in his mid-thirties and he shouldn’t be anything but forward-looking.
On October 14, guobao met with him again. He didn’t elaborate on his vlog, but on October 16, he was compelled to issue a vlog statement. “I’m proud of what I have done since 2013,” he said, in the living room of his parents’ home in the evening. “What I have done is small and insignificant, but I believe we [the human rights lawyers] have been making the society better. And as a citizen, I can say that I have fulfilled my obligation to the people and the society. We are not asking for any reward, but we certainly do not deserve punishment. And we have done nothing wrong, and they wrongfully put me on ‘bail pending trial’ and should stop the criminal procedures against me.”
“That said,” he went on, “I’m completely at their mercy. I can’t fly away like a bird. I have hoped to bide my time in exchange for more freedom.” He described the 10 days in an interrogation chair for the first time. He stated that, if taken into custody again, he would not agree to being represented by government assigned lawyers; he would not commit suicide or do any form of injury to himself; and he is overall healthy. He asked friends and loved ones to understand him, but also understand that it’s not up to him to decide what will befall him. He asked them to take good care of themselves. “I’ve always hoped to be the person who makes you happier; and I will fulfill that hope when I’m free again.”
A week later, on October 22, the police came for him. The next day, the family learned that he had been placed under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL), China’s code for secret detention. Lawyers have not been able to access him, as in all cases of RSDL. Officers visited the research facility where Chang’s wife works and threatened her job security.
The police allowed his father to meet with him for 10 minutes on November 25 in the presence of a dozen or so officers, both uniformed and in plainclothes, during which he told his father not to speak up online — “there is no use anyway.” He wanted his wife to focus on her job and not worry about him. Silencing the family and deflecting attention away from him seemed to be the purpose of this arranged meeting. Both father and son broke into tears. His father does not believe it was his own will.
The family kept quiet for a while. Then on December 14, his parents stood outside the Public Security Bureau and protested silently, each wearing a large sign on the neck. The father’s sign reads, “Oppose torture, save my son.” The mother’s sign reads, “Live with my son legally.”
Since then, measures have been taken to limit the movement of the old folks. A surveillance camera was installed outside their house; the police chief of Baoji Public Security upbraided the father, a former Community Party secretary in the village; Chang’s two older sisters and their husbands have been warned not to speak about his case; one of the son-in-law, an elementary school principal, has been required to “go to work” in the parents’ house to watch them; officers again visited Chang’s wife and her employer….
My story of Chang Weiping stops here. In multiple of his vlogs, after meeting with his special visitors, he couldn’t shake off a sense of absurdity — “These f***ing idiots!” But he knows, just as we know: It may be stupid, but it’s real, it’s cruel and ruinous. It is ugly.
Mow down the perceived unruly grass. Trim the trees. Make China a “Perfect Garden” – the title of Pawel Kuczynski cartoon.
Additional Restrictions on the Issuance of Visas for People’s Republic of China Officials Engaged in Human Rights Abuses, MICHAEL R. POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE, DECEMBER 21, 2020.
Special thanks to Twitter friends @lucky_clover_tw, @davisdgrdgr, and @ShirleyCSpring for helping me identify Pawel Kuczynski’s cartoon.