Li Qiaochu, January 11, 2021
A little past midnight on February 16, 2020, two men wearing PPE gowns to protect them from COVID-19 entered prominent civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong (许志永) apartment in Beijing, forced Li Qiaochu’s (李翘楚), Xu’s 27-year-old girlfriend, into a chair, and put a mask on her. A third man who followed them in handcuffed her from behind. “We are from the Public Security Bureau.” Before opening the door for the visitors, Ms. Li had had only a moment to send a brief message to friends, “Someone is knocking on the door.” Earlier that day Xu Zhiyong was found and detained in Guangzhou, having eluded police search for about seven weeks since the arrests began in late December, 2019, following a gathering of activists and lawyers in Xiamen.
An officer announced that Ms. Li was to be subpoenaed for “allegedly inciting subversion of state power.” The apartment was subsequently searched, cellphones, USB drives, laptops, and books were taken and sealed in bags. Before taking her away, she was allowed to take a pill for migraine, but her request for taking her anti-depression medication was denied. “If you have to stay with us for a while, we’ll get you the medication you need.”
“A while” turned out to be 120 days in secret detention known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,” or RSDL. The following is a translation of Ms. Li’s account, and we summarize the opening segment for brevity and to provide needed context.
— The Editors
Half an hour later, I was sitting in a blue commercial vehicle with my hands cuffed behind my back. The handcuffs were painfully gripping my wrists the whole time, and trying to adjust my posture only tightened their hold. The car stopped at the Haidian District Case Center (海淀区办案中心). I had been detained there the first time they summoned me and released 24 hours later, so this time, I couldn’t help but think, “Perhaps I will be released after 24 hours again?”
After having my blood and urine sampled, I was made to sit handcuffed on an iron chair in the interrogation room. Two men in plainclothes and without identification sat opposite me. The younger one was tall and strong, and stared at me sternly. The older man had his head lowered, not looking at me.
Then the fierce younger man demanded of me, “Do you know why you’ve been summoned?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
He became even angrier, raising his voice: “You posted something online that you shouldn’t have, right?! You also gave interviews with foreign media?”
Petrified by his tone of voice, my heart rate shot up. But I couldn’t be faulted for anything I’d just done, so I gathered my strength in an attempt to keep calm and steady my voice. I replied, “All I did was talk about the process of my summoning; if any media paid attention to me and gave me a call, I only talked about what I experienced being summoned. How is that wrong?”
He ignored my response and kept on yelling: “What have you been up to this whole time? Who did you meet? You know very well!”
It was all so confusing. I spent the New Year’s Day in handcuffs, and since I was released and even during the spring festival holidays, the Guobao (国保, Domestic Security Division of public security) had a special vehicle detail to follow me. They knew all my movements, so why did they need to ask me which people I’d met and what I was doing? All my activity was known to them already.
Seeing that I wasn’t responding, the older officer took a more amicable tone: “There are definitely traces of the things that you’ve done. We wouldn’t call you here for no reason. Take your time to answer, we’ll have a lot of time to chat later.”
Hearing this filled me with a sense of dread: Was I going to be “disappeared?” This made me think of what I’d read on the internet about what had happened to the lawyers arrested in the 709 crackdown; and began shaking involuntarily. It seemed like the interrogation was almost over, so I mustered up the courage to ask: “How is Xu Zhiyong doing now? Is he okay?”
The older man walked over to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “I can assure you that he is at least in good health.”
At the end of the interrogation, I was asked to sign the interrogation transcript. The younger officer, clearly dissatisfied with my responses, muttered as he signed. “I don’t even want to put my name on this.” After that, I was sent back to the makeshift detention room in the case center, where I was alone. I sat on the ice-cold stone slab, handcuffed the whole time, with fear, anxiety, and worry. To top it off, the room was freezing. Yet I laid down anyway because I was so exhausted, and was immediately hit by the sting of the frigid stone bench. I was given a steamed bun with vegetable filling early in the morning of February 16, and I applied for antidepressants. But the guards said, “We can’t make a decision on this, if you don’t have a fever or cold, you have to wait.”
My time in the case center was an agonizing ordeal, as I was tormented by constant thoughts about what I had done to be charged with “inciting subversion,” and worries for Zhiyong, who had been out of touch with me for more than 10 hours. Going by what I learned during the interrogation, he had also been arrested, right? Did they use violence against him? Was he safe from the epidemic? On the other hand, I didn’t let the ongoing work regarding volunteers in Wuhan far from my mind. How was the proposal on sexual violence prevention in makeshift hospitals coming along? Were the families of the patients who were contacting me just a few hours ago able to find hospital beds yet…… I spent the whole time in this complex train of thought.
About 4 in the afternoon on the 16th, I was taken to the lobby of the case center. Five or six people in plainclothes and without ID got off a waiting car outside the door of the car. They took out a black hood and pulled it over my head. I couldn’t see a thing, and this being the first time I’d been treated this way, I was so scared that my legs became weak and my mind was blank as two people grabbed me by the arms and pushed me into the car.
I sat in the car, handcuffed and with black hood on the whole time, I had no concept of time, I didn’t know how long the car had been driving, and I didn’t know where we were headed.
When the black hood was removed, I found myself in a room surrounded by soft-padded walls, with a single bed, a table, two chairs, and four or five young uniformed female guards standing around me. An older one faced me and demanded in a stern voice that I take off all my clothes for inspection and change into the clothes and slippers they had prepared for me in advance. I was then ordered to sit in a chair in front of the table in a fixed position with my hands on my lap, while three guards wearing walkie-talkies who referred to me as “the target” stood around me. They said, “You are not to talk or move around in this place.”
My glasses were confiscated; according to the rules, I was not allowed to look around. Not daring to turn my head, I squinted and surveyed the room from the corner of my eye, and was surprised to see a palm-sized window. This gave me a little solace, because this way I could tell if it was day or night.
I couldn’t help but tilt my head toward the “window,” and suddenly there came a bark: “Target! Sit down and look ahead! Who gave you permission to move?!” What a fright that was! The young girl in her early twenties standing across from me had her eyes fixed on me, her face completely expressionless. For the first time I saw that real people can look like robots! It was only when they reported my minute movements, changes in expression, etc. on their walkie-talkies that I was reminded that they were also living human beings.
After supper, I was told to continue staying seated. Suddenly there was movement outside the door and two figures came in. My heart pounded involuntarily. Two men in plainclothes entered the room, their work IDs in hand. I couldn’t see the names on their ID, nor did I dare to ask.
The taller one said they were in charge of my case pre-trial interrogation and asked me to call him “Officer Li,” adding that he was the presiding investigator in the 2013 “New Citizen case” involving Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜). Officer Li took out a piece of paper and read it out. It turned out to be a notice that I had been “designated for residential surveillance” on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” I was pondering the words “inciting subversion of state power” when he looked at me and said in a low voice: “‘Inciting subversion of state power carries a maximum sentence of death, and we will apply the same management system to you as to death row prisoners! Think about how you look in the eyes of the guards.”
The words “death row” filled me with terror. I felt breathless and my mind went blank. I had been just thinking about “inciting subversion of state power,” but now I couldn’t concentrate on anything at all. I don’t know what they said right after that, but later I heard them ask me if I needed anything.
I took a deep breath and made a deliberate effort to calm myself down and try to hide the anxiety and helplessness I felt from sitting in this small, asphyxiating room. I said, “I have a serious depression and have been taking medication, so I ask to be able to resume taking my medication as soon as possible. I also request that my parents be notified of my situation.”
When I signed the transcript, I saw that the place of detention was called “The Guesthouse of Beijing Tongda Asset Management Co.” So this small, tightly managed room was called a “guest house.”
The second interrogation was in the evening of February 17. Officer Li said that they’d already sent written notice to my father. But as regards my medication, because the place I’d been diagnosed at was the Union Hospital’s fever treatment clinic, they couldn’t retrieve my medical records, and for the time being couldn’t administer medication.
But I only found out on June 19, after I’d returned home, that after I had been disappeared on February 16, my father contacted the police station at Dongxiaokou (东小口) , which oversees the neighborhood of Xu Zhiyong’s home, as well as the Beixiaguan (北下关) station near my parents’ home. None of the police informed him of my situation. My father again called the Beijing Public Security Bureau. They answered only twice before refusing to pick up further calls. After about a day, my father was extralegally ordered to the Yuqiao (玉桥) police station in Tongzhou District, where he met with Guobao officials from Beijing and Tongzhou. They said nothing at first, just handed him an article of Xu Zhiyong’s, told him to read it, and asked him what he thought of it. My father was very puzzled by this: “You took away my daughter, why are you showing me Xu Zhiyong’s article? Wasn’t it because of an article my daughter wrote?”
The Guobao agents again pulled out a document for my father to sign, and took it away right after he’d finished. He was in such a panic that he didn’t see clearly what was written there.
After that, my father and mother didn’t learn that I was accused of “inciting subversion of state power” until they were interviewed by a Guobao agent surnamed Sun from the Beijing branch. My parents asked Sun, “What did our daughter do to ‘incite subversion of state power?’” He refused to answer, citing “state secrets.” So they again asked, “Is this like when a teacher corrects a test in which the student gives his or her subjective answer, ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ are both up to the teacher?” To which Sun answered, “You can understand it that way; we are handling the case according to the law.” This kind of “legal disappearance” is something truly inexplicable.
In this small flat, in RSDL, the dazzling white light above my head was on 24 hours a day. In the first month and a half, I was made to sit still and hold one position for four hours each in the morning and afternoon, broken only when eating or going to the bathroom. I frequently asked for water just to have a chance to move or shift position. Sitting still for 8 hours each day, my whole body felt stiff, as if my blood had congealed.
The three robot-like women standing guard over me… How will their experience watching over “death row inmates” benefit them? What do they think as they watch over me sleeping, showering, and going to the bathroom?
For the remaining two and a half months, I had one fewer robotic minder and was permitted to stand up and move around for 20 minutes every 2 hours. (During an interrogation session on September 9, Officer Li emphasized “Your chance to stand up and move around, that came from me, how can you say you’re in here suffering? What about the good things we’ve done for you? Going about life, don’t you have to be appreciative according to your conscience?”)
Because I spent so much time sitting in the same position, the muscles in my legs atrophied, and it was hard to walk after I was released. Every night as I went to bed, facing the bright light over my head, I, who was already prone to insomnia and weak nerves, was completely unable to fall asleep. As soon as I covered my eyes with my hand, the guards yelled or even sometimes forced my arm down roughly. That was when I learned that I needed to maintain a fixed posture even when sleeping, with hands, shoulders, and head outside the covers and visible. If I shifted after falling asleep, I’d be awoken by my robot guards.
I gradually picked up on the “rules” I needed to follow in this “supervised locations;” obey the guards; raise your hand and report any issues, which the guards would pass upward through a radio, and proceed only after getting permission; don’t speak with the guards at all; when someone enters, don’t look around; when moving inside, move slowly and stay away from walls and windows; keep the objects you use organized and tidy; you must be watched by guards while using the bathroom or showering. If you don’t follow these rules, you’ll be reprimanded by the guards and threatened with the loss of limited “active” time.
I was completely deprived; anyone who appeared before me could reprimand, threaten, or berate me. In the name of “national security”, this system of discipline had no restraints and made use of every scrap of power it possessed. It was a system for sucking the life from prisoners and turning them into “obedient machines,” the sole purpose of living is to be interrogated.
Where is this place? What is it used for? Sitting in a sealed room, I had no idea. But my hearing and memory were surprisingly good: every day I could hear planes taking off and landing from time to time, and each night I heard military drills and slogans being chanted. The door to the room was behind me; the interrogator would open it and walk five or six steps to the chair opposite mine. From my chair near the door to the bathroom to my right was about eight steps, or to the board that served as my bed was no more than 10. I was entirely unable to get near the window next to the bed, and besides, it was blocked by thick curtains. So often I experienced our instinctual longing for sunlight and fresh air. Using the shift changes every two hours, and roving staff delivering water each half hour, I learned to keep track of time, just so I could know when I’d next be able to take a short break in the midst of my forced immobility.
I got to experience a rather oppressive version of “walking” – a guard pressing against me from behind, three more observing, and another in front, just 10 tiny steps apart. This forced me to walk in small, halting steps, with the guard “stuck” to my back, following my paces, often stepping on my slippers because she followed too closely.
I suffer from moderate depression and anxiety, and for at least the first five days of my “designated residential detention”, my medication for depression was cut off, and I suffered from palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and other reactions of the body and mind. After that, the Guobao visited the Union Hospital where my doctors were stationed and pulled my whole medical record. Because my parents continued refilling my prescriptions, I was able to continue taking my depression medication. Each morning, two white-clad “doctors” came to check my room and ask after my health. I had always considered “doctor” tantamount to “angel in white gown,” but how could there be angels in this hell?
Their daily inquiries were mechanical and cold:
“Doctor, I can’t sleep, have palpitations and headaches.”
“There’s nothing to be done for that, the environment here is what it is, and we can’t change it, but if you can’t sleep we can give you medication.”
“Doctor, I’ve been constipated for three or four days.”
“We can give you medication, up the dose to four pills a day.”
“But it upsets my stomach, it’s too painful.”
“Well, then you can just use a glycerin enema every three days…”
When I’d been under RSDL for about two months, the environment really began exacerbating my depression and anxiety, and the interrogators told me they had invited a “psychiatrist” in to see me and adjust my medications. One afternoon, this “psychiatrist,” accompanied by another “doctor,” came into my room, ordered my robot-like female guards to leave temporarily, and told me that he was trying to create a more relaxed environment. During the hour that the guards were gone, the “psychiatrist” asked how I was, looked over the room and environment in detail, studied my medical record and records from before I fell ill. In the midst of this prolonged experience with the machinery of discipline, running into a brief human moment surprised me, and I was willing to speak with this doctor, even to the point where I felt I might have been in a treatment room at Union Hospital. An hour passed quickly, and the “psychiatrist” recommended that I start taking my mood stabilizers twice a day, rather than only when I felt they were needed (because the prolonged use of mood stabilizers can cause memory problems and addiction).
In the next two months, in addition to my medications, I learned to vomit after meals as a method of release from my fear and pain. Every day after breakfast and dinner, I would raise my hand and request to go do the bathroom to vomit. I’d squat next to the toilet helplessly, feeling my stomach churning, and through abusing myself this way, I’d release the pressure and anger I had nowhere else to vent. At the same time, I’d hear a guard call into her radio, reporting that “she just threw up her medication again, send another dose over,” and “Send a doctor to give her anti-nausea medication.” After a few minutes, the doctor would stride into the room with medications.
My frequent after-meal vomiting annoyed the supervisor of the facility. There was one time when I vomited and then sat on a chair, and the supervisor walked in angrily and reprimanded me: “What is it, are we too good to you? Sometimes we give you fruit with lunch, give you a little bit of time to move freely, reduce the number of guards to two. Is this how you pay us back? You give us no end of trouble! If you continue like this, we can always go back to the way it was, sitting completely still on a chair for a whole day, would that feel good? With three guards surrounding you constantly?” At that moment I felt completely weak and helpless, questioning whether my own self-torturous coping was causing trouble for others. I lowered my head and apologized. The supervisor carried on, “If you think you can kill youself in this kind of place, you will end up making your life worse than death.”
Not only did I abandon any demand for the rights I should have, I even began to accept their values system of “giving me my rights back as privileges or rewards;” and if I wanted to live a little more comfortably here, and I had to cooperate and obey. Sometimes, because a meal had a bit more meat, I got more active time, or was given an extra chance to shower, I would feel almost fulfilled. But at the same time I was afraid to hear a guard or interrogator say “If you’re good, we can allow you to move about more”, “If you have a good attitude, I can request that you be given more meat with meals”, “If you’re more cooperative, we can get you more chances to shower,” and etcs. This warped system was aimed at destroying my principles and depriving me of my human dignity.
At the same time, my headaches, palpitations, constipation, upset stomach, UTIs, and other health problems continued unabated, and when I was at my worst, I was taking more than 10 mood stabilizers each day. There was one time an interrogator jokingly said “You’re taking medication because of your own problems, not because we force you.”
After being released, I went to the Public Security Bureau in Haidian and applied to open the records from my time under residential surveillance, to see the identities, qualifications, and work units of all the doctors who saw me while I was locked up, as well as their prescription records. In an interview during my “release on probation” period, Officer Li, who had been the lead interrogator, told me: “We originally had hundreds of reasons not to give you medication. We took a big risk to fight for you to continue treatment for depression, and then you overdid it and hurt yourself and you’re blaming us. Tell me, do you have a conscience?”
I never got an opportunity to speak to my robotic minders in that sealed room. One afternoon, as I was sitting on my chair, the guard next to me fainted from some discomfort. Out of reflex, I wanted to stand up and help her, and asked, “Are you ok?” But the other guard standing across from me yelled “Who allowed you to move? Sit down and shut up!” “But I just wanted to help her,” I explained. “Just sit down, don’t speak to me!” After the other guard finished yelling at me, she lifted her dizzy companion onto a chair and called into her radio for personnel replacement.
I was confined to this room and had been watched in such a manner with no contact with outside, no basic human contact, and subject to strict activities and gratuitous reprimand. The only opportunity I had to speak was when answering my interrogators. I began to develop a reliance on them when they told me “We’re the only ones you can talk to,” “you can relax during the interrogation,” “you may exercise your limbs,” or “we brought you some snacks.” I became grateful to them without knowing that I, the captive, was suffering from Stockholm syndrome. One day, of my own accord, I stated in writing that “the officers had patiently persuaded and guided me, did not torture me, and helped me get medication as well as the opportunity to move my body. I deeply regret that I insulted them on Twitter…” That night I dreamed of seeing my dead body like an empty shell.
From February 16 to the end of April, I was interrogated two hours every evening except when the officers were out of town for business. They said I was suspected of inciting subversion of state power because I posted Xu Zhiyong’s “agitating” articles online. They printed out a few dozens of Xu Zhiyong’s articles written in recent years and asked me to read them one by one. With each article, they asked me to “criticize” it. The humiliation has since accompanied me. It’s like you attempted but failed to bite off your tongue, and with the remaining stub of the tongue you still have to “cooperate and say what’s required.”
I was pressed to write a “confession” of my “crime.” They repeatedly asked me that it must be a “resounding” confession. I didn’t understand what they meant. “You must reflect on Xu Zhiyong’s ideas and denounce them,” they said. “You also have to recognize that, when you helped him post these articles online, you were handing knives to overseas anti-China forces to attack the Chinese government. You should state how you will correct your behaviors and whether you will draw a clear line separating yourself from these subversive ideas and anti-China forces.”
I doubted to what extent my “Confession” would be used to determine the charges against me. But through the process of forcing me to revise the Confession over and over again, the interrogators and Guobao succeeded in taking total control of my will and my physical ability to resist, as well as my ability to think and the will to think. They succeeded in making me submissive and cooperative — a willing partner of theirs to disgrace and humiliate myself. Everyone — the captors, the interrogators, the guards, and the post-release minders — existed to reinforce me with the idea that I was their captive and could never escape.
I’ve been tormenting myself since my release on probation: “I was too weak, and gave in too much. Since I wrote that Confession, I deserved to be humiliated;” “have you not admitted guilt and repented? Have you not expressly said that you have separated yourself from such-and-such thoughts?” The same people who have deprived me of my freedom and held me incommunicado are now discussing “promise” and “ethics” with me. They insulted me during each and every of these talks using my “Confession” against me so as to impose on me shame and fear even after my release.
During the interrogations, they tried to get me to see Xu Zhiyong and persuade him to admit guilt. At the same time they kept asking me what weaknesses Xu Zhiyong has. After they failed to get answers from me, they said, “Every day Xu Zhiyong asks about the pandemic in the U.S., and he’s very concerned about his daughter. If he’s willing to confess, we will guarantee him that his daughter will be fine.”
Given that I was surveilled on camera 24/7 and the guards reported on every minute detail about me in real time, even my facial expressions belonged to the state apparatus. I wouldn’t dare to smile or frown. Sometimes I shedded tears in silence, and a woman robot would hand me a paper napkin to wipe my face. When that occurred, the interrogators who came in later that evening would inquire about my sadness and analyze it. In the end I wouldn’t dare to cry anymore. I remember one day, an officer who had interrogated me several times before walked into my room and said, “Why are you looking so numb and dumb? Because of the detention, or because you are dumb to begin with?”
Surveillance cameras and the robot-like female guards watched me use the toilet, take shower, or change clothes. As a woman I had no privacy and certainly no right to feel shame. Disheveled, I was not allowed to tie my hair up, and it wasn’t until into the last days when I finally was granted a black rubber band upon request. I was not allowed to wear underwear. When sitting face-to-face with the interrogators, who were all men, I’d subconsciously make sure my clothes wouldn’t stick to my body too closely.
Every now and then, the lead interrogator, Officer Li, would insult me with sexual innuendos. Once the officers told me they would be gone on a business trip and the nightly interrogation would be on hold. Officer Li teased, “The thought of not seeing you for a few days made me realize that I’d miss you a lot.” When discussing my relationship with Xu Zhiyong, he would insult me constantly. “Have you heard of human sacrifice? Do you think you are very important? For Xu Zhiyong, you are no more than his burial sacrifice.” “Don’t you want to wait for Xu Zhiyong to be free and live a life with him? Don’t you want to have your own children? Look, he’s much older, but you are still a fertile land.” “Do you believe Xu Zhiyong is a man of hard conviction? Of course, I will never know whether he’s hard or not in bed.” I can’t quite recall how I reacted to these insults, but I remember these gender-based insults clearly, which they used to make me feel that I deserved my treatment because I had done something wrong.
During RSDL, the interrogators kept reinforcing the idea that “You have been forgotten by the outside world,” and “no one cares about your situation except for your parents.” Indeed, my sense of isolation during that period was such that I felt that nobody would know if my captors dug a pit and buried me alive. Once afternoon, Officer Li opened a letter from my mother in front of me, and I recognized her handwriting. It read, “Please cooperate with Comrade Police. Whatever you have done, your mom and dad will always love you.” I kept silent, head bowing down, feeling deeply ashamed of causing my parents to worry about me. Officer Li then said, “Your parents are crying every day. Do you want to write a letter telling them you are doing fine? Your parents might have been under the influence of some anti-China foreign forces, and you are going to write to them reminding them not to contact people outside.”
I was torn: If I didn’t write the letter as requested, my parents will not have any news of me, they will continue to worry about my health and safety, and perhaps my letter will mitigate their anxiety. So I wrote the letter. “Dear Dad and Mom, I apologize for causing you agony. Everything is fine here. My rights are being guaranteed, I haven’t been mistreated. Please don’t contact people outside, and wait in peace for my return.”
When I was released on probation in June, I learned that my parents received my letter, and were indeed relaxed about my conditions in secret detention. They also took to heart my words of “not contact people outside” and refused to engage lawyers for me. The only people they kept contact with were Guobao at the Tongzhou District and Beijing municipal public security bureaus, and acknowledged “many thanks” to Guobao when the latter agreed to let them prepare clothes and books for me.
The interrogations lasted until the end of April. After that the interrogators passed me on to a police officer named Guo from Haidian District who would be the point person “to help me return to normal life” after I was released from RSDL.
One day in early May, Officer Li entered my room with a stack of paper and started yelling at me: “You already signed up with a lawyer in February?” Confused, I replied, “Do I not have the right to engage a lawyer? I remember the law gives me this right and lawyers can request meetings with me.” Officer Li said, “Under the current circumstances, is there any meaning for you to have done this? Clearly we won’t let you see a lawyer.” Then he pushed the papers in front of me, pointing at the text on them: “Someone claimed to be your lawyer and is talking nonsense online, saying you’ve been disappeared and there is no news whether you are alive or dead. They are using you to vilify the Chinese government. Now you have to state clearly in writing whether you have been colluding with human rights lawyers and anti-China foreign forces. We’ve planned to release you one of these days, it’s those who are speaking up for you out there to blame that we have to keep you longer. We think we have to protect you somewhat longer so that you won’t be taken advantage by these people after you are released.
I was rather shocked. Nearly three months into my secret detention, it was the first time I learned through this manner that people outside were concerned about me, looking for me, and I wasn’t forgotten. That gave me the will to leave that place alive and have the opportunity to speak for myself.
Incommunicado under RSDL, I adapted ways to keep myself going. I learned to revisit movies I had watched and poems and novels I had read to help me pass the hours and hours of sitting motionlessly on a chair. Those precious recollections also helped me to slowly flush out the brainwashing didactics I had been subject to so that I would stay sane and keep my vitality, not turning into a machine submissive to their demands. I exerted all my energy to this effort.
I was able to muster strength also because I knew that that very period of torment would bring me closest to Xu Zhiyong in a few months or a few years later. I wished earnestly that there would be a special kind of telepathy that allows me to “talk” with him. The interrogators showed me photos of me and Xu Zhiyong together stored on my laptop, and I tried hard to print the photos in my head. Over and over I went through the details of our time together hoping that they would be transplanted into my dreams….
On the morning of June 19, Guobao officers read me the Decision of Release Pending Trial. I sat on the chair, numb, and felt no cheer. I didn’t know how I would go on by myself. The next day after my release, I tried to sort through my days in detention, and to my surprise I had already forgotten some very painful moments. In the court of public opinion that tends to extol valor and endurance, revelation of one’s weakness is not encouraged; where heroism inspires, trauma is often neglected and even trashed.
In the first days and weeks after release, I was fearful, high-strung, insomniac, and troubled by nightmare. I couldn’t focus, had traumatic flashbacks, and my limbs shook. At the same time, I behaved involuntarily like an “underground agent” — I spoke in whispers when seeing friends, constantly scanning around me alertly. My parents, worrying about my safety, became neurotic. They were afraid every time I went out; they were afraid I spoke too much; they were afraid that there were “snitchers” around me. They were even afraid that the Guobao might have had a bad perception of me. My entire family, it seemed to me, succumbed to compulsive paranoia.
I often had dreams of myself writing a confession, tormented by guilt and humiliation. I keep finding fault with myself: Why are you standing there obediently when they ransacked my things, handcuffed me, and put a black hood over my head? Why would you, as you were told, sit only on the front half of the chair? Is there anything worth living for? I’m feeling under siege, isolated, helpless, and both my strength and volition are fettered. We are oppressed by the system, each one of us has participated in building this system one way or the other, but in the end we don’t have the ability to resist it even just passively. Our submission enables the active operators of the system to do whatever they want, and that’s how a diabolic space is spawn. How do we escape it?
The Guobao officers knew how to increase the terror in me. The more terrified I was, the easier it was for them to control me. If I choose to say nothing, more people will experience the same terror. For me, writing down the details of my time during the RSDL is a way to resist my sense of terror. Time will blunt our fury and outrage, but facts will never change. Even if they are forgotten by all, they will be their own witnesses, and they will speak out for themselves and refuse to be silenced, facing whether hidden suppression or blatant lies.
I will not regret having related what I went through, even if I have to pay the price of being locked up again for doing so, because I know that the moment I muster enough courage to reveal the truth, I will set myself free from the humiliation and terror with which the Guobao have tried to cloak me. If I keep quiet out of fear, I will rob myself the ability to do things of my own will. We must not shy from it and we must not shun the labor of recording it, not only in detail, but also our trauma and our weaknesses. The things they are afraid of us doing are precisely the things whose mentioning is avoided and whose existence concealed.
Li Qiaochu is a human rights worker living in Beijing.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Change, a 2020 New Year’s Message, Xu Zhiyong, January 1, 2020.
Four Years Afar, Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018.