January 1, 2022
In 1925, the 26-year-old poet and political dissident Wen Yiduo (闻一多) wrote in his poem titled “Dead Water”:
Here is a ditch of doomed, dead water
No spring breeze can stir up even half a ripple
In 1946, Wen was assassinated on the streets of Kunming by military security officers of the Kuomintang that ruled China at the time.
When Western powers showed up at the gates of China — first with trading ships, then with vessels of war — the vast empire was finally awakened from its millennia-long slumber and forced to confront the world. The wise and prescient were compelled to walk the path of modernity; generation after generation endeavored to find newer and better ways of building China into a powerful, wealthy country. However, bringing reform to a country that has had thousands of years of continuous imperial government has been a task fraught with huge challenges. Though many were filled with desire for change and worked tirelessly to beat a path, their efforts have been, time and again, thwarted by those in power. The failed experience of China’s reform project over the last century tells us that it’s not “backwardness” itself which leads to being bullied; rather, it’s the stubborn attachment to backward ways, the refusal to adopt advanced methods of governance, and the rejection of universal values that are the true cause of our suffering.
Wen Yiduo’s poem was an anguished cry amid the desperate and hopeless situation that a weakened China faced in the mid-1920s. Throughout the course of a century since then, this desperation stalked the Chinese people like a shadow.
In January 2021, human rights lawyers Lu Siwei (卢思位) and Ren Quanniu (任全牛) were disbarred by the Departments of Justice in Sichuan and Henan respectively. Early the next month, lawyer Xi Xiangdong (袭祥栋) was disbarred by the Shandong provincial Department of Justice. In October, the Beijing municipal Justice Bureau unlawfully revoked the license of Lin Qilei (蔺其磊); prior to that the Beijing Ruikai Law Firm that he directed was shut down on January 4.
On February 14, Zhang Pancheng (张盼成) — a youth from rural Gansu Province and a former security guard at Peking University — was arrested again shortly after release from prison, and has reportedly been handed a three-year prison sentence. It’s unclear what crime he was charged with.
On May 18, economics professor Yang Zhaozheng (杨绍政), who was “expelled” from Guizhou University, was secretly detained, arrested, and placed in residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL) on the charge of subversion of state power. On May 28, Guangdong dissident Wang Aizhong (王爱忠) was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事罪).
On July 20, Cheng Yuan (程渊), Liu Yongze (刘永泽), and Wuge Jianxiong (吴葛健雄) of the Hunan-based public advocacy group Changsha Funeng (长沙富能) were sentenced to prison for “subversion of state power” following a secret trial.
On July 23, independent scholar Li Huizhi (李悔之, also known as Li Liqun 李立群) committed suicide by taking poison. In his final message to the Chinese people, he wrote, “There is no hope, no path forward to be seen. Things have never been as hopeless as they are now.”
On August 31, in Hebei Province, a guilty verdict was handed down following the second trial of the Dawu Group executives. The head of this famed agricultural enterprise, Sun Dawu (孙大午), was sentenced to 18 years in prison on trumped up charges along with nearly all of his family members, and his conglomerate seized by the state.
Lawyers and activists Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Chang Weiping (常玮平), and Li Qiaochu (李翘楚) have been charged with subversion of state power; Xu and Ding have already been held for two years without trial, and both had served a previous sentence for their involvement in the New Citizens Movement in 2014.
In November, political dissident and former prosecutor Shen Liangqing (沈良庆) was sentenced to three years in prison for picking quarrels and provoking trouble. Meanwhile, the case of human rights activist Ou Biaofeng (欧彪峰) remains in limbo as the so-called investigation shuffled back and forth between the police and the prosecution. Fellow activist Ms. Xu Qin (徐秦) was arrested on the charge of inciting subversion of state power. Citizen journalists Huang Xueqin (黄雪琴) and Wang Jianbing (王建兵) were arrested on the same pretext.
On December 8, renowned Sichuan dissident Chen Yunfei (陈云飞), previously arrested on charges of picking quarrels and provoking trouble, was found guilty on trumped-up counts of forcible molestation and molesting a minor. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
December 14 saw the handing down of a three-year prison sentence for human rights lawyer Chen Jiahong (陈家鸿) on the charge of inciting subversion of state power. This charge has in recent years become a go-to charge for the authorities; for civil society and the international community, this label is more of a badge of honor.
On December 16, after the pretense of a hearing, the Beijing municipal Justice Bureau permanently disbarred human rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军).
The previous day, the incitement to subversion of state power case involving poet Wang Zang (王藏) and his wife Wang Liqin (王利芹) went to court in the Chuxiongzhou Intermediate Court in Yunnan Province. Declaring himself a “future plaintiff now standing in the position of the defendant,” Wang delivered his court statement, “Verse of Liberty Composed in Court” (《法庭上的自由诗》).
On December 14, Prof. Song Gengyi (宋庚一), who taught the course “Journalist Interview” at Shanghai Aurora Vocational College (在上海震旦职业学院), was fired after a student reported her for questioning the official death toll of the Nanjing Massacre as taught in history books. On December 19, 27-year-old Li Tiantian (李田田), an elementary school teacher in rural western Hunan Province, was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for expressing support for Ms. Song, sparking outrage among Chinese netizens. In her last text before disappearing, Li, who is four months pregnant, wrote “Please find a way to rescue me!”
The cases of human rights lawyers Li Yuhuan (李昱函), Qin Yongpei (覃永沛), and public interest legal activist Hao Jinsong (郝劲松) have dragged on as the procuratorate and law enforcement scrambled to “innovate” by using procedural techniques that are legal in form but illegal in substance — such as supplemental investigations and adjournments. On December 31, the last day of the year, Qin Yongpei’s case went to trial. With his wife Deng Xiaoyun (邓晓云) as one of his defenders, the couple joined forces to face off against the three prongs of the Communist Party’s faux judicial system, a court drama in an era of dystopian absurdity.
From the beginning to the end of 2021, Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), a well-known human rights activist, and Tang Jitian (唐吉田), a human rights lawyer, were both unlawfully banned from leaving the country to visit their critically ill loved ones, Guo his wife in the U.S. and Tang his daughter in Japan. Both have recently disappeared, supposedly taken away by authorities.
Imprisoned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan (张展), who reported on the situation in Wuhan at the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic, is near death as she maintains a hunger strike.
The Covid-19 pandemic has gone on for two full years. Under the pretext of epidemic prevention and control, the government has used health codes, trip codes, and big data to restrict individuals’ activity and flagrantly violate their personal privacy. Vaccination is theoretically voluntary, but local government policies make it unavoidable to get the jab in practice. Incidents of severe side effects after vaccination have arisen intermittently.
On January 28, 2021, Liu Jinxing (刘进兴, also known as Soul Chaser 追魂), an oil painter noted for the “Scream” series, was released from prison.
On August 4, 2021, we welcomed back Suzhou human rights activist Ge Jueping (戈觉平), who had been in prison for four and a half years, and as a cancer survivor, his health has greatly deteriorated.
In 2021, the disappearance of lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), one of the pioneers of defending human rights in Chinese courts, entered its fourth year; the whereabouts of Fang Bin (方斌), a citizen journalist from Wuhan who was arrested in February 2020 for reporting on the epidemic, remain unknown.
In 2021, we witness the fall of Fu Zhenghua (傅政华), one of the tyrants running the Communist Party’s political and legal affairs apparatus. While we note that Fu has been the chief culprit in the persecution of human rights lawyers for many years, as lawyers we remain sober about the fact that Fu’s fate, just like those of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), Wang Lijun (王立军), and other perpetrators, has nothing to do with the progress of the rule of law in China.
In 2021, the situations in Hong Kong and the Taiwan Strait have worsened, and the relationship between China and the West continues to deteriorate.
How can we not feel as if our hearts are cold like dead water? Our despair stems from the collision of reason, ideals, and the status quo; from the nigh-hopelessness that we will ever see reform. There is an unmistakable historical logic that ties us to past martyrs of the modern era: the assassinated Wen Yiduo; Zou Rong (邹容), who threw himself into the sea in 1905 near the end of the Qing dynasty; Wang Guowei (王国维), who found righteous dignity by drowning in Kunming Lake in Beijing in 1927; Lao She (老舍), who sank himself in Taiping Lake without a final message in the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1966; and Li Huizhi (李悔之), who ended his life by poisoning in 2021.
At first glance, today’s China may look like it is blooming with prosperity, but for much of society, the day-to-day reality is dark and uncertain. While many of those in the “high-end” class are drunk on money and luxury, the masses in the middle and lower classes struggle to get by: they can neither afford to give birth or get sick. The laws of our nation are written perfectly, but they exist only on paper, and are miscarried in the day-to-day work of the judicial system.
Though the present situation may tempt us to feel otherwise, we remain firm in our belief that “Here is a ditch of doomed, dead water” is not an expression of helpless despair, but contains the expectation that despair is to be overcome. The line “No spring breeze can stir up even half a ripple” is not a hopeless complaint, but a longing call to hear the wind rise as the spring swells.
On January 1, 1925, a little before Wen Yiduo penned his “Dead Water,” Lu Xun wrote an essay called “Hope” to express his “astonishment at the sullen youth.” He called out, “hope, hope, take his shield of hope to resist the onslaught of the dark, empty night.”
Every generation has its desperation, and every generation has its hope. As attorneys in this generation, our hope and dream is to see the rule of law and constitutional governance come to China. Our professional mission is to check power with the restraint of law, to secure the people’s basic rights.
The human rights lawyers of China have suffered many setbacks in their mission, yet we remain committed to our task and have no regrets. We may be bruised and battered, but we will stay in the fight to the end.
We hope that in 2022, the pandemic that has plagued humanity for two years will subside, that economic activity and everyday life can return to normal.
We will not wallow in our present despair. We hope that the entire Chinese people will leave behind the pandemic, economic hardships, and absurdities of 2021, and embrace 2022 full of hope.
In 2022, we will welcome lawyers Yu Wensheng (余文生) and Zhou Shifeng (周世锋) back from prison.
As we enter 2022, let us:
Wait for the spring sun, when the rule of law sprouts,
Wait for spring to blossom, standing together until dawn’s light.
Wait for the spring thunder, when the vast land flowers in clear green,
Wait for the spring breeze — it breathes even dead water back to life.
The China Human Rights Lawyers Group
January 1, 2022