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A Place for the Liu Xiaobo Bust

Yaxue Cao, April 16, 2019

In front of the Liu Xiaobo bust unveiled at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague on April 15. Left to right: Xu Youyu, Bill Shipsey, and Zhou Fengsuo.

In August 1988, two months after receiving his PhD in literature from the Beijing Normal University, Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) left the Chinese capital for a series of academic visits across Europe and the United States. The first place he went to was University of Oslo in Norway. A few months later, he visited University of Hawaii, where he completed the book “China’s Contemporary Politics and Chinese Intellectuals” (《中国当代政治与知识分子》) at its Center for Chinese Studies. It seems that the purpose of his visits was to construct a framework for exploring ways to change China, and it was for this reason that he felt an urgent need to see the West up close.

In March 1989, Liu Xiaobo arrived in New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. According to his friends at the time, he went to art exhibitions and Broadway, and bought a leather jacket. Though the Chinese of the 1980s were still donning Mao suits, the sense was that China was on the doorsteps of a new era and a transition. All kinds of new popular vocabulary, ideas, and new “reform” trends were in the air, sparking both expectancy and uneasiness. The title of Liu Xiaobo’s dissertation, “Aesthetics and Freedom” (《审美与自由》), sounds like the name of a rhapsody.

Walking the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art triggered an epiphany in Liu. He suddenly felt the ridiculousness of the discussions that were taking place in China about “novel” concepts that were just everyday life common sense in the free world.

When a group of people who knew Liu Xiaobo in New York got together a few years ago for a meeting to recall their time with him (Liu had been imprisoned for six years by this point), one of his friends, a poet, said that Liu’s “enthusiasm for politics at the time greatly belied other interests of his, such as literature.”

Liu had built friendships with the small number of Chinese democracy activists in exile, and took on editorial work for their publication, “Beijing Spring” (《中国之春》).

April 15, 1989 saw the death of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the Chinese Communist Party general secretary who had been ousted for his reformist stance. Hu’s death sparked memorial events in college campuses across the country. In the days that followed, throngs of students left their campuses for Tiananmen Square to pay their respects to the deceased leader. Few guessed that condolences for one man would lead to millions of people taking to the streets and voicing their political demands. Around the world in New York, the tiny group of Chinese democracy activists watched with bated breath. It’s said that at the time, at least five of them decided to return to China, and that “when it came time to depart, other four found various reasons not to leave, and only Xiaobo returned” to China.

I can almost see Liu Xiaobo’s silhouette as he gathers his luggage and hurries to the airport. Perhaps it was the call of fate. Thirty years have gone by. In hindsight, the Chinese democracy circle in Flushing was indeed too small a pond for him.

Liu arrived in Beijing on April 27, 1989 and went to Tiananmen. In the morning of June 4, he was one of the last to leave the square. From June Fourth to Charter 08 and winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and then to his death in prison two years ago, nearly half of this period of his life he spent incarcerated and forgotten, as time marched by outside the prison walls. 

Liu Xiaobo at Tiananmen Square, 1989. Photo: HRIC

Even though the world had pretty much ignored him, for the Communist Party in China, it was imperative that he be completely wiped out. Death was not enough; his ashes must be thrown into the sea so as to leave nowhere for people to memorialize him.

2019 is the 30th anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre. One of the many activities being planned in anticipation is the placement of a bust for Liu Xiaobo, as he was very much a man of the June Fourth activist generation, and his aspirations belong to 1989, the year that changed the world. 

In the summer of 2018, Columbia University unveiled a bust of late Czech dissident and president Václav Havel. This provided inspiration for Zhou Fengsuo (周锋锁), who chairs the non-profit organization Humanitarian China: a bust of Liu Xiaobo could also be made and erected on the Columbia campus. In 2006, Havel accepted an invitation to be a guest lecturer at Columbia and spent seven weeks there. Likewise, Liu spent several weeks here as a visiting scholar before his stay was cut short by the democracy protests in Beijing.

Liu’s widow Liu Xia (刘霞) agreed with the idea, though she expressed doubt about whether or not anything would actually come of it. The many years of her husband’s imprisonment, the monthly train trips to and from the prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, her own eight years of house arrest and the abyss of depression it engendered — all this left her with a deeply jaded view of the world that lingered even after her emigration to Germany made possible by protest by the international community.

C. V. Starr East Asian Library: ‘We Must Decline the Proposal’

Last December, on Liu Xia and Zhou Fengsuo’s behalf, renowned Sinologist and Columbia political science professor Andrew Nathan (黎安友) put forth the suggestion to the Columbia president that Liu Xiaobo’s bust be donated to the university. (The following correspondences were turned over to me by Zhou Fengsuo, and Prof. Nathan has authorized the publication of their content).

The suggestion was transferred to Curator of Art Properties Roberto Ferrari, who gave Nathan a prompt reply. He explained that all artistic contributions required approval by the Committee of Art Properties, and that whether or not approval could be granted depended on there being an academic department in favor of displaying and maintaining the artwork. Ferrari noted that the Committee had recently approved the busts of Vaclav Havel and Eleanor Roosevelt, and that he was happy to work with the donor to bring this proposal to the Committee. He also said that he would make an inquiry with Jim Cheng, head of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, as to whether they would be interested in displaying the bust.

In the following weeks, Zhou Fengsuo tried multiple ways of contacting Jim Cheng, from calls to text to email. He got no response.

On February 8, Nathan got an email from Christopher Cronin, the Associate University Librarian for Collections overseeing both Starr Library and Avery Library. He said he had discussed the matter of the Liu Xiaobo bust with Jim Cheng and Roberto Ferrari, the Art Properties curator. According to Cronin, the Starr Library would take two policies into account in deciding whether to accept a bust: first, if the person depicted had been a distinguished alumnus at Columbia; and second, if the donor was prepared to provide an endowment for the maintenance and care of the artwork.

“However,” Cronin continued, “Starr does not accept busts or statues that represent religious or political figures. As the Liu Xiaobo statue does not fit these criteria, we must decline the proposal for Starr.”

According to Cronin, the original proposal would nevertheless be submitted to the Committee of Art Properties for discussion at its next meeting, to be held in late April or early May, even though the Starr Library could not accept the bust and nor has another location on campus has been identified. He hinted that the outcome of such a submission was clear, and that “Roberto will be in touch shortly thereafter to communicate the decision of the Committee.” 

I thought about Liu Xiaobo in relation to the three “criteria” Cronin mentioned. Firstly, though Liu was a Nobel Prize laureate and notable for that reason alone, he was only at Columbia for a few weeks, is he or is he not an alumnus? But if Václav Havel could be approved, why not Liu Xiaobo? Secondly, if a monetary donation was required for the acquisition, perhaps we could organize a crowdfunding event in light of the fact that Humanitarian China would not be able to foot the costs alone.

The third criterion set by the Starr East Asian Library is baffling. Excluding Liu for this reason implies that he is a political figure (that he is not a religious figure is self-evident), and that, by extension, erecting his bust would favor one political perspective over another. Now, between which political sides does the Starr East Asian Library wish to maintain its neutrality and independence?

A bust of Tao Xingzhi was erected at the Starr Library. Photo: People’s Daily.

The last time Starr Library accepted a China-related piece of art was in January 2016. A New York-based non-profit organization, the Dragon Summit Foundation (美国龙峰文化基金会), and an organization named China-America Friendship Association (CAFA, 美国中美友好协会), which is registered in New York as well, had donated a bronze bust of Tao Xingzhi (陶行知). Tao Xingzhi was a left-leaning education reformer during the Chinese republican era (1912 – 1949). From 1915 to 1917, Tao had studied education at Columbia. In addition, the Dragon Summit Foundation donated $100,000 to establish a “Columbia University Dragon Summit Fund.” The New York Consulate-General of the People’s Republic of China took part in the ceremony, and the event was reported on by People’s Daily. Another article, by China Daily, is no longer available on their website.

That August, these two organizations partnered with the Columbia University Teachers College, changing the Center on Chinese Education to the Tao Xingzhi Center for Chinese Education.

According to the CAFA website (original preserved here), in 2015, it raised $600,000 for the C.V. Starr East Asian Library of Columbia University: $500,000 for the Xu and Song Education and Culture Endowment Fund, which will “support collection, development, administration, public programming, and research at the Starr Library,” and $100,000 for a Dragon Summit Endowment Fund, which is probably the “Dragon Summit Cultural Fund” for the same library.


Of the many titles held by CAFA executive chairman Xiao Yunfei (肖云飞), one is General Consultant of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale (ACSSY); he is also an “expert of human nature.” Photo: CAFA website.

CAFA is the organizer of many large-scale activities, including U.S.-based training programs for Chinese Communist Party cadres, performances at Lincoln Center that brought performers from China, and parade and flash mobs near the White House during the 2016 Labor Day weekend that were held in celebration of the “China-U.S. Tourism Year.” According to CAFA’s website, these activities are typically held under guidance from the Chinese embassy and consulate, and in cooperation with Chinese businesses such as state-owned banks and corporations.

It appears that no updates have been made to the websites of these two organizations since around the end of 2017, leaving it unclear if they have ceased operations, or if they have simply stopped providing information about their activities online.

The Making of the Liu Xiaobo Bust

Meanwhile, the creation of the Liu Xiaobo bust started. At the end of last year, a friend of Zhou Fengsuo from the Václav Havel Library Foundation in New York put him in contact with Bill Shipsey, the founder of Art for Amnesty, Amnesty International’s global artist engagement program. In January, via Shipsey, Humanitarian China commissioned Czech sculptor Marie Šeborová to make Liu Xiaobo’s bust. The bust of Havel previously erected at Columbia University is her work.

On April 15, the Liu Xiaobo bust was unveiled at the DOX Centre of Contemporary Art in Prague. Liu Xiaobo’s friends Professor Xu Youyu (徐友渔) and Zhou Fengsuo pulled the veil. Liu Xia had planned to attend but in the end didn’t make it for “personal reasons.” For the time being, the bust will be displayed at DOX.

For those looking to donate the Liu Xiaobo bust, the goal was to have it placed on the Columbia campus; the idea of it being displayed at the Starr East Asian Library was only a suggestion made by the Curator of Art Properties. The donors hope that there are other departments at Columbia University that would be willing to accept the offer, and that the Committee of Art Properties gives the matter serious consideration at its upcoming meeting.

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao

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A Statement by Lawyer Chen Jiangang, Blocked Today From Leaving China to Take Part in the Humphrey Fellowship Program

Chen Jiangang, April 1, 2019

After being blocked, Chen Jiangang explained to friends who were there to see him off what had happened.

In the summer of 2018, I applied for the “Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program” to study law and human rights. After I was interviewed and had taken the TOEFL, I was accepted into the program. According to arrangements made by the program administrators, I was due to fly to the United States on April 1, 2019, to participate in English study in advance of the start of my program.

In order to succeed in traveling to the United States to study, I contacted the relevant personnel of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau (Beijing PSB) to ask if I was still prohibited from leaving the country. I was told that I was prohibited from going to the United States for educational exchange, and that the exit ban on me and my family was of unlimited duration. The relevant personnel at the Beijing PSB told me that there were two reasons for the ban: first, I represented Xie Yang, one of the lawyers detained in the “709 Lawyers Incident”; second, the US government accepted me as a visiting scholar, “Who knows what they are up to in getting you to come to the US?”

Today, April 1, 2019, I went to the Beijing Capital Airport in the morning to board the plane [flight DL128]. I was pulled away at Customs (海关). A Customs official, who wore the name tag Zhang Guoxin (张国信), told me: Per instructions from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, Chen Jiangang will not be allowed to pass through Customs because his exit will endanger national security. They refused to give me any explanation in writing. After I demanded repeatedly for the basis of the exit ban, Zhang Guoxin replied: “The reasons cannot be explicitly stated; we just can’t let you leave the country.”

The Humphrey Fellowship Program was established in 1978 to honor the memory and achievements of the late US Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Since 1978, more than 5,000 Fellows from 157 countries have participated in the Humphrey Program, including more than 150 from China. The vast majority of the past participants from China have been government personnel. The Humphrey Program covers many fields, including public health, environmental protection, agriculture, education, journalism, and law. Humphrey Fellows, for the most part, come from developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Until now, there hasn’t been a single case from any country in the world in which a Fellow has been unable to participate in the program because their government blocked them and prohibited their attendance.

Even before the onset of the mass roundups of lawyers on July 9, 2015, I was illegally prohibited from leaving the country by the Beijing PSB. In 2017, my family was told that my wife, our two children, and I were all put on the Beijing PSB’s  exit ban “blacklist.” At the time my older son was four years old, and my younger son was less than one year old. To date, my family has been unable to travel outside mainland China.

During the week-long May First holidays in 2017, my family was illegally detained while we were on vacation in Yunnan. At that time, the Beijing PSB sent agents to Yunnan to get me.  The agents took me into custody and brought me back to Beijing. They told me that I was not allowed to travel freely because I represented Xie Yang [one of the 709 lawyers], and defended clients in some earlier human rights cases involving freedom of speech and belief.

In light of the above facts, I declare that:

I. I demand to leave the country to participate in the Humphrey Fellowship Program.

The Chinese government’s prohibition on my leaving the country as a Humphrey Fellow is a diplomatic event. Domestically, illegally banning me from studying abroad is an abuse of power by the government. It is not only a denial of the basic human rights of a citizen, but also an instance of bias against lawyers and the legal profession. It is the opposite of “governing the country according to law.”

With respect to the international community, this is a betrayal of international cooperation and a flagrant provocation against international norms.

II. I am a practicing lawyer, and my practice qualification certificate and practice license (license number 11101200810281378) were issued jointly by the PRC Ministry of Justice and the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice.  It is part of his or her normal professional work for a lawyer to handle criminal cases, including the “709 Xie Yang Case.”  The fact that the Beijing PSB used my involvement in the Xie Yang case as grounds to implicate me and my family is an unlawful act on the part of the Chinese government.

By banning a human rights lawyer from studying abroad, the Chinese government continues its persecution of this group since the “709 Crackdown,” and continues its unbridled persecution of the rule of law in China.  This persecution of lawyers and disregard for the rule of law once again shows to the world that the Chinese government is openly and unceasingly depriving people of their human rights and persecuting lawyers, and that the Chinese government’s promises cannot be trusted, its laws were not intended to be implemented, and that nothing stops the Chinese government from doing whatever it wants to, disregarding any law or commitment it makes.

III. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979, the Chinese government has never proclaimed the United States to be a hostile nation, nor has it defined the United States as an enemy country. It has not issued a ban on tourism and study in the United States. Chairman Xi Jinping clearly expressed to the world that “we have a thousand reasons to have good Sino-US relations, and no reason to damage Sino-US relations.” However, the Beijing PSB and other agencies have regarded the US government-sponsored fellowship as a hostile and malicious act. This is completely contrary to the direction determined by Chairman Xi Jinping; relevant officials are intentionally damaging Chairman Xi’s principles and policies.

IV. I will adopt all possible means to protest the Chinese government’s illegal persecution of me and my family. I will defend my rights. I respectfully ask that friends at home and abroad, the media, international organizations, and national governments pay attention and provide assistance.

V.  To date, no government agency has filed charges against me. I have not committed any crimes. I am completely innocent. If, in the future, I appear in any media outlet confessing guilt or wrongdoings, it is not my intention, nor is it true. This kind of “confession,” self-humiliation, and self-defilement could only be made under circumstances in which I’ve been tortured or threatened. Because there is no crime, naturally it follows that there is no criminal gang, nor are there any accomplices.  But if I am tortured or threatened, I may “confess” to other “criminals.” If this happens, I declare in advance that all my “confessions” are coerced false admissions.

Declarant: Chen Jiangang

April 1, 2019

(The Chinese original of the statement is posted on Twitter.)


Related:

Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.

Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.

Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.

Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (4) – Admit Guilt, and Keep Your Mouth Shut, January 22, 2017

Support Our Work

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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

Liu Xiaoyuan and at Least Two Other Fengrui Lawyers Face Imminent Disbarment

China Change, March 31, 2019

Front: “Certificate of Unemployed Lawyer of the People’s Republic of China.” Back: “Everything Is Fine.”

Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原) stands prominent among China’s human rights lawyers. In 2004, he came to Beijing to practice at the age of 40. In the roughly one decade up to mid-2015, he represented countless rights cases. Some of the more notable of these include the appeal of a death sentence by farmer Li Zhiping (李志平) in Dingzhou, Hebei Province; the Yang Jia (杨佳) police murder case in Shanghai; the case of the three netizens in Fujian (福建三网民); the case of journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇淮) in Shandong; and the case of Ji Zhongxing (冀中星), the migrant worker who threw a homemade bomb at the Beijing Capital Airport in 2013. Cases Liu Xiaoyuan has taken on in recent years include the “separatist” case of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木▪土赫提), as well as numerous dissidents and activists charged with offenses like incitement, subversion, picking quarrels, or disturbing public order and obstructing official business. Among his clients, the artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is probably the most well-known.

But from July 2015 till now, Liu Xiaoyuan has been out of work for three and a half years. In 40 days, he stands to lose his practicing license. At least two other lawyers of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Lixin (周立新) and Wang Yu (王宇), are facing the same deadline. Lawyer Huang Liqun (黄力群), a government official before becoming a lawyer, possibly faces the same situation. This is obviously due to the machinations of the Chinese Communist Party.

On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government carried out mass arrests of human rights lawyers in what became known as the 709 incident. At the center of this crackdown was the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所). That night, the firm’s lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) was taken away from her home; the next morning, on the 10th, Fengrui director Zhou Shifeng (周世锋) was detained at a hotel in Songzhuang Town of Beijing’s Tongzhou District. More than 10 other Fengrui lawyers and staff were also rounded up. Over the following two weeks, up to 300 lawyers around China were interrogated, held in short-term detention, or given warnings. The 709 Incident is regarded as a movement by the authorities to stamp out human rights lawyers. Official mouthpieces played their part in this effort, labelling the Fengrui Law Firm and the community of rights lawyers as “horses bringing trouble to the herd” (害群之马) and representatives of overseas anti-China forces bent on engineering a color revolution.

Liu Xiaoyuan is one of Fengrui Law Firm’s three partners. During the 709 crackdown (Liu himself doesn’t approve of and avoids using this term), at the time he was out of town and was placed under control for three days. Following the incident, around 50 lawyers employed by Fengrui who were not implicated left to work with other law firms. A manager with the Beijing Justice Bureau’s oversight office (监管处), which deals with lawyers, told Liu that being a partner to Fengrui, he could not transfer to another law firm until the cases involving those arrested in connection with the 709 incident were settled and the matter of Fengrui Law Firm resolved. Only then would the office let Liu transfer to a new firm.

Lawyer Zhou Shifeng, after being put under six months of residential surveillance, was formally arrested on January 8, 2016. On August 4, he stood trial and was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years of deprivation of political rights for the crime of subversion of state power. In March 2018, the Beijing Justice Bureau suspended Fengrui Law Firm’s law license. On November 9, after the firm’s sub-branch in Nanchong, Sichuan, was closed down, Fengrui’s business permit was revoked. Since that point, Feirui has ceased to exist.

Liu Xiaoyuan with clients. Unclear which year. Photo: online.

According to the Ministry of Justice’s “Regulations on Law Firm Management” (《律师事务所管理办法》) and the “Beijing Municipal Guidelines for Implementing the Management Regulations of Law Firm Operation” (《北京市律师执业管理办法实施细则》), after a law firm is closed, its partner lawyers are allowed to transfer out. Starting from November 9, 2018, Liu Xiaoyuan and another partner lawyer, Zhou Lixin, as well as lawyer Wang Yu who is the first 709 detainee and released without charges, have six months —or until May 9, 2019 — to transfer to a new law firm. If, by the six-month deadline, they have not transferred to another firm, the lawyers will have their practicing licenses cancelled.

It isn’t the first time that Liu Xiaoyuan has had to deal with firm shutdowns and transfers. On April 3, 2011, artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport and charged with tax evasion. As a friend and lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan gave interviews with the media voicing his opinion about the legality of the matter. Afterward he himself was taken away with his head covered under a black hood and detained for five days, during which he was subjected to a strip search and interrogation, then released after writing statements of repentance (悔过书) and guarantee (保证书). In 2011 and 2012, the Beijing Justice Bureau found excuses to obstruct the annual inspection of his firm Qijian Law Firm (旗舰律师事务所), forcing the firm’s several lawyers to transfer. Liu Xiaoyuan was compelled to close the firm, but allowed to transfer to a new firm and continue his practice. On November 28, 2012, Liu officially transferred to the Fengrui Law Firm, and became a partner attorney in 2013.

By regulation, when lawyers transfer from one firm to another, they must first apply for two documents from the Beijing Lawyers Association (BLA). One is the certificate showing which firms they have worked at, and the other is a certificate confirming that they have not violated lawyer codes. Under normal circumstances, a lawyer can use a member’s login to access the BLA’s website and submit an application. The check will be done using the information on the website and the two documents will be sent to the lawyer, who can then take them to the new law firm that accepts him or her. A proof of employment will be issued by the firm, the local Lawyers Association will issue a certificate. These documents can be submitted online and the transferral process can be completed. The process is fairly easy if it involves just a regular transfer.

Liu Xiaoyuan speaking to media during the case of Fujian three netizens in 2010.

But in November 2018, around the time Fengrui Law Firm had its business license cancelled, Liu Xiaoyuan found that his information had been deleted from the lawyer management system on the Beijing Justice Bureau’s official site. Entering his name, ID number, or practicing license number produced no results. This meant that the new firm that had accepted him was unable to apply for a transfer number. As this was happening, the BLA’s website updated the status of his practice to “unregistered,” preventing him from logging into the website and retrieving the two documents he needed for transfer.

Lawyers Zhou Lixin, also a partner of Fengrui, and lawyer Wang Yu, find themselves in the same situation as Liu Xiaoyuan: they are also facing the possibility of their practice licenses being revoked if they do not transfer by May 9. It would seem that this is precisely what the Beijing Justice Bureau and the BLA is aiming for.

(On March 27 Wang Yu was stopped by Chinese police checking IDs outside the U.S. Embassy as she tried to enter the embassy for an event marking Women’s History Month. She was handcuffed with her hands behind her back and detained for 20 hours for questioning the legality of random ID check.)

Last year, on November 12, Liu Xiaoyuan signed the cancellation documents for the business license of Fengrui Law Firm in the certification branch of Beijing’s Chaoyang District Justice Bureau (朝阳区司法局证照科). The next day, he went to the Beijing Justice Bureau to discuss his transfer. The staff who received him said they had to make a report to their higher-ups and the discussion ended there. The subsequent talks turned into small talk. One of the staff said: “most of the cases you’ve taken on are in other provinces, you can go somewhere else to practice.” Another said: “Why don’t you develop in a new direction and handle economic cases instead?” Liu Xiaoyuan responded: “As a lawyer, the clients come to me. No matter what type of case it is, as long as I think I can take it, I will take the case. I don’t have defined boundaries.” However, he told the three staff members, some cases he took on involved people from vulnerable groups whose human rights had been infringed upon, such as those expropriated of their land and victims of forced demolition. When he went to court, many people would come to attend the hearings and express their approval of his argumentation. That led to similar cases coming his way.

He didn’t know that the 40-minute chat he had with these three Justice Bureau staff would be his last time of being received at the Bureau. After that he has had no more such good luck, even though the chat didn’t resolve any of his problems.

Liu has spent most of his three years in unemployment in his hometown in Jiangxi. On November 16, he called the Beijing Justice Bureau supervisory office in charge of managing lawyers, as well as the deputy branch chief, but got no response. Calling mobile numbers didn’t work either. On Twitter, he said: “It can’t be that there’s no one at the supervisory office during working hours.”

The same day, he wrote: “during my career as a lawyer, I’ve received warnings, threats on my life, been evicted from my rental home, had my right to travel restricted, summoned by the authorities, made to wear a black hood, disappeared, had my annual lawyer’s inspection delayed, and forced to stop operating my law firm. In conjunction with the ‘Fengrui issue,’ I’ve been put under control, made to sign repentance and guarantee statements, and forced out of work for three years and four months [to the current month]. Now it may come to me having my lawyer’s license ‘gotten rid of.’”

Over the past few months, he has called the Beijing Justice Bureau’s supervision office practically every day or every other day. No one has ever picked up. He called Xiao Lizhu (萧骊珠), secretary-general of the BLA, and got no response either. His calls to the deputy director of the Chaoyang District Justice Bureau didn’t get through. Looking through Liu’s Twitter posts from the past months, you get the impression of a neverending string of unanswered phone calls. One time a miracle occured: Liu got through to a Justice Bureau deputy director, who listened to him long enough to realize who was calling, then said he had a meeting to attend and immediately hung up.

Also in 2010.

Apart from making phone calls, he wrote to all the relevant addresses he could think of. This included four letters to Justice Bureau chief Li Chunying (李春莹), one to the bureau’s Communist Party secretary Miao Lin (苗林), two to Beijing Mayor Chen Jining (陈吉宁), and one to Yuan Shuhong (袁曙宏), Party secretary of the Ministry of Justice. He sent multiple inquiries to the online box of civil-administrative relations of the Beijing Justice Bureau, and also petitioned at the Bureau’s Letter and Visit office.

One day in December 2018, Liu was on the website of the Beijing Justice Bureau again browsing replies by the leaders to the mail in their inboxes, and unexpectedly found a response to his letter to the bureau chief. Using the password he set when sending the letter, he quickly opened it and found the following:

“Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan is urged to follow proper procedure according to the law in completing his transfer process.”

Faced with this sort of non-answer, Liu didn’t know whether to react with laughter or tears.

His letter to the Beijing mayor got a response in February saying that “given the content of your complaint, it will be handed over to the responsible party, the Justice Bureau, to be dealt with.” Liu tweeted bitterly: “[This is] petitioning with Chinese characteristics: my letters of complaint come full circle, back to the hands of the accused.”

Already in late November last year, Liu expressed doubt as to whether he would be able to transfer, thus continue his career as a lawyer. Indeed, in the course of the past year, he has seen how many of his fellow human rights lawyers have had their licenses revoked: In January 2018 it was Sui Muqing (隋牧青) and Yu Wensheng (余文生); Zhou Shifeng (周世锋) in February; Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) and Li Heping (李和平) in April; Huang Simin (黄思敏), Wen Donghai (文东海), and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), and Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) in May; Cheng Hai (程海) in August; Chen Keyun (陈科云) in October; and Liu Zhengqing (刘正清) that December. Lawyer Zhang Kai (张凯) faces the same problem with his transfer.

Lawyers arrested during the 709 Crackdown were subjected to secret detention and brutal torture. Aside from Zhou Shifeng, Fengrui lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) was sentenced to four and a half years in prison after being held for three and a half years without trial.

On the eve of China’s annual National People’s Congress that began on March 5, Liu Xiaoyuan launched a countdown on Twitter: 67 days until May 9, the day when he will lose his license if the stonewalling continues. He tweeted the phone number of the Beijing Justice Bureau’s supervisory office: 010-55578662. He knew that the bureau must have put him on a no-call list, but others could call and ask why lawyers like him, Zhou Lixin, Wang Yu, or  Zhang Kai were being treated so maliciously and prevented from practicing. Liu asked the media to pay attention to the situation they faced.

As the National People’s Congress convened, many human rights lawyers, dissidents, activists, and liberal scholars were given warnings, placed under house arrest, or even made to take “vacations” away from Beijing. Liu Xiaoyuan said jokingly that every day, he expected a call to appear in the Beijing Justice Bureau. But no such a call came. Instead, one day, his wife, a surgeon, was summoned to the local public security bureau, where she was asked to persuade Liu Xiaoyuan not to spread “negative energy” online. Because of this disturbance, she had to postpone the surgeries of several patients. When she got home, she was very angry and the couple had a fight. Liu Xiaoyuan was incensed: “I am doing chores and cooking at home every day. They don’t come for me, but harass my wife.”

On March 18, Liu Xiaoyuan dialed the mobile number of Gao Zicheng (高子程), president of the BLA. Gao said that he was aware of the situation, and that he had already told the Secretariat four times and would continue to ask about the matter. The reader may wonder: how is it that the president of the lawyers association asks his subordinates repeatedly to solve this matter, and still with nothing to show for it?

This is the lawyers association with Chinese characteristics, not the bar association that you know. Lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田), disbarred in 2010, explains it: After the Cultural Revolution, the lawyer system was restored with lawyers being state officials. Beginning in the early 1990s, the profession of lawyer was gradually separated from the state system, and became private, yet remained under the supervision of the Justice Bureau and the Lawyers Association. For years, the president of the Lawyers Association had been held concurrently by the head of the Justice Bureau. It was the same throughout the hierarchy of the Justice Bureaus. By the early 2000s, though lawyers began to serves as presidents, vice presidents, and supervisors of many lawyers associations, the secretariat held real authority, and the staff of the Secretariat were appointed by the the Justice Bureau. These personnel, especially the secretary-general, are actually cadres of the Justice Bureau. Some lawyer associations also have such a position as Party secretary. In these cases, the position was held concurrently by a deputy director in the Justice Bureau office that supervises lawyers. Therefore, actual control over the Lawyers Association lies with the secretariat — that is to say, the Justice Bureau.

This is why, though BLA chief Gao Zicheng is aware of Liu Xiaoyuan’s situation, he can do nothing to help even if he answers his phone calls. The current BLA secretary-general, Xiao Lizhu, has been in this position for at least ten years and has a long record of suppressing human rights lawyers.

“I am the kind of person who the bad guys say is a bad guy.”

“A lawyer’s right to practice is a human rights, and obstructing my ability to transfer to a new firm and continue practicing is a violation of my basic human rights,” wrote Liu Xiaoyuan on Twitter over and over again. Who says it is not? But this is a normal, rational and modern concept, and the Chinese regime operates neither normally nor rationally; it is still a barbaric rogue state in terms of human rights and the rule of law, the world’s second largest economy though it may be.

There are few persons more aware of this painful truth than a Chinese human rights lawyer.

As of March 31, there are 40 days until Liu reaches the May 9 deadline to transfer to a new firm. He said he has written (unclear whether it’s filed) a complaint with the Beijing Municipal Political and Legal Affairs Commission, in which he accused the Beijing Justice Bureau of abusing its power.

Hope may or may not be on the horizon, but this short-statured lawyer isn’t about to give up just yet.

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I Travel the Earth in Sound — Marking the 10th Year of Being Barred From Leaving China

Ai Xiaoming, March 26, 2019

Sadness for prisoners. Painting by Ai Xiaoming, on the Chinese New Year’s Eve, 2017.

This is the tenth year since I was barred from leaving the country. I still remember the last time I came back to Shenzhen, from Hong Kong, on March 17, 2009. After that I have never been out of Luohu Border Control.

The first time I was barred from leaving the country was in 2005, because I had made the documentary “Taishi Village” (《太石村》). Perhaps it was because the police putting the restrictions on me hadn’t gotten in touch with the customs yet, or because my passport hadn’t expired (the digitalization of personal data wasn’t as strict back then), so between 2005 and early 2009, I left the country several times for meetings or screening tours to universities abroad.

Over the course of the decade, I made many requests to the police to lift the ban, but all were turned down. They had many excuses, common ones being that the decision had been made by someone at a higher-ranking branch (like the Ministry of Public Security, or they joke that the order was in place for my protection. Whatever the case, no matter how I have tried to argue or defend myself, it hasn’t changed a thing.

Once, in my despair, I told those policemen: “Maybe when the day comes that you let me out, I won’t want to leave.” I was extremely sad when I said those words, for if what I said came true, it would mean that I had lost much more than my mere freedom of travel, but my longing to see the outside world, my thirst for academic and artistic exchange, and my love of freedom. Of course, the guobao (国保, Domestic Security Division) officer may not have understood what I meant. But on the other hand I also know that many have undergone suffering far worse than mine. Many have made far greater sacrifices: Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟). The price I paid is miniscule by comparison. So I don’t let it disturb me.

Each line of the last stanza is the title of a symphony.

It’s been a very long time since I last saw Suli (素利), and I only got in touch with her on WeChat last month. She was missing for a few years. I took wedding photos of her and Qin Yongmin’s (秦永敏, a political prisoner serving a 13-year sentence) and have always stayed in the loop about her situation. After she read this poem, she left me a message saying that it brought her to tears. This morning she sent me a recording of her reciting my poem. I was very touched and felt a sense of solace. I just hope that we can take care of each other by writing and reading poems.

I think, if one day I regain my freedom of travel, I will definitely read out this poem at some gathering. This is one of the reasons why I thought to have this translated into English.

At least ten years ago….

I Travel the Earth in Sound

My passport is an oracle script
The visas are the rubbings on an ancient stele
The custom is a prison chamber
Crossing the border means smuggling yourself to freedom

Gold and silver treasures hide in my heart, fine and soft
The fine is longing, the soft is affection
At border control we are stark naked
Under the gaze of ultrasound or MRI scanning

You ordered me to open up all of my luggage
You say: computer, folders and documents
I say: those are personal photos
Why would I bring the things that you are looking for?
 
The winter of ten years ago is already dead
The memories of ten years past — sometimes they recur in a flash
Policewomen at my sides, two cold faces as I use the toilet
Turn on hard drive. Do not close the bathroom door.
Police officers’ silence, long and inscrutable
A verdict without trial
Unwritten prohibition

 
Across the stretch of ten years, the Custom faded into the distance
No hate, and also no love
It is like a world that sometimes feels so far away
Nothing to do with me, like we are at opposite extremes
Don’t tell me anything about travel
A humble puppet dressed in kimono
An ugly doll from the Indian tribes
The delirious cat has grown
I took a Berlin Bear to Tiger Temple

[1]

 
A passport is a sleeping beauty dying to see her prince
Sometimes I feel a desire to bury her, three feet below
In a grave more dear than her abode when alive
A live burial for a nonexistent kiss
Only a name and a nation
Like the Thirteen Tombs, not knowing what they are
 
One day, I told the police
The truth is, I don’t want to travel anymore
Pass a life sentence on my passport
However you like: firing squad or lethal injection
For someone who doesn’t have the desire anyway
Whatever the punishment is, it won’t matter
 
Of course, I didn’t tell him
All the places I want to go
Just hearing a name is a night full of starlight
In Honduras, is there the raging flow of waterfalls?
Like a massive symphony every morning, what a deep romance
 
In Mexico, there is Frieda, her flowers of the desert
Albania, where the mountain hawk soars high and away
Fighter planes frozen in the secrecy of their cavern airbase
Slovenia, a five-word poem
How splendid, a perfect euphony
Liechtenstein and Morocco
As dashing as secret agents
 
With the thrill and mystery of Hollywood
The Vatican, Britain, Ireland …
I remember the rain on the street corners coming back from Scotland
I remember the wide embrace of Mike and Sue
And that Australia-accented “bloody something”
Greece, Poland, Iceland, Finland
Every name a work of art
Greece, a sweet-scented candle, or the ruins of ancient shrines?
Does Poland have orchids rocking on rippling waves?

[2]

Consoling those children floating up in the wisps of blue smoke
Austria, my sister has an apple orchard in the countryside
Kafka’s home on a silent street
Yahong sent me a postcard
Portugal, Denmark, Amsterdam
Czech, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland
The white on blue of the Alps
I remember the cellar where the rebel leader was detained
I took the photo for Heping, inside of the castle
A hero rides a mighty steed
Riding gloriously to his homeland
In the splendid summer days by the lakeside in Geneva
We hear the future instructors at Harvard sing Tsai Chin’s songs

[3]

 
One day I will become a sack of ash
Be careful, I might scatter it around Luohu
At every point of entry and in every escalator
Beneath the wheels of everyone’s luggage
Every strand taking me beyond the border
I will be in the air, I will be on the conveyor belts
Softly rising with the steam from your teacups
I will linger in the chimneys visited by Santa Claus
In the wings of great angels
In the cruise ships sailing the oceans wide
In the melody of the Kol Nidrei
I will wander the vast world in which your sword of power buried in the sand
Going to every city, each one raising a flag to a soul set free
 
But I am still alive
And my passport pleads not guilty
We guard each other in the time before the expiry date
We can start our journey with the ashes
And we can also in this moment
Travel the earth in symphonies
……

A Night on the Bare Mountain
Don Quixote
Capriccio Espagnol
Also Sprach Zarathustra
Vltava
In the Steppes of Central Asia
Finlandia
Songs of a Wayfarer
My Fatherland
From the New World
……
 
 
March 16, 2019
 


[1]
Ai Xiaoming received these gifts from her friends when they traveled
back from the other countries. A friend got two dolls of Berlin bear to
her at Berlin International Film Festival. “Tiger Temple” is a fellow
Chinese documentary maker, now the coordinator for the Chinese
Independent Film Forum in Xi’an. Ai gave him one of the dolls of
Berlin bear as a gift of encouragement.

[2]
Poland in Chinese translation consists of the characters 波兰, “wave”
and “orchids.”

[3]
Tsai Chin is a pop and folk singer from Taiwan. At the Chinese
diasporas’ new year parties in the United States, those who cannot
return to China sing this song, thinking of their hometowns.

Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) is a retired professor at Sun Yat-sen University. She works on independent documentary films and is a feminist researcher. 

Translated from Chinese by Leo T. 

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Explaining China’s ‘People’s Congress’ Through the Tales of Three: A Hand-raising Automaton, An Independent Candidate, and An Electoral Activist

Teng Biao, March 12, 2019

Independent candidates and electoral activists: clockwise from top left: Yao Lifa, Tang Jingling (severing a 5-year sentence since June 2014), Xu Zhiyong (released in July 2017 after serveing a 4-year sentence), and Liu Ping (serving a 6.5-year sentence since April 2013).

As the Communist Party held this year’s “Two Sessions” (两会), Beijing activist Hu Jia (胡佳) was kept under control by being forcibly moved across the country to Guangdong. Human rights lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永), of the New Citizens Movement, received midnight visits in Zhengzhou and were interrogated without explanation. The number of human rights defenders who are under house arrest or have been disappeared is in the thousands. The security departments at all levels are operating at full capacity on a nationwide scale with the capital at the center, consuming a great deal of manpower and financial resources as they use high-tech means to monitor every corner of society.

In its editorial Bring an Immediate End to the Human Rights Disaster of the Two Sessions (《立刻停止制造“两会”人权灾难》), Minsheng Watch (民生观察) wrote that “each March, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) hold their so-called Two Sessions. On paper, the Sessions should represent public opinion, and use the insights gather from it to form national policies and regulations. In fact, the Two Sessions have become a tool for obstructing, suppressing, and banning popular will; they have become associated with the abduction, detention, house arrest, surveillance, harassment, and disappearance, of dissidents and human rights activists. The Two Sessions have become a total human rights disaster for the Chinese people.”

Which national parliament meeting needs the protection of over a million personnel from the military, police, public security, national security and civilian security personnel? Who holds a meeting with such trepidation, as if walking on thin ice, mobilizing so many public resources? This lays bare the truth that the NPC is a tool to isolate and oppose the people. Behind this, it reflects the two-track political calculus of the Chinese authorities: to flex its muscles in front of the people by making a show of force and privilege, and to try to cover up the Communist Party’s greatest anxieties.

In fact, even if the petitioners are able to stuff the petition materials into the hands of the people’s representatives, few of the representatives would so much as take a look. These NPC deputies are not elected by the people. According to China’s electoral system, these people were elected by “indirect elections”: at no juncture throughout all levels of the “people’s representatives,” from county to city, from city to province, and from province to the National People’s Congress, does the “indirect” have anything to do with the people who are supposedly being represented. It is, plain and simple, a power game. In the twenty-first century, Chinese citizens are unable to directly select their national leaders and legislators, and unable to directly elect provincial and municipal leaders and deputies to the People’s Congresses on these levels. They can’t even directly elect the heads of county and township.

While in theory county- and township-level People’s Congress representatives are directly elected, those elections are completely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Without multi-party competition, freedom of association, and freedom of the press, the election is doomed to be a farce. The majority of NPC deputies are from the Party, the government, the judiciary, and the military. They are legislator, executor, and judge all at once. There is no division of the three branches of power; the unity of party and state amounts to political incest.

On top of this are a small number of models workers, writers, academicians, celebrities, ethnic minorities, and the like, who are arranged to participate for the sake of political decoration. They have no task apart from stay in luxury hotels, give enthusiastic applause, and spew flattery.

The most amazing NPC deputy is an 89-year-old grandma named Shen Jilan (申纪兰). Starting when she was a girl of 18, she has been elected 13 times as an NPC deputy — the only person to hold this distinction. “She supported the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Commune, and the Cultural Revolution. She was in favor of struggling against Liu Shaoqi, and she agreed to fight Deng Xiaoping. Later, she agreed to denounce the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Commune, she agreed to the denunciation of the reforms, and she agreed to rehabilitating Liu and Deng.” She raised her hand in favor of all these contradictory positions, without fail, for decades.

Shen Jilan explained: “The representatives’ job is to listen to the Party, so I have never voted against it.” When a reporter asked her whether she would communicate with the voters during the election process, she said, “We are democratically elected, it’s inappropriate to have discussions with [voters.” This “hand-raising automaton” is a living, breathing specimen of Party spirit (党性). She claims to represent the peasantry, but she is actually a retired cadre at the prefecture level. Many of her family members are local officials. As an outstanding representative of the NPC, Shen Jilan presents, in concentrated form, the falsehood, absurdity, and ugliness of the legislature under the CCP.

In the election of deputies to the county-level People’s Congresses, the Communist Party guarantees the finalists of the audience through various nuanced means, by hook or crook. Candidates recognized by the Party can easily be elected without any need to promote and campaign. However, since the law does not prohibit citizens from independently participating in county-level people’s congress deputies, some brave citizens have tried to explore this approach, and in the case of a slightly liberal environment, some individuals can still be elected successfully. In the election of the (Beijing) Haidian District People’s Representatives in 1980, Fang Zhiyuan (房志远), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Hu Ping (胡平), and Zhang Wei (张炜) of the Peking University constituency successively posted election campaign declarations, organized voters’ meetings, debates, held opinion polls, and published “Electoral Shortwaves” and other neutral publications. In the end, Hu Ping was elected.

Since 1987, Yao Lifa (姚立法) of Hubei Province has written himself in as a candidate in the elections for the People’s Congress of Qianjiang City four times (湖北潜江). He was finally elected in 1998 and was the first People’s Representative to be elected in China after 1988. In 2003 and 2008, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), a lecturer at Peking University of Posts and Telecommunications, was twice elected as a representative of the Haidian District People’s Congress as an independent candidate. One of the aims of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) initiated by Xu Zhiyong and myself is to encourage and help citizens from all over the country to run as independent candidates at the grass roots in elections for local People’s Congresses. This has become an important part of the rights protection movement since 2003. The independent candidacy reached a zenith in the election at the end of 2011. Many laid-off workers, students, professors, journalists, lawyers and IT professionals, including well-known online writers such as Li Chengpeng (李承鹏) and Xia Shang (夏商), ran as independent candidates. In encouraging participation in the electoral process through online agitation and offline activism, they built up quite an impressive force.

However, many independent candidates have been harassed, threatened, monitored, and even brutally beaten during the electoral process. Dissident Zhao Changqing (赵常青) became a deputy candidate for the People’s Congress in Nanzheng County, Shaanxi Province in 1997 (陕西南郑县). However, he was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime of “crime of endangering national security” after he exposed illegal acts during the election. In Wuhan in 2006, democracy activist Sun Bu’er (孙不二) was followed, beaten, and forced to withdraw his candidacy during the election. He was later arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. The very few independent representatives who were successfully elected were quickly squeezed out after the authorities realized they were disobedient, or were easily taken out in the next election.

At this juncture, I can’t help but mention my good friend, human rights lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) who is still serving his prison sentence Guangzhou. In 2006, he launched the “Ballot Redemption Campaign” (赎回选票运动),  a nonviolent non-cooperation movement that fought back against rigged elections and raised civic awareness. By publicly stating that they refused to vote, they made clear that they would not take part in or comply with the pseudo-elections that did not represent the people, and in this way hoped to awaken the voters’ awareness of their rights.

Hundreds of people responded to the campaign and publicly voiced their refusal to participate in the election. I am also one of them. I also wrote to support and promote this movement, analyzing its similarities and differences with civil disobedience. In 2014, Tang Jingling was arrested and later sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because of the “Ballot Redemption Campaign” and other pro-democracy and human rights activities. The independent participation of citizens in elections and the visible non-cooperation in the elections are different ways of revealing the fraudulent nature of Chinese elections in different directions.

Shen Jilan spent her life as a tool and accomplice to dictatorship, while it is those like Yao Lifa and the imprisoned Tang Jingling who truly represent the Chinese people’s bitter and courageous struggle for democracy.

Teng Biao is a Chinese human rights lawyer who now lives in New Jersey.


Related:

For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, November 1, 2016.

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Four Years on: The Whereabouts of the ‘Feminist Five’ and the Sustainability of Feminist Activism in China

Lü Pin, March 11, 2019

“As far as human rights activism is concerned, the outside world tends to focus on short-term incidents, such as when activism comes into direct confrontation with the state. But the outside world cannot keep long-term and sustained attention, which leads to many long-term, internal difficulties being left undiscussed.”

Lü Pin, right, and Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, at Berkeley for a discussion about Chinese feminist activism in February. Photo: Twitter

On March 6 and 7, 2015, police arrested and criminally detained five young feminist activists because they were planning an action on International Women’s Day to oppose sexual harassment on public transportation. The action never took place.  Thirty seven days later, after strong domestic and international appeals, they were released on “bail pending further investigation.” The Feminist Five case was the first public suppression of a women’s rights initiative in the history of China under the Communist Party. It was an important event that marked a turning point in the relationship between the contemporary Chinese feminist movement and the state. It also made many people understand for the first time the responsibility the young Chinese feminist activists had undertaken in an effort to transform China into a country of gender equality. The government’s goal in this case was not only to attack the Feminist Five themselves, but also to target the community of increasingly active young Chinese feminist activists at the time. Due to the case, however, they deservedly became the most famous representatives of young feminist activists in China.

How are the Feminist Five doing now? I have been asked this question many times during the past four years. Our friends, partners, and inner circle supporters know that the Feminist Five have never left the scene and have continued to write about their resistance and struggles. But because of information barriers, and maybe also partially due to their own modesty, many people do not know about their current situation, and maybe even have some misunderstandings. This was my original intention in writing this article; but apart from providing an update, I would also like to further discuss the issue of the survival and development of feminist activists amid the increasing difficulty to stage public activities in China today.

The most common misunderstanding about the Feminist Five is this:  “most of them have left China.” In fact, they now all live in Greater China–– Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. Although during the past four years they have frequently moved and traveled, most of them have never really left the Chinese-speaking area. Among the five women, Li Tingting (李婷婷, nicknamed Maizi) is the only one who has lived abroad for a period of time, and she has been the most active voice internationally after the Feminist Five case ended. Maizi has delivered many public speeches in North America and Europe, and is often interviewed by international media. After the NGO where she used to work, Beijing Yirenping, was forced to cease its activities, Maizi turned to LGBT rights and founded the “Rainbow Legal Hotline,” an organization that provides legal assistance to members of the LGBT community.  In the second half of 2017, Maizi went to England to study in the Human Rights Master’s Program at the University of Sussex. After completing her studies at the end of 2018, Maizi returned to her hometown, Beijing. In an article posted on February 16 on her WeChat public account, “Li Maizi Who Occupied Men’s Bathrooms,” Maizi wrote:

“The reason why I decided, without hesitation, to return to China is simple: there is no escape. We live in a time when every day we can be disgusted by Trump. What’s so disheartening is that people are getting used to this awful world. Staying angry and awake, I realized that the longer I stayed in England, the more I felt like I needed to return to China.”

“As a feminist activist, a gay rights activist, other than returning to my own country, what better choice is there?”

“When history happens, I must be present. With this conviction, I came back to China. ”

This is Maizi’s understanding of her responsibility: a responsible feminist activist’s first choice is always dedicating herself to the liberation of her own country, and striving to maintain a connection with what’s happening on the ground.

Wei Tingting (韦婷婷, nicknamed WAITING) was the project director of a Beijing LGBT organization at the time of the Feminist Five case. In 2016, she went south to Guangzhou and started her own business as a freelance activist, focusing on anti-sexual harassment. In 2018, Wei Tingting’s organization “Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Centre” (GSEC) was very active in the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo campaign. GSEC used a variety of tactics, such as communication, research, individual case intervention, proposals, training, and a flexible and rapid response mechanism, which made this small, innovative organization assume an important role in organizing #MeToo work. However, on December 6, 2018, the GSEC was compelled to publicly announce that it was forced to cease operations due to “complicated factors such as force majeure.” This was one of the major setbacks in the organization of the #MeToo movement in 2018. However, Wei Tingting did not give up her activities in the anti-sexual harassment arena. Almost immediately, she launched a new activity: she formed a small, psychological help group for victims of sexual violence, which was also her effort to move in the direction of her professional training in psychological counseling.

Zheng Churan (郑楚然, nicknamed Datu or “Big Rabbit”) grew up in Guangzhou, went to college in Guangzhou, and has basically never left the city. After the Feminist Five case in 2015, she was forced to leave “Weizhiming,” an organization she helped to launch that advocated for young women’s rights, and become a freelancer. She tried many different kinds of ventures: starting a company, organizing themed parties, recording “Dong Xiaoxiao” videos (栋笃笑, a Cantonese standup comedy), and organizing debate competitions.  In November 2016, the BBC described her as a female entrepreneur and included her on the list of Global “100 Women” for that year. However, Zheng Churan’s most successful attempt was writing. She writes in her public account on Weibo and also on NGO platforms, and has quickly become an influential columnist specializing in feminist commentary. She has a loyal following that likes her spicy and sharp style.

Zheng Churan is also part of a feminist-themed online store featuring original products, and continues to develop her ability in creative planning, training, and team building. Zheng Churan is an active participant in, and organizer of the #MeToo movement in China. She also witnessed the women workers’ anti-sexual harassment statement at Foxconn in Shenzhen in January 2018. The women workers wrote in an open letter: “We know that an unequal gender environment will not be eliminated in one day…. But this is only a beginning. There will never be any change unless there is action.” This is a remarkable achievement in the combination of feminist and labor issues in recent years.

In 2015, Wang Man (王曼) was the coordinator of a Beijing-based NGO that focused on anti-poverty issues. At the same time, she regarded the participation, observation and research of feminist actions as part of her job. After the Feminist Five case, Wang Man’s work and personal life were shattered–– the details of which she’s never disclosed to the wider public. After she was forced to cease her original work, she took some time to rest and recover, and then decided to reengage her interest in academics without leaving behind her public interest work. At present, Wang Man is in Hong Kong balancing research and social service work, and has chosen to keep a low public profile.

Wu Rongrong (武嵘嵘) has been involved in volunteer activities ever since she was a university student. In 2011, Wu Rongrong left her well-paying job at Alibaba, and returned to nonprofit world, assuming responsibility for the young feminists project at the NGO, Yirenping Center. In 2014, the project became an independently registered advocacy entity in Hangzhou with the name “Weizhiming.” Unlike her colleagues Li Maizi and Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong was strong at leadership-style network communications, rather than demonstrating in front of the public and media.

In 2015, Wu Rongrong was the only one among the Feminist Five who was married and had a child.  Because of her many responsibilities, Wu suffered a greater degree of anxiety and pain in the detention center.  After she was released on “bail pending further investigation,” Wu was forced to disband Weizhiming, and she continued to be monitored and harassed by the police. She had to fight hard for her fundamental rights to live peacefully, travel, and obtain further education.   

When she had no choice but to temporarily withdraw from feminist work, Wu Rongrong invested in her own studies and developed expertise in public interest-related psychological counseling. In September 2017, after a long struggle, she finally successfully renewed her passport, obtained necessary approvals, and flew to Hong Kong at the last minute to enroll in the University of Hong Kong, Faculty of Law.  She was thus able to secure a valuable period of time to adjust and pursue further studies. Fortunately, it’s convenient to travel back and forth between Hong Kong and the mainland, so she and Wang Man have never drifted apart from their feminist colleagues, and the fellowship they shared.  

The Sustainability of Feminist Activism

Another misunderstanding about the Feminist Five is that they have obtained a great deal of financial resources due to international attention. This is not the case. During the period of rescue and follow-up relief in 2015, the international human rights community did in fact give them some direct and indirect assistance to compensate them for the loss suffered by the raids and seizure of their property, and to ease the difficulties they experienced after they were released and unable to resume normal work. Furthermore, the international human rights community provided support for their follow up rights defense and recovery.

But this is not to say that the costs associated with forced eviction, loss of work, and the mental distress associated with such targeted persecution can be compensated at a single point in time. When the period of assistance following their case came to a close, the Feminist Five’s studies, livelihood, and career were all up to themselves to fight for. I never heard of them receiving any windfalls. It’s very difficult for them to turn their “fame” into resources. For example, in September 2016, Li Maizi livestreamed her bungee jumping on the Internet to fundraise for the Rainbow Legal Hotline. Once Zheng Churan published an article while she was sick, and was very happy to receive 800 yuan for it, which she then used to see a doctor. As for the interviews with many international media outlets later on, from the perspective of the Feminist Five and their partners, it was a kind of contribution in the public interest; they did not receive any personal benefit from them.

In fact, many human rights activists are in similar situation: attention from the outside world did not lead to much improvement in their personal circumstances. There are a few reasons for this: first, public opinion and funding are two different things, especially after the urgent need stage has passed. Foundations that provide long-term funding for human rights have their own relatively fixed agendas and will not invest based on trending public opinion. Second, after China’s “Overseas NGO Management Law” took effect in 2017, international foundations that are legally registered in China would no longer cooperate with independent rights organizations that lacked proper NGO qualifications. Moreover, it is now illegal to accept funding from foundations that have not established offices in China. Given that public fundraising is basically impossible within China, this essentially cuts off the channels of survival for these organizations and activists. Third, after 2015, Chinese officials intensified their efforts to vilify international public opinion. International fame has not helped the survival of activists in the mainland, but rather, its effect has been negative: it signifies “collaboration with Western hostile forces” and so on.

This is the reason why the Feminist Five either have to temporarily put their activism on the back burner, or think up all sorts of means of supplementing their livelihood. In 2015, all five of them were full-time employees of NGOs; today, none of them can find a paid full-time job in the field of feminist activism. Despite their enthusiasm and ability, the reality of their circumstances has driven them to make practical sacrifices. Five years after graduating from college, Maizi wrote: “I need a job that makes money… … the activism that I once dedicated all my efforts to is only my part-time job now.”

This, of course, is not to blame the international community for falling short in assisting the cause of Chinese feminism, nor does it imply that the Feminist Five depend on others for financial support. Each of them is highly educated, and it’s not difficult for them to join the urban middle class through their individual efforts. But different from ordinary citizens, they want their work to be socially meaningful. Many people in China are not aware that working for rights and justice — something of dire importance for a country like China — is also a job that deserves pay. The advancement of social progress requires expertise and committed professional activists. If the promotion and organization of women’s rights continues on an uncompensated basis, there is no way for more people to join the cause, which is exactly what the reactionaries want. Moreover, as mentioned above, the resources of feminist activism are being cut off from multiple angles, and activism is being increasingly targeted by the Chinese legal system. This has fragmented the organizational core, and rights defenders — such as those stepping out as part of the #MeToo movement — are not getting the service necessary for their work.  

Amidst the challenges, the Feminist Five have not scaled back their activism. On the contrary, I think the most remarkable thing in the last four years is that despite not receiving due compensation for the sacrifices they made, they did not complain. Instead, they have been forward-thinking from the very beginning, being creative and exploratory as they seek ways to continue their work. Whether as individual activists, as freelancers, or even entrepreneurs, they have found ways to pair their personal development with their social ideals. As Maizi wrote: “I work hard every day to improve myself, meet challenges, solve problems, and achieve goals. At other times, I try my best to participate in the #MeToo movement and play my role. The work produced by one woman is still work; a single spark can start a prairie fire.” If we sighed with admiration at the creativity and courage they displayed in 2015, then four years later, I see that they have now become even more mature and tenacious as they carry out their duties in a harsh environment.

Their work deserves more understanding from the outside world. As far as human rights activism is concerned, the outside world tends to focus on short-term incidents, such as when activism comes into direct confrontation with the state. But the outside world cannot keep long-term and sustained attention, which leads to many long-term, internal difficulties being left undiscussed. In fact, the crisis was only the beginning of a continuous process of repression. In the past four years, the Chinese government and its agents have learned their lesson from the sloppy handling of the Feminist Five case, and have since been quietly taking gradual steps to cut off the resources of feminist activism. They do this by smearing feminists’ reputations and sequestering them from the broader social network, and so on.

The most typical example in this vein occurred in March 2018. The first feminist public forum on Chinese social media, “Feminist Voices” (女权之声) was completely shut down and this was followed up by a wave of online stigma against feminism. Zheng Churan was also dragged into the maelstrom of malicious accusations, such as that the feminists were advocating “Tibet independence,” “Hong Kong independence,” “organized prostitution,” “collaboration with hostile Western forces,” and the like. While these defamatory labels were heaped on and repeated a million fold, the editorial rebuttal of the “Feminist Voices” could not be posted (due to censorship). There is clearly an extremely biased system at work in this war of words: it seems as soon as “feminism” is flagged as being sensitive, the entirety of China’s social media will mobilize automatically to exclude the term “feminism,” without the need for an explicit order from the propaganda department, and replace it with the vaguer “equality for women.” This not only means a loss of legitimacy for the many years of feminist struggle, but it has also quietly marginalized the feminist movement by painting it as an untouchable subject.

People have to realize that support for progressive social movements cannot idle at the current level of showing “concern,” but that it must manifest in the form of providing actual resources to sustain them. Chinese feminism has a very large community of support, that is, young generations who cannot help but feel anger at violence and discrimination in the family, in education, and in the workplace. Meanwhile, the feminist activists have ample skills and insight to play a hard-core organizational role. Therefore, the problem of resources has become the key to the sustainability of the feminist movement, but to this day few have grasped this principle. If people come to realize that the feminist movement is not just a wing of Chinese social progress, but also linked to whether or not the country can transform to a more democratic and equal structure, and if they realize that the feminist movement is virtually China’s last — but still vastly potent — force of resistance, they will come to understand how important it is to support this movement.

Lü Pin(吕频)is a Chinese feminist activist focusing on strategic advocacy to combat gender-based discrimination and violence. She started her work on women’s rights in the late 1990s. In 2009, she founded Feminist Voices, China’s largest new media platform on women’s issues. Since 2012, she has devoted herself to supporting the activism of young feminists across China. She now resides in Albany, New York, where she continues to follow the feminist movement in China closely.  


Related:

A Cafe Chat With Li Tingting, Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016.

Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015.

Detention of Five Chinese Feminist Activists at the Juncture of Beijing+20 – An Interview with Gender Scholar Wang Zheng, April 11, 2015.

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