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Yaxue Cao, December 25, 2016
On December 9, 2015, after dropping their two sons off at school, Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) and his wife Wang Hongwu (王洪雾) of the Living Stone house church (活石教会) in Guiyang, made their way to the 24th story of Guiyang International Center, which hosts the main hall of their congregation. At the same time every Wednesday, at three different church locations, Living Stone congregants hold a prayer service. A few days prior, government Neighborhood Committees and police stations dispatched personnel to go door-by-door to the homes of hundreds of Living Stone church members, warning them against attending the Wednesday service. “We’ll arrest whoever goes,” they were told. Needless to say, the authorities had the home addresses, workplaces, telephone numbers, and other personal information of every churchgoer. The few who were determined to attend that morning were intercepted by government agents, who deliberately collided with their car and then dragged them off to the local police station to settle the “accident.”
The prayer service was set to start at 9:30 a.m., but at 9:00 well over 100 “integrated law enforcement” agents swept in. There were personnel from the Bureau of Civil Affairs and the Bureau of Religious Administration, public security bureau agents, and a squad of SWAT police in full armed regalia. They demanded that Pastor Yang open all the doors. After he refused, they called over their locksmith. When the “law enforcement personnel” attempted to enter the office and the sound control room next to it, to take the computer hard drives, Pastor Yang stood blocking the doorway. He demanded that the technical personnel present their work identification cards. When they said they didn’t have any, he announced that they wouldn’t be allowed in. At that point, one of the commanders of the operation yelled out “SWAT police, come over here!” A few burly members of the SWAT team ran over, lifted Yang Hua off his feet, and carried him away to a corner next to the elevator, pinning him there.
Pastor Su Tianfu (苏天富), who had just finished his errands in the morning and arrived at the church, attempted, abortively, to reason with the agents. They began confiscating the church’s computers, equipment, and anything else they thought useful. They said they would provide a list of the items confiscated, but over a year later no such list has been forthcoming. They also confiscated the cellphones of Yang Hua, Hongwu, Pastor Su, and a number of couples who arrived for the service, deleting all photographs on them.
When the raid was over they posted two notices sealing the church doors, one saying that the church was an illegal civil organization, the other that it had set up a center of religious activity without authorization. Yang Hua and Hongwu were taken to the police station. Living Stone’s two branch locations were dealt with in a similar manner.
On December 14 Pastor Su was taken into custody at his home by police. Two days later when he was released, they warned him that he would be charged with “divulging state secrets” later. A year on, he is still technically “on bail pending further trial,” which means that his freedom of movement is restricted.
A few days after Yang Hua was arrested the authorities raided his home and took away his computer and everything else that they thought would be useful for their investigation.
On December 26, 2016, Yang Hua will be on trial for “deliberately divulging state secrets” (故意泄露国家机密罪). The Chinese government seems to deliberately time cases of political persecution around the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, as a means of avoiding international attention.
The “state secrets” in question is a document issued by an ad hoc office set up to eliminate the Living Stone Church, which goes by the title of the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church” (贵阳市依法处置贵阳活石教会指挥部). Dated December 3, 2015, the document bore the official seal of the Office of the Guiyang Municipal Stability Maintenance Work Leading Small Group (贵阳市维护稳定工作领导小组办公室). It said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task that must be given a high level of priority. Leaders of work units must be personally on task, fall in line with the entire city’s overall deployments, and earnestly mobilize to complete all the work.” Attached to it was a list of names of every Living Stone member, which was forwarded to each of their workplaces, demanding that those employees be investigated and placed under “stability control” (稳控).
The letter came to the attention of a young woman named Wang Yao (王瑶), who worked in the office of the Party Committee of the Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital of Guiyang City. She knew a friend, Yu Lei (余雷), who attended Living Stone bible study sessions. So she gave Yu photographs of the document. Now, Wang and Yu have been tried for “illegally acquiring state secrets” (非法获取国家机密罪) and “illegally disseminating state secrets” (非法传播国家机密) respectively. Their judgements have not yet been handed down.
Two Young Preachers from Poverty
The two descriptions I kept hearing about the two pastors of the Living Stone church were, firstly, that they were from the poorest parts of Guizhou (Guizhou itself is one of the poorest provinces in China), and secondly that they were both very young. Pastor Su Tianfu was born in 1975, while Pastor Yang Hua was born in 1976; they come from the neighbouring counties of Qianxi (黔西) and Nayong (纳雍) respectively.
Zhang Tan (张坦), a member of the Living Stone church and an independent scholar of Christianity in China, explained that Guizhou was one of the 12 centers of missionary activity established by the China Inland Mission, the protestant organization founded by 19th century English missionary Hudson Taylor (戴德生). Yang Hua and Su Tianfu grew up in an area in which the China Inland Mission had once preached the Gospel, until early 1950s when missionaries were expelled by the Communist Party. Most Christians at that point were forcibly integrated into the Party-controlled “Three-Self” church movement. After the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Tan says, Christians in Guizhou began to embrace their faith ardently. In the poverty-stricken far-off reaches of mountainous Guizhou, he added, neither the Three-Self church nor house churches had much purchase.
Yang Hua was born Li Guozhi (李国志), the fourth sibling in a third-generation Christian family. When he was young, though, he not only refused to believe, but found the idea embarrassing. His father was an elder in a house church. He spent most of his time dealing with church affairs and relatively less on looking after his family. He also struck his kids at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, after suffering a sudden accident in the family, and personally experiencing the transformative effect of prayer, Yang Hua became a Christian.
At around that time there were Christian workers offering in his hometown Bible study sessions, which he joined. Before long he felt the desire to spread the Gospel himself. At age 13 in 1989 (he probably had little idea what was taking place in Beijing that year), he cut short his studies and became a roaming preacher. First he followed a group in his hometown, then went onto Yunnan, Guangxi, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces to preach. Christians in Zhejiang wanted him to put down roots there, but he felt the urge to return to Guizhou.
In 1997 Yang Hua, then 21, moved from Zhejiang back to Guiyang.
Su Tianfu grew up in abject poverty. In 2011, in an interview with the Christian author Yu Jie (余杰), he mentioned that the only clothes he wore when growing up were hand-me-downs from relatives. In winter, he said, there was often hardly any food at home, so he only ate once a day. His father was a drunk who beat him. When he was unable to pay the miscellaneous expenses for junior high school, one of the teachers pitied him and only made him pay half up front. The rest he earned over summer, collecting trash, hauling sandbags at a construction site, and laboring as a road builder. When he finished middle-school he applied for junior teachers’ college (师专) because it was free. In his own words, he was a cynical and hopeless youth who was convinced that life had no meaning.
But he began to join a Bible study class at the teachers’ college. There was no pastor and no preacher; sometimes a fine arts teacher at the school, who was a Christian, would lead them in Bible study, or play hymns on tape that everyone would sing to. “Though I didn’t understand a great deal about the truth of it, I participated in the meetings regularly, and I felt in my soul a great sense of contentment,” Su said. “I felt joy.”
On Christmas 1993 Su Tianfu was baptized as a Christian — the first in his family. In 1997 at the age of 22 he quit his job teaching elementary school and went to Guiyang.
1997-2000: Each Their Own Ministry
The two young men first met while serving the “Dandelion” Christian Fellowship at Guizhou University of Technology. It was established in 1980 by two foreign missionaries who were teaching there.
In June of 1997, Su Tianfu went to Guangzhou to be further trained in pastoral care. In Guangdong he began to regularly participate in church meetings led by the renowned pastor Lin Xiangao (林献羔) of the Damazhan house church. He studied Cantonese and traveled with other disciples to found churches and spread the Gospel around Guangdong. In 2000 he married Ouyang Manping (欧阳满平), a young lady he’d gotten to know in their Bible training classes.
Back in Guiyang, Yang Hua joined a house church group of a few dozen members. It was there that he got to know Wang Hongwu, at the time a nurse at the charity clinic run by the church. When he revealed that he took an interest in her, however, he was curtly rebuffed. As Hongwu put it: “He didn’t fit my criteria. All the things a girl wanted, he didn’t have: a diploma, money, good looks — he didn’t measure up in any area.”
Yang Hua was deeply hurt, and for a while fell into terrible health. He had nosebleeds and high fever, and came to the clinic for treatment. This went on for a while until he decided he had to pull himself out of it. At a workers’ meeting one day, Yang Hua told a Ms. Li that “Next week I’m going out to the Yachi River” (鸭池河). He’d been planning and hoping to establish a church there for a long time, but had put it off because of the emotional turmoil of being rejected. Hongwu overheard the conversation. “My heart thumped,” she said. “It was like a shut door being suddenly flung open.”
Yachi River at the time was the headquarters to the Ninth Engineering Bureau of the Sinohydro (中国水利水电第九工程局有限公司), inhabited by thousands of construction workers and their families. Over the next two years, Yang Hua went door to door spreading the Gospel. There had been only one or two believers when he started, and number quickly mushroomed to over a hundred over the next two years. In 2000 he went back to Guiyang, and in 2001 he and Hongwu married.
Preaching and Training in Guizhou from 2000 to 2008
“Even though I’d lived in Guangzhou for quite a few years, had learnt Cantonese, and was gradually getting used to life there, there was always a voice in my heart telling me: ‘You have to return to your home province and begin a new phase of your Ministry.’ Though Guizhou was poor and behind-the-times, it was a much bigger canvas,” Su Tianfu said.
On the day that Su and his wife arrived in Guiyang, Yang Hua and another friend met them at the train station. Their journey together had begun.
In his interview with Yu Jie, Pastor Su explained what happened over those years. First, the two young men each led their own small-scale house church assemblies. They also returned to serve a mission in their hometowns in the Bijie (毕节) and Liupanshui (六盘水) prefectures, southwest Guizhou, populated by the Miao and Yi ethnic groups. As a way of alleviating the reliance on preachers coming out to the countryside, from 2003 to 2008 they held training sessions in Guiyang every year for ethnic Christian workers, and each session lasted three months, training 20 students each time.
Beginning in 2003 they arranged for Christian workers to travel around Guizhou, focusing on regions without churches, to conduct short- and long-term missionary work. They’ve relied on the donations of congregants for their livelihoods, though their wives have also worked to help support the family.
Their activities have alwasys been a matter of close attention for the authorities. In 2003 they got a tip off that the secret police were investigating them, and were likely going to make arrests. They prepared travel bags and were ready to flee at short notice, but in the end they didn’t flee. In the years followed, similar threats stalked them, until police interrogations and menace became a part of life.
A City on the Hill
By 2008 Yang Hua and Su Tianfu were being harassed and attacked wherever they went in Guizhou. They were increasingly running short of resources, until they were unable to pay the rent on their training venue.
It bothered them that the house churches they led in Guiyang had been underground. “Even though it was just a small meeting of a dozen or so people, we had to act like the underground [revolutionary-era] Communist Party you see on television dramas — using codewords, acting secretively as though we were doing something terrible,” Su said.
But at that point, as Su judged it in the 2011 interview, Guiyang had only one Three-Self church for a population of five or six million, plus a seminary and another small church on the outskirts of town. “On the one hand, a lot of people had never ever heard the Gospel, but on the other, the existing Christians had nowhere to meet.”
Through prayer and careful consideration together, their small church groups started to think clearly on what they wanted to achieve: they wanted their fellowship to grow and thrive in the open, and they wanted to make an impact on the city of Guiyang.
“Given that Christians are the light of the world, the church is the city on the hill. So it can’t be hidden. It’s got to be public,” Su Tianfu said.
The new church they opened would be the “Living Stone” church, a name that Yang Hua picked. It was drawn from Peter 2:4-5: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
After spring in 2008 they began drawing up plans to rent an office space for worship. In Easter they held a dedication ceremony for a new church with about 50 members. Apart from regular services, the church held Christmas celebrations, hosted weddings, and organized excursions, all of which attracted more members.
Beginning in 2009 the Living Stone church each year baptized between a few dozen and over 100 new believers. Their Christmas celebrations attracted over 1,000, either participants or onlookers. The government was apprised of every large-scale activity in advance. When the authorities tried to interfere, the churchmen, often led by Pastor Yang Hua, argued their case strongly and never gave ground. In 2011, in a river on the southern outskirts of Guiyang, they held a baptism ceremony for 120 new Christians. With friends and family included there were probably between 300 to 400 people there. The government then mobilized at least twice as many security personnel to watch them.
As part of the church’s pastoral program with congregants, they encouraged all believers to also participate in small-scale house church meetings. Last year when the church was formally banned by the Guiyang authorities, there were over 20 of these small house church congregations, each with between one and a few dozen members. The effect of the small groups was to give believers a sense of family, return, and belonging, where spreading the Gospel, caring for one another, and caring for society became part of their way of life.
Most of the congregants were between 20 and 40, from all walks of life: businessmen, teachers, doctors, professionals, public servants, homemakers, students, and more.
For years they facilitated adoption of abandoned infants, fostered children with developmental disabilities, taught survival skills to children in orphanages, and performed other welfare services — all of which they were praised for in the local press. Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly, and others. The church became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.
Church management was handled by a 12-member board of directors elected by the congregation, which held meetings to discuss and make decisions on church affairs both large and small. When there were items of serious disagreement, they put the matter aside rather than have the majority overrule a minority. The goal was to eventually reach a consensus.
As the number of congregants continued to grow, the church bought three residential units on the 24th floor of the Guiyang International Center with a total 600 square meters. After they bought the units, the church began coming under more intense pressure from the authorities. Before they began using them, the government posted notices inside and outside the building stating that the newly established church was “an unapproved non-religious site established without permission,” and that pastors Su Tianfu and Yang Hua were unapproved, unregistered ministers.
On November 8, 2015, Living Stone congregants, under the menacing gaze of hundreds of riot police, SWAT police, regular police, and officials from a multitude of government agencies, held a ceremony dedicating their new church. When government agents later attempted to force them to join the regime-controlled “Three-Self” church movement, they were firmly rejected. The result was a campaign of harassment, threats, and efforts at blocking believers from attending.
Defending the Rights of Small Churches
Pastor Yang Hua and Pastor Su divided their duties roughly in half: Su handled internal affairs, and Yang took care of liaison and external activities. As one congregant told me in an interview: “We’ve been helping small rural churches around Guizhou for years. When these churches are raided and broken up and their members arrested, no one else even knows.” The small churches seek out Yang Hua, who finds lawyers to defend them. Quite a few cases have been defended successfully.
Hongwu, Pastor Yang’s wife, said that on every occasion that brothers and sisters of the faith have been attacked by the government, Yang Hua stands up for them.
In May 2014 the authorities made a series of arrests of churchgoers in Liupanshui (六盘水), at a church that had grown rapidly and had held regular services for over 20 years. Now it was called an “evil religion” and its members detained. Yang Hua engaged lawyers in Beijing and Shanghai who traveled with him to Liupanshui, where they were followed by government vehicles. Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), one of the lawyers, described the torture that believers were subject to while in custody: they were beaten hard with long wooden staffs, forced to stand for prolonged periods, starved, deprived of sleep, and had lit cigarettes stuffed into their mouths.
In 2015 there was a similar incident in Daguan, Qianxi county (黔西大关), where a number of locals, who had returned from years in Hangzhou as migrant workers, were arrested after setting up a thriving church. Yang Hua and two lawyers from out of town arrived to help. They were followed by government-hired thugs everywhere they went. The men rammed their vehicle into Yang Hua’s, and pulled out long machetes threatening to hack him and the lawyers to death.
More than one person has described Yang Hua as diminutive in size and “frail” in appearance: he’s just under 1.6m (5’3″), is somewhat hunched due to back inflammation (ankylosing spondylitis) and often in pain. But when the rubber hits the road and fellow Christians are being assailed and threatened, he’s on the front lines defending their rights, not in the least afraid. He carries of aura of invincibility. “Pastor Yang Hua’s courage and sense of responsibility is extraordinary,” a church member who was on some of these trips with Yang Hua told me.
Zhang Tan once wrote an article about how Yang Hua dealt with a traffic case. “No matter the size of the case, Yang Hua fights it from the lowest level court to the highest. Even if he’s losing every step of the way, he doesn’t give up.” The process, Zhang told me, has revealed the savagery of the government power, but it’s also shown Yang Hua’s tenacity.
In today’s China, this sort of resistance doesn’t have much practical value. In the Daguan case, the five churchmen arrested were all imprisoned on China’s “evil religion” laws, and the Living Stone church has now also been crushed. Indeed, some church members complained that the fate of Living Stone was precisely because Pastor Yang Hua got involved in too many affairs of other churches.
As far as the Chinese Communist Party is concerned, Christianity and its dissemination is in and of itself a question of ideological competition. For decades the Party has used the “Three-Self” church system to integrate and assimilate Christianity under the banner of “patriotism,” exerting strict doctrinal and administrative control over these “competing” faiths. The escalated repression in Zhejiang, Henan and other provinces over the last three years are another example of the Party and Xi Jinping’s determination to dig out this supposed threat by the root. The shutdown of the Living Stone church and the arrest of Pastor Yang Hua is simply one development in the overall political schema in China. It has little to do with the “leak” of a ridiculous government document.
Zhang said that Christianity in China has reached a point in time, and that Guiyang’s Living Stone church is a perfect product of this point in time.
The Judgment of the Party vs. the Judgement of God
Since his detention, Pastor Yang Hua’s wife and children have been prevented from seeing him because his case “involves state secrets.” The two lawyers she engaged met Yang Hua for the first time in March and again in May. Yang Hua revealed how his interrogators used torture to try to extract a confession. They fixed him to an iron chair, stomped his feet with their shoes, and threatened his life and that of his wife and children. They also told him: “We know we can’t change your faith, but we control everything. If we want, we can paint you as a greedy pastor and destroy your reputation.”
The lawyers said that despite the threats, Pastor Yang Hua didn’t give in. Nor did the church’s accountant, Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), who was detained in July 2015 — she is still being held, though according to Chinese criminal procedure should have long ago either been tried or released.
In September, lawyers reported that Yang Hua was suffering from liver pain, and had scabies all over his body.
The authorities claim that the case has nothing to do with religion. But they’ve denied Yang Hua, and the three other detainees, the right to read the Bible while in custody. For months Yang Hua’s wife hand-copied Bible passages and mailed them to him, but in October that final connection too was severed too.
For the pending trial, police warned lawyers not to plead not-guilty (indeed, the judicial system in China is government-directed theater, and everyone is expected to follow the script). But in their Legal Opinion submitted to the court in November, the two lawyers questioned the legality and authority of the ad hoc agency set up to suppress the church, the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church.” They also questioned the validity of the regulation cited by the prosecution: “Regulations on State Secrets, Their Classification, and Scope in Religious Work.” It’s a document whose existence has never been announced to the public, and whose issuer, legal remit, and period of effect remain unknown. Yet it forms the basis of the charges against Pastor Yang Hua.
Hongwu said that though she has received no announcement of the trial, the only reason she won’t be there is if she’s put under house arrest. Pastor Su, according to a source, has been taken out of Guiyang on an involuntary trip.
As for the fate of the Living Stone church and the trial of Pastor Yang, Zhang Tan shared his thoughts: China’s “governing the country according to the law” (依法治国) is about using harsh legal instruments to control the people, in the model of the Qin Dynasty. It’s about maintaining and exercising the power of rulers, and has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the people. This, he said, is really the “Chinese characteristics.” “Secrets” are everywhere in today’s China, he said. “For example, they want to demolish my home, so they have a ‘secret’ document for demolishing my home. If I get ahold of this document, it is me who violated the law, not they, who want to destroy my property. Only a dictatorship has secrets everywhere, and it’s only under a dictatorship that one finds such absurdities at every turn.”
Zhang Tan argues that throughout Chinese history, there have been benevolent governments and ruthless governments. But take any issue and compare today’s communist rule with that of the Qin or Ming — widely seen as the harshest and most abusive dynasties — and the regime of today is worse. “The Chinese nation,” he said, “has come to an end.”
A sense of peace fills the letters Pastor Yang Hua has sent to his wife and children from his cell. He told Hongwu that his conditions have improved, and that he had no more need of money or other supplies. His imprisonment, he wrote, is a sabbatical that Jesus granted him after 23 years of toil. He said he’ll enjoy it, “like a child who’s had his full of milk, sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, December 21, 2015.
December 15, 2016
Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.
YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.
Chang Ping: Thank you.
YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?
Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.
YC: How did you become a journalist?
Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”
After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.
After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》) was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.
Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.
YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.
Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.
As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”
Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!
About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.
I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.
YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”
Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.
YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.
Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.
But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.
YC: Why the rectification?
Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.
After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.
At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).
YC: I’ll find that and take a look.
Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”
In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.
YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?
Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.
In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.
After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.
YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”
Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.
YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?
Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.
I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.
YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.
Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.
Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.
In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏：真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.
At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.
Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.
Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.
Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.
YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.
When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?
Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.
When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)
YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?
Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.
Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.
YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.
Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended.
In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.
Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.
I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.
Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.
‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016
The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.
China Change, November 29, 2016
“A lawyer who was born at just the right time; a lawyer who’s willing to take any case; a lawyer hated by a small political clique; a lawyer who wants to win the respect of regular folk; a lawyer who kept going even after being stripped of his law license.” – Jiang Tianyong’s Twitter bio
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) has been incommunicado for nine days as of today, and repeated attempts by his wife and lawyers to confirm his whereabouts and the circumstances of his disappearance have been met with obstruction. He’s believed to have been abducted by the Chinese government and fear is mounting that he is now, once again, being subjected to brutal treatment.
On November 21, after meeting with the wife of detained lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳) in Changsha, Jiang notified his wife and friends that he was returning to Beijing by the D940 train, due to arrive at the Beijing West Railway Station at 6:30 a.m. He never arrived, and no one has been able to reach him by phone since the evening of November 21.
Jiang Tianyong has been a prominent figure in the struggle for the rule of law in China over the past decade. While he only practiced law for a little over five years before being stripped of his license, he continued his legal activism tirelessly. Of most recent note, Jiang led the campaign to free rights lawyers detained in the mass July 15 crackdown last year known as the “709 Incident.”
International media have reported his disappearance (AP, Reuters), over 60 lawyers in China issued a statement demanding information and explanation, and France, Germany and the United States urged the Chinese government to provide information about Jiang. German Vice Chancellor and trade minister Sigmar Gabriel, who visited China recently and met with Jiang and eight other lawyers and relatives of detained lawyers, was shocked to learn about his disappearance, and vowed to put pressure on Chinese leaders.
As Good as the Company He Keeps
Jiang Tianyong was born in Luoshan (罗山县), the southernmost county in China’s central province of Henan. “The area around our hometown was beautiful — the land of milk and honey surrounded by mountains and lakes. But from the time I can remember, we were very poor. We never had enough to eat or wear, and despite working long hours doing non-stop manual labor, year in and year out, we were always hard up.”
In 1991, Jiang enrolled in what’s now Changsha University and after graduation became a high school Chinese teacher in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. “Even though teaching is an important profession, I never found it interesting enough, and it never quite sated my curiosity. I was, on the other hand, deeply drawn to questions of power, the law, and democracy,” he told an interviewer in 2010. His high school classmate Li Heping (李和平), already a lawyer and one of those detained in the 709 arrests last year, encouraged him to take the bar exam. He did, and passed.
In 2004, Jiang moved to Beijing to practice law. He became a human rights lawyer inspired by the barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng. In 2005 when Chen was tried and sentenced to four years in prison, Jiang was there by his side defending him.
“It was only with the Chen Guangcheng case that I truly entered the ranks of the human rights lawyers,” he said. “Later on the Internal Security police came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Your problem is that you’re not careful enough about choosing your friends, and you’ve been led down a wrong path. If you didn’t make friends with people like Chen Guangcheng, Li Heping, and Teng Biao, you wouldn’t be in the trouble you are today.’ Haha.”
Soon after, Jiang ramped up his human rights work, representing a clutch of sensitive clients: Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), a persecuted rights lawyer; private oil well owners in the Shanbei oilfields (陕北油田) who had their assets expropriated by the state; farmers in Taishi village, Guangzhou (广州太石村), who sought to sack local Party officials for corruption; and dissident Hu Jia (胡佳) who went on to receive the Sakharov Prize in 2008, among other cases. After 2008 Jiang began taking on Falun Gong cases. “I’ve been involved in more than 20,” he said.
In late 2005, at the height of a HIV epidemic in China caused by contaminated blood transfusions, Jiang was one of the lawyers who collaborated with an NGO to represent poor rural victims, according to a recent article by Wan Yanhai (万延海), the head of Aizhixing (爱知行).
In 2009, Jiang represented Jigme Guri, a senior monk at Labrang monastery in southern Gansu, who was arrested after providing a video recording of unrest on March 14 to Voice of America.
In late 2009, Jiang was one of the eight lawyers in Beijing stripped of their licenses to practice. The reason, he said, is because they had represented Falun Gong practitioners and been part of a campaign to directly elect the officials of the Beijing Bar Association, a Party-controlled body that regulates the profession. The experience of Jiang and others is portrayed in the film “Disbarment” (吊照门) by the documentarian He Yang (何楊).
Jiang says he has enormous respect for the legal profession. “History shows us that lawyers have played a crucial role in modern times: for instance, the role of lawyers was indispensable and its traces everywhere in the American declaration of independence and the War of Independence; the French Revolution, though given to an excess of violence, saw lawyers play a very significant role. There’s nothing more important for defending democratic rights than the law, and there’s no one more involved in that than lawyers.”
60 Days of Secret Detention
Jiang Tianyong is no stranger to secret, forced disappearances.
In February 2011, when an anonymous call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China’s major cities made the rounds online, Chinese authorities detained hundreds of lawyers, activists, and dissidents across the country. Jiang Tianyong was one of them. He was released in April, but remained silent about what he went through. In September that year he decided to speak out, revealing the details in an interview with Voice of America.
On February 19, Jiang was dragged away and shoved in a car as he family watched on, then driven to a secret detention center for interrogation. He told his captors that what they were doing was illegal. After demanding to know the legal basis for interrogation, he found that “in that small room, the law of the People’s Republic of China had been annulled.”
In the two months he was detained, neither he nor his family were given any formal notification of his status, no one knew where he had been locked up, and his family didn’t even know if he was dead or alive. He didn’t see the sun once while in custody. The only light he was exposed to was the harsh glow of the bulb in his dark cell.
His interrogators pummeled his body hard with plastic bottles full of water, pinched his face, and screamed abuse and threats in a constant stream. On the third day, the police decided that Jiang would get out of bed according to their rules: He would be made to rise, yell “Report!” and then say “I am willing to be educated by the government!” Then, he had to recite from memory three so-called patriotic songs decided by his jailers. If he made an error, he had to start again.
He was deprived of sleep the first five nights in detention while being interrogated from midnight to 6:00 a.m.
He was also forced to “self-reflect,” which took the form of sitting in front of a wall, hands on knees, where he was attacked if he so much as flinched. He could be called in for “talks” by public security personnel at any moment, where they would try to brainwash him with what they described as “remedial education.” He had no choice but to listen as they went on and on. Jiang said he lingered on the cusp of losing his mind at any moment — he could have had a mental breakdown, leapt up and lashed out at his jailers, or anything, he said.
Wan Yanhai described the state Jiang was in over the months after his disappearance. “When I spoke with him on the phone he’d interrupt and tell me to stop talking, because he had to report everything back to the security police. I told him not to worry, and that I could help him write the report. So our interactions mostly resumed their normalcy. We didn’t have any particular secrets to keep anyway.”
Coming out with the details of his detention was also part of the healing process, if one can be “healed” at all after such traumatic experiences.
Ruptured Eardrum and Eight Broken Ribs
On May 4, 2012, after Chen Guangcheng made his daring escape from his village in Shandong to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Jiang went to visit him in the Chaoyang Hospital in the capital. For that, he was bailed up by at least five Internal Security agents, and in the course of the beating had his left eardrum ruptured.
On March 20, 2014, Jiang, along with his colleagues Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) traveled to a notorious “legal education base” (a.k.a. brainwashing center) at the Qinglongshan Farm, Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation District (建三江农垦总局), in the far northern province of Heilongjiang, demanding that the Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained there be released. They also submitted a complaint to the local Procuratorate. The following morning they were all taken away by local public security authorities, and administratively detained for 15 days for engaging in so-called “heterodox religious activities.”
In an interview with VOA, Tang Jitian described the police torture and beatings he was subjected to. “They refused to show their police badges, explain our legal rights, or to have two police present when questioning, nor did they turn on their audio-video recording equipment. I was of the belief that the procedures violated the law, and refused to cooperate. Immediately a few police began thumping me in the ears and face, then used a plastic bottle full of water to start hitting me in the cheeks, knocking a tooth out. When they finished striking me they asked whether or not I’d sign the interrogation transcript. I said that it was illegal, and I wasn’t going to sign it. They cuffed my hands behind my back, hooded me, and dragged me to an anonymous room in the Daxing Public Security Sub-Bureau compound. Then they strung me up by the hands — still behind my back — and started punching and kicking.”
Tang Jitian continued: “About five or six police were involved. As they were beating me they threatened that they were going to cut out my kidneys while I was still alive. The main thing I remember is the pain of being repeatedly hit in the chest — it was excruciating. I immediately began sweating uncontrollably, and I felt darkness start to close in. In the end I had no choice but to promise to cooperate. So they dragged me back to the interrogation room and started slapping me in the face again and hitting me with the water bottles. Left with no other option, I signed their transcript. Still they left me handcuffed in one of the duty rooms at the Daxing Sub-Bureau until later that evening. From the morning of March 21 when we were put under police control, until that night, I was only given two steamed buns. On the evening of March 22 I was taken to the detention center, which was the first time I had a proper meal.”
All four lawyers were subjected similar brutalities and suffered injuries. Eight of Jiang Tianyong’s ribs were broken.
A Veteran Activist, Determined to Stay
Jiang Tianyong has been living in danger for years. Internal Security agents follow him nearly every day, and his door lock is glued shut by thugs with the government so often that he’s gotten used to replacing it. At his exhortation, his wife and daughter left the country — and he’s simply happy that they don’t need to live a life of fear anymore.
An individual close to Jiang recently wrote the following in a group chat on the secure messaging application Telegram: “Lawyer Jiang is truly one of the very few veteran activists to both stay in China and continue the work. Friends regularly tell him to leave and go into hiding, because there’s no hope for saving China at this stage. But he always says: As long as there’s room to do something, he doesn’t want to leave China and fritter his time away overseas. ‘Leaving is easy, but coming back is hard,’ he said. After the mass arrests of lawyers in July last year, many of Jiang’s friends were once again secretly detained, tortured, and tried. Political activists, rights defenders, lawyers, NGO workers, all vanished. Jiang was the fish who escaped the dragnet — but he hardly took heed of the danger, continuing to swim against the current, consoling 709 families and helping them however he could.”
When a close friend urged him to leave, he said, “Li Heping and the others are like brothers to me. How could I possibly leave at this point?”
Jiang told the Associated Press in June that he feared he could be detained at any moment, and rarely spent more than a few nights in one place.
Friends and colleagues describe him as warm, caring, and selfless.
November 1, 2016
Updated on November 17: 5-minute BBC video tells everything you need to know about Chinese elections.
Yaxue Cao: This year is also an election year in China, with county- and district-level elections of People’s Representatives on November 15. Independent candidates have sprung up everywhere, and China Change recently ran an article about the independent candidates from Beijing, including the group of 18 organized by Beijing resident Ye Jinghuan (野靖环). Over the months leading up to the vote, they’ve held training sessions on election law and the electoral process — some of which was presented by lawyers. But since their announcement of candidacy, they’ve been harassed by police. On the first day (October 24) of their neighborhood campaign, police came and stopped some of them from leaving home, and blocked interviews with foreign media. Some candidates elsewhere in China have been subject to criminal or administrative detention.
Hu Ping: Right, that’s what happened. I’ve also been following this news.
Yaxue Cao: This is unbelievable given that we both experienced the Haidian District People’s Representatives elections at Peking University in the fall of 1980. You were a graduate student in philosophy at the time, one of candidates who got elected. Now, 36 years later, China has changed in almost every way — yet in all these 36 years, no progress has been made to expand elections. Not only has it not changed, in fact it’s worse than it was 36 years ago. This is why I wanted to speak with you about elections in China today: the fact that there has been zero change on this, over more than three decades, is an important lens through which to evaluate China politically.
So first, please explain to us: what are “grassroots elections”?
Hu Ping: There are two kinds of grassroots elections in China: those at the county and district level for electing the deputies to the People’s Congress, and those for electing the head of a village. Both are direct elections. Before the Cultural Revolution there were similar elections that I participated in once when I was in senior high school — it was a single-candidate election (等额选举). This means that when you wanted to elect a representative, there was only one candidate. And that candidate had been selected in advance by the higher-ups — there was no competitive process, and the whole thing was just a formality. It was a joke.
After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese society had been ravaged, and there was a sense that China needed democracy. Even the Party conservatives thought that these were just grassroots elections, and allowing the people to vote in a few petty bureaucrats wouldn’t impact anything. In 1980, the Party center promulgated a new election law, which said that apart from the regular channels of nominating candidates—social organizations [affiliated with the Party], Party organizations, and unions [controlled by the Party]—individual citizens can also nominate themselves to be candidates, as long as they have three people to second their nomination. The updated rules also stated that candidates could engage in publicity. This was an opening for electioneering in China.
Back then, the elections weren’t held at the same time across the country. For instance, Shanghai’s and Sichuan’s were a bit earlier in the year, and Beijing’s was held last. This was probably because Beijing is the political capital, and political passions there run hotter than elsewhere. Stacking Beijing last was about limiting the influence of the elections.
As elections were held around China, university campuses became very active. At Fudan University in Shanghai, undergraduates in the Chinese language department, philosophy department, and also graduate students, became candidates. This was reported in “China Youth Daily.” The elections in Beijing were held in November, and Haidian District, which has a concentration of universities, came last. Back then Li Shengping (李胜平), who was studying in Xicheng District at one of Peking University’s branch campuses, stood for election and won. He was one of the activists involved in the Democracy Wall (民主墙) and an editor of the “Beijing Spring” (北京之春) magazine. He was also involved in the April 5th incident, 1976.
Because Haidian District had so many universities, the election activities there were especially active. Peking University was divided into two electoral constituencies: one for faculty, workers, and their families, and another for students and graduate students. The constituency for undergrads and graduate students elected two representatives, and 20-30 people ran as candidates. A range of activities were held to attract votes, including public debates, question-and-answer sessions, and so on. For about a month or more Peking University was soaked in the atmosphere of the election.
An important feature of the Peking University elections is that even though the post was for a largely irrelevant district representative, the political ideas proposed were of national significance: namely, how to foster the democratization of China. Actually, everyone was clear on what was really going on, which is that we were simply using the platform of an election to express our views to the government. I suspect that this is something the authorities didn’t anticipate. They thought that because the issues county- and district-level deputies can get involved in are so minor, there’s no political significance to the process at all.
Yaxue Cao: At that time I was a freshman still finding my ways on campus, and I remember during the elections there were people crowded near the The Triangle (三角地) every day, looking at the election-related big and small character posters. Even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on, I browsed some of them. I remember the back walls of the glass display board at The Triangle were covered too, and I remember reading an A4-sized poster titled “John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”
Hu Ping: Also, during the elections students organized their own media, reporting on all the electoral developments. Some candidates also organized their own election teams. Back then the president of Peking University was very open-minded about it and provided the school auditorium for the debates. I myself held two debates at that auditorium.
Li Shengping’s triumph in the Xicheng District election put some of the old conservatives in Beijing on guard. The municipal government dispatched an internal notice demanding that party members not get involved in elections. This shows that the conservatives at the time were terrified of the idea of even a grassroots vote. But the entire social atmosphere was pursuing change, student passions were high, and most of the campus leaders and administrators were fairly open-minded and liberal — because so many people had experienced horrifying political persecution in the past.
At the end of 1980 the Solidarity Movement in Poland was formed. The conservative Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) wrote an internal letter saying that the same sort of thing might transpire in China, and the Party elite started to get very nervous. The whole political atmosphere quickly became much more stern. After the election there was a rumor saying that the top Party leadership were very unhappy with the elections and wanted to crack down — they only reason they didn’t was because of internal disagreement.
Later they revised the election law and limited a number of election activities. At the next election in 1983 (they were held every three years), the Communist Party was running the so-called “anti-spiritual pollution” political campaign (反精神污染运动), and the political atmosphere was heavy, so there weren’t very many election activities held then.
Yaxue Cao: I was still on campus in 1983, but I don’t have any memory of the elections that year — so it mustn’t have been anything like 1980. In 1980, Chen Ziming (陈子明) was elected as a representative for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. You wrote in an essay that he was the convenor of the group of representatives drawn from universities in Haidian District. What did all you do as representatives?
Hu Ping: We proposed some draft resolutions, voted against or abstained from voting on some government work reports, and so on. It was all trivial stuff. Nothing we did had any impact on the big picture.
By the time 1986 came around, the atmosphere had loosened up again, and election activities started up once more. For instance, at Peking University Li Xianbin (李淑贤), a lecturer in the physics department, was elected as a representative, and she was of course the wife of Fang Lizhi (方励之). Professor Fang had already gained national prominence and influence at universities around China for his involvement in pro-liberalization and democratization activities, and the Communist Party saw him as an enormous headache. Fang was engaged in his own enthusiastic electioneering at the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui. Then the 1986 student movement started, beginning at CUST and then spreading to Shanghai and Beijing, with students taking to the streets. The police made some arrests, but when this stirred up even more students to go to Tiananmen Square to protest, they quickly let them go.
The lively political atmosphere throughout 1986 struck dread into the Communist Party leadership, and they made a major decision: they expelled Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan (刘宾雁), and Wang Ruowang (王若望), and others, from the Party — and the reform-minded Party Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) was also forced out. The political atmosphere once again became severe.
What all this means is that before the 1989 movement, the hardliners at the top of the Communist Party had already lashed out against a tide of liberalism and democracy, but because China was still just emerging from the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, social elites — including some members of the top echelon of the Party — all actually sought some degree of freedom and democracy, especially the youth and the intellectuals. The yearning was deep. In China at that time, everyone was increasingly dissatisfied with the half-hearted opening up that the authorities had engaged in. This was followed up with a half-hearted repression, which didn’t truly strike fear into people’s hearts, and thus aroused even more disaffection. It was against this backdrop that the democracy movement of 1989 exploded.
After the June 4 massacre, the Communist Party was completely panicked and they viewed every collective activity as a major threat, and their attacks on dissent became fiercer. The whole political atmosphere of the 1990s was desolate and grim.
By the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, independent candidates began appearing again, such as Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. And again, it was at the universities — for instance Xu Zhiyong was a teacher at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications when he was elected. But these elections were nothing like the 1980s, where all the talk was about national politics, and ideals; in the latter case, the election was limited to how they’ll discharge their duty as people’s representatives. For all that, independent candidature in and of itself represents a strong orientation toward democratic principles and values, so these elections are still enormously meaningful. Furthermore, grassroots elections are the only way that Chinese citizens can actually cast votes.
Yaxue Cao: Xu Zhiyong was elected a People’s representative in both 2003 and 2006, but by 2011 (at that point elections had been changed to once every five years), the authorities resorted to all sorts of measures to prevent him from being re-elected. A few years ago you wrote an article about grassroots elections, noting that after three decades, the bureaucratic level of the posts haven’t risen — it remains at county- and district-level People’s Congresses, and village elections. Another observation you made is that the quality of them has dropped, which has manifested in the general lack of interest in the elections by voters, given that they’ve often simply become a show manipulated by officials, who receive bribes and crush independent competitors. So, given that the authorities have absolutely no intention to roll out genuine elections, why don’t they just abolish them and appoint the representatives or village officials directly themselves? Isn’t that the outcome anyway? Why go to the trouble of staging them?
Hu Ping: After June 4, the Party began to regard liberalization and democratization as the number one enemy, and there was basically no one at the top echelon of the Party who had any sympathy or support for democracy. The suppression never let up, and China’s entire political ecology underwent a fundamental change. But the authorities don’t really have any need to promulgate a law abolishing the grassroots election system altogether, because it’s too insignificant. With continuous repression in the 20 some years following the June 4 massacre, cynicism is rampant in Chinese society, and the majority of Chinese people feel no attachment or sympathy with the past movement of liberalization and democracy, and they don’t get involved. So, the fact that there are so many people now stepping forward as candidates is just amazing. The risks they’re taking are so much greater than those we took back then, so it’s worthy of our wholehearted support and close attention. Every single person who runs as an independent candidate, without exception, becomes a target for the authorities to attack. The corollary to this is that it proves that independent candidature is itself a challenge, regardless of what your policies or politics are.
Yaxue Cao: I remember during the Wukan incident [in 2011] a group of public intellectuals traveled there to offer their support, and to get involved and be election observers. A few days ago I was chatting with He Depu (何德普) about this, and he said that this year public intellectuals didn’t have the slightest enthusiasm in the elections. Might this reflect the current political atmosphere in China?
Hu Ping: Since taking power, Xi Jinping has taken systematic steps to shut down the space for expression for Chinese liberal-leaning intellectuals, which had been constrained to begin with. Even the Gongshi (Consensus) website and the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine have been shut down and are no longer tolerated — and you can well imagine the terrorizing effect this has. I believe that the international community, including the United States and other Western countries, is seeing more and more clearly that the Chinese regime has had no intention of carrying out political and democratic reforms. On the contrary, as the Chinese economy grows bigger and bigger, the regime has become more confident and armed with more resources. These are obvious developments, and even some of the China apologists in the West are seeing that things are not panning out as they expected.
Yaxue Cao: U.S. policy toward China has for decades been built on the assumption that, once China develops and the middle class grows strong, democracy will naturally come. Many have been dazzled by changes in China. China watchers are awed, some even succumbed to admiring the efficiency of authoritarian rule. But at the same time, elections in China have made no progress whatsoever, in terms of both level and quality. Stacking these two pictures of China together, you can’t support the assumption that the course of economic development will nurture the course of democratization.
Hu Ping: It was predicated on a mistaken theory to begin with — and yet just what lies at the heart of the Communist Party, and just how the regime has made it through all these years, I believe Western observers still don’t have a clear understanding of. Not only are they unclear, but probably a lot of Chinese aren’t clear, because the twists and transformations of the Party have no precedent that we can reference. Actually, the principle is quite simple: After the extreme centralism of the Mao era resulted in widespread political terror and total economic collapse, after Mao died Chinese society from top to bottom, inside and outside the Party, experienced a strong impetus toward political and economic reform, and the 1980s was a reflection of this. The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also went through their own democratic transition via this route. But in China the June 4 massacre reversed the trend and history — and also changed the history of the world. You cannot have any hope that a regime built on such a massacre is going to engage in any liberalization and democracy. And so not only the Chinese people, but the entire world is faced with a stubborn and powerful dictatorship. I think people haven’t realizes the seriousness of this problem and haven’t devoted enough attention and understanding to it.
Yaxue Cao: In early October, professor Arthur Waldron at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a speech in New York that we published on the China Change website. He said that his greatest concern was that Western countries didn’t see autocracy as a feature of communism, but as a feature of China.
Hu Ping: What’s needed right now is to have a complete narrative of China’s political course over the past three decades, letting people know that China has undergone a very special process that has led to today’s China. As you examine this process, you will see that the Chinese are not any different from foreigners. So when assessing China don’t just extrapolate from economic determinism to a claim of Chinese exceptionalism. The damage this does is divert attention from how to counter the challenges and deal with the threat posed by a communist dictatorship, to instead being about how to accommodate and accept them. This is dangerous. You should be changing it, not accepting it. When the bar is continually lowered to: “We are fine with it as long as we avoid war,” isn’t that aiding them?
Yaxue Cao: Once the free world begins to make concessions on universal values, the world order will change.
Hu Ping: It’s already changing. If accommodation becomes the new engagement policy, the West will inflict disasters on itself. China is not North Korea. North Korea has no ability to corrupt other countries, but China will corrupt the whole world.
Yaxue Cao: In looking back on the 1980 elections in Peking University, you refuted the idea that “democratization depends on a market economy and a strong middle class.” You pointed out that, in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and few people knew what democracy or freedom actually looked like. You wrote: “We discovered, spontaneously and indigenously, the idea of constitutional democracy and its operation.”
Hu Ping: The New York Times interviewed me recently, and I also talked about this. Chinese propaganda wants you to believe that the concept of freedom and democracy is a Western one, but where did the Westerners get it? It was a response to lasting religious wars, persecution, and terror. People were persecuted for different beliefs, for different interpretations and views, and this led to demand for tolerance, for freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Following the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese wanted tolerance, and it was spontaneous.
When Eastern Europe democratized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had no middle class, no market economy. Mongolia had no market economy when it democratized. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), while in office, proposed that China needs a law to protect dissent. He had had no western education, where did he get that idea? Because he was persecuted for his speech, and he came to the realization that a line should be drawn between the rights of the people and the power of the government, and that certain freedoms must be granted and protected. The popular demand for freedom was the real cause of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. But the June 4 massacre changed not only the course of China, but also the course of the world.
Yaxue Cao: Yes. The world has yet to confront this reality. Thank you.
Hu Ping (胡平) lives in New York and edits Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China.”
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits the China Change website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Huang Simin, October 13, 2016
“If you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality.” — Ai Weiwei
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” — Li Tingyu
Born and raised in Guangdong, Li Tingyu (李婷玉) was a student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou where she majored in English but dropped out in senior year. She had been working with her boyfriend Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) on the self-published media known as 非新闻 (“Non-News”) until the couple’s detention on June 16 this year. The two were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and are currently detained in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan.
Li Tingyu and Lu Yuyu have become well-known online in recent years for their dogged work, through the Non-News blog, in searching, collating, and publishing information about mass incidents around China.
As Li Tingyu’s lawyer, I came to understand her personal background and history in the course of representing her and meeting her in custody. She gave her permission for me to set it down.
Childhood Encounter with Migrant Workers
The question “How’d you end up here?” sounds like the beginning of an interrogation. When I asked Li Tingyu, she wasn’t put off. She laughed, then told me her story.
Li was born in 1991 in a small, well-off village in Foshan, Guangdong Province. She grew up in complete comfort, attended elementary school in the village, and had not the slightest understanding of the outside world. The village had a large number of “migrant workers,” however, and her best friend was from Chongqing — the daughter of a migrant worker. The girl’s mother collected trash for a living, and her father worked in a factory. They had to pay very high tuition — a few thousand yuan, which was a big chunk of household income — for the daughter to attend school in the village. The girl one day invited Li Tingyu to her place to play, and Li was shocked by the overcrowded ghetto of shanty houses. She couldn’t understand why the other villagers, of which she was a part, could do nothing but collect rent and lead a life of leisure, while migrant workers had to wear themselves down with arduous manual labor. In the end the friend from Chongqing had to go back home to continue her studies.
Later on, her readings exposed her to the issues of the Hukou system and workers’ rights, and she grasped at once what was going on — the experiences and observations of her childhood had left her with a deep impression.
A Petite Rebel
When she was in junior high school in the early 2000s, Li developed an appetite for devouring books and news stories online, mostly on politics, society, and the economy. She was fascinated by pedagogy, and after learning about the educational systems elsewhere in the world, penned an earnest letter to her headmaster demanding that he not “ruin us students with exam-oriented education.” Of course, the principal of a middle school in China is not going to follow this sort of advice. But at that age Li Tingyu was already developing independent ideas about how things were, and making her own choices. She managed to spend the minimum effort to get through the exams and still got grades near the top of her class, and used the rest of her time to read what she wanted. It was a boarding school, so Li would often burrow under the blanket with a flashlight and a book deep into the night.
By the time Li Tingyu was in high school, the atmosphere online was fairly liberal [the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008] — at least, much better than it is today — and blogs were all the rage. Li read them avidly, and gained an ever deeper understanding of Chinese society. She said that this period was a kind of awakening for her.
Li recalled her politics teacher in senior high school — he personally participated in the 1989 student movement, was punished by local authorities, and in 1991 left his hometown and came with the son to Guangzhou, finally winding up in this small town teaching high school. This teacher wasn’t like the others, forcing students to woodenly parrot political texts — instead, he often ended up speaking about his experiences in the student movement. He encouraged students to go and read up about what really happened. This teacher left a deep impression on the students. Luckily — and unexpectedly — the teacher wasn’t reported to the authorities.
Li Tingyu also recalled how her classmates would pass around Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs on QQ, a Chinese messaging app. Through all this, her understanding of China continued to evolve.
The GoAgent ‘Savior’
At some point during senior high school Li read an essay by Zhang Ming, a well-known academic and liberal intellectual, analyzing the wreck that is China’s university system. From that point on Li held a low regard for life at university. She chose English for two reasons: she was good at it and she saw English as a tool for assimilating more information. Knowing that books in Chinese were often censored in facts and interpretation, she often went straight to English. The Sun Yat-sen University library had a number of English volumes on the June 4 movement, and she read them all.
Li says that, to a large extent, the internet changed her life — especially in the third year of undergraduate studies, when she learnt how to “jump the Great Firewall” with a VPN called GoAgent. She had installed GoAgent on the computers of at least 50-60 of her friends. There were teachers at the university who asked her help to install the software. Li said that through all this she experienced an ineffable “savior”-type feeling: only through being able to access free information was it possible to understand the reality in China. Even if her fellow students only wanted to read celebrity news to begin with, as time went on, they’d start paying attention to social issues. She was once reported by a fellow student for “politically incorrect” speech, and her school counselor urged her to be a more careful about who she revealed her thoughts to.
A ‘Good Life’ Without Dignity
Li recalled a conversation she once had with a friend online about the “reincarnation party” (an internet term, primarily used on Weibo, that refers to individuals who have had their accounts deleted, and who then re-establish a second, third, or fourth ‘life’ on Weibo to continue their protest). The friend was a graduate student of sociology at Peking University, doing research on the topic. The friend remarked, with an obvious sense of superiority, about how the internet at Peking University wasn’t restricted, that he can find find out whatever information he wants easily, and how he would emigrate to live a better life.” I interjected that there are plenty of people who think like this. Li recalled, still indignant, “he didn’t care about fighting against the information restrictions; instead, he bragged about his privilege of having more access than others.”
“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” she asked him.
I fell silent. Indeed, having a true life of dignity in China comes at an enormous cost. In a society that lacks the most basic rights, the “dignity” that most people enjoy is as false and fleeting as soap bubbles. In reality, it’s the Li Tingyus of China, now in jail, who are actually living with dignity.
The Turning Point
Everyone has a turning point at some time in their lives — the episodes that drive us to do what we do now. A few years ago I was in the office of lawyer Li Heping, looking over files and documentary materials on the “Leping death penalty case,” when I violently broke into tears. In the end, I forgot I had to catch my train. From that point on things inside me changed. Li Heping, though, is now in detention for supposed “subversion of state power.”
I asked Li Tingyu whether she had a turning point. She mentioned a few episodes that did it. Once, doing homework on media studies, she stumbled across a website in India that contained an account of self-immolations in Tibet. The news stunned her. During the “Southern Weekend incident,” in which her friends from senior high school went along to support, and in the end were taken into custody. She and her friends used Weibo to get the message out about the friends’ detention. That was the first time that Li had been that close to a specific act of resistance. Later, she encountered activists, and that also brought changes to her life.
I asked why she quit university when she was in the fourth and final year. She responded, earnestly, that she’d figured it out years ago that the diploma meant little to her. I responded that I’d also been something of a rebel, but I couldn’t do something like that — especially given that it only requires sticking at it for a few more months until graduation.
She thought quietly for a moment, and said she grew up with her grandparents, and after they died she moved in with her mom and dad, but they never really communicated. “No one really looked after my life,” she said.
I didn’t probe further. So many of our feelings are so deep inside. How much solitude and suffering must one silently bear to gain that level of resolve and courage? All I can say is: I wish you well, Li Tingyu.
September 5, 2016
Huang Simin (黄思敏) is a Hubei-based lawyer.
What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today, by Wu Qiang, July, 2016
Li Heping, Ai Weiwei, August 21, 2016
This is a translation of an Ai Weiwei interview of lawyer Li Heping (李和平) in July 2010 (here, here, here, and here) that was released only recently. Beginning from his first involvement in “sensitive” cases around 2002, Li Heping went through the trajectory of his years as one of China’s earliest rights lawyers, including police brutality against him in 2007. Over the past decade or so, many early rights lawyers have withdrawn from the scene under duress, but Li Heping is one of the few who have persevered. He was arrested in July, 2015, as one of dozens of rights lawyers in what is known as the “709 Crackdown” of human rights lawyers and activists. After a year of secret detention with no access to legal counsel or to family, his case has recently been sent to prosecutors for indictment, but earlier this month, Chinese state media seemed to have already charged him with “using funds from a certain overseas NGO to engage in subversion of state power.” If the spectacle of the four show trials in early August is any indication, the entire 709 crackdown is spurred by unfounded fears and is a mockery of the rule of law. – The Editors
My name is Li Heping (李和平), and I love being a lawyer. I’ve served as counsel in many cases that have met with success, and that feeling of accomplishment makes me really happy.
Starting in 2002 I started getting involved in cases that were deemed sensitive — for example, cases involving Article 105 of the Criminal Law, “subversion of state power.” The first case I took at that time was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会) where the Procuratorate had charged Yang Zili (杨子立) and three others of “subverting state power.” The first time I defended them was when I came to understand issues associated with politics and prisoners of conscience, and I was really shocked. At first, I was really at a loss as to how to defend them. Back then I didn’t know much about politics, democracy, republicanism, constitutionalism — I only knew how to mount a defense from the perspective of criminal law and the criminal process. But I later found that this sort of criminal procedure defense is simply useless.
When the young migrant worker, new college graduate Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) was beaten to death in police custody in 2003, we also paid close attention. Back then Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Yu Jiang (俞江), the three PhDs in Law from Peking University, wrote a citizen petition demanding that the National People’s Congress abolish the draconian “Custody and Repatriation Regulations” (《收容审查条例》). And later, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, who had just assumed office, did abolish these regulations. We were really happy. In 2004 and 2005 it seemed that the internet was so dynamic and active, lots of people and cases would be exploding online, and we’d always be following them. Although, at the time the number of cases I actually participated in was quite few. I heard that there was a Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) who’d written three open letters about Falun Gong cases. He’d written a letter to Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), head of the NPC, demanding that the NPC examine Article 300 of the Criminal Law, about “using a heretical religious organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” He also demanded that they stop this sort of campaign-style persecution against Falun Gong. The impact of these three letters was huge. In 2004 there was also the lawyer Guo Guoting (郭国汀), who was punished by the judicial organs for representing sensitive cases — they threatened him with shutting down his legal practice. I was rather baffled: He’s a lawyer defending a client, and you’re going to shut down his firm? I really didn’t get it back then.
The Yang Zili Case and the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield Case
In 2005 when Yang Zili appealed, his wife Lu Kun (路坤) also asked Gao Zhisheng for help, who then notified me. That’s how I came to know Gao Zhisheng, and we got involved in Yang Zili’s appeal together. While that was underway, I also came across the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield case (陕北油田案), which is where the Shaanxi provincial government attempted to nationalize privately-run oil wells, and the owners of those wells didn’t agree. There was a lawyer, Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), who went and offered legal services to those well owners and was arrested by the local government. At that point myself and Gao Zhisheng, as well as some other lawyers who also got involved, went to represent Zhu Jiuhu. We had all the paperwork in order to visit Zhu, but were denied visitation by the local officials. A lot of interesting things happened — for example right outside the door of the police station, the armed police came and surrounded us. But thankfully six months later they released Zhu.
The ‘Dongyang, Huashui’ Case
Afterwards there were a series of similar cases — for instance, the incident in Huashui township, Dongyang city, Zhejiang (浙江东阳画水). On April 4, 2005, in Huashui the authorities mobilized over 3,000 police in order to expel villagers who had come to petition in defense of their rights. The villagers let off firecrackers, and before long about 30,000 more villagers materialized, completely surrounding the police. The police then began firing canisters of tear gas, but the wind was blowing it right back at them. In the end they simply fled under the blows of the citizens. A lot of police were injured, including a deputy mayor who was seriously hurt. The police later arrested and sentenced nine people, and we defended them.
The Chen Guangcheng Case
AI WEIWEI: Was it you who took on the Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) case?
LI HEPING: At the beginning it was me who represented him.
Let me explain how the Chen Guangcheng case happened. Linyi Township in Shandong Province (山东临沂) is a well-known “old revolutionary base” of the Communist Party, and they were extremely horrible in carrying out the birth control policies. For example if there was one person in a village who had already given birth, hadn’t been sterilized, and got pregnant again with the second child, then the authorities would take away not just the family of the woman’s husband who didn’t submit to sterilization, but even arrest everyone in the entire village — collective punishment (连坐). Only after the woman was handed over would they let everyone else go. And when they arrested villagers, it was not a simple detention — there were beatings, and they also fined them 100 yuan ($15) a day. For peasants, 100 yuan a day is no mean sum. They also beat several people to death.
At this point Chen Guangcheng, a blind man, thought that this was wrong. He looked for a lawyer, and right away found me, and I asked Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富) and a few other lawyers to go and investigate. The investigation found that the problem was indeed extremely severe. Later, Teng Biao and some other people also went, and also there was Guo Yushan (郭玉闪). Everyone wrote articles about it, and then foreign journalists also went, turning it into a big deal. The local government thought that they were just losing too much face, so they shut Chen Guangcheng up in his home, surrounded him with a large number of guards, and made sure he was under watch.
But Chen Guangcheng was really an amazing person. Despite his blindness, he scaled the wall in his courtyard, made his way to Shanghai by himself, and then came to Beijing. In Beijing he hid out in our home for quite a while. The Shandong authorities came to Beijing looking for him, and they figured that he’d have come to Beijing to stay with one of us. They found him hiding out in our compound, and abducted him back to Shandong.
After he was taken back they put him under even stronger guard, and Chen Guangcheng could no longer escape. At one point a lot of friends traveled to see him, and he wanted to go outside. On that occasion, I don’t know exactly what happened, but the police let him leave the house. Right outside was an intercity highway, and when he got to road the police blocked it off. Cars kept coming, and the road was blocked. So the police charged Chen Guangcheng with obstructing traffic and destroying public property. The latter charge was because they said that someone had smashed a police car. So we lawyers also defended that case at the time.
A lot of lawyers have been beaten in an attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng. We were the first batch, and later there was Li Jingsong (李劲松), Li Fangping (李方平), also Zhang Lihui (张立辉) — a group would go and be beaten and repelled before another batch going again. A lot of lawyers went. At that time the Ministry of Justice started exerting pressure on us, saying that if you still try to represent Chen’s case, you might not pass your annual lawyers’ qualification review. I thought that since there were new people getting involved, I’d just recuse myself from the case.
Later Li Jingsong, Li Fangping, Zhang Lihui, and Xu Zhiyong took on the case. The whole case was really interesting — Shandong police ended up complaining about us to authorities in Beijing. In the end when this case went to court, I didn’t go.
The “Three Grades of Servants” Case
There was a similar kind of case up in northeastern China, the “Three Grades of Servants” case. The Ministry of Public Security made this a “top priority” case for 2004, what’s known as a “thunderbolt case.” The police said this house church was a cult and grabbed more than 300 people. Eventually, they convicted 64 people, 22 of them sentenced to death and 10 executed. So it was a really big case. But at the time, the authorities placed extremely tight restrictions on any information about the case. They’d make sure to grab anyone who dared contact a lawyer. No information could get out.
I remember my first interaction with the case was February 9, 2006. They told me the trial would start in just over 20 days and asked me if I could be a defense lawyer. As soon as they found me, I went and found four other lawyers and we headed to the Northeast. When we got to the court, they refused to give us access to the case files. So we sent two formal letters to the court saying that if they weren’t going to let us read the case files we wouldn’t act as defense lawyers. There was nothing else to do. Then they said okay and let us selectively photocopy parts of the files. Before we got involved, no other lawyer had been able to photocopy documents from the files in that case.
We worked on the “Three Grades of Servants” case for all of 2006, representing the top two defendants in the case, Xu Shengguang (徐圣光) and Li Maoxing (李毛兴). Both of them were executed. We all felt that this was a miscarriage of justice and that there was no basis to sentence them to death. We worked the case, but we had huge doubts about so many issues.
AI WEIWEI: Where did this case take place?
LI HEPING: This was a case with national scope. Including Heilongjiang there were probably eight provincial high courts involved, all handing down verdicts. It was quite a big deal!
AI WEIWEI: Why?
LI HEPING: The authorities considered them to be an underground church, very well organized, and the government was scared. On top of that, there were conflicts between this church and the “Eastern Lightning” church, which was always trying to recruit and even kidnap their followers. Occasionally, members of “Eastern Lightning” would infiltrate their church and “Three Grades” people would detain them. One of these detentions led to a person dying, but there’s no proof that church leaders Li Maoxing or Xu Shengguang were responsible for that. There was no evidence, not a shred. But they put bullets in their heads anyway.
AI WEIWEI: So they used this incident to wipe out this church.
LI HEPING: That’s right. And they said that all the funds church members had contributed to the church had been obtained through fraud and confiscated more than 30 million yuan. That itself was also a pretty big deal.
2007 Kidnapping and Beating
In 2006 Gao Zhisheng’s law firm was given a one-year suspension. I was an attorney at that firm at the time and took part in his hearing. That probably upset folks from the judicial administration bureau and the guobao (domestic security police). I wanted to act as Gao’s defense lawyer in 2007, but the police had started following me in 2006 so that whenever I returned to Beijing there would be police at my door. Wherever I went, I’d be surrounded on all sides by eight policemen who never left my side.
I was living in the Lido Employees Apartments on Jiangtai Road in Chaoyang District. When I went to work, they’d sit across from the office and keep watch. It was quite a deployment! They never said anything, only “We just do what the higher-ups tell us to do,” that kind of thing. When they arrested Gao Zhisheng, they were afraid that there’d be a chain reaction so they started following all of Gao’s friends around like that.
It was September 29, 2007, just before the National Day holiday. Just like they now do whenever a “sensitive period” comes around, all of the guobao started taking their posts outside our homes and putting us under 24-hour surveillance. One guobao, two police officers from the local station, and two security guards—five men in all.
AI WEIWEI: Did you know any of their names?
LI HEPING: Sure, I knew their names. That night there was Liang Jiu, a guobao from the Chaoyang Precinct. The two officers from the local station were new, and I didn’t know them. One of the security guards was named Zhang Qing. I don’t recall the other guard’s name.
Ordinarily, the cops from the local station would change shifts around 8 p.m. To make things easier for them, they would change shifts after I got off work. But on that particular day, Liang Jiu sent the local cops away a little after 3 p.m., leaving only himself. I guess they must have sent Liang some sort of notice.
When I got off work, Liang Jiu said I didn’t need to drive and that I should ride with him. At the time, I thought I got along reasonably well with Liang so I got in his car. Outside my office building there was a newsstand. Liang told me to go over there and wait for him to pull up. Then he left and never came back.
Suddenly, another guy ran up to me. He was over six feet tall and had a scar on his face. He grabbed my right hand and asked: “Are you Li Heping?”
I said: “Yes.”
“Come with me. You’re just the scumbag I’m looking for.”
After he grabbed me, he tried to push me out in front of him but I refused to move. So up comes another guy and grabs my other hand, and soon I had what I guess was a cloth hood placed over my head. Then they forced me into a waiting car that I happened to glimpse had no license plates.
They sat on either side of me, and I sensed that there was another guy in the passenger seat up front. When they grabbed me, they searched through my pockets and took away my briefcase and computer. There were probably two cars. I feel like we probably drove for an hour. They had my hands pinned behind my back and forced my head down almost to my crotch so it was difficult to breathe.
It was the evening rush hour. I couldn’t figure out where they were taking me, but I sensed that we were on the highway and went through a toll station. Later, I sensed that we had gone up into the hills or something like that, probably to a site of theirs. They had to sign in at the gate, so we stopped for a bit before entering. After entering, I felt like we were going underground, perhaps to a basement. Inside the basement, I remember there were between 6 and 10 men, who all started taking turns beating me.
AI WEIWEI: What did they say to you in the car? How did you get out of the car? How did you get into the basement? Did they remove the hood?
LI HEPING: They never said anything in the car, only: “Behave yourself. Move and we’ll beat you to death.” They raised my hands up very high, putting pressure on the blood vessels inside. My legs went completely numb. They removed the hood only after I got in the basement. What color it was, I never really noticed.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of room was it?
LI HEPING: It was like a room in a guesthouse, but without a bed. The floor was tiled, and there was a table with a tablecloth and a leather baton and an electric prod. They took turns beating me—first three would take a turn and then the next three. It was like that.
AI WEIWEI: What do you mean by “took turns”? How did they beat you? Were you sitting or standing? What was it like?
LI HEPING: When I got there, they tried to strip off all my clothes, but I wouldn’t let them. Several of them got together to strip off my clothes, leaving me in my underwear. Then they took the electric prod and “ZAP”—they started giving me shocks! The day after I got out, Li Fangping saw a bunch of marks from where they’d zapped me.
AI WEIWEI: How many times? What did it feel like?
LI HEPING: They zapped me many times. For six hours, they mostly hit me with the electric prod. They also hit me in the head with full water bottles and slapped me. One slap to my left ear pierced my eardrum. They also kicked me and stomped on me. I collapsed on the floor and they were surrounding me, kicking and stomping.
AI WEIWEI: You collapsed?
LI HEPING: Yes, I fell to the floor. I was rolling around and they chased after me to beat me some more. They were even laughing, they seemed perversely happy.
AI WEIWEI: Could you tell what sort of people they were?
LI HEPING: They were pros at this sort of thing. They said they were from state security, but I think they were probably guobao.
AI WEIWEI: Why would they say they were state security?
LI HEPING: I have no idea.
AI WEIWEI: Were there any other conversations?
LI HEPING: Yeah. The first thing they did was interrogating me: “What’s your name? Where are you from?” I said they knew who I was already and I wasn’t going to answer. They grabbed me by the head and said: “Are you going to talk or not?” Then—“POW”—they started slapping me.
They said: “You’re in our hands now, so don’t even think about when you’re going to get out. You are lucky if you ever see a courtroom, but there’s no way we’re sending you to prison. We’ll just say you’ve disapppeared without a trace.” That sort of thing.
AI WEIWEI: You said that they kept taking turns beating you in groups of three. How did you keep track of time?
LI HEPING: I know that it was around one in the morning when they let me go.
AI WEIWEI: You were beaten non-stop up to that point?
LI HEPING: Yeah. I’d gotten off work at 5 p.m. Once I got there, they beat me and kicked me without a break.
AI WEIWEI: When they were beating you like that, was there any point when you couldn’t stand it or you fainted? I mean, what did it feel like?
LI HEPING: Let me put it this way. Of course it hurt a lot, and it was humiliating. But I also thought: “You’re already in their hands, and there’s nowhere to run. So there’s no use in being afraid.” That’s all I was thinking at the time. “Even if they beat you to death, what can you do about it? Nothing.” That was what I was thinking, because I figured there was nothing I could do, right? When you’re getting beat up in a place like that, it doesn’t matter what sort of skills you might have—what can you do? You can only put yourself at their mercy.”
AI WEIWEI: Did you ever think to yourself: “I’m a lawyer. I ought to give them a piece of my mind for the way they’re violating the law”?
LI HEPING: Are they interested in talking with you about law at that moment? They’re already acting like the mafia. If you’re going to talk about the law it ought to be in an open setting, where everyone acts according to the law and the facts. Of course that would be great, but at that moment that’s not the way things were going.
I did say to them at the time: “I’ve got no beef with you, so why are you doing this to me?”
They said to me: “It’s you bunch of outsider lawyers that’s giving us no peace in Beijing! Go back and sell your apartment, sell your firm, and get the hell out of Beijing! We say whether you can practice law, and there’s no way you’re going to practice law without our say-so!”
Afterwards, they took away my lawyer’s license and my passport. They also took my portable hard drive and my laptop hard drive. When I got home, I couldn’t turn on my laptop. I thought maybe they’d reformatted my laptop. When I went to the computer mall to get it fixed, the guy said: “Is this your computer? How come it doesn’t have a hard drive?” It’s like they’re trying to burrow into your head to check out what you’re thinking, they’re so afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What could they find out by looking inside your head?
LI HEPING: They couldn’t find out anything. What can a single lawyer do? It’s just that they took my case files and destroyed the fruit of 10 years of work.
AI WEIWEI: I wonder what was going through your mind as they were beating you. When they beat you over and over, did you ever feel despondent? What was going through your mind? Or was there nothing to think in that moment?
LI HEPING: I really wasn’t thinking anything at the time. I recall telling them that I wasn’t going to hate them, no matter what they did to me. “It’s okay,” I said. “After I get out, the next time I see you I’ll treat you to a meal.” Those guys just laughed and said: “You’ll treat us? A pauper like you?!” That’s because at the time I truly had very little cash on me, so they called me a “pauper.”
AI WEIWEI: Were you poor?
LI HEPING: I can’t say one way or the other. In any case, once I began taking on public interest cases my income dropped dramatically. I had to spend my own money in case after case. If you’re going to put your heart and soul into public-interest lawyering in China, it’s pretty much a dead-end road as far as profit is concerned. If you don’t take on a few commercial cases to make up the difference, then you’re definitely done for. I’m a little better off, because I handle a lot of commercial cases and can use that money to fill the gaps. Overall, I’m doing all right. I may not have had a lot of cash in my pocket, but I had money on my bank card.
AI WEIWEI: How did they finally let you go? Did they get tired of beating you?
LI HEPING: I don’t know. In any case, one of them was in charge, a guy in his forties who was wearing a suit. He was the one giving out the orders. When he said “move,” they moved. When he said “stop,” they stopped. When he told someone to beat me, they beat me.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of a person was he?
LI HEPING: He looked like a nice, gentle sort of guy. He wore a linen suit. I don’t remember whether or not he wore glasses. When they had beaten me to a certain point, he said: “Let’s take him out.” I had no idea where they were taking me, but they put the hood over my head again and bundled me into the car. We drove quite a ways. I thought they were taking me to a new location. Then the car stopped somewhere and they told me to get out. Back at the basement, they’d said: “Let’s go. We’re going to search your place.” At the time, I thought: “Even if you kill my entire family, there’s nothing I can do about it, right? What options do you have living in this kind of society? They will do whatever they will do to you.”
Getting out of the car, they said: “Just wait and see what we’ll do to you if you go back and hold a press conference.” They meant that they didn’t want me to reveal that I’d been beaten and wanted me to keep it a secret. They dropped me off in a wooded area—I don’t know where, but it was still quite far from the city. I thought: “I have no clue where I am, so I guess I’ll just walk in the direction of wherever I see the most light.” I saw lights way off in the distance, in the Beijing suburbs. So, I started walking towards the lights of Beijing.
I walked for a few kilometers before I got to a road, where I saw a sign that read “Xiaotangshan” (小汤山). I found a taxi there and took it back to my home. I remember that the fare was more than 80 yuan, something like 89 yuan. I had just enough in my pockets to cover it.
AI WEIWEI: What time did you get home?
LI HEPING: Probably between 1 and 2 in the morning. My wife was already asleep when I got home, and I didn’t wake her.
I looked myself over in the bathroom mirror. I’d lost a lot of hair. I’d been zapped here [points to neck], my face was swollen, and I had marks all over my body from the electric baton. But I didn’t say anything to my wife. The next day, I told Jiang Tianyong and Li Fangping, and they came over to see me.
On September 30, I wrote everything down. I was really nervous when I published my account of what happened. I remember it was October 1 when it got posted online. That day, Jiang Tianyong and several other lawyers accompanied me to the “Ladies Street” Police Station (女人街派出所) next to my office to file a report. When we filed the report, the police officer said: “Eh, you mean this kind of thing can happen in Beijing? Such a vicious and serious case ought to be fully investigated.” But nothing ever came of it.
Another thing happened when we were at the police station. Jiang Tianyong called Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) to tell him what had happened to me. As they were talking, there was a click, and the call was routed somewhere else. Li Xiongbing couldn’t hear anything and Jiang Tianyong could hear someone on the other end laughing and saying that Li Heping got what he deserved. Our mobiles, email, and telephones are all being monitored.
AI WEIWEI: How do you know for sure?
LI HEPING: There’s noise on the mobiles, you can hear it clearly. There are times when we’re unable to send text messages, especially when we’re working on big cases. Sometimes we can’t make calls, our phones are specifically targeted. Then, when the moment has past, they unfreeze the phones.
There are even stranger things. Back when Li Jinsong (李劲松) and Cheng Hai (程海) were in Shandong working on Chen Guangcheng’s case, the police detained Li Jinsong. A few of us lawyers back in Beijing were discussing how we should respond, and the discussion got pretty heated. Suddenly, I got a text message from my wife. It was probably 2006, but the message was one that my wife had sent me in 2004 or 2005—the same exact text! It read: “Dear, you’re always working on these public interest cases! Not only do they pay less, but they bring danger to our family and there are threats to your physical safety. What’s a wife supposed to do? If you won’t think of yourself, think of your wife and child! If something were to happen to you, what will become of the two of us?” My wife rarely uses that tone of voice with me, so I remember this text very clearly. But one year later, the people that monitor us sent it out again with the exact same timestamp. It’s really incredible!
[Ai Weiwei asking about more examples of kidnapping and brutality and Li Heping’s answer are abbreviated.]
Only Institutional Protections Can Prevent Torture
Under the current Chinese system, no citizen can fight back once he falls into their hands. If you resist, you become a target for torture. They have cameras at the Pingfang Police Station in Beijing, but they decide whether or not to save the footage or make it public. The way to prevent use of torture to coerce confessions is the right to have a lawyer present during questioning and the right to remain silent.
Without the right to remain silent, no one can hold out. Take Guo Feixiong, for example. He’s a real tough guy, but faced with electric shocks to his genitals he had no choice but to confess. Gao Zhisheng is another really tough guy, but was forced under torture to write a statement of regret. Then there’s Li Zhuang, a guy with a military background. When he was thrown into that Chongqing jail, he had no choice but to admit to crimes. What can you do? Humans are made of flesh and blood. When you’re being tortured, you don’t want to go on living. There’s no protection for human rights under this system.
After I went public about being beaten, that sort of thing happened much less frequently. For instance, when they kidnapped Teng Biao for three days, they didn’t harm him physically—they just held him for three days. Torture certainly needs to be made public, because publicity is a deterrent. If no one ever went public about what happened to them, then who knows how arrogant with power the authorities would become. So, I think that the film you’re making here is very important.
AI WEIWEI: When we heard what happened, we were very angry and felt it was all so hard to believe. What we can do is give a clear and factual account. Once it’s made public, then it becomes part of history. There’s no other way.
LI HEPING: In some religious cases in the Northeast, they soak you to the bone and then throw you in a freezing cell in the middle of winter. Torture is everywhere in China.
AI WEIWEI: You’re a lawyer working on behalf of justice who has experienced this kind of thing yourself. You still have some compassion and a capacity to act, and you’re willing to do this kind of work as a lawyer. But do you ever feel desperation or fear?
LI HEPING: Speaking of fear, one of the guys who beat me put it very clearly: “I’m going to give you nightmares.” They want to make it impossible for me to sleep, to have nightmares when I think of them. That’s their goal. But fortunately, I’m the kind of person who thinks that you have to sleep, even in hell.
It’s not so easy for them to give me nightmares. But it’s caused much more harm as far as my family is concerned. I can bear it, but how about my family or my wife? They’re under considerable pressure. When I would turn my phone off, my wife would go crazy with worry if she wasn’t able to reach me, searching all over thinking that I’d been taken away by the police. My friends are like this, too, worrying that if they can’t reach me by phone I must’ve been taken away by the guobao. They get really worried!
AI WEIWEI: How many times have you been detained, in all?
LI HEPING: The first time was the time I was beaten up. Later there were a number of temporary “conflicts.” For example, the Pingfang Police Station called me in to give a statement. It lasted four or five hours. They wanted me to stick around, but I refused. So there was trouble. “You have to remain here!” They grabbed my arm and made me stay. Then they put a chair in front of me and said, “Sit there!” I refused to sit. But all of them insist that I sit, so what could I do? Are you going to fight them? For this kind of official business, why do I have to sit there? But if you don’t sit, those guys will lift you up and carry you over there and your arms will get hurt.
So, individual protest isn’t enough: without institutional protections, there’s no way that China will prevent torture.
AI WEIWEI: Why does the system allow them to act this way? What are they trying to achieve? The regime is supposed to be a public good, but they control all of the resources. What are they trying to do?
LI HEPING: These days, many police will say: “We just follow orders. We do what our superiors tell us to do. We’re just trying to put food on our tables.” The time I was beaten up, the leader of the police said something really funny: “Now that you’re in my hands, you just watch how I’m going to torment you and fix you! When you guys take charge in the future, however you want to take your revenge is up to you!”
I said: “What are you talking about, ‘take charge’? Aren’t I just a lawyer?” They have no confidence in their own system, that’s the truth.
[Discussion about how to fight back police’s denial of brutality is abbreviated.]
Citizens’ On-the-Scene Support and Social Media
AI WEIWEI: Is it useful for citizen activists to gather at the scene to voice their support?
LI HEPING: Of course, it’s extremely important. When someone does something wrong, he worries that others will remember. Don’t you see how police hide their badges and serial numbers when they’re doing bad things? They’re afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What do you think of the public discussion taking place on blogs and Twitter? What impact will that have on China?
LI HEPING: I think that instant communication tools like Twitter and Skype are extremely important for China, because China completely lacks any civil society. It’s like a plate of loose sand, without any platforms for formation of any general will. In a certain sense, Twitter helps citizens create a kind of public opinion by gathering and expressing people’s views. When it reaches a certain point, it can lead to action. I think that in the future these will truly change our society.
Only when citizens are able to make contact with and trust one another can they work together to build their own country. Moreover, consensus is ultimately achieved through people’s exchange of ideas, through agreement and compromise with each other. This needs time. Twitter and other Internet tools provide citizens with a convenient platform for communication. But you know what the limitation is? At present, only some elites are on Twitter, but many elites within the system don’t use it. But I think this is only a matter of time.
[Editors’ Note: This was when Sina Weibo, launch in the fall of 2009, was yet to take off.]
I believe the Internet can break down the iron curtain of China’s totalitarian regime, so still have some confidence in China.
AI WEIWEI: What religion are you?
LI HEPING: I’m a Christian.
AI WEIWEI: Are you devout?
LI HEPING: I’m— . . . My wife is extremely devout. I’d like to be a bit more devout, but I’ve still got a ways to go, still have some doubts. I think it would be a lot easier for me if I were a devout Christian.
AI WEIWEI: When did you start being religious?
LI HEPING: I was baptized in 2003. Religion really helps make humanity stronger, braver, and wiser. It gives you a much greater capacity to withstand pressure. Otherwise, you just have the strength of an individual—it’s not enough.
AI WEIWEI: So, on that day when you were rolling on the ground and they were beating you, did you think of Christianity?
LI HEPING: I really did—and I also prayed. It’s like when Teng Biao was detained—he hadn’t even been baptized yet—he prayed: “Lord, hurry up and rescue me.” It’s different when you’re religious. At the time when they were beating me, I even laughed. I truly laughed, I kid you not.
AI WEIWEI: That must have frightened them, no?
LI HEPING: That I don’t know. I suspect it didn’t frighten them—after all, there were a lot of them. I felt that I hadn’t done anything wrong. They can do what they want, I’m still going to be me. What they did was really foolish, but that foolishness has its origins in the system. They committed heinous sins but don’t have to take any responsibility, because they have the Communist Party to protect them. It’s foolish because it’s the reputation of the party and the government that gets damaged.
AI WEIWEI: I’ve said the same thing, too. If you allow a minority to damage the interests and reputation of the state through their unlawful behavior, there’s no way that ordinary people will continue to have any faith in it. You’re just like the mafia, I said to them.
LI HEPING: Yeah, their actions certainly do call into question the legitimacy of their rule. But these days access to information is blocked and many people know nothing about these kinds of incidents. But if you go online or have access to more channels of information, you’ll soon become aware of these things. Especially petitioning. After trying it a few times, everything will become clear. When they hear stories about houses being demolished, many people still think: “There’s no way the government could be this evil, like a bunch of gangsters!” But when it happens to them, they finally realize the government’s brutality.
China Is a Foxcomm Regime
AI WEIWEI: When it comes to certain fundamental questions of principle, the government acts with a kind of primitive brutality and can’t be reasoned with.
LI HEPING: I feel that they currently lack the ability to make necessary distinctions when it comes to these kinds of things. They lump a bunch of things from different areas together without any distinction. If they were to make clearer distinctions, I think they’d have no need to do things this way.
There are some matters where they ought to loosen up. There are some areas where, even loosening up quite a bit wouldn’t cause any problems. But in other areas where there are fears of social problems, it’s understandable to want a bit of control. But I think that they’re unable perform this kind of analysis.
They take some of the most fundamental issues and give the greatest power to the most idiotic people. Think of citizens’ rights to liberty or property—these are big issues. But they give the police control over people’s personal liberty. Police can detain and lock you up however they please and even send you away for a few years. Where else in the world do you see that? If you’re going to punish someone by taking away their freedom, you at least have to bring them before a court! This is a stupid, stupid way of doing things. [The editors can’t help pointing out how ironic this is!]
There’s another way they do things: they put the courts under the control of the party out of a belief that this helps preserve social stability. They never imagine that allowing courts to rule on cases independently would make society seem a bit fairer and that the courts would be able to resolve conflicts when they arise. But because the Communist Party manipulates the courts, by linking the entire system together you push conflict into other areas until it fills the whole system. I think there’s a problem with their way of thinking on this. . . .
AI WEIWEI: So, you’ve arrived at the subject of judicial independence.
LI HEPING: Judicial independence. Now whenever I see them, I make another suggestion: China should adopt a system of citizen juries and let citizens decide as to whether or not a crime has been committed. When you try to control and take charge of everything yourself, can you really have control?
To put it bluntly, China is currently a Foxcomm regime. China is like Foxcomm—it looks awesome from the outside, but too many restrictions are put on people’s freedoms and it’s like living in a prison. It’s unsustainable.
AI WEIWEI: Are you worried for this country?
LI HEPING: I think for sure that no good will come of continuing on like this.
AI WEIWEI: How old are you?
LI HEPING: Forty.
AI WEIWEI: What year were you born? What’s your birthdate?
LI HEPING: October 26, 1970. We Chinese say, “At 40, I had no more doubts.” Since I turned 40, my doubts have only just begun. Everything that you once thought was correct turns out to be mistaken. Now that I’m 40, I’ve slowly come to realize: “Oh, so many things turn out to be false.” I’m only starting to extract my mind out of the pit that my past education’s dug for me. “Oh, see—it turns out that this is the way the world is!” It’s different. The pit they dug for you is so huge, it takes you 40 years to crawl out. So at 40, I’ve just begun to have doubts [laughs]. Slowly but surely!
AI WEIWEI: You’re a real optimist!
LI HEPING: I guess I’m more-or-less optimistic [chuckles]. There’s no way to do this sort of work if you don’t have this kind of personality. The police are always coming to find you. Since 2005, they’ve been following me now for five years. I’d reckon that for more than a year of that time the police were following me around the clock, come rain or shine. When they follow you like that, what can you do?
AI WEIWEI: It’s such a waste of money!
LI HEPING: Yeah. I calculated it for them once. At first there were eight police watching me—how much do eight police make a day? A hundred yuan a day, per person, so at least 800 yuan. Those eight police use three cars, at 300 yuan per day that’s 900. What about meals? To follow me, they have to spend at least 3000 yuan a day.
AI WEIWEI: That means the state spends more than a million to follow you for a year.
LI HEPING: That’s right! And that doesn’t include the cost of monitoring my phone or my Internet! Then there’s all the secret stuff—who knows how they’re doing this stuff?
I consider myself to be this kind of person: no matter what I do, I do it in accordance with the law. There’s no need for all this stuff! It’s like a guobao from the Beijing Public Security Bureau said to me during the Beijing Olympics: “Lawyer Li, the Olympics is very important to us. Security standards during the Olympics are very high, so you mustn’t go out of bounds!”
I said: “Who’s drawing those boundaries, you or me? Why do you need to draw boundaries for me? What gives you the right? How about you observe the boundaries, too? Don’t bother drawing boundaries for me. You respect the law and I respect the law, then there’ll be no problems. Don’t mess around!”
He replied: “It’s like having sand in your shoes. Just put up with it for a while and it’ll be gone. We have orders from above.”
So what can you do? They do these things without any plan. It’s truly unwise to treat lawyers this way. I’ve spoken to people at the judicial administration bureau about this. I tell them I’d like to be able to communicate with you guys, including the police. I’d like to communicate, because we have so many suggestions about how to solve many of society’s problems. We’re on the front lines. We’re not radicals. We can give you solutions for how to solve these kinds of problems. If you follow our suggestions, the problems will be resolved. Isn’t that great? So why must you send security guards, police officers, guobao to watch us? Are guobao necessarily better at solving these problems than lawyers? In what way are guobao better?
[The interview is interrupted by a woman passerby . . . ]
Passerby: Excuse me, what are you filming here?
AI WEIWEI: This is a private film. I’m interviewing him.
Passerby: What do you mean, “private”?
AI WEIWEI: It’s for my personal use.
Passerby: For personal use? Do you have a permit for this activity?
AI WEIWEI: Personal use. Hey, you must be from Beijing TV.
Passerby: Did you contact anyone before doing this?
AI WEIWEI: No, we’re just individuals. We came here for an interview—it’s like having a chat.
Passerby: But this . . . individuals?
AI WEIWEI: Yeah. Don’t you see people carrying cameras all the time and filming each other? We’re interviewing him. He’s my friend.