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October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017
Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) is one of the twenty or so 709 detainees during China’s sweeping, still ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. He was held incommunicado from, July 12, 2015 to January 18, 2017, in Tianjin. As a human rights lawyers, Xie Yanyi’s career spans from 2003 to the time when he was detained, representing dozens of cases involving religious freedom, freedom of speech, forced expropriation of land and property, corruption, local elections, political prisoners, and more. Meanwhile, he has been known for passionately advocating democratic transition in China. During the 553 days of disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, and his mother died without him knowing it. In September he posted a book titled “A Record of 709 Crackdown and 100 Questions about Peaceful Democracy in China” in which he recounted his experience during the six-month secret detention and following year in Tianjin Second Detention Center. He is the second 709 lawyer, after lawyer Xie Yang in Hunan, who has spoken out about torture and other degrading treatments perpetrated on human rights lawyers and activists. On September 6, Xie Yanyi posted an open letter to Xi Jinping, the Communist Party, and fellow Chinese, calling for an end to the one-party dictatorship, releasing all political prisoners, and setting the course to transition China into a constitutional democracy. Predictably, he has been harassed and threatened by police. China Change is pleased to bring you translation of excerpts of Xie Yanyi’s recollections and reflections on 709 atrocities. — The Editors
The Police Are Here
I got home in the middle of the night on July 11, 2015 and fell asleep right away. The next morning, not long after I had gotten up, I heard a knocking at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw Captain Wang’s men from Domestic Security. I tidied up a bit and opened the door. They wanted me to go to the office of the neighborhood committee for a little chat. I went there with them, where Miyun District domestic security personnel had been joined by Beijing domestic security. They asked about the same old things. At a break in the conversation I went to relieve myself and discovered that people from Domestic Security were following me into the bathroom. It was then I realized the gravity of the situation. Our conversation continued until noon, when we had fast food in the office. We had just finished eating when ten or so plainclothes officers burst in. The first one flashed his badge at me. He said he was from the Tianjin Public Security Bureau and asked if I was Xie Yanyi. I said yes. I saw from his badge that he was surnamed Liu. Then he handcuffed me. I protested, but no one paid attention. They swarmed around me as I was led downstairs. We got into an SUV, where I sat in the backseat between two men. There were about two or three cars following behind us . We sped off. Soon we arrived at the Miyun Chengguan police station (密云城关派出所). There was an interrogation room equipped with an iron chair that the suspect could be buckled into. They made me sit there to begin my questioning. This was the first time in my life I had been handcuffed and interrogated. At first I was confused, but once I was sitting I calmed down. I had no idea that it was just the beginning of a long ordeal and contest.
The Black Hood
At nightfall I was taken out of the police station. Not only did they handcuff me again, they also put a black hood over my head. I was escorted to an SUV. It sped off as soon as it hit the highway. I naively wondered if they were just doing this to frighten me. Maybe they’ll just drive in a circle and then bring me home? But the car kept going at top speed, and there was no sign of stopping. I was cramped, wrapped in place by the people on either side of me. And I was nervous. I felt like they had tied the hood too tightly and that it would suffocate me. I asked them politely if they could take it off, promising I wouldn’t act out if they did, but they said it was an order and they had to follow. I then begged them to loosen it a little so I could breathe, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. Then I reasoned with them, trying to win their sympathy, and asked again if they could loosen it a little. The man in the passenger seat shouted, “You won’t suffocate to death!” When those words fell on my ears, I realized that pleading was no use. I should instead stay as calm as possible.
About an hour later the car reached its destination. I couldn’t see anything and had no way of knowing our exact location. They had me get out of the car and squat down. Soon a few people came and did what seemed like a handover procedure. As they talked, I sensed I was being handed over to army troops. They changed my handcuffs but didn’t remove the hood. After we had gotten into another car, I turned to the soldier on my left and mentioned my difficulty breathing. Would he mind loosening the hood a little so that I could breathe through the gap? This soldier pulled the black hood up a little bit. I took the opportunity to thank all of them profusely for their kindness. In response, the soldier on my right pressed a little bit less against me. Not longer after our car entered a compound. We were let in by the gatekeeper, then drove up to a building. After a bit, someone called me out of the car. The men on either side of me took me into the building and told me to watch my step. We went up to the second floor and turned right into a room, where they told me to stand facing the wall. Someone came and took the hood off my head, then told me to strip naked. Then I was asked to squat twice. They searched my body to see if I had hidden anything.
The Special Room
When they were done inspecting me they had me turn to face them, then starting taking photos. They took away my clothes and gave me two sets of soft, casual clothes. One man announced the daily schedule for me and informed me that the next day I was to study the prison rules and regulations posted on the wall. Everyone left except for two soldiers, who stood on either side of me. I asked them if I could rest. They said no, that according to the rules I had to wait until 10:30. So I sat down and read the rules. Then I sized up the room. It was not quite 20 square meters [66 square feet]. To the right of the entrance was a bathroom. A single bed stood against the outer wall of the bathroom. To the right of the bed was open space. Opposite the bed was a padded desk draped with a blue tablecloth. In front of that was a soft high-backed chair. At the far end of the room a heavy curtain was pulled over the window to keep out the light. The walls were completely padded. Even the corners of the desk, the foot of the bed, and the chair were padded and rounded. Around 10 they told me I could get ready for bed and gave me a toothbrush, a towel, and a spoon. Even the handles of the toothbrush and the spoon were rounded and made of rubber. If I wanted to use the bathroom or do anything else, I had to announce my intention and be granted permission before I could proceed. There were always two soldiers guarding me. When I slept at night one would watch me from the head of the bed, the other from the foot. It seemed all these measures were meant to keep me from killing or mutilating myself.
The Interrogation Begins
On the first day, I got into bed as soon as it was time to rest. I couldn’t fall asleep right away, as my mind replayed the events of the day and I considered what fate could be in store for me. Everything felt like half-dream, half-reality. Just as I was about to drift off, someone charged into my room, booming, “Get up and clean up. The special investigation team (专案组) wants to see you!” I had no choice but to get out of bed and get dressed. I moved the toothbrush and other things from the desk to the bed, then sat down and waited for the special investigators. I thought, “The grueling interrogation is about to begin.”
Two men came in. One looked to be over 40 years old, tall and strong. He said his last name was Jiang (姜). The other man was a bit shorter, bespeckled, a little fat, around 30 years old. Later he would call himself Cao Jianguang (曹建光). The first night they questioned me until four or five in the morning. I had just collapsed into bed when the on-duty soldiers woke me up again. After breakfast the interrogators came back. A tall, skinny man wearing glasses had replaced one of the others from before. He said his last name was Wang (王), so I called him Old Wang. (Nearly a year passed before I learned from someone else that Old Wang isn’t surnamed Wang, but Yan [严], so now I call him Lieutenant Yan.) The first two, if I’m right, were from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, while Lieutenant Yan is from the Tianjin PSB. I would see more of him after I was transferred to Tianjin.
They also asked me to confess, but I had nothing to confess. It was unbearable in the beginning. I became aware that I might not get out in the short term, and that I needed a plan, so I thought of writing a letter to my wife. My wife had just told me she was pregnant. We already had two boys and were supporting a large family, but our shared faith doesn’t permit abortion. She had secretly taken out her birth control ring. Then I was taken away, and that was where our conversation ended. I told the special investigators that I wanted to write a letter to my wife. At first they said no, then added that they had to ask for instructions. That evening I started to fast. Besides protesting my illegal detention and demanding the letter, I also hoped to make my psychological crisis a physical one, to divert my attention from the mental pressure through the pain of hunger, and to give myself some happiness when I did eat again. I fasted for over 72 hours, until lunch on the fourth day. They gave me pen and paper. The guard added that if I fasted again they would feed me through a tube.
The interrogations continued as usual every day. Sometimes they would question me three times in one day, morning, afternoon, and night; or else twice in a day.
Transfer to Tianjin
Just before noon on September 8, 2015, I was told to inventory the items they had confiscated from me and sign the list. That night I was informed that due to building renovations I was to be transferred. Right then we left the residential surveillance location in Beijing, and I was secretly transferred to a residential surveillance location in Tianjin. It must have been in a People’s Armed Police building, since I was guarded by armed police officers. (The place in Beijing must also have been a PAP building, too. I think it was in the Xiaotangshan area of Changping, Beijing. I remember when I was there often hearing the sound of fireworks nearby. Perhaps it wasn’t far from a cemetery or a crematorium?)
In Tianjin they took off the white gloves. They did all sorts of things to get me to confess: starving me, forbidding me to move my legs, beating me, intimidating me, forcing me to sleep in a fixed posture, disciplining me. For half a month I was made to sit on a block for 16 hours straight every day.
I was kept in Room 8, facing rooms 11 and 12. I saw these numbers once through the gap in my blinders when I was taken out for my room to be disinfected.
What Happened October 1-10 Above Room 8?
At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations, howling, and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me. That was when I decided that I absolutely had to control myself, find a way to get out as early as possible, and expose this torture.
I guarantee this is not a hallucination. I hope the day will come when people on the outside can see the site of this terrible torture with their own eyes: the room above Room 8 at the 709 residential surveillance location must be a special room. I often heard them moving all kinds of equipment, dragging it here and there. There was the incessant sound of installation and adjustment, lasting for two months straight at least. I don’t know what happened up there. Just before the 709 residential surveillance came to an end—that is, in the last few evenings before the 709 detainees were formally arrested in early or mid-January 2016—from Room 8 I heard people organizing files, stacking papers on top of each other. It often sounded like meetings were being held up there, too.
Devils in White
After I was transferred to Tianjin, it was around October when they suddenly started giving me daily checkups. They would take my blood pressure and check my heart rate. I could tell they were nervous. Every other week or two they would bring in an electrocardiogram and check my heart. With this change I realized some among us must have started having health problems. There was a Director Zhou, and a doctor who I think was named Liu He, who examined me. Every doctor and nurse was expressionless and stony-faced, like robots. They did not interact with me beyond routine business, and I never felt a drop of good will from them. I had no way of knowing their names or identities. This was terrifying. They did whatever the higher-ups told them to do, regardless of how I felt about it. If I made a request of any kind, they either would ask the special investigators for instructions or simply not respond at all. You would think they were angels in white, but the more I saw them, the more they seemed like devils in white.
While in Tianjin, nearly all of the 709 detainees, as I’ve since learned, were forced to take medicine. Every day a physician would bring the medicine, and every time they would shine a flashlight in my throat to make sure I’d swallowed. It was about four white pills each time. They said I had elevated transaminases and that it could be a problem with my liver. But I’m a vegetarian. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I’m in good health and haven’t had any health problems. I’m also not in the habit of taking medicine. I think everyone’s body is unique. Even if a certain indicator is high for someone else, for me that same reading could be just fine. I tried reasoning with them several times and refused to take the medicine. Then the physician, the discipline officer and the warden had to come force feed the pills to me. I had no choice but give in. After about two months the medicine stopped.
Sitting on the Block
At first I had a high-backed chair in my room. Then it was swapped for a block with nothing to lean on when I sat down. I sat there for at least 12 hours a day, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. When you’re sitting on the block you are not allowed to rest your hands in your lap for support, andthe on-duty soldiers carry out orders to the letter. You can all try sitting on a block, or a stool, without resting your hands, so that you only have the strength of your back to support you. An hour is fine. What about ten hours, a hundred hours, a thousand hours? Few of you will be able to imagine it. If you aren’t cooperative during an interrogation, all they have to do is to put you on that block, and you will succumb to their control.
I’ll give an example. Once I asked to revise an interrogation transcript. They beat me and boxed my ears. For more than ten days after they only gave me half rations, nothing more than a few bites of vegetables and one small steamed bun or a few mouthfuls of rice. For 16 hours, from morning to night, I had to sit, and when I slept I had to hold a posture as dictated by the guards. They asked me to sit on the block like a soldier: head up, chest out, back straight, hands on knees. Except for using the bathroom, I was not allowed to move at all from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the end I sat so long that my legs tingled and went numb. When I had to relieve myself, I physically couldn’t. They don’t have to beat you and they don’t have to curse at you. All they have to do is make you keep sitting like that. You’ll either die or be crippled.
Day after day the interrogations went on. Starting with my lawsuit against Jiang Zemin (江泽民) for violating the constitution and popular will by staying on as chair of the Central Military Commission in 2003, to the 2005 signature campaign to help lawyer Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), to advocating for direct election of members of the Beijing Lawyers Association in 2008, to signing Charter 08, to the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, to human rights cases I had taken on over the years, to rescuing fellow lawyers, to petitions, to letters of appeal I had written, like the one calling for Tang Jitian (唐吉田) to have his right to practice law reinstated, and the one calling for the release of Chen Yongzhou (陈永洲) and the protection of his rights as a journalist; from raising funds at a seminar in Zhengzhou for the lawyers detained in Jiansanjiang (建三江), to Liu Jiacai’s (刘家财) incitement of subversion case, to Zhang Xiangzhong’s case (张向忠), to Falun Gong cases, to Xu Dong’s case (许东), to the Qing’an shooting (庆安), and on and on, and then to taking the position of legal advisor in Qin Yongmin’s organization Human Rights Observer (秦永敏，人权观察), to helping Qin Yongmin himself; from giving interviews to foreign media, to my participation in academic symposia in Hong Kong, to my compilation of Roads of Faith (《信仰之路》), to the articles on peaceful democratic transition I had posted online, and even to a dinner I had organized in Beijing in early 2015—they asked me about all of these.
When they asked about other people—who was at a particular event, who had participated—my default answer was: I don’t know, I couldn’t quite remember. I insisted on this during the endless interrogations, but as long they didn’t get what they wanted they wouldn’t stop. When they had tried everything, when they had asked me repeatedly and I wouldn’t comply, they brought printouts from the internet, my communication history, online records, to verify with me one by one. They were the ones who brought up theoe names, but in the interrogation transcripts, they made it look as though I had given these names to them. Later, they didn’t even bother to play this trick; instead they would simply type up “transcripts” and have me sign them.
But early on and often I vowed to them that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I insisted that my actions had nothing to do with anyone else, that I’d take full responsibility for all my deeds, that I respect the facts and the law, and that I would not shirk my own problems.
They took great pains with me, because they also had to report to their superiors. If I didn’t sign, that meant I didn’t comply, and that would be their failure. They told me if I made it difficult for them, they wouldn’t let me go. If I had a bad attitude, they had all sorts of ways to torment me. Once you’re in the detention center, if you don’t cooperate, they punish all the inmates in the same cell and don’t let them have daily yard time. In short, they had a thousand different ways to force me to submit, but one thing is certain: during more than a year and a half of interrogations , I didn’t identify a single person, and I didn’t give them a single piece of information that would implicate anyone else.
Their method is to turn everything upside-down inspecting your computer, your phone, your books, your possessions, your contacts, all records of your life. From elementary to high school, your parents, your family, your relatives, your friends, everything about you is in their grasp. It is a boundless war (超限战), meaning there is nothing they won’t do to get what they want. For example, they showed me photos of my newborn daughter, videos of my son in class and playing the horsehead fiddle; and they threatened to detain my wife, Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊). That nearly broke me.
Walking was the only diversion I had. Except for when they forbade me to move at all, every day I asked the two soldiers for permission to walk back and forth the two or three meters between my two minders. By my rough estimate, I must have walked at least a couple of thousand kilometers during my six months of secret detention. At first walking was one of the greatest pleasures, but later on I walked so much I hurt the ligaments in my knees. But still I told myself to keep walking. I was afraid that they would take away this one small freedom from me.
In February or March 2016, Lieutenant Yan and Officer Li came and had me inventory my credit cards, bank cards, ID card, household registration, and personal records, and had me sign a statement about my confiscated possessions. They said as soon as I signed they would send everything back to my wife. I noticed right away they didn’t have a laundry list of the items, yet this document I had to sign stated that “all of the above-mentioned items were on my person [at the time of my detention].” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I objected immediately. It was summer when they detained me and I was only wearing shorts. I had had nothing on me besides my keys and some loose change. In any case, it makes no sense for anyone to carry his or her household registration and personal files. But if I didn’t sign they wouldn’t send anything back. My wife had to care for our three children and she doesn’t work. She needed those documents. I had no choice but to sign. When I got out, however, I saw that hundreds of thousands of yuan had vanished from my bank account. I heard that Chen Guiqiu (陈桂秋), lawyer Xie Yang’s wife (谢阳), also saw all her savings evaporate overnight. To this day, the bank has been evading my inquiries about my account activities during my detention.
All of the 709 detainees wore red vests in the detention center. Ordinary criminals wear blue vests; death row inmates and people convicted in certain corruption cases, like the 2015 Tianjin explosions, wear yellow; and inmates who are ill wear green. Red is for the highest level of inmates, the ones dealt with most strictly. My vest number was 166. I know that Wu Gan’s (吴淦) is 161 and Xing Qingxian’s (幸清贤) is 169. I was in cell C5. One of them was probably in C6, the other in C7. We were all close by, but red vests were forbidden from seeing each other and were questioned separately. I had to ask permission to do anything, including drinking water or using the toilet. The HD cameras set up in the cell monitored our every move. Every day when I had to relieve myself, the on-duty cellmate would go to the intercom by the door and report this to the discipline officer. Once the discipline officer approved, two cellmates would lead me to the bathroom, one in front of me and one behind. I never spent a cent on anything in the detention center, both in protest of the substandard meals and of the unsightly one-upmanship that went on among my fellow inmates. I went on eating my ration of cabbage every day. It was true that, several times, the detention center sent me food and supplies (I suppose they did the same for the other 709 detainees, too), and on those occasions I’d have a share for myself and distribute the rest among my cellmates. And the moldy peanuts my cellmates threw away were my favorite treat.
People have asked me if I gave any oral or written confessions. In those 500 long days, I wrote at least two notes of repentance. For the first one I wrote the bare minimum. I didn’t use words like “confess” or “repent,” and I put the primacy of human rights, peaceful democracy, and the rule of law at the core of my self-criticism. They weren’t satisfied and forced me to write another note. In the second one I admitted that I had incited subversion by advocating for peaceful democracy in my writings. At last, when I had done what they had asked, they didn’t forget to make me title it “Note of Repentance.”
Let me explain my thinking at the time: First, I wanted to make things a bit easier in case I had to stand trial, the sooner to rejoin my family. Second, I told myself that I had to get out and bear witness to the torture we were suffering, to keep the public’s attention on my peers still in prison, to help others avoid this treatment, and to pave the way for this whole injustice to be reversed! Third of all, I was completely cut off from the outside world. They found all kinds of ways to keep me in submission: not letting the cell block out for exercise if I was uncooperative; telling me everyone else had been released except for me; showing me the videos of the trials of Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), and of Wang Yu’s (王宇) televised interview, and showing me their confessions and notes of repentance; playing me videos of my kids; showing me the photo of my newborn daughter; and on and on.
Once they dressed me up and taped me reading a statement they had prepared. They promised me up and down that the video was only for their superiors, not for the public. They made me write things and videotape things. I once told them in no unclear terms that all of this wasn’t about my own needs but about their superiors’. To me, whether I was inside or outside prison I would shoulder my responsibility just the same, and neither was easy.
As I watched Hu Shigen’s trial, I was stunned, and inspired, by the look in his eyes. I also made plans for the worst. In the court, Mr. Hu admitted that he was guilty of subversion of state power, but he also used the opportunity to lay out his political theory, turning CCTV and many other state media outlets into his podium. He expounded on the three factors of peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy and the five proposals. I thought that if the day came for me to stand trial, I would do the same as Mr. Hu and present to the public the concept of peaceful democracy and the policies to implement it. It was just like they say, seek and you shall find, a result befitting my years of devotion to the effort to realize peaceful democracy in China. I imagined the scene in the courtroom. If my family could be there too, I would also tell my children, “Daddy loves you. Daddy can’t go fishing or catch grasshoppers with you anymore. Daddy is doomed to miss your childhood. But Daddy hopes you will remember that conscience has no price.”
The interrogators, I sensed, were not at ease doing what they did. From the highest to the lowest, they were beholden to personal interest, force, and power. They had no moral sense, each ready to jump ship if he had to save himself. The 709 case, I would say, was a hot potato from the very start. I was questioned by people who called themselves Old Jiang and Cao Jianguang (both from Beijing), Old Wang (who turned out to be surnamed Yan), Liu Bo (Lieutenant Liu), Officer Li (Tianjin), and two or three others whose names I don’t know. There was also one from the Ministry of Public Security who might have been surnamed Liu, who recited the Heart Sutra for me. They said that, year in and year out, they dealt with cases involving the big tigers, the highest-level officials. They were clearly not just ordinary public security bureaucrats. The thing is, though these insiders looked and acted strong, they knew full well that they were breaking the law and that this time they were facing extraordinary opponents. I could sense that nearly every one of them wavered at one time or the other, feeling tormented themselves and not knowing what to do. Then there were the armed police who guarded me. Except for the cruelty of the imprisonment itself, I clearly sensed their conscience, their natural goodness, and their disapproval of the atrocities perpetrated against me.
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place
This coercive practice known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place” is probably rooted in intraparty struggles and corruption investigations. In recent years it has spread and been legalized. In Party parlance this form of custody is known as “double designation” (双规) or “to be isolated and investigated.” It can be perverse or straightforward, lax or strict. It all depends on the demands and preferences of whoever’s in charge. It is essentially domestic discipline—extrajudicial punishment.
When you are under residential surveillance at a designated place, such as I was, there is no outside mechanism to monitor the process, no channel for relief, not even a legal mechanism to protect your health or your sanity. Your family and your lawyers are left in the dark, unable to meet or communicate with you. No one even knows if you’re alive or dead. In the process abuse and torture are inevitable. This is why cases continuously emerge of unusual deaths, mental illness, and bodily harm occurring during the residential surveillance.
I Challenge You
Since I was released I’ve felt conflicted. I wanted to expose these crimes, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even the perpetrators. After much consideration, I still decided to speak what I know, because even exposing the criminals would benefit their children and their grandchildren. I would like here to address the head of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, Zhao Fei (天津市公安局局长赵飞), and his subordinates: I believe that yourselves and the special investigators all have the qualifications, as well as the duty, to stand up and explain the 709 case to your superiors, including the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Central Committee of the CCP, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and the entire nation. What happened? What exactly did these lawyers and citizens do? Is what they have done legal or illegal? Reach into your conscience and tell us: Are their actions and conduct truly harmful to a country, a people, a society? Were they defending the rule of law and human rights, or were they committing crimes? Who exactly is afraid of them? Who ordered you to torture these lawyers and citizens? What were you trying to accomplish? Why did you pick Tianjin to handle the 709 case, as it went against procedural law? Who made that decision?
Director Zhao Fei, I demand that you stand up and tell your fellow countrymen why you let torture happen under your watch. What was going on in the room (the torture chamber) above Room 8 from October 1 to 10? What happened to Hu Shigen? What happened to Wang Quanzhang? What was the plan for 709 crackdown? Who planned the Cultural Revolution-style trials of public opinion and the media smear campaigns? How did you get government-appointed lawyers involved? Whose despicable idea was it to force some of us to confess and to televise the confessions? Who gave you the right to tape the 709 detainees? You didn’t even make exceptions for the young paralegals Zhao Wei (赵威) and Li Shuyun (李姝云). You labelled these 20-somethings subverters of state power. Who decided to turn everyone into an enemy of the state? Who decided to charge us with picking quarrels and provoking troubles first, then switch the charge to inciting subversion of state power, and finally to subversion of state power itself? As a law enforcer, did you give expert legal advice to your superiors? Who ordered the cruel and criminal treatment of the detainees—the secret detentions, the starvation, the sleeping postures, the ban on movement, the 16-hour sessions of sitting like a soldier? Who ordered that we be forced to sign the transcripts of our interrogations, deprived of our right to petition, deprived of our right to defense, forced to take medicine? Who ordered you to appoint lawyers for us against our will and devise all kinds of tactics to intimidate us? Who sent the procurators and special investigators to coax me and try to change my mind? When you confiscated my possessions, why didn’t you inventory my credit cards, my bank card, my ID and all the other items? Why haven’t you returned what you took from me? Who gave you the right to monitor the phones and online communications of citizens?
Calm in the Storm
My time inside was hard to endure. The detention center is a bit better; residential surveillance is much worse. Truth be told, I was eager to leave my imprisonment the first three months, but then I slowly settled down. After I got to the detention center they continued to interrogate me regularly and try to persuade me to do their bidding. They even enlisted my cellmates and the discipline officer to change my mind. I told them that they were the ones who were fretting over gains and losses, and that, for me, it wouldn’t matter if things turned out to be one way or the other. At this age, I told them, I shoulder my responsibility when I’m on the outside, and I do the same when I was sitting in prison. Sitting in prison might even be a bit easier and quieter.
Having reached an equilibrium, I really look down on them: some of their ideas and ways of doing things are so low and so despicable. They aren’t worthy opponents in intelligence or ability. I pity them more and more. They deceive, they bluff and they fret. They put on an act in front of me. As for me, I have learned from experience the power of the Dao: the have-nots conquer the haves, the calm conquer the restless, the weak conquer the strong.
Excerpted and translated from Chinese by China Change.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
Meng Han, October 11, 2017
Continued from Part One
Governmental Dysfunction and NGO Work
In our time of great changes, the term “NGO”—when applied to our Service Center—inevitably has some political connotation. NGO workers have nothing to do with any criminal activities, but have everything to do with governmental dysfunction. It is precisely because of this that we drew attention from society. It is also because of this that the media, scholars, and workers have taken an interest in us and observed our work. As a matter of fact, it is inevitable that NGOs will impact the government in any country. The core issue is in what manner NGOs are making an impact. In my opinion, the involvement of the Service Center in Lide’s labor dispute, at the request of the workers, was positive, progressive, and moved society forward.
For many years local governments have focused on GDP, political achievement, and stability in economic development. Have they ever realized that the contradiction between employees and employers has intensified, and that workers and migrant peasant workers will be the biggest victims if they continue to do things this way? I am very familiar with this group of people for I was a laid-off worker. The saying “behind high-rise buildings there are shadows, and under neon lights blood and tears” is a true portrayal of this class of people.
Compared with unorganized and extreme rights activities, these organized rights activities are no doubt rational progress. The success of the Lide workers’ struggle is precisely because of this. During the process, this group may be unstable and may encounter all kinds of conflicts, but they must go through this process. Those who are unaware of their rights must be awoken from their slumber. They can win as long as they think from their point of view, advocate and defend their rights and interests, overcome difficulties, keep up their resistance, believe in organizing themselves, and rely on collective strength. I believe that they have the courage and that they certainly have a strong desire to win.
During this process, I have tried to understand how young workers’ enthusiasm and older workers’ awareness of their goals entered into agreement. Did our recommendations play a complementary role? When I look back, that is exactly how it worked. We prepared several negotiation plans and various suggestions. For instance, to make sure that the social security arrears must be paid while they could make some compromises on reserve fund[i] and overtime pay. They adopted these suggestions. There were numerous such examples.
Now I am absolutely convinced that in the past few years the contradiction between labor and owners has become increasingly prominent, and many workers are worried that their legitimate rights and interests are wantonly infringed upon and exploited. Government dysfunction, mutual prevarication, bureaucratic government-led “unions,” and complicated and lengthy legal procedures all led to the frustration and desperation of workers when they wanted to make a complaint. And it is for these reasons that NGO institutions such as the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center came into being and provided what was needed. It is also at this time that the idea of “serving the workers and making the interests of workers the top priority” took root in my heart. However, even so, I cannot forget the serious consequences brought about by the disorderly rights struggle of the workers. We have ample examples in which workers lost their freedom, health, and even lives in chaotic and unorganized rights struggles. Therefore, the Service Center tried to guide the workers to set up workers’ organizations during its involvement in the Lide workers’ rights activities to ensure orderliness. Did such an act constitute a major factor of our violation of the law? From the actions of the government, we see that it has come to this conclusion.
I would like to repeat the words I have said more than once: In this era, in fact, almost everyone understands that the most important reason for the workers’ strike was that the workers held the strike for their decency and dignity. This aspect of the strike was reported in the media and online. In fact, the strike was also a heroic struggle against the bureaucracy and owners. It is entirely different from anti-government behavior. I thought that everyone should have understood this.
I do not even care to figure out why and how the state media demonized our work by accusing us of “criminal offenses.” I just want to figure out why the workers’ rights and interests are generally infringed upon and what effective ways there are to protect the rights and interests of workers. That’s what I want to do.
If our organizing and guiding workers to help them protect their legitimate rights and interests are criminal offenses, then I want to ask: is it not a criminal offense when the police use force to suppress an NGO’s normal work and the judiciary institutions abuse criminal law against NGOs?
The Path for Workers to Fight for Their Rights Has Been Blocked
While in prison, I had time to think. I got excited all over again every time I recalled how I first met the Lide workers.
At that time, I did a very important thing—my colleagues and I guided workers to form a steering group through an election. After that, they met other workers and actively carried out promotional activities. Strictly speaking, these activities were full of vitality, happiness, and pleasantness. There was no element of coercion, force, or threat, only suggestion to participate in the activities to defend their own interests. There was also another move—broadcasting a successful rights case, and asking ordinary workers to get on the stage and talk about their experiences in defending their rights and their views on advocating their rights. Now I know very well that it is very hard to do the same again, but how effective a move it was.
One thing I’d like to add is that, after the victory of the workers’ strike, we strived to collect the most effective and best practices adopted during their rights activities and organized workers’ tours to give talks to workers in other places. Workers elsewhere benefited from the new working method we adopted. We guided workers on how to use media and its influence to completely change the passive and weak position of workers in their struggle. This does not just mean a different entry point or different ways of defending rights. In fact, this reflects the civil rights awareness by the new generation of workers in current society.
It is these new methods of work that put workers’ rights activities onto the right track. It changed the previous disorderly situation where workers fought individually in demanding pay and defending their rights. They put the facts on display, and collectively faced the employer, the government, and the media. This is not only a show of determination, confidence, and strength, it is also a heightened sense of rights awareness and reflection of collective wisdom of the workers.
When I look back at the events two years ago, I have to admit that my heart is very heavy. For a long time—in fact from the time when I was a worker at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine—I have had this problem.
I remember a female worker, a representative of the workers, at the hospital who had worked there for more than a dozen years and got a lot of recognition and awards. When she was laid off by the hospital, she received no social security or health insurance. At the time when the strikes achieved some initial victory, her legs were in so much pain she could barely stand up. When she left with a meager ¥20,000 (about US$3,300 at the time) of humanitarian relief, I felt so sad I almost cried out loud. This is something that has sat heavily on my chest.
Having these painful thoughts in mind, I feel that I should tell the process, motives and my feelings during these events. To be honest, this is a bit scary. People in general accept certain things directly in real time. They experience happiness, uneasiness, anger, or pain in the real situation. But I know how things will change, and they unfold the way I foresee them. This advanced knowledge doesn’t make me happy. On the contrary.
It is rather obvious that the road for workers’ rights advocacy has been blocked and the back door has long been closed, too. The economy has developed to this day but workers do not have the right to strike or organize their own trade unions. If workers do not even have the right to associate, how can workers protect their rights in this era of powerful capital? We cannot allow this situation of keeping low labor costs to continue. In order to end this situation, workers need to organize, to set up their own trade unions, and to have their right to strike! A society where workers and NGOs are suppressed through so-called law and administrative means is not a society ruled by law.
I felt a heavy burden off my shoulders after expressing these feelings and views, even though Lide workers’ strikes became my crime. As in the past, before the legal process was completed, the case had been coordinated in advance by government offices to set the tone.
At the moment, what we still see is a judicial system succumbing to external power, lawyer’s defenses subjected to various restrictions, and a manipulated judicial process. All these led to an unfair trial in my case. Such an unjust judicial system shook my already wavering faith in the law. However, the prosecution by the procuratorate and the judgment of the court against me were just to meet the needs of external power. They have become the guardian of local interests. It is the working class who get hurt the most!
This is only one aspect of the real tragedy of the working class, an aspect that makes every worker uneasy. As an older worker, however, I have something else that I worry about too—the continued deterioration of labor-owner relations in the market economy will lead to the instability of labor relations as a whole. To this today, the interests and rights of a large number of workers in our country’s development and urban construction are still infringed upon. Doubtlessly, the government should take the responsibility.
As an older worker, I can only express my deep admiration for those labor NGO staff, labor rights lawyers, as well as people from all walks of life who are concerned about labor rights. In the protection and maintenance of workers’ rights and interests, their acts may not be noticeable, but they have done a lot of work. It is they who have given the workers determination and courage to advocate for their rights and interests.
In my opinion, what we did is correct. There is no doubt about it.
Their Method of Solving Problems is Imprisonment
The workers’ strike has been associated with my life spent in detention.
I clearly remember how they talked to me in the interrogation room: some police officers freely assumed my guilt and asked me to incriminate other colleagues of the Service Center in exchange for a lighter sentence. It is from this dirty deal that I saw their abuses. Their oppression of ordinary and honest people like us has gone beyond handling a criminal case.
This makes everything look like persecution.
I remember I remained silent for a long time while staring at them. My thoughts were heavy and painful. They took turns to interrogate me day and night, repeatedly modifying the interrogation transcripts and forcing me to sign. It really shocked me. For so many months and so many times, they wanted to get from me materials that could be used to incriminate others.
This lasted for a long time. I always persuaded myself: even though they did not wear police uniforms, they were police, whom I ran into in my work all the time. I remember that their investigation began right after the Lide workers’ strike. At that time the workers had been organized. We were all clear that neither of us could get the problem solved by doing this. It was just a farce. But still….
In order to create an atmosphere suited for their handling of my case, they kept pressuring me to plead guilty. They have acted like that even to this day.
I have been trying to free myself from this suffocating, unbearable, and menacing atmosphere. We were punished by the “law.” In fact we were presumed guilty from the very beginning. The rest of it was to move through the so-called legal procedures, which they did without scruples.
Their repeated sentences can never change my mind.
The confrontation between workers and the police because of the rights activities is my pain. No, the pain is not ours, but that of our time! For this reason, Lide workers’ strike is but a microcosm in this era, because they reflect the plight of all workers.
Everyone knows that it is workers who are the masters of this country. But they have no status, no power, no resources. All they can do is to unite against the exploitation of the owners. If the government cannot even accept these activities, that means those of us who desire decent work and a dignified life will pay too high a price.
I do not even want to write these words. No one at any time can impose their will on me and make me violate my principles as a man.
I want to go out of the prison cell and breathe fresh air. In any case, I cannot abandon what I believe.
For an ordinary person like me, going to jail twice is like a thunderbolt from a blue sky. Meanwhile, you are fully aware that workers’ rights and interests are infringed upon, and more and more workers are demanding pay owed to them. Many workers even lost their lives because of this.
The functional departments that lost their initiative were eager to find ways to solve problems. But the miracle did not happen. So sending us to prison is the “best way.”
Love and Pain
Long-term imprisonment has deteriorated my health. Continued treatment made me so weak. But what made me really suffer is being separated from my partner. We have never been separated, or taken a vacation alone, or lived our lives divided in two halves.
Words cannot express how much she gave me spiritually and materially. Without her, I would not be able to stand the storm—either in 2013 or 2015. Without her, I would have perished. Now, when her career is flourishing, she has to spend a lot of energy to care for and support me.
She is a rare, sincere, and optimistic person. She has to—in her own way—suffer the tragedy brought to her because of my work. She spent a lot of effort to care for those old unemployed peasant workers, helping them to be employed again. If everyone knew this, many would take her as an example and actively engage in the care of those older unemployed workers. Everyone can feel it and they all like her.
This is my private matter, and she is the woman in my private space. When I heard our private life mentioned in a media report, I could not describe how awful I felt. To outsiders, it seems only a moral issue. But for me, it is purely private. Because of this, I feel very angry.
This report is like a thorn that has taken root in my body. Any remarks about her will touch my heart and give me pain. For me, she is not only my family, girlfriend, confidant, she is also a responsibility in my personal memory.
Every second at night in prison is getting heavier. How can I make myself fall asleep? Regardless, ordinary people should have our own private space.
At the end of October 2016, I suffered tremendous pressure. My colleagues were tried and sentenced. I was dealt with separately and my trial kept being delayed. The police intentionally showed the video of my colleagues at their trial. It was a tough day for me. Suddenly I felt that I could no longer stand it. But at the same time, my insistence of adhering to my principles and the responsibility of finding the truth were on my shoulders. I felt that I could barely hold on and I was about to break down….
Now, if I could return to that moment, what would I feel? I would not feel shame, nor would I feel angry, but something else. I once again could feel the uneasiness, nervousness, and heaviness that pressed me so much I could not even lift my head.
Then came the most ridiculous day. On November 3, my trial opened and ended smoothly as previously rehearsed. Everything disgusted me and made me feel helpless. I felt humiliated. Suddenly I understood: It is not important any more how I play my role in this drama. I would be seen as a bad actor anyway.
I understand the most important point: in this event, no matter how hard I try and how strongly I carry myself through as an individual, the outcome would be the same.
Despite the disguised threats and the promises the authorities have made, I will not hesitate to help those workers if they need it, knowing very well that I may once again face the same outcome.
Whenever I sit in the dining room with other “criminals,” I always appear to have been lost in my thoughts. My heart was filled with complex feelings. Sometimes I felt a kind of loss. I had had the same feeling after the verdict. But I don’t want to believe that this feeling of loss is becoming more and more intense now.
My Future Road
Over the past few years, day in and day out, workers’ rights work has become my entire life, occupying my mind. Whenever I think of those workers who struggle for just their basic rights, those experiences will soon make my adrenaline run high. I have been for some time feeling lost because of these experiences and the pain their memories brought me.
I feel lonely, even bored. But I do not want to infect others with this emotion.
Is this the event that makes me restless? If so, how can I go on like this?
I started thinking. The first thing I thought about was that I should really get back all I had lost in these years: the ability to self-analyze and think for myself. In addition, I must be responsible for my ideas and confidence. I will also be responsible for my work and my actions. Although the road to my ideals may be tortuous and long, we have started our journey after all.
Yes, this is very important. This is also the direction of my life.
These are my “Notes from Prison”—my experiences and my feelings, my various observations, impressions and views.
I had these thoughts alone while in prison and have not told anyone how I felt. I should truthfully write down all that I have experienced and felt, and why I did this or that. Now, only one question remains: what will I be like in the future?
I feel as if I’m climbing Mount Everest. Today I am in a state where I have exhausted all my strength and energy in defending workers’ rights and interests, from beginning to end.
If I feel it necessary to further argue for myself, I would suggest: “Go and ask workers and migrant peasant workers!”
And I will continue to complete the unfinished work.
Third revision, written in prison, August 23, 2017.
My thoughts, wrapped with the storm of yesterday, beat my heart like mind-blowing waves crashing into the shore.
The past still remains. Everything present is the continuation of history, which is a train hurtling forward with tears and blood. This huge inertia cannot change just because someone has good intentions. New impetus needs to be injected for history to change and be created. Of course we also need to have new ideas that keep up with the times.
There is no doubt that after more than three decades of reform, our country has made huge progress that impresses the world. In the process, workers and farmers have sacrificed a great deal. Now, the period during which people of all classes benefit from the reforms has been irreversibly ended. The gap between the rich and poor has widened continuously. Overall, rights and interests of the new generation of workers have often been flouted. The increasing wealth will not solve the increasingly sharp contradictions between labor and ownership. We urgently hope that law can really play its role in today’s market-oriented society. This process will be accompanied by pain. It requires both the government and people of all walks of life, as well as workers, to understand and tolerate each other. It requires common and creative wisdom—the past events prove that the workers are full of such wisdom.
Written in prison, August 28, 2017
[i] Reserve Fund refers to the Housing Reserve Fund, a compulsory 5 percent or more withholding by the government from an employee’s paycheck to be used for housing compensation. But in practice, the requirements for withdrawing one’s reserve fund are onerous.
Liu Shaoming, a 1989 Veteran and a Labor Activist, Remains Imprisoned Without Sentence, China Change, May 31, 2017.
Meng Han, October 10, 2017
On December 3, 2015, Guangdong police raided a series of labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, detaining several NGO leaders and activists. Among them was Meng Han (孟晗), a then 50-year-old experienced labor activist and an intern at Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center in Guangzhou. Meng Han had served nine months in jail for leading a rights struggle in between 2013 and 2014, and this time, he was tried and sentenced to twenty-one months in prison. Last month he was released and shortly afterward he posted “Notes From Prison” (《狱中札记》) on social media. He was subsequently questioned by police and given warnings. “We are innocent,” he told the court in 2013 and his words still ring true, “the real criminals are those who use the power the people give them to wantonly trample over workers’ legitimate rights. They disregard the law at will, and they should be the defendants, not us, the helpless workers… As a veteran worker in contemporary China, I’d rather spend the rest of my life in prison than be deprived even of my right to work with dignity.” China Change is honored to bring a full translation of Meng Han’s “Notes From Prison” to afford our readers a rare glimpse into an indomitable activist’s life and reflections on labor plight in China. — The Editors
The rhythm of prison life has slowed me down. This has given me the opportunity to recover and ponder issues.
I do indeed have issues to think about….
Such an important period of time in my life is about to end. Even my family members don’t know what happened. This is something unprecedented.
Today, I alone bear the pain brought by this incident [the Lide shoe factory strike]. I endure it almost all by myself. I was a participant and a witness of this incident.
To tell the truth, I cannot bear the heaviness of this burden. I’m eager to talk about it with someone. I can only use this means to write down my thoughts, and they are also reflections on my experience of the past few years.
Workers at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine Collectively Defending Their Rights
I was laid off in 1997 during the reform of state enterprises. I received my severance pay and left the enterprise where I had worked for 17 years. It was a difficult time. I had to do whatever job I could find to support my family.
After some twists and turns, I started doing security work for the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine. I loved my job. Shortly after I started working with great enthusiasm, the hospital laid off all caregiving workers. I never thought that, as security workers, we had the same contract problems and other problems such as different pay for the same work, overtime pay, and the same annual vacation issues. What was more outrageous was that even though we worked in Guangzhou, our social security was bought for people working in Qingyuan, another city in Guangdong Province. We complained to the higher authorities multiple times, but they just ignored us and put it off for a long time. We felt so helpless that we—caregiving workers, stretcher workers, and security guards—launched a strike that lasted for 90 days. I was elected through one-person-one-vote as the chief representative for this collective workers’ rights negotiation. At the same time, storms started to come toward me from all directions.
Perhaps very few people now remember the then shocking incident of workers at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine collectively defending their rights in the summer of 2013. But those who participated in that strike may still feel the emotional pull of it and find it unforgettable.
It was an exceptionally hot summer. We visited the provincial General Labor Union[i] seven times for help and petitioned the provincial government multiple times. But they kept delaying and shifting responsibilities. Our problem was not solved. The situation between workers and employer-bureaucrats became confrontational. Even though we had not received pay for several months, we didn’t give up. More than 100 workers continued the strike even though more than 80 of them had been taken to police stations for interrogations. Every time the employer-bureaucrats agreed to solve the problem, but they never fulfilled their promise.
Our persistence and resistance of nearly three months finally made the employer-bureaucrats give in. We achieved some initial success. At our celebration party, fellow workers looked at each other in silence, some with tears in their eyes. They were all heroes in this fight for their rights. However, the issues for security guards had not been resolved. Workers’ dissatisfaction eventually exploded. We security workers continued our fight. We climbed on top of the glass rain awning in front of the outpatient building, demanding that the employer come out to negotiate and resolve the labor dispute. For this, twelve of us paid a high price[ii]. The prolonged intensity took a heavy toll on me emotionally. I was exhausted.
The nine months in prison did not defeat me, nor was it able to. On May 18, 2014, I left the detention center and saw many people waiting to receive me. They were the people I like the most and feel the closest to. There were also the workers’ representatives whom I respect the most.
Perhaps it was my passion and my will to resist that made me hesitate no more.
Becoming an NGO Worker and Lide Shoe Factory Workers Defending Their Rights
In July 2014 I made the most important choice in my life after I left the prison by joining the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center (番禹打工族服务部) and becoming a full-time NGO worker to serve workers. Later, because of my work, I got involved in the Lide Shoe Factory labor dispute.
It was decided on August 17, in a work meeting of the Service Center, that we would help with the Lide Factory workers’ request and that all employees of the Service Center would participate in helping the workers. I was still an intern, lucky to participate in this fight for workers’ benefits.
In January 2015 I became a full-time employee of the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center. To me this was not just a job. In a few months of hard work we’d already became friends who shared the same ideals. Every weekend we would have picnic parties, and organized activities with different themes. We tried to avoid politics, focusing only on the workers. Once in awhile we would also talk about family and love. We communicated with each other honestly, willing to express our own opinions and share our feelings.
For the first time in a long time I experienced this bright, passionate optimism. I thought to myself that I no longer needed to work so hard, like “a dog acting as an ox plowing a field” and running all over the place only to run up against stone walls everywhere I went. The heavy burden that I used to carry was removed from my shoulders. I was working with an excellent team and we had a common goal: “Keeping workers’ interests as the highest priority.”
Organized by workers’ representatives, Lide Factory workers held two strikes, through which they achieved some victories. Those workers, who had suffered exploitation for so long, had never felt such enthusiasm. Many people were quite impressed.
Almost every week I met with these representatives. Even when they had to work overtime we would communicate via QQ and WeChat. I would honestly express my ideas and support the decisions workers’ representatives made. The workers were very enthusiastic about defending their rights, and their rights awareness had increased as well. But the situation was not as optimistic and exciting as what I describe now, especially after the second workers representatives’ plenary meeting.
By January 20, 2015, the Lide employer did not fulfill the labor agreement previously reached with the workers. Workers felt despair and were enraged by the dishonesty of their employer. By this time, rights awareness had penetrated deeply into the lives of the workers. I could not tolerate such a thing happening either. As we had always advocated, once the workers were determined to defend their rights, the best way to solve the problem was through fair dialogue and negotiations. No matter what, the workers were not to be lied to or let down.
The delaying and shirking of responsibility on the government side, and the improper involvement of the police also became catalysts for confrontation between the workers and the employer. The abnormal behavior of Lide’s five workers’ representatives as a result of police threats and coercion made the collective negotiation more difficult. Their contacting the police in private and accepting benefits from the police violated the rules for workers’ representatives. Representatives were also unable to report to the workers in a timely fashion the development of negotiations. No doubt they were under all kinds of pressure, lost their initial enthusiasm and sense of responsibility, and deviated from representing the interests of the whole group.
Their behavior caused an uproar among the other representatives. The situation became very complicated. The police continued their tactics of threatening, baiting, dividing, and cracking down. They seemed to enjoy the sweet success of their tricks of dividing and conquering, as if workers as a whole were under their control and suppression would succeed very easily.
April 19, 2015, was a day of true test for Lide workers. All Lide workers, as described by the “Workers’ Bulletin,” were full of enthusiasm, courage and wisdom. The Service Center and workers’ representatives actively sought ways to solve the problems. After repeated discussion, it was decided that the “Third Workers Plenary Meeting” be held on April 19 to resolve issues in defending their rights.
After the police tricks of dividing and conquering were seen clearly by the workers, Lide’s workers became more united.
At the meeting, I gave an intense speech on the labor rights issues that the Lide workers faced and expressed my views on the loss of trust in the employer and failure of responsibility on the part of the five representatives. I stated that any behavior that may harm the interest of the workers was not allowed. At the time, I felt that effective, forceful, and decisive measures should be taken.
But something unexpected happened during the dismissing and changing of workers’ representatives: A large number of fully armed police rushed into the meeting place to expel the workers. They took me away. But what was even more surprising was that all the workers went to protest at the police station, demanding that I be released. They were very brave and persistent. I was deeply moved by their sense of justice, which was very rare and precious.
Even though the Third Workers Plenary Meeting was interrupted, everyone was still full of hope. I was even more so. After the meeting, great changes took place among the workers: the violent interruption by the police and the loss of trust in the employer led to the third strike. The workers were fearless. To prevent the employer from moving production materials and factory equipment elsewhere, several hundred workers launched a factory protection action that lasted six days and five nights. They knew very well that, when facing the useless bureaucrats and the powerful employer, they must unite to fight together if they didn’t want their rights to be infringed upon and their dignity not trampled on. The fearless Lide workers won! I have always wondered whether the violent acts of the police led to this strike or the arrogance of the employer and their delay and shirking of responsibility caused this strike.
Looking back, I now see very clearly the cause for this strike. The police also conveniently found what they say were the reasons for strike[iii]. As I mentioned earlier, they once again used their power violently and openly to punish all the NGO workers from the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center, including me, who helped and supported Lide workers.
On December 3, 2015, I was put under residential surveillance due to my role in the Lide strike.
On the afternoon of December 5, 2015, I was criminally detained and taken to the detention center.
On January 8, 2016, I was formally arrested.
Prison and Interrogations
It was my second time at the detention center. I was no stranger to the extremely stressful life here. Indeed, the past 21 months have been difficult.
I don’t remember how many times I have been interrogated. I could no longer maintain my composure when seeing their faces. I didn’t want to hear their repeated advice to “plead guilty.” It seemed as if they had already passed judgment on me. They believed that it was both necessary and with good reason. My headache intensified because of it. I felt increasingly weak and had all kinds of symptoms of discomfort.
During the interrogations, the police said that all of the testimonies by the workers had one thing in common: that I was the leader and commander of all their rights activities, and that I had participated in each and every one of their events. That is true. I did indeed participate in all rights activities. Multiple warnings from the police regarding the strikes could not curb my enthusiasm, and my strong desire for winning this struggle. It was my first time participating in the capacity of an NGO worker in an episode that involved so many workers. I was able to meet and talk with many workers every day and I closely witnessed their unity, courage, and progress. Someone told me not to get involved too much and not to be too serious. But I couldn’t help myself. The strong and active enthusiasm is a good thing for my life. It would only help me endlessly.
What is unreasonable is that when workers interests were harmed, the government officials— who had no intention to resolve any problems—believed that the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center and its employees are to blame.
Prior to the Lide strike, there had been countless strikes. The government approached disputes and temporarily diminished conflicts through cheating and trickery. But the real labor problems did not get resolved at all. Lide workers’ strikes were another way of defending their rights. At the same time I also know that the government didn’t really want to create criminal cases against these desperate workers and give them heavy sentences. That’s why it came up with group negotiations among the government, employer, and workers during the strike.
I should say that the local government reacted promptly to the strike. They started the negotiation process soon enough to meet workers’ demands. It has a lot to do with the success of Lide’s strike and several thousand Lide workers being able to defend their rights. From a legal point of view, the way “social security funds” were dealt with was ridiculous. But I can understand why they did it: the relevant government departments are in a situation where they have no power to resolve underlying problems.
By the way, after the second Lide strike, local police reacted promptly. While I was being subpoenaed, the police invited workers’ representatives to eat, drink, and tried to make friends with them. They used all kinds of tricks to get closer to the representatives. This shows that Lide workers’ efforts had really shocked the government officials.
Everyone knew that after the victory of the strike, the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center and its employees became targets of the government. In doing this, the government was able not to confront the workers directly, and at the same time it was able to shamelessly shirk its responsibility. Were there other motivations? I don’t know.
At the time, it didn’t occur to us what would happen to us NGO workers as the government was guided by its stability maintenance priority. It’s naïve to expect the government to change how they view us. I only came to realize this while in prison.
All these problems will continue, be it the strike at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, the strike at the Lide Shoe Factory, or delinquent payment of wages. A violent crackdown will not improve the situation. It will only intensify it. If the problems are not resolved through correct and feasible means, labor relations will continue to be messy and problematic.
My attitude is unwavering. I strongly believe that we did the right thing in pushing forward the collective labor-employer negotiations. If such an act is punishable by law, I would rather take such risks and help workers resolve their problems.
In my opinion, what we did in April 2015 during the Lide workers’ strike—getting involved in the civil disobedience rights activities, educating workers about labor laws, and assisting in establishing orderly workers organizations—was positive and effective. I should reflect on what happened in an honest way. I should not evade the mistakes that we made, and I should not care about the pain the memories may bring.
[i] Unlike unions in a free society—where workers form independent unions to defend their rights and interests—labor unions in China are government entities whose primary job is not to fight for the workers’ well being but to ensure that workers remain under control.
[ii] On August 19, 2013, Meng Han and eleven other security workers were criminally detained for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” and he was released on May 18, 2014.
[iii] The police believed that the strike was a result of instigation by NGO workers such as Meng Han.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Throwing labor activists in jail won’t solve China’s structural problems, Quartz, November 2016.
Continue reading Part Two
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989, Part Two
Liao Yiwu, June 2, 2017
(Continued from Part One)
LIAO: I’ve heard some people say that if they had known blood was going to be shed, they would not have resisted.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was the student’s Command Center that turned us over [to the authorities]. The guy who headed the UAA Guards was called Guo Haifeng. He told us his name himself — you have to give him credit for being pretty open and candid. He said that the UAA standing committee members took a vote, with the majority deciding to send us off to the Public Security Bureau of the Eastern Quarter Branch Tiananmen office. He had strongly opposed the decision. After an impassioned debate, he was overruled and, what’s more, charged with the task of delivering us into the hands of the police, since he was the UAA Secretariat. I assured him it was alright and, cleaning out my pockets, handed him for safekeeping the two-thousand yuan we had left. He wrote me a receipt on the spot, and he asked the police to provide proof that we had been dropped off. We got into the patrol car in a downpour. The police put the handcuffs on us. Guo stood in the rain for a long time.
LIAO: Could you have escaped at some point during the uproar?
YU ZHIJIAN: I definitely could have slipped away starting when we did the deed at 2:30 p.m. until the cops got their hands on us in the early evening. Not sure about the other two. But why should we run away? We were mentally prepared to shoulder the consequences.
LIAO: What next?
LIAO: The next day, we were transferred to a detention facility. The entire place was empty. There was only one other guy in my cell, an inveterate thief. The guy took everything at his own pace and stayed put; he even asked me to help him to get a drink of water. I really wanted to keep abreast of the movement, but I was completely cut off. I think it would be fair to say that the entire judicial and enforcement system of Beijing was half paralyzed. I barely even saw the wardens in that place. They must have all been watching the power struggle at the highest echelons of the Party to see where the chips were going to fall, to know which way to turn.
LIAO: No prisoner could have ranked higher when it came to incurring imperial displeasure than your gang. You weren’t interrogated overnight? What the..?
YU ZHIJIAN: For the two weeks before and after the massacre, never mind interrogation, no one even bothered with us. I spent the day just lying around. God, my bones hurt from sleeping so much. Thank goodness I am pretty lazy and laid-back by nature; I’d perfected my sleeping technique early on, and I don’t overthink when I run into problems. If the sky is going to cave in, and you keep holding on to hope that it won’t, all that stressing isn’t going to get you anywhere.
The first wave arrived bright and early on June 4. All dedicated youth and college students, averaging no more than twenty. By June 5, so many people came in they filled up the empty cell. The wardens kept stuffing them in after we reached capacity. It’s a good thing people are made of flesh and can expand and contract.
We were formally arrested on June 15. The paralyzed judicial and enforcement system, like me, woke up from a dream and recovered, at a moment’s notice, its vicious capacity to churn at high speed. Wanted notices and announcements went up everywhere, and checkpoints for sweeps flourished. The red terror was comparable to 2003’s SARS epidemic outbreak, when you would have trouble spotting anyone on the street. The sterilization of thought, it turns out, isn’t that different from sterilizing the body.
LIAO: I’m picking up some Taoist vibes here — the state of letting things take their course.
YU ZHIJIAN: In the middle of the night on June 3, gunshots went off outside the walls of the detention center. It was like someone was sautéing peas and woke me up. Fuck! They finally opened fire! These bastards only dogs would fuck went and opened fire! My premonition, Dongyue’s premonition, all came to pass. As they say, political power comes out of the barrel of a gun. This is how the CCP rose to power. Students and intellectuals had no chance in this game against seasoned and murderous players. I could not sleep that night and strolled around my cell until darkness began to lift. Anxiety had all my muscles twitching involuntarily. The thief, very nicely, talked to me about it: What can you do about our country plunging into chaos? Agonizing won’t help any. It’s not like a bursting bladder – just let it out and you’re done with it.
Given the unrest, the Beijing police were not to be trusted either, so the detention and intake facilities were all taken over by the army. The soldiers, coming fresh from airtight brainwashing, bared their teeth and claws and no rules bound them. They thrashed both students and residents within an inch of their lives. When I was getting turned over to the detention center after our arrest, a soldier dangled me like I was a newborn chick and threw me several feet away toward the military jeep. As that wasn’t enough for him, he raised his automatic rifle and whacked my face with the butt, and I spewed out a mouthful of blood. You see this false tooth over here? That’s the replacement for the one I lost then and there.
LIAO: This detention center you were at, was it the Tortoise Building?
YU ZHIJIAN: Yes. Lots of Tiananmen ‘insurgents’ were locked up there.
LIAO: And that includes you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Since we didn’t get around to starting fires and blocking military convoys, we had to content ourselves with being “rapists of our Great Leader.” After five months’ of protracted proceedings in the Tortoise Building, a secret trial was held in the basement of the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
LIAO: No sunshine for this trial, I see.
YU ZHIJIAN: The fuckin’ thing was just going through the motions. The crime was there for everyone to see, and what defense we had no one was around to hear. It was over in under two hours. The sentencing was postponed for a week, and then we received the sentencing document.
LIAO: As perfunctory as that?
YU ZHIJIAN: I forgot what statements Decheng and I made. Dongyue’s was the most intriguing. He argued that we had no political end in mind, we were merely finishing a piece of artwork.
LIAO: Performance art?
YU ZHIJIAN: You got it. That’s what Dongyue called it. And the greatest of this century to boot. People would only truly comprehend the full scope of its meaning after years and years.
LIAO: As a piece of political pop art that ended an entire era, personally I think it will become part of the art history of our time.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Laughing). This one went right by the prosecutor and the judge. They couldn’t make head or tail of what Dongyue was saying and, looking like asses, blew their top. They seriously thought he was messing with them. Even the defense lawyer dropped the act and kept interrupting him.
LIAO: That’s priceless. The mood in that courtroom is clearly a part of the performance art by extension.
YU ZHIJIAN: (Chuckles).
LIAO: Did you try to figure out the outcome before that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Everyone was bored in prison, so folks spent a lot of time analyzing our case and peering into crystal balls. You’ve got phrases coming at you like “premeditated and calculated violation, doing the dirty job willfully in the face of great odds,” “with extremely blah-blah means and extremely blab-blah consequences.”
Anyone familiar with the Criminal Code can tell you, when the prosecuting docs specify “especially grave crime and especially vicious particulars,” your head is hanging by a hair. (Sighs). Waiting for death was hard. I even wrote several last notes, for my older sister, my baby brother, and my parents too. Looking back, I was a bit of a wuss: causing them hurt, how sorry I was, hoping they’ll put this unfilial son clear out of their minds, belief that posterity would come to understand what we did and how we had stood up and done something we could stand by, and so on.
LIAO: Somewhat contradictory.
YU ZHIJIAN: You thought one thing one day and something else the next. It was no small thing – confronting death and the empty abyss of it. Terror when you wake and more of the same when you fall asleep. And tears flowed too. But I did not regret doing what I did.
LIAO: When the sentencing document was handed down, you were relieved nonetheless….?
YU ZHIJIAN: The stuffing just about went out of me. What novel did I read this in? The death knell of dictatorship sounds in my ear already! Liberty is before me and all I have to do is to reach for it.
LIAO: Maybe Dongyue was right. That completed this unparalleled performance.
YU ZHIJIAN: I got life and spent 11 years and 6 months in jail. Decheng got 16 years and did 8 years and 8 months. Dongyue got 20 years and, clocking in at 16 years and 9 months, was actually the last one they let out in the end.
LIAO: You didn’t appeal?
YU ZHIJIAN: We didn’t have the death-wish. Year end, 1989, we were sent back to Hunan and kept in the prison in Hengyang.
LIAO: Were you beaten in there? Kept in solitary confinement?
YU ZHIJIAN: Dongyue suffered a lot of torture. One time, after the cops took him apart, a bunch of us protested with a three-day hunger strike. But the authorities refused to apologize. I’d never been put in solitary confinement, but half of the time before 1992 I was locked away under the Disciplinary Team. Pretty horrifying.
LIAO: You were acting up in there?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was new and didn’t have a good grip on how things stood. I told everyone I ran into about the people who died in the massacre, how autocratic and vicious the Communist Party was, hardly stopping to catch my breath. To top it off, I didn’t do the work, all caught up in analyzing the development of current events with other political prisoners. The authorities gave me repeated warnings, which fell on deaf ears, so they announced I was now under “Strict Discipline.” I was beaten up five or six times. This one time the two cops grabbed me and hammered away with two tasers. I fended them off just a tad and then went limp. Fists and steel toe boots flashed like lightening, and had me rolling on the ground. I was wearing quite a decent outfit; after the beating, the whole thing was in rags. I lied there without a stitch on. I had no fractured bones, so you can say they held back, given how brutal all Hunan prisons were.
Eventually I wised up and didn’t fight back at every goddamn turn. But there was one point I wouldn’t give way on: I was a political prisoner and RTL was not for me. After a while they also made sure an experienced inmate would be there to team up with me, set up the master-apprentice connection. The most I ever did was to stand by and watch the guy work. And then I would huddle in a corner, or chat up other prisoners.
LIAO: Were you held in Hengyang Prison the entire time?
YU ZHIJIAN: I was later transferred to Hunan No. 3 Prison, also known as Yongzhou Prison; Yu Dongyue was transferred to the No. 1 Prison, which specializes in locking up politicals. It’s got a reputation as the most savage prison in Hunan.
After 1992 I heard about Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” and I really started analyzing it, concluding that, basically, China has entered the equivalent of the Soviet’s pre-Brezhnev era. We’re in for a long, dark ride. Around that time I also started feeling dark, and time passed slow.
But for all that, we still have to get by. I told the jailers that my specialty is teaching — so they took me out of the steel workshop and put me in a classroom. On a regular basis I gave literature classes to inmates, all the way until I was released.
LIAO: I guess that counts as a silver lining.
YU ZHIJIAN: Of the three, Lu Decheng was the luckiest. He fled from the Yunnan border to Thailand, even though he risked being picked up and sent back. But what Yu Dongyue went through was too cruel. On the day he was released, I called a few democrat friends to go pick him up. It never occurred to me that he’d be like a broken block of wood, completely another person from the radiant and joyful Yu Dongyue that I knew from before. I was yelling “Dong, dong, what’s going on? Don’t you recognize even me?” No reaction. When he did react, he’d suddenly drop to his knees and clutch my legs, yelling “spare my life! spare me!” I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my heart and twisted it. The June 4 incident is just too much. The historians and political scientists can worry about a comprehensive examination of it. What I’ve never been able to shake all this time has been Yu Dongyue. I’ve always felt that I’ve the one who ruined him.
LIAO: I read some reports on the internet about what happened. People in China and abroad have been raising funds for his medical care. How is he doing now? He doesn’t even recognize you? That’s incredible.
YU ZHIJIAN: He doesn’t even know himself. If you ask him, “Who is Yu Dongyue?” he just gives you a blank stare. He can’t recall.
YU ZHIJIAN: Nobody knows what kind of hell and trauma he went through in jail. There’s no saying they didn’t give him some kind of drug in there. You know how even today so many people worship Mao still; a lot of taxis have Mao’s portrait hanging over the driver’s seat as a talisman.
LIAO: Will how he lost his mind stay an unsolved mystery?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to say. There were so many other prisoners in Yongzhou with him, it shouldn’t be that hard to find out who the perpetrators were. Just recently, Public Security put me away in criminal detention for 32 days on charges of incitement to subversion, after I published a handful of ‘reactionary’ pieces on the internet. After I came out, I took a short break for a couple of days, then went to visit Dongyue at his home 70 kilometers outside the township. Well, his mood is a bit more stable now since he’s been out so long, so he doesn’t kneel in front of whoever happens to walk through the door anymore. But his eyes are still dazed, and you can’t talk loud around him, or he gives a shiver and falls on his knees again. His family is constantly trying to help him get his memory back, talking about so-and-so from what year, and this or that neighbor. For a moment it would look like he realizes who he is, but then he’d turn around and forget right away. It’s like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez — all the characters live by themselves in this dreamed-up space. Dongyue used to think the world of that book; none of us knew he would one day end up in it.
Occasionally I’d take him with me when people in the movement met up. Look at this photo, there, the one in the middle, that’s him. Even when photos were being taken he’d be muttering along, and it’s like there is absolutely nothing in front of him, and he’s aware of no one around him.
LIAO: Quite a festive-looking picture you’ve got there. Who are all these people?
YU ZHIJIAN: My wedding. A lot of democrats came to celebrate.
LIAO: Congratulations! How do you plan to make your living now that you’re married?
YU ZHIJIAN: I’m not sure. To sum it up, we’ve got no house, no pension, insurance and such. Chugging along on luck. Our primary source of income right now is tutoring. The number of my students goes up and down so it’s not stable. Average income each month is less than a thousand yuan.
LIAO: Have you ever thought about going abroad?
YU ZHIJIAN: What for?
LIAO: Freedom. This country is run by such a band of thugs.
YU ZHIJIAN: But at the end of the day this is the land where I was born and raised. I can’t go through with breaking away.
LIAO: You have a great attitude.
YU ZHIJIAN: No one can rob me of my inner freedom. As far as things at home go, you’re always going to rub each other the wrong way here and there. But romantic love, the love of your family and friends — these are our eternal verities. I’m slowly adapting to the world out there. We’re all average nobodies who have to roll with the punches. But compared to the other average nobodies we’ve got our June Fourth complex that you can’t rub out, so we still have the impulse to take on the fears the government hangs over everyone’s heads.
LIAO: What is your biggest fear?
YU ZHIJIAN: The future. I don’t see a future for our people, our society. Will the price we paid, the hot blood that spurred us on, dwindle to nothing, a mere joke? Is our fight to stamp the memory of those who come after us a self-indulgent wish, doomed to failure? It may well be that the very fact we ever existed inconveniences those who are feted and successful whenever and wherever. (Sighs). Let’s let it go. Got to get by first. Thinking too hard about these things gives you a headache.
LIAO: Are you planning to have a child?
YU ZHIJIAN: Hard to afford. Not in the cards for now.
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.
Interview With Yu Zhijian, One of the ‘Three Hunan Hooligans’ Who Defaced the Portrait of Mao Zedong Over Tiananmen Square in 1989
Liao Yiwu, June 1, 2017
On the afternoon of May 23, 1989, sitting at home in a small town in Sichuan, poet Liao Yiwu watched in awe scenes from Beijing just after “three hooligans from Hunan” threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong, sized 6 by 4.6 meters, hanging on Tiananmen (the Gate of Celestial Peace). Increasingly astonished and impressed, once the full significance of the act sunk in Liao Yiwu came to regard it as the most singular event during the 1989 movement — second perhaps only to the Tank Man. Liao himself, a rebellious poet publishing in underground magazines during the 1980s, would be imprisoned too for writing and performing a long poem titled “The Massacre.”
On a sultry and airless day in Changsha, June 2005, Liao Yiwu interviewed Yu Zhijian (余志坚), one of the “three hooligans from Hunan.” The other two were Yu Dongyue (喻东岳) and Lu Decheng (鲁德成). In 1989, Yu Zhijian was sentenced to life in prison and eventually served 11 years and 6 months; Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 16 years and 9 months; Lu Decheng was sentenced 16 years in prison and served 8 years and 8 months. Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue fled China in 2008, and eventually settled in Indianapolis as political refugees. Before them, Lu Decheng settled in Canada.
When the student movement began in Beijing, 1989, Yu Zhijian was in his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan Province. The year earlier he had resigned from his teaching job in the countryside, and since then had been loafing with his childhood friend and neighbor Lu and college classmate Yu Dongyue. Our excerpt of the interview begins from this point.
In memory of Yu Zhijian, who died on March 29, 2017, in Indianapolis.
— The Editors
LIAO: They both had jobs, didn’t they?
YU ZHIJIAN: Lu was a bus driver and Yu was a reporter at Liuyang Daily. We were cut from the same cloth, blabbed day and night about literature. Yu was ahead of me in putting a lot of stock in modernism and avant-garde ambiguity, which was all the rage. For two months or so, they didn’t bother going home and crashed at our place every night, crowded as it was. Looking back, it was a wonderful time. When Hu Yaobang died on April 22, our literary zeal was sublimated overnight and we answered the call: “Chinese people are now in the direst crisis.” A lot of friends came together and agreed that we absolutely had to organize a memorial for Hu, the great man from our hometown.
I was the one who wrote all the slogans in traditional calligraphy, using an ink stone and ink brush: In memoriam for Hu, constitutional amendment, democracy, freedom, anti-corruption – it just about summed up my lifelong political aspirations. In the middle of the night, like the hero-bandits from the novel Water Margin, we plastered several blocks with our revolutionary – or counterrevolutionary as the government saw it – slogans. At daybreak, would you believe it, the residents of Liuyang City were reading the stuff in droves and talking about it in whispers. It’s a bit like Lu Xun’s story where the unconfirmed but true rumors about the impending fall of China’s last dynasty bring a claustrophobic village to a boil. We hotheads stayed back and watched it all happen, with an ineffable sense of excitement and impending doom.
We were all fired up in our role as activists. Talked about what was happening in Beijing that day, every day. Didn’t eat much but were more alert than ever. We tried to get the students at Liuyang Normal College to start a street protest, but our town was too small and the people too conservative. We may all have been hopping around like the rebellious Monkey King from the classic tale, but nothing came of our agitating.
LIAO: That’s why you decided to go to Beijing.
YU ZHIJIAN: The hunger strikes began in Tiananmen. And a few students got down on their knees on the steps outside the People’s Congress when they handed in their petition. Complex political games are beyond people like us, but intuitively we weren’t happy with that sort of thing. If they didn’t want to be the docile subjects of a feudal monarch, why did they kneel? An autocratic regime wouldn’t even bother brushing off that sort of concession.
On May 16, after an all-nighter debate on the state of the nation, we three decided to go to Beijing. We were all broke and none of us had ever gone north before to “make revolution.” We took out our wages and it didn’t look enough. The night before we left, I knocked on the door of a classmate who was a private entrepreneur in the electric appliance business. He was generous for the sake of the revolution and forked over a grand — which would be twenty-something times that amount in today’s money, right? The train ticket from Changsha to Beijing cost less than fifty.
LIAO: Very generous indeed.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was part and parcel of our collective fantasy over democracy. Bus drivers along the way to Changsha wouldn’t take our fare when they heard we were on the way to Beijing to show support. When we pulled into Changsha early morning, we headed toward the May First Boulevard and the provincial government buildings to get a read on what was happening. Woa! The student movement in the capital of Hunan was in full swing. The maze of streets was overrun by students and residents. That set our blood boiling, there was no holding back! Given my long legs, I was tasked to go out and buy stationery, and Yu made a giant banner. We occupied the train station plaza, set up our banner, and took turns giving speeches on the most popular themes of the movement: Anti-corruption, change to the political system, amending the Constitution, and opposition to one-party rule. Yu was in charge of taking photos because his camera was made in Japan. He was supposed to use it to cover his beat at Liuyang Daily – in those days you don’t come across a camera like that one every day. I was with him when he bought more rolls of Kodak film than any of us could keep track of. These masterpieces of photography all ended up in court as incontrovertible evidence of his counterrevolutionary incitement to subvert the state.
LIAO: Not that different from my own situation. I manufactured a lot of irrefutable literary evidence against myself.
YU ZHIJIAN: The crowd was milling around us. I, an incompetent teacher whose previous encounters had all been with children under the age of ten in a village classroom, was taking a first crack at “incitement” in public. Fluent and fervent, it was pretty effective, and the worked-up crowd threw money into our makeshift donation box. In pennies and yuan bills, even tens. It was so moving. There were no hundred-yuan bills yet at that time. I remember to this day this one man, stuffing bills into the box with both hands. After only a few hours of incitement the box overflowed.
LIAO: There was so much passionate conviction in those days.
YU ZHIJIAN: We collected more than three thousand yuan. Some students joined our petition group to go to Beijing to support the student movement.
LIAO: How many?
YU ZHIJIAN: Forty, fifty? A big crowd. We got on the express train that had just started operating. It leaves at 9:00 p.m.
LIAO: The train tickets alone would cost a fortune.
YU ZHIJIAN: What could you do? We bought platform passes and rolled in. The train was overflowing with patriotic crowds. We were stuffed into the corridor skin-on-skin. The train conductor checking tickets got the head of the crew to come see us. He was all courtesy: Who is responsible for this group? I said I was. He told me he understood and supported our cause unconditionally, and had us taken to the crew lounge where we could take turns sitting down. We got to the train station the next day and the first thing we did was to unfold our banner – the thing was half as long as a train passenger car. It sure drew attention. Only a few moments after we took off in the direction of Tiananmen, I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of several hundred people materializing behind us. These were mostly students visiting Beijing and looking for a group to belong to. We were more on than ever. “Down with Deng Xiaoping! We want Zhao Ziyang! Freedom, democracy and human rights – Chinese people will stand tall once more!” We were shouting slogans louder and faster than the gongs and drums of folk plays. After just under an hour, we sighted the ramparts of the Forbidden City looming over Tiananmen; until then, we’d only seen it in newspapers. Before we had the chance to “lose ourselves in the sea of the masses,” someone who carried himself like a student leader marched up and told us he was from the Guards of the University Autonomous Association. He commended our group for supporting the cause. “But your slogans are a bit inappropriate; that is to say, extreme. Even the people in the Square are not going this far this thoughtlessly.” Initially that did not go down well with us, but then we thought it through and wanted to make the movement’s needs our priority, so we did as we were told and put away the counterrevolutionary extra-long banner for the time being.
Over the next couple of days, the college students who came with us all found their own student body organizations or other clusters like birds returning to their nests. Our petition group fell apart, leaving only the three of us core members with no pigeonhole to fit into. Our “class categorization as lone vagabonds” was exposed, as they say in Communist social theory.
LIAO: Didn’t take much for that group to fall apart, it looks like.
YU ZHIJIAN: We got into trouble on May 23, so we were only in the middle of everything for five, six days in total. We went to some rallies and called for the abolition of one-party dictatorship and full-blown Westernization in some speeches. Didn’t sleep a whole lot during those few days. At night, when we couldn’t keep going any more, we would roll out a piece of tarp in some underpass or on the sidewalk, snuggle into a military coat, and doze a little. This one morning, I opened my eyes to find a girl, a student, lying asleep on top of me. (Laughs). It was so romantic.
Three quite memorable things happened around this time. A sign saying “Extraordinary Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” was put up over the Great Hall of the People. We went into wanton fantasies over it, as if the utopia of democracy was looming right there in front of our eyes. At the same time, a lot of military helicopters were circling over the square, sometimes flying so low they practically grazed the ramparts of the Forbidden City. They scattered flyers “To the Deluded Masses” calling on everyone to surrender and desist. The exact same way the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty brought his formidable foe to his knees – inundating him and his troops with the songs of their homeland, softening their morale so much they disbanded on their own.
The last thing that sank in the most was how inconsistent the student leaders were in their talks. Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi were running on and on: “Do your best to maintain the order at the Square” – duh. Or, “Residents and workers, return to your posts and normal working routines,” duh. Chai Ling was even acting like some variety-show host on TV, “Thank you, thank you! Thanks for everyone’s support.” All of them carried on as if the students were a privileged group who alone enjoyed the mainline privilege to love our country, and every other social element was only there meddling in what was none of their business and making things worse. What the hell? If it weren’t for everyone else’s support, could the students have lasted? The Communists would have taken them out long ago. The troops were already kicking up their heels in the suburbs, and the students were still busy infighting, holding dialogues, freaking out, stalemating – what was the goddamn use of their play acted composure? Did they think the soldiers, armed to the teeth, were weenies just in town for a visit? What if the army did open fire? The democracy movement was so vast, with tens of millions caught up in it. What made them believe, the handful of lousy babies that they were, that they could stay on top of it and make sure everything wind down smoothly? Bloodshed was breathing down on everyone, and there they were, thwarting their country’s fate with their empty talk. Completely immature.
LIAO: Your intuition was pretty sound.
YU ZHIJIAN: But grassroots folks like us from the provinces had no chance to speak up. We tried getting through the guards to talk to the student leaders, but when the guards saw me acting all aggressive and pent-up, there was no way in hell we could gain access to the Command Headquarters of the square, let alone see the chief. What to do? We turned in a Proposal of Recommendations, and begged and pleaded and stormed until the guards promised to hand it to the leaders. If only “for reference as needed.”
LIAO: Do you remember what the recommendations were?
YU ZHIJIAN: First, University Autonomous Association should declare the Chinese Communist regime illegal in the name of every citizen in the country. Second, the Association ought to call on Beijing and the entire nation to strike. Third: Students and worker guards…oh, wait, I can’t recall off the bat.
LIAO: Didn’t hold back, did you? Was there a response?
YU ZHIJIAN: Nothing. Everything was so chaotic. Maybe they never even gave them the thing to read.
LIAO: That must have sucked for you. But maybe you were too far out.
YU ZHIJIAN: I know. We couldn’t get anywhere.
LIAO: As Confucius says, “Mingle not in projects with a man whose way is not yours.” You could have dusted off the seat of your pants and walked away.
YU ZHIJIAN: No. We’d come all this way to Beijing, and we had to live up to our duty. Yu Dongyue was so upset and saddened that he proposed we self-immolate as a group. We came up with several plans. For example, we could stand on Gold Water Bridge, pour gasoline over ourselves and light it up. The effect was sure to be dramatic. But what goal were we trying to achieve? Should we put out a statement beforehand, or get somebody to notify the country afterwards that our sacrifice was for democracy and freedom, an act of protest against state violence and a wakeup call to the people? But things were stacked against us. If something goes wrong, people would not have understood why we self-immolated. There was even some chance the government would turn our deaths into a smear campaign against the democracy movement.
That would have been pretty senseless. So I proposed that we take action against Mao Zedong’s portrait — the original prototype one — hung on the ramparts of the Forbidden City. Put a symbolic end to the repressive Communist regime. My two friends agreed right away. From midnight to sunrise of the 22nd, we talked over our options. From a distance, it did not look like climbing up to take the portrait would be all that hard. But the square was guarded so closely we would have had better luck getting up to heaven than the walls of the palace. Our eyes ruddy from sleeplessness, the next morning we got hold of a ladder after a lot of to-do, and carried it to the archway beneath the portrait like patients burning up in a high fever. We looked up and you could have knocked us down with a feather. The bastard despot who sat on our heads and had his way with us, who had died years ago – he was out of our reach even when we stand on top of a ladder as tall as several grown men!
We took turns carefully examining the setup. After a lot of hard staring, we finally made it out – the nail on which the portrait hung was as thick as a man’s arm. Which means even if we could set up a high enough ladder and be ready for death and torture worse than death, we still might not be able to take the emperor down with us.
LIAO: Did no one notice you?
YU ZHIJIAN: No one had the time for anyone else. In the tumult of a movement like that, oftentimes each person is marginal and alone, with very little to connect him to it. Of course, it’s something else entirely if you were chosen as the focus of the world’s attention.
LIAO: That’s why it occurred to you to treat the despot to rotten eggs? I was at home in Puling, and saw you guys doing it. I was stunned. I remember the news broadcaster was China Central Television’s Chen Duo, with graying hair, whose voice was shaking — he was that angry.
YU ZHIJIAN: We really had no other way to get to Old Man Mao and that’s how we came up with our lousy scheme. We shopped at the Wangfujing Department Store and bought twenty eggs. At first we thought we could eyeball the distance and pitch the eggs as is, but it didn’t take long for us to realize eggs are too light-colored and the splash would be hard to see. Lucky for us, Dongyue dabbled as a painter. He said let’s make a dark gray from oils and fill the eggs with it.
We took a long time with the preparation and treated it all quite seriously. After buying stationery supplies and paint, we went to the post office to send our last letter to our families. It’s incredible, but I’ve actually forgotten what I wrote to mine; I think I cited a lot of Byron. Lu mulled over what he wrote for a long time. It was tough, pretty emotional — he is an only child. I heard later that when his parents saw the TV broadcast about us they fainted on the spot. I remember bits and pieces from what Dongyue wrote. He had five boys back home — he bound himself to them in brotherhood unto death — and he lied on his belly writing them letters one after the other. He was going to imitate Don Quixote and battle the windmills, and they should see him off like the legendary assassin Jing Ke, whose friends said farewell to him in the chill wind on the banks of the Yi River, never to return, et cetera. Lyrical compositions.
LIAO: People tell me he’s quite gifted in poetry.
YU ZHIJIAN: He wrote doggerel I can still remember: There may be a thousand reasons for you to walk on one side of the street. But there are a thousand and one reasons for you to cross the street and join me!
LIAO: The impulse to cross the line. Lo and behold, you did cross over to the other side.
YU ZHIJIAN: We were so hungry after we finished writing our last words, we took the twenty eggs to a food stall next to the Gold Water Bridge. You spread a flour paste on the pan, add the eggs and sprinkle scallion on top. We stuffed ourselves with too much of this northern-style pancake. The first few batches, fried to a bright gold and smelling delicious, went down real easy — we don’t have them in Hunan. But it got to be too much after a while and we almost threw up.
We then went to the park named after Sun Yat-sen, the man who overthrew the last dynasty, and sat down to put the eggs together, filling the shells with paint and sealing them one by one. Then we spread out calligraphy paper, 1.2 meters long and 80 cm wide, on the ground. This had got to be the gutsiest couplet written in China since 1949. I came up with the words and Dongyue, deep in thought, dashed it off with an ink brush: “An end to five thousand years of despotism / Cult of personality is no more.” The matching slogan was: “Hail Liberty!”
The gun was cocked, so to speak. Dongyue took shots of the banner, and Decheng and I had our photo taken at the gate of the park “for keepsake.” All of it, unfortunately, is now part of the criminal record archives at the Public Security Bureau.
LIAO: You didn’t bequeath the “revolutionary keepsakes” to someone you could trust?
YU ZHIJIAN: We couldn’t think of anyone reliable despite knowing so many people. We divided up the job. I am the tallest so I was in charge of blocking the crowd and making the announcement. Dongyue and Decheng would put up the banner and pitch the eggs. We took our respective positions. I made the first appearance, running to the archway and blocking pedestrians: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Please stop for a moment!” More people came toward us and I could not keep them back, until a few students rushed over to help.
LIAO: Why did they help you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Decheng and I were only 25 or 26, and Dongyue was 22 (he’s a prodigy, and graduated from college at 18.) Based on the way we looked, the students thought we were their peers. I was just getting a grip on things when my buddies unfurled the banner with a swoosh and put it up. They were a bit rushed and the thing was a little skewed. Those two then immediately ran backwards, aimed for the best angle of elevation and began pitching. We had thought twenty eggs would be plenty to deface the entire giant portrait, but the two dummies were so lame: the eggs went flying and missed their mark every which way. They didn’t have enough strength in their arms, and the egg would fall halfway through. I couldn’t do anything except watch it happen. I started cussing: What the hell do you think you’re doing? They didn’t end up losing face entirely though. Three out of twenty made it, and graced the despot’s double-chin with a smattering of pockmarks.
LIAO: How long did that take?
YU ZHIJIAN: The whole act took five or six minutes but the eggs took only two or three. It was like a dream, and no one there realized what was happening. They were out of it, surprised, and some people clapped their hands and cheered without thinking it through. When they came to, the deed was done. Walls of people closed in on the “criminals,” and someone reprimanded: “What did you do? Where are you from? Who is behind this?” The UAA guards also rushed over. I was standing to the side and could only see the top of their heads. I overheard lots of jabbering, accusatory voices: “Your motivation is malicious. You intend to destroy everyone, destroy this patriotic movement of ours.” Decheng, sporting the color of the palette from all the broken eggs, was fighting to be heard: “Outlawing Mao’s portrait is both just and legal. We didn’t do anything wrong!” I applauded from far away and spoke up: “That’s right!”
The student standing next to me was having none of it, pointed his finger at me and said, “You’d better not interrupt if it’s none of your business.” I said: “Of course it’s my business. We’re in this together.” That clinched the matter and I was snapped up for good, too. We all got taken to the Command Center.
LIAO: Did you get beaten up?
YU ZHIJIAN: Just pushed around and jostled. Both the people for and against us were in just for the heck of it anyway. The student guards were, when you come right down to it, protecting us. We finally reached the Center set up at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — the movement’s nucleus we had racked our brains for a way to get into before all of this happened. There we finally were, even if the way we burst on the scene was a bit less dignified than we would have preferred.
We sat under the memorial with hanging heads, forlorn, waiting to see what would be done with us. The student leaders took forever discussing what to do. Finally, plainclothes agents showed up, circled the place, then walked in to demand that they turn us over. The students, quite diplomatically, refused. Right then a lady inched up to me when no one was looking and whispered: “Things are turning out really badly for you all; you’d better look sharp and get away as soon as you can.” I shook my head, “We will live and die together. I won’t walk by myself.” She paused for a moment before saying, “Then why don’t I give you a telephone number. If you need any help, call this number and look for me.” I agreed. I was young and had a good memory, so she only had to say it once for me to remember it.
LIAO: You didn’t ask her who she was?
YU ZHIJIAN: I did not, and I doubt she would have told me anyway. But the way she looked at me, I think she really wanted to help me, so I would like to make sure to mention it now.
LIAO: What happened with all that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Too many things happened and I forgot both about her and the number. Even if I am to stand face to face with her now I doubt I’d be able to recognize her.
LIAO: And then what happened?
YU ZHIJIAN: After some deliberation, the student leaders took us to the Museum of History to the right of the Square for what may count as an informal press conference for Chinese and foreign reporters. There were a lot of reporters and people waiting around already. We did not expect it to be so short; the whole thing lasted under five minutes. The questions were primarily for Lu Decheng. Some head honcho from the UAA also “made clarifications” on behalf of all the university students, stating that they had nothing to do with what happened. Their goal was to promote democratic reform and was absolutely free from this sort of hostility. It is not within the realm of possibility for the UAA to attack the Communist Party or to damage Chairman Mao’s image, et cetera, et cetera. My mind just about exploded.
Then we ended up in a bus, and Decheng was interviewed again, this time by the China Central Television. It began to rain. Outside the window, tents and tarps everywhere on the Square were one big mess, like a disaster area roughly patched together. Who would have thought the official media, usually so sluggish, would have moved so fast and done such a long interview? Questions included where we came from, our profession, how long our planning took, our initial motivation, and whether we had contemplated the consequences. Decheng also answered him at a measured pace, making sure to state that the students were not involved in any way with what we did. People tell me on that same day “XWLB News Broadcast” aired our story as a warning to others and the segment ran for five or six minutes. The program included eyewitnesses, some students and people from Beijing, where they narrated what happened and expressed their views. One student said, “I really admire them for having the courage to do this.” (Chuckles).
LIAO: That’s where I first found out about you, that program. The tone was mostly, I’d say, “angry condemnation,” but the reporters’ anxiety and good will lurked right beneath the surface. They were worried that the incident would bring unthinkably negative consequences to the movement.
YU ZHIJIAN: Negative consequences were on the cards from the very beginning. As long as Mao’s specter roams China and Deng’s iron fist stays on our necks — as long as the Communists are in power, the only outcome to resistance will be bloodshed. We were just one of the episodes.
( To be continued.)
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.