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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.
Wang Qiaoling, May 26, 2017
This interview was conducted on May 5, 2017, three days before lawyer Li Heping returned home. – The Editors
Host: Hello everyone and welcome to “Surveying China,” (放眼大陆); I’m Huang Juan (黄娟). From July 9, 2015, for the next two months, about 300 lawyers, rights defenders, and dissidents were subject to mass disappearances; they were summoned by police, detained, and some have eventually been sentenced and jailed. This became the “709 Crackdown” that shocked the world. It’s been almost two years. Some victims have been imprisoned, others have been released on probation, still others have been given suspended sentences. It would seem that what family members want most is for the victims to be released, no matter what the circumstances. However, almost everyone who was released has fallen off the radar — they weren’t in fact truly freed. How can this be?
Today, we’re interviewing Ms. Wang Qiaoling (王峭嶺). Wang Qiaoling’s husband Li Heping (李和平) was disappeared about two years ago. On April 25, the Tianjin Second Intermediate People’s Court suddenly staged a secret trial of Li; they announced the verdict on April 28: Li Heping had been found guilty of subversion of state power and sentenced to three years imprisonment, suspended for four years, with deprivation of political rights for four years. From the verdict to May 5, eight days have passed, yet Li hasn’t been set free and allowed to return home. Lawyers hired by the family have gone to the court and the detention center, but Li was nowhere to be found. Wang Qiaoling, what was your reaction to the sentence?
Wang Qiaoling: First of all, I never expected they would carry out the trial in secret, and I never expected that the charges against my husband would be upheld. I heard from the secret police, the security police (国保), that he’d been sentenced. Then they told me that this was “the best news.” “A suspended sentence means he can return home.” But when I heard it, I was enraged.
As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t any sort of good news! I know exactly what sort of man my husband is. If one were concerned with enduring humiliation to save one’s skin, then of course it’s a good thing that he can come home. But he’s not merely an innocent man. He’s someone who goes out of his way to help others, to help those who are even more innocent, and tries to secure justice for them. It’s as though, if he went out and helped up an elderly person who’d fallen in the street, and for that was falsely accused of subverting state power — would you say his being sentenced in that case shouldn’t make me mad?
So I was really furious about it. With the entire 709 case from its inception to today, we’ve personally experienced China’s rule of law. It’s as worthless as a rag. There’s no rule of law. So we’re working as hard as possible to expose the truth. Myself and the other wives of 709 lawyers dearly hope that our husbands will be declared innocent and come home free. But the secret police tell me that he’s been convicted of the crime, given a suspended sentence, and then try to say it’s good news. They’ve used so many perverse, twisted methods to torment my husband, force-feeding him drugs, and all sorts of other cruelties. For 22 months his lawyers have been unable to see him. There’s been no news. So their declaring my husband a criminal makes me really mad.
Host: International observers were also rather astonished about this: Why was Li Heping put on trial without his family even knowing about it?
Wang Qiaoling: Exactly. It’s not only the trial we didn’t know about. We hadn’t even received the bill of indictment beforehand; and afterwards they didn’t show us the judgement. It was conducted in total secrecy. In other words, 22 months after my husband was arrested, we know nothing, and then at the end they tell us he’s a criminal.
Host: Though we did see the official news that they had designated Wen Zhisheng (温志胜), of the Tianjin branch of the Beijing Zhonglun Law Firm (北京中伦律师事务所), as Li Heping’s lawyer. But he didn’t inform the family of Li Heping’s trial or what was going on. Have you met this Wen Zhisheng?
Wang Qiaoling: The first time I met this lawyer named Wen Zhisheng was on April 28, the day that my husband was found guilty. Wen Zhisheng, though he was Li Heping’s defense lawyer, wasn’t with his client in the courtroom when the sentence was read, but was instead with the secret police waiting outside my apartment building, waiting for me to come downstairs. They didn’t dare come up, because they knew I wouldn’t let them in. So they just waited for me to come down, then stopped me, surrounded me, and prevented me from leaving. At this point Wen Zhisheng told me: “I’m your husband’s lawyer.” I said, “So you’re Wen Zhisheng? I call you and you don’t answer; I sue you and you don’t dare show your face.” He closed in on me and said: “I have a handwritten note from your husband to you.” I said: “You people have fabricated so many things, including letters to family members from prison.” We’ve been through too much over these 22 months. They’ve fabricated letters, signatures, and video recordings. They even came and told us family members not to appeal on behalf of our husbands, because they’ve already confessed. But when the victims emerged they said that they had never made those video recordings.
So when Wen Zhisheng gave me the letter, I simply didn’t believe him. I’ve never acknowledged that Wen Zhisheng actually represents my husband. We can pay for a lawyer ourselves, and we can get the best in China. I myself notified the court that I’ll be acting as Li Heping’s defense counsel. Li Heping and I studied law together at university, in the same class, so I’m entirely qualified to serve in that capacity. But my husband has been deprived of any news from outside, and the authorities forcibly assigned this lawyer to him. So when I saw this Wen Zhisheng, I told him: “I don’t believe you, and I don’t accept you as my husband’s lawyer.” I didn’t look at the letter he gave me. Then he went over and snatched the phone from another 709 wife, because she was taking photos of the encounter.
Host: What did it matter that someone was taking photos of him? Did he want to hide the fact that he had been assigned to be Li Heping’s lawyer?
Wang Qiaoling: I think he tried to seize her phone because he was terrified of being exposed. From when I learned that he was made my husband’s lawyer, I had tried to see him, but he never took my calls. So I sued him; the day before yesterday I received a response from the Tianjin Higher People’s Court, ruling that they would not accept my case. So I gave Wen Zhisheng a nickname: “The running dog of the Zhao family Wen Zhisheng,” “the Zhao family’s running dog.” He’s a disgrace to the term lawyer. Even though I don’t acknowledge his role, as the officially-appointed lawyer to Li Heping, how could he not be in Tianjin on the day that Li Heping is being sentenced? Amazingly, at 11:00 a.m. when I go out, he’s there outside my door. He must have had to get up early, at least, and spend three hours traveling from Tianjin to my home in Beijing. So from that you know just how he goes about acquitting himself as a lawyer.
Host: It’s quite strange. Given that he’s the officially-assigned lawyer, why not just follow the procedures and be in the court when the verdict is delivered?
Wang Qiaoling: He came to my house with the police to do one thing: fool me into going with them back to Tianjin to meet my husband. That way, they could put us both under house arrest. I would have lost contact with everyone, and there would have been no opportunity for the truth to be exposed. From the beginning of 2016, of everyone who has been released on probation — including those who were given suspended sentences in August, as well as those even later released on probation — there’s not a single one who has been truly free. This is the “709 Model.”
Host: You mean to say that everyone who has been released, to this day, has not really been free to speak?
Wang Qiaoling: That’s exactly what I mean.
Host: Has anyone gone to meet with them?
Wang Qiaoling: There have been meetings. People have definitely gone to visit them in secret, but no one dares take photos, or if photos were taken, no one would dare publish them. It’s got to that point. They were subjected to unimaginable torture inside. After they’re released they’ve not dared to speak to their own family members or society at large. When the police came on April 28, if they had succeeded in taking me away they would have brought me to my husband in Tianjin, and then used coercive measures to completely cut us off from any contact with the world. Without a phone, I wouldn’t be able to go online, and I’d have lost contact with the world. This is the 709 model. Every family has been dealt with in this manner. Look at the case of Wang Yu (王宇). No one has seen her.
Host: I haven’t heard any news.
Wang Qiaoling: Zhao Wei [赵威, Li Heping’s legal assistant] is the same; no one I know has seen her. Another assistant of my husband’s, Gao Li (高丽), has not been seen either. Over these last two years we’ve seen just too many family members who’ve been tricked when going in to visit. The relatives think that after they see the detainee, they’ll all be able to go home together. That’s what the police tell them. But then they go, and the result is that all contact is lost.
Host: You mean family members also get put under house arrest?
Wang Qiaoling: When we can contact them, the most we dare do is just ask how they’re getting on. They say “alright,” and don’t dare say more than that. When they get entrapped like this we really have no idea what has befallen them. Consider the entire 709 Crackdown — how many victims have really dared to come out and speak the truth? This leads me to Li Heping’s current circumstances. According to Chinese law, Li Heping has been given a suspended sentence. On that very day he should have been released to come back home. Why, at this point, have we heard nothing? Today Li Heping’s former defense attorney Ma Lianshun (马连顺) was commissioned by me to go to the Tianjin Procuratorate, the court, the detention center, and the Guajiasi (挂甲寺) police station to ask them: “Where is Li Heping?” They all say: “We don’t know. He’s gone.” So now you see what sort of situation Li Heping is in. He’s been disappeared. A new round of disappearance.
Host: Goodness — he’s been given a suspended sentence and they still won’t let him go.
Wang Qiaoling: Right. This is the 709 model.
Host: It’s been eight days now. What are they playing at? In the case of Li Heping, whether he’s given a suspended sentence as in this case, or if he was released on probation, if the authorities were determined to keep him detained, why bother going through the trial?
Wang Qiaoling: If they simply kept him detained indefinitely, it would set the Chinese government against the democratic countries around the world that cherish universal values and liberty. This is why, under intense international scrutiny and pressure, they have no choice but to release some people, let them out on probation, or give suspended sentences — as though these were really light punishments. It’s a show for the world, because the pressure was getting too much. It’s as if someone was abusing his children and wife. In front of other people, he’d say: “Look, I’m not hitting them anymore!” But now they’ve switched their methods of tormenting those they’ve detained. Just look at those who’ve been released on probation and are home now, or those given suspended sentences — who dares speak freely? This is to say that imprisonment has now become house arrest, so you can’t speak, can’t have any contact with the world, and it puts the victims under intense psychological pressure. That pressure falls not only on them, but the entire family. By giving Li Heping a suspended sentence, their goal is to use house arrest to stop him from helping those victims around him who need help. He’s also lost his license to practice law, because he’s been convicted. And now for the next four years, any move he makes will be scrutinized, and if the authorities think that he’s trying to “subvert state power,” they’ll haul him in and make him serve three years in jail.
Host: This method actually seems to closely resemble what they’ve done to Gao Zhisheng (高智晟).
Wang Qiaoling: Yes, it’s very like the approach they used before on Gao. In wrapping up the 709 cases, the Chinese authorities, on the surface, have adopted a lenient approach — but in actual fact they’ve used more underhanded, devious tactics to harm these lawyers and activists. None of the 709 victims dares to speak freely about what they went through. This itself is a huge psychological torment. On top of that, almost every day they’re going around frightening this lawyer and that — arresting someone while they’re on vacation, grabbing others when they’re in the middle of a meal. They’re continuing to foster an atmosphere of terror among human rights lawyers.
Host: I assume you’re referring to the recent detention of Chen Jiangang (陈建刚) in Yunnan, and the arrest of a number of human rights lawyers in the middle of a meal in Chengdu?
Wang Qiaoling: Right. And actually if you think back to Jiangang’s involvement in Xie Yang’s (谢阳) 709 case, all he did was his duty as a lawyer. If your client has been subjected to savage torture and you pretend like nothing happened, are you doing your job as a lawyer? In that case the authorities should simply scrap the entire legal profession and be done with it. If you’re a lawyer, then you have to defend the rights of your client — you expose the facts of the torture that your client was put through; this is one’s professional duty. If the authorities have the nerve to carry out this sort of torture, then they shouldn’t complain when it’s exposed. If they’ve got the nerve to act like scoundrels, then they should at least dare to proclaim themselves as scoundrels. You can’t act like a thug and simultaneously pretend like you’re a good person. I’m holding back on speaking too harshly in order to spare their feelings a bit.
Host: In these 709 mass arrests, there was another lawyer who received a lot of attention, Xie Yanyi (谢燕益). He was released a little while ago, but I don’t know what his circumstances are like now. It seems difficult to get any information about him.
Wang Qiaoling: Right — this is the “709 model” that I was talking about. Lawyer Xie was released on probation around the same time as Li Chunfu (李春富, Li Chunfu’s younger brother). Their families are really happy that they were allowed home. But they found that even after they came back home, they were unable to enjoy life in any normal fashion. Once home they made some announcements like “We need to rest,” etc. But have you heard anything about what they went through? No. What you’ve heard privately, or heard from so-and-so’s wife, hasn’t been verified by the person themselves, so you can only say that privately the news is that this or that happened. This is the 709 model. The authorities changed up their tactics, continuing to keep detained those they’ve “released.” If they dare to speak publicly about what happened to them in prison, the security police will appear once more and begin harassing and disturbing the family. So they can’t really live free lives.
Host: You just mentioned Li Chunfu, Li Heping’s younger brother. The news seemed to be that soon after he was released, his family found that he was mentally disturbed, but I haven’t heard the details of the situation now.
Wang Qiaoling: He indeed experience enormous mental suffering, and when he got out his mind seemed muddled and confused. He couldn’t identify his family members, and didn’t know whether he could trust and rely or them or not. He thought that the friends dropping by to visit were police. At the time, this was truly agonizing to behold. He said himself: I remember the day I left the detention center very clearly; the procedural aspect of the case had reached a decision-point: either I was going to sue the court, or else they were going to release me. But on that day the police were adamant to take me out of the police station.” He’s a lawyer; he said to them: “Firstly, you’re not my family; secondly, you’re not my lawyer, and you’re just taking me away like this. The detention center is under surveillance, but you taking me away like this means I can’t be certain of my personal safety.” So he was forcibly removed from the detention center, and even his signature on the probation documents was added later — the police forced him to sign them. There was also a bail bond of 1,000 yuan for the probation. He found it very strange, saying: “I don’t have any money. Who paid this?” The police said that his family paid it, but there was no family there, and no one knows where this money came from. So whether it’s Li Chunfu or anyone else arrested in the 709 crackdown, from their arrest to their release, there has been all manner of trampling on due process, official procedures, and the law. The police themselves say it: “There’s no law. There’s nothing you can do but confess.”
Host: It sounds like all these cases were blackbox operations. Ms. Wang, your husband has been locked up for nearly two years and has been unable to meet his lawyers. As his wife, how have you gotten through this?
Wang Qiaoling: I’m extremely concerned for his safety. Who can bear their husband’s absence, disappearance and separation for so long? Li Heping was vanished on July 10, 2015; when we received the notification of his arrest on January 20, 2016, my first reaction was: He’s alive; thank God that he’s still alive. Over the next grueling year or so, we received not a skerrick of news about him, until a few days ago when the police told me that my husband had been found guilty and was given a suspended sentence. My first reaction was again: He’s still alive. In China, detention centers are at least better than “residential surveillance at a designated place,” basically secret detention, where deaths can happen easily. I was very concerned that his body wouldn’t be able to take it, or that there’d be some sort of accident. My feeling on both these occasions was to thank God that he’s still alive.
How did I get through these last two years? I’m greatly fortunate because I’m a Christian. In the times of greatest trial, I pray. The most difficult times have been when I haven’t heard word about my husband. At these times, I’ve myself received a knock on the door and been taken to the detention center. Last August I accompanied another family as they went to apply to observe their husband’s court case. On the road in the middle of the night I was taken away by about a dozen men who shoved me into their car. No one knew who had taken me. I was locked in a room in the detention center for 24 hours. At this most difficult time, I got through it with prayer. As a Christian, I know that our human lives aren’t in our own hands — but in the hands of God. If one day, as I’m rushing about my business, I die — I believe that this will have been allowed by God. I know that upon death I’ll certainly be going to Heaven. That’s not because I’m so great, but because I have faith — we’re formed by our faith in God. So over these past two years, during the days of greatest torment, I’ve relied on prayer and faith in God to overcome. I know that God is a God of kindness and compassion. The 709 Crackdown over the past two years has pushed many families to the verge of destruction — but I always try to look at these affairs as they must appear in the eyes of God. In the midst of unrighteousness, you can often see love between people emerge and grow, and this love is conferred by God.
I remember some time ago that a foreign friend told me that China’s birth control policies are a horrendous violation of human rights; but because of these birth control policies, many baby girls are abandoned, and he and his wife adopted and raised three Chinese girls. Now he has three great loves in his family. And precisely in the midst of injustice, I found that my husband’s work was precisely about showing compassion toward and helping those around him — especially those at the bottom of society, like peasants, or those who have been wrongly sentenced to death, and so on. After my husband was arrested I met so many strangers who respected him, believed in him, and because of this loved our family. I also saw my children, throughout all this turmoil, go from being jealous of one another to showing concern and love for one another. I also saw that as our family went through these collective trials and tribulations, we not only withstood what was hard to face, but we were also willing to reach out a helping hand and support those around us. I have witnessed all these things over the last two years. When God opened my eyes and let me see all this, I felt that the burden of living became easier to bear.
Host: I remember there was a wife of one of the 709 lawyers — I think it was Li Wenzu (李文足, the wife of Wang Quanzhang)? — who said she cried for a long time, all the way until you reached out with a helping hand, wrote her a letter, and she finally had an ally and no longer felt isolated and helpless.
Wang Qiaoling: That was roughly what happened. In early 2016 when I received the notice of my husband’s arrest, I thought: God, what is it you want me to do? Right then, I said to myself with great clarity: Don’t linger in your own pain; you need to help those around you who are suffering in the same way. So during that Chinese New Year, I gave it a go, driving around to check in on the other family members of 709 victims. What we’re able to do is so feeble, minimal, and limited, but when you’re willing to do that little bit, you’ll find that love is like a seed that, when placed in the soil, can grow and grow. In the nearly two years since the 709 incident we’ve all been supported by one another. This is so precious. I feel that for all families — whether or not they fell victim to this shocking 709 incident — we all need to learn to not just look after ourselves, but look after those around us.
Host: When a lonely individual steps outside themselves, it creates a greater power. Over these last two years, in fact, the model of resistance we’ve seen from 709 families is completely different to the impressions we have and the circumstances of the past. Back years ago in Taiwan it was also like that — the families of those persecuted would display the tragicness of all, and thus gain international sympathy. Of course, this sort of suffering is indeed worthy of sympathy. But the way you went about resisting was original and creative, adopting a lot of new approaches, and this was what drew a lot of attention. I think in the future this will become a model that is worthy of study.
Wang Qiaoling: Someone will actually study this? Hah.
Host: I hope it won’t need to be studied much more!
Wang Qiaoling: For us it camel very natural — it was natural to go about it this way. That people want to study it, I think that’s quite amusing. I suffered clinical depression 17 years ago. I had just given birth to our eldest son and was suffering post-partum depression and was receiving treatment for in hospital. When I began believing in Jesus, and was in an environment where everyone was kind to one another, in a church, I gradually underwent a complete recovery. When I lived out in my own life the teachings of the Bible, I found that they brought benefits both to myself and the people around me. I experienced this as the work of God. You might have found that we’re very optimistic, proactive, and we don’t play the victim or indulge in sadness — this is just our normal manner. We’re just really optimistic people. If it wasn’t for so many years of the church helping me, I wouldn’t be like this.
China’s Hero Lawyers, WSJ editorial, May 22, 2017.
In China, torture is real, and the rule of law is a sham, Washington Post Editorial, January 26, 2017.
‘My Name is Li Heping, and I Love Being a Lawyer,’ interview with Ai Weiwei in 2010.
Transcribed and translated by China Change.
Chen Jiangang, April 24, 2017
This article was written in December, 2015. Between then and now, the 45-year-old but youthful looking human rights lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳) performed a rare act of courage: revealing his torture in full detail while still behind bars, and despite the perpetrators’ repeated threats. The author Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), a friend, became Xie Yang’s defense lawyer in December 2016, recording the torture in a series meetings earlier this year. Then in an equally courageous action, Chen published them. The revelations caused an international stir, providing a rare but clear glimpse of the “709 Crackdown” on human rights lawyers, while also showing how the Chinese authorities routinely use unspeakable torture to extract confessions. “[Xie Yang’s] thought was that he wanted to maintain the final dignity for Chinese lawyers as a whole,” Chen Jiangang said in a home recording on March 7. “He also thought that right now a nationwide crackdown and persecution of human rights lawyers is taking place, and that he would spare no effort to fight his case and push back against the persecution. If they succeeded easily in Xie Yang’s case, they would unscrupulously harm and persecute other lawyers in the future. He was willing to use himself to ‘test the tiger.’ Today in Changsha, Xie Yang stands trial for “subverting state power.” — The Editors
When Xie Yang was imprisoned it was height of summer; now cold winter beats on our doors. In a flash, five months has passed and we’ve heard nothing. Over the past two years dissidents, online opinion leaders, journalists, and rights lawyers have been dragged onto state television and humiliated with forced “confessions.” Every few days there’s someone new on screen, crying bitterly, pleading guilt, accepting punishment, apologizing to the nation and the people… The scripts are pre-written, and CCTV news crews are on standby awaiting orders. Yet to this day there have been no “Confessions From Mr. Xie.” It looks like Xie Yang has not cooperated, and the producers had no actor for their stage play.
Whenever I think of Xie Yang, his smile always comes to mind. No matter the situation he’s in, there it is: a sunny, wide smile that brightens the day. Xie Yang’s smile is probably the first impression of him that many are left with.
Xie Yang, with his swarthy features and slow and careful speech, always seems to surprise. But everything he does comes from the heart, and is motivated by his deepest feelings. With Xie Yang, it’s never just for show.
Hunan Mule Versus the Bandits of Shandong
The phrase “Hunan mule” (湖南骡子) passes for a compliment for the Hunanese, along with sayings like “if your tooth is broke, swallow it with the blood.” “Hunan mule” is a reference to the unbending character of the people who hail from the region. They toil and suffer without complaint, and they’re strong of mind and full of courage. Sometimes, they’re also a bit excitable, and apt to “kick their hind legs.” Xie Yang is a classic Hunan mule, and thus earned the sobriquet “Xie Yang the Stubborn.”
In 2011, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) had just finished a four year prison term, earned for exposing the Communist Party’s brutal birth control practices in the countryside. He was then put under house arrest in Dongshigu village, Linyi, Shandong Province. Keeping him under guard became a cottage industry for local thugs: some were in charge of watching the family courtyard, others for making sure every approaching road was sealed off, others for dishing out beatings to visitors, others for delivering food. They worked shifts, 24/7. It didn’t matter who came to voice support, whether netizens, foreign journalists, or movie stars — whoever approached was beaten and chased away.
When Xie Yang heard about it, he didn’t believe it, and decided to pay Chen a visit himself. But before he could even enter Dongshigu, he was caught. The thugs began slugging him, tore apart his clothes, took his money, then bailed him into a car and dumped him in the middle of nowhere, a few dozen kilometers away. Poor Xie Yang had no ID, no money, and hardly any clothes left. Later, he told me that while he was in the car, tied up, hooded, and being beaten, his captors told him again and again that they were going to drive him out and bury him alive. He said the fact that he lived to tell the tale felt like a new life. Later still, I came to learn that this technique used by the thugs had its own term of art: “tossing to the wild” (“野抛”).
Xie Yang told me that what happened to him in Dongshigu had a profound impact on him. It hit him so hard, he said, that it brought about an internal rebirth. On the soil of Shandong — the cradle of Chinese civilization — Xie Yang came to a deep understanding of the state of the rule of law in China. It was a turning point in his journey to becoming a rights defense lawyer.
Defending the New Citizens
In 2014, with international attention focused on the prosecution of the New Citizens Movement in Beijing, Xie Yang appeared in court as counsel for Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), one of the four defendants. Lawyer Ge Yongxi (葛永喜) did most of the talking for the defense, and Xie Yang didn’t have much occasion to offer an opinion. When it was his turn to question the evidence, that Zhang Baocheng held up a placard calling for officials to make public their personal assets, Xie Yang responded in thick Hunan vernacular: “My client’s done a belter job.” The judge didn’t get it, and again asked for him to raise any questions about the evidence. Xie Yang repeated his remark. The judge then began thumping his gavel, demanding he provide an opinion on the evidence. Xie Yang didn’t react, and again said the same sentence: “My opinion of the evidence is simply that my client’s done a belter job.” (i.e., “My client has done a great job.”)
The demand that officials make public their assets is common sense in a democratic country. In China, it’s enough to land one in jail. That was all Xie Yang had to say about the evidence.
In March 2014, four human rights lawyers — Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) and Wang Cheng (王成) — traveled to the remote, far northeastern town of Jiansanjiang (建三江), Heilongjiang Province, to represent a number of Falun Gong practitioners locked in a black jail. When they got there the lawyers were taken captive and brutally beaten, sparking lawyers and citizens from around China to begin traveling to Jiansanjiang in protest and support. To deal with the flood of supporters, local authorities stationed about a dozen vehicles and dozens of fully-armed personnel on the only road leading there. It was early April, but the region had been hit with sudden snowfall, and visibility was low. The road there was desolate, empty fields stretching out into the distance, with no villages in sight — so the dozens of defense lawyer and citizens who went to protest were easily captured. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) was hooded and had his head rammed into a wall; Wang Shengsheng (王胜生) was hooded and dragged away while still in his pyjamas; Li Jinxing (李金星) told me that he got so cold in Jiansanjiang that it damaged his internal organs and took months to recover.
Xie Yang had arranged to travel there with a few other lawyers in early April. He was the first to arrive in Harbin where they were to meet. He could have waited for the others and gone together, so at least if they were buried alive there’d be company. But instead, as he recounted later with a grin, he thought: “What am I waiting around for? Forget it. First to come, first to go!”
With his authorization letter making clear he was an attorney on a case, he traveled by himself through the snow. As expected, he was picked up halfway there and searched. He didn’t try to hide anything and told them: “Haven’t you boys arrested a big crowd already? I’m with them!”
‘I Want to File the Case!’
Human rights lawyers are the chief offenders in China’s “New Five Black Categories,” (新黑五类) because they often serve as the defenders and guardians of the other four (political dissidents, believers, free speechers, the disenfranchised). The state sees them as a threat. Lawyers are willing to forgo income and personal safety in order to seek redress for wronged citizens — but on many occasions even filing the case is a battle. As for those who have their homes demolished, or those beaten by urban enforcement officers, or those who have family members killed by them, or by police — how many can actually file their cases?
Once, Xie Yang went to file an administrative lawsuit on behalf of a plaintiff who was treated unjustly by the state. If the administrative court doesn’t first of all even report the matter to their superiors, if it hasn’t contacted the defendants, researched countermeasures beforehand and is confident about the outcome, the court won’t even accept your filing.
Xie Yang, with his complaint and dossier of evidence in hand, again tried to talk to the judge, but the judge still wouldn’t register the case. If you won’t register the case, will you at least provide a “Formal Notification of Refusal to Register a Case”? Sorry — no. That’s just not how we do things. Why not? Why doesn’t the judge follow the law? Judge, have you seen the law?
The judge looks down at his cell phone, giving Xie Yang the cold shoulder: how amusing that this lawyer actually thinks the law is for real!
Everyone in the legal community, from veterans to rookies, has been through this. Everyone has their reservoir of pent-up rage.
Xie Yang the Stubborn tried to get his point across in every possible way, with no result. After being ignored and humiliated, he was ready to kick his hind legs. The story goes that Xie Yang the Stubborn stood in the court with his hands and legs pointed out, in the shape of a big “X,” and yelled at the top of his voice: “EVERYONE. BE. QUIET.” The court instantly fell silent. All eyes were locked on Xie Yang. Then, his face lit up with fury, he raised a finger toward the presiding judge, and bellowed: “I want to file the case!”
Even after all that, they still didn’t put the case on file for him. Instead, the bailiffs took their cue to rough him up.
I once asked Xie Yang about where this incident took place. He sniggered and said: “Don’t remember.”
In China, there are quite a few lawyers who don’t approve of Xie Yang’s way of going about things. Indeed, roaring at the judge in the courtroom isn’t known to solve problems. But that’s Xie Yang.
‘Who Pays Your Salary?’
The professional environment for human rights lawyers in China is terrible. Everyone knows it. The number of lawyers who’ve had to move firms, or who’ve even been persecuted and run out of the industry, is countless.
In October 2013, after Xie Yang began taking on sensitive cases, the firm he was under contract with in Changsha forced him to transfer out. He then filed an application with the Changsha Justice Bureau to work at another firm. The law stipulates that both the Hunan Provincial Department of Justice, as well as the Changsha Justice Bureau, must examine and approve his application within 30 days. If they approve, he receives a new lawyer’s license; if they reject the application, they must provide a written explanation. But after seven months, the two Bureaus hadn’t processed the paperwork. This amounted to stripping Xie Yang of his right to practice his profession. In May 2014, he lodged an administrative lawsuit, suing the Changsha Justice Bureau and the Hunan Provincial Department of Justice for failing to carry out their duties.
Xie Yang’s complaint became a cause célèbre in the rights defense community in China. Two lawyers with national profile represented him, and 200-300 lawyers and interested citizens came from around the country to observe the court hearing. Because of the number of attendees, the court had to change the venue three times, eventually using their largest — and rarely used — courtroom. The Furong District Court in Changsha (长沙市芙蓉区法院) had never seen this many observers at a trial before.
When it was plaintiff Xie Yang’s turn to speak, he made an exhaustive list of everything the two judicial agencies had done to harass, persecute, and humiliate him. Then, with righteous indignation, he said: “You justice departments aren’t sons of bitches, you’re sons of lawyers — we pay for your living!”
As soon as these words fell from his lips, the entire courtroom erupted in applause. The judge knew that the reaction couldn’t be halted, and didn’t try stopping it.
I was traveling at the time and couldn’t attend, but photos of the scene in the courtroom were circulated online. Xie Yang could be seen, his dark face set off by his white clothes, with his classic smile, standing in front of his peers, looking every part the victorious hero.
Xie Yang told me later that he saw this case as one of the biggest achievements of his life. He said: “Even if I can’t be a lawyer anymore, it was worth it!”
A Black Robe and Bent Knees
Xie Yang’s stubbornness is legendary. After the trial, there was no judgement. After multiple abortive attempts at trying to prod the court for a verdict, he once again struck out on his own, though this time attracting more controversy than support: Xie Yang announced that he was going to don his lawyer’s gown, plant himself in front of the courthouse, and kneel. He said he’d do this every week, 15 minutes each time. When the news came out, many lawyers were pained to hear it. His own defense lawyer publicly distanced himself from the initiative. When the number of people trying to talk him out of it grew, he stopped picking up his phone. But Xie Yang makes good on his word, so he did end up doing the protest once.
Of course, the gesture was by no means to signify that he had come to kneel down, begging the authorities to toss him a lifeline. It was because he thought that the sight of a lawyer in a black robe kneeling at the doors of a courthouse would turn into a news event, and shame the court into acting. But the system Xie Yang was facing doesn’t share these ideas of honor and shame. Fortunately he later did receive a new lawyer’s licence and was able to continue plying his trade.
Let the Bullets Fly a Bit Longer
There were around 10,000 households in Hunan who were forced to evacuate due to the construction of the Tuokou reservoir (托口水库). The migration destroyed the properties of many families, and they were left with no avenues to seek redress. Some villagers killed themselves in despair. Xie Yang organized a group of lawyers to begin defending the villagers’ rights. The hearing was no more than a show, as the defendant — that is, the government — had never found themselves at the losing end of a forced demolition lawsuit.
But something unexpected happened in the courtroom: contained in the dossier presented by the government was a record of a conversation personally prepared by two government officials. Participants in the conversation included a Party secretary, the Public Security Bureau leader, the president of the court, and the official in charge of demolitions. They were discussing how they were monitoring the two main lawyers in this case, Xie Yang and Luo Lizhi (罗立志), including their schedules and chats together. Each of the officials spoke, according to the meeting record. The public security leader explained how he was preparing to mobilize so many people and vehicles, ready at any time to apprehend the lawyers; they referred to the “important instructions” of the Party secretary; how the court president was going to wrap up the case, how he was going to sort out Xie Yang and the other lawyers and then report back to the Party secretary, and so on.
Friends: If you want to know why it’s so hard to get administrative lawsuits filed, why it’s so hard to win them, and why officials are so complacent and treat the people like dirt, then you should examine the meeting records revealed in this case. Is this sort of lawsuit fair? Has the world ever seen its like?
When these records were discovered, Hu Lizheng (胡林政), one of the lawyers, demanded the court recuse itself from adjudicating the case. The defendants went pale, and bailiffs dashed forward to seize control of the evidence. When the Tuokou villagers who’d come to observe the trial realized what was going on, they began shouting and weeping at how unjust it all was. They filled the courtroom with cries.
The court session was adjourned. What would be the next step? Xie Yang had a head for pacing and said: “Let the bullets fly a bit longer” — that is, to watch and wait. But before there could be any next step, Xie Yang was arrested on the grounds of “gathering a crowd to disrupt court order” (聚众扰乱法庭秩序罪).
The bullets fell to the ground as soon as Xie Yang was taken into custody. The court announced that the lawsuit was dropped.
Xu Chunhe, or When Human Life is Cut Down Like Grass
Another case Xie Yang was involved in was the shooting of Xu Chunhe (徐纯合) in early May, 2015. This case was one of the key factors leading up to the mass arrest of rights defense lawyers and citizen activists on July 9, 2015.
Xu Chunhe was a petitioner from the city of Qing’an, Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江省庆安). He was traveling by train with his eighty-year-old mother and three kids when he was shot dead by a police officer at the train station. The well-known activist Wu Gan (吴淦) exposed surveillance footage from the scene online, and what had taken place was clear.
Xie Yang traveled to Qing’an and was hired by the family to file the complaint. After he was commissioned, Xie Yang demanded that the police make public the full surveillance footage, and also that they begin an investigation into the matter. These demands met with no result.
At this point, Xie Yang and a few other lawyers stood outside the Harbin Railway Public Security Bureau and unfurled a big-character banner saying: “You’ve No Option But to Release the Full Surveillance Video!”
Following this, the citizens and lawyers who got involved in the case were jailed one after another. These included Wu Gan, who sought out the truth of what happened, and the lawyers Xie Yang and Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), who tried to obtain justice for the family of the man wrongly killed.
Xie Yang’s Tenderness
Xie Yang has two daughters, one about ten years old and the other a toddler. He often had to travel around China, from one case to the other, and hardly had the leisure to enjoy his girls’ company. When I was with him, on more than one occasion Xie Yang pulled out his cellphone and began watching videos of the girls playing at home, his face and eyes lighting up with cheer.
You can’t say he’s a good husband. He was hardly home; he took on cases that placed him in physical and political danger, causing his wife to fret about him and fear for the family. Though a loving father, he’s been detained for more than five months now, and I heard that his daughters have constantly asked: “When will daddy come back?” Does a good father put himself in such danger and risk letting down his children?
Having come to the end of my account, just what kind of person is Xie Yang?
The official indictment, on December 16, 2016, after he was detained for 17 months, charges Xie Yang with the crimes of subversion of state power and disrupting court order.
Confucius, some 2,500 years ago, said that “men of principle are sure to have courage,” and that “to see what is right and not do it is want of courage.” He also said, “Men with aspiration and with benevolence do not sacrifice benevolence to remain alive, but would sacrifice themselves for benevolence.” Mencius said, “To live is my desire, and to be righteous is also my desire. If the two can’t be had at the same time, I’d give up life to achieve righteousness.” In our time of moral poverty, Xie Yang is such a man whose actions and choices befit the ideals of Confucius and Mencius.
Chen Jiangang (陈建刚) is a human rights lawyer in China.
Translated from an abbreviated version with author’s permission.
Tsering Woeser, February 10, 2017
Woeser’s note: This essay was written in Lhasa in the summer of 2014, for a very special book. The volume, “Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling,” was a compilation of 31 essays from Tibetologists, paying respect to Elliot Sperling. There were 5 essays in Tibetan, 25 in English, and 1 in Chinese. On February 3, 2015, the book was launched at the Amnye Machen Institute [in Dharamsala]. Prior to that, Elliot didn’t know that this book had been in preparation for two years. It was presented as a gift to him as a token of respect and friendship, and most importantly as a testament to his preciousness and rarity: wise, kind, brave, righteous. And yet… those whom the gods love die young. The karma of life and death aches to the bottom of the heart. We miss you, our suddenly departed, dear Elliot Sperling! – February 2, 2017
On one occasion — I don’t remember when over these last few years, because Elliot has come to Beijing a few times; he couldn’t go to Lhasa, but he could come to Beijing — Elliot was holding a big thick English book, and he told me it was the memoir of Mme Mandelstam.
At that point, the book had not been translated into Chinese. That I was already familiar with the poems and prose of Osip Mandelstam made Elliot very pleased. Together we revisited one of the poems that was later to give the author great misery: “We live without feeling the country beneath our feet, / our words are inaudible from ten steps away. / Any conversation, however brief, / gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man…”
I now realize that it was toward the end of March, 2011. On the 16th, the 20 year-old-monk Phuntsog in Amdo county bathed himself in flame in a terrible sacrifice to protest killings in Lhasa three years ago. A few days later I encountered Lobsang Tsepa, a fellow monk from the Kirti Gompa monastery. He choked back his tears as he told me of Phuntsog’s immolation. But soon, he’d vanished. It wasn’t until two years later that I found that he’d been taken away by police from a Chinese language school in Beijing.
I wrote a poem for Lobsang Tsepa, part of which included two lines from Mandelstam’s work. It went: “This verse was from a poet of conscience who died at the hands of Stalin, / and in it is portrayed the image of today’s China.” In the same poem I also recorded my exchange with Elliot over Skype:
In the depth of the night I mumble to myself:
“I don’t know if it matters or not, but I’m still gonna say it.
Actually, I know. Saying it is pointless….”
A friend from the free world, sings it out:
“They always make people think that speech is pointless.
But speak we must!”
I remember the first time I met Elliot like it was yesterday.
It was the summer of 2010. After dropping off his luggage at the hotel, he took a taxi straight to Tongzhou, in Beijing’s eastern suburbs, to see me. Though he’s one of the few Tibetologists completely proficient in Chinese, he rarely, rarely spoke Chinese with me. My point isn’t to boast about the proficiency of my Tibetan — everyone knows that I still have a ways to go there — but to note that, it seemed to me, he spoke with me in Tibetan in order to help me improve.
That night I took him to the Makye Ame Tibetan restaurant at Jianguomen. The name of the place is ambiguous, and given to possible, sometimes erroneous interpretations. In any case, the food was quite good, despite not being all that authentic. They also had Tibetan wheat beer, shipped in from Lhasa. This, it must be said, was a comfort to Elliot, who hadn’t enjoyed a draught of it since his youth. As we savored it and spoke, he remarked that Tibetan dance performances were becoming popular, and the growing number of “Tibet fans” in the capital was creating a sense of Orientalism.
After that, it seemed that every time we met, it would be over food. We went to many restaurants in Beijing: Tibetan, Indian, Mexican. Of course, we frequented Chinese restaurants the most, including hotpot places and others. Apart from eating and drinking, we went to bookstores, art galleries, the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial College, Nanluogu Hutong (南锣鼓巷), the Songzhuang artist village, and so on. On two occasions we almost got sunstroke (he always come to Beijing during the height of summer).
We also took in operas together. On one occasion, Elliot (who at that point, because of his increasing resemblance to the mien of Lenin, I had taken to calling “Comrade Lenin”) invited me to the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing — known as the Giant Egg — to see the opera Carmen. He’s the kind of fellow who knows almost every classical opera inside out. He wore a white linen suit, and hummed along while keeping time. One time, my friend and I were celebrating our birthday, but the only thing playing was The Flower Girl, a North Korean propaganda classic that I’d grown up being brainwashed by in the Cultural Revolution. Wang Lixiong [王力雄, the author’s husband] took Elliot, me, and my good friend out, jokingly describing it as a session of Maoist era “remembering the sufferings of the past in order to appreciate the happiness today.” That night, Beijing was beset with an intense storm — like all the tears of North Korea were raining down on it.
I like to jokingly call Elliot “Genla” — a Tibetan honorific term for teacher. One time, we went to Chengde in Hebei to tour one of the seasonal imperial residences that a Manchurian emperor had given to his Buddha Dharma Grand Masters, the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama (they’re commonly known as the “Small Potala Palace” and the “Panchen’s imperial residence”). With the help of Elliot providing some casual advice, I managed to write a piece about Chengde that was not too bad.
The entire trip, in fact, was both instructive and delightful. We came across a fake “Tibetan Master,” peddling candles to the tourists waiting in line. Elliot approached him with the utmost courtesy and began asking him questions in Tibetan. The imposter quickly lost his composure and the ruse was over. Apart from individual swindlers, the government was swindling the public on a far larger scale, trying to revise history with political motives. For instance, they attempted to turn the eastward movement of the Mongolian Torghut tribe at the end of the 18th century into “returning to the embrace of the fatherland,” and had a special exhibition and new relief sculpture produced for the purpose. Elliot snapped a photo and sent it to a scholar of Mongolia, receiving the facetious response: “It looks like you have made new discoveries in Chengde!”
There was another amusing detail that was also discovered, of course, by Elliot. At the Small Potala Palace there was a Five Pagoda Gate, that is, a city gate that had above it five differently colored pagodas, which corresponded to the Five Dhyani Buddhas: central, south, east, west, and north. But the Chinese and English explanation in front of it was riddled with errors. It not only claimed that the five pagodas were the five main schools of Tibetan Buddhism — the Yellow Hat, Gelugpa, Karma Kagyu, and Yungdrung Bön (笨波派) schools — but also made an error in the Chinese characters for the latter school. It had substituted the Chinese character 苯 [pronounced “ben”] in Karma Kagyu, for the character 笨 in “stupid” (笨蛋). On top of that, the Chinglish translation on the plaque read: “The stupid wave sends.”
As a Chinese dissident loathed by the government, myself and Wang Lixiong often have our freedom restricted and suffer house arrest. I’m under more restrictions. This is shown by the fact that, for instance, Wang can get a passport (though sometimes neither a passport nor a visa does much good, because national security police can nullify your travel right when you are about to board a plane to depart), while I can’t. We suspect it’s because of our different ethnicities [the author is Tibetan; her husband Han].
There was a period when danger felt imminent, and I began to doubt we’d escape it. It’s just as Mme Mandelstam put it: “Being offbeat, talking too much, and putting up a resistance… it seems that this is enough to get you arrested and annihilated.” So Elliot called me every morning on Skype, to see if I’d made it safely through another day. He would happily hoot in Tibetan and then Chinese: “Not bad!”
Mme Mandelstam wrote: “We live among the kind of people that can disappear into another world, sent into remote exile, concentration camps, or jails…” Indeed — our close friend, the moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was on January 15, 2014, violently dragged away by dozens of police, in front of his two children, and taken from Beijing to Urumqi in Xinjiang and jailed. He’s still in prison. A week before he vanished, myself and Wang Lixiong met him at a Uighur restaurant near Minzu University in Beijing, then went to his house to call on his frail wife and sick mother.
Two years before he disappeared, Elliot and Ilham met for the first time, but hit off famously, at the same Uighur restaurant. In the group photo we all posed for, the feeling of trust and love of one another’s company we shared spilled out of the frame. Ilham’s daughter Jewher says that Elliot is “the best person in the world” — not just because he arranged for Ilham to spend time as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, but because when both of them attempted to board the plane, and Ilham was arrested, and the 18-year-old Jewher was suddenly alone on her way to the United States, Elliot took care of her. Her father had long prior entrusted her to Elliot’s care should it become necessary.
But Elliot wasn’t just solicitous and caring toward his friends. I once wrote in an essay: “Just like my friend and scholar of Tibet Elliot Sperling, though he studies the history of Tibet and its relations with China, he still pays utmost attention to Tibet’s political affairs and human rights. He once described his concern for Tibetan issues (he’d always correct you if you refer to Tibet in the Chinese term “xizang” 西藏, instead of 图伯特): It’s simply based on his support for the basic values of civil society and his wish to defend them, and has nothing to do with nation or ethnicity. It’s for this reason that he supports the Tibetan struggle for national survival and endurance.” This and the many other things he did seemed inspired by, as Albert Camus said in “The Rebel,” concern for others, rather than mere personal indignation.
I’ll provide simply two examples. Last May, in response to the Chinese government’s destruction of Lhasa’s old city in the name of “remodeling,” Elliot put out a call in the Tibet studies field and collected the signatures of 130 Tibetologists from around the globe, publishing “An open letter to Xi Jinping and UNESCO.” The letter stated: “This is not just a Tibetan problem; it is not just a Chinese problem. It is an international problem,” and that it would turn Lhasa into “an early 21st-century tourist town, shorn of its uniqueness and its innate traditional culture,” and called for immediate cessation of the destruction of Lhasa. Even though the calls didn’t stop the Chinese government, the protest itself demonstrated what an awful regime they are.
Another matter Elliot was involved in was the film “Duihua” (《对话》) produced by the independent Chinese documentary filmmaker Wang Wo (王我), completed in March this year [i.e. 2014]. It’s a documentary about Tibet, Xinjiang, and related ethnic minority issues, and features a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a number of Chinese intellectuals over the internet, as well as a dialogue with Wang Lixiong about his thinking on the question of minorities in China. Elliot not only helped review the subtitles, but organized the premier at Indiana University.
Ganden monastery Another time, Elliot’s daughter, C., came to Beijing. She is really a beauty; anyone who set eyes on her would agree. And Elliot knew it, so he would, with a big grin on his face, say in Tibetan: “Like daughter, like father.” I’d assume a dubious expression and give him a little smack.
Actually, Elliot’s Bohemian style as a youth was indeed rather winsome. And even though these days, from all appearances any residual hippiness has been successful transformed into the air of a scholar, I’ve always felt that there was still a bit of hippie left inside. If it were otherwise, he wouldn’t have gone last summer to a Mexican restaurant with myself and two other Tibetans, and end up drinking so much that we wound up weeping maudlinly on one another’s shoulders. When Wang Lixiong heard that one he laughed and exclaimed: Sperling really is a hippie! He went out on a bender with you guys, half his age!
I really like his daughter — and not just because she’s beautiful. It’s also because in the spring of 1995, when Elliot brought the 7-year-old C. to Lhasa (he went a total of eight times, the last occasion in 2004), he taught her the Tibetan sentence: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin [meaning “Tibet belongs to Tibetans.”] And so, whether she was visiting the Potala Palace whose true owners have in exile for decades, or paying homage to the ruins of the Ganden monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, this little angel would, whenever she saw a monk, an elderly person or woman on pilgrimage, call out in her clear and crisp voice: “Bod Kyi Dhak po bod mi yin” Tibetans hearing her were astonished, and many were moved to tears. The first time I heard this story, I also nearly cried.
I thought that we’d see each other again this summer. In anticipation, I had bought two books on Amazon: “Hope Against Hope: A Memoir,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam’s wife, and “Record of a Search for the Dharma in the Land of Snows: A Chinese Lama’s Oral History.” These were presents for a man who seemed to love books like his life depended on it. I also planned to take him to another Tibetan restaurant to try some truly Tibetan gourmet cuisine.
In June, when Wang Lixiong and I were traveling in southern Mongolia, Elliot sent a note that he’d received his visa without any problems. This really was a surprise, given that so many Tibet scholars, sinologists, and Xinjiang scholars, among others, have had their visas rejected for expressing views opposed to those of the Chinese government. Could it be that Elliot Sperling was a target of the communist party’s United Front work?
In the end, it wasn’t to be. In the afternoon of July 5, he arrived at the Beijing Capital International Airport after a 14-hour flight, and was not only denied entry to the country, but was forced into a small room by police, where he was photographed, interrogated, prevented from using his cell phone, followed to the toilet, detained for 90 minutes, and then put on the next flight back home. The following day when I saw him on Skype, ensconced again in his New York apartment like he’d never gone anywhere, it felt surreal.
Aside from the time and effort that had been simply wasted, just the visa and the plane ticket probably cost nearly $2,000. Was the Chinese government deliberately messing him around? Elliot, though, found time for humor. He held up the visa with a big black X through it and said: “Congratulate Elliot Sperling for receiving the Chinese Communist Party Human Rights Award!”
For my part, I was indignant. When I exposed the incident on my blog and on Twitter, media took note. The New York Times interviewed Elliot and quoted him saying: “I had a pretty clear notion about why I was being denied entry. For me, it was clearly about Ilham…. [It’s an] attempt to pressure those who speak in support of Ilham to retreat into silence, or at least to isolate them.” As for whether he would be able to come to China in the future, Elliot simply said: “I have done nothing wrong… and have no intention of conforming to authoritarian norms for the sake of a visa.”
Wang Lixiong said to me: “It looks like you two will only be able to meet on Skype in future.”
July 13, 2014
Articles by Elliot Sperling on Rangzen Alliance website:
Self Delusion, criticism of the Middle Way policy of the Tibetan exile government, Aug 12, 2014.
The Body Count, mass killings in Tibet in 1958, Sep 14, 2012.
Freedom and Independence…and Language, Nov 1, 2011.
原文《唯色：记埃利亚特·史伯岭》, translated from Chinese by China Change.
Xie Yang, Chen Jiangang, January 22, 2017
[The interview began at 9:47:50 a.m. on January 6, 2017]
Chen Jiangang (陈建刚, “CHEN”): Let’s continue our conversation. What happened after you refused the attempts by Yin Zhuo (尹卓) to get you to implicate others?
XIE: I tend to be constipated and need to eat fruit; otherwise the condition can get rather serious. I couldn’t even drink water while I was locked up, so my constipation got very serious and I was in extreme pain. I asked them to give me some fruit to eat. They didn’t give me any at first, but later they wanted me to trade. I would have to write a statement according to what they wanted, and in exchange they’d give me some fruit. Or they’d give me fruit if I signed the transcripts they wanted me to sign. I had no choice—I wasn’t allowed to sleep and I was in physical pain. Eventually, I wrote whatever they wanted me to write and signed whatever they wanted me to sign. By that time, I was completely broken.
CHEN: Please continue.
XIE: On October 24, I inexplicably began to shiver all over and broke out in a cold sweat. I was terrified and said I wanted to get myself checked out in a hospital. They reported the situation to Ye Yun (叶云, political instructor with the 6th Division of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit). Ye Yun came and said they couldn’t let me go to the hospital, but if I was sick they could arrange for someone to come and examine me. I didn’t trust their doctors.
I was afraid that I was going to die there and that my wife and child wouldn’t know [begins to sob]. I began to shout from the window: “This is Lawyer Xie Yang! I’m being held here by the Changsha Domestic Security Police! No one has notified my family! Please let my wife know that I’m ill and need medical treatment!” There were some people outside walking around. I shouted and told them my wife’s name, work unit, and telephone number and asked them to call my wife.
That evening at 9:46, Ye Yun used his mobile phone to dial the emergency rescue hotline. While we were waiting for an ambulance to arrive, a man came in wearing civilian clothes. He was big and strong, and with one hand against my chest he pushed me up against the wall so that I couldn’t move and could barely breathe. With his other hand he slapped me back and forth several times across the face. I was in great pain from the pressure on my chest. I couldn’t speak and the blows to my head left me semi-conscious.
About 20 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. At first they didn’t let the paramedics examine me; instead, they took them outside to give them instructions. Then a young guy by the name of Wang examined me very briefly. He didn’t give me any treatment or medication. He told them to continue observing me and then he left.
CHEN: I noticed that you were placed under residential surveillance on July 12, 2015, but that your interrogation records only start on July 19. How do you explain that?
XIE: There are a lot of records of interrogations from the first seven days, but they don’t note the sequence. I asked that they mark the transcripts clearly, but they said it was none of my business. None of those transcripts are in the case file, because I still hadn’t surrendered to their torture yet. So they haven’t brought out any of those records. The interrogation on July 19 was certainly not the first. From the early morning of July 11 I wasn’t allowed to sleep. After three days of that treatment, I broke down. The things I wrote were all written under that kind of coercion.
CHEN: What’s your assessment of the transcripts you personally signed and the documents you wrote, all of which are in your case file?
XIE: There are generally two types. The first type is made up of documents concerning basic facts, in which there are some inaccuracies. That’s because they didn’t accept the facts as I stated them and insisted that I make a record according to what they wanted. So, I can’t guarantee that the factual parts are entirely factual. The second type are the “reflections.” These are wholly untruthful, as they were written under coercion. If I hadn’t written them, hadn’t signed my name, I would have died there in that guesthouse.
They deliberately tortured me past the point I could bear it. I wanted to kill myself. To prevent me from doing so, they increased the number of “chaperones” (陪护人员) from two to three. The three of them surrounded me, watching me carefully lest I try to kill myself. After the first seven days, they interrogated me during the daytime and stopped at night. After about 20 days, they were afraid I’d kill myself and the number of chaperone shifts increased from three to four, with the number on each shift increasing from two to three. They watched me closely every minute, afraid that I would try to kill myself by ramming my head against the wall. In that state of wanting to die but not being able to do so, if I didn’t follow one of the three options they gave me and say in my statements that I acted for fame, for profit, or to oppose the Party and socialism, I would have been tortured to death. I had no other choice.
CHEN: In the interrogation transcripts there are a lot of statements where you say detrimental things about yourself and say that you opposed the Party, socialism, and the current political system. What’s your opinion of those documents?
XIE: I didn’t say any of those things and I would never use such language. Those transcripts were typed up by the police; I was only forced to sign them. Folders of transcripts without a single correction or amendment—could that possibly be for real? I read the transcripts and said that those weren’t my words. I asked for an accurate record and requested changes. Yin Zhuo said: “We don’t allow changes to transcripts in our public security unit.” So I could only sign. They didn’t let me sleep for the first seven days and tortured and tormented me until I agreed to sign. So that’s how there came to be so many transcripts from the 19th on.
CHEN: Let’s end the interview here for now. Have you told the truth in these interviews the past few days?
XIE: Yes, it’s the truth. This is how I was treated during residential surveillance.
CHEN: Please read the transcript carefully. This afternoon I’ll bring you a typed version for you to check and sign.
XIE: All right.
[Signed by Xie Yang and his lawyer]
I have read the transcript above and it matches what I have said.
January 6, 2017
CHEN Jiangang [lawyer]
Date: January 12, 2017
Location: Interview Room 2W, Changsha Number Two Detention Center
Interviewee: Xie Yang (谢阳, “XIE”)
Interviewer: Lawyer Chen Jian’gang (陈建刚, “CHEN”)
Transcription by Chen Jiangang
[The interview began at 2:45:48 p.m.]
CHEN: Hello, Xie Yang. Let’s continue where we left off last time.
CHEN: First, I want to convey greetings and concern from many friends on the outside who urge you to take good care of yourself.
XIE: Thanks, everyone [quietly chokes back tears].
CHEN: Can you recall whether the police who interrogated you ever gave you a formal summons notice or any other legal documents while you were being held in residential surveillance in a designated location?
XIE: No. They took shifts around the clock. I had police around me all the time, but they never gave me any summons notice.
CHEN: When did you get to the detention center? Did things improve once you got here?
XIE: I was brought to the detention center on January 9, 2016. There was no improvement, and the coercion continued.
Before I was brought to the detention center, while still in residential surveillance, Yin Zhuo (尹卓) and the others became very deliberate and obvious in their questioning. Because time had run out and I had to be sent to the detention center, they wanted some records showing me saying that they had not tortured me. They wanted to get me on the record admitting that no one had tortured me and then get me to sign the transcript, but I refused to cooperate.
In my case file, the transcript of the interrogation on December 21, 2015, shows them asking me whether my legal rights had been protected during the period of residential surveillance in a designated location, to which I answered that they had been “basically protected.” That’s the record I signed. By “basically protected,” I mean that they ensured that I stayed alive and didn’t torture me to death—that’s all. That’s the most I could say. Had I said that they tortured me into confessing, they wouldn’t record my words on paper and they’d keep on tormenting me. They were very unhappy with this interrogation record and wanted me to state clearly that no one had ever used torture against me and protected my rights 100 percent. But I refused.
In the last period right before leaving the Yitian Guesthouse (颐天宾馆) where they’d held me, they repeatedly came to get me to record a statement. They had only one goal: to get me to inadvertently confirm with my signature that they hadn’t tortured me and that they’d protected my rights. But I didn’t fall for their tricks. So, there are a lot of records that didn’t get put in the case file.
The procuratorate issued its arrest decision on January 8, 2016, and I was shown the arrest warrant on January 9. But actually, this was only a formality as the detention center had already started preparing my cell on January 6.
CHEN: How do you know that the detention center had already started preparing your cell?
XIE: I found out after I got here. Each cell at the detention center houses more than 25 people, sometimes as many as 30. Every cell is like that. When I got here, they put me in Cell 10 on the 4E Block. Originally, there were 28 people in there, but on January 6 they suddenly transferred 14 people to other cells and installed a high-definition camera inside. To this day, there are still 15 people in our cell—a unique situation in the detention center. The high-definition camera is also unique. Everyone in the cell knows that it’s there for me. They prepared the cell on January 6 and issued the arrest warrant on January 9. It was clearly only a formality.
CHEN: Can you describe your situation since coming to the detention center? Are your fundamental human rights being protected? Or have they continued to coerce you?
XIE: After arriving at the detention center on January 9, I was initially rather well taken care of. But they had their objectives. My counselor is named Yuan Jin (袁进) — make a note of that name, because he’s done lots of terrible things to me. At first, Yuan Jin treated me well, continually urging me to admit guilt and cooperate with the police. But I wasn’t guilty of anything and hadn’t committed any crimes, so of course I wasn’t going to go against my conscience and admit guilt. These admonitions went on for three months. Then in March 2016, Yuan Jin saw that I wasn’t listening to him and so he started tormenting me.
CHEN: You say Yuan Jin tormented you — how?
XIE: First, he got my cellmates to shun me by clearly prohibiting others from having any interaction with me. They weren’t allowed to speak to me, lend me anything, or play cards or chess with me. Anyone who dared have any interaction or communication with me would be transferred to another cell to become the “new boy.”
CHEN: What does that mean, “new boy”?
XIE: This is jailhouse lingo. Someone who’s been in a cell for a long time is called an “old boy.” A new arrival is called the “new boy.” “New boys” all get bullied and are given more work, while “old boys” have prestige and aren’t bullied on account of their status as veterans. Plus, they get special treatment. So no one wants to go to a new cell and become a “new boy” again.
CHEN: Besides getting cellmates to shun you, were there other methods?
XIE: Yes. Officer Yuan Jin cut off my right to spend money. In jail we get 260 yuan each month for living expenses, but this is far from enough and you have to spend your own money to buy things. That’s the money that gets deposited in your account by family and friends. Everyone can use their own money to purchase some food, otherwise you don’t get enough to eat. Yuan Jin prohibited me from spending money, from purchasing any daily-use items. I didn’t get enough to eat and had no vegetables. I wasn’t allowed to buy daily necessities like toothpaste or toilet paper. I was deeply distressed—everyone had been threatened not to speak with me or lend me anything. I didn’t even have toilet paper when I went to the toilet [chokes with sobs]. But I still didn’t give in and didn’t admit guilt.
CHEN: What happened then?
XIE: It’s been over a year since I was brought to the detention center on January 9, 2015. During this year, all the police, procurators, detention center counsellors, and officials who’ve come to see me all have had a single goal: to get me to admit guilt. I have some notes [searches through notes] . . . I’ve made note of the times. Let me tell you about them one by one.
My case is a political case. I anticipated that they would stretch the time limits in this case to the maximum limit possible under the law. Six months of investigation during residential surveillance plus two months under arrest, extended first for one month, then another two, and finally two more months. They stretched the investigation phase of the case as far as they could, to August 9, 2016.
On July 21, 2016, Li Feng (李峰) of the Hunan Domestic Security Unit and Zhu Heng (朱恒) of the Sixth Division of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit came to see me together with Zhang Zhongshi (张重实), the lawyer my family had hired on my behalf. They had also come to urge me to admit guilt. Li Feng said he’d come on behalf of the provincial public security department and hoped I’d admit guilt. I asked if this was a meeting with my lawyer. They said it was. I said, if that’s so please excuse yourselves. But Li Feng and Zhu Heng didn’t leave and stood right outside so that Lawyer Zhang and I couldn’t even exchange a few words with each other.
For a few days in early August 2016—before the 9th, someone from the Domestic Security Unit of the Hunan Provincial Public Security Department: Li Kewei (李克伟), head of the Changsha Public Security Bureau’s Domestic Security Unit, and Wang Tietuo (王铁铊), head of the Sixth Division of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit, came together to see me—there were five or six of them in all. The detention center officials arranged for them to meet with me in the detention center office.
CHEN: Wait a minute. They met with you in the office, rather than in an interrogation room?
XIE: They don’t have to obey any laws or institutional rules! They came to get me to admit guilt. At the time, I thought that if admitting guilt would lead to lenient treatment that would ensure I could continue to work as a lawyer after I got out, I could discuss it. They were happy to hear that and immediately reported my answer up to their superiors and got someone to look up the regulations. What they found was that commission of an intentional crime would mean that I’d be unable to be a lawyer. Under those circumstances, I refused to admit guilt, since I’d committed no crime to begin with. We discussed it for three or four hours, but ultimately I still refused to admit guilt. They said over and over that I shouldn’t make things difficult for myself, that I mustn’t waste this opportunity, that I shouldn’t turn my back on their good intentions.
Li Kewei had promised Yuan Jin, my counsellor at the detention center, that if Yuan could help get me to give in and admit guilt, then Li would help him get a transfer to a police station in Changsha’s Gaoxin District.
CHEN: You say Li Kewei made a promise to Yuan Jin—how do you know that?
XIE: Yuan Jin said so himself. He once told me that he hoped I’d hurry up and admit guilt. He said: “Admit your guilt—once you’re gone, I can get a transfer to work at that police station in Gaoxin District.” I’ve forgotten which police station exactly.
CHEN: What next?
XIE: August 9, 2016, was the last day the public security bureau could hold me. Once they transferred the case for prosecution they had no more control over me and they’d have no power to prevent me from meeting with my lawyer. The date on the Changsha Public Security Bureau’s prosecution recommendation is August 5, 2016, but on August 4 they’d already delivered me notice that my case was being reviewed for prosecution. I thought that this meant that the lawyers my family had hired could now come meet with me. But my persecution shifted from the public security bureau to the procuratorate. The procuratorate fully cooperated with the Changsha Public Security Bureau to continue treating me badly.
[A police officer enters to say that time is up.]
CHEN: That’s all for today. Let’s continue tomorrow.
[The interview concluded at 4:29:39 p.m. on January 12, 2017.]
[The interview resumed at 9:30:38 a.m. on January 13, 2017.]
CHEN: Let’s continue where we left off yesterday. You said that the procuratorate and the public security bureau were working together to treat you badly. Why do you say that?
XIE: I later met with my lawyer, Zhang Zhongshi. He told me that he and my other lawyer Lin Qilei (蔺其磊) had been coming to the detention center every day in order to meet with me. Morning, afternoon—it didn’t matter. The detention center said they couldn’t meet with me because I’d been taken for questioning by the prosecutors. I had, in fact, been taken for questioning. But the law says that they have to arrange for lawyers to meet with a detainee within 48 hours. To the detention center, the procuratorate, and the public security bureau, the law was nothing but a piece of scrap paper.
CHEN: Why do you say that?
XIE: Those days, the procurators from the Changsha Procuratorate took me out for questioning every day from 9 a.m. until the detention center offices closed at 4:30 p.m. Every day they came to question me like that, just so they could refuse to let my lawyers meet with me.
There were eight procurators in all who came to meet with me. For an entire week, they took me out for questioning every day. After the week was over, they sent the case back for additional investigation. The case was then back in the hands of the public security bureau. They’d successfully used the excuse of questioning me to obstruct my lawyers from meeting with me.
Write down these names: Duan Xiaolong (段小龙), Jiang Bin (姜彬), Li Zhiming (李治明), Wang Zhiyong (王志勇), Fang Hui (方惠), Hu Yongchao (胡勇超), and Li Weining (李维宁). There was also a deputy division head surnamed Jin whose full name I don’t know. Li Weining is the head of the Second Public Prosecution Division at the Changsha Procuratorate (长沙市检察院公诉二处处长). He’s not in charge of this case and only came to see me with one objective: to get me to admit guilt. He hinted that I shouldn’t say anything about the public security bureau’s torture of me. He also said that public security and the procuratorate had gone to officials at Hunan University to speak to my wife and ask her to cooperate. They put pressure on her to stop going around to proclaim my innocence.
The other prosecutors were more reserved in their attempts to get me to admit guilt. But Duan Xiaolong was relatively blatant. He had two objectives in his discussions with me: one was to intimidate me, the other was to try to get me to admit guilt. Duan Xiaolong said: “You have to admit guilt. There are some things you can’t go around saying, some things you can’t say to the prosecutors.” He meant I couldn’t go around telling people on the outside about how I’d been subjected to torture. What kind of prosecutorial review by the procuratorate was this—it was all a sham! The public security bureau and procuratorate were working together against me to manufacture this political miscarriage of justice. There’s no balance of powers, only cooperation!
CHEN: What happened after your case was sent back for review?
XIE: On August 16, 2016, the case was sent back to the public security bureau and my lawyer was still prohibited from meeting with me. Actually, there was no real additional investigation. The two consecutive periods of additional investigation were only about one thing: extending the legal time limit to its furthest extent in order to get me to give in and admit guilt.
On September 28, 2016, Li Weining of the Changsha Procuratorate came to see me again and get me to admit guilt and to not go around talking out of turn—by which he meant talking about the way I’d been tortured and mistreated. Li came again on October 9 to tell me to admit guilt and keep my mouth shut. Li came once again on October 17, with the same mission. He never came to discuss the details of the case. There were only two objectives: to get me to admit guilt and keep my mouth shut.
On October 26, 2016, during the last period of additional investigation, domestic security police Hu Yunfeng (胡云峰) and Ye Yun (叶云) came to see me and get me to admit guilt and keep my mouth shut. Hu Yunfeng explicitly told me that they had all of the audio and video recordings from my time in residential surveillance. All the investigators knew that they had the video. There’s a transcript of that conversation, but it’s not in the case file. Take a look at the interrogation records; if there’s a record of the interrogation, they should have a record of that conversation. But I can’t guarantee that the procuratorate or the detention center will give those documents to you as a defense lawyer.
The following day, October 27, 2016, Wang Tietuo of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit and Ye Yun came to see me again to try to get me to admit guilt and to tell me to keep my mouth shut. They didn’t make a record of that.
On November 4, Li Kewei of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit came by himself to see me. The detention center arranged for him to meet with me in the office, like they’d done at the beginning of August. Li Kewei had the same two demands: admit guilt and shut mouth.
On November 14, 2016, Li Kewei met me alone in the detention center office. He hoped I’d seize the opportunity, admit guilt, and keep my mouth shut.
On December 7, 2016, the head of the Second Public Prosecution Division of the Hunan Procuratorate, Li Xiaohong (刘晓红), came together with Li Weining of the Changsha Procuratorate to meet me at the detention center and express the hope, on behalf of the provincial procuratorate, that I would seize the opportunity, admit guilt, and keep my mouth shut.
CHEN: Has anyone come to speak with you since I became your defense lawyer?
XIE: Yes. When you were prevented from meeting with me on the morning of January 6, 2017, officials from the detention center came to see me. The gist of their message was: “Don’t trust your lawyer. Lawyers can’t save you. Your only path is to trust the party and the government. The only way you’ll get to go home early is by admitting guilt and submitting to the law’s judgment.” I just listened. I knew that my lawyers had already arrived and they were preventing them from meeting with me.
Then there was another time on January 11. Three people came: my brother, Xie Yangde (谢扬德), Wang Dehua (王德华), deputy head of the Changsha Domestic Security Unit, and Xie Leshi (谢乐石), head of the Dongkou County Domestic Security Unit. Wang Dehua and Xie Leshi explicitly said that they had no power to seek a meeting with me during this phase of the case but explained that they’d come to see me at the request of my brother and did not represent their respective units. Xie Leshi threatened me, saying my posts on WeChat and Weibo would get me a sentence of at least five years with no cap—the sentence could run as high as 15 or 20 years.
CHEN: What do you make of the fact that so many people from the police and the procuratorate have come to see you so many times in order to try to get you to admit guilt?
XIE: I’m innocent, completely innocent. Even though I signed some self-incriminating statements after being tortured to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore, those aren’t the facts and they don’t prove that I’ve committed a crime. I have freedom of expression and the statements I made on Weibo and WeChat were my right. How can that be inciting subversion of political power?
CHEN: Are you going to admit guilt? Or, put another way, if the authorities come and say they’ll release you or grant you bail if you admit guilt, will you do so?
XIE: I haven’t admitted guilt up to now. Trying to get me to do so is kind of a ridiculous idea. Am I guilty just because I admit guilt? Isn’t that how things worked during the Cultural Revolution? If I admit guilt, don’t you have to consider the law and the evidence?
But there’s one thing I need to make clear to you. As of today, I haven’t admitted guilt. I tell you now—I declare of my own free will, that I, Xie Yang, am innocent. If, at some point after today, January 13, 2017, there were to appear any document or audiovisual recording of me admitting guilt, it would not be the truth and would not reflect my real inner thoughts. Even if I admit guilt, it doesn’t make me guilty. That depends on the law and the evidence.
Even if I were one day to admit guilt, it would be because I was forced to make some deal or forced to do so because I was tortured. I am completely innocent, but because of some of the things I’ve posted and because I’ve taken part in some rights defense cases, the Changsha Public Security Bureau is out to get me. They are the real criminals and murderers. If, in the future, I were to make any admissions of guilt, it would be a kind of trade. I know my family wants to see me very much and my parents are advanced in years and miss me very much. If I admit guilt, it will be in exchange for preserving my life. Today [January 13, 2017], while I am allowed to express myself truthfully to my lawyer, I want to say clearly that I am innocent.
CHEN: Do you want or agree to authorize me to release the record of our interviews to the public?
XIE: I authorize my defense lawyers, Chen Jiangang and Liu Zhengqing (刘正清), to decide to release the record of our interviews to the public at a certain time.
[The end of the transcript.]
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others