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Wu Renhua, June 4, 2018
The June 4 massacre once shocked the world — but because the Communist Party made it a forbidden area of enquiry, there are still numerous controversies around the massacre, despite it having taken place 29 years ago. Following are some of the major sources of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the events of June 4, 1989.
- Was There a Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing?
To provide a seemingly reasonable justification for the bloody military suppression in the capital, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities emphasized that a violent insurrection was afoot, and that the martial law troops had no choice but to put it down. To this day, the CCP’s claims still deceive a great many people. But in fact, proving false this lie of a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing’ is not difficult — one must simply take careful note of the sequence of events. It was only after the martial law troops had opened fire that the authorities called it a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion.’ Prior to this, they merely labeled it ‘turmoil in Beijing.’
In fact, not only was there no counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing, there was no turmoil either. The official mouthpiece of the CCP’s Central Committee, People’s Daily, reported following the military crackdown: “Beijing residents are much more civilized; social order is excellent.” The newspaper also quoted a Beijing Public Security officer who said: “The number of criminal acts that occurred during the student movement was less than the same period last year.”
The student movement had from the beginning been committed to peacefulness, reason, and nonviolence — and even after the martial law troops had opened fire and there were heavy civilian casualties, the members of the public who retaliated in fury at the slaughter only targeted martial law troops or their actions. After the incident, the CCP authorities produced ‘The True Facts About the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing’ and other propaganda videos — but the images of burning vehicles in them all took place after the martial law troops had begun firing on civilians. The images show that the apartments, stores, and even Party, government and military buildings on both sides of the road remained undamaged.
- Citizen Violence in Response to the Military’s Slaughter
After the massacre on June 4, the CCP used its control of the media to publish stories and broadcast news reports on a national scale, severely inflating the troop casualties. They created the impression that ‘hoodlums’ were at large, killing martial law troops and officers. The result was that many Chinese people believed that the troops opened fire in order to suppress a rebellion.
In response to this, I made a specific study of the deaths of martial law troops and officers, concluding that a total of 15 died, seven of whose deaths were due to violent retaliation by protesters. My important finding was that, according to official Party materials, the deaths of these 15 all took place after 1:00 a.m. on June 4, 1989. The time that martial law troops opened fire was around 9:00 p.m. on June 3. The earliest confirmed case of a death of a member of the public is that of Song Xiaoming (宋曉明), who was shot at around 9:00 p.m. on the sidewalk at Wukesong crossing (五棵松路口). From this the following conclusion can be inferred: The martial law troops opened fire and killed people first, and only then did members of the public respond with violence; that is, the killing by troops was the cause, and the violent response was the effect. Which took place first, and what caused what, is obvious at a glance.
- Whether or Not The Martial Law Troops Opened Fire and Killed People on Tiananmen Square
The CCP not only denies that the troops opened fire and killed protesters on Tiananmen Square; they even deny that they opened fire on Tiananmen Square at all. The spokesman for the martial law troops, Zhang Gong (張工), said in a June 6 press conference held jointly with spokesman for the State Council Yuan Mu (袁木) that: “Firstly, I would like to responsibly explain an issue to my comrades in the news profession, and I want to, through you, make this clear to every citizen of the capital and the nation; this is that between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on June 4, in the process of carrying out the task of clearing Tiananmen Square, there was absolutely no student or member of the public shot and killed, and nobody was crushed to death or run over.”
I personally experienced the clearing of Tiananmen Square. During the entire process, the sound of gunfire was constant. From the distance of just a few meters I personally witnessed two soldiers in the scout company of the 27th Army Group fire on and destroy the two large loudspeakers set up on the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the square.
The CCP denies that there were casualties on Tiananmen, and by doing so direct the focus of the June 4 massacre to Tiananmen Square — the goal of which is to, by denying casualties on the square, achieve the effect of denying any massacre at all on June 4.
At the time, foreign reporting, especially in Western media, were all calling it the ‘Tiananmen Massacre,’ not the ‘June 4 Massacre.’ The slaughter of June 4 indeed took place primarily outside of Tiananmen Square, and so the CCP’s spin on this issue indeed had an effect, leading some people to have doubts about the June 4 massacre itself.
Whether the martial law troops opened fire and killed people on Tiananmen Square itself, or outside of Tiananmen Square, makes no substantial difference and isn’t worth arguing over. But, because the CCP hyped the question of whether or not there were civilian casualties on Tiananmen into such a focal point and controversy, I made a detailed study of the matter simply to respond to the confusion on the part of the public. To date, I have verified that the following people died on Tiananmen Square: Cheng Renxing (程仁興), a student in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern Europe Studies (蘇聯東歐研究所) of Chinese Renmin University doing a double Bachelor’s degree; Dai Jinping (戴金平), a graduate student at Beijing Agricultural University; Li Haocheng (李浩成), an undergraduate student in Chinese studies at Tianjin Normal University. Among the survivors who were shot on Tiananmen Square, there is the well-known Taiwanese journalist Hsu Tsung-mao (徐宗懋) with China Times (《中國時報》), who suffered a bullet wound in the head, but was rescued and came out alive.
At the time, Party media made particular efforts to interview Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), Hou Dejian (侯德健) and others who were in custody at the time; during the interviews, they had them say that they’d not seen anyone shot and killed on Tiananmen Square. Because these were famous people and they’d indeed been there when the square was cleared, those statements led many to believe that indeed no one was killed on the square. The problem is that Tiananmen Square has a surface area of 44,000 square meters, and the clearance took place from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.; lines of sight were obstructed, and even if one were present, how would it be possible to see everywhere the entire time? I was also there through the square clearing, and had an excellent vantage point, sitting at the top level of the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — but the most I can say is that I didn’t see anyone shot. I certainly can’t say that, through the entire process of the square being cleared, no one was shot in Tiananmen Square at all.
- Were There Orders to Open Fire? Who Ordered It?
A key factor in determining responsibility for the Tiananmen Massacre is whether the troops received orders to open fire on students, and if so, who issued these orders. This is one of the reasons why the CCP goes to such lengths to keep this information classified. None of the major figures involved in the decision — Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng — were willing to own up to their roles, and their children are doing all they can to exonerate them.
My research concluded that the martial law troops did not shoot their weapons on their own; they were ordered to open fire. Per instruction of the State Council, then Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong (陳希同) made a report on June 30, 1989, during the eighth meeting of the the 7th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, titled “A Situation Report on the Suppression of Unrest and Counter-revolutionary Riots.” In the report, Chen said that “Having sustained heavy casualties and being pressed to the limits of their endurance after giving multiple warnings, the martial law troops were left with no choice but to follow orders and fire warning shots, then counterattack to neutralize a number of violent rioters.” The phrase “follow orders” indicates that there was a command to open fire.
Other sources support this. The martial troops invariably opened fire only after being ordered to do so, despite prior encounters with civilian resistance. Before deployment, some commanders held multiple briefings telling their men not to open fire.
The book One Day of Martial Law (《戒嚴一日》), compiled by the cultural office of the PLA’s General Political Department, includes least 10 articles by martial law soldiers in which there is mention of orders to open fire. Lt. Col. Fu Shuisheng (傅水生), a joint logistics officer in the Beijing Military Region, wrote in the article Eight Unforgettable Days and Nights (《難忘的8天8夜》) :
“Around midnight [on June 4, 1989], senior military officers went to the Great Hall of the People, followed shortly by some government officials, to draw up strategic plans to clear the Square. Working to avoid confrontation and bloodshed, the generals and Party leaders stayed up the entire night. Around 1 a.m. [in the early morning of June 4], two officers from a brigade, bleeding and wounded, reported to headquarters that their troops had arrived at the designated pointed. When a senior commander asked how they were doing, they replied that the troops had taken heavy casualties while advancing on foot, and that their supplies had been seized or destroyed. ‘Why didn’t you fire at them?’ [the senior commander asked]. They responded, ‘We were instructed not to fire our weapons.’”
The “headquarters” mentioned here refers to the command center established in the Great Hall of the People to plan for clearing the Square. In another article, Back to Beijing (《再度京華》),” Maj. Gen. Wu Jiamin (吳家民), commander of the 40th Army, wrote: “On June 3, at 11:10 pm, someone in civilian clothing demanded to see me, claiming to have important instructions. I met him, and he produced documents identifying him as vice director of a high level department and was there to relay some instructions from his superior. We were ordered to arrive at the designated zone without fail, and given permission to take decisive actions should it be necessary. Right after he finished talking, we received further instructions from the military district’s frontline command informing us that the martial law troops on Wanshou Road (萬壽路) had fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and secure their path of advance quickly.”
The order was issued around 9 p.m. on June 3. As it was issued in person rather than through military radio channels, it is likely that they did so to avoid leaving any material evidence. The directive came from the very top of the Party, first authorized by Central Military Commission chairman Deng Xiaoping, and passed down to lower levels. Yang Shangkun, then in charge of the CMC’s routine work, was prudent to avoid personally issuing the command; therefore, it must have been a group decision by key members of the Politburo Standing Committee — Li Peng, Qiao Shi, and Yao Yilin, with Deng’s approval.
- How Many Died?
How many people died in the Tiananmen Massacre is still unknown. Naturally, CCP and unofficial sources are at complete odds regarding the figure.
There are two versions of the official, Party-approved story. One is that of Yuan Mu, the State Council spokesman. On June 6, 1989, at a press conference at Zhongnanhai, he said that “according to incomplete statistics which have been verified repeatedly, the situation is as follows: PLA forces suffered 5,000 wounded; while locally (including crime-committing rioters and innocent bystanders unaware of the circumstances), there were 2,000 wounded; total military and local fatalities number about 300, including soldiers, bandits who got their just deserts, and collateral damage,” and “one figure of which we can be confident is that as of now, there were 23 dead across the universities of Beijing.”
The other official source is the aforementioned report made by Beijing mayor Chen Xitong before the NPC Standing Committee on June 30. Per the report, “including soldiers of the martial law troops, armed police, and public security law enforcement officials, about 6,000 were wounded and several tens killed in action,” and “according to information available at present, there are about 3,000 nonmilitary wounded and over 200 dead, including 36 university students.”
Clearly, there is something wrong with the official explanation, given the discrepancy between the figures cited by Yuan Mu and Chen Xitong.
Unofficial estimates vary wildly. The earliest figures came from a report by Red Cross Society of China, saying that 2,600 people were killed. I heard of this number on June 4 as I vacated Tiananmen Square with other students; it later circulated widely. But it’s unlikely that the Red Cross in China would have published real figures.
Zhang Wanshu (張萬舒), who was the director of the domestic department of Xinhua News Agency in China during the events, gives a very exact figure. In “The Big Bang of History” (《曆史的大爆炸》), published in 2009 in Hong Kong, he said, “Comrade Liu Jiaju (劉家駒), veteran editor of “People’s Liberation Army Art and Literature,” told me that he had it on good record from Tan Yunhe (譚雲鶴), CCP secretary and deputy director of the Red Cross Society of China, that the total number of deaths in the June 4th incident was 727, including 14 military fatalities and 713 local dead (among them students and ordinary civilians). He examined every corpse.” According to Zhang, this “is probably the most credible figure.”
This is incorrect, however, because not all corpses went through the hospitals. Some were taken by the martial law troops and public security authorities to be disposed of secretly. For instance, the Tiananmen Mothers (天安門母親群體) looked into 202 victims of the June 4th incident and found that the bodies of eight of them had never been found. I have some additional evidence on hand that is beyond the scope of this article.
Information from American and British diplomatic sources concerning the scale of the June 4th incident has been declassified in recent years. The British document claims that the death toll reached 10,000. The sources are ambassadorial staff on assignment in Beijing who got their information secondhand. Given the conclusions I arrived at in my own research and documentary work, I am not prepared to accept these numbers at this time.
In his book Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, eminent Canadian sinologist Timothy Brook collected statistics from 11 hospitals throughout the early morning of June 4, counting a total of 478 dead. Extrapolating this figure to cover the hundreds of hospitals in the Chinese capital, he came to a probable total of about 2,800 dead. I found myself in particular agreement with the following passage from his book:
“Do we need to decide between three hundred and three thousand? From a distance, either death toll is atrocious: the number hardly matters. From close up, however, even one death is too many, and the omission of one in the final count is a terrible lie. The quantity of killing matters most to those who died and who mourn them. Not to be counted is to be lost forever.” (p. 152, Quelling the People, Stanford University Press, 1998)
As a scholar of the June 4th Massacre, I have often been pressed to produce a statistic on how many died that day. I am not willing to give a final answer, since there is no way of determining the number. In the last few years I have been looking into this matter by investigating Beijing’s hospitals — over one hundred locations — one by one. Though a definitive conclusion continues to elude me, at least I have been able to make a general assessment.
Translated from Chinese by China Change:
六四屠殺的焦點問題, 台灣思想坦克網站， 2018年6月3日。
About the author: In 1989, Mr. Wu Renhua was a young faculty member at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, leading the student demonstration along with other young scholars. He participated in the Tiananmen Movement “from the first day to the last,” and was among the last few thousand protesters who left Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4. On the way back to his college, he witnessed PLA tanks charging into a file of students at Liubukou (六部口), a large intersection, killing 11 and injuring many. In February, 1990, Wu swam four hours from Zhuhai to Macau, and onto Hong Kong, and arrived in the United States later that year. Over the next 15 years he was the editor of Press Freedom Herald (《新闻自由导报》), a Chinese-language paper founded on June 9, 1989, by a group of overseas Chinese, to bring news of pro-democracy activities to China. Given Mr. Wu’s training as a historiographer, he began his research of 1989 as soon as the incident ended—but his writing didn’t start until in 2005, when the paper he edited folded. From 2005 to 2014, he published three books (none have been translated into English): The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square (《天安门血腥清场内幕》, 2007), The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth (《六四事件中的戒严部队》, 2009), and The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement (《六四事件全程实录》, 2014). Together, the three books form a complete record of the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth Massacre.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018
Rights Movement Spread All Over the Country
By 2004, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang were under constant threat. Fuzhou police told the village deputies that Zhao and Li were criminals, and demanded that the deputies expose the two. The Fujian municipal government also dispatched a special investigation team to the hometowns of Li and Zhao to look into their family backgrounds. A public security official in Fu’an said: “Don’t you worry that Zhao and Li are still on the lam — that’s because it’s not time for their date with the devil just yet. Just wait till that day comes: we’ll grab them, put them in pig traps, and toss them into the ocean to feed the sharks!”
On September 17, 2004, Zhao Yan was arrested by over 20 state security agents while at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. At that point he had already left the China Reform magazine and was working as a research assistant in the Beijing office of The New York Times. He was accused of leaking state secrets, denied a lawyer for several months, and eventually sentenced to three years on charges of fraud.
On December 14, 2004, Li Baiguang and three lawyers, while on their way to Fu’an to handle a rights defense case that was likely a trap, were hemmed in by police vehicles and arrested. Li was accused of illegally providing legal services, because he did not possess a law license. On the evening of December 21, a dozen police officers from Fu’an broke into Li’s apartment in Beijing, pried open his cabinets, and confiscated his hard drives and documents related to dismissing officials.
Thanks to the efforts of his friend Yu Meisun and a host of liberal intellectuals and journalists, Li Baiguang was released on bail after 37 days in custody. December to January are the coldest months of the year in Fujian, and there was no heating. In a cell with dozens of people, Li Baiguang recalled later, “I wore a suit, and it was cold. As a form of punishment, they told the cell boss to make me bathe in freezing seawater every day. I lost a lot of hair, and lost so much weight that my cheekbones protruded. When I came out my nephew hardly recognized me.”
The removal of officials between 2003 and 2004 was one of the key campaigns that initiated the rights defense movement, and one of the largest-scale rights defense activities in China. Around the same time, rights defense initiatives took place. During the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident in March 2003, three Peking University law PhDs, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Yu Jiang (俞江) and Teng Biao (腾彪) wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding that they conduct a constitutional review of the law “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities” (《城市流浪乞讨人员收容遣送办法》). He Weifang (贺卫方), Xiao Han (萧瀚), He Haibo (何海波), and two other well-known legal scholars demanded that the NPC conduct an investigation into how the ‘administrative measures,’ commonly known as ‘custody and repatriation,’ were actually being implemented. Gao Zhisheng began defending Falun Gong practitioners in court, demanded that the government respect freedom of belief, and called for the torture against practitioners to cease. Numerous other lawyers and legal scholars also began taking up human rights defense cases, bringing them to public consciousness. Other notable cases of the period included the defence of Hebei private entrepreneur Sun Dawu (孙大午), who was accused of ‘illegal fundraising’; the case of injured investors in the Shanbei oil fields; the case of Christian Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) who was arrested for printing the Bible; the Southern Metropolis Daily editor and manager Cheng Yizhong (程益中) and Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) who were punished for reporting on the Sun Zhigang case and broke the news of SARS; the ‘Three Servants’ religious case that involved hundreds of believers; the libel case against the authors of the Survey of Chinese Peasants (《中国农民调查》), and other incidents.
In fall of 2003 Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui (张星水) founded the organization Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政) in Beijing, later changing its name to the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟). Gongmeng, as it’s often known per the Chinese title, became a hub — and incubator — for human rights lawyers and legal activists. They held a meeting nearly every week, and Li Baiguang was one of the regular participants.
In the winter of 2003 there was an upsurge in the participation of independent candidates in People’s Representative elections in Beijing, and a number of these candidates were successful.
Many independent NGOs focused on environmental protection, AIDS control and prevention, women’s rights, and disabled rights, had sprung up in Beijing and other cities. They used the law and advocacy to propagate rights awareness.
Entering 2005, the dismissal of officials in Taishi Village (太石村), Guangdong Province, as well as the Linyi Family Planning Case in Shandong (临沂计生案), became public events involving lawyers, public intellectuals, and citizen activists from around the country.
At the end of 2005, Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine highlighted 14 human rights lawyers and legal scholars, including Li Baiguang, as 2005 People of the Year. It said that “these 14 rights defense lawyers aren’t afraid of power; they wield the constitution as a weapon, harness the power of the internet, and work to defend the rights of the 1.3 billion Chinese people granted in their own constitution, while pushing for the establishment of democracy and rule of law in China.” In the ensuing years, with the exception of one or two, these 14 lawyers and scholars would be arrested, tortured, disappeared, disbarred, or forced into exile. Still, the grassroots rights defense movement they helped to kick off would continue to expand, and gain new energy in the age of social media. We shall not elaborate on that here.
‘Turning into an Ant’
In late July 1999, after publishing Samuel Smiles’ “The Huguenots in France” (issued under the Chinese title “The Power of of Faith” 《信仰的力量》) , Li Baiguang went to a church in the Haidian district of Beijing, bought a copy of the Bible, and began to read it. In January 2005 after he was released from prison, he began attending the Ark Church in Beijing (北京方舟教会) to study the Bible and pray. The Ark Church was a meeting place for many dissidents, rights lawyers, Tiananmen massacre victims, and petitioners — and for this reason the house church suffered regular harassment by the police. On July 30, 2005, Li was baptized in a reservoir in Huairou (怀柔), Beijing. He loudly proclaimed his witness, telling of the several times in his life when he brushed shoulders with death. He spoke of the time that an inner voice told him to stop, as he was considering plunging to his death from a building at university. He told of the catastrophes he escaped in 1998, 2001, and then in 2004. He spoke of the cumulative impact that Samuel Smiles’ books had on him, and, finally, he expressed his gratitude to Jesus.
He began to tremble violently as he read, and only after the baptism was complete and he had sat down a while did it subside.
For Li Baiguang, the freedom of the mind and soul and political freedom are simply two sides of the same coin. In 2000, while translating Smiles, Li wrote an essay titled “The Fountainhead of Modern Freedom is the Freedom of Individual Conscience” (《现代自由的源头是个体的良心自由》). He came to believe that only faith can shape and form conscience, and further, that the emergence of individual conscience is the origin and basis of freedom. This also makes it the source of the courage and motivation to fight for freedom and against despotism. He doesn’t believe that the widespread failure of Chinese to distinguish right and wrong, and the country’s moral decay, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Communist Party’s dictatorship.
In April 2006, in a session of “The Middle Forum” (《中道论坛》) with Fan Yafeng, Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), and Qiu Feng (秋风), Li said he was tired of liberal intellectuals’ decades-long discussions of grand themes like constitutional governance, reform, and future China. He described his own turning point of involvement in actual, real life rights defense work. Of the eight years between 1997 and 2005, he said, he too spent the first five focused on all sorts of macro abstractions. “Recently I’ve had a realization: I’m willing to become an ant. I want to take the rights and freedoms in the books and, through case after case, bring them into the real world bit by bit. This is my personal stance. The path to this is legal procedure. In summer, the ant gathers food. Today, I’m also transporting food under the framework of rights defense, and in doing so accumulating experience and results for the arrival of the day of constitutional government.”
“According to the principles of political mechanics, it’s impossible to change minds overnight in such a large system. All you can do is loosen the screws one by one and turn the soil over clump by clump,” he said. Li held high hopes in the future of the nascent rights defense movement, and the gradual dismantling of autocracy from the margins. He thought that the rights defense movement would be crucial to China’s future establishment of a constitutional democracy.
This was the first time he proposed the ‘ant’ idea. In the years afterward, this is how he characterized his work and it became very familiar to his friends.
In May 2005, the Midland, Texas-based NGO China Aid, as well as the Institute on Chinese Law & Religion, invited seven Chinese rights lawyers and legal scholars to join a “China Freedom Summit.” Among those invited, Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, and Zhang Xingshui were blocked from leaving China; Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, Yu Jie, and Guo Feixiong were able to make it to the United States. Li Baiguang delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute titled “The Legal Dimensions of Religious Freedom: Reality and Prospects in China.” It proposed a systematic approach for defending religious freedom according to the law in China, and included the following actions:
- Submit an application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for constitutional review of laws, regulations and policies related to freedom of religious belief, and demand the annulment of unconstitutional laws that infringe upon religious freedom;
- Apply for religious services for prisoners in detention centres, prisons, and re-education camps in China who believe in God, or have come to believe while in detention, and send the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the above detention facilities;
- Provide relief to Christians whose religious freedom has been infringed upon by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who have had their persons or their residences illegally searched by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who are being subjected to re-education through forced labor;
- Provide restitution to Christians or Christian organizations who have been punished with large fines;
- Provide restitution for those who have been harmed by the dereliction of duty of state organs.
On May 8, while at the Midland office of China Aid for one week of Bible study, the group learned that they would be granted a meeting with President Bush in the White House. On the morning of May 11, President Bush met with Yu Jie, Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, China Aid director Bob Fu, and Institute on Chinese Law & Religion director Deborah Fikes, in the Yellow Oval Room.
Li Baiguang presented President Bush with a gift — a copy of a proposal to make a documentary titled “American Civilization.” It was exquisitely designed by the artist Meng Huang (孟煌). In 2003, Li and his intellectual friends in Beijing designed together two major documentary projects. One of them was a 30-episode series that would introduce the democratic experience in 30 countries. Another, “American Civilization,” would be a 100-episode documentary series that would provide Chinese people a comprehensive introduction to the establishment of America, including its political life, its judicial system, education system, and religious beliefs. “I want to make it a television special for the education of the public,” Li said. He established the Beijing Qimin Research Center (北京启民研究中心) to push the plans forward, but in the end the two ambitious projects were aborted.
The three Christians from China being received by President Bush was, at the time, a major news story. But for the ten years following, the meeting with the U.S. President was remembered more for a controversy that surrounded it: the so-called “rejecting Guo incident.” This is a reference to the fact that Guo Feixiong was excluded from the meeting, purportedly by Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who argued that the meeting was for Christians only and Guo should not attend because he was not a Christian. Later, Li Baiguang expressed his regret that this had taken place. He told rights defense lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) that if it didn’t occur, along with the enormous acrimony around it, the different groups in Chinese civil society might have been more unified and stronger.
Also during this trip to the U.S., Li was invited by Bob Fu to be China Aid’s legal consultant. When Li returned to China, he said in a 2010 interview, apart from his regular rights defense work, he “traveled across the country to provide legal support to persecuted house churches.” Li partnered with China Aid in this fashion until his death.
During that same period, Li sat the bar, passed, and became a lawyer. In December 2007 he hung his shingle with the Common Trust Law Firm (共信律师事务所) in Weigongcun, near Peking University.
In June 2008, Li and six other Chinese dissidents and rights lawyers were awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award.
Li Baiguang was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08. But after that point he gradually retired from the media and public spotlight. “Although the substance of my rights defense work has not changed,” he said in the 2010 interview, “my methods are more low-key and moderate than before. I no longer write articles attacking and castigating the authorities; all I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy.”
Over the following years Li, as a lawyer, left his footprints in every Chinese province except Tibet, acting as defense counsel in several hundred cases of persecuted Christians. The cases he was involved in include: the Shanghai Wanbang Church in 2009 (上海万邦教会), petitioning for Uighur church leader Alimjan Yimiti (阿里木江) in 2009, the 2010 Guangzhou Liangren Church case (广州良人教会), the 2010 Shuozhou Church case in Shanxi (山西朔州), the 2012 Pingdingshan Church case in Henan (河南平顶山) , the 2014 Nanle case (南乐), and the Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) case in 2017, among others.
As for the result of defending house churches, Li Baiguang summed it up in 2010 as follows: “If we look at the outcome of the administrative review of every rights case, the judgment has ruled against the church almost without exception. But later, I found a very strange phenomenon: after the conflict dies down, looking back a year later, we find that the local public security and religious bureaus no longer dare storm and raid these house churches, and congregants can meet freely. Using the law as a weapon to defend religious freedom works. Where we’ve fought cases, churches and religious activities in the area have since been little disrupted.”
During the same period, Li also defended numerous dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, petitioners, and peasants entangled in compensation disputes. These include Guo Feixiong’s appeal in 2009, the Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) case in 2011, the lawsuit filed against the government in 2013 by Wang Xiuying (王秀英) for being sent to re-education through forced labor during the Olympic Games, the defense of lawyers Zhang Kai (张凯) and Liu Peng (刘鹏) in 2015, as well as the defense of 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) in 2015, the mass arrest in Wuxi on April 16, 2016, the commemoration of the June 4 massacre by seven citizens in 2016, the mass arrests in Fuzhou as well as Suzhou during the G20 in 2016, and the defense of lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) in 2017.
While he was engaged in all this, Li also held rights defense training sessions for house churches around China. According to Bob Fu, director of China Aid, over the last roughly ten years, Li has trained several thousands people; the most recent was in January 2018 in Henan — conducted while he was lying on his back after he injured his leg, as church leaders from the local district gathered around to hear him discuss how they should defend their rights according to the law.
Between 2011 and 2013, Li taught in a number of training sessions for “barefoot lawyers” under the aegis of the “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group” (中国维权紧急援助组). In 2016 he also helped with a workshop for independent candidates for People’s Deputies elections. The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group is an NGO founded by the Swede Peter Dahlins, American Michael Caster, and rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in 2009, offering legal training to rights defense lawyers and funding cases.
Li was extremely dedicated and hardworking, according to Dahlins. He focused on details, followed guidelines, and was always a long term thinker. Dahlins often joked with Michael Caster that Li Baiguang, who had met presidents and prime ministers, dressed and looked like a peasant.
Li also took part, with other human rights lawyers and activists, in trainings on the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms in Geneva under the aegis of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (维权网), an NGO that promotes human rights and rule of law in China.
In around 2009, the 40-year-old Li, who had been single his whole life, married his former college friend Xu Hanmei (徐寒梅). In around 2010 they moved to Jurong (句容), a small city near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and settled down in a village called Desadoufu (得撒豆腐村). The name Desa comes from the Hebrew “Tirzah,” a Canaanite town mentioned in the Old Testament; the village, originally known for its stone mills used to grind soybeans for tofu, got its name from a church established by Western missionaries. It’s since become a tourist attraction for its pseudo-classical building complexes meant to recall the past.
Most residents in the town are Christians, Li Baiguang told friends. The community built its own kindergarten and elementary school, vegetable gardens, and sports pitch. “I felt like they built their own little Shangri-La,” Yang Zili said.
The Jianxi Church (涧西教会) that Li was associated with is the largest in the area, with around 200 stable congregants, most of whom were like Li: well-educated, having moved permanently to the village from elsewhere in China. For weekend church service, parishioners and catechumen (gradual converts) came from Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui and elsewhere, packing the church to the rafters. For these reasons, the church came to be watched closely by local religious affairs officials.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here’
Li Baiguang was not part of any of the public incidents that have been brought to national attention by activists and netizens since 2008. In the mass arrests during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, Li was not among them. When the New Citizens Movement became active between 2012 and 2013 and activists held regular dinner events, Li did not get involved. He wasn’t even part of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group (人权律师团), founded in 2013. The 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers didn’t implicate him, though for a while he signed up for being a defense counsel for 709 detainee lawyer Xie Yanyi. Numerous human rights lawyers have been barred from leaving the country; Li, on the other hand, traveled back and forth to America at will from 2006 to 2018.
Even when he was given trouble by police and state security, he did his best not to go public with it.
Per his own assessment in 2010, the authorities were “tolerating me to a much greater degree.” But his state of hypervigilance tells another story. A friend, Zheng Leguo (郑乐国), said that whenever he was with Li Baiguang in public places, Li would quickly scan his eyes over everyone in the vicinity to detect anything out of order. He was extremely careful about what he ate. When they ate at McDonalds, Li chose a table near the door, that way he could see people coming in and going out, and he could also escape at a moment’s notice if need be.
For Li Baiguang, 2017 was a disturbing year.
In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 15th anniversary of China Aid held at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation only event. During his remarks, Li said that apart from the suppression of civil society and human rights lawyers, attacks against house churches were also getting more severe. “From this point forward, human rights in China will enter its darkest period.” He added that rights defenders in China would use their God-given wisdom and intelligence to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; he also called on the international community and NGOs to do what they could to help. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here,” he said, citing Romans 13.
Li’s remarks were somehow leaked, according to Bob Fu, and reached the Chinese authorities — when Li returned home was treated “with severity.”
On October 17, 2017, a case Li was defending, involving seafood farmers in Wenling, Zhejiang, suing the government for malfeasance, went to trial. In the evening as Li was returning to his hotel, he was abducted by a dozen unidentified men. They took him to a forest and worked him over. They slammed their fists into his head and ordered him to leave the city by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, or else they would decapitate him and cut off his hands and feet. “When he mentioned that kidnapping,” Bob Fu said, “it was the most frightened I had seen him. The incident shook him badly.”
Another case Li took on in 2017 involved the apparent murder of a certain Pastor Han, of Korean ethnicity, in Jilin, northeastern China. Han was a pastor in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who provided aid to North Korean refugees, and encouraged them to return to North Korea and spread the Gospel. It appeared that he was assassinated by North Korean operatives.
Towards the end of the year, Li met with the Beijing-based AFP journalist Joanna Chiu. After they met in a Starbucks, Li led her out into a small alley, across the street, and into another coffeeshop in order to avoid surveillance. He told Ms. Chiu how he’d been beaten, and also the suspicious death of the pastor.
In early February 2018, Li was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event dedicated to the discussion of religion in public life, attended by thousands, including the U.S. president, policymakers, and religious and business leaders. Bob Fu, in an interview with VOA after Li’s death, said that when Li was in the U.S. from February 5-11, the pastor of Jianxi Church was questioned about the whereabouts of Li and what he was doing in the United States. After he got back to China, he spoke with Fu twice, explaining that he was being investigated, and that danger felt imminent.
At 3:00 a.m. on February 26, 2018, Li Baiguang died in the Nanjing No. 81 PLA Hospital. In response to the widespread shock and suspicion, his family announced that he had died of late-stage liver cancer.
The death of Li Baiguang, like the death of Liu Xiaobo seven months ago, brings with it a momentous sense of ending. The PRC’s neo-totalitarian state grows more complete by the day; the discourse of political reform represented by Charter 08, and the rule-of-law trajectory sought by the rights defense movement, have hit a wall. Neither have room to expand. One by one, little by little, opportunities for further progress have been sealed and nixed. Truly, a ‘new era’ in China has begun.
The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through night.
 They are Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, Li Baiguang, Zheng Enchong, Guo Feixiong, Li Heping, Fan Yafeng, Zhang Xingshui, Chen Guangcheng, and Zhu Jiuhu (许志永、高智晟、滕彪、浦志强、莫少平、李柏光、郑恩宠、郭飞雄、郭国汀、李和平、范亚峰、张星水、陈光诚以及朱久虎).
 The Institute on Chinese Law & Religion was registered in Washington, DC. It is now inactive.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer, died on February 26, aged 49.
Li Baiguang, born on October 1, 1968, was the youngest of seven children in a tiny mountain village household in Jiahe county, Chenzhou, Hunan. His father died when he was seven years old. The family was impoverished. When Li reached school age, his playmates went to school, but he had to stay home another year and help his mother with chores. One day, after he herded the ducks back home, Li went to the school, leant on the window, and saw his friends all studying. He returned home and told his mother through tears: “If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll hack our ducks to death.”
In 1987, the child who used to sleep on the hard loft of a pigpen with his brothers matriculated to Xiangtan University (湘潭大学) majoring in philosophy. “While I was at university, my living expenses were roughly 50 yuan a month. Every cent of it was made by my mother selling bitter melon, squash, rice wine, and our pigs,” Li told an interviewer in 2010. One month in winter, when the family didn’t send money, he had to borrow from another student; by the next month, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. “It hurt me so deeply that I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to jump off a building. However, I was held back by the thought that if I did kill myself, I’d be letting my mom down.”
After graduating from the unremarkable Xiangtan University, Li scored well enough on a test to be admitted to China’s premier institution of higher education, Peking University’s School of Law. This feat by itself indicates his intelligence and grit. Despite that, “my family weren’t impressed that I’d gotten into PKU. When I finished my Masters and went onto a PhD, they were even less pleased. They said: You’re reading so many books, but no one back home benefits in the least. You’d be better off coming back and being a village cadre.”
At PKU, Li studied constitutional and administrative law; his advisor was the renowned Chinese constitutional law scholar Xiao Weiyun (萧蔚云). A series of lectures that he and classmates held about the constitution came in for criticism not only by his advisor (“Why aren’t you addressing the benefits of socialist rule of law, but instead talking about how French supreme court justices understand the constitution?” he jabbed), but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. In 1997 after Li received his PhD, his advisor was concerned that he would be trouble if he stayed, and thus rejected Li’s application for a teaching position at PKU.
At the end of that year, Li went to Hainan University. In the 1990s, Hainan was the largest Special Economic Zone in all of the country, and had attracted people from the rest of China hunting for opportunity. Many had been functionaries in the government until the violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement crushed their political aspirations; others were student activists, at a loss and disillusioned. At Hainan University, a faraway and marginal institution, Li Baiguang continued to hold academic salons with students, taking great joy in their discussions on democracy and the rule of law.
The Year of 1998
In early 1998, a friend from Li Baiguang’s home province introduced him to a small group of democracy activists in Guangzhou. They were part of a campaign to organize an opposition party across cities and provinces.
In the 1990s, there were two major campaigns to organize independent political parties. The first, led by Hu Shigen (胡石根) in Beijing in 1992, involved a few dozen and was quickly met with severe repression. The leaders were given heavy sentences, with Hu Shigen jailed for 20 years. The next was in 1998.
The global context of the 1998 party organization event is worth sketching out. Following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, U.S. Congress turned the annual review of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status into a debate and criticism of human rights conditions in China. For all that, from the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. never once failed to grant China MFN status, including in 1990, after the massacre in Beijing. China’s strategic goals through the 1990s were 1) to normalize trade relations with the U.S., 2) to join the World Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. and China, and China and the world, were engaging in “trade for human rights” deals. They included the following:
- In October 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (though did not ratify it until 2001);
- In November 1997, China’s most well-known political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), was released and went into exile in the U.S.;
- In June 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to abolish the annual review of Most Favored Nation status for China, and to grant China permanent normal trade relations;
- On June 25, 1998, President Clinton arrived in Xi’an, kicking off a tour of China. His hosts had him observe local elections in Xiahe village, on the outskirts of Xi’an. “I understand that soon, like nearly half a million other villages across China, you will be voting to choose your local leaders,” he remarked;
- In September, 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited China;
- In October 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; though 20 years later has yet to ratify it);
- In November 1998, the National People’s Congress passed the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees of the People’s Republic China” (《中华人民共和国村民委员会组织法》) which guaranteed that villages would be able to govern autonomously and carry out grassroots democracy.
The reader can very well imagine, in the context of all of this, how Chinese dissidents were full of hope about the unprecedented possibilities of 1998, and how their imagination was fired. The democracy activists’ plan was to formally and openly register a political party in China. This was, after all, one of the rights stipulated in the ICCPR, and the organizers were no longer interested in secretive and shadowy political opposition.
The 29-year-old law PhD Li Baiguang helped prepare the materials for the registration of the “Democracy Party of China.” He may have even authored the party’s charter. Having done what was entrusted to him, Li went back to Hainan. One afternoon, he received a telephone call telling him that the University’s Party Committee Secretary, as well as the head of the law school, wanted to speak with him. The three met at the law school, and they asked him about his teaching. When he left the meeting and went outside, two burly men were waiting. They strode over and, each grabbing an arm, hauled the five-foot Li into a waiting Toyota. Li asked, “Are you from the Ministry of State Security?” They laughed.
Li was detained for a week. They questioned him about his role in the party registration. All the related documents he had were confiscated during a raid of his apartment. They also demanded that he produce a written statement of guilt and repentance, and that he not leave Hainan. He wrote a confession and agreed to stay in the city. After that, security officials kept him under surveillance, and often demanded he grant them “chats.”
A fortnight later, in March 1998, Li booked an airline ticket from a friend’s house and the next morning quietly took the first flight out of Hainan straight to Beijing.
The day Clinton arrived in China, Wang Youcai (王有才) and his colleagues in Hangzhou traveled to government offices to register the Zhejiang branch of the Democracy Party of China. Their application was denied. In September, Shandong activists traveled to local government offices to register the Shandong branch of the Democracy Party of China, also to no avail. In Wuhan, activists led by Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) went to the Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and lodged the application for the Hubei provincial organizing committee of the Democracy Party of China, and were also rejected. In November, Yu Wenli (徐文立) and other activists in Beijing announced that they were establishing the Beijing and Tianjin headquarters of the party. Democracy Party organizers across the country were then tracked down and arrested, and at the end of 1998 charged with “subversion of state power” and given harsh prison sentences. Wang Youcai of Hangzhou got 11 years; Qin Yongmin of Wuhan got 12 years; Yu Wenli of Beijing, 13 years. Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) in Sichuan persisted in party organizing and was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1999.
Following this — despite the continued arrest and imprisonment of independent scholars and political dissidents, as well as the brutal suppression of Falun Gong in 1999 — Clinton in October 2000 signed into law permanent normal trade relations with China. The following year, China proceeded to join the WTO. Nearly 20 years later, however, China has not made good on its trade promises, nor does it intend to; instead, China has undermined WTO rules and norms, as a January 2018 report by the United States Trade Representative says. Thus, though China, in bad faith, played the “trade for human rights” deals of the 1990s, it won every hand. This is because the Chinese government well knew that U.S. companies were salivating over the China market, that the U.S. would go along with the pretense that the Chinese authorities were sincere, and that no one would follow-up on the broken promises.
Now in 2018, we can imagine ourselves in a time machine, and take a fresh look at how both laughable and tragic were these “trade for human rights” negotiations in 1998.
Li Baiguang was spared prison in 1998 only because he was an inadvertent beneficiary of the negotiations underway. So as to not ruin their grand trade deal, the Party took a relatively lenient approach against the non-core party organizers.
If it were 2018 in which all this took place, Li would not only have not escaped jail time, but he wouldn’t have even been able to flee Hainan. Whether by plane, boat, or train, his ID card would have thrown out a “person of interest” alert, and facial recognition technologies would have picked up his movements. He’d have had nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.
When he got to Beijing, Li holed up in a small house near Peking University; he didn’t contact anyone, and stayed off the telephone.
However, he didn’t stay hidden long. That year PKU celebrated its 100th anniversary of founding, and the houses of local residents around the campus were being razed for construction, sparking conflicts. Li and friends got involved in helping the residents resist the illegal demolition. One day, after he left a bookstore near the Southern Gate of PKU, he found that the bicycle he’d left by the door had been badly mangled. He knew it was a warning. As he explained in a later interview: “After that I holed up in the house again and dared not go out.”
Many of Li Baiguang’s friends and acquaintances in Beijing were young liberal intellectuals and political dissidents that had been tracked and tagged by the Ministry of State Security. Security agents were thus quickly able to identify his whereabouts. One evening in August of 1998, as Li was riding past the Eastern Gate of Peking University, he was knocked off his bicycle by a Volkswagen Santana. Two large men climbed out, shoved him in the car, hooded him, squashed him between them in the back seat, and rammed his head towards his crotch. After driving 40 to 50 minutes, he was dragged into a basement and interrogated by people who identified themselves as agents of the Beijing Bureau of State Security (北京市国家安全局), as well as agents who had come from Hainan. They wanted to know what he’d done since he left Hainan, and why he left without permission.
They released him that evening. The Beijing agents made him write a ‘guarantee letter’ promising that he would not flee again, and that he’d submit ‘thought reports’ regularly. Before long he began to find this unbearable and told the police that he would not write the reports anymore. His home was again raided, and they found that Li had cursed them and sworn revenge in his diary. He never kept a diary after that.
A friend remembers the deep impression left on Li by the harassment and monitoring of 1998: “They infiltrate your blood,” he said.
After his return to Beijing, Li relied on translating, proofreading, and writing to make a living. This was the kind of work that Li enjoyed and felt at home with. In graduate school at PKU, he had translated Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The book had already been translated before, but his version, titled in Chinese “The Way of the Ruler,” introduced it to a popular audience. In the summer of 1998 when he was proofreading “The New Asian Way,” he encountered the work Victorian author Samuel Smiles, in particular the classic “Self Help.”
He borrowed Smiles’ book from the PKU library and found it “deeply moving and inspiring.” Li wrote in a 2005 essay: “Samuel Smiles’ works, through moving stories that compel tears, gives amply convincing witness to the fact that nobleness of character and spirit is the salvation of every individual, country, and people — and that this is our sole path to freedom and happiness.”
Through the 1990s, numerous ‘shadow’ publication houses cropped up in Beijing doing a lively business in the book trade. In China, only books with an official publication number are allowed to be printed, and these publication numbers were only allocated to government-registered, state-run presses. Private publishers would buy publication numbers from the state presses to publish books. Most of the proprietors were intellectuals who couldn’t stand the oppressive restrictions of the official system; some were idealists who hoped to awaken the public through books and the spread of new ways of thinking. Many of these businesses were composed of just a few people, and most of what they published were translations.
Li Baiguang decided to translate and publish Samuel Smiles’ works (the copyright on which had already expired), and he became a publisher.
In January of 1999, Li published the Smiles classic “Self-Help” through the little-known Beijing-based Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社). In July, September, October, 1999, then in July and October in 2010, Li published a series of Smiles’ books under the Beijing Library Press, respectively “Character,” “Duty,” “Thrift,” “The Huguenots in France,” and “Life and Labour.” He marketed the series as the “Conscience Collection” (良知丛书). Li took on planning and editorial tasks for the series, while also performing some of the translation. He farmed out distribution and sales to contractors already established in the industry. Li’s obsession and dedication to the work is clear from the compressed timeline.
In November of 1999, The Commercial Press, a major Beijing publishing house, published Li Baiguang’s translation of American professor Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy,” a book of instruction on the history and fundamental tenets of democracy.
Among the works Li had first published was the 19th century French judge Louis Proal’s “Political Crime.” The Chinese version, based on the 1898 English-language translation, was published by Reform Press in April 1999. It immediately attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. As put by one of the translators and Li’s friend Wang Tiancheng (王天成), “The title of this book was just too outlandish for the authorities.” Indeed, the “political crimes” discussed in the book were not principally in reference to crimes against the government, such as treason and revolt, but instead crimes committed by governments and politicians, including assassinations, hatred, hypocrisy, political spoliation, electoral corruption, and so on.
State security agents came and confiscated everything off the desk of the typist. Li Baiguang went into hiding once more. “Political Crime” had its commercial life stunted.
The Conscience Collection, on the other hand, sold exceptionally well, in particular “Self-Help.” This put a little money in Li’s pocket.
Around strangers and new acquaintances, Li Baiguang was quiet and taciturn. But when he was with old friends, he wouldn’t quit talking. During gatherings at his apartment, once he got going on a topic, he rarely stopped, not caring whether his audience had lost interest or not. He also had a peculiar hand-gesture, well known to friends who tried to interrupt him: he pushed his palm down and said “Listen to me!” Those who know him, without exception, were left with a deep sense of his passion, energy, focus, and learning.
“He is a rather pure man,” one friend said.
After accumulating a small amount of capital with the Smiles venture, Li was in a position to buy up copyrights to translate and publish contemporary foreign books. This was not always successful, as his sales of American author and speaker John C. Maxwell’s series on leadership demonstrated. To make matters worse, not long after this one of Li’s distributors absconded with some of his money. Between 2002 and 2003, Li got out of the publishing business.
‘Stomp You to Death’
In around the year 2000, while he was still in the book business, the Ministry of State Security apparently decided that he wasn’t such a serious threat to national security after all, and assigned him to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for supervision.
On March 13, 2001, MSS agents in Beijing and Tianjin secretly arrested eight young people, six of whom were recent graduates, and two current graduate students, at universities in Beijing. They met each other through intercollegiate student clubs. In August of 2001, in the rented flat of a friend, the group signed their names, impressed their fingerprints, stacked their hands together and vowed to form an “organization.” The name they gave themselves was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会), a nod to the “New Youth” journal established by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu (陈独秀). Indeed, four of the young men were themselves CCP members; their guiding principles were “freedom, democracy, justice, equality.” Over the next few months they gathered now and then on campus, in a dorm, or outside, often speaking for hours at a stretch about official corruption, layoffs, or the burdens of farmers, among other emerging social problems in China. They also invited liberal scholars to come and give lectures. They were rarely unanimous in their ideas, but all agreed that Chinese society was becoming increasingly unequal by the day, and that the government was suppressing healthy discourse. They were united in the belief that China had to undergo democratic reforms.
The case of the “New Youth Study Group” was the most significant political incident to emerge in 21st century China. One of the two of the undergrads, it turned out, had long been an MSS asset; the other, the only female in the group, leveled accusations against four other members after numerous interrogation sessions. Statements given to the police by these two were used by prosecutors as the basis of charges of “subversion of state power” against the other four, who were sentenced to between 8 and 10 years of imprisonment.
On the evening of March 21, 2001, police came knocking on Li Baiguang’s door. He was taken to the Haidian district police station and interrogated; police wanted to know about his relationship with Yang Zili (杨子立). Yang, 28, was the oldest member of the New Youth Study Group; two years prior he had finished graduate studies at the Department of Mechanics at PKU, and was working as a software engineer. He and Li knew one another at PKU between 1995 to 1997, and Li introduced Yang, among other students, to thinkers like Hayek, Orwell, Mill, Montesquieu, and von Mises. Li also delivered lectures to Yang Zili and his friends on constitutional law, for which Li and Yang were summoned and questioned by state security.
Since returning Beijing in 1998, Li Baiguang had lived close to Yang and a few like-minded friends in Beijing. They would gather and converse, and Li sometimes delivered lectures to the “New Youth Study Group.”
The interrogation went for three hours that night. When police let Li go, they cautioned him: “We’re not through with you. We’ll see you again.” They told him to stay in town.
The police came again on March 24, three nights later. This time Li was taken to a secret interrogation facility at the foot of the mountains in Xiangshan, western Beijing. For the next seven days, as he recounted in a 2010 interview, he was put to extremely detailed questioning: they wanted to know where he grew up and what his family was like, his time studying in Beijing, his involvement in the Democracy Party of China in 1998, what he’s been doing in Beijing since, and other questions.
The secret interrogation likely touched on other things he was involved in — for instance, his submissions to VIP Reference (《大参考》), one of the largest pro-democracy email newsletters dispatched daily from the United States, which focused on news and analyses censored by the authorities. The newsletter’s influence was enormous from about 2000 to 2004, when it was said to have around one million recipients in China. Zhao Yan (赵岩), who worked with Li Baiguang over those years, told me that part of he and Li’s ‘underground work’ was submitting articles about rights defense incidents and internal Party struggles to VIP Reference. The only reason Li wasn’t caught by the MSS, Zhao Yan said, was because he wiped his computer daily. Li Hongkuan (李洪宽), the founder and operator of VIP Reference, said in a February 28 YouTube video: “In the process of founding VIP Reference…and over these years, Li Baiguang and I had always stayed in close touch.”
Secret police in the state security apparatus knew very well that Li Baiguang harbored a deep abhorrence toward the Chinese system of dictatorship, which he felt was unchanged for 5,000 years; they knew he castigated the Chinese, as a people, who have lost the sense of right and wrong and instead enjoyed the regressive tendencies and culture of mutual deception. These were the thoughts he often revealed to friends — but the fact that the secret police knew it all so clearly shocked him deeply. For a while after he was released, he wouldn’t dare to speak his mind as freely as he used to among friends.
After those seven days of interrogation in the secret MSS facility at Xiangshan, close friends of Li’s described him as being “panicked” and “shaken to the core.”
“They said they’re going to ‘stomp me to death,’” Li said in a phone call to his friend Wang Tiancheng. He told another friend that he was stomped on while in custody.
In the next two years he was visited continually and harassed by the neighborhood committee and local police. Police demanded that he listen to their orders and make himself available on demand. If he didn’t listen, they said, “we can run you out of town anytime we like. You don’t have a Beijing household registration. You’re just a temporary.”
Sacking Officials in Two Provinces and Five Places
Li Baiguang was introduced to Zhao Yan by Yu Meisun (俞梅荪) in 1997. Yu, an active liberal intellectual in Beijing, researched economic regulations at the State Council in the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were general secretary and premier. Zhao Yan is an independent, and maverick, freelance writer. In November 1998, a few months after the passage of the Organic Law of Villagers Committees, Zhao helped villagers in Harbin successfully dismiss corrupt officials through a vote. This was the first instance in which the new law was used to remove a village official; it attracted widespread attention from grassroots democracy activists at home and caused China observers to harbor illusions of a path to democracy.
Li was full of interest in Zhao’s work, and the two often chatted over tea. One day in late 2002, Zhao Yan said to Li: “Stop hanging about the house all day — what’s the point of digging into theory? Come out with me and take a look at the real world.” Zhao was a few years older than Li; at the time he had become the news director of the rural section of the “China Reform” (《中国改革》) magazine. The role meant that he was frequently approached by peasants from around the country complaining of local injustice. Zhao would head to the scene, conduct an investigation, then expose the the abuses in the magazine.
One of the first cases Li got involved in after teaming up with Zhao Yan was that of farmers in Fu’an (福安), Fujian Province, who’d had their land expropriated. The origins of the case stretched back 28 years, when a township government requisitioned land to build a reservoir; for 28 years, the farmers had not been compensated. They had petitioned for 20 years to no effect. Zhao and Li traveled to Fu’an, visited rural households, spoke with representatives of the aggrieved, and considered the options. The farmers said that trying to go the government route was a dead end, because the court refused to register their case. As Li said in a 2010 interview: “I was discussing it with Zhao Yan… through studying the law, I found there was a legal channel we could use. The reason these problems had been around so long was basically because the municipal Party Secretary, the mayor, the county Party Secretary, and the county governor had all simply been derelict in their duties. The ordinary folks pay the taxes for their government, so the government’s got a responsibility and a duty to resolve their problems. We could help the farmers initiate proceedings to strip these officials of their qualifications as people’s representatives in order to spur them into action and deal with this issue. Although these officials, whether mayors or Party secretaries, weren’t elected, according to the law their power comes from the people, so the people have a lawful right to dismiss them.” So Li and Zhao decided to help the villages by submitting a proposal to the local People’s Congress to dismiss the relevant officials. Li Baiguang acted as legal representative for the villagers.
The recall motion enumerated instances of government malfeasance, including the theft of farmland, embezzlement of land compensation and public infrastructure construction funds, misappropriation of relief funds for the poor, river pollution, and the receipt of bribes. It implicated numerous townships and villages in the Fu’an municipality. One day in early April 2003, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang assembled the village and township representatives, handed them pre-designed and typed forms, and looked on as they went door-to-door collecting signatures. The deputies wended their way through the mountains, working through the night, because they knew that they’d be blocked if the government found out. At noon the next day, the deputies brought in cardboard boxes and large bags with the signatures and wax thumb-prints of over 10,000 villagers. On April 8, Zhao and Li, as well as peasant deputy Miao Mengkang (缪孟康), submitted to the Fujian provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee and the Ningde municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee (one step up the chain of command from Fu’an) the motion for the recall of the mayor of Fu‘an as well as the ledger of 10,000 signatures in support of it.
This was the first instance in China where citizens had petitioned for the dismissal of a mayor. Li Baiguang, using the nom de guerre ‘Liu Baijiang’ (刘柏江), penned an article in the July issue of Modern Civilisation Pictorial (《现代文明画报》) with the headline “Can Citizens Dismiss a Mayor? A record of the first time in the New China that citizens demanded the dismissal of a city mayor.” What happened next was a textbook case of political governance with Chinese characteristics, which is true then and true today: first, the government mobilized police to prevent more people from signing the motion; second, they made threats to those who signed; third, they went to the offices of China Reform and pulled strings to stop further reporting and smeared Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang; fourth, they threatened and scared away journalists from other media; fifth, they told villagers that the dismissal proceedings had no legal basis, and thus were useless; sixth, they began exacting revenge against village deputies, including arrests; seventh, the provincial investigation team set up to look into the case came up with no results; eighth, they portrayed the incident as antagonistic toward the Party and the government; ninth, the mayor that villagers had petitioned to be dismissed, Lan Ruchun (蓝如春), was not only not dismissed, but promoted to deputy mayor of Ningde.
In January of 2004, Zhao and Li, working with local village deputies, again submitted a recall motion against Lan Ruchun. This time, under enormous public pressure, Lan was forced to resign, and the Fu’an municipal government gave villagers compensation of 1.5 million yuan ($237,000) for the expropriated land. This sum was less than a tenth of that owed.
In another case in Fujian Province, the government and investors had in the 1990s set out to develop a “Southeast Motor City” on the outskirts of Fuzhou (福州), the capital city. In doing so, they requisitioned a large amount of rural land — but after the fact, the peasants received neither the promised jobs in the factories in “Motor City,” nor any share of the benefits that accrued to the government from the development. Their share of the compensation was siphoned off by layer after layer of government, leaving them with next to nothing. In April 2004, Zhao and Li set about helping 20,000 villagers within Fuzhou municipality prepare a recall motion against the mayor of Fuzhou. Li Baiguang again was their legal representative.
In the same year in Tangshan (唐山) and Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), Hebei Province, Li Baiguang, working with Yu Meisun and Zhao Yan, represented tens of thousands of villagers in recall proceedings against corrupt officials.
In a 2004 essay about the recall motions he represented in five cities and two provinces, Li wrote with passion about how so many villagers “took the path of using the constitution as a weapon to defend their rights because under the current legal structures of China today, every other method they tried ended in failure: for years they went to local and central government offices to petition, constantly, to no effect; they lodged complaints in court, but the court refused to accept their case… the cold, selfish, greedy and colluding local government bureaucrat-mafias strangled the villagers out of even their most basic rights to subsistence.” Using the constitution to dismiss officials became their final remedy.
“This is a massive exercise in constitutional implementation,” Li told China Youth Daily in 2004. “Its value is not in whether it succeeds, but that through the process of studying and utilizing the constitution and the law, the seed of rule-of-law consciousness will begin to bud in the minds of Chinese villagers.” He added: “Understanding the proper relationship between the government and the people is their greatest gain.”
In a 2010 interview, Li said: “Back then we did it with such energy — standing up to these officials with the law, appealing to dismiss them every chance we could, taking them to court, and for the first time putting the fear into these insufferably arrogant men, it was really a delight.”
On another occasion though, he noted the failure of these motions and court cases to dismiss officials, a supposed constitutional right: “Rights without procedural guarantee are not real rights.” Indeed, no Chinese law provides such procedures.
Zhao Yan is the epitome of a certain Northeastern type; he has a robust physique, a gutsy attitude, and a forceful style of speech. Li Baiguang, meanwhile, is short, quiet, and restrained — but he executes with rigor and firmness. Between 2003 and 2004, the two of them traveled to seven or eight provinces, Zhao Yan as the investigative reporter, Li Baiguang as legal representative, getting themselves involved in countless land theft and compensation cases and cases of village governance and corruption. Wherever they went they handed out volumes of legal statutes they’d brought from Beijing, including the PRC Constitution, the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees , the Law on Land Administration (《土地管理法》), the Law on Deputies to the National People’s Congress and Deputies to the People’s Congresses (《人大代表法》), the State Compensation Law (《国际赔偿法》), the Administrative Procedure Law (《行政诉讼法》), and others, all to assist those whose rights had been infringed to file an administrative review or a complaint.
The villagers were often skeptical of such efforts. “We might use the law to solve problems, but government workers and police don’t, so what are we supposed to do?” they asked Li. His response: “Then you must insist on using the law! Even though in the process you may pay a price in blood and sweat, and perhaps even lose your personal freedom for a while, you have to keep going.” He firmly believed that persistence would lead to change. He told them a few stories that exemplified the power of using the law, including cases he was personally involved in. In one instance, the family farm of his client, Ms. Liu Jie (刘杰) in Heilongjiang, was expropriated, and she persisted in using legal rights defense (Li Baiguang also wrote an open letter to state premier Wen Jiabao, inviting him to appear him court to meet charges); another story he told was of Yao Lifa (姚立法) in Hubei successfully becoming a People’s Deputy; and another of blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) fighting for the rights of the disabled.
“The infringement of one’s rights is in fact a perfect opportunity for the awakening of civil rights consciousness,” Li said. “Before their rights are violated, they don’t grasp the natural conflict between power and rights. When rights are harmed, the fierce battle between power and rights begins. What we citizens can do is use the power of the law to repel those with unfettered power. The process is arduous, but there is simply no alternative.”
During his doctoral studies, Li Baiguang wrote a pamphlet titled “A Common Sense Reader for Chinese Citizens” (《中国公民常识读本》), using a question-and-answer format to address basic questions about human rights, government, autocracy, democracy, the constitution, economy, public opinion, education and faith, and military affairs, among other issues related to democratic constitutionalism. After the real world experiences of 2003 and 2004 however, he wanted to instead use actual cases to illustrate the basic principles associated with power and rights, burn them onto CD-ROM, and distribute them in every village. He saw the work as basic civics education for the Chinese people.
 Two weeks after the 1989 massacre, President Bush Sr. dispatched the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to reassure Deng Xiaoping that the anger at, and criticism, of the Chinese government were merely temporary, would soon pass, and would not impact U.S.-China relations. Details of the visit and the reassurances made can be found in the memoirs of Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
The story of Li Baiguang, including his transition to a lawyer, his new approach to rights defense, his meeting with President Bush, and his defense of house churches around the country, will conclude tomorrow…
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018
On February 26, China’s official news agency Xinhua published the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Proposed Amendments to China’s constitution (Chinese). The Party proposed revising the clause “The term of office of the Chairman (国家主席) and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” During the Party’s 19th congress in November, 2017, no one in the new politburo standing committee appeared to be the potential successor of Xi Jinping, as Hu Jintao was to Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping was to Hu Jintao. People then already predicted that Xi Jinping would continue to stay in power after his term ends in five years, with the only unknown being: will he follow Deng Xiaoping’s example to hold onto power as the chairman of the Central Military Committee or/and the general secretary of the Party (the two positions have no term limit), or will he amend the constitutional term limit on the term of the chairman so that he will also keep the nominal position of the chairman?
Even though the proposed removal of term limit is only the dropping of the other shoe, it caused a huge stir. Since yesterday, one can sense a certain desperation in every chat group on WeChat; searches for “yi-min” (immigration) spiked, and people have been discussing which countries they can flee to.
There are complex reasons why such a constitutional change has jolted Chinese society, the most fundamental being that the two-term limit enshrined in the current Constitution, which was amended in 1982, is the political and economic mental setup of the Deng Xiaoping era. To dismantle it is to hit the reset button for a new era.
The two-term cap in the 1982 constitution was a result of Chinese leadership’s painful re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution: a supreme leader who had life tenure had enough time to elevate his power to be worshiped by all others, and he had absolute power over the lives and deaths of others. Those who paid the highest price were the ones who once had occupied high positions. Abolishing life tenure and replacing it with a limited term would prevent the emergence of the likes of Mao. It was, in the first place, a self-protection measure for those in high power.
In practice, however, the term limit and the institution of collective leadership had a greater effect: to effectively curb the power of the number one leader. As China shifted its focus to economic development, China has been able to give a pragmatic or even reasonable appearance in its governance, even though the regime has remained a dictatorship. To political scientists who have observed China closely, such as professors Andrew Nathan and David Shambaugh, this appearance was an indication of the regime’s “resilience.”
Such an appearance has afforded average people an optimistic outlook of China’s future, while ensuring that foreign capital could trust the system. These have been the psychological fundamentals of China’s rapid economic growth over the past decades.
In China’s liberal discourse, the two-term cap has been regarded as a landmark of political reform, a manifestation of the Chinese communist party’s self-reinvention.
For a long time now, China’s emerging middle class has wanted to pursue change but has been equally scared of chaos: that is, they’re dissatisfied with China’s autocratic polity and hope that it reforms, yet simultaneously, as beneficiaries of the current arrangements they’re opposed to radical change. Their vested interests guide their psychological orientations, and make them more inclined to advocate gradual reform. To a great degree, China’s rapid social and economic development and transformation has taken place under remarkably stable political conditions. Aside from credit earned through the so-called ‘performance legitimacy,’ the CCP’s ability to adapt and reform has been widely accepted, and is a bedrock assumption of China’s political stability.
Gradual Reform — Gone With the Wind
For these reasons, the abolishment of the term limit, while first threatening those in power, strikes the strongest blow against the faith in China’s economic and political system. This is because for the last few years, Xi Jinping’s power has swollen enormously, vitiating the public’s belief in the basic rationality of communist rule. The cancellation of the term limit is the straw that will break the camel’s back: now, the leadership has returned to strongman rule and there are no limits to his power, and thus the appearance that it is a fundamentally pragmatic regime has also been crushed.
The explosion in people searching the phrase “immigration” is a perfect example of the psychological trauma of the latest news. The post-1989 period already saw a severe challenge to the narrative of Communist Party self-reform and adaptation; now, that narrative seems based merely on the reforms of the 1980s, and in particular the 1982 constitutional amendment which saw term limit implemented for state leadership posts.
Since he came to power, Xi Jinping has increased the suppression and control of society, and prospects of gradual reform are simply no longer on the table. The abolition of the term limit system would completely tear away the basis for claims about the CCP’s adaptability, and has turned all hopes for gradual reform based on this argument into a joke. This is equivalent to a death penalty for gradual reform, about as effective as the emergency cabinet established at the end of the Qing Dynasty to deal with the Xinhai Revolution.
Over the last few years, many people unhappy with Xi’s rule had pegged their hopes on Xi being disabled in a (fictitious) power struggle; while others had resigned themselves to wait until 2022 when he would hand over power. But Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th Party Congress destroyed the former wish, and the elimination of term limit has burst the bubble of the latter.
Xi Jinping’s power and the political line he has pursued will now continue indefinitely. But more importantly, the basic assumptions about China’s politics and economy, about the future of Xi Jinping, and about the prospects of reform, have all been punctured by this development. There are now no immediate prospects for change. This is why what was such an unsurprising announcement has led to such universal shock and lamentation.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
Mo Zhixu, February 4, 2018
“Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.”
In 1981, Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski ordered a crackdown on the growing Solidarity movement. Eight years later, under pressure of internal unrest as well as a cultural thaw in the Soviet Union, the Polish Communist government and Solidarity held roundtable talks. On June 4, 1989, free parliamentary elections were held in Poland and the Communists suffered a crushing defeat. Jaruzelski resigned in 1990 and Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa took his place as president. Poland marked its transition to democracy without shedding a drop of blood.
Poland’s case is unique among the political transitions in the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European communist bloc. Unlike the Soviet Union, where reform was led primarily by Communist Party bureaucrats and went through a chaotic implementation, or Czechoslovakia, where change came through the sudden mass demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution, Polish democracy emerged as a product of the state coming to an agreement with society.
In the view of political scientist Juan José Linz, this phenomenon has to do with Poland’s unique political and social structure. Unlike other Eastern European countries, Poland was not a totalitarian system even though it was also a communist country.
After World War II, Poland did not experience agricultural collectivization. Land remained privately owned and private economy had had a significant percentage in agriculture — a strong contrast with events in other Soviet satellite states.
In addition, the traditional influence of the Catholic Church in Poland remained intact through decades of Communist government. In 1978, Karol Józef Wojtyła from the Krakow parish was selected to become Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church. As the history’s first Polish pope, his nationality played a major role in shaping the social movement in his homeland. Each of Pope John Paul II’s returns to Poland to celebrate Mass was tantamount to a large-scale social mobilization and at the same time a demonstration of the power of civil society.
A few years ago, my friends Jia Jia (贾葭), Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) and Michael Anti (安替) met with former Polish President Wałęsa and inquired about his country’s experiences in the transition to democracy. To their surprise, Wałęsa stated bluntly, “My friends, the Polish transition can’t be a model for China. We were blessed to have a Polish Pope.” At a loss for words, Anti replied: “God bless Poland!”
The fact that Poland was not a totalitarian state left room for the growth of civil society. Because of it, organizations like Solidarity could arise in Poland and garner widespread support against the Communist regime.
Following China’s market reforms, Chinese citizens gained more personal, economic, social, and cultural autonomy. Mainland Chinese society seemed to have departed from the familiar dictatorial style, giving many hope that civil society would appear in China and form a local version of the Solidarity movement that would bring peaceful democratic change.
Until a few years ago, this prospect didn’t seem too far-fetched. Limited marketization did bring a handful factors favorable to the growth of civil society, such as the emergence of new social classes, market-oriented media outlets, the establishment of judicial institutions that have the appearance of rule of law, and the growing space for expression on internet. These developments resulted in the spread of the ideas of universal freedom and civil rights, the rise of rights defense activities, and the willingness of participation of the the emerging social classes. People were encouraged by these phenomenon and began to harbor an optimistic picture that the growth of civil society would be tolerated by the regime, that a healthy interaction would develop between the government and the civil society, and that China could thus transition toward democracy.
This optimistic vision was quickly shattered.
After some initial observation, the authorities tightened control over all of these rising social fields: the media and internet were brought under ever-stricter control; human rights defenders and NGOs also faced mounting pressure. Furthermore, the government has been strengthening its grip on the new social classes by establishing party cells in what it calls “the new economic organizations and the new social organizations.”
Some might think these measures are only a product of Chinese leaders’ regimented political mindset, and their optimistic vision is still viable as long as the leaders of the regime change their way of thinking.
But upon closer examination of contemporary China’s political and social structure, you will see that the problem lies not in the mindset of the leadership, but is deeply built into the system.
China’s reform toward marketization has also been called a marginal revolution. This revolution developed as agrarian land was contracted to households, individuals were allowed to create their own businesses, enterprises cropped up in towns and villages, and special economic zones were established in coastal cities. The authorities adjusted accordingly, fuelling the hope that such reforms would eventually make inroads to systemic change, or the most difficult “deep water of reform.”
But in practice, little change has been effected on the system. On the contrary, the reforms on the margins have been adapted to reinforce the system. Specifically, the Party, government, and military saw little substantial change; the Party retained control over the core economic departments, strengthening itself through financial avenues — a phenomenon reflected in the fact that the government has grown more in power and resources while the masses have been regressing. In terms of society and culture, the regime’s monopoly has remained strong but at the same time it has introduced some market elements to strengthen itself.
Thus, the economic progress achieved during the marginal reforms reinforced the regime’s financial capacity and allowed it to double down on its control over society. Contrary to what the optimists had envisioned, market reforms have not touched the root of the political system. Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.
With the system still firmly in control, factors that optimists believed would herald social change never got off the ground, and the gains civil society made were lost. For example, reacting to the demands of the the new social class, market-oriented media outlets developed a liberal trend for a limited period, but because the industry is subject to Party monopoly, they have ultimately bent to the will of the political system. Faced with combined political and economic pressure, the fate of the internet was similar.
The limited market reform in mainland China didn’t relax the political system’s need for absolute control. It’s more apt to see China as a neo-totalitarian regime with characteristics of a market economy — it can by no means be called merely “authoritarian,” as some do. The neo-totalitarianism does afford the Chinese masses a certain degree of personal, economic, and cultural freedom as well as some social space. Yet that social space is tightly controlled by the state and given little potential for free growth.
In the face of the neo-totalitarian regime’s total control and persistent suppression, the prospect that a civil society born of social movements will usher in progressive political transformation seems increasingly distant and elusive. But history continues. In the 1980s, Poland’s non-totalitarian nature permitted democratic transition through state-society negotiation. Other Communist countries made the transition all the same, whether through peaceful mass demonstrations or violent regime change.
No matter the methods, when a totalitarian regime imposes absolute control over society and robs the people of their rights, it does so against popular support. Social progress may be hindered, but the people will continue to resist the system from within. When the window of opportunity presents itself, history will bring change — at once unpredictable yet in hindsight inevitable.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Chinese original 《莫之许：新极权下没有所谓公民社会》
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
January 10, 2018
Since 2009 Wu Gan has arguably been the best known, and certainly the most recognizable, activist in China for his bold and innovative tactics. Wu Gan was arrested on May 19, 2015, and looking back, he was in fact the first detainee of what became the 709 Crackdown. As with all other 709 detainees, he was held in secret detention for months, where he was tortured. He was tried behind closed doors on August 15, 2017, without a verdict. On December 26, the court sentenced him to eight years in prison for “subverting state power.” The evidence against him were 12 occasions where he had campaigned, in his colorful style, to correct injustice in one form or another. According to his lawyer, Wu Gan rejected a deal with the authorities which would have given him a suspended sentence if he were to admit guilt. Following Wu Gan’s sentence, his defending counsel filed the following appeal. — The Editors
Appellant: Wu Gan (吴淦). Male. Han ethnicity. DOB: February 14, 1972. Place of birth: Fuqing city, Fujian Province. Citizen ID: 3502061972XXXX2033. Senior high school education. Administrative officer at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所). Currently being held at the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center (天津市第二看守所).
Defending counsel: Ge Yongxi (葛永喜), Guangdong Anguo Law Firm (广东安国律师事务所); Yan Xin (燕薪), Beijing Laishuo Law Firm (北京来硕律师事务所)
The appellant lodges this appeal to overturn the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court’s (2016) Criminal Judgement No. 146
Appeal request: Vacate the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court’s (2016) Criminal Judgement No. 146 and render a judgement of not guilty.
Facts and Grounds:
i. Subjective Factors
Although the appellant “in court acknowledged his thoughts of subverting state power,” and expressed a wish to endeavour toward this end, thought does not constitute criminal conduct. If the verbal expressions of the appellant are sufficient to constitute a crime, it should also be considered that the appellant in court also said: “subverting state power is the legitimate right of the citizen; subversion of state power shouldn’t even be a crime in the first place.” In the mind of the appellant, he is simply exercising his right to subvert state power — and so what crime has he committed?
ii. Objective Factors
When rendering judgement on whether an individual’s conduct is criminal, it is vital to examine the character of their actions. The actions of the appellant — whether speech made via Weibo, WeChat, Twitter, his three “Guides,” interviews given to foreign media, or audio lectures — all fall under the rubric of legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. Similarly, the appellant’s participation in 12 noted cases — which involved ‘stand-and-watch’ protests, appealing in support of a cause, raising funds, or expressing himself via performance art — are also all exercises in freedom of expression, provided for in his civil rights of: the right to criticize and make suggestions; the right to lodge appeals and complaints; the right to report and expose malfeasance, and so on. These rights are innate, and are provided for in the constitution and law of the People’s Republic of China. The exercise of these rights has nothing at all to do with so-called subversion of state power. Even less are the appellant’s actions implicated in any form of attack on the state regime or the national system of government established in the constitution.
iii. The Object of the Crime
The concept of the “state power” is a macro structure, and refers specifically to the actual rule of the central authority. Local political authorities, local judicial organs, and individual administrative or judicial officials, are not identical with the “state power.” Questioning, criticizing, reporting misconduct, and bringing complaints against local political and judicial organs or individual officials does not constitute an attempt to harm the state power.
iv. Considerations of Harm to Society
All speech acts by the appellant, as well as his participation in the 12 cases, did not cause the harm to society that is required in criminal law for the acts to constitute crimes. Not only did the speech acts not cause any harm at all to society, but they inspired a sense of citizenship and rights consciousness in members of the public, as well as effectively exercising supervision over the work of local governmental and judicial organs, thus causing injustices to be righted. What greater contribution to the public welfare could there be?
v. Regarding the Crime of ‘Subverting State Power’ Itself
a. What Is the State Power in Question?
“State power” can be defined in both narrow and broad senses. The broader definition would refer to the manner in which state power is expressed in political sovereignty at the level of a nation with defined geographical boundaries. This encompasses all of the authority of a state, including the tripartite legislative, administrative, and judicial powers. The meaning of “state power” under this definition is simply a concrete manifestation of political sovereignty.
The narrow definition of state power refers to the central or federal administrative branch of government within the framework of a national polity.
b. Who Can Subvert the Sovereignty of the People?
In the current era, nation states are countries under the sovereignty of the people. The second article in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China stipulates: “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people.” This sentence sufficiently demonstrates that state power in China has to be established on the basis of popular sovereignty. Given that sovereignty belongs to the people, then of course the people have the right to subvert the regime. It is simply a matter of the methods used: whether peaceful elections, non-violent revolution, violent revolution, or other means. Looking to political experience and practice around the world, it’s only the dictatorships that grasp onto power for decades on end who in actual fact subvert the sovereignty of the people. This is why no one has heard of ordinary citizens in a civilized country being charged with the crime of subverting state power. If sovereignty does not belong to the people, then the people’s subversion of state power in order to return sovereignty to the people is right and proper.
c. State Power is Not Equal to a Political Party’s Regime
In electoral democracies, state power in its narrow definition is typically held at any one time by one or a few political parties — thus the idea of a ‘ruling party’ or a coalition of parties that govern. The matter of which political party power is to reside in should be determined in competitive and free elections. It ought not be that a particular party seizes power for itself exclusively, not allowing any other person or political party comment on the matter. Even if particular citizens offer dissent to the regime of a particular party, or work in concert with one another to subvert it, these are all rights within the ambit of popular sovereignty and have nothing to do with subverting the power of the state.
d. The Socialist System and State Power
The social system to be adopted is a question of the ideological and political platform of a party. No political party has the right to inextricably bind its own ideology and system and theory of governance to state power writ large, as though it were the unchanging and eternal standard. Whether a political program is accepted and supported by the public ought to be a matter decided by the public at large. Thus, whether one opposes or even attempts to overthrow the socialist system should not be a constitutive element in the determination of subversion of state power. Language referring to the ‘socialist system’ should not appear in the statute addressing this crime.
e. Only Violent Subversion Can Constitute a Crime
Surveying the legal practices of every constitutional democracy in the world today, it is clear that only when an individual resorts to violence in an attempt to subvert the regime or government does the act constitute a crime. The use of peaceful measures — even when intended to subvert a regime or government — are simply not crimes. Even in the basic theories of political science, the people possess the natural and legitimate right to use violence to overthrow a tyrannical dictatorship. Is not the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party’s government itself just such an example from history?
Given all of the above, the appellant believes that — whether on the basis of the natural rights each individual is endowed with, or the common sense of jurisprudence and political science — the Tianjin Intermediate No. 2 Court should revise its decision against the appellant to not guilty. The appellant also suggests that the National People’s Congress revise the Criminal Law to limit the applicable scope of Article 105, relating to subversion of state power — or simply repeal the criminal category in its entirety.
Tianjin Higher People’s Court
Appellant: Wu Gan
Defending counsel: Ge Yongxi, Yan Xin
January 4, 2018
The Twelve ‘Crimes’ of Wu Gan the Butcher, China Change, August 13, 2017.
Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important? Mo Zhixu, August 16, 2017
Wu Gan’s Statement After Being Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison for ‘Subversion,’ China Change, December 26, 2017.
My Pretrial Statement, Wu Gan, August 9, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, July, 2015.
Bill of Indictment Against Rights Activist Wu Gan, January 12, 2017.
Wu Gan’s “three Guides” in Chinese:
Guide to Butchering Pigs (《杀猪宝典》)
Guide to Drinking Tea (《喝茶宝典》)