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A Hearing With Chinese Characteristics: How the Beijing Lawyers’ Association Helps Persecute Human Rights Lawyers
Xie Yanyi, May 21, 2018
Xie Yanyi, who turned 43 this year, is a lawyer in Beijing who has taken on numerous human rights cases over his career. In April 2015 Xie led a small group of rights lawyers seeking restitution after the police shooting of passenger Xu Chunhe (徐纯合) at the Qing’an railway station in Heilongjiang, and later published a legal investigation of the incident. This case is believed to be one of the fuses leading to the 709 (July 9, 2015) mass arrest of lawyers, and Xie Yanyi was one of the scores of lawyers arrested during that crackdown. He was accused of inciting subversion of state power and detained for 553 days, until being released on probationary bail. Last year Xie published ‘A Record of 709 and 100 Questions About Peaceful Democracy’ (《709纪事与和平民主100问》), in which he described the torture he suffered while in custody. Since his release, he has continued his involvement in human rights cases, representing among other clients the Canadian citizen of Chinese origin and Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian (孙茜).
The Chinese authorities view rights lawyers as a threat, and following the 709 crackdown, they have been targeting lawyers by canceling their law licenses, prevented them from finding employment, and using a variety of other illegal and extralegal tactics in an attempt to destroy the rights defense community. Xie Yanyi has again become a target. The following is Xie’s account of the Beijing Lawyers’ Association’s hearing on May 16 about his alleged ‘violations,’ a step toward disbarring him. It has been edited for length and clarity with the author’s permission. — The Editors
How It All Began
In late January 2018, my law firm received a ‘Notice of Case Filing’ (《立案通知书》) from the Beijing Lawyers’ Association (BLA). It said that the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau had recently received a complaint from the Yinchuan Municipal Intermediate Court and Municipal Procuratorate in Ningxia, accusing me of violating regulations while handling a case in the city. The notice announced that the BLA had begun an investigation.
On July 27, 2017, I was the defense counsel in the hearing of second instance in the prosecution of Falun Gong practitioner Xie Yiqiang (谢毅强) at the Yinchuan Intermediate People’s Court. At the hearing, I demanded that the court, per the law, produce the audiovisual evidence that formed the basis of the charges, and that I be able to cross-examine the defendant. These protestations were met with crude interruptions by the judge, He Wenbo (何文波). The judge refused to play the audiovisual evidence. His refusal was a violation of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (《中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法》), and in the end I was forcibly removed from the courtroom, thus depriving me of my right to defend my client.
After being ejected from the court, I submitted a formal request — again, according to both China’s Criminal Procedure Law and relevant provisions of the Supreme People’s Court — that the court provide me with the recording of the hearing. I also repeatedly engaged with the disciplinary inspection commission and other departments of the court, submitted a complaint, and tried to make an appointment to meet with the court’s leadership. All of them appeared to know that they were in the wrong, and refused to meet me, profferring all manner of excuses. During one phone conversation He Wenbo, the presiding judge on the case, demanded to speak with me, which I refused. Afterwards, I lodged complaints with the Yinchuan court’s disciplinary commission against the public security bureau, procuratorate, and judicial officials responsible in the first instance for the wrongful imprisonment of Xie Yiqiang.
After I learned of the alleged ‘violations’ being investigated by the BLA, on February 13 I requested a hearing on the investigation, and demanded of both the BLA and the Beijing Bureau of Justice that they provide the evidence on which the complaint against me was based. This request was ignored. On May 4 the BLA informed me that the hearing was set for May 16. In an attempt to establish my defense, I again demanded they provide the recording from the Yinchuan courtroom and any other related evidence — and again, this was refused (illegally). At this point I submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests as well as an administrative complaint with the Beijing Bureau of Justice as well as the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. Both accepted my requests and were in the process of filing them. I therefore submitted a request with the BLA that the hearing be postponed until all relevant administrative and judicial proceedings were completed. Yet the BLA ignored my request, and continued with the May 16 hearing.
Before the Hearing: Police Barricades, Journalist Beaten, and My Arrest
In the early morning of May 16, myself and my attorneys Song Yusheng (宋玉生) and Wen Donghai (文东海) arrived at the BLA building in the Dongcheng District of Beijing. Police vehicles and numerous unidentified people — presumably undercover officers — had been deployed, with guards at the door preventing journalists, lawyers, and regular citizens from entering and observing the proceedings. Even my relatives were denied admittance. As I stood on the sidewalk getting ready to speak with journalists, including from Hong Kong’s Now TV and Japan’s NHK, a group of men calling themselves police rushed over and began separating us. They used the excuse of ‘verifying IDs’ and ‘maintaining order’ to clear everyone out. I demanded that they show their IDs and explain which laws they were supposedly acting under. I said that police power is bounded, that they can’t abuse it, and that they need to respect freedom of the press and the Beijing Lawyer’s Association itself. They ignored all this and confiscated the ID card of Now TV’s video journalist Chui Chun-ming (徐骏铭). The journalist was extremely anxious to get it back, so I tried to help. But as soon as he had his ID in hand, a group of unidentified men rushed over, surrounded him, and snatched it away as they punched and stomped him. I tried to step in and stop them but was myself attacked, grappled around the neck and arms, and my clothes ripped. They shoved me into a car and rammed me down between the front and back seats. I started yelling at them: “Everyone here is a slave — it’s just that you’re slaves in charge of other slaves, and you don’t need to do this!”
When the car got out onto the road, one of the police officials in the front got a phone call; he turned around and asked me: “Do you want to be locked up, or go back to your hearing?” I said that I couldn’t care less, and if the hearing didn’t go ahead that’d be even better. In the end they drove around the block and dropped me off at the back of the BLA building. They, along with the BLA officials (secretary-general Xiao Lizhu [萧骊珠] and disciplinary committee member Mr. Chen) then told me to go directly to the hearing room. I told them I needed to see my wife and two-year-old daughter, who had been crying out ‘dad’ behind me as the policeman hauled me away. A group of the officers had me hemmed in and prevented me from going outside to see my child. I said to them that even if you had no regard for the law, you should at least act humanely. I forced my way to the exit, saw my wife and daughter, and greeted the many strangers and friends who had turned out in support. And I once again tried to negotiate with the officials, to allow people to enter and observe the hearing.
They ignored me, and didn’t let me linger at the entrance, instead forcibly escorting me back into the building and the hearing room.
The Hearing Itself
At the beginning of the hearing, I stated that because my rights to review evidence had been denied, procedures violated, observers banned, and everything was being controlled by domestic security police (国保), the hearing had no independence or legitimacy, was neither fair nor impartial, and that BLA was willingly being used as a tool for the persecution of lawyers. I said that my primary reason for attending the hearing was to witness with everyone present the violations of law taking place, and to make an account for history.
After that, the moderator of the hearing introduced to us the members of the hearing panel: Wen Jin (温进), Sun Hongyan (孙红颜), Hu Shuichun (胡永春), and investigator Lu Li (鲁立)(they were members of the BLA’s ‘professional disciplinary and meditation committee’, on which Wen Jin and Hu Shuichun served as vice-directors). Myself and my two counsel asked the members of panel in turn whether they were aware that I had submitted a FOI request and had begun legal proceedings. We also raised the fact that I had been denied my right to review evidence. Finally, we pointed out that the hearing’s procedures did not confirm to Article 58 of the All China Lawyers’ Association’s ‘Rules of Discipline for Lawyer Association Members’ Violation of Regulations’ (《律师协会会员违规行为处分规则》), which stipulates that “if facts or matters of dispute directly related to the case are brought into a lawsuit, arbitration proceedings, or there are circumstances that prevent the investigation from proceeding, then with the approval of the head of the disciplinary committee and president of the board of directors, the investigation may be suspended. When the relevant procedures have completed or relevant circumstances no longer present, a decision can be made as to whether or not to resume the investigation. The period of suspension is not counted toward the time limit of the investigation.”
Given their professional ability and questions around potential conflict of interests, we requested that all of the panel members recuse themselves.
There was a ten minute adjournment. When the hearing resumed, our request for the panel’s recusal was rejected, and the hearing proceeded to hear the evidence that prompted the investigation. The investigators had almost no such evidence — they had neither the recording from the Yinchuan courtroom, and nor had they shown any judicial opinions or explanations. They merely showed us a blurry, two-page facsimile of the supposed court transcript that wasn’t even stamped with an official chop. I know why this was the case — everyone involved in the case knows perfectly well that Falun Gong cases are false and unjust prosecutions in the first place, and no one wants to publicly endorse this willful miscarriage of the law.
Despite repeated interruptions, I finished reading through my 5,000-6,000 word ‘Defense and Rebuttal’ (《申辩书》), and my two counsel then stated their own legal opinions in my defense.
I asked the panel: Had the Beijing Bureau of Justice and the BLA seen the full (i.e., unedited) recording of the hearing in the Xie Yiqiang case, and had they seen the case files and materials? I asked their thoughts or reflections regarding this abuse of power involving a judgement that circumvented the law, trampled on the Criminal Procedure Law, and flagrantly deprived a lawyer of his right to defend his client. I asked: Have the Beijing Bureau of Justice and the BLA got a few words to say about a lawyer’s rights to practice, and the dignity of the law, given that these are the organizations’ statutory duties? I added: The opposite appears to be the case, with you here illegally stripping a lawyer of his professional rights.
In conclusion, I said: “If myself, Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Yu Wensheng (余文生) and other 709 lawyers were really guilty of any crime, it would be ‘the crime of taking the law seriously,’ ‘the crime of speaking the truth,’ and ‘the crime of diligently defending the client.’ Today, whether I’m outside fighting for the rights of journalists, the rights of observers, or everything I’ve said and done in this hearing room, all of it is to fight for the rights and dignity of every individual, and for the welfare of our future generations, including the future generations of those in power right now. Only if we respect the rule of law will this society escape chaos and turmoil. I believe that the vast majority of Chinese people, whether in or outside the official system, want the best for this society, and hope that it will progress toward human rights, peaceful democracy, and the rule of law. Every one of us has a responsibility. As long as all of us is willing to lean just a little bit in this direction, we’ll be able to see it realized. Of this I am confident!”
After the Hearing
As soon as the hearing finished, secretary-general Xiao Lizhu (萧骊珠) took me aside into a large conference room. Inside was my elder brother Xie Wei (谢维), a friend from our hometown, and a domestic security agent identified as Sun Di (孙荻). It seemed they had already talked matters over. Sun said that my brother would accompany me as they took down some simple notes. Then, four or five uniformed police officers came in with official recording equipment. The first came in and, in a show of following the rules, presented his police identification badge, identified himself as Wang Lei (王磊) (the one who questioned me later was officer Wang Xin [王鑫]), and handed me a notice of summons which said that I was suspected of obstructing the work of official organs in the lawful exercise of their duties. Given that they were now playing by procedure, I signed it and went along with them to the Hepingli police station (和平里派出所) and sat down in the third floor interrogation room. They didn’t forget to ask whether I was hungry or thirsty; I said I wasn’t for the time being.
Then, several batches of people came to talk with me. I told them that I’m happy to chat with them, but that if it’s an interrogation, I refuse to answer all questions in protest of the illegal summons. So, I spoke with each of them in turn, with discussions often turning into debates. Without exception they insisted that their right to enforce the law must not be violated; I in turn emphasized that law enforcers cannot themselves violate and abuse their power, nor enforce the law with malice aforethought.
After going at it like this back and forth for five or six hours, I found that the young policeman who’d been violent earlier on was now much less irascible. He was now avoiding eye contact, as though he was worried I’d hold him accountable later on. I told his bosses and colleagues that he’s still a young fellow, and I’m not going to go after him or any individual.
At around 6:00 p.m. one of the domestic security agents told me I could leave, and asked me to talk to my wife. After my wife Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊) heard that I had been taken away, she went to the Hepingli police station, and demanded all the paperwork about my case. In the course of this she got into an argument with one of the police officers, and in the end was herself apprehended, handcuffed, and detained. Thus, within one day my daughter had witnessed her father be violently dragged away by police, then seen her mother also taken away, on both occasions crying out for her mom and dad.
In the days leading up to the hearing, my wife had taken my daughter to the BLA to get a copy of the evidence, keeping vigil there for over 30 hours. I tried to convince her not to do that, but she wouldn’t listen and said it wasn’t for me alone, but for the rights of all families. Indeed, when the Hong Kong journalist was arrested and beaten, she dropped everything and tried to help him and cursed out the police. Most of the videos of the scene were shot by her. My wife hasn’t stopped fighting back!
The actions of Dongcheng police outside the BLA building were all for the illegal purpose of preventing me from speaking with the press. Similarly, forcing the journalist to write a ‘repentance statement’ and serving me an illegal summons after the hearing, was also intended to stop me from talking to the press, or exposing their illegal conduct.
In a normal society, the duty of police officers is to protect the rights and dignity of citizens, and to put a stop to illegal conduct and orders, no matter their pretext. Safeguarding some imagined notions of ‘state security’ and ‘social stability’ is not the legal duty of police.
I hereby thank all friends who attended the hearing and traveled to the police station to express support, including (among many others): Liu Juefan (刘珏帆), Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), lawyer Bao Longjun (包龙军), lawyer Lu Tingge (卢廷阁), lawyer Ma Wei (马卫), lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青), Li Yanjun (李燕军), Sun Dongsheng (孙东升), Wei Huasong (魏华松), Li Yue (李约), Li Wei (李蔚), and lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田).
May 19, 2018
Communist Party’s Suppression of Lawyers Is a Preemptive Attack Against an Imaginary Threat, Liu Shuqing, May 16, 2018
War on Human Rights Lawyers Continues: Up to 16 More Lawyers in China Face Disbarment or Inability to Practice, China Change, May 14, 2018.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January 24, 2018.
A Record of 709, Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017.
War on Human Rights Lawyers Continues: Up to 16 More Lawyers in China Face Disbarment or Inability to Practice
China Change, May 14, 2018
Following the ‘709 crackdown’ — a large-scale attack against human rights lawyers that began on July 9, 2015 — China has continued to target this small group (about 0.1% of China’s 300,000 lawyers) who have taken on cases to defend basic human rights and other forms of social injustice. While torture and imprisonment have failed to cowe them, the government is now resorting to simple disbarment, or more subtle techniques, like preventing them from getting work so as to force their licenses to lapse, in order to take human rights lawyers off the field. The government regards this group of lawyers and those they defend a threat to communist rule; their determination to eliminate them is meeting with success, and the onslaught appears likely to continue and deepen.
China Change has reported several recent cases of disbarment, such as that of Sui Muqing (隋牧青), Yu Wensheng (余文生) and Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武). The following is an overview of 16 more cases of lawyers who are facing imminent disbarment or forms of harassment that prevent them from practicing law.
This campaign to remove lawyers who defend human rights, or any lawyer who is outspoken or rejects governmental control through the Lawyers’ Associations, appears to be deliberate, coordinated and sweeping. As we prepare the following list, more cases of threatened disbarment have continued to emerge; we will keep our readers updated.
Meanwhile, we are reminded by lawyers we correspond with that many human rights lawyers who face neither disbarment nor inability to practice also face increasing obstacles to doing their jobs: the justice bureaus have demanded that lawyers must report to the bureaus the cases they take on; recent news says that judicial bureaus want to implement a ‘grid-style’ control system over lawyers; Party cells are being set up in law firms; and lawyers are required to disclose to the judicial bureaus their religious beliefs, social media accounts, and other personal information.
As the authorities set about their rectification campaign against rights lawyers and strip them of their right to practice law, plaintiffs in human rights-related cases are having a difficult time finding defense attorneys, a circumstance that is likely to get worse as time goes on.
Lawyers Who Have Been Arrested During the 709 Crackdown
Xie Yanyi (谢燕益)
In April 2018, lawyer Xie Yanyi found that his license to practice law had been marked ‘void’ on the website of the Beijing Bureau of Justice — though he had personally received no such notice. On May 4, the Beijing Lawyers’ Association informed him that a hearing would be held on May 16 regarding his alleged violation of regulations. The notice said that Xie was being investigated for suspicion of violating regulations during his representation of a client in Yinchuan, Ningxia, who was being charged with ‘using an evil religious organization to undermine the rule of law’ (the legal terminology used by the courts in Falun Gong cases).
The authorities have been using the excuse of ‘conducting an investigation into violating regulations’ on a past case simply to provide some pretext for cancelling a lawyer’s license to practice. Xie is the latest victim of this method.
In January 2017, not long after Xie was released on bail, he continued taking on cases at his original law firm, including the well-known case of the Canadian citizen of Chinese heritage and Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian (孙茜).
On Sunday, Xie Yanyi requested postponement of the hearing, stating that his oral and written requests for copying materials that support the so-called ‘violations’ have gone unanswered, and that he is thus unable to defend himself during the hearing.
After being released from prison, Xie penned a “Record of 709” in which he described being tortured while in custody, as well as the authorities’ threats against his wife as a form of psychological torture.
Li Heping (李和平)
During a detention of nearly two years, Li Heping was subjected to an inconceivable degree of torture, including hands and ankles being chained together for over a month. He got through by silently reciting passages from the Bible and thinking how much his six-year-old daughter needed a father. On April 25, 2017, the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court held a secret trial on Li Heping’s alleged subversion of state power. Three days later he received the sentence to three years imprisonment, suspended for four years, as well as the deprivation of political rights for four years. Li declined to appeal. On May 9 the same year, after the appeal period had expired, Li was released and allowed to return to his family.
Li Heping is one of China’s earliest human rights lawyers, having been harassed and beaten by police for his work since 2007. Before the 709 crackdown he worked with a foreign NGO documenting cases of torture in custody and conducting anti-torture training classes.
On April 25, 2018, Li received notice from the Beijing Bureau of Justice that his law license was to be revoked — they said that according to Chinese law and regulations, lawyers who have deliberately committed crimes and been sentenced must have their professional licenses cancelled. Li rejected this explanation and demanded that a hearing be held about his case. On May 7, a man came to Li’s house to sever the notice, and Li scrawled the following on the receipt: “This is a great injustice. This is a false case, a case of political persecution. The truth will ultimately see its day!”
The hearing about Li’s law license will be held at 3:00 p.m. on May 17 at the Sunshine Halfway House (阳光中途之家), a community corrections center in Chaoyang District, Beijing.
Claiming that the case of Li Heping involves state secrets, the authorities announced that the hearing will be held behind closed doors. Nevertheless, we encourage the public, including foreign journalists and diplomats, to attend and observe in solidarity.
Li Chunfu (李春富)
In April 2018, Li Chunfu’s law license, like Xie Yanyi’s, was marked as ‘void’ on the website of the Beijing Bureau of Justice. However, Li has revealed that his law firm is currently handling his social security and medical insurance paperwork. This means he remains an employee of the firm, and the government has no reason to annul his law license.
On August 1, 2015, Li Chunfu was arrested after speaking out on behalf of his brother, Li Heping, who had also been detained during the 709 crackdown. In January 2017 after Li Chunfu was released on bail, it quickly became clear that he had been terribly abused in custody and was suffering a mental breakdown.
Wang Yu (王宇)
In April 2018, Wang Yu found in a search of the records held by the Beijing Bureau of Justice that her professional status was marked as ‘unregistered.’ Her previous employer, the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所), had been disbanded as a result of the 709 crackdown, and Wang Yu had been unable to find a subsequent law office with which to associate herself.
Wang Yu has had difficulties finding a firm to accept her — some law firms have received warnings not to employ her, while others tactfully decline to employ her. In China, a lawyer without a firm is unable to practice; and if they have not found a firm within six months, their license is automatically annulled.
In Wang Yu’s case, as in that of several others, this is a method to disbar a human rights lawyer.
Zhang Kai (张凯)
On March 27, 2018, Zhang Kai of the Beijing Xinqiao Law Firm published the news that his firm had been forced by the authorities to fire him. “If nothing unexpected happens, once I’m laid off there will be no other law firm who accepts me, and in a matter of a few months my law license will be annulled.”
He added: “I will continue to proactively communicate with my peers and the judicial bureaus and do my best not to make trouble for anyone, but if communication truly breaks down, I will be left with no choice but defend my own rights.”
Zhang Kai represented a number of churches in the Wenzhou area during the campaign to tear down crosses from 2014 to 2015. On August 25, 2015, Zhang and two assistants were taken away by police while at the Xialing Church (下岭教堂) in Wenzhou, and two days later placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated place’ (指定居所监视居住) on suspicion of ‘organizing a crowd to disturb public order,’ and ‘stealing, spying, buying, and illegally providing state secrets and intelligence to foreigners.’ Zhang was released on probationary bail in March 2016, upon which he was forcibly taken back to his hometown in Inner Mongolia. In March 2017 his probationary bail was extended another year.
Huang Liqun (黄力群)
Huang Liqun, a lawyer with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, was arrested during the 709 crackdown and released in early 2016. In May 2018 on the website of the Beijing Bureau of Justice, his professional status was shown as ‘practicing,’ while his employer remained the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm which had already been shut down by the authorities.
In March 2017, the lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said that after Huang Liqun’s probation was finished, he requested a transfer of employer but was rejected. The authorities said that he was a party to an ongoing case, and that only after the entire case was finished would his status be modified.
Bao Longjun (包龙军)
Bao Longjun is the husband of Wang Yu and only passed the bar exam and received his law license a few months prior to July 9, 2015, when he too was taken into custody on the same day as his wife. In August 2016, he and Wang Yu were released on probationary bail. He was still technically a legal intern at the time, and is currently unable to find a new law firm to employ him so that he can finish his internship and become a formally credentialled lawyer.
The Defense Lawyers of the 709 Detainees
Wen Donghai (文东海)
Wen Donghai, a lawyer from Changsha, Hunan, was the first lawyer to brave the atmosphere of terror after the 709 crackdown began and act as defense counsel for Wang Yu. He then began taking one sensitive case after another. On October 30, 2017, the Changsha Judicial Bureau dispatched a ‘Notification’ (《告知书》) to Wen, informing him that he had been investigated for “suspicion of disrupting court order and disrupting the normal operations of lawsuit activities,” found guilty, and would be subjected to administrative punishment.
On April 29, Wen made a freedom of information request to the Hunan Department of Justice, demanding that they disclose the work instructions received from Minister of Justice Fu Zhenghua related to the 709 crackdown, as well as information about the meetings held by Hunan judicial authorities about disciplining lawyers. The freedom of information request that Wen crafted included “the specific circumstances of meetings held by your department prior to the Chinese New Year that invited the participation and coordination of individuals in the Public Security Bureau, the Procuratorate, the courts, and the politico-legal commission, regarding the suppression of human rights lawyers.”
On May 10, Wen received notice that the Hunan Provincial Department of Justice was planning to annul his law license, and informing him that he had a right to request a hearing. However, hearings of this nature are merely a formality, have no substantive content, and are designed primarily to provide cover for what is in essence a political punishment.
Li Yuhan (李昱函)
Li Yuhan was arrested in October 2017 in Shenyang, Liaoning province. She was charged with provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble, and fraud. This April Li Yuhan was brought before the court and faces the prospect of a prison sentence and the loss of law license. Li Yuhan has represented Wang Yu during the 709 crackdown and secretly traveled to Inner Mongolia to visit the family with another of Wang Yu’s defense lawyers, Wen Donghai.
Liu Shuqing (刘书庆)
On January 4, 2016, Liu Shuqing, simultaneously a lawyer and a professor of chemistry at Qilu University of Technology (齐鲁工业大学) in Shandong, had his law license cancelled in the aftermath of the 709 arrests. Liu had been a lawyer for seven years, and had taken on cases the authorities consider sensitive, like that of Henan petitioner Gong Jianjun (巩建军) accused of killing a private security contractor; the case of Zhejiang dissident Chen Shuqing (陈树庆) accused of ‘subverting state power’; as well as Wang Yu and others. Liu believes that it’s his involvement in these cases that led to the annulment of his law license. In April 2018 the Qilu University of Technology announced that Liu had “repeatedly made inappropriate expressions,” and his teaching career of 16 years was put to an end.
Cheng Hai (程海)
Beijing-based Cheng Hai is the defense attorney for Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), another 709 lawyer who is still in detention. Cheng also took part, unsuccessfully, in the people’s deputy elections in Beijing in 2016 as an independent candidate. On February 5, 2018, the Beijing Bureau of Justice cancelled the license of Cheng Hai’s law firm, the Beijing Wutian Law Firm (北京悟天律师事务所), on the grounds that it had “refused to participate in the 2017 annual assessment.” Thus, if Cheng Hai does not find another law firm to employ him by August 5, his law license will be automatically annulled.
Huang Simin (黄思敏)
Huang Simin, a lawyer from Wuhan, Hubei, took on the case of Li Tingyu (李婷玉) among others; most recently the authorities have cancelled her license on the basis that she had failed to complete her transfer from one law firm to another. The truth is, Huang had been forced to leave her firm in Wuhan. Her plans to enter a firm in Guangdong didn’t materialize because orders were sent to firms not to accept her. She was then accepted by a firm in Changsha, Hunan. The local authorities there forced that firm to fire her. Currently Huang is currently seeking a solution to keep her license.
Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原)
Liu Xiaoyuan is a partner at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm. Since the 709 crackdown in 2015, though the Beijing Bureau of Justice stated on its website that Liu was ‘practicing’ law, in fact he had been unable to do so for the last three years, and nor was he able to transfer his employment from Fengrui, because, as the authorities say, they’re still investigating Fengrui, and until their investigation is over, no one will be allowed to move onto another employer. This means that Fengrui’s lawyers who have not been otherwise detained during the 709 crackdown will need to wait at least until the case against Wang Quanzhang is finalized.
Wang Quanzhang has been in detention for over 1,000 days now. His wife in February 2017 was informed that he had been formally charged by the Tianjin Municipal Procuratorate with incitement to subvert state power, but his lawyers have not been allowed to see him, and no trial has been conducted. Sources say that Wang has been tortured so badly that he can’t be “shown,” and that this is the real reason the case has yet to be tried, judged, and that Wang is denied access to his lawyers.
Zhou Lixin (周立新)
Zhou Lixin is another partner with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm. Since the 709 crackdown, he’s been listed by the Beijing Bureau of Justice as ‘practicing,’ but is in the same situation as Liu Xiaoyuan: unable to work for the last three years, and no indication of when this situation may change.
Peng Yonghe (彭永和)
Peng Yonghe is a Shanghai-based lawyer. On May 2, 2017, he publicly announced that he was quitting the officially-run Shanghai Lawyer’s Association. After that, he was forced to change law firms, but was prevented from getting new employment, and thus unable to work. The authorities told him on several occasions that as long as he took back his resignation from the Shanghai Lawyer’s Association, he’d be able to go back to practicing law.
In early May 2018, Peng announced that his wife applied for three jobs within the space of around a month, but that ‘relevant departments’ interfered and no one would hire her. Most recently, they’ve been unable to rent in Shanghai, also due to political interference.
Yu Pinjian (玉品健)
Yu Pinjian, based in Guangzhou, has a PhD in law. In September 2017 the authorities demanded that his law firm force him to find another employer. But, in a similar pattern to the other cases, once he left his first employer to transfer to another, the process was interfered with and he was unable to complete the procedures, and it now appears that his law license could be revoked as a result.
“I didn’t do anything,” Yu Pinjian has said on the record, “except for posting a few articles. I didn’t delete them as was told to, and the authorities then wanted to teach me a lesson.” (Yu Pinjian’s article on his public WeChat account, ‘Righteous Person of the Law’ [正义法律人] has already been deleted by censors anyway.)
Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱)
On May 14, the Changsha-based lawyer Yang Jinzhu received a four page Notification from the Hunan Provincial Justice Department of his planned disbarment for “alleged expressions that threaten the national security, using inappropriate methods to influence the handling of cases, disrupting court order, and using malicious language to defame others.”
The first accusation refers to Yang’s article posted in a WeChat group, titled “Lawyer Yang Jinzhu Angrily Fucks the 18 Generations of Ancestors of the Chinese Judicial System,” in which he vented his frustration. “This government ignores the law. The judiciary ignores the law. And when they see lawyers who defend personal rights, they put you in stocks, tie you up, fetter your hands and feet — this, right now, is China’s judicial system!”
A Record of 709， Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017.
The Nightmare – An Excerpt of Lawyer Wang Yu’s Account of 709 Detention and Torture, Wang Yu, November 13, 2017
‘My Name is Li Heping, and I Love Being a Lawyer’, Li Heping, Ai Weiwei, August 21, 2016.
Cataloging the Torture of Lawyers in China, China Change, July 5, 2015.
The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, Matthew Robertson and Yaxue Cao, July 27, 2015.
May 9, 2018
On July 9, 2015, Wang Yu (王宇) became the first target in a campaign of mass arrests against human rights lawyers in China. Over the next roughly two weeks, over 300 rights lawyers were arrested, interrogated, detained, and threatened — thus begetting the notorious ‘709 Incident.’ After over a month in secret detention at a black site in Beijing, Wang Yu was transferred to Tianjin for a continuation of her detention, then under so-called ‘residential surveillance at a designated place’ (指定居所監視居住). For over a year she was not allowed to see her lawyer, family, or communicate with the outside world. Another 20 or so lawyers and activists, including Wang Yu’s husband Bao Longjun (包龍軍), were given similar treatment. During the secret detention and their time in detention centers, they were severely tortured, including by sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogation, forced-feeding with unidentified drugs, beatings, insults, being hand- and foot-cuffed, or having their family’s safety threatened. Some were even placed in cages submerged in water, so-called ‘water cage’ torture. Currently, three individuals are serving prison sentences, three were released on suspended sentences, and all others except one were released on a probationary form of ‘bail.’ Lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has been detained for over 1,000 days, neither sentenced nor released, and no one even knows whether he is dead or alive.
In August 2016, Wang Yu and her husband were released on a probationary form of bail (取保候審), whereupon they were forcibly taken to an apartment building in Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia. There they were reunited with their son, Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓轩), who had previously been coercively removed from Beijing and placed in Ulanhot to continue high-school. In Ulanhot, their movements were closely monitored, they were followed wherever they went, and their apartment was fitted out with an extensive array of surveillance cameras that pointed to their doorway, stairs and in and out of the building entrance. Wang Yu believed that the apartment itself was bugged too. Around a year later they were allowed to return to their own home in Beijing. Now, though they’re apparently ‘free,’ every move they make is still surveilled by the authorities, and Wang Yu has been unable to resume her profession as a lawyer.
Among China’s human rights lawyers, Wang Yu has been called the ‘Goddess of War.’ Prior to the 709 crackdown, she traveled the country taking on all manner of human rights cases. The image of Wang the lawyer in the ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ documentary, handing out fliers about the law under the beating sun in Hainan, left a deep impression of her commitment.
On July 8, 2016, the American Bar Association announced that it had selected Wang Yu to receive its inaugural ABA International Human Rights Award, “in recognition of her dedication to human rights, justice and the rule of law in China.” This news seemed to rattle the Communist Party. The authorities knew perfectly well that the 709 crackdown was an illegal, politically motivated large-scale persecution of human rights lawyers, and that the cruelty of torture methods they used exceed what most people can conceive. They fear the moral support that the international community was extending to the targets of their attacks.
In an attempt to sever such support, in the days leading up to the award ceremony, the authorities forced a detained Wang Yu to record at least two similar video statements castigating and rejecting the award. In one news clip, broadcast on CCTV, China’s state-run central TV, she says: “I haven’t really done anything in terms of human rights, so this sort of award is using me to besmirch the reputation of the Chinese government and besmirch the image of China. Thus, I insist on not approving, acknowledging, or accepting it. Nor will I have any other individual or organization accept the award on my behalf. If, despite my explicit rejection, they force the award upon me, this will be a violation of my human rights, and I strongly protest.”
In another clip broadcast on Phoenix, a state-run TV station thinly-masked as commercial TV in Hong Kong, she sits outdoors with a grass lawn behind her. In front of her are a number of official journalists whose faces the audience couldn’t see. She says, her voice halting: “As far as I’m concerned, this award is using me as a tool to attack and denigrate the Chinese government. I’m a Chinese person; I only accept the leadership of the Chinese government. I don’t want this or similar awards, not now, nor in the future.”
Two Tianjin lawyers claiming to represent her even sent a letter to the ABA, saying that the ABA award constituted an “infringement on the reputational rights of Ms. Wang Yu… Ms. Wang Yu reserves the right to pursue your organization as liable for such infringements.” The letter demanded that the ABA “cease and desist” in giving her the award.
On the basis that Wang Yu was in detention and could not speak of her own free will, the ABA dismissed the ploy and went ahead giving the award in Wang Yu’s absence on August 6, 2016, during its annual convention in San Francisco.
Two weeks after the award, a nationalistic website in China published an article by a “former NGO worker” who claimed to have worked at ABA’s office in Beijing. It described one boss as being lazy and incompetent, and another as rude and lecherous. It portrayed the ABA Beijing office as a place where Chinese employees were discriminated against and where “humanity and dignity…was worthless.” It insinuated, without clear factual statements, that ABA’s activities in China were political and ABA was a tool of the U.S. government being used to instigate a color revolution.
Now we have come full circle: in the book “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China’s system for enforced disappearances” published in November 2017 by Safeguard Defenders, Wang Yu for the first time reveals what she experienced under residential surveillance (China Change has an excerpt). In a new report recently released by the same organization, Wang Yu revealed how she was forced to rebuke and reject the ABA’s award. On television, she appears with a slightly puffy face, sitting outdoors before a grass lawn. In front of her are a number of official journalists whose faces the audience couldn’t see. She says, her voice halting: “I haven’t really done anything in terms of human rights, so this sort of award is using me to besmirch the reputation of the Chinese government and besmirch the image of China. Thus, I insist on not approving, acknowledging, or accepting it. Nor will I have any other individual or organization accept the award on my behalf. If, despite my explicit rejection, they force the award upon me, this will be a violation of my human rights, and I strongly protest.”
The following statement by Wang Yu about this incident is reproduced below with permission.
Wang Yu’s Account
It is difficult to explain, why I went on television, what kind of mental process I had gone through. And until now, I still feel it is difficult to describe, I don’t know how to talk about it. Actually, I do want to talk about it in detail, but I always feel sad. I am still struggling to get over the trauma. But I know I should speak out, even if just in this simple way.
It was about April 2016 and I had already been transferred to the Tianjin First Detention Centre. I had just finished my breast surgery at that time and the guards and interrogators were taking quite good care of me. My interrogator said if I cooperated then my case would be “dealt with leniently.” He meant I could be released soon. They also kept reminding me that my dream of sending my son overseas to study could happen only once I had been released from the detention centre.
How, then, did they want me to cooperate? They said all the 709 Crackdown people need to demonstrate a good attitude before they would be dealt with leniently. They said a PSB [Public Security Bureau] boss would come to the detention centre in a few days and they wanted me to say to him that: “I understand my mistake, I was tricked, and I was used. I denounce those overseas anti-China forces and I am grateful for how the PSB has helped and educated me.” After that, they stopped taking me to the interrogation room and moved me to a staff office where they fixed up space for me to eat and memorise the material my interrogator gave me.
Around about the end of April, the interrogator told me the boss was coming today and that we should make the video. He promised me the video would only be shown to that boss, and it would definitely not be shown to the public. He told me not to worry and just follow the script they had given to me. If I couldn’t memorize it all, then we could just re-record it. They also told me that everyone who was caught up in the 709 Crackdown had already made such videos. I kept asking them to confirm that it wouldn’t be shown in public and they promised it would not. Despite their assurances, I was still very unhappy about having to do the video.
In the afternoon, I was taken to the office again. A few minutes later, a man came in; he was in plainclothes and about 50 years old. A young man in his 20s followed with a camera. They both said something similar to me; something about how they would find a way out for me. I have suffered a lot of memory loss in the past few years so even if I try to remember exactly what happened, I can’t. But I do remember asking him who would see the video and he repeatedly said that it was only for their boss and not for television.
The young man finished setting up the camera, then the older one started asking questions. I don’t remember the exact questions, but it was basically the same as my interrogator had told me to study. I didn’t answer very well, because my memory was bad and also I didn’t want to make the video. I really messed up some of the questions and they had to ask me again and again. After three or four hours, they eventually left.
Some 20 days later, I heard that the so-called PSB boss had said that last video was not good enough and that we had to record it again. So, we recorded it again, but two days later, my interrogator said it still wasn’t acceptable. The next time they came with a camera and a computer, with the script typed into the computer in a huge font size. They wanted me to read it from the screen and look into the camera. We recorded it like this many times and finally they left. But another two days later they came back and said it still wasn’t good enough, so we did it all again. But that didn’t pass either.
It was about the beginning of June, one day before the Dragon Boat festival, when my interrogator told me that another boss was coming and wanted to talk to me. If I behaved well I could get out of the detention centre. Not long after, two men in their 50s or 60s in plainclothes, came in. They surprised me by shaking my hand when they first arrived. Later, I learned they were the vice-director and division chief of the Tianjin PSB. They talked briefly about my health and my situation and then asked me to give a self-evaluation. I said: “Of course, I think that I am a good person and also a good lawyer. I believe in behaving with kindness and I am professional in my work and have always won my clients’ approval.”
After that they often took me to their office to talk with them. They kept trying to persuade me to do an interview on television, but I kept saying no.
In the beginning of July, my interrogator talked to me alone. He said, “Think carefully. If you don’t agree to go on television how will you be able to get out? How will your husband Bao Longjun be able to get out? How will your son ever be able to study abroad?”
I thought hard about it for a few nights. I thought, neither me nor my husband can communicate with anyone from outside. Who knows when it will all end. And my poor son was home without us. We didn’t know how he was doing. Although, my interrogator told me that he had been released and was living in Ulanhot, he might be under surveillance, he didn’t have his parents with him. What kind of future would he have?
I though the two so-called “bosses” who had been talking with me looked like they would keep their word. After speaking with them for many days, I trusted them, and the people around me treated me much better. Much better than when I was in RSDL [residential surveillance at a designated location], where they were very cruel to me.
So, I decided to accept. I just wanted to see my son so much. I thought, if I couldn’t get out my son would never be able to study overseas. I might get out many years later, but by then what would have happened to my son? If he was harmed now, the trauma would stay with him his whole life. I needed to be with him during this stage of his life. I decided that I would do my best to help my son go to a free country and study. He would no longer live like a slave, suffering in this country. He has to leave, he must leave, I thought. That was the most urgent thing. So I had to do it, even if it meant doing something awful.
I also considered the possibility that they might break their promise—and if they did I vowed to fight. So, I said yes to their request to go on television, but only if they released me first. I started practicing the script they prepared for me and we rehearsed it many times, almost every day before I left the detention center.
On 22 July 2016, they went through the formality of my “release on bail.” They took me from the Tianjin First Detention Centre to the Tianjin Police Training Base under Tianjin Panshan Mountain. I stayed there for about 10 days.
They transferred me to Tianjin Heping Hotel and for the next two days I was still under their control. I did the interview in a western-style building near the Heping Hotel a few days later. That afternoon, about 4 or 5pm I was reunited with my son. He hugged me and cried for a long time. I also quietly shed tears.
The next day, my son and I met his father Bao Longjun who had also just been released on bail.
After my release I became very depressed. We were kept under house arrest in Ulanhot. My son and his father often made fun of me because of what I had said on that television interview and I felt very hurt and under a lot of pressure. One time, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked my son, “Would you rather I suffered and went on television so I could be with you, or would you prefer that I didn’t go on television but then stayed in prison?” My son said emphatically: “I want my mum with me!”
Hearing my son say this, I believe that everything I suffered was worth it. This was the only way I could be reunited with my son, so I had to do it.
When I got back home, I gradually began to understand what kind of pain my son had been through over the past year. Such cruelty caused my son to suffer from severe depression and that made me even more determined to settle my son overseas so that he could heal both mentally and physically.
So, this is my story. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I just want to say that my son is everything to me. Perhaps, I had no other choice.
The Nightmare – An Excerpt of Lawyer Wang Yu’s Account of 709 Detention and Torture, Wang Yu, November 13, 2017.
New York Times editorial: Show Trials in China, August 6, 2016.
She was a quiet commercial lawyer. Then China turned against her. Washington Post, July 18, 2015.
China Change, May 3, 2018
Every year, justice bureaus and lawyers’ associations across China demand that lawyers and law firms submit to a “annual review” (年检), held in spring each year, that determines whether they can continue to practice law in China.
Ostensibly, these assessments are aimed at evaluating professional competence and merit — yet their primary function, as far as the authorities are concerned, appears to be aimed at keeping a tight leash on the lawyer class, designated by the authorities as the “opposition.” For more than a decade, it has been used as a tool of pressure to keep human rights lawyers at bay.
China Change recently obtained a copy of the 2018 annual assessment form provided to lawyers in Beijing that demonstrates a codification of this political control. The form requires the following:
- On personal information, it demands: Name, law firm, whether full- or part-time, marital status, ‘political status’ (i.e. whether a Party or Youth League member or hopeful member, or merely one of ‘the masses’), lawyer ID, cell phone, citizen ID, passport number, social media accounts, professional speciality, income during the previous year, current address.
- The section below, on ‘integrity,’ inquires:
- Have you been subject to penalties or disciplinary sanctions by judicial administrative organs or the lawyers’ association?
- Have you been subject to coercive measures by public security organs?
- Have you been criminally penalized (including crimes of commission or omission)?
- Have you been penalized by securities, tax, or social security administrators?
- Have you undertaken employment in violation of regulations in Party, government, or state-owned enterprise units?
- Have you, against the regulations, established offices or branch offices near courts or detention centers?
- Have you been summoned for discussion by public security, justice organs, or lawyers’ associations, for inappropriate comments made on the internet or to media?
- An ‘annual summary’ section then requests a thought report of no less than 500 Chinese characters ‘including but not limited to’ topics like how they have adhered to the Law on Lawyers (律师法) and professional ethics, how many cases they have taken and of what sort, their legal aid work, awards from Party organs and the masses, complaints or penalties by plaintiffs or government departments, and, remarkably, whether they have sought instruction or engaged in collective internal discussion (i.e. with communist authorities, in breach of attorney-client privilege) when handling ‘major sensitive cases.’
All this is a significant change from the requirements of 2017, according to last year’s assessment form also obtained by China Change. That form requests only a few personal details and leaves space for a short summary of the year’s activities.
The annual inquisition has long been a tool of surveillance and discipline. It is administered by municipal bureaus of justice and lawyers’ associations, both of which are instruments of the state. In Beijing, for instance, the Beijing Lawyers’ Association interfaces with individual lawyers and manages their annual assessments, while the Beijing Bureau of Justice renews the licences of law firms.
This dynamic leads to peer pressure, as lawyers who take on sensitive cases are exhorted by their non-activist colleagues to “avoid making trouble for the firm,” according to Liu and Halliday (Liu and Halliday 2016, p. 108). The authors continue: “Accordingly, the live in constant apprehension that their practices and livelihoods will be truncated or their legal careers summarily foreclosed.” (Ibid., p. 91.)
The closest appearance of an official justification for the political use of these annual assessments is in the third requirement for professional competence stipulated in the 2007 Law on Lawyers. The three requirements are that a lawyer has passed the bar examination, has been a trainee lawyer for two years, and is ‘a person of good character and conduct.’ In 2010, Zhou Yongkang (周永康), the then Secretary of the Party’s Political and Legal Committee, apparently drawing on the third criterion, told the All China Lawyer’s Association that people with “bad political quality, professional quality, or with bad legal ethics could not be lawyers.” (Pils 2015, p. 179)
The thrust of Zhou Yongkang’s remarks was further amplified by Fu Zhenghua, a hard-core security cadre who became minister of justice in March 2018. Fu made the following remarks in an internal meeting on April 13, after listening to the verbal report of Beijing Municipal Party Committee Secretary Miao Lin (苗林):
“Beijing, as the capital, has carried out its judicial administration work under the firm leadership of the Municipal Party Committee and Municipal Government, always persevering in the ‘four consciousnesses’, always hewing to the ‘four self-confidences,’ always upholding the grand banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era of Xi Jinping (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), with our work at the vanguard of the nation in every respect. Beijing has endeavored with remarkable results to improve the feelings of contentment, happiness, and safety among the masses in the city, and has achieved much success. For instance, the work of Party construction among lawyers started the earliest, with the lawyers in Beijing being the most numerous in the nation, including major lawyers and law firms. All this shows, from another angle, that the political quality, professionalism, and battle strength of the Beijing judicial administrative corps is the strongest in the country.”
It is precisely the emphasis on notions like ‘political quality’ and ‘battle strength’ that appear to have come down from Fu and informed the vetting of lawyers through the annual assessments.
A lawyer in Beijing, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, shared his views on the updates to the annual lawyers assessment in an online chat with colleagues, saying: “In what manner is this a professional assessment? It’s entirely a political assessment! If we fill everything in per the requirements, then it will be — to use an inapposite metaphor — no different to laying down on the ground, crawling forward on our hands and knees in surrender. This will cause untold trouble in the future.”
He added: “Everyone, share your views as to how we should respond to this.”
“Private personal information shouldn’t be submitted,” another lawyer said. “This way of toying with the law is different to even Zhang Jun [a previous official]. If a few lawyers can make open information requests on this, maybe we can unravel it.”
A third added: “This lawyer assassin and human rights thug Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) becoming the minister of justice really changes things.”
Post the 709 crackdown, it appears that the Chinese authorities have been using straightforward disbarment to take out human rights lawyers. In recent days, lawyer Li Heping (李和平) received notice of impending disbarment; lawyer Xie Yanyi’s (谢燕益) license status is said to have been revoked on the official website of the Beijing Justice Bureau, but he’s received no notice of such; lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) has not resumed practice and her inquiries have gone unanswered.
More lawyers are facing imminent disbarment as a result of their work in defending human rights and fighting a upward battle against abuses of the law. Even more lawyers are now looking upon this year’s “annual review” with concern and fear.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January 24, 2018.
May 2, 2018
The following is an essay by Liu Xia’s longtime friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) explaining the circumstances of the phone call and providing an excerpt of the call for the first time. — The Editors
‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom to Liu Xia
Liao Yiwu, Chinese writer in exile
On April 30, 2018, at 4:00 p.m. in Germany, I spoke to Liu Xia at her home in Beijing. She said: “Now, I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. If I can’t leave, I’ll die in my home. Xiaobo is gone, and there’s nothing in the world for me now. It’s easier to die than live. Using death to defy could not be any simpler for me.”
I felt like I’d just been shocked with a jolt of electricity. I told her to wait. I know that the Chinese Ministry of State Security agents that have been holding her under house arrest, since Xiaobo passed away last July and Liu Xia was forcibly taken to Dali in Yunnan for a while, have been promising her, again and again, guaranteeing that she’d be able to leave the country and seek treatment for her deep clinical depression. First they told her to wait until the 19th Party Congress was over; next they told her to wait until the conclusion of the ‘Two Sessions’ in Beijing in March of this year. On April 1, before Liu Xia’s 57th birthday, the German Ambassador called her to convey Chancellor Merkel’s special respects, and invited her to play badminton in Berlin before long.
According to my information, in early April the German Foreign Minister had already made specific arrangements, including as to how they’d not alert the news media, how they’d covertly collect Liu Xia at the airport, and how they’d arrange her treatment and recovery and more. In my own calls with Liu Xia, I sought Liu Xia’s opinions many times, and discussed the matter in meetings and correspondence with good friends Herta Muller, Harry Merkle, Carolin, Silvia, and the international representative of Liu Xia’s photographic art Peter Sillem. We went over every possible detail. Due to Herta Muller’s support, the Literature House in Berlin was willing to provide her an apartment for an interim period. Carolin said she would host a poetry reading for her, while Silvia were going to help her enter a residency program. Peter Sillem had already reached out to hospitals and experts on her behalf.
We’ve all been patiently and quietly waiting.
We’ve all quietly awaited this special patient.
Liu Xia has no criminal record, and according to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, she has the freedom to travel wherever she wishes.
We’ve been low key about it because after Xiaobo’s death, Liu Xia has been devastated, and the clinical depression she had suffered for years came back worse than ever, driving her to the brink of mental collapse. As long as she is in China, we have no way of looking after her. When Liu Xia told Xiaobo that a special rescue squad in Germany (including the 82-year-old Wolf Biermann and wife) were working to help them, Xiaobo, dying, was moved to tears.
In my April 30 conversation with Liu Xia, I said I’d no long keep it quiet. I will take action, and I will selectively reveal some truth that I have been holding back. I said to her that I would publicize her cries, which was uncontrollable even with her taking large doses of antidepressants, in the evening of April 8, 2018. She said yes.
The following statements were transcribed from audio recordings of our conversation that evening. In the first instance, I called and poured out my concern: I feared that Liu Xia would once again be ‘disappeared.’ I worried that the Chinese government would do the same as they did last year when they announced that Xiaobo and Liu Xia didn’t want to leave the country. Luckily I had her handwriting attesting to the opposite, and remarkably this became the strongest evidence that punctured the lies.
I insisted on Liu Xia writing another application to leave the country, and at first Liu Xia demurred again and again. She then panicked, after that threw the phone down. I waited a little while and called her back, and she cried out in tears:
“The German Embassy knows all about my situation. The whole world knows. So what’s the point of me writing those things again and again?”
“But what you’re facing is very special… the German government has been in discussions about this all along…”
“I don’t have anywhere to send it from. Nor do I have a cell phone nor a computer.”
“OK. That’s OK.”
“You know we don’t have all that stuff, but you still want me to do this and do that…”
“Over here, we…”
“So I’ll write it tomorrow and hand it in tomorrow. You can record it now: I’m so fucking angry that I’m ready to die here…. If I’m dead, it’ll all be done with…. It’s obvious that I don’t have all the ways and means in hand….”
“That foreign ministry spokesperson said that you fully enjoy all the provisions of Chinese law…”
“I know all that. You don’t have to repeat it. I’m not an idiot.”
“OK. Let me tell you about the arrangements: after we get you over here, we’ve got a place called the Literature House where you stay for a while and then apply to join an arts program. At the moment, the responses everywhere are very positive, and everyone agrees that this should be done very quietly….”
I couldn’t go on, because Liu Xia was crying non-stop. The audio recording went for 16 minutes and 30 seconds. I excerpted the first seven minutes, and at about the four minute mark played over it the piano solo “Dona, Dona.” I felt waves of emotion well up inside me. When I turned the music off, I yelled out “Liu Xia!” Her crying abated and she said: “After the German Ambassador called, I started packing. I wasted no time — what more do you want me to do?”
The general meaning of the lyrics is: a calf is being brought to the butchers, a swallow is flitting around above its head. The calf thinks to itself: If only I could turn into a swallow with wings and fly away, how grand it would be. Unfortunately, the calf is not a swallow.
Like her husband Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia had a passion for works related to Holocaust. Liu Xia even said that she felt she’d been a Jewish person in her previous life.
Dona, Dona became a byword for genocide: the millions of Jewish people were the calf after calf, resigned to their fate, being led to the slaughter. Please, people, with Liu Xia, it’s Dona, Dona now, and please allow me to use Liu Xia’s sobbing as its new lyrics……
Dona, Dona, give her freedom.
Dona, Dona, please cry out loudly for her.
Composed in the late Berlin night on April 30, 2018.
我如遭電擊，我說再等等。我知道，長期監管她的國保警察們，自去年7月曉波剛走，劉霞被強制挾持到雲南大理期間，就開始許願，一而再，再而三地許願——保證讓她出國治療深度抑鬱症。先是吩咐等到中共十九大召開之後，接下來是吩咐等到今年3月的人大、政協兩會閉幕之後。在4月1日她57嵗生日前，德國大使還致電給她，轉達了默克爾總理的特別問候，并相約不久後在柏林打羽毛球。據我所知，4月上旬，德國外交部已經作了具體安排，包括如何不驚動新聞界，如何將她從機場接到某一隱蔽地點，安排治病和調養等等。而我自己在通話中，也多次徵求劉霞意見，又多次與好友赫塔▪米勒（Herta.Müller）、哈瑞▪麥克（Harry Merkle）、卡羅琳（Carolin）、西爾維亞（Silvia），以及劉霞藝術攝影的全球代理人彼得▪西冷（Peter Sillem）聚會和通信，事無鉅細地溝通。由於赫塔的張羅，柏林文學之家願意為她提供過渡期公寓，之後，卡羅琳答應為她舉辦一場詩歌朗誦讀會，西爾維亞答應替她聯繫一個在歐洲的入住計劃，而彼得已替她聯絡好相關醫院和專家。
我們低調是因為曉波走了，她深受刺激，多年的抑鬱症再度加重，使之瀕臨崩潰，而她在國內，我們沒法照顧她。劉霞曾告訴垂危的曉波，他倆在德國有我們這個特別救援小組 (其中還包括82嵗的沃爾夫▪比爾曼 Wolf Biermann 夫婦)，曉波的淚水奪眶而出。
Yaxue Cao, April 17, 2018
On April 10, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi (translated roughly as ‘quirky skits’) app and website. In its announcement, the authorities denounced the app and its public WeChat account as having an “improper orientation and vulgar style” that supposedly “evoked the great disgust of netizens.” Though the Chinese government has closed numerous popular entertainment websites over the last couple of years, the targeting of Neihan Duanzi triggered a storm of discontent, and observers said that the authorities had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.” The episode has brought to wider attention a large, little-known group in society, and observers are trying to grapple with its social and political significance.
Neihan Duanzi is primarily a mobile app on which users share inside jokes and absurdist videos. The platform first appeared on the website ‘Today’s Headlines’ (今日头条), also known in its pinyin form ‘Jinri Toutiao’ or Toutiao, in May 2012. The parent company that created both the app and the website, Bytedance, writes on its homepage that “We are building the future of content discovery and creation.” Neihan Duanzi was in fact the first product of Toutiao, predates the latter by three months, and quickly recruited the app’s first group of users. By 2017, Bytedance, established just five years prior, had leapt to number 41 on the official list of China’s Top 100 Internet Companies.
Neihan Duanzi encompasses a variety of short video sketches (funny, moving, musical, playful, and cute videos), genius retorts or responses (脑洞神评论, highlighted comments on Neihan Duanzi), hilarious images, and humorous sketches of all taste and manner.
The joke culture in China is a huge market. According to Bigdata Research’s 2nd quarter 2017 China joke app market research report, as of the end of June there were over 28 million users of these apps, a year on year growth rate of 5.7%. Bigdata Research notes that in July 2017 Neihan Duanzi was the most popular in this universe of apps, with 21.7 million users. Searching for ‘Neihan Duanzi’ in QQ groups, another popular Chinese social media platform, shows hundreds of chat groups dedicated to it.
Toutiao boasts a market value of over $20 billion. With its combination of data mining and AI algorithms that draw on user profiles and interests, its apps make targeted recommendations for news, music, movies, and games, and attract a massive inflow of users. Toutiao currently reports having 600 million active users, with 120 million daily actives.
Protests by ‘Skit Friends’
Neihan Duanzi’s enormous user base skews young. They call themselves ‘skit friends’ (段友), and organize ‘skit gatherings’ (段友会) in many cities, big and small, in China. They have formed their own online and offline communities, and have their own coded language. Many of them have Neihan Duanzi-inspired bumper stickers, sold by numerous merchants on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.
Videos shot by Neihan Duanzi users show the amusement they derive from greeting one another with coded messages in public: beeping, opening car trunks, and citing their codes back and forth. Some of the best known phrases include the likes of: “When skit friends go to battle, the grass ceases to grow” (段友出征，寸草不生); “Beer and crayfish, skit friends are one family” (啤酒小龙虾，段友是一家); or “Heaven king conquers earth tiger, chicken stews with mushrooms” (天王盖地虎，小鸡炖蘑菇).
Clearly, these interactions are a source of tremendous enjoyment and entertainment for the participants.
After Neihan Duanzi was closed, videos of previous gatherings of skit friends began to be shared widely online. Several of them show the remarkable scene of dozens of cars arrayed in formation late at night, together sounding out the calling card of the community: ‘Beep. Beep beep.’
According to Radio Free Asia, protests against the closure of the platform have taken place in Nantong (南通), Changsha (长沙), Yingkou (营口), Wuxi (无锡), Beijing (北京), and elsewhere. Protesters use the ‘beep, beep beep’ signal to initiate communication, which is met with response beeps and double blinking of car lights. Footage of the public events is often shot with drones and uploaded (here, here, and here.)
During a skit friend assembly of unclear date in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, about 200 people formed a circle and, like the students of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, held their cellphones aloft as torches and sang. The chosen piece of the night was popular singer Wang Jianfang’s ‘On Earth’ (王建房《在人间》):
Maybe I can’t win over Heaven and Earth.
Maybe I’ll hang my head and weep.
Maybe a June snowfall will enter my heart.
There’ll be a Berlin Wall I can’t get over.
Suffering will neighbor me all my days.
What has the grand era already snatched from you?
Who lives on earth as though it’s not a prison?
I won’t cry. I’ve no more dignity to abandon.
When the day comes that those dreams drown in the crowds
Don’t be sad, let them go, and sing this song at the funeral.
‘On Earth’ has come to be known as the theme song of Neihan Duanzi, and renditions of it have been widely spread on the platform (here, for example).
The CEO’s Apology
On April 11, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) issued “Apologies and Reflections.” “Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].”
His confession confirms that the real reason for shutting down the app is political — what young people are consuming and how they are entertain themselves are not to the liking of the Party. “We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.”
The young CEO with an engineering background promised to “[strengthen] the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the ‘four consciousnesses,’ socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.”
He also promise to strengthen content review by humans, raising the current number of review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons. That is, for each person hired for content production, almost two are hired for review and sales, according to one report.
Last week, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the online viral video as an entertainment form, saying: “In a society where it’s easier and easier to get clicks, at the same time that internet videos give the public novel experiences, because some of the content has no bottom line, some of these clicks spread poison and harm the public, especially young people.”
The same editorial cited an unnamed ‘expert’ who said: “These internet video websites get hundreds of millions of viewers, allowing ‘demons and goblins’ to warp the value system of adolescents, turning it into a trend to imitate and copy.”
An April 13 (unverified) work instruction from the Changsha Municipal Public Security Bureau Intelligence Command Center was circulated online, saying that four gatherings of ‘skit friends’ took place on April 11 in the city, and that the provincial public security bureau demands “public security organs in every locale engage in a thorough search for an evidentiary trail and online detection work, prevent assemblies that would lead to hype and unstable factors.”
As for skit friends gathering on the streets or in public spaces, the Zhejiang Haimen Public Security Bureau said in an April 8 announcement: “Any citizens convening crowd-style assembly activities must act strictly according to legal provisions,” or else “public security organs will pursue legal responsibility against the responsible parties.” The notice invoked “Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations” (《中华人民共和国集会游行示威法》) the “Road Traffic Safety Law” (《中华人民共和国道路交通安全法》), and the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” (《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》).
Chinese young people generally pay scant attention to politics and they have been criticized for ‘amusing themselves to death.’ But entertainment has, it appears, come to give the Communist Party a severe headache. Using the phraseology of Xinhua, the jokers are seen as ‘demons and goblins’; their whimsical, irreverent attitude is seen as a strong rejection of autocratic authority and control. Perhaps, inside the ruling party, this movement has given rise to a strong sense of unease — not to mention that the style of humor itself is at times imbued with the implicit wish for freedom and dignity. We could even say that these young people are a ‘new form’ of Chinese person, the first generation to have been born and come of age entirely in the era of reform and opening up. They are the digital generation. They seem to take a great deal of pride in their own idiosyncratic way of life.
The news outlet Duowei, whose political allegiances have always been ambiguous, cited unidentified ‘voices’ who explained that the fundamental reason the Communist Party shut down Neihan Duanzi is because the app’s user base had begun to look like an embryonic political movement. Users are spread across China’s provinces, in small-, large-, and medium-sized cities; they come from all walks of life; they have formed their own community, with attendant slogans, signals, and an initial form of behavioral standards (such as the ‘three don’t laughs’: no laughing at natural disasters, no laughing at man-made disasters, and no laughing at illness). Between them, skit friends have a strong sense of cohesion, identity, belonging, and group honor. One of their slogans is ‘skit friends are one big family,’ and ‘if you’re in trouble, find a skit friend.’ The Party is afraid of all of this.
Searching on Baidu for + (城市+段友会) brings up related organizations almost anywhere. On rear windshields and car bumpers in cities around the country, Neihan Duanzi slogans can be seen. Photographs and videos from their meetings indicate that skit friends often have their own vehicles, and sometimes camera-equipped drones. In some cities they even have clubhouses.
It’s being pointed out that these skit friends grew up on shoot-em-up video games. Now that they have a chance for real conflict, they think it’s exciting. Shutting down Neihan Duanzi shows these young people the pain of having their freedom stripped away — it’s that simple.
The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gave an example of shooting oneself in the foot on Twitter: “Before the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak lost power, the Egyptian government at one point cut off the internet, leading to countless people who were happy to be at home playing video games to take to the streets… everyone knows what happened next.”
Dissident writer Hu Ping (胡平) noted that “Xi Jinping doesn’t like ‘vulgarity’ among the masses, and wants to force men, young and old, to all be ideologically acceptable to the Party. This is a peculiarity of totalitarianism. Vulgarity is an important part of life, and if the regular people in society still have the space to enjoy humor, it means that the power of the state has not yet infiltrated everything and everywhere.”
Another dissident and author Li Xuewen (黎学文) believes that, “simply in the context of China’s new totalitarianism, the slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users set a worthy example for all who oppose the regime. Relying on internet culture to create a set of mobilization slogans is highly novel; and with a few horn beeps crowds can be gathered, as the symbols of an online community are shared and used as codes for mobilization — these qualities have not been seen in any mainland resistance movement to date.”
An Twitter user in Changsha said that on Tuesday when he was out walking in the evening, he spotted two cars near his home with ‘Neihan Duanzi’ and ‘Douyin’ (抖音, another app by Toutiao) stickers.
Another Chinese Twitter user, location unknown, posted on Friday: “Today I personally heard skit friends beeping at each other. One can feel the undercurrent. Maybe a big era has begun just like that.”
Beep. Beep beep.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
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