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January 3, 2017
This Q & A can be read as a companion piece to the Guardian report. It focuses more on Dahlin’s work, the interrogations, and the legal features of his case. Given that China’s “Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations” took effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective. – The Editors
CHINA CHANGE: Peter, you are a Swedish national; on January 3, 2016, you were taken into custody by Chinese national security agents for allegedly “endangering national security.” It was not until nine days later that the international press reported that you had been disappeared on your way to the Beijing airport. Then, on January 15 and 19, the Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency reported your detention. On January 19, in a CCTV news section, you “confessed” that you “violated the Chinese law through your activities here, caused harm to the Chinese government, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” While it was appalling and a pain to watch, people also laughed because everyone immediately recognized that these were forced words. On January 26, you were deported and barred from entering China for the next 10 years. A lot went on over this 23-day period, and we hope to unpack it for our readers. First of all, please tell us how events unfolded on January 3, 2016.
PETER DAHLIN: I was taken in a raid on my home in Beijing late that evening, not on my way to the airport as reported. The misunderstanding is easy to see, as I had notified a few people in the press- and diplomatic corps that I might not make it out, leading people to assume I must had been taken at the airport.
Earlier that day, I heard that high-up officials in the Beijing domestic security police were inquiring about me, following accusations against me made by individuals who had at that time been held in ‘residential surveillance’ from several months to half a year. Less than 10 hours after I heard about that, State Security showed up at my home, with search and detention warrants for both me and my girlfriend.
For a few weeks we had been in a ‘heightened risk situation,’ knowing that something could happen to me or others. We had been taking precautions, clearing out and processing paperwork, tying up loose ends, and doubling down in IT-measures. I had not only heard stories from those who had been through detentions before, but as a form of preparation also read books like the great but unfortunately-titled In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon with stories on interrogations, secret detention, torture etc. This was of course the first time I myself was taken, but over the years there had been many similar situations, and thus this procedure to prepare had been undertaken numerous times before.
In this case, I took the preparation a bit further than normal. Since similar situations of heightened risks had happened numerous times before, besides our normal organizational procedures, I also had my own. In those cases I would keep a small overnight bag packed next to the bed, with passport, some clothes, medicine, and money, along with shoes and a jacket, and more or less have memorized the night flight schedule out of Beijing – if I ever got the message or call that an action against us was being taken and would need to try to leave the country. In this case I was already scheduled to leave China just a few days after I was taken, but moved my flight up to that very same night, and packed as much as I could – knowing that if something happened and I managed to get away, I would not be able to return and would have to start anew somewhere. In the end, the raid on my home happened just a couple of hours before I was set to leave for the airport.
CHINA CHANGE: I admit that, even though I’ve been a busy human rights and rule of law advocate for the last three or four years, I had barely heard of your organization — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (中国维权紧急援助组). So there is quite a bit of mystery around it. Can you describe your organization’s activities in China? A New York Times report mentioned seminars, legal aid work, and training sessions. The Chinese state media portray your activities in dark, conspiratorial and menacing terms. Help us demystify them.
PETER DAHLIN: The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) was in operation from 2009 until early 2016, and it ran a number of different programs concurrently. It was largely unknown, as we operated quietly, and even though parts of the international rights community, and much of the press and diplomatic corps knew of us, we did not allow anyone to publicly speak about us, keeping our profile as low as possible while still being able to cooperate with others. A few reports linked on our dormant Twitter account are about the only public information available.
Since its founding, China Action has responded to attacks on lawyers, journalists, and other rights defenders, especially women defenders, but perhaps our main focus has been on training and capacity development for rights defenders. We have specialized in barefoot lawyers, with the goal of strengthening the legal movement and civil society, to develop the rule of law and improve protections for Chinese citizens.
Our founding program was the urgent action program, working to arrange lawyers for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk and to provide needed financial assistance for victims’ families, ranging from support for housing, medical bills, or a child’s education. We paid special attention to women HRDs and grassroots activists who often lacked the network and support of more high-profile defenders. We did this both on our own as well as in partnership with international and regional organizations. Later on, for the last few years, we have also had a subsection of that program to specifically address and arrange help for those with mental health support needs after detentions, kidnappings, interrogations etc.
Although primarily about direct support, through the urgent action program we also engaged in limited advocacy measures around priority cases, which involved ensuring diplomatic attention in Beijing or foreign capitals and communication with relevant human rights special procedures of the United Nations, and participation in the Universal Periodic Review of China, both alone and in collaboration with international organizations.
Many people may not be aware that governments and institutions in the EU and other countries have been offering assistance to Chinese state actors involved in the judicial system, such as police, judges, or prosecutors, in developing the “rule of law” (rule by law really), which is important. At the same time, at least until recently, there was a growing number of international and in particular Hong Kong-based organizations that provide financial assistance and training for licensed rights defense lawyers who work on public interest and rights defense cases. Unfortunately this approach has left a key group without any support. Due to financial or geographic limitations, the majority of rights abuse victims in China must rely on unlicensed barefoot lawyers, and yet this is precisely the group that has been most left out of the majority of rule of law development efforts. This is why we focused on barefoot lawyers, and our work was more preventive than reactive, with focus on training and capacity development to address the gaping hole in access to legal aid, especially among rural or poorer Chinese citizens.
CHINA CHANGE: Speaking of barefoot lawyers, Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) immediately comes to mind. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was a barefoot lawyer too in his early rights defense activities. Another example is Ni Yulan (倪玉兰). These are citizens who are not licensed lawyers, but who seek to defend rights through legal means. This is fascinating. Tell us more.
PETER DAHLIN: Because they are not licensed, the barefoot lawyers can almost never take up criminal cases. But in China, the main procedures for defending rights against government abuse are administrative laws and regulations, and this is where any citizen can get involved (although legal efforts by the State to limit their ability to take on cases continue). Barefoot lawyers can thus be both self-taught legal activists as well as lawyers who have lost their licenses. The work takes the form of filing lawsuits against government bodies responsible for illegal behavior such as torture, arbitrary detention, or forced evictions and demolitions. Barefoot lawyers have also taken the lead in testing and pushing the use of China’s 2008 Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information (《中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例》), scoring many successes. As a result, we have witnessed increased use of the Regulations in defending human rights.
In order to improve barefoot lawyers’ knowledge and practice of the Administrative Law, information disclosure regulations, and other procedures, China Action has run a number of different training programs since 2009. For example, our programs ranged from in-depth week-long training sessions in administrative law, shorter trainings on information disclosure, to specific legal issues, depending on the needs of target beneficiary groups.
To maximize the result and output of the main program, we designed the program in what we believe was both an innovative and cost-effective way:
A rights defense lawyer and an experienced barefoot lawyer would be responsible for each in-depth legal training session, selecting a group of participants from a cohesive area, along with guest teachers. Of those trained in these in-depth sessions, which would also include training in freedom of information (FOI) regulations, we would then select from the best of more suitable students, and arrange for them to, on a more local level, arrange their own shorter training in FOI or another specific legal topic. Thus the larger and more extensive trainings would give us a pool of local teachers for such smaller trainings.
When needed, a lawyer or barefoot lawyer in our network would attend those local trainings to assist. Finally, from the group trained in these shorter local trainings, the trainer would select the most dedicated participants and offer support for them to organize their own local trainings at the most grassroots level, to extend the output among the trainee’s friends and fellow barefoot lawyers.
This triple layer system allowed us to not only extend our results to the most local levels in a relatively low key and safe manner, but to ensure significant multiplier effects, all while keeping the costs very low.
Another key aspect of the training activities was about nurturing mutual trust among participants, which is part of the reason our training groups were never larger than 10 people, and always drawn from a coherent geographic area. This is especially important for barefoot lawyers who tend to have experience with only one or two particular legal issues. In this way, drawing a group of 10 barefoot lawyers from, say, Shandong to spend a week of in-depth study together would create new connections and expand their effectiveness, as they can build a mutual support network when dealing with issues outside their area of expertise. Each group would also get a direct connection to both the rights defense and barefoot lawyers arranging the training, greatly expanding networks for us as an organization, as well as for the participants, who would get a direct link to a mentor from who they could seek guidance.
The organization designed its own curriculum for these training and capacity development activities. A large part of that has included creating practical self-study guides with the beneficiaries, pairing the experts with the beneficiaries to create not only practical guides on, for example, information disclosure regulations or administrative detentions, but also manuals that deal with what the beneficiaries actually want. This approach would seem obvious, but looking at a lot of the material available, it often seems it’s produced by experts telling the readers/beneficiaries what they think they should know, instead of developing the material together with the group itself.
Finally, connecting the urgent action program and the training and capacity activities, the organization has also been working, on a small scale, to set up what we referred to as ‘legal aid stations’ around the country run by barefoot lawyers to enhance access to justice. This third core component thus consisted of barefoot lawyers who would receive training in issues ranging from arbitrary detention to information disclosure, alongside minor ongoing financial support, and they would then provide pro-bono assistance to victims in their respective regions. Many of these cases would have clear public interest components to them.
CHINA CHANGE: During your custody, did the Chinese security investigators tell you which of these activities are illegal and endangering China’s national security?
PETER DAHLIN: We always assumed that their key interest would be our work with urgent actions, and they certainly had a very strong interest in knowing which lawyers had been engaged for different cases, but their key interest turned out to be the barefoot lawyers we supported to provide pro-bono legal aid. They wanted to know about our ‘legal aid stations.’ When we first started, each station had several staff and an office, but beyond the very beginning stage, the aid was actually carried out by only one individual lawyer. However, we kept internally referring to them as ‘legal aid stations’, meaning State Security at first assumed that they were local branches of the organization, which of course was not the case at all.
They also had an interest in the various training activities, many of which over the years had been shut down by either local police or provincial state security. They found a few questionnaires from one of those trainings (distributed at all training activities for evaluation purposes), and found that some of the answers were rather anti-Party. That wasn’t helpful.
In general though, my own placement under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ was mostly because of the incompetence of State Security. They had been led, wrongly, to believe that I was personally involved in a list of activities, which I was not, and could easily prove I was not.
A key focus of my interrogations was lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), who has now been held in secret custody for over a year. Wang and I worked closely for many years, but we parted ways and haven’t worked together since early 2014. Our work was regarding holding trainings, offering informal mentoring to local lawyers, providing criminal defense for those facing trial, and developing training materials. It would be a stretch even for the State Security to argue that any of these was bad for China, let alone being illegal.
CHINA CHANGE: You said that Chinese security organs had been monitoring your organization’s activities before your detention. Can you expand on that? How did they do so?
PETER DAHLIN: Beginning in 2013, a co-worker was repeatedly summoned by another branch of State Security for long sessions of questioning. Using carrots and sticks, State Security tried to make this person a ‘mole,’ who would continue working with us but report to the police on me, my co-founder Michael Caster, and lawyers we worked with, or any others who worked with us. State Security asked this co-worker to make copies of documentation the person had access to, and any work I gave this person to do. On several other occasions we found that either I or Michael Caster had come up in police questioning of rights defenders we had worked with.
CHINA CHANGE: You were detained in what’s essentially a black jail for 23 days, and you said you were interrogated every day. I’m always interested in knowing the questions they asked. Do you think you can go into more detail about your interrogations?
PETER DAHLIN: Overall, the interrogations were made harder by two facts: They found almost no paperwork in their raids, and their disappointment was visible when they raided my home. But they had taken in up to five people in this operation (and I also assumed that these people had been taken, although initially I could not be sure) and they were getting (some) information from them, which they used as leads for their interrogation of me. Three earlier partners had at this point been missing for many months, placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’, and numerous other staff and partners, (then-) current and previous, had been detained and/or questioned throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2015.
However, all core organizational aspects, details on projects, financing etc., have been the domain of only myself and Michael Caster. Others have been involved only in parts of a project or projects, without details on the organization as a whole. This was not what State Security had assumed early on. Making it clear that this was the responsibility of myself and Michael was imperative to lessen the burden on other staff and partners.
Michael was not in China at the time of the crackdown. I, being a Westerner with, I assumed, strong diplomatic support, felt a much greater sense of security than any Chinese national would. This, alongside with much information, accounts, banking etc., being based outside of mainland Chinese jurisdiction, also gave me a good position.
Thus, claiming to focus only on the administrative aspect of our work, and having poor Chinese language abilities, I could convincingly claim to only know the general outline of our work, but not the specifics for each project, and this approach allowed me to protect others.
I could, and did, also maintain the line, which is also true, that all our work had one thing in common, namely to enhance the practical application of law, that is, improve the enforcement of law, which is lacking greatly in China. We did not even involve ourselves in advocacy to improve the law itself, but focused on simply bringing practice in line with the law, especially on provincial and local levels. Even though the law is not meant to be followed to some extent, having this focus should logically decrease how and to what extent we are seen as a threat.
Despite this approach to limit what I needed to say, they did utilize extensive technical forensics on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, USBs, etc. Everything stored is done so in encrypted form, and they never got the passwords to access those. On the other hand, using file recovery programs they could access parts of documents that had been worked on, deleted, etc. What they could get was limited, but they were able to gain access to some new documents or parts of documents every day.
This meant that I had to plan my interrogation keeping in mind to limit information, remove details such as names, locations etc., while at the same time make sure not to say anything that might be contradicted by the document they might have the next day. Keeping this in mind late at night after hours of questioning was perhaps the hardest part, but due to preparation it went fairly well. Basically, I had to make sure not to directly lie, but also make sure to not give out information that could be used against me or others.
The first 24 hours, I was under detention and not residential surveillance, they asked about my background, family and education, a few coworkers, and they also brought up the names of Wang Quanzhang, Xing Qingxian (幸清贤) and Su Changlan (苏昌兰). The first three days were handled by a ‘bad cop’ interrogator, who overplayed his hand and made me uncooperative, since I don’t respond well to being forced. After that, a ‘good cop’ took over most interrogations. All along I knew my girlfriend, who has no connection to my work, was sitting in the same facility somewhere, unable to give them anything, which at least at first I assumed State Security would think of as being uncooperative and possibly take measures to try to force non-existent information out of her.
For the first two weeks there was, on average, one session per day, lasting usually five to six hours, often held throughout the evening and night, with some minor variation. Later on they would accompany those with what I came to think as ‘fireside chats,’ with the ‘good cop’ coming into my cell, opposite to the interrogation room, to have informal chats. He’d offer cigarettes and an occasional Nescafé. These fireside chats would allow for more philosophical discussions, and for me to offer more extended explanation on why I disagreed with this or that.
Later on, one interrogation session would also double as a lie detector test, or ‘psychological test to enhance communication’ as they framed it. They attached electrodes to my fingers and used specialist cameras on the pupils, asking me a combination of test and real questions. The guy brought in to administer it couldn’t quite get it working, and in the end they didn’t seem to get anything from it, and stopped it for the last part of that interrogation session.
They used an interpreter at the interrogations, but as time went on they started to shed that charade, since the interrogators had far better English than the interpreters.
Two weeks into my detention, they realized that neither I nor China Action was related to the alleged crimes of Xing Qingxian and Su Changlan. They also realized we did not work with Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所), and had had no partnership with Wang Quanzhang for years. On top of that, upon learning that the activities I developed and worked on with Wang were related to provision of legal aid, training lawyers, and developing training materials, they must have realized that these would not be all that useful to smear him or convict him of any national security crimes.
They also became aware of my medical condition and just how serious it was. Not wanting to have a dead Western human rights activist on their hands, they paid close attention to my condition for the rest of my custody, which limited what methods they could use against me. I also knew that media broke the story after the first two weeks, and it was quickly gaining momentum, as I had expected it would. I realized that media had broken the story because the interrogator asked me one day about the reporter, Megha Rajagopalan at Reuters who first wrote about it. The annoyance and anger was very clear.
It must be around this time that they decided to eventually deport me and move on. For the remaining days, they tried to get from me as much information about how NGOs work and about civil society in general. Of course I would also be used as a propaganda tool against foreigners, civil society, and NGO work. For the last week or so the amount of interrogations dwindled, and besides some more “fireside chats” I was just killing time waiting for the next step in the process. This mostly consisted of staring into the suicide padded wall, spending time doing some basic calisthenics, and trying to remember Bob Dylan lyrics. His song “Love minus zero / no limit” was especially helpful to keep my mind occupied for a few days. Each day and every minute was feeling longer, not shorter, and it started getting to me.
Many people who talk on the subject of solitary confinement mention that at some point your thoughts turn to suicide. It was never a serious consideration for me, but yes, at some point I spent hours analyzing the room and considering the possibilities for committing suicide. The padding and setup was so meticulous, though, that I realized it was not going to be possible even if I wanted to.
CHINA CHANGE: The reports said that your organizations received grants from various sources, the largest donor being EU, but the Chinese seem to have a fixation on NED – the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. How is that?
PETER DAHLIN: The EU was by far our largest donor, but my interrogators had almost no interest in this fact. Instead their focus was on NED, whose support to us, being crucial for one of our key programs and the organization as a whole, was nonetheless limited to a few hundred thousand dollars through the five years the program ran. To some extent they were also interested in rapid response assistance groups like Front Line Defenders. Me pointing out that the EU had supported numerous training activities for Chinese state actors, and that we were basically just doing the same for barefoot lawyers perhaps made them realize focusing on the EU angle would be more difficult in terms of painting it as a crime, a threat to national security, or in general play the ‘anti-China forces’ card. At this point they had also stopped trying to paint me as an EU spy.
Specifically, they wanted me to admit that NED was guiding us, that they were the ones giving orders on what we should do. I think this was partially because it’d fit their narrative, but also (to a lesser extent) because they don’t understand the grantmaker and grantee relationship. Likewise, they liked to refer to the barefoot lawyers we support as our ‘branches.’
Naturally they also inquired about other organizations, like International Service for Human Rights, who provides training on international law related issues (outside of China), and various groups based in Hong Kong. They however had very little information on our work with such groups, and it passed as a topic of conversation.
State Security became aware of our ‘legal aid station’ work from an internal NED document they somehow had access to, but the document did not contain names or exact locations, so a fair amount of time was spent on interrogating me about who these lawyers were. The names of some of the lawyers were provided by coworkers, and later documents they retrieve through file recovery work on hard drives etc. provided the legal aid station lawyers’ names. In the end, State Security gathered enough information about it, and it was the first program to be shut down as we started closing the organization after my deportation.
CHINA CHANGE: I have read a fair amount of interrogations of Chinese human rights defenders, and the interrogators always want to know whom they are connected to. I imagine they want to know every single person you have worked with or known in China.
PETER DAHLIN: They seemed to place a lot more interest on people than the work. They asked about a long list of people — some appeared in documents they had found, and others whose names had come up during interrogations of someone else. They wanted to know who attended our trainings, but they seem to accept that, due to the breadth and amount of our work, I could not have retained names of attendees of various trainings in my head, or even which teachers had been involved in what trainings. They also asked me about people simply because they are well known HRDs, key rights defense lawyers, and NGO workers. But I maintained, as I had done earlier, that my work focused on administrative issues and, having poor Chinese, I had very limited knowledge of most of these people, except for a few which they already had evidence that we had worked with directly.
They assumed that we would have connection with domestic NGOs, but that was in fact not the case. Likewise, our cooperation with international groups is limited to a handful of groups. They spent considerable time trying, but got very little on that topic. Same with the Fengrui Law Firm and people like Wang Yu and Li Heping, with whom we have had only limited contact.
They spent considerable time trying to convince me that some coworkers had ratted me out and I should respond in kind and come clean, basically that all blame was being placed on me, and if I didn’t defend myself my fate would be far worse. This mostly just triggered my Churchillian instinct. When they realized after repeated attempts that I would do nothing but defend them, they gave up. I remember repeating the same line over and over again: These people “not only constitute the best China has to offer, but people any nation should be proud to have as their citizens.”
CHINA CHANGE: The television confession — tell us what that was like.
PETER DAHLIN: Toward the end, when it became clear that deportation was likely, a late night final deposition was made in the interrogation room which basically summarized the key points they had learned from interrogations of me and others.
The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.
The next day, in the early evening, the ‘good cop’ walked into my cell. Cigarettes and small talk. He said a panel of judges would decide on my fate, whether bringing charges or deportation. The best way, he said, would be to record an interview on camera for them to review. Knowing that they already finished the active investigation and would not get any more information by an interview, that my girlfriend would be kept for as long as I would, and that only with my deportation would she be set free, and also knowing that time was ticking in terms of my medical condition (by that time I had already lost some 5-6 kilos), I said yes.
What followed is easy to imagine. He came back with a paper with both questions and answers written down, which in their mind ‘summarized’ our discussions over these weeks. Some arguments followed as they wanted me to call Wang, Xing and Su criminals, despite none of them having been tried. My refusal was finally accepted and some changes were made.
When I saw the final line on that paper, “having hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” I realized that the recording was obviously for CCTV, though they had never said so. Later, when I was led into a meeting room, also part of the same secure wing as the cell and interrogation room, I saw the CCTV ‘journalist’ and her cameraman.
The CCTV lady was about my age, perhaps slightly older, not overly friendly, but relaxed and someone with obvious experience as an interviewer. All the key State Security people, maybe 8 of them or so, were sitting in the back behind myself, the CCTV woman and the camera man. We ran through the questions and answers pretty quickly. The only hiccup was saying that final line on hurt feelings. After the 4th attempt the ‘journalist’ said to me, “you really don’t want to say this, do you?”
However, that line on hurt feelings is a key reason I agreed to do it despite knowing it was for CCTV and PR. It’s a well-known meme in the China community, and I knew that everyone would know the true nature of the ‘confession’ when they heard that line. Basically, including that line negated the whole purpose of it, from the point of view of the international community, and to some extent, inside China too.
CHINA CHANGE: Following your deportation, the Beijing-based lawyer and legal scholar Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) penned a commentary, taking issue with the legal procedure of your deportation. He said that the deportation order should have been made by a court if you were guilty of a crime, or by the PSB or national security agency if you were found to have violated an administrative statute but had not committed a crime. Your case had never been brought to a Chinese court, and yet the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that you confessed to having committed “the crime of funding criminal activities that endanger China’s national security.” She, a government spokeswoman, convicted you of two crimes in one breath! I bring this up because the arbitrariness of the entire episode highlights precisely the importance of your organization’s work and the work of those barefoot lawyers and human rights defenders. It’s so basic – it’s the ABC of ABC of the rule of law, yet it’s not acceptable to the Chinese government and it’s demonized by state propaganda.
PETER DAHLIN: As far as the law is concerned, I was placed under residential surveillance and investigated for violation of Article 107 — using foreign funding for illegal and subversive activities. But besides accusing me of supporting Su Changlan’s alleged protests and of me being the mastermind behind Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun’s alleged crime of taking Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, across China’s borders, they could not really pinpoint any activity that I had undertaken that would be illegal (besides illegal business operations, which is not a national security crime). And I had nothing to do with these two incidents anyway.
Their argument that actions supported by us would challenge national security, based on the National Security Law, is easily dismissible. They did spend time picking on our operating in the mainland without registration, and thus failing to pay tax, but that was not the crime I was accused of and it seemed just a minor issue for them.
In the end, I was deported under the new Espionage Law, but was not allowed to receive any documentation of any kind about any step in the legal process against me: the list of confiscated items, the house search, personal search, detention, residential surveillance, deportation, and the ban from entering China for 10 years — nothing.
Also, deportation under criminal charges would require a court decision, with notification to the embassy, myself, and the allowance of a lawyer, even if only a state-appointed one — but none of those things happened. That would render the process itself illegal, since deportation can only be decided by the police if it’s part of an administrative punishment, and if the latter is true I would first have to be released from criminal detention and moved to an administrative detention facility. Even with the world watching, China’s police and justice system couldn’t even operate, despite having such a wide range of tools and exceptions available, within their own law.
CHINA CHANGE: The way your case was dealt with, the Chinese law is apparently irrelevant despite all the rhetoric of the state media about the law being served. What do you think your real ‘crime’ is anyway? The Global Times said you stepped on a red line, what’s the red line?
PETER DAHLIN: Well, it’s hard to know who claimed I had participated or directed actions that led to “crimes,” as all of these people remain detained and incommunicado. So what led to the action being taken, I don’t know.
What can be said is that nothing that I was doing in 2016 was any different from, say, 2013. What earlier led them to want to monitor and keep tabs on us now meant they wanted to take us down. That would be in line with a general harshening of the climate, a greater focus on “anti-China” or “foreign forces” in their work to counter civil society growth, and also seeing an opportunity to use me as a tool concurrent with the new law and regulations on foreign funding and NGO operation.
CHINA CHANGE: Before and around the year 2008, the international community was euphoric about China embracing international norms. I remember there was a catchy phrase in those years in state media: “China and the World Joining Tracks” (“与世界接轨”), about China’s supposed integration into the world order. Today you don’t hear this phrase anymore and China’s outlook has changed. Many independent NGOs have been shut down over the past couple of years. You came to China almost 10 years ago as a young man, and 10 years later you were expelled as a national security threat. Do you have any final thoughts as we conclude this Q and A?
PETER DAHLIN: Outsiders are slow to react and adjust their thinking, which I guess is natural. However, it will become harder and harder for outsiders, including politicians, to keep up the charade that China is continuing its peaceful rise and, if only incrementally, developing a system of laws, and therefore creating a better society. The longer Xi Jinping stays in power, the harder it will be to continue to pretend things are developing in the right direction — but few nations want to be the first to reverse course in how to develop ties and interact with China, especially if economic ties are threatened. Luckily, China is so inept at PR that their threats against sovereign nations who seek to change course are becoming clearer, with the UK being a good example. Not even the Tory party can pretend anymore, as seen in the report they released (The Darkest Moment).
Despite having my life’s work, in a professional sense, thrown into the garbage, and the fact that my lifelong medical condition came from my time in China, I’d still say it was worth every bit despite the risks. We cannot publicize the specifics of our work, especially on urgent actions, but knowing the results for myself was enough to motivate me to continue. Even if the positive results we saw as a result of our interventions were cut in half, I’d still say it was worth it all. Sometimes you’ve got to “put your money where your mouth is,” as they say, and I believe I did that.
June 6, 2016
China Change just marked its third anniversary on June 4, and here I am, writing you our second “Dear Subscribers” letter. It’s a relief that I don’t have to explain what we do at China Change, as you know us well enough, and value us enough, to have us delivered to your mailbox. It’s an incredible honor.
Over these three years we have made over 300 posts, all original content. We have steadily grown in viewership and repute. People keep telling us the work we do is important — and we agree, or we’d be doing something else.
Our most popular posts reach 10,000 page views, and our less popular ones have a few hundred page views. But the value of a post is not always in the number of clicks.
The last time I looked (in late March), we were read in 195 countries and territories. I couldn’t believe it: Are there that many countries and territories in the world?!
We see China Change as a public service, and just like any service, we have strived to give our readers satisfaction, both in information and style, and we hate to waste your time.
But before we are a service to our readers, we are first of all a service to the dissident and activist community. Yes — China Change is for “them,” and they know it, even though they may not read us as attentively as you due to language obstacles.
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As we grow, our advocacy has also grown organically beyond the website itself. Take Ilham Tohti, for example. As the only website that translated a body of his work and interviews, we moved on to take part in a campaign to nominate him for the Sakharov Prize. Similar examples abound.
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, China Change has been around for three years. But we are in need of additional help to maintain a healthy operation, and to do a few extra things that we have learned to do well.
In this letter, I want to make an appeal particularly to those among you who are affiliated with organizations that support human rights. A small grant from you will go a long way for us. We run a tight ship, and we make a strong impact — so be assured that your gift will be well spent.
I look forward to hearing from at least one or two of you!
Yaxue Cao, founder and editor
(Overworked, tired, I forgot to sign off the first email.)
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two)
June 4, 2016
Wu: Another find that was very exciting was to discover the chief of staff of the 38th Group Army’s 1st Tank Division. This chief of staff led the spearhead of that tank division, the 1st Regiment of armored infantrymen and the 1st Regiment, the very first tanks to arrive in Tiananmen Square, including the three tanks involved in the massacre at Liubukou. This chief of staff was eager to carry out orders and show his “politically correctness.” In all the military propaganda materials celebrating his “heroic achievements,” he was only ever referred to as “Chief of Staff Yan.” They described how he repeatedly ordered for forcing advancement, and his troops shot dead a student attempting to obstruct them outside Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now the Communication University of China). So I had a very strong wish to identify this chief of staff. But despite countless searching, I had never found the man’s name.
There were a total of five regiments in the 1st Tank Division. The 2nd and 3rd tank regiments, and the artillery regiment, were led by the division commander and political commissar — they were the remaining units that followed. The division commander and political commissar acted completely differently. Like a lot of the other martial law troops, they encountered obstruction and interference by citizens as they advanced toward Tiananmen, but they weren’t willing to smash through and hurt people. So they simply stopped, and only arrived at the Square on June 5. They didn’t participate in the clearing of the Square, and had no involvement in the massacre.
A Taiwan publishing house is going to put out the Taiwanese version of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth this year, so I made a round of revisions for that, correcting a few minor errors, and also did some more searching for a few tricky pieces of information that I had never been able to solve. The name of Chief of Staff Yan was one of them. As I searched, I came across a Yan, the division commander of the 38th Army Group’s Sixth Tank Division. My intuition was: this is my man! Yan Hongji (闫红计) is his name! I was able to confirm the connection with more searching. I’d poured countless hours into figuring out this person’s name and whereabouts, and in this round of revision I found the answer. I was so excited. This happened not long ago.
CC: Mr. Wu, you often refer to the book One Day During the Martial Law (《戒严一日》) in your book about the troops. Can you talk a little about this book?
Wu: One Day During the Martial Law was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department and published in 1990. This is the most valuable official publication about the Tiananmen incident. It consists of two volumes and was an anthology of over 100 articles by as many authors, all of whom are named along with their service post and military rank. Each of the authors records their participation and experience in the enforcement of martial law. Some of them write about how they helped the common citizens, others discuss their marching into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. Among them there were commanders and political commissars of army groups, but also regular soldiers. Apart from a few policemen from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the vast majority were all soldiers and officers involved in martial law. The value of each piece is different, but overall this book provided many leads and clues for my own research. From a historiographical perspective, the official documents are extremely accurate, better than individuals’ memories, when it comes to times and places, although other details of the events may be concealed or distorted.
Not a month after this book was published in 1990, it seems that the military realized that it revealed too much, so they retracted it, making it a “banned book.” Later they published an “abridged edition,” which was shrunk into a small pamphlet with huge chunks deleted.
CC: I assume it goes without saying that you consult the full version.
Wu: Right. In early 1990 when I’d just arrived in Hong Kong, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Monthly (《当代》) Ching Cheong learnt about my interest in researching and recording June 4, so he gave the book to me. He was once the Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (《文汇报》).
CC: You mentioned another book, Defenders of the Republic. Tell us about it.
Wu: This is official propaganda material, also published between the latter half of 1989 and 1990. A year after the June 4 incident, this form of propaganda was put to a stop; evidently an internal decision was issued to cease it, because they knew there was nothing glorious about it, and it would only draw more criticism. On June 4, 1990, Yang Baibing (杨白冰) and the General Political Department wanted to put on a massive celebration, but Li Ruihuan (李瑞环), the then head of Communist Party propaganda and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, dissented. Yang was furious. Li said that it wasn’t his order, but from the top — from Deng Xiaoping, obviously. So from that point on basically all celebration and propaganda about the suppression vanished from official sources.
The sub-title of Defenders of the Republic is A compilation of the deeds of heroic troops and model soldiers enforcing martial law in the capital — that’s the kind of book it was. There are about a dozen or so similar books. I asked friends in Beijing to dig them out for me. Some were brought over to the U.S., other were scanned and sent.
CC: Out of the 200,000 martial law troops, you verified and listed the identities of over 3,000 soldiers in your book The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. You’ve taken an enormous amount of time to identify them, and yet it’s only 1.5% of the total. Why did you put so much time into finding and verifying these names?
Wu: Of the hundreds and thousands who experienced the June 4 massacre, I may be one of a few who has a background in historical and documentary research. From the perspective of recording history, to ensure that a massacre like this is properly recorded, we must have the victims, as well as the perpetrators. Since the Communist Party’s founding of its regime, a huge number of people have died in its political movements. For instance, in just the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries in the 1950s, official figures say that 2.4 million were executed. Is there a name list of these 2.4 million people? No. Who sentenced them to death? We don’t know that, either. The political campaign closest to June 4 was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and official Communist Party documents acknowledge that it was a “calamity,” and vaguely say that millions of people suffered unnatural deaths. But who are they? Wang Youqin (王友琴), who also graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades — her record is still extremely limited.
I feel that when it comes to June 4, if I don’t do this kind of recording, then with the passage of time the massacre will become just like the Cultural Revolution, or any other political campaign, and end up with no legitimate historical record.
In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, my chief task was to search out information about the perpetrators. The work of the Tiananmen Mothers for so many years has been to seek out and record information about the victims. They have a list of those who died in the massacre, and so far have recorded and verified the names of 202 victims. This is still quite far from the real death toll, but the work they’ve done has already been extremely difficult.
CC: Let’s not forget that these 200,000 martial law troops are a huge group of witnesses, and most of them are of the same age as the student protesters. When we say “the 1989 generation,” we have to keep in mind that they are the other part of the 1989 generation. Are there any in their midst who have spoken out about June 4?
Wu: Yes, they are indeed a huge group of witnesses, but so far, only two out of the 200,000 have come out, using their true identity, and spoken about their experiences. One is Zhang Sijun (张四军), a soldier with the 54th Group Army and now a veteran living in his home province of Shandong. He has been detained several times and harassed for speaking online about 1989. According to my research his testimony isn’t that valuable, but morally, it’s significant. If a large number of them testify, we would know so much more about the massacre.
CC: Imagine a few thousand of them doing this.
Wu: The other is Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李晓明) , who headed a radio station of the Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. He was what we call a “student-officer” who enlisted after graduating from college. Following his discharge, he went to study in Australia and became a Christian. He held a press conference and spoke about his experiences. It is from his testimony that we learned about another general who disobeyed orders, in addition to Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army.
That was Xu Feng (许峰), commander of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. I had done so much research, and I discovered the passive resistance on the part of General He Yanran (何燕然), the commander of the 28th Group Army, and Zhang Mingchun (张明春), the political commissar, but I had known nothing about the division commander. Because of his refusal, he was disciplined and discharged after June 4. I have wanted to know his whereabouts and what happened to him, but I have never found any more about him despite my efforts.
CC: What about the commander and the political commissar of the 28th Group Army?
Wu: They were both demoted and removed from the combat forces. Zhang Mingchun was demoted and reassigned to deputy political commissar of Jilin Provincial Military Command, and He Yanran the deputy commander of Anhui Provincial Military Command. Zhang Mingchun died a year after being demoted.
CC: This is probably a no-brainer question, but I’ll still ask anyway: Have you received any comments, publicly or otherwise, from the PLA after you published The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth?
CC: I’m sure there are reactions that are just not reaching you.
Wu: They would definitely purchase the books and give them to certain people to read. Not no one has told me anything. On the other hand, the authorities haven’t come out to say: this book is wrong here and there, or it’s nonsense.
CC: I saw some news on Twitter a while back saying you’d be taken “ill” for a while. Can you talk about that?
Wu: I worked at the Press Freedom Herald for 15 years and then wrote for 10 years, and I’ve always been healthy. I fell ill for a period because of the emotional and psychological toll of my work. There’s a famous saying about 1989: “Dare not forget; don’t dare to recollect.” I had been immersed in everything about 1989 for more than two decades. I’ve collected a photo gallery of 9,000 images, each one of them full of blood and passion. Take the clearing of Tiananmen Square: When I was writing about how 11 students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou, an incident I personally witnessed, tears would stream down my face, and I would crying bitterly by my desk. Finally, beginning in the latter half of 2010, while I was going over the draft manuscript of my third book, something went wrong — I succumbed to depression.
My original plan was to publish it in May of 2011, and I knew that I had to work every day in order to meet the deadline. But every time I opened the computer I just sat there in a daze. I couldn’t write. I’d go out for strolls, or chat idly with friends, but I couldn’t enjoy distraction either, and had to return to my desk. This dragged on for a long while. So I had to stop working and think of a way to solve the problem.
In addition, a lot of my friends know that I’d been paying out of my own pocket to get these books published, and relying on meager royalties to get by. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally, I’ve been separated from my family, and especially my mother, for 22 years. It’s hard to put into words how much we missed each other. She knew my situation, and never said anything disheartening in all my years calling her. She’s never said: Son, I miss you, I’m old, come back and see me. She’s never said that. So when I found myself unable to work, I said to myself: I need to see my mother; it’s been 22 years, she’s 85 years old. Maybe I’d be able to write again after I got back.
Up to that point I had not taken up American citizenship, nor had I planned to. I always wanted to be a Chinese citizen, and record this massacre as a Chinese citizen; oppose dictatorship as a Chinese citizen; and contribute to democratization of China as a Chinese citizen. As a historian, my PRC citizenship had an added significance. Young people might dismiss my old fashioned sentiments. But in the end, in order to go back and visit my mother, in late 2010 I decided to become an American citizen. After that I quickly got my American passport.
CC: How about the visa?
Wu: That’s another story. In order to stop people like me — who are banned from the country — from getting a foreign passport and coming back in, the Chinese authorities required all ethnic Chinese, whether mainlander, or from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, to submit their original passport when applying for a visa after becoming an American citizen. That’s how they would get your original Chinese name.
I spotted advertisements in the World Journal for a service to handle Chinese visa applications. I picked one and called the number. Sure enough, they accepted cash, and they took care of the visa. It wasn’t cheap: for $1,200, I could get a visa without having to provide an old Chinese passport.
I picked one of the services. A male clerk asked me a few questions, and then got down to it: are you involved in politics? I said nope, that I’m a Wenzhounese who got smuggled into the U.S., and that I didn’t have a passport at the time. Wenzhou was a known source of illegal immigrants. I was accompanied by a friend who also came from Wenzhou, so we chatted in Wenzhou dialect. He believed the story and asked me to write down my Chinese name. I came up with Wu Yanhua (伍彦华), matching Yenhua Wu, the English spelling of my name — it was spelled this way on my documents when I left Hong Kong in 1990. He asked nothing else: no address, phone number, or reason for visiting. When I got the visa two weeks later, I was worried it was fake.
Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books.
CC: You can’t go back anymore?
Wu: No. Now that they know, they won’t give me visa anymore.
CC: My last question has to do with Wang Weilin (王维林), the Tank Man. There have been different versions of who he is. What’s puzzling is that, so many years have passed and the image has become so iconic — how could there be no information about this man whatsoever? I want to hear your take on him.
Wu: As long-time researcher on 1989, of course I’m very interested in finding out who he is and what happened to him — the man in the white shirt and shopping bag in each hand who, on the morning of June 5th, stopped a formation of tanks. Wang Weilin, as many believed, is not necessarily his name. Videos show that he was spirited away by a few men off the street. For many years the story went that he was dragged away by good people and once on the sidewalk disappeared into the crowd, and safety.
But a couple of years ago, an academic specializing in body language studied the video and concluded that those who took the Tank Man off the street were not ordinary bystanders, but trained personnel. He believed that the Tank Man fell into the hands of the Chinese military or police.
When this analysis came out, the Voice of America was very interested and consulted me for my comment. In their studio in Los Angeles, I watched the video over and over again. It was a couple of seconds longer, and revealed the scene: there was nobody on the sidewalk, and dozens of tanks were parked in the area. That means that it was an area secured by the martial law troops, and there could be no large crowds anymore. I had to agree with that professor that the Tank Man ended up in the hands of the soldiers or the police.
We already know that protesters who were captured after the clearing of the Square were beaten badly with batons or the butts of rifles. For example, Gao Xu (高旭), a student of Shanxi University who was captured on June 5, was tied to a pillar at the Great Hall of the People and beaten so badly he ended up blind in one eye.
In the case of the Tank Man, he was seen as highly provocative in that he not only tried to stop the tanks, but even climbed on one. So he would be treated even more brutally in the hands of the troops. My sense is that he was probably beaten to death. Otherwise, in the age of internet, we would have heard something.
CC: Recently a friend said that they’d heard from a credible source, that at the time of the June 4 massacre, the PLA had killed students in the parks near Tiananmen—Zhongshan Park and the Worker’s Cultural Palace. I momentarily thought of Wang Weilin.
Delving deep into the full truth of June 4 is still such an arduous task, so we thank you so much for your studies. I agree with Mr. Yan Jiaqi’s assessment: This isn’t merely the pursuit of one individual, but a contribution to all of China.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, January 15, 2013.
By China Change, published: February 25, 2016
Retired Chinese real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang (任志强), known as “Cannon Ren,” fired at Xi Jinping after Xi’s tour of China Central Television. Xi Dada’s opinion warriors are now all over him, outdoing one another to see who can work themselves into the biggest frenzy. – The Editors
The first article in the attack against Ren Zhiqiang, “Why Must Netizens Teach Ren Zhiqiang Lessons About the Party?”, appeared on Qianlong.com, a website sponsored by the propaganda department of the Beijing Party Committee. Then it was republished on the website of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China. The author, Li Jiming (李吉明), is a member of the Party and a former “National Excellent Teacher” who now serves as an official in the organization department of the Fengquan District Party Committee in Xinxiang, Henan:
On the morning of February 19, CCP Central Committee General Secretary Xi Jinping made an inspection tour of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television. That afternoon, General Secretary Xi hosted a conference on news media work at the Great Hall of the People, where he emphasized that party- and government-sponsored media are battlefronts of the party and government’s propaganda work and must be considered part of the “party family” . . . .
Despite its short length, the slogan “party media belong to the party family” is actually a very clear statement of the responsibilities and mission of today’s media to set the direction of news and opinion. But as all news practitioners begin intensively studying and implementing General Secretary Xi’s words and making it their duty to build a harmonious and united media environment, there are some “party members” who have no consideration for party spirit and who don’t obey the party’s constitution and disciplinary rules. Instead, they spout nonsense, give distorted interpretations, seek confrontation, and spoil everything with their antics.
For example, the night after General Secretary Xi’s speech, Ren Zhiqiang—known widely online as a “Big V” [i.e. influential] opinion leader and “outstanding member of the Communist Party”—posted on Weibo: “When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government’? Does it run on party dues?” Then he wrote: “This isn’t something that should be changed so casually!” “Don’t use taxpayers’ money to fund things that don’t provide them with services.” Shortly afterward, Ren Zhiqiang again exclaimed: “Have we split completely into two camps? Once all the media is part of one family and stops representing the interests of the people, then the people will be cast aside and left in some forgotten corner!”
As soon as Ren Zhiqiang posted these things, he was immediately attacked and ridiculed by many people online. One netizen even went so far as to point out Ren’s errors in posts under the heading “Teaching Ren Zhiqiang About the Party.” In them, he criticized this “outstanding member of the Communist Party” for not knowing that a defining characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party is that the party and the people have always been consistent and united, for being unaware of the fundamental relationship between the party and the government, and for failing to understand that, as the governing party, the Chinese Communist Party occupies a leadership role throughout society. Ren’s ignorance on these matters is utterly ridiculous!
As a party member and “Big V” opinion leader, Ren Zhiqiang not only fails to understand that “there is no concept of the party that is removed from the concept of the people, and the people are not separate from the party”; he’s even forgotten the substance of Xi Jinping’s speech on “maintaining the spiritual unity between the party and the people.” In his attempt to please the public and seize attention by providing distorted interpretations, smashing the cooking pot [from which he eats] and pushing the wall [i. e. confronting the authorities], he has let his party spirit die out and his humanity run amok.*
The same day, another critique was posted on Qianlong.com titled “Where Does Ren Zhiqiang Get the Nerve to Oppose the Party?”:
Commercialization of the media has inevitably confronted it with problems of survival. As competition has intensified under market forces, it’s easy to wind up in a situation where you cozy up to whoever feeds you. Especially since the recent rise of social media, some traditional media have been facing serious challenges. In response, media outlets resort to unscrupulous methods of seeking profit and spread rumors and publish clickbait to increase their hit counts. They keenly wallow in the cesspool of the false, ugly, and harmful in order to attract attention and are willing to become the running dogs of capitalism for the sake of advertising revenue. Just consider the recent cases of fake reports by New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou, the case of 21st Century Media’s CEO Shen Hao (沈颢), the punishments for executives at People’s Daily Online, and that presenter at a certain television network who tweeted support for Tibet independence and the democracy movement. All these demonstrate how some of our media and media practitioners have already lost their party spirit and abandoned their mission of serving the people and become slaves to money.
If the media doesn’t get clear about whom it serves, it can never be truly for the people. By emphasizing the party spirit of the party media, we also emphasize that it is for the people. The essence of Comrade Xi Jinping’s speech is the unity of the party and the people. How can Ren Zhiqiang turn such a simple and clear principle into opposition between the media and the people? Has Ren Zhiqiang forgotten about the line in the party constitution about “persevering in serving the people wholeheartedly”? We have to ask, where does a party member who gives no heed to the party constitution get the guts to brazenly oppose the party? Where does Ren Zhiqiang, who likes to phone leaders at all hours of the night,** get the “courage” to object like this?
For those members of the capitalism-restoration gang like Ren Zhiqiang, after they seize control of capital resources they try to use that capital to control the political regime. Their goal is to take the Western constitutionalist road and finally realize a long-term position for their capital. During this process, they use their resources to control the media, which they use as a crucial bully pulpit to prepare and arrange public opinion for capitalism. How did the former Soviet Union fall? First to fall was the media. We should take a lesson from others’ mistakes: when the party media starts disregarding the principle of party spirit and no longer belongs to the party family, then everything’s bound to become part of the “capitalist” family.
It’s inevitable that those of Ren Zhiqiang’s ilk would get all worked up over the emphasis on “party media belong to the party family,” since this undermines their efforts to methodically topple the system. This is a battle for position along the media front. Gunsmoke fills the ideological realm. It’s a non-stop bayonet fight. Faced with this gang of public intellectuals who tries to chip away the system every day, we must use the principle of party spirit and the idea of serving the people to strengthen our barricades. For too long our media haven’t dared to promote party spirit, as if doing so might be seen as a violation of so-called freedom of the press. However, if we remain faithful to the general principle of serving the people, what’s to fear from being a “member of the party family”? As for Ren Zhiqiang, there’s no need for us to teach him anything more about party spirit. Eventually, this “Cannon Ren” who speaks for capitalism—this “outstanding member of the Communist Party” who separates himself from, and tramples over, the people—will sooner or later turn into a dud.
On February 24, commentator Wang Dehua (王德华), who writes for Xinhua, Global Times online, and China Youth Daily online, published a piece on China Youth Daily online titled “The Sinister Intentions Behind Ren Zhiqiang’s Idea of ‘Party vs. People’”:
As a party member, Ren Zhiqiang ought to have a deep understanding of the unity between party spirit and the people’s spirit. Our party is of the people and for the people, and it relies on the people. To be part of the party family is to be for the people, so if the media is part of the party family then it, too, is for the people. This is as provided in the PRC constitution. This made-up idea of “two camps”—of opposition between the party and the people—is an attack on the fundamental structure of the Chinese polity.
For Ren Zhiqiang to so brazenly oppose the party’s policies and plans clearly falls under the category of improper discussion of central decisions. To negate the media’s membership in the party family is to eliminate the party’s right to ideological leadership. To concoct this idea of “opposition between party and people” is to break up the revolutionary camp; at its essence, it challenges the party’s legitimacy. The cannons may be pointed at the media’s relationship to the party, but if the media is not part of the party family then, based on the mistakes of the past, China’s collapse will be not far behind. Ren Zhiqiang’s speech threatens the nation’s political security and is a violation of the National Security Law. To tear apart party, government, and people like that is the stuff of Western constitutional democracy.
On February 25, the news portal of the party committee and provincial government of Jiangsu published an article under the name Mao Kaiyun (毛开云) entitled “Ren Zhiqiang is the Shame of Over 80 million Party Members”:
Ren Zhiqiang is a classic member of the “Red Second Generation.” He grew up under the party’s loving care and later grew rich under the party’s wise leadership and correct policy direction. There’s a saying: “He who drinks the water shouldn’t forget he who dug the well.” But Ren Zhiqiang is an ungrateful person—he knows neither where he came from nor where he’s going. Ren Zhiqiang was born in 1951 and has already retired. That someone of his age doesn’t yet understand the basic principles of life shows that his condition is incurable. For many years, Ren Zhiqiang has been unaware of the kind of path he’s been following. He surely could talk about business as a businessman, but the things he has been saying about the housing market and property development make officials really angry and leave ordinary people desperate. Who’s to blame when he angers people at both ends?
For the past couple of years in particular, Ren Zhiqiang first challenged the central leadership of the China Youth League, saying that we’d been misled for over a decade by their slogan of “We’re the successors of Communism.” Now he’s gone against the central leadership of the party, hollering: “When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government’? Does it run on party dues?” Ren Zhiqiang could have taken the easy, sun-lit path; instead, he insisted on taking the dark and difficult path. Now that he’s reached the end of that path, people are asking: “How did Ren Zhiqiang turn out this way? Is this worthy of his ‘Red Father’ and his ‘Red Family’? How could such a ‘Red Family’ produce such a degenerate?”
Faced with “Where Does Ren Zhiqiang Get the Nerve to Oppose the Party?” “Why Must Netizens Teach Ren Zhiqiang Lessons About the Party?” “Ren Zhiqiang, Have You Forgotten that Line in the Party Constitution?” “Sorry, I’m Unwilling to Call Ren Zhiqiang ‘Comrade’” and other denunciations, not only does Ren Zhiqiang not recognize his errors; he’s actually chosen to consult with legal specialists and wants to sue the authors of these pieces, the website on which they’re published, and the institutions that sponsor those websites! However, people truly don’t understand: what’s he going to sue them for? It’s all nonsense! What’s more likely to happen in the end is that Ren Zhiqiang sends himself to prison!
Ren Zhiqiang hasn’t responded directly to the attacks and threats made against him, but netizens consider this February 22 Weibo post to be a kind of reply: “A board of directors is empowered by shareholders to manage and run a company on their behalf. But the company still belongs to the shareholders, not to the board of directors. Everyone knows that!”
Over the following two days, his Weibo appeared as if nothing had happened. But he quoted a few lines from the classics, perhaps as a form of response:
You can split the rock, but it will retain its hardness; you can grind the cinnabar, but it will retain its redness.” — Annals of Lü Buwei
When the arm of the scale extends without favoring one side or the other, you call it balanced; when a guideline extends without being crooked, you call it correct. — Huainanzi
On February 25, Ren’s regular Weibo was blocked, and he sent a message through what looks like an alternative account of his: “I woke up this morning to find that my Sina Weibo had been blocked, so I came here to say Hi.”
*This is not a mis-translation: the author seems to imply that Ren’s free expression of humanity is a result of loss of loyalty to the party. He can’t be more correct: Loyalty to the party kills humanity. – The Editors
**In his memoir, Ambition and Elegance (《野心优雅》), Ren Zhiqiang writes: “In the autumn of 1964, I was admitted into the Beijing No. 35 Middle School. This school’s most famous graduate is Wang Qishan, who was a student political counselor during my second year of middle school. He himself was about to graduate from high school and was the student political counselor who stayed with us for the longest. I kept in touch with him while in school, when I went down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and after I returned to Beijing to work. To this day, he will still occasionally call me in the middle of the night.”
A New Regime, Not a New Country, By Ren Zhiqiang, October 3, 2015.
Liu Shihui, human rights lawyer, September 16, 2015
The Chinese stock market crashed again today (September 15), with multiple market indices reaching their yearly lows. As they plummeted, Xi Jinping’s dream of a heavy-handed market rescue was irreparably shattered.
As the economy enters a quagmire, Li Ka-shing (李嘉诚), the richest man in Asia, and many other tycoons are pulling their capital from China. Xi Jinping now has no means of restoring prosperity, and in the midst of internal and external pressure, the Party is trying to drive exports to Europe and America. The hope is that exports will inject some energy into the stagnant Chinese economy, stirring up modest signs of life.
At this point, the Chinese Communist Party isn’t feeling as confident as it was during the American subprime crisis in 2008. Back then, it was America asking for the help of the cashed-up Communist Party—now it’s the reverse: the American economy is marching along nicely, among the best in the world, and the U.S. Federal Reserve is about to raise interest rates, perhaps as soon as the end of this month. In this scenario, Xi Jinping’s visiting the U. S. feels to some extent like a trip to get help.
Inside China, the Party has not in the least slowed its pace of political repression—it’s kept up its campaign to suppress, crackdown, and annihilate those who fight for a liberal democratic society. Dark clouds loom above China, foreboding doom. The United States is the lighthouse of freedom and democracy for the world, but under the Obama administration it has been too accommodating, even appeasing, to the regimes that act like rogues and hoodlums in the international community. Almost the entire Western free world, including America, has been led by the nose by the Communist Party’s checkbook diplomacy. They’ve become weaker and weaker in defending human rights, and have become feeble in holding to and promoting their own values of freedom and democracy.
I recommend that in conducting great power diplomacy, the Obama government again take up the cause of freedom and democracy, look far ahead into the future, and don’t allow the glittery promises of wealth from a dictatorship muddle your priorities. Indulging a dictatorial regime and pursuing only profit may indeed bring near term benefit, but it’s a poisoned chalice, apt to harm both one’s own country and the other over the long term. In the end, it won’t be only the regular folk under the violent dictatorship that eat the bitter fruit of this union; the Western world will also find it hard to emerge unscathed.
The above remarks are my personal views. If they reached the Obama administration, I would be pleased beyond measure.
Liu Shihui (刘士辉) is a Guangdong-based lawyer who has taken on a number of prominent rights cases, including that of activist Guo Feixiong. Liu has had his license to practice law revoked for his activities, and in 2011 was detained and tortured for 108 days by security police.
From China, Messages to President Obama Before Xi Jinping’s Visit (2), Jiang Tianyong, September 17, 2015.
The Court Statement by Guo Feixiong
Translated by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, published: November 28, 2014
According to the defense lawyers, the trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng was forced by the court to conclude at Beijing time 2:50 am, November 29, in Tianhe Court, Guangzhou. Despite repeated interruptions by the head judge and denial of his right to make a closing statement, Guo Feixiong defended himself forcefully and eloquently. China Change is pleased to present his court statement in full in English. – The Editor
1984, Orwell’s masterpiece about totalitarianism that could have been a blow-by-blow script for the People’s Republic of China, also happens to be the year that launched my personal journey as part of China’s movement for freedom and democracy.
That year, on a blustery, chilly night, in a café on the campus of East China Normal University (華東師範大學) in Shanghai, I had the good fortune to hear an old man speak. The lines of his face were as rugged as if hewn by a blade, and his short, thin frame was almost entirely muffled in a gray trench coat. In sharp Mandarin with a southern Chinese accent, he was criticizing Deng Xiaoping, then the top leader in China, for being a dinosaur, for stifling thought, and for suppressing the creative freedom of writers at the slightest provocation. I had arrived in Shanghai from a remote part of Hubei Province less than three months before. This venerable old man was Wang Ruowang (王若望), and this was the first time I ever saw anyone lambaste the supreme leader by name in public. The impact on me runs so deep I cannot describe it.
Shanghai in that era was experiencing an “Indian Summer” of unprecedented freedom for the expression of liberal ideas. Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), an enlightened politician, had reversed a political pendulum that had swung to the extreme left and had declared at the Fourth Congress of the All-China Writers’ Association that the Communist Party would no longer interfere with creative freedom. Liberal-minded professors, intellectuals and writers were full of impassioned thoughts and words on politics and philosophy. In seminars, academic conferences, salons and cafés, they called for free thought and political reform. It was as if an invisible hand was guiding them to vie with one another to show who could bring more novelty and depth to the introduction of modern culture and thought and who dared most to give voice to the need to oppose dictatorship and fight for democracy. Wang Ruowang was one of the boldest of the free-thinking writers.
To be honest, these sowers of freedom, and their peers all around China, may not have been as expert in their academic disciplines as they ought to have been. Yet the way they wrote and acted was reminiscent of the dauntless and passionate thought of the French Enlightenment. Theirs was the idealism, innocence and simplicity that characterizes the original human spirit and that set the tone for the democrats who followed them. I personally owe my awakening to this Indian Summer in China. I gained much from the bold, open and diverse views that were expressed. As a student of philosophy, I drew from the theoretical riches of the Chinese and Western classics; my character and political tendencies are entirely a product of the free spirit of the 1980s.
I heard Mr. Wang’s speech at a time when I was wending my way through a variety of political discussions and seminars. From the sidelines, I watched a soccer-fan riot, strikes at dining halls, and other outbreaks of the restless young. Those were years when people found the confines of their post-totalitarian life increasingly unbearable. An impulse for direct action grew among the students and finally exploded in the student protests of December, 1986. Shanghai was at the center of those protests.
The demonstrations of December 22, 1986, marked the first time I joined an independently organized and high-risk democracy movement. I clearly recall the nerve-wracking moment when a few of us, banner in hand, suddenly faced several thousand young workers who rushed forward, with thumping strides, to join us. Such a public assembly would have been high treason in earlier times.
I was already teaching at a college in Wuhan (武漢) when immense waves of protest in spring, 1989 inundated China. I acted out of my sense of duty as an intellectual that year, just as I had in 1986. In the years that followed, I returned several times to Wuhan and would linger at sites where I had spoken in public. Sometimes particularly dangerous moments came back to me. I recalled a time when, rallying to a student’s sudden yell of “Charge!” (a vestige of the military propaganda films we had grown up with), hundreds or even thousands broke into a run. In an incredible, surreal moment, the bridge over the Yangtze River began to sway under our feet and twist like a snake. Deep inside I understood that my life was inexorably tied to the era of Tiananmen.
The massacre of students and other young people in Beijing who were protesting peacefully on the Boulevard of Everlasting Peace (長安街) on June 4, 1989, was one of the most grotesque events in human history. It cleaved Chinese society irreconcilably from its government. At that moment I decided never to compromise with the autocrats who had slaughtered innocent citizens and to throw myself into the work of bringing freedom and democracy to China to the full extent of my abilities and of the will of heaven.
Censorship and draconian social control prevented people from learning until much later how, from that darkest moment onward, many intrepid souls, each on his own island, began as if by agreement to explore and build an opposition movement. Within the next decade or so, my generation of activists tried a number of peaceful tactics of resistance, like the mythical Chinese emperor who tasted every herb for the first time and unlocked the secret of medicine. In the late 1990s, liberalism as a system of political thought seeped deeper into China, and after that the thinking of democrats reached maturity.
As the millennium dawned, the Internet, out of the blue, came in to connect the long-isolated activists to one another. From 2003 to 2005, constitutionalist liberals founded the “rights defense” movement, which provided for China’s political opposition a highly original, homegrown and ineradicable path on which to grow and expand.
On January 28, 2005, Fan Yafeng (範亞峰) and I joined several others in attending the farewell ceremony in honor of the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who had been ousted and held under house arrest until his death because of his support for the 1989 protesters. Hugging a large photo of Mr. Zhao to my chest, I left the ceremony with a heavy heart. A throng of policemen was on the other side of the street. I turned back toward the funeral home and asked Fan how many people he thought had been there. After a pause, he answered that it looked like at least two or three thousand.
Fan and I had been meeting with others on how to promote effective connections within civil society. We noticed one major difference from the 1980s: the commemorations of the reformist politician Hu Yaobang in 1989 had been open and legal, but in order to attend Mr. Zhao’s funeral, people had to register using their government-issued IDs as police looked on. The uncertainty of such exposure, like the sword of Damocles, kept many people away. Still, several thousand people braved the odds to attend. To us, this proved that moral courage was returning everywhere, and we had new hope for the future of the democracy movement. Responding to this subtle political signal, we decided to take a series of steps to try to push the movement to a new stage.
Within half a year, an unprecedented number of groups were formed for political and legal action. This development showed the spiritual ties between the Tiananmen protests and the new rights-defense movement. Activists drew their strength from their shared tie with the towering figure, Hu Yaobang, who died with his character unsullied by betrayal.
We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open. We kept no secrets. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village (太石) residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and support from society at large. As participation grew, hunger strikes emerged. With the help of courageous human rights lawyers, citizens at the grassroots fought back, drawing attention to wrongs they had suffered and using political means that not long before had been unthinkable. The tide of this movement brought the political opposition back from the margins, making it once again central to the spiritual life of civil society. Terrified, the post-totalitarian machine sprang into action, and crackdown followed.
As a founder of this movement as well as one of its foot soldiers, I came into the line of fire several times. From April, 2005, until now, I have been criminally detained four times and jailed three times, for a total of five years. I was taken to six detention centers, evenly split among the provincial, municipal and district levels. The police have interrogated me more than two hundred times, which is probably some sort of record. Sometimes they had other prisoners carry me, more than once a day, and faint from hunger striking, on a stretcher to a room where they tied me to an iron chair. My five hunger strikes lasted 3, 59, 24, 75, and 25 days respectively, for a total of 186 days.
My extreme fasting struck a chord within the liberal camp and set a sort of example for the relay hunger strikes in 2006. One friend, though, a secular humanist, told me that he did not understand what I was doing. “We who believe in liberal democracy call for humanism and rational self-interest,” he said, “but you are always starving and putting yourself through the wringer. This seems shaky on humanitarian grounds and in any case cannot accomplish much.”
I did not want to resort to high-sounding principles so never formally responded to his criticism. Over time, I stopped keeping diaries of my strikes, writing memoirs, or publicly encouraging others to fast. But when occasions arose, I still did strikes on my own.
Why? Why fast and insist on fasting? My answer has always been the same: a hunger strike is not only a strong voice of protest against political persecution in a totalitarian system, but also address of the highest ideals that reside within myself – the ideals that I am serious about what I am doing and am loyal to the cause of freedom and democracy. Fasting keeps my mind free from the danger of taint.
The prototype for hunger strikes is the self-mortification of monks, who challenge the physical limits of the human body in order to pursue ideals. Like theirs, my fasting is safe and under control. Its process is dignified. After my first hunger strike, I was struck by how dazzling white the walls around me were, which I had until then looked at but never saw. It was then that I understood the inner purity of true believers. Suddenly I, who had been enmeshed in the pettiness of daily life, had the chance to cast it off and seek that purity. The clarity that protracted physical deprivation brought to me gradually helped to purge me and to help me reach an inner purity.
The system of free democracy that we aspire to transcends our personal destinies of success and failure. This is the sacred nature of this earth, which transcends the earth and rules it at the same time. The price that I pay to immerse my life in this movement is worth it. Perhaps not always, of course – and yet each fasting brings an experience of sustained euphoria, when I feel how truly fortunate I am to be sharing or projecting the spirit within me. Its bright image provides ultimate and pure joy. In our transient and prosaic life, what can eternity mean? Eternity is just such moments.
I never urged other people to join any of my longer hunger strikes. The rule for the 2006 relay hunger strike was that each person fasts no longer than 48 hours. This was not because I believe fasting to be against human nature. It is not. It is a powerful means of peaceful resistance, a show of inner strength for democrats, and a testimony to responsible suffering. It contains an idealism that is inherent in humanity and natural law and that is implicit in individual freedom, autonomy and the sovereignty of the people.
Our generation faces ubiquitous political terror imposed by a regime that has a rare record of brutality. This is why we need to draw upon the ideals that lie within each of us in forceful and disciplined ways. This is rational self-interest. Democracy is not opposed to passions, self-interest, and materialism; it is about accommodating such things and setting rules for them. The democracy movement is there to awaken our awareness and agency as free human beings and citizens. My hunger strikes are my homework as a prisoner. They purify and motivate me. I cherish this personal experience and its political ideals.
When faced with interminable interrogation by police and secret police, I provide almost no information. Because I keep silence and refuse to cooperate, my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling things like “You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is the real SOB here – you or the Party!” Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few “standard bearers,” as they put it, to accept parole. Later generations might find it hard to imagine that in 2007 an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.
For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an “illegal business operation.” I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear. The next morning, in fury and pain, I threw myself headlong toward the window and then the wall. Death was to be my protest. I survived, fortunately, but after Chinese New Year, the taser shocks resumed.
Through all of this, including the torture, I held to two principles; don’t abandon ideals and don’t betray anyone. Eventually, my interrogators were impressed and relented somewhat. Put to draconian tests, treatment hardly in keeping with peacetime, I stuck with precepts I had learned in childhood. I can smile and tell others and myself that my behavior under duress was consistent with being a human being. I have not wronged others. That is enough. I have lived.
It has been said that it is easier to go to your death in a surge of courage than to submit to a sacrifice that is slow and drawn out. In fact, sacrifice is not the hardest thing there is. After your eyes close and your body is destroyed, your spirit can endure forever. The endless physical and mental agony imposed by unbridled violence, which leaves you drained of life and denies you the relief of death, may be harder to guard against than the choice of self-sacrifice.
I do not use my personal choices as benchmarks in the judgment of others. People who compromise temporarily under pressure and return to the path of righteousness later have my wholehearted respect. Even those who break down and capitulate should not be judged harshly. The horrors of my experience have made me more tolerant and understanding of the hard choices that everyone confronts. Only when we offer our understanding and support can victims recover their mental health and dignity. We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule.
In 2007, the security apparatus gave up on interrogating me and sentenced me to five years in prison. I had thwarted their aim. However weak my pushback, it stuck in their craw. Meanwhile, for democrats generally, it was a flourishing time. Hu Jia was struggling against the tide, Gao Zhisheng’s human rights work was showing tremendous courage, and Zhang Zuhua and Liu Xiaobo were mobilizing intellectuals to give voice to constitutional reform. Both Hu and Liu received prestigious prizes from the international community. Since then, China’s multipolar opposition movement has come back stronger after each crackdown, and this fact is deeply unsettling to the rulers. I would like to think that the resultant “butterfly effect” contains a few flappings of my own wings.
Today, with the exception of Wang Gongquan (王功權) – an activist in the New Citizens movement (新公民運動) who is known as “the conscience of the business world” – and the Three Heroes of Chibi – Huang Wenxun (黃文勳), Yuan Xiaohua (袁小華) and Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), who have to date been detained for fifteen months without due process or indictment – the honor of imprisonment is no longer so hard to attain. Dozens of democrats have won it in smooth processes that include few surprises.
The mental and physical tortures that are used to extort confessions, grotesque and fantastic in their variety, are on the wane. Even though the practice persists, the brutal powers that we contend with must feel a bit of shame over their vicious acts. Our dream, passed from generation to generation among activists, to see “the prisons overloaded with conscientious objectors,” is nearing realization. Our faith is that totalitarianism, which negates so completely the humanity in its minions, will one day be driven from the earth.
During my challenge to the government and the tumult of my arrest and imprisonment, my wife and children have suffered the most. On the morning of March 10, 2006, when Taishi village residents were running for People’s Congress, my wife was stopped by secret police on her way out to buy groceries. When I went out to reason with the agents, they beat me up and left me with a bloody face. When I took my ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to buy books, several secret agents took turns taking photos and videos of them on the bus. They did this obtrusively, making an intimidating show for other passengers to observe.
My daughter, older than her brother, came to know fear. One day, when the four of us went out for our regular morning exercise in a small nearby park, six or seven agents followed on our heels, speaking loudly in Cantonese. My daughter kept turning her head to watch them, her little face terrified. She whispered to me, “Daddy, this is all your fault! Your fault!”
I felt too pained to say anything. Over the last eight years, this scene has played over and over again in my mind.
In the spring of 2007, Guangdong security agents who were interrogating me threatened that, if I continued to refuse to confess and accept parole, my son would not be allowed to go to elementary school and my daughter would be assigned to a middle school far away. When she goes to high school, they continued, the computer will assign her to a rural school from which she will not be admitted to university. I had no reason to doubt them. I knew the rules they operate under and knew their track record.
On February 8, 2006, I went on a hunger strike outside the gates of the State Council building. I did this to protest the threats to my children’s safety, to protest a police shooting of several innocent farmers who had been protecting their land from illegal seizure, and to protest curbs on press freedom in the case of Freezing Point magazine. I was detained, and then, from prison, could no longer do public protests.
On November 14, 2007, the Tianhe District Court (天河區法院) announced my five-year prison sentence. As I was being taken away, I turned and asked my wife, who had been allowed to attend, “Is our son in school?” She said no, they won’t let him go. At the Guangzhou municipal detention center, I tossed and turned that night, barely able to sleep at all. A few days later, a cellmate who had been sentenced for white-collar crime suddenly asked me, “Dude, how come that whole patch of your head turned white?” I did not quite believe him. There was no mirror in the cell, so I could only ask other cellmates to take a look, and I believed the story only after everyone said the same thing. Then, for the first time, I knew the ancient tale of Wu Zixu (伍子胥) – whose hair turned white overnight in flight, after his entire family was executed by the king – might not be imaginary.
The man who had discovered my white hair appeared to be in his fifties. I told him about the fate of my son. At first, he merely shook his head: there should be no way something like this can happen in this day and age. I explained what happened in detail. He had a good opinion of me and came to believe what I was saying. This white-collar criminal, who during his childhood had been ruthlessly persecuted because he came from a landowner family that had been labeled as “class enemies,” suddenly fell to his knees and covered his face, sobbing without a sound. I did not cry when they turned my son out of school, but this man did. Although I did not cry, my heart bled. In the year that followed, a voice inside kept reminding me, “Things cannot go on like this; I can’t sit by and watch the future of my children be destroyed; I must act.”
This was why, in 2008, I suggested to my wife, through the visitor’s window in Meizhou Prison (梅州監獄), that the three of them should find a way to leave China. It was a choice that a parent in my shoes had to make, hoping that his children could go to a free country where their right to education would not be blocked. With the help of several people, including the fearless Ms. Wang, my family made its way to Thailand. But there, their visa applications ran into unexpected difficulties; several Chinese who behaved suspiciously moved into their hotel; and they almost got run over by a mysteriously-driven car.
At this pivotal juncture, it was the esteemed Reverend Bob Fu (傅希秋), along with a wonderfully kind Christian woman from England, who took tremendous personal risk to bring my family to the United States. The United States government and people took them in and helped them. Schooling will never be a problem again. I am most grateful to all the people who helped us, and I thank the humanitarianism of the American government and the Christian Church. I shall remember their great deeds until the day I die. Through their help, I began to feel, in the most direct and deep way, how universal, selfless and noble human love is, and how generous democratic culture is. For me it was a kind of baptism.
After my release on September 13, 2011, I was finally able to communicate with my family through the Internet. My daughter sent me a comic strip she drew of her escape and her stay abroad. It shows how helpless and lost she felt, how hard it was to adapt to a different country, and how much she misses her childhood friends back home. As I read it, my tears flowed, on and off by turns, for three days.
I am a man, and I had never shed a tear over anything in jail, including my children. Yet when my daughter asked me, “Cried after you read it, didn’t you?,” I said I did. I cried a lot.
My daughter was no longer the baby who had once wanted me to hold and carry her. She was grown, indeed had grown tall. She was now proud and rebellious, and wanted to make her own decisions on everything; I felt she was drifting away from me. She began to harbor a resentment about all the love and obligation that I owed her as her father from my eighteen years of democracy work. She referred to this work every so often in a sarcastic way and rarely called me “Dad.” I feel pangs of pain inside but I didn’t know what I can do. I am flooded by guilt when I think about my family.
After release I was rearrested. Just a few months ago, on July 4, 2014, during visiting hours at the Tianhe Detention Center, my lawyer Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠) told me that my daughter had drawn my portrait. He said it looks a lot like me. In the picture, I am surrounded by mountains, and the caption, a Chinese proverb, reads: “Someone lofty to look up to.” This portrait was on display in a noteworthy building, as part of a campaign to rescue me. While I know I am far from deserving such a description, I do read a deeper meaning in what he told me. The revelation leaves me bright-eyed, as if I can see through the thick brick walls and sail through the open sky between us: My dearest child, I have once again won your love, and you have acknowledged it.
When I left prison in 2011, seeing how robust and widespread the struggle for freedom was, I felt unspeakably excited. My choice—there was no other—was to be part of this ferment. I worked alongside my peers; we took concerted action and nothing turned us back.
We experimented with the opportunity to support the anti-censorship efforts at the reformist newspaper, Southern Weekend (《南方週末》), and, proceeding with caution and peaceful discipline, to break through the limits on freedom of assembly. We also organized a signature campaign to demand that the National People’s Congress ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We coordinated small-scale street protests in eight cities in support of ICCPR and the government’s anti-corruption policy. Both actions were part of our strategy to promote the drafting of sound laws and the abolition of harmful ones. This activity was a significant step forward in pressing against government red lines and in addressing universal values in civic action—not just protesting individual grievances. We made waves, and many others followed.
It is no surprise that the government construed these two political experiments as my crime of “disturbing the public order.” An ancient proverb laughs at the folly of “bargaining with a tiger for its skin,” but that is precisely the task we have to undertake. We need to force a totalitarian government to shed its tiger’s skin, resume its humanity, and return to us the rights that belong to us.
The sentencing that I will now be facing will be consistent with the government’s entrenched habits of persecution. I am very honored to have landed in jail for my work. I hope that more citizens will come forward to join the fight for freedom when they see the dozens of us who are in jail. For me personally, another stint in prison may help to cleanse and mend me in small ways. Regardless of how long my sentence is this time, the first thing I will do when they let me out will be to go out and support constitutional democracy through direct action.
For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators. It is unacceptable that they should slaughter the innocent and enslave others. The chief and greatest punishment for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity. We believe that future generations will always make the same choices on the same principles. Outnumbered as we are, and Sisyphus though we may be (or the hero Kuafu who died chasing the sun), the prevailing meaning of our opposition movement persists in our refusal to give up or give in.
Another reason why action is imperative is that we need to show to others real-life examples of resistance that can encourage them to act on their own. During a transition we will need to prevent plutocratic groups from continuing the enslavement of the Chinese people by monopolizing political power for themselves. As civilization evolves, the culture of dictatorship and violence sometimes absorbs new resources and takes on new forms. Even after the dissolution of dictatorship, China could still face a tug-of-war between constitutional democracy with checks and balances on the one hand and Singapore or Russian-style “birdcage rule” on the other.
If Chinese democrats wish to avoid the strong-man or bird-cage scenario, whose legacy will be continued stagnation and unrest, we must be committed to working together and have the wisdom to build an independent and strong civil society that can balance the political power of the state. The end goal is a tripartite system where power is evenly distributed and transferred through institutionalized elections. Such a system best serves the sovereignty and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. Chinese civil society has reached the view that an opposition party is essential for bringing such a result about. Such an opposition party must act decisively, transparently and without guile, seeking round-table consensus, whether through a revision of the laws and institutions or by winning the sympathy and direct participation of the people. And its members must be prepared to bear the costs that might be inflicted upon them.
As an aging veteran whose life has been given to democracy, when I look back over the last thirty years, I truly feel that our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front line of the movement for freedom, tortuous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man, whose feet are planted on the ground and over whose head the heavens arch, as conceived by our ancestors long ago and writ large in the Chinese character for “human.”
Yang Maodong (aka Guo Feixiong)
Lawyers Describe Trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng, November 28, 2014.
Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by human rights lawyer Xiao Guozhen
Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, a profile by Xiao Shu