October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
Yaxue Cao, October 3, 2017
Early in September the Justice Department of Shandong province notified Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武), a 36-year-old lawyer in Jinan, the provincial capital, that his “anti-Communist Party, anti-socialism” expressions online had “threatened national security,” and he was disbarred. Mr. Zhu requested a public hearing.
Zhu Shengwu heads the Shandong Xinchang Law Firm (山东信常律师事务所) which he founded about a year ago. He has been practicing for only five years, specializing in intellectual property rights, particularly online copyright disputes. Beginning this year, however, he began taking on so-called “sensitive cases” – i.e., involving human rights. Among others, he represented Wang Jiangfeng (王江峰), a man from Shandong who was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to two years in prison last April for calling the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping “Steamed Bun Xi,” and the late Mao Zedong “Demon Mao” in online chat rooms. Zhu believes that his defense of Wang — in which he made a “systematic, thorough and determined defense of freedom of expression” — is the real motive for his punishment.
Apart from defending his clients, Zhu began exercising his own freedom of expression on Weibo, which he began using in March. The account, with around 2,000 followers, was shut down in August. On it, Zhu had described China’s judicial system as “a meat grinder that churns out wrongful convictions,” and said that “China is ruled through terror and lies.” He also mocked the talks he had been summoned to with Justice Bureau officials.
In the Chinese system, Justice Departments or bureaus at different levels of the governments have an office whose job it is to “regulate lawyers,” and it uses annual reviews — in which licenses can be suspended or revoked — as a way to rein them in. For human rights lawyers, the annual review is a Damoclean sword hanging over their heads, and some of China’s bravest and best known human rights lawyers have had their licenses revoked over the years.
One of the Justice Department officials in Shandong asked Zhu Shengwu repeatedly whether he’d like to keep his license. Zhu replied: “All I’ve done is represent a sensitive case, write a defense systematically arguing for freedom of speech, and voice a bit of political criticism. For that you are going to revoke my license. Who’d dare keep a license like that?”
While the Lawyers’ Associations across the China are supposedly professional organizations looking out for the interests of their members, in reality they are designed to ensure that lawyers fall in line with the government and the Communist Party (indeed a large number of China’s 300,000 lawyers are Party members). The Lawyers’ Association functions like other mass organizations for what would otherwise be independent individuals or groups, including the Writers’ Associations for writers, or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestant Christians. So it is no surprise that, on September 8, the chairman of the Lawyers’ Association of Shandong Province, a man named Su Bo (苏波), issued an angry statement on China’s popular social media WeChat denouncing Zhu Shengwu, and voicing support for the actions taken by the Party “after Zhu refused to repent and correct his wrongdoings.”
“I don’t know about lawyer Zhu Shengwu,” one of China’s most famous human rights lawyers Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) wrote, who was himself sentenced to three years in prison with a three-year reprieve for his activities and expressions, and whose license was revoked by Beijing Justice Bureau last year. “But Su Bo was a schoolmate of mine at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law. On the morning of April 27, 1989, we students gathered at the university gate, undecided as to whether we should to go out and protest.” The President and department chairs tried to stop the students. “I remember the sky was shaking and the air seemed to be on fire. Su Bo, shouldering a large sign with China’s Constitution written all over it, was at the forefront of the student procession. I heard him roaring, his voice hoarse: ‘If not today, when? Are we going to tolerate it forever?’ He was all sound and fury then. Twenty-eight years later, I appreciate this statement for giving me information about his whereabouts and achievements.”
Another well-known human rights lawyer, Sui Muqing (隋牧青), also recognized the chairman of the Shandong Lawyers’ Association, his classmate twenty-eight years ago. “He gave an inspiring speech in front of us all before the big protest procession on April 27, 1989. And I was so impressed, because I too wanted to speak to the crowd but when I got the mic, I was overcome by shyness and passed it on.”
Sui Muqing, who was held in secret detention from July 11, 2015, to January 6, 2016 as part of the 709 crackdown, offered to represent Zhu Shengwu at the hearing.
The hearing to revoke Zhu Shengwu’s license “for allegedly making expressions that threatened national security” was held on September 21. Even though a hearing is a public event, it was filled with people sent by the Shandong Justice Department….to fill the spots. Zhu’s friends were stopped outside.
The hearing went on for three hours. Zhu and his two lawyers were allowed to speak, and they mounted a vigorous defense, questioning the authority of the Justice Department and the Lawyers’ Association to censor a lawyer for his private expressions. They disputed the preposterous notion of speech being a “national security threat,” and gave a rousing defense of freedom of expression.
The next day, on September 22, the Justice Department of Shandong province issued a decision to revoke Zhu Shengwu’s license to practice law. “Upon investigation: Since March 2017, lawyer Zhu Shengwu frequently posted on his Sina Weibo account ‘祝圣武律师18668936828’ expressions that negate the fundamental political system and principles established by our country’s Constitution, made insinuations against the socialist system, and used the internet to instigate dissatisfaction with the Party and government, resulting in egregious social effects. [His behaviors] seriously damaged the image of the legal profession.”
Zhu Shengwu and his lawyers will appeal the decision through administrative review, and if necessary, bring administrative litigation against the Justice Department of Shandong province. But it will likely to be a resistance in the court of public opinion, because the law does not rule in China.
In a self-introduction, Zhu said he grew up in a faraway mountainous village in Hunan; he was the first in his village to go to college and the first to gain a graduate degree. He studied law at Shandong University and has never been the subject of complaints by clients or peers.
I was asked the other day whether, after the 709 Crackdown, the pressure on human rights lawyers will abate. First of all, the 709 Crackdown isn’t over. Wu Gan (吴淦), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) are still in custody. Wang Quanzhang has been held incommunicado for over 800 days. It is possible that Wang has been tortured to the point of disability — this is one of the few explanations as to why he still hasn’t been allowed to see his lawyers. Those who have been relieved on bail or on reprieve have been under surveillance and regularly threatened to keep silent about their experiences while they were in secret detention. National TV stations had human rights lawyers on camera confessing that their defense of human rights was illegal, and that they had been brainwashed by “Western concepts of human rights and the rule of law.” Probably because the government really didn’t benefit from the 709 crackdown, in recent months and weeks, it has been employing softer but still insidious tactics to corner human rights lawyers: denying their annual renewals, reviewing the accounts of law firms, forcing some lawyers out of their jobs, and in Zhu Shengwu’s case revoking his license altogether.
“Did you see Su Bo at the hearing?” I asked lawyer Sui Muqing.
“No, he was not in the room,” he said. “But I ran into him during the break. He praised my defense. I asked how he knew. He said someone told him. I think high-level officials of the Justice Department, and Su Bo himself, were in an adjacent room watching the video feed.”
“What else did you say to him?”
Lawyer Sui Muqing made no response.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
China Change, August 13, 2017
On Monday one of China’s most well-known rights defense activists, Wu Gan (known by the moniker “The Super Vulgar Butcher” online) will be put on trial in the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. The court says that the case involves “state secrets” and has announced that it will be a closed hearing. For days now, activists and lawyers around the country have been warned not to travel to Tianjin to try to attend the trial or congregate outside the courthouse. Last December, Wu Gan was charged with subversion of state power. Since the Deng Yujiao case in 2009, he has been an active in the public sphere. All the way until he was arrested in May 2015, Wu Gan was a presence in countless cases involving social justice, grassroots elections, and human rights abuses. He cultivated a renown for his unprecedented ability to mobilize supporters both online and off.
The prosecutor’s Indictment against him refers to his involvement in 12 incidents, held up as evidence of how “Defendant Wu Gan has organized, plotted, and carried out subversion of the state regime and overthrow of the socialist system.”
Recently, Wu Gan asked his lawyers to publish a “Pretrial Statement” he had given them, which explained that all he had done in those cases was to help those searching for justice, exercising their rights as citizens granted and protected in the Chinese constitution and acknowledged around the world as universal values.
Given that neither Wu Gan himself nor his lawyers are able to mount a meaningful defense in a Chinese court, let alone get a fair trial, we provide you with a summary of each incident, and we ask the world to hear Wu Gan’s case and be his jury.
- The framing of three netizens from Fujian (April 2010)
In June 2009, the Fujian-based human rights defender Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼) exposed an incident — as told by the mother of the victim — in which a young woman from eastern Fujian province was in February of that year gang-raped and murdered by police. You Jingyou (游精佑), a local railway engineer who has an interest in social justice issues, recorded a video interview with the mother, while another human rights defender, Wu Huaying (吴华英), helped to spread the video online. On June 24 Fan Yanqiong, You Jingyou and Wu Huaying were criminally detained by the Fuzhou police and charged with “slander.” The fact that this incident, taking place in a remote part of Fujian, became known as the “case of the three netizens from Fujian,” and became a topic of major interest, receiving national attention and support from activists both online and off, was to a large degree due to the creativity of Wu Gan.
Wu Gan’s involvement in the case began in February 2010. On April 16, a week before the trial opened, Wu Gan set up a tent and began camping outside the Fuzhou Municipal No. 1 Detention Center, sending a constant stream of updates to followers online, creating buzz about the impending protests. On the day of the trial over 100 netizens from around the country gathered outside the Fuzhou Mawei Court to demonstrate. Images of Wu Gan holding a speaker and mobilizing the protesters at the scene became well-known to internet users. The case of the three Fujian netizens was the beginning of a model in China that turned such trials into public spectacles. For years afterwards this became one of the staples in the activist repertoire.
According to the Indictment against him, on the date of hearing, Wu Gan “hung banners and shouted slogans with others outside of the court and posted video on the Internet, severely affecting the People’s Court in its examination of the case according to the law, smearing the image of the judicial institution, and creating bad political effects both at home and abroad.”
“I got involved in this case,” Wu Gan said, “because it closely relates to the rights of all of us. We’re all plain old internet users — so if these three people are turned into criminals, then every time we go online and post something, we could also all be turned into criminals too.”
Fan Yanqiong, the lawyer, was sentenced to prison for two years, while the other two received sentences of one year each.
- The Fuzhou Cangshan-Jin’an-Mawei forced demolition case (April 2012)
In April 2012 Wu Gan responded to a request to return to Fuzhou and help defend the rights of a resident who had gotten into a conflict with the government over forced demolitions. The dispute arose because the resident found the compensation he was was offered far too low, and refused to relocate. In an attempt to force he and his family out, real estate developers cut off their water and electricity, then began stacking heavy construction supplies around the house, before directing workers to begin laying the structural foundations for the new buildings.
Wu Gan used a variety of techniques in the case: he made requests for open information from the government, exposed that the developers did not have permission to begin work, showing that it was thus illegal, put up posters in the vicinity about the fact, and began camping outside the Fuzhou Construction Bureau’s offices to demonstrate.
Because their home had already been damaged at this point, and the victims had no place to live, Wu Gan said he wanted to meet with the local leading cadres in the area to resolve the issue of their housing. When he found that one of them was a female, in order to stage a more eye-catching protest, Wu Gan bought a naked human model, then attached the face of the female cadre to the head. After the police angrily told them not to parade it around, Wu Gan and others dropped the plans for a march with the model.
Wu Gan made a recording of the violent scenes of forced demolition and put them online. “The government and the developers brought in the mob,” Wu Gan said. “Whoever disobeyed them would be beaten by the gang of thugs. I ran a big risk by going upstairs to record what they were doing, but the police did nothing to stop them.”
- Defending his father from false charges of embezzlement (September 2012)
Over his years of rights defense, protest, and supervising those in power across the country, Wu Gan was constantly concerned that his family would be targeted for retaliation. In September 2012 the Fujian authorities detained his father, Xu Xiaoshun (徐孝顺), on the charge of “embezzlement.” He was released on probation a couple of months later, and the case was afterwards dismissed. On July 3, 2015, when Wu Gan was formally arrested, Xu Xiaoshun was on July 4 again taken into custody with the same charges. The attempt by the authorities to put Wu Gan under pressure by persecuting his father couldn’t have been more obvious.
On January 19, 2017, Xu Xiaoshun was again released on probation. On May 3, 2017, the Fuqing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court declared that the facts in the case against Xu Xiaoshun were unclear and that there was insufficient evidence to try him, and his case was again dropped.
Beginning in May, Wu Gan’s father began the work of trying to get his son released. In his “Open Letter to Friends of Wu Gan Concerned With the 709 Incident,” he admitted frankly that in the past he hadn’t supported his son’s rights defense work. “We argued about it every time we met,” he wrote. But, he added, “What I know and believe is that he is a man full of enthusiasm, truth, and kindness.” The father was furious at the Bill of Indictment against Wu Gan, which turned Wu’s attempts to redress victims into the crime of “subverting state power.” He continued: “I was, deep inside, very proud of my son.”
According to the indictment, Wu Gan protesting outside the Fuqing Public Security Bureau for arresting his father, then posting information about the Public Security Bureau chief and bureau personnel online “severely harmed the image of public security organs and the People’s Police, and provoked people unfamiliar with the truth of the situation to hostility toward organs of the state regime.”
Wu Gan will be tried in secret in Tianjin on August 14. As his father, Xu Xiaoshun should be sitting in the courtroom, but on August 10 he was effectively put under arrest by Fujian security police and forcibly taken back to his hometown in Fuqing. The warnings given to dozens of other human rights lawyers and rights defenders, to “not go where you shouldn’t go,” show that the authorities are paranoid about the trial they’re about to hold. Officials don’t even mention the words “Tianjin” when issuing the warnings, showing that the trial for them has become a major political affair.
- Protesting the black jail in Jiansanjiang (March 2014)
Extralegal places of detention — “black jails” — are a major problem in China. After the abolition of the re-education through forced labor system in 2013, large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners and petitioners were transferred to black jails — set up in local government-controlled buildings or guest houses — or so-called “legal education bases.” On March 20, 2014, the human rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Wang Cheng (王成), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), and nine relatives of the victims, traveled to a “legal education base” on Qinglongshan Farm (青龙山农场), part of the Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration (黑龙江农垦总局), demanding the release of a number of illegally detained Falun Gong practitioners. In the morning of March 21 they were taken away by a group of public security officers, put under administrative detention, then charged with the crime of “using an evil religious organization to harm society and violate the law.” During the detention the four lawyers were savagely beaten, to the point that all four suffered broken ribs.
The Jiansanjiang Incident, as it was termed, attracted widespread attention among human rights lawyers and activists. People traveled from around China to Jiamusi, the nearest city in Heilongjiang, and then to the Jiansanjiang area to demonstrate. Wu Gan was part of a group of citizens that went to call out for the release of the lawyers. On March 26, 2014, he put the equivalent of a reward poster online, promising to pay 50,000 RMB to whoever could provide evidence of illegal conduct by the chief of the Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration’s Public Security Bureau, Liu Guofeng (刘国锋).
The charges against Wu Gan say that he set off a “human flesh search” online and published an “reward for the capture of a criminal,” and that these acts constituted “incitement of opposition to the state regime, creating a severely vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
Wu Gan responded to the doubts raised about his methods online, saying, “We can’t change this fucked up country all at once, but at the very least we will have done our best when it was at its darkest, we will have given one another warmth, shown the helpless that they’re not alone, and when we look back on all this we’ll be able to proudly say that we were part of it: I forked out my own money, I put in my own effort, I got involved, I didn’t sit back and do nothing!”
- Defending the Huang sisters from land requisitions in Huaihua, Hunan (May 2014)
In October 2009, the Mayang county government in Huaihua city, Hunan Province (湖南怀化市麻阳县政府) — without going through any public discussion with the villagers, or gaining any legal document to authorize the requisition of land — forcibly acquired over 10,000 mu (1,647 acres) of agricultural land from villagers at an extremely suppressed price. The government then sold this expropriated land to real estate developers, taking for themselves an enormous profit. This has been the model for how land transactions have been dealt with during China’s economic development for many years.
In November 2009, five Huang clans in the Dalilin village, Gaolin township, Mayang Miao autonomous county in Huaihua, began to defend the legal rights they had to their land assets, refusing to sign the documents that would have transferred the title. They also got into a physical conflict with some of the men the developers hired to carry out the forced demolition work. In August of 2012, at least five members of the Huang clan were arrested and sentenced on the charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” In January of 2013, when a number of them were released on probation, the two sisters sought help online. Lawyer Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yang, as well as Wu Gan learned about the case and got involved in it. Li Heping brought suit at the Huaihua Municipal Intermediate Court, and made an official request for public information from the Mayang county government for the land title information and the authorization for the demolitions. In November of 2013, three of the Huang clan buildings were violently torn down. On April 24, 2013, when Li Heping and a number of other lawyers held a hearing on behalf of the Huang clan at the Mayang Bureau of Land Resources, the Mayang county public security bureau chief ordered a gang of his subordinates to mob and bash them.
During the trial of second instance in May 2014, Zhu Ruifeng (朱瑞峰), a reporter with People’s Supervision Network (人民监督网), an independent website that has since been shut down, traveled to Mayang county to investigate — they were refused access by the Party secretary, Hu Jiawu (胡佳武). Wu Gan then made his way to the Huaihua Municipal Procuratorate and lodged a legal complaint against Hu.
Charges against Wu Gan, however, make no mention of the illegal government land requisitions in Mayang, instead claiming that Wu Gan’s protests outside the Mayang county government offices, and his complaint to the Procuratorate, constituted “inciting individuals who don’t know the truth of the matter to be unhappy with the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
- The case of the ‘Ten Gentlemen from Zhengzhou’ (May 2014)
On February 2, 2014, two students from the 1989 democracy generation — Yu Shiwen (于世文) and Chen Wei (陈卫) — organized an event to commemorate Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) near Zhao’s old family home in Hua county, Henan Province (河南省滑县). But in May that year, a number of participants were criminally detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The case came to be known as that of the Zhengzhou Ten (郑州十君子案).
Upon hearing of the case, activists from around China rushed to the two Zhengzhou detention centers where the participants were being held and began protesting. They unfurled banners, cried out slogans, demanded their release, and criticized the Zhengzhou authorities for depriving the detainees of their right to legal counsel. The number of protesters grew from a couple of dozen to about 70 at its peak. In the end, they were swept up and cleared out. Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Wu Gan said that “the authorities were frightened that so many people had gathered together.”
Later, most of those detained were released one after another, and Yu Shiwen, the only one that was charged, was released on probation in February 2017 without having been charged with a crime.
Nevertheless, Wu Gan’s protest has been taken as evidence constituting the crime of subversion of state power. The charges against him say that Wu Gan “agitated individuals who did not know the truth of the matter to hate organs of the state regime, creating a vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
- Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai’s administrative hearing
Cheng Hai (程海), a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, defended the New Citizens Movement (新公民运动) activist Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in 2014. When the trial opened, he demanded that the court rectify the numerous violations of legal procedure from the beginning of the investigation until the trial, but every time he tried to speak was interrupted by the judge. So he left the courtroom and lodged a complaint against the judge. In response, Beijing’s Changping District judicial bureau banned Cheng Hai from practicing law for one year. Nearly 190 lawyers from around the country jointly signed a petition demanding that the Changping district judicial bureau rescind its punishment, to protect the legal rights of lawyers. On September 5, 2014, over 100 human rights lawyers and citizen activists traveled to Changping to participate in the judicial bureau’s open hearing about the administrative punishment of Cheng Hai. Upon arrival, however, they were intercepted and prevented from attending by police and plainclothes officers. Wu Gan began holding up placards in protest of this illegal obstruction. Police also removed a number of lawyers and activists from the scene, including Wu Gan, locking them up for hours in the local police station. In the end, the punishment against Cheng Hai was sustained.
The charges against Wu Gan never explain why the police stopped lawyers and citizens from attending a public hearing held by a government agency — yet they still said that Wu Gan had “incited people online to travel to the scene of the hearing and illegally gather,” and they said that his holding up of placards in protest was “slandering and attacking organs of the state regime.”
- The case of Lu Yong’s civil appeal in Dali, Yunnan (December 2014)
In 2009 a man named Lu Yong (陆勇) rented a courtyard home on the shore of Erhai Lake in Shuanglang township, Dali, Yunnan (云南大理双廊镇洱海). The term of the lease was 20 years, and he paid it full in cash before the term began. The landlord, Li Hongjun (李红军), used the funds to build a three storey home elsewhere and moved in with his family. In 2010 tourism in Langyang township began to take off and rents shot up. The landlord reneged on the deal and moved his parents to occupy the old courtyard home. Lu Yong, who had already settled with his family in Beijing, went through two years of legal proceedings, including two trials, to finally get the house back in 2011. But in early 2014, the landlord bought off a judge at Dali’s Intermediate Court, Bao Kang (鲍康), who issued a “ruling for a retrial” (再审裁定书) that had no legal basis whatsoever. The “retrial” ordered that Lu Yong give the house back. Determined to defend right and wrong in his case, Lu Yong hired the Beijing-based Ruifeng Law Firm in response to the judge’s acceptance of bribes and twisting of the law. At the time Wu Gan was working as a consultant with the firm.
In January 2015, Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yuandong (谢远东) accompanied Lu Yong to Dali to make a formal complaint against Bao Kang, the judge, for bending the law to his personal ends, and submitted the evidence they possessed. They also submitted the evidence and complaints to the Dali Procuratorate, the Yunnan Provincial High Court, the Yunnan Provincial Procuratorate, and the Yunnan Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wu Gan drove their vehicle around the court for about an hour in protest, attracting seven or eight onlookers who came to see what was going on.
To Lu Yong’s bewilderment, his case also become part of the evidence against Wu Gan of subverting state power. The completely justified and fully-evidenced complaint against a judge in Dali turned into, in the charges against Wu Gan, the claim that “he attacked judicial organs, besmirched the judicial system, and maliciously stirred up trouble on the internet, attempting to incite people who did not know the truth to resent China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system.”
- The death of Fan Bengen in Suzhou (January 2014 to January 2015)
On December 3, 2013, the Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) returned home after having fled for some time to evade forced relocation. Shortly afterwards, numerous men with clubs stormed his home, beating his wife and son with their weapons. Fan Mugen took out a knife in self-defense, stabbing two of the aggressors to death. Lawyers from Beijing and elsewhere offered to represent him, and local human rights defenders in Suzhou traveled to the scene to prevent further attacks, collect evidence, and testify that Fan Mugen was engaged in genuine self-defense. On May 8, 2015, the Suzhou Municipal Intermediate Court publicly pronounced its verdict on Fan Mugen, finding him guilty of “intentional injury” and sentencing him to eight years imprisonment. The trial of second instance upheld the verdict. Large numbers of people however believed that he should have been found not-guilty and released.
Advocating on behalf of Fan Mugen in particular, and on deaths during forced demolition cases in general, has long been a focus of local Suzhou activists. Wu Gan began an online movement to raise funds for Fan Mugen’s defense.
The charges against Wu Gan say that he “actively started organizing fundraising online, maliciously created a disturbance, and incited people who didn’t know the facts to come to Suzhou to illegally assemble, stir up trouble and oppose the government.”
- The Baoding extortion case (March 2015)
Li Jie (李杰), the chief of Longzhuang village, Xinshi district, Baoding city, Hebei Province (河北省保定市新市区沈庄村), was in August 2013 charged with extortion and criminally detained. The Mancheng Court found Li Jie guilty of the crime in the trial of first instance and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. The trial of second instance found the case to be a grave miscarriage of justice, but the judge did not dare to violate the demands of the leader of the local politico-legal committee [a Party agency that controls the courts] and thus did not declare him not guilty. There have been countless cases of this kind in China.
On March 13, 2015, Wu Gan described the essence of the case on Twitter: “The politico-legal committee leadership in Baoding City, Hebei, is engaged in a ‘visual engineering’ project along the lines of Bo Xilai’s ‘strike the black’ campaign in Chongqing. They have no compunctions about declaring innocent people guilty in order to create the impression that they’re sending hardened mob elements to prison.” He called for the public to pay attention to the Li Jie case.
The Indictment against Wu Gan says that he “created a malicious disturbance online, stirring up resentment against China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system among people who didn’t know the true circumstances.”
- The shooting of Xu Chunhe in Qing’an, Heilongjiang (May 2015)
On May 2, 2015, Xu Chunhe (徐纯和), a petitioner from Suihua in Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江绥化), took his family on a trip outside the area. He was stopped and prevented from boarding a train by police officer Li Lebin (李乐斌), who then began beating him. After Xu grabbed ahold of Li’s baton during the struggle, in an attempt to stop Li, Li shot him to death on the grounds that he was attacking an officer. Xu Chunhe’s mother and three children saw the entire incident unfold.
In the face of a torrent of public criticism, officialdom turned on the propaganda machinery, unleashing their Fifty Cent Army to flood the internet saying that Li Lebin had opened fire in a lawful manner. Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Li Zhongwei (李仲伟), Xie Yang (谢阳), Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), and other lawyers, traveled to Heilongjiang to provide legal counsel to Xu Chunhe’s family. Wu Gan managed to get ahold of a surveillance tape of the incident and published the video online, leading it to go viral. Numerous activists began traveling to Qing’an to protest the injustice. The human rights lawyers who were attempting to intercede in the case were administratively detained, and any further lawyers who traveled to the area were similarly taken into custody.
In thanking the eyewitness who provided the video footage — a student who knew well the dangers of spreading such sensitive content — Wu Gan wrote at the beginning of the footage posted on YouTube: “It’s all because of the numbness and cowardice of people that our country has decayed to its present state.”
The charges against Wu Gan instead say that he “published a large number of Weibo posts warping the true facts of the manner… and incited others to travel to Qing’an county and illegally assemble.” He was also said to have “agitated the masses who don’t understand the truth to oppose organs of the state regime.”
The widespread attention that the Qing’an case received, and its impact on public opinion, is seen by many as one of the proximate causes of the mass arrests carried out from July 9, 2015, and onward against human rights lawyers and activists, known as the 709 Crackdown.
- The Jiangxi Leping miscarriage of justice (May 2015)
The Leping case took place in Leping of Jiangxi Province (江西乐平) in 2000, with an incident of kidnapping, rape, and a dismembered body. Two years later police arrested four men in Zhongdian village of Leping county: Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强), Fang Chunping (方春平), Cheng Fagen (程发根), and Cheng Li (程立). Under torture, the four of them “confessed” to the crime; by 2015 they had been in prison for over 13 years and had been given death sentences twice. In 2011 local public security officers arrested a criminal in another case, Fang Linzai (方林崽), who confessed to murdering and dismembering the victim in 2000. Lawyers representing the four victims then demanded that the authorities re-investigate the case, but the Jiangxi High people’s Court refused the lawyers’ access to the case files. In response, the lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯), among others, protested outside the court for days, holding placards demanding the court to allow them to read the files.
Wu Gan traveled to the court in May, by which time the lawyers had already been holding vigil for eight days and had still not gained access to the original case files. Wu Gan setup two retractable display banners outside the court, printing on them: “Jiangxi High Court president Zhang Zhonghou: just name your price!” (江西高院张忠厚院长，你开个价吧！) and “Lawless, immoral, inhuman: Violating the law, violating conscience, violating Party discipline, and violating Heaven’s principles” (无法无天无人性，违法违心违纪违天理). This was Wu Gan at his most idiosyncratic in the art of using public shaming as protest.
On May 19, 2015, Wu Gan was detained. Official media Xinhua wrote in a report several days later that he was being administratively detained for 10 days for “disrupting work unit order and publicly humiliating people.” But within that period Wu Gan was criminally detained by Fujian police on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” as well as “slander.” He was detained in Fujian and then transferred to Tianjin, where he became the 709 Crackdown’s inaugural prisoner.
The Indictment against him said that Wu Gan has “besmirched the image of the judicial organs, slandering and attacking the state’s judicial system.” For most observers, however, it was the authorities’ denial to allow lawyers to review supposedly public case files that dealt damage to the image of China’s judicial system.
Most ironically, the Jiangxi High Court did retry the Leping case and on December 22, 2016, issued new verdicts: the four defendants were found not guilty and immediately released. Yet Wu Gan’s protests outside court were still included in the criminal charges against him, demonstrating that China’s judicial system is not only unjust, but also absurd.
These are the 12 cases the prosecutors cited to support the charges of “subversion of state power” against Wu Gan. Interestingly, the indictment steers clear some of the more celebrated cases in which Wu Gan played larger roles and displayed uncommon gallantry, such as the Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) case (a young footbath waitress in Hunan who killed an official attempting to rape her), the Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰) case (a street vendor in Shenyang who killed a violent chengguan [semi-official streep cop] in self-defence), the Qian Yunhui (钱云会) case (a village chief in Zhejiang fighting against land grabs who was crushed to death by a heavy construction machinery), and the case of elementary school girls in Hainan who were brought to a hotel by the principal and a government official for sex. One can see why the indictment avoids these cases, which highlight how perverse, preposterous, and grossly unjust Chinese society can be, and how little the judiciary can do to safeguard justice without any meaningful rule of law.
“The rights of free speech, press, religious belief, demonstration, assembly, supervising the government and officials, as well as expressing discontent are all natural rights and civil rights endowed and guaranteed by the constitution (presuming the rights are not in name only),” Wu Gan wrote in My Pretrial Statement. “If a citizen is convicted of a crime for exercising these rights, it’s a disgrace to our country and will be ridiculed and spurned by the people of the world. Forcing someone to defend himself against a charge of guilt for exercising these rights is an insult.”
He continued: “I will be convicted not because I am really guilty, but because of my refusal to accept a state-designated lawyer, plead guilty, and make a televised confession for their propaganda purposes, and my resolution to reveal their brutal torture of me and the procuratorates’ misconduct… My crime of subverting the Communist regime is a great honor for me. In fighting for democracy and freedom and in defense of civil rights, a guilty verdict issued by a dictatorial regime is a golden glittering trophy awarded to warriors for liberty and democracy.”
A life-long academic on Chinese law and the judiciary, Professor Jerome Cohen, wrote of Wu Gan’s pretrial statement: “It is tragic testimony to the pathetic attempts of the Communist Party to drape its oppression in the mantle of ‘law.’ To me the saddest aspects are its reminder of the forced collaboration of China’s judges with its police, prosecutors and Party legal officials in suppressing the constitutionally-prescribed rights and freedoms of the Chinese people.”
The indictment and the trial of Wu Gan are themselves evidence of the nature of China’s judicial system and the “Chinese characteristics” that the indictment is so eager to defend. How the world judges Wu Gan is entirely another matter.
Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
My Pretrial Statement, Wu Gan, August 9, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, July, 2015.
Bill of Indictment Against Rights Activist Wu Gan, January 12, 2017.
Activist Who Rejected TV Confession Invites CCTV Interviewer to Be Witness at His Trial, Wu Gan, March 24, 2017.
To All Friends Concerned With the Imprisoned Human Rights Activist Wu Gan and the 709 Case, Xu Xiaoshun, father of Wu Gan, May 22, 2017.
Paying Homage to Liu Xiaobo from Behind Bars, Wu Gan, July 31, 2017.
Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017
It was heartbreaking and depressing recently to watch the community of Chinese activists and dissidents, especially friends of Liu Xiaobo, congregating on WhatsApp and frantically thinking of ways to save him. The appeals and statements, and the calls for signatures from a dozen or so sources, sounded like echoes bouncing off the walls that Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia were trapped behind. For China’s opposition movement, the passing of Liu Xiaobo feels like the climax of a continuous and ruthless campaign of elimination. Now, people are left to pick up the pieces, and they will need time.
I have been pointing out that over the past few years, starting from the now benign-looking crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013, the Party has been carrying out a what I call “targeted elimination” of key activists, dissidents, and intellectuals across the country. In Guangdong, they imprisoned Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and those pesky grassroots street demonstrators. In Wuhan, they put a few key activists in jail; the same was done in Suzhou and Shenzhen. In Xinyu, Jiangxi, they jailed Liu Ping and her small cohort. In Zhengzhou, a nascent, bustling citizen network used to gather frequently — but no more. In Beijing, Xu Zhiyong and key activists in the New Citizens Movement were sentenced, and prominent lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, as well as influential intellectuals, have been taken out one way or the other. The Sakharov laureate Hu Jia spent much of the year under house arrest in his Beijing home. Then in 2015, there was the consummate 709 Crackdown that targeted no fewer than 300 human rights lawyers and activists across the country. I can go on with the list, but you get the picture.
Those considered less than “leaders” have been chased around, driven out of their rentals, and subjected to all manner of harassment. Liberal commentators, journalists, and intellectuals have mostly stopped writing, because it has become too dangerous to analyze and reflect on the current conditions and the behavior of the government. Well, even if they write, their writings won’t survive anywhere inside China’s system of omnipresent censorship.
Come to think about it, that this calculated elimination should have come to Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace laureate, is only inevitable: how could the Party allow him to walk out of prison in 2020 and instantly become a Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi for China’s struggle toward democracy?
With Liu Xiaobo gone, the mood among activists is one of helplessness. I’m surprised how little argument over the statement “I have no enemies” there has been these days, and indeed, how it ceased to be relevant, while Liu Xiaobo lay dying, for it is unbearable, and preposterous, to bring back to mind its central proposal: “to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.” This statement used to be a lightening rod that sparked heated discussion. If Charter 08 represents a vision of China peacefully transitioning to a democracy, few today think it a viable option.
I was certain from the beginning that foreign governments — the United States and Germany in particular — were not going to do enough to make Liu Xiaobo’s last wish come true: “If I were to die, I’d rather die in the West” (as he said, via Liao Yiwu). They don’t care enough; they are absent-minded; they almost always underestimate the evil of the Chinese Communist Party; and they don’t know what it takes to get the upper hand with the CCP.
I find it particularly grievous that Liu Xiaobo’s close friends were denied a last chance to see him and say goodbye, despite their repeated and heartfelt pleas on humanitarian grounds. They’d have a much better chance entreating humanity from a pack of coyotes. Rubbing salt in the wound, plainclothes agents then played the role of “family and friends” at Liu Xiaobo’s memorial service.
Altogether, I feel that dying and being dead in the Party’s filthy hands is so ignominious that Liu Xiaobo would have been more dignified dying alone in a dungeon somewhere.
What is the path forward? What’s going to happen next in the struggle for democracy? The path forward is that there is no path forward. The Party has been working systematically to block that path: The elimination of key activists has been successful, and they are either in prison or have been rendered ineffective. To keep tabs on a few hundred or thousand activists is nothing for the Party. If you run down the list of the first batch of Charter 08 signatories — all 303 of them — and see where they are and what they have been doing now, you get a sense how this core group of Chinese citizens advocating change has been faring.
Meanwhile, the Party has been working overtime to cage in and lock down incipient civil society in China — an aspiration that has grown out of the economic and social transformations since the 1990s — by passing one draconian law after another from late 2014 to the present. This includes the law on the management of foreign NGOs, the National Security Law, the Internet Security Law, the revised Criminal Law, the Charity Law, the Counter-Terrorism Law, the counter-espionage law, and more recently, the draft Intelligence Law.
On July 15, Liu Xiaobo’s ashes were given a sea burial off the coast of Dalian and his widow and relatives had their arms twisted to obey the Party’s orders. Since then, a Chinese phrase, “crush the bones and toss the ashes” (挫骨扬灰), has sprung to the mind of many as the most apt description for the Party’s animus. It means that one is so hated that his bones must be ground up and his ashes cast away. Applying it to Liu Xiaobo, it is at the same time literal and true of the Party’s fear of both the man and what he symbolized.
Liu Xiaobo may not have enemies, but the despots in China know very well who their enemies are.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017
Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2016
If it wasn’t for the “Safety House” in which he was hiding as he wrote, the opening paragraph of Lam Wing Kee’s personal account would be beguilingly insouciant: there he stands at the window, painting his view of the Lei Yue Mun bay in the dazzling late afternoon light, with precise, unhurried sentences.
It is with this dissonant scene that Mr. Lam begins his narration of eight months of secret captivity in mainland China.
Doing what he had for years – hauling suitcases of tabloid-style exposés about Chinese leaders and politics to mainland China, and then mailing them to clients – he was stopped at customs in Shenzhen one day in October 2015 and pulled aside for questioning. It wasn’t his first time, but this time it was different. A Central Government Special Investigation Team (中央专案组) had been formed to target the book publishing and mailing business, newly seen as “a veiled attempt to overthrow the Chinese government.”
Handcuffed and hooded, he was taken to a two-story building in Ningbo on the coast. There were mountains on three sides, and fog shrouded the area in the morning and evenings. He discovered his whereabouts by squatting on the toilet and looking out through cracks in the window.
The room was padded to prevent suicide, a thought he briefly contemplated. Three surveillance cameras and two guards on rotation watched his every move. He was interrogated between 20 and 30 times about the Causeway Bay bookstore he worked at, the authors of the books, his clientele, and his boss, Gui Minhai (桂民海) who was abducted from Thailand and is still in custody. The interrogations must have been thin on substance given the number of sessions involved, so Mr. Lam’s account of them is at best sketchy.
On the third day of his abduction, he began to mark time by secretly pulling a thread off his orange jacket and tying a little knot each day. By the time he was removed from Ningbo there were 124 little orange knots.
He sought to communicate with his guards, but only one young man risked discovery to speak a few furtive words. A doctor who came to check his vitals took pains not to say any more than necessary, but nonetheless brought him some snow from outside — something he, a Hong Konger, had never touched before. He fancied that his main handler, Mr. Shi, might be above the others and the system he served, because he is “educated.” But humanity is a scarce commodity under terror.
They forced him to waive his right to notify relatives and hire lawyers. He signed. They presented him with a false confession, that he had committed the crime of illegally selling books. He signed. They forced him to write a statement of repentance. He did, according to their precise instructions. They made him confess on camera, several times. He was shocked to find that a “witness” at one of those sessions was played by a female cop. He did everything they made him do, because he saw that he had no choice.
In March 2016, they took him to Shaoguan, a city in northern Guangdong, and gave him a job in the local library. He reshelved books during the day and reported to his minder in the evening. From the cell phone they gave him he devoured every bit of news about the five booksellers in Hong Kong, and began to realize, from statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that what he was embroiled in was a big deal.
One night in April, two prostitutes knocked on his door. He saw that it was a noose to be tied around his neck and declined their company.
Having deemed him sufficiently conditioned and ready, in June the Special Investigation Team sent him back to Hong Kong to fetch the company computer that stored client information. He was given one day in which to do it, and also visit his relatives and an old teacher whose declining health was preoccupying him.
At the immigration check point he did what he had been instructed: he told Hong Kong police that he was back to close up the case. He’s safe and needs no help. Then he checked into a hotel designated by his minders.
He had planned to obey every command. “In any case,” he figured, “I’d go back [to the mainland] for a few more months, then everyone would be able to come back to Hong Kong and live peacefully like before.”
Things began to unravel after he boarded the MTR, going to the office in North Point to fetch the computer:
“Standing in the subway car were chattering students with smiles on their faces. Some passengers stared at their phones with their heads bowed. A pregnant woman boarded, and someone offered their seat. A courier had put his bags down and was squatting in a corner to sort his deliveries. Everyone was untroubled, except me, being followed and manipulated. What’s wrong with me? I’m in Hong Kong, and yet I still have no freedom.”
He began to feel a sense of repulsion at their plans, and the role he was assuming in them:
“What is even scarier, as the man named Shi told me, is that I have to continue working in the bookshop after they allow me to return to Hong Kong. He’ll keep in touch with me, and I’ll report what’s going on, through writing or photographs. They want to know about Hong Kong, especially those who are buying books about political affairs. I’ll be their eyes and ears. Good heavens, I’ll not only lose my own freedom, but betray others. If I yield today, I’ll be an accomplice tomorrow, forcing more people to submit. If I sell my soul today, I’ll be forcing others to sell their souls tomorrow.”
He was able to extend his stay for one more day, because he picked up the wrong computer.
He felt his love for Hong Kong acutely: the venders, the fortunetellers, the sidewalk food stands, and the crowds. He roamed Portland Street and went by Langham Place. From Shanghai Street, through Portland Street again, he walked towards Yau Ma Tei. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Hong Kong and going back to his captors. At dinner with his older sister, he dismissed the notion that only Christians were capable of doing good, and was stuck by an inscription on the homescreen of his brother-in-law’s phone: “When your attitude is right, happiness will come.”
At Festival Walk around noon the next day, where he was supposed to board the train and head to the border, he stopped and sat smoking in the bright sun. He was late, and the people on the other side of Luohu Bridge were waiting for him. He had stayed up all night reading news about the booksellers and the protest of six thousand Hong Kongers and pro-democracy legislators.
At the MTR entrance, he began to hesitate. He wanted another cigarette. Then a little poem that he had read when he was young came to him: “I have never seen / a knelt reading desk / though I’ve seen / men of knowledge on their knees.”
Then he made up his mind. He stubbed out the smoke and turned around. The rest of the story is now well known.
At the end of 2014, I was heartbroken that so many of the people I know or have reported on have gone to prison. I started to think that there weren’t too many left to put in jail. What did I know? Over the past two years, more people have been abducted, jailed, or secretly detained. More have been tortured. Harsher – much harsher – sentences have been handed down. The country is now on lockdown under a set of laws designed to restrict freedom in all areas. A narrative is being fostered that there is a U.S.-led conspiracy to bring down the communist regime.
At the end of 2016, however, the consensus among the people I work with is that, looking back some years later, we’ll find that 2016 is far from being the worst. The worst is yet to come.
I first read Mr. Lam’s account in August in a quiet cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, and read it once again on the eve of 2017. The power of his testimony is amplified by his considerable literary deftness. I have been wanting to capture that moment, on June 16, 2016, at the Kowloon Tong Station, when he put out his cigarette and turned around. To me, it’s one of the most important events of the year. In it is the kernel of hope I’m bringing with me into 2017, and beyond.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Yaxue Cao, December 25, 2016
On December 9, 2015, after dropping their two sons off at school, Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) and his wife Wang Hongwu (王洪雾) of the Living Stone house church (活石教会) in Guiyang, made their way to the 24th story of Guiyang International Center, which hosts the main hall of their congregation. At the same time every Wednesday, at three different church locations, Living Stone congregants hold a prayer service. A few days prior, government Neighborhood Committees and police stations dispatched personnel to go door-by-door to the homes of hundreds of Living Stone church members, warning them against attending the Wednesday service. “We’ll arrest whoever goes,” they were told. Needless to say, the authorities had the home addresses, workplaces, telephone numbers, and other personal information of every churchgoer. The few who were determined to attend that morning were intercepted by government agents, who deliberately collided with their car and then dragged them off to the local police station to settle the “accident.”
The prayer service was set to start at 9:30 a.m., but at 9:00 well over 100 “integrated law enforcement” agents swept in. There were personnel from the Bureau of Civil Affairs and the Bureau of Religious Administration, public security bureau agents, and a squad of SWAT police in full armed regalia. They demanded that Pastor Yang open all the doors. After he refused, they called over their locksmith. When the “law enforcement personnel” attempted to enter the office and the sound control room next to it, to take the computer hard drives, Pastor Yang stood blocking the doorway. He demanded that the technical personnel present their work identification cards. When they said they didn’t have any, he announced that they wouldn’t be allowed in. At that point, one of the commanders of the operation yelled out “SWAT police, come over here!” A few burly members of the SWAT team ran over, lifted Yang Hua off his feet, and carried him away to a corner next to the elevator, pinning him there.
Pastor Su Tianfu (苏天富), who had just finished his errands in the morning and arrived at the church, attempted, abortively, to reason with the agents. They began confiscating the church’s computers, equipment, and anything else they thought useful. They said they would provide a list of the items confiscated, but over a year later no such list has been forthcoming. They also confiscated the cellphones of Yang Hua, Hongwu, Pastor Su, and a number of couples who arrived for the service, deleting all photographs on them.
When the raid was over they posted two notices sealing the church doors, one saying that the church was an illegal civil organization, the other that it had set up a center of religious activity without authorization. Yang Hua and Hongwu were taken to the police station. Living Stone’s two branch locations were dealt with in a similar manner.
On December 14 Pastor Su was taken into custody at his home by police. Two days later when he was released, they warned him that he would be charged with “divulging state secrets” later. A year on, he is still technically “on bail pending further trial,” which means that his freedom of movement is restricted.
A few days after Yang Hua was arrested the authorities raided his home and took away his computer and everything else that they thought would be useful for their investigation.
On December 26, 2016, Yang Hua will be on trial for “deliberately divulging state secrets” (故意泄露国家机密罪). The Chinese government seems to deliberately time cases of political persecution around the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, as a means of avoiding international attention.
The “state secrets” in question is a document issued by an ad hoc office set up to eliminate the Living Stone Church, which goes by the title of the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church” (贵阳市依法处置贵阳活石教会指挥部). Dated December 3, 2015, the document bore the official seal of the Office of the Guiyang Municipal Stability Maintenance Work Leading Small Group (贵阳市维护稳定工作领导小组办公室). It said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task that must be given a high level of priority. Leaders of work units must be personally on task, fall in line with the entire city’s overall deployments, and earnestly mobilize to complete all the work.” Attached to it was a list of names of every Living Stone member, which was forwarded to each of their workplaces, demanding that those employees be investigated and placed under “stability control” (稳控).
The letter came to the attention of a young woman named Wang Yao (王瑶), who worked in the office of the Party Committee of the Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital of Guiyang City. She knew a friend, Yu Lei (余雷), who attended Living Stone bible study sessions. So she gave Yu photographs of the document. Now, Wang and Yu have been tried for “illegally acquiring state secrets” (非法获取国家机密罪) and “illegally disseminating state secrets” (非法传播国家机密) respectively. Their judgements have not yet been handed down.
Two Young Preachers from Poverty
The two descriptions I kept hearing about the two pastors of the Living Stone church were, firstly, that they were from the poorest parts of Guizhou (Guizhou itself is one of the poorest provinces in China), and secondly that they were both very young. Pastor Su Tianfu was born in 1975, while Pastor Yang Hua was born in 1976; they come from the neighbouring counties of Qianxi (黔西) and Nayong (纳雍) respectively.
Zhang Tan (张坦), a member of the Living Stone church and an independent scholar of Christianity in China, explained that Guizhou was one of the 12 centers of missionary activity established by the China Inland Mission, the protestant organization founded by 19th century English missionary Hudson Taylor (戴德生). Yang Hua and Su Tianfu grew up in an area in which the China Inland Mission had once preached the Gospel, until early 1950s when missionaries were expelled by the Communist Party. Most Christians at that point were forcibly integrated into the Party-controlled “Three-Self” church movement. After the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Tan says, Christians in Guizhou began to embrace their faith ardently. In the poverty-stricken far-off reaches of mountainous Guizhou, he added, neither the Three-Self church nor house churches had much purchase.
Yang Hua was born Li Guozhi (李国志), the fourth sibling in a third-generation Christian family. When he was young, though, he not only refused to believe, but found the idea embarrassing. His father was an elder in a house church. He spent most of his time dealing with church affairs and relatively less on looking after his family. He also struck his kids at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, after suffering a sudden accident in the family, and personally experiencing the transformative effect of prayer, Yang Hua became a Christian.
At around that time there were Christian workers offering in his hometown Bible study sessions, which he joined. Before long he felt the desire to spread the Gospel himself. At age 13 in 1989 (he probably had little idea what was taking place in Beijing that year), he cut short his studies and became a roaming preacher. First he followed a group in his hometown, then went onto Yunnan, Guangxi, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces to preach. Christians in Zhejiang wanted him to put down roots there, but he felt the urge to return to Guizhou.
In 1997 Yang Hua, then 21, moved from Zhejiang back to Guiyang.
Su Tianfu grew up in abject poverty. In 2011, in an interview with the Christian author Yu Jie (余杰), he mentioned that the only clothes he wore when growing up were hand-me-downs from relatives. In winter, he said, there was often hardly any food at home, so he only ate once a day. His father was a drunk who beat him. When he was unable to pay the miscellaneous expenses for junior high school, one of the teachers pitied him and only made him pay half up front. The rest he earned over summer, collecting trash, hauling sandbags at a construction site, and laboring as a road builder. When he finished middle-school he applied for junior teachers’ college (师专) because it was free. In his own words, he was a cynical and hopeless youth who was convinced that life had no meaning.
But he began to join a Bible study class at the teachers’ college. There was no pastor and no preacher; sometimes a fine arts teacher at the school, who was a Christian, would lead them in Bible study, or play hymns on tape that everyone would sing to. “Though I didn’t understand a great deal about the truth of it, I participated in the meetings regularly, and I felt in my soul a great sense of contentment,” Su said. “I felt joy.”
On Christmas 1993 Su Tianfu was baptized as a Christian — the first in his family. In 1997 at the age of 22 he quit his job teaching elementary school and went to Guiyang.
1997-2000: Each Their Own Ministry
The two young men first met while serving the “Dandelion” Christian Fellowship at Guizhou University of Technology. It was established in 1980 by two foreign missionaries who were teaching there.
In June of 1997, Su Tianfu went to Guangzhou to be further trained in pastoral care. In Guangdong he began to regularly participate in church meetings led by the renowned pastor Lin Xiangao (林献羔) of the Damazhan house church. He studied Cantonese and traveled with other disciples to found churches and spread the Gospel around Guangdong. In 2000 he married Ouyang Manping (欧阳满平), a young lady he’d gotten to know in their Bible training classes.
Back in Guiyang, Yang Hua joined a house church group of a few dozen members. It was there that he got to know Wang Hongwu, at the time a nurse at the charity clinic run by the church. When he revealed that he took an interest in her, however, he was curtly rebuffed. As Hongwu put it: “He didn’t fit my criteria. All the things a girl wanted, he didn’t have: a diploma, money, good looks — he didn’t measure up in any area.”
Yang Hua was deeply hurt, and for a while fell into terrible health. He had nosebleeds and high fever, and came to the clinic for treatment. This went on for a while until he decided he had to pull himself out of it. At a workers’ meeting one day, Yang Hua told a Ms. Li that “Next week I’m going out to the Yachi River” (鸭池河). He’d been planning and hoping to establish a church there for a long time, but had put it off because of the emotional turmoil of being rejected. Hongwu overheard the conversation. “My heart thumped,” she said. “It was like a shut door being suddenly flung open.”
Yachi River at the time was the headquarters to the Ninth Engineering Bureau of the Sinohydro (中国水利水电第九工程局有限公司), inhabited by thousands of construction workers and their families. Over the next two years, Yang Hua went door to door spreading the Gospel. There had been only one or two believers when he started, and number quickly mushroomed to over a hundred over the next two years. In 2000 he went back to Guiyang, and in 2001 he and Hongwu married.
Preaching and Training in Guizhou from 2000 to 2008
“Even though I’d lived in Guangzhou for quite a few years, had learnt Cantonese, and was gradually getting used to life there, there was always a voice in my heart telling me: ‘You have to return to your home province and begin a new phase of your Ministry.’ Though Guizhou was poor and behind-the-times, it was a much bigger canvas,” Su Tianfu said.
On the day that Su and his wife arrived in Guiyang, Yang Hua and another friend met them at the train station. Their journey together had begun.
In his interview with Yu Jie, Pastor Su explained what happened over those years. First, the two young men each led their own small-scale house church assemblies. They also returned to serve a mission in their hometowns in the Bijie (毕节) and Liupanshui (六盘水) prefectures, southwest Guizhou, populated by the Miao and Yi ethnic groups. As a way of alleviating the reliance on preachers coming out to the countryside, from 2003 to 2008 they held training sessions in Guiyang every year for ethnic Christian workers, and each session lasted three months, training 20 students each time.
Beginning in 2003 they arranged for Christian workers to travel around Guizhou, focusing on regions without churches, to conduct short- and long-term missionary work. They’ve relied on the donations of congregants for their livelihoods, though their wives have also worked to help support the family.
Their activities have alwasys been a matter of close attention for the authorities. In 2003 they got a tip off that the secret police were investigating them, and were likely going to make arrests. They prepared travel bags and were ready to flee at short notice, but in the end they didn’t flee. In the years followed, similar threats stalked them, until police interrogations and menace became a part of life.
A City on the Hill
By 2008 Yang Hua and Su Tianfu were being harassed and attacked wherever they went in Guizhou. They were increasingly running short of resources, until they were unable to pay the rent on their training venue.
It bothered them that the house churches they led in Guiyang had been underground. “Even though it was just a small meeting of a dozen or so people, we had to act like the underground [revolutionary-era] Communist Party you see on television dramas — using codewords, acting secretively as though we were doing something terrible,” Su said.
But at that point, as Su judged it in the 2011 interview, Guiyang had only one Three-Self church for a population of five or six million, plus a seminary and another small church on the outskirts of town. “On the one hand, a lot of people had never ever heard the Gospel, but on the other, the existing Christians had nowhere to meet.”
Through prayer and careful consideration together, their small church groups started to think clearly on what they wanted to achieve: they wanted their fellowship to grow and thrive in the open, and they wanted to make an impact on the city of Guiyang.
“Given that Christians are the light of the world, the church is the city on the hill. So it can’t be hidden. It’s got to be public,” Su Tianfu said.
The new church they opened would be the “Living Stone” church, a name that Yang Hua picked. It was drawn from Peter 2:4-5: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
After spring in 2008 they began drawing up plans to rent an office space for worship. In Easter they held a dedication ceremony for a new church with about 50 members. Apart from regular services, the church held Christmas celebrations, hosted weddings, and organized excursions, all of which attracted more members.
Beginning in 2009 the Living Stone church each year baptized between a few dozen and over 100 new believers. Their Christmas celebrations attracted over 1,000, either participants or onlookers. The government was apprised of every large-scale activity in advance. When the authorities tried to interfere, the churchmen, often led by Pastor Yang Hua, argued their case strongly and never gave ground. In 2011, in a river on the southern outskirts of Guiyang, they held a baptism ceremony for 120 new Christians. With friends and family included there were probably between 300 to 400 people there. The government then mobilized at least twice as many security personnel to watch them.
As part of the church’s pastoral program with congregants, they encouraged all believers to also participate in small-scale house church meetings. Last year when the church was formally banned by the Guiyang authorities, there were over 20 of these small house church congregations, each with between one and a few dozen members. The effect of the small groups was to give believers a sense of family, return, and belonging, where spreading the Gospel, caring for one another, and caring for society became part of their way of life.
Most of the congregants were between 20 and 40, from all walks of life: businessmen, teachers, doctors, professionals, public servants, homemakers, students, and more.
For years they facilitated adoption of abandoned infants, fostered children with developmental disabilities, taught survival skills to children in orphanages, and performed other welfare services — all of which they were praised for in the local press. Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly, and others. The church became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.
Church management was handled by a 12-member board of directors elected by the congregation, which held meetings to discuss and make decisions on church affairs both large and small. When there were items of serious disagreement, they put the matter aside rather than have the majority overrule a minority. The goal was to eventually reach a consensus.
As the number of congregants continued to grow, the church bought three residential units on the 24th floor of the Guiyang International Center with a total 600 square meters. After they bought the units, the church began coming under more intense pressure from the authorities. Before they began using them, the government posted notices inside and outside the building stating that the newly established church was “an unapproved non-religious site established without permission,” and that pastors Su Tianfu and Yang Hua were unapproved, unregistered ministers.
On November 8, 2015, Living Stone congregants, under the menacing gaze of hundreds of riot police, SWAT police, regular police, and officials from a multitude of government agencies, held a ceremony dedicating their new church. When government agents later attempted to force them to join the regime-controlled “Three-Self” church movement, they were firmly rejected. The result was a campaign of harassment, threats, and efforts at blocking believers from attending.
Defending the Rights of Small Churches
Pastor Yang Hua and Pastor Su divided their duties roughly in half: Su handled internal affairs, and Yang took care of liaison and external activities. As one congregant told me in an interview: “We’ve been helping small rural churches around Guizhou for years. When these churches are raided and broken up and their members arrested, no one else even knows.” The small churches seek out Yang Hua, who finds lawyers to defend them. Quite a few cases have been defended successfully.
Hongwu, Pastor Yang’s wife, said that on every occasion that brothers and sisters of the faith have been attacked by the government, Yang Hua stands up for them.
In May 2014 the authorities made a series of arrests of churchgoers in Liupanshui (六盘水), at a church that had grown rapidly and had held regular services for over 20 years. Now it was called an “evil religion” and its members detained. Yang Hua engaged lawyers in Beijing and Shanghai who traveled with him to Liupanshui, where they were followed by government vehicles. Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), one of the lawyers, described the torture that believers were subject to while in custody: they were beaten hard with long wooden staffs, forced to stand for prolonged periods, starved, deprived of sleep, and had lit cigarettes stuffed into their mouths.
In 2015 there was a similar incident in Daguan, Qianxi county (黔西大关), where a number of locals, who had returned from years in Hangzhou as migrant workers, were arrested after setting up a thriving church. Yang Hua and two lawyers from out of town arrived to help. They were followed by government-hired thugs everywhere they went. The men rammed their vehicle into Yang Hua’s, and pulled out long machetes threatening to hack him and the lawyers to death.
More than one person has described Yang Hua as diminutive in size and “frail” in appearance: he’s just under 1.6m (5’3″), is somewhat hunched due to back inflammation (ankylosing spondylitis) and often in pain. But when the rubber hits the road and fellow Christians are being assailed and threatened, he’s on the front lines defending their rights, not in the least afraid. He carries of aura of invincibility. “Pastor Yang Hua’s courage and sense of responsibility is extraordinary,” a church member who was on some of these trips with Yang Hua told me.
Zhang Tan once wrote an article about how Yang Hua dealt with a traffic case. “No matter the size of the case, Yang Hua fights it from the lowest level court to the highest. Even if he’s losing every step of the way, he doesn’t give up.” The process, Zhang told me, has revealed the savagery of the government power, but it’s also shown Yang Hua’s tenacity.
In today’s China, this sort of resistance doesn’t have much practical value. In the Daguan case, the five churchmen arrested were all imprisoned on China’s “evil religion” laws, and the Living Stone church has now also been crushed. Indeed, some church members complained that the fate of Living Stone was precisely because Pastor Yang Hua got involved in too many affairs of other churches.
As far as the Chinese Communist Party is concerned, Christianity and its dissemination is in and of itself a question of ideological competition. For decades the Party has used the “Three-Self” church system to integrate and assimilate Christianity under the banner of “patriotism,” exerting strict doctrinal and administrative control over these “competing” faiths. The escalated repression in Zhejiang, Henan and other provinces over the last three years are another example of the Party and Xi Jinping’s determination to dig out this supposed threat by the root. The shutdown of the Living Stone church and the arrest of Pastor Yang Hua is simply one development in the overall political schema in China. It has little to do with the “leak” of a ridiculous government document.
Zhang said that Christianity in China has reached a point in time, and that Guiyang’s Living Stone church is a perfect product of this point in time.
The Judgment of the Party vs. the Judgement of God
Since his detention, Pastor Yang Hua’s wife and children have been prevented from seeing him because his case “involves state secrets.” The two lawyers she engaged met Yang Hua for the first time in March and again in May. Yang Hua revealed how his interrogators used torture to try to extract a confession. They fixed him to an iron chair, stomped his feet with their shoes, and threatened his life and that of his wife and children. They also told him: “We know we can’t change your faith, but we control everything. If we want, we can paint you as a greedy pastor and destroy your reputation.”
The lawyers said that despite the threats, Pastor Yang Hua didn’t give in. Nor did the church’s accountant, Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), who was detained in July 2015 — she is still being held, though according to Chinese criminal procedure should have long ago either been tried or released.
In September, lawyers reported that Yang Hua was suffering from liver pain, and had scabies all over his body.
The authorities claim that the case has nothing to do with religion. But they’ve denied Yang Hua, and the three other detainees, the right to read the Bible while in custody. For months Yang Hua’s wife hand-copied Bible passages and mailed them to him, but in October that final connection too was severed too.
For the pending trial, police warned lawyers not to plead not-guilty (indeed, the judicial system in China is government-directed theater, and everyone is expected to follow the script). But in their Legal Opinion submitted to the court in November, the two lawyers questioned the legality and authority of the ad hoc agency set up to suppress the church, the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church.” They also questioned the validity of the regulation cited by the prosecution: “Regulations on State Secrets, Their Classification, and Scope in Religious Work.” It’s a document whose existence has never been announced to the public, and whose issuer, legal remit, and period of effect remain unknown. Yet it forms the basis of the charges against Pastor Yang Hua.
Hongwu said that though she has received no announcement of the trial, the only reason she won’t be there is if she’s put under house arrest. Pastor Su, according to a source, has been taken out of Guiyang on an involuntary trip.
As for the fate of the Living Stone church and the trial of Pastor Yang, Zhang Tan shared his thoughts: China’s “governing the country according to the law” (依法治国) is about using harsh legal instruments to control the people, in the model of the Qin Dynasty. It’s about maintaining and exercising the power of rulers, and has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the people. This, he said, is really the “Chinese characteristics.” “Secrets” are everywhere in today’s China, he said. “For example, they want to demolish my home, so they have a ‘secret’ document for demolishing my home. If I get ahold of this document, it is me who violated the law, not they, who want to destroy my property. Only a dictatorship has secrets everywhere, and it’s only under a dictatorship that one finds such absurdities at every turn.”
Zhang Tan argues that throughout Chinese history, there have been benevolent governments and ruthless governments. But take any issue and compare today’s communist rule with that of the Qin or Ming — widely seen as the harshest and most abusive dynasties — and the regime of today is worse. “The Chinese nation,” he said, “has come to an end.”
A sense of peace fills the letters Pastor Yang Hua has sent to his wife and children from his cell. He told Hongwu that his conditions have improved, and that he had no more need of money or other supplies. His imprisonment, he wrote, is a sabbatical that Jesus granted him after 23 years of toil. He said he’ll enjoy it, “like a child who’s had his full of milk, sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, December 21, 2015.