Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018
Rights Movement Spread All Over the Country
By 2004, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang were under constant threat. Fuzhou police told the village deputies that Zhao and Li were criminals, and demanded that the deputies expose the two. The Fujian municipal government also dispatched a special investigation team to the hometowns of Li and Zhao to look into their family backgrounds. A public security official in Fu’an said: “Don’t you worry that Zhao and Li are still on the lam — that’s because it’s not time for their date with the devil just yet. Just wait till that day comes: we’ll grab them, put them in pig traps, and toss them into the ocean to feed the sharks!”
On September 17, 2004, Zhao Yan was arrested by over 20 state security agents while at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. At that point he had already left the China Reform magazine and was working as a research assistant in the Beijing office of The New York Times. He was accused of leaking state secrets, denied a lawyer for several months, and eventually sentenced to three years on charges of fraud.
On December 14, 2004, Li Baiguang and three lawyers, while on their way to Fu’an to handle a rights defense case that was likely a trap, were hemmed in by police vehicles and arrested. Li was accused of illegally providing legal services, because he did not possess a law license. On the evening of December 21, a dozen police officers from Fu’an broke into Li’s apartment in Beijing, pried open his cabinets, and confiscated his hard drives and documents related to dismissing officials.
Thanks to the efforts of his friend Yu Meisun and a host of liberal intellectuals and journalists, Li Baiguang was released on bail after 37 days in custody. December to January are the coldest months of the year in Fujian, and there was no heating. In a cell with dozens of people, Li Baiguang recalled later, “I wore a suit, and it was cold. As a form of punishment, they told the cell boss to make me bathe in freezing seawater every day. I lost a lot of hair, and lost so much weight that my cheekbones protruded. When I came out my nephew hardly recognized me.”
The removal of officials between 2003 and 2004 was one of the key campaigns that initiated the rights defense movement, and one of the largest-scale rights defense activities in China. Around the same time, rights defense initiatives took place. During the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident in March 2003, three Peking University law PhDs, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Yu Jiang (俞江) and Teng Biao (腾彪) wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding that they conduct a constitutional review of the law “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities” (《城市流浪乞讨人员收容遣送办法》). He Weifang (贺卫方), Xiao Han (萧瀚), He Haibo (何海波), and two other well-known legal scholars demanded that the NPC conduct an investigation into how the ‘administrative measures,’ commonly known as ‘custody and repatriation,’ were actually being implemented. Gao Zhisheng began defending Falun Gong practitioners in court, demanded that the government respect freedom of belief, and called for the torture against practitioners to cease. Numerous other lawyers and legal scholars also began taking up human rights defense cases, bringing them to public consciousness. Other notable cases of the period included the defence of Hebei private entrepreneur Sun Dawu (孙大午), who was accused of ‘illegal fundraising’; the case of injured investors in the Shanbei oil fields; the case of Christian Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) who was arrested for printing the Bible; the Southern Metropolis Daily editor and manager Cheng Yizhong (程益中) and Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) who were punished for reporting on the Sun Zhigang case and broke the news of SARS; the ‘Three Servants’ religious case that involved hundreds of believers; the libel case against the authors of the Survey of Chinese Peasants (《中国农民调查》), and other incidents.
In fall of 2003 Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui (张星水) founded the organization Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政) in Beijing, later changing its name to the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟). Gongmeng, as it’s often known per the Chinese title, became a hub — and incubator — for human rights lawyers and legal activists. They held a meeting nearly every week, and Li Baiguang was one of the regular participants.
In the winter of 2003 there was an upsurge in the participation of independent candidates in People’s Representative elections in Beijing, and a number of these candidates were successful.
Many independent NGOs focused on environmental protection, AIDS control and prevention, women’s rights, and disabled rights, had sprung up in Beijing and other cities. They used the law and advocacy to propagate rights awareness.
Entering 2005, the dismissal of officials in Taishi Village (太石村), Guangdong Province, as well as the Linyi Family Planning Case in Shandong (临沂计生案), became public events involving lawyers, public intellectuals, and citizen activists from around the country.
At the end of 2005, Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine highlighted 14 human rights lawyers and legal scholars, including Li Baiguang, as 2005 People of the Year. It said that “these 14 rights defense lawyers aren’t afraid of power; they wield the constitution as a weapon, harness the power of the internet, and work to defend the rights of the 1.3 billion Chinese people granted in their own constitution, while pushing for the establishment of democracy and rule of law in China.” In the ensuing years, with the exception of one or two, these 14 lawyers and scholars would be arrested, tortured, disappeared, disbarred, or forced into exile. Still, the grassroots rights defense movement they helped to kick off would continue to expand, and gain new energy in the age of social media. We shall not elaborate on that here.
‘Turning into an Ant’
In late July 1999, after publishing Samuel Smiles’ “The Huguenots in France” (issued under the Chinese title “The Power of of Faith” 《信仰的力量》) , Li Baiguang went to a church in the Haidian district of Beijing, bought a copy of the Bible, and began to read it. In January 2005 after he was released from prison, he began attending the Ark Church in Beijing (北京方舟教会) to study the Bible and pray. The Ark Church was a meeting place for many dissidents, rights lawyers, Tiananmen massacre victims, and petitioners — and for this reason the house church suffered regular harassment by the police. On July 30, 2005, Li was baptized in a reservoir in Huairou (怀柔), Beijing. He loudly proclaimed his witness, telling of the several times in his life when he brushed shoulders with death. He spoke of the time that an inner voice told him to stop, as he was considering plunging to his death from a building at university. He told of the catastrophes he escaped in 1998, 2001, and then in 2004. He spoke of the cumulative impact that Samuel Smiles’ books had on him, and, finally, he expressed his gratitude to Jesus.
He began to tremble violently as he read, and only after the baptism was complete and he had sat down a while did it subside.
For Li Baiguang, the freedom of the mind and soul and political freedom are simply two sides of the same coin. In 2000, while translating Smiles, Li wrote an essay titled “The Fountainhead of Modern Freedom is the Freedom of Individual Conscience” (《现代自由的源头是个体的良心自由》). He came to believe that only faith can shape and form conscience, and further, that the emergence of individual conscience is the origin and basis of freedom. This also makes it the source of the courage and motivation to fight for freedom and against despotism. He doesn’t believe that the widespread failure of Chinese to distinguish right and wrong, and the country’s moral decay, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Communist Party’s dictatorship.
In April 2006, in a session of “The Middle Forum” (《中道论坛》) with Fan Yafeng, Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), and Qiu Feng (秋风), Li said he was tired of liberal intellectuals’ decades-long discussions of grand themes like constitutional governance, reform, and future China. He described his own turning point of involvement in actual, real life rights defense work. Of the eight years between 1997 and 2005, he said, he too spent the first five focused on all sorts of macro abstractions. “Recently I’ve had a realization: I’m willing to become an ant. I want to take the rights and freedoms in the books and, through case after case, bring them into the real world bit by bit. This is my personal stance. The path to this is legal procedure. In summer, the ant gathers food. Today, I’m also transporting food under the framework of rights defense, and in doing so accumulating experience and results for the arrival of the day of constitutional government.”
“According to the principles of political mechanics, it’s impossible to change minds overnight in such a large system. All you can do is loosen the screws one by one and turn the soil over clump by clump,” he said. Li held high hopes in the future of the nascent rights defense movement, and the gradual dismantling of autocracy from the margins. He thought that the rights defense movement would be crucial to China’s future establishment of a constitutional democracy.
This was the first time he proposed the ‘ant’ idea. In the years afterward, this is how he characterized his work and it became very familiar to his friends.
In May 2005, the Midland, Texas-based NGO China Aid, as well as the Institute on Chinese Law & Religion, invited seven Chinese rights lawyers and legal scholars to join a “China Freedom Summit.” Among those invited, Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, and Zhang Xingshui were blocked from leaving China; Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, Yu Jie, and Guo Feixiong were able to make it to the United States. Li Baiguang delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute titled “The Legal Dimensions of Religious Freedom: Reality and Prospects in China.” It proposed a systematic approach for defending religious freedom according to the law in China, and included the following actions:
- Submit an application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for constitutional review of laws, regulations and policies related to freedom of religious belief, and demand the annulment of unconstitutional laws that infringe upon religious freedom;
- Apply for religious services for prisoners in detention centres, prisons, and re-education camps in China who believe in God, or have come to believe while in detention, and send the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the above detention facilities;
- Provide relief to Christians whose religious freedom has been infringed upon by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who have had their persons or their residences illegally searched by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who are being subjected to re-education through forced labor;
- Provide restitution to Christians or Christian organizations who have been punished with large fines;
- Provide restitution for those who have been harmed by the dereliction of duty of state organs.
On May 8, while at the Midland office of China Aid for one week of Bible study, the group learned that they would be granted a meeting with President Bush in the White House. On the morning of May 11, President Bush met with Yu Jie, Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, China Aid director Bob Fu, and Institute on Chinese Law & Religion director Deborah Fikes, in the Yellow Oval Room.
Li Baiguang presented President Bush with a gift — a copy of a proposal to make a documentary titled “American Civilization.” It was exquisitely designed by the artist Meng Huang (孟煌). In 2003, Li and his intellectual friends in Beijing designed together two major documentary projects. One of them was a 30-episode series that would introduce the democratic experience in 30 countries. Another, “American Civilization,” would be a 100-episode documentary series that would provide Chinese people a comprehensive introduction to the establishment of America, including its political life, its judicial system, education system, and religious beliefs. “I want to make it a television special for the education of the public,” Li said. He established the Beijing Qimin Research Center (北京启民研究中心) to push the plans forward, but in the end the two ambitious projects were aborted.
The three Christians from China being received by President Bush was, at the time, a major news story. But for the ten years following, the meeting with the U.S. President was remembered more for a controversy that surrounded it: the so-called “rejecting Guo incident.” This is a reference to the fact that Guo Feixiong was excluded from the meeting, purportedly by Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who argued that the meeting was for Christians only and Guo should not attend because he was not a Christian. Later, Li Baiguang expressed his regret that this had taken place. He told rights defense lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) that if it didn’t occur, along with the enormous acrimony around it, the different groups in Chinese civil society might have been more unified and stronger.
Also during this trip to the U.S., Li was invited by Bob Fu to be China Aid’s legal consultant. When Li returned to China, he said in a 2010 interview, apart from his regular rights defense work, he “traveled across the country to provide legal support to persecuted house churches.” Li partnered with China Aid in this fashion until his death.
During that same period, Li sat the bar, passed, and became a lawyer. In December 2007 he hung his shingle with the Common Trust Law Firm (共信律师事务所) in Weigongcun, near Peking University.
In June 2008, Li and six other Chinese dissidents and rights lawyers were awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award.
Li Baiguang was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08. But after that point he gradually retired from the media and public spotlight. “Although the substance of my rights defense work has not changed,” he said in the 2010 interview, “my methods are more low-key and moderate than before. I no longer write articles attacking and castigating the authorities; all I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy.”
Over the following years Li, as a lawyer, left his footprints in every Chinese province except Tibet, acting as defense counsel in several hundred cases of persecuted Christians. The cases he was involved in include: the Shanghai Wanbang Church in 2009 (上海万邦教会), petitioning for Uighur church leader Alimjan Yimiti (阿里木江) in 2009, the 2010 Guangzhou Liangren Church case (广州良人教会), the 2010 Shuozhou Church case in Shanxi (山西朔州), the 2012 Pingdingshan Church case in Henan (河南平顶山) , the 2014 Nanle case (南乐), and the Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) case in 2017, among others.
As for the result of defending house churches, Li Baiguang summed it up in 2010 as follows: “If we look at the outcome of the administrative review of every rights case, the judgment has ruled against the church almost without exception. But later, I found a very strange phenomenon: after the conflict dies down, looking back a year later, we find that the local public security and religious bureaus no longer dare storm and raid these house churches, and congregants can meet freely. Using the law as a weapon to defend religious freedom works. Where we’ve fought cases, churches and religious activities in the area have since been little disrupted.”
During the same period, Li also defended numerous dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, petitioners, and peasants entangled in compensation disputes. These include Guo Feixiong’s appeal in 2009, the Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) case in 2011, the lawsuit filed against the government in 2013 by Wang Xiuying (王秀英) for being sent to re-education through forced labor during the Olympic Games, the defense of lawyers Zhang Kai (张凯) and Liu Peng (刘鹏) in 2015, as well as the defense of 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) in 2015, the mass arrest in Wuxi on April 16, 2016, the commemoration of the June 4 massacre by seven citizens in 2016, the mass arrests in Fuzhou as well as Suzhou during the G20 in 2016, and the defense of lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) in 2017.
While he was engaged in all this, Li also held rights defense training sessions for house churches around China. According to Bob Fu, director of China Aid, over the last roughly ten years, Li has trained several thousands people; the most recent was in January 2018 in Henan — conducted while he was lying on his back after he injured his leg, as church leaders from the local district gathered around to hear him discuss how they should defend their rights according to the law.
Between 2011 and 2013, Li taught in a number of training sessions for “barefoot lawyers” under the aegis of the “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group” (中国维权紧急援助组). In 2016 he also helped with a workshop for independent candidates for People’s Deputies elections. The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group is an NGO founded by the Swede Peter Dahlins, American Michael Caster, and rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in 2009, offering legal training to rights defense lawyers and funding cases.
Li was extremely dedicated and hardworking, according to Dahlins. He focused on details, followed guidelines, and was always a long term thinker. Dahlins often joked with Michael Caster that Li Baiguang, who had met presidents and prime ministers, dressed and looked like a peasant.
Li also took part, with other human rights lawyers and activists, in trainings on the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms in Geneva under the aegis of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (维权网), an NGO that promotes human rights and rule of law in China.
In around 2009, the 40-year-old Li, who had been single his whole life, married his former college friend Xu Hanmei (徐寒梅). In around 2010 they moved to Jurong (句容), a small city near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and settled down in a village called Desadoufu (得撒豆腐村). The name Desa comes from the Hebrew “Tirzah,” a Canaanite town mentioned in the Old Testament; the village, originally known for its stone mills used to grind soybeans for tofu, got its name from a church established by Western missionaries. It’s since become a tourist attraction for its pseudo-classical building complexes meant to recall the past.
Most residents in the town are Christians, Li Baiguang told friends. The community built its own kindergarten and elementary school, vegetable gardens, and sports pitch. “I felt like they built their own little Shangri-La,” Yang Zili said.
The Jianxi Church (涧西教会) that Li was associated with is the largest in the area, with around 200 stable congregants, most of whom were like Li: well-educated, having moved permanently to the village from elsewhere in China. For weekend church service, parishioners and catechumen (gradual converts) came from Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui and elsewhere, packing the church to the rafters. For these reasons, the church came to be watched closely by local religious affairs officials.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here’
Li Baiguang was not part of any of the public incidents that have been brought to national attention by activists and netizens since 2008. In the mass arrests during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, Li was not among them. When the New Citizens Movement became active between 2012 and 2013 and activists held regular dinner events, Li did not get involved. He wasn’t even part of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group (人权律师团), founded in 2013. The 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers didn’t implicate him, though for a while he signed up for being a defense counsel for 709 detainee lawyer Xie Yanyi. Numerous human rights lawyers have been barred from leaving the country; Li, on the other hand, traveled back and forth to America at will from 2006 to 2018.
Even when he was given trouble by police and state security, he did his best not to go public with it.
Per his own assessment in 2010, the authorities were “tolerating me to a much greater degree.” But his state of hypervigilance tells another story. A friend, Zheng Leguo (郑乐国), said that whenever he was with Li Baiguang in public places, Li would quickly scan his eyes over everyone in the vicinity to detect anything out of order. He was extremely careful about what he ate. When they ate at McDonalds, Li chose a table near the door, that way he could see people coming in and going out, and he could also escape at a moment’s notice if need be.
For Li Baiguang, 2017 was a disturbing year.
In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 15th anniversary of China Aid held at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation only event. During his remarks, Li said that apart from the suppression of civil society and human rights lawyers, attacks against house churches were also getting more severe. “From this point forward, human rights in China will enter its darkest period.” He added that rights defenders in China would use their God-given wisdom and intelligence to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; he also called on the international community and NGOs to do what they could to help. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here,” he said, citing Romans 13.
Li’s remarks were somehow leaked, according to Bob Fu, and reached the Chinese authorities — when Li returned home was treated “with severity.”
On October 17, 2017, a case Li was defending, involving seafood farmers in Wenling, Zhejiang, suing the government for malfeasance, went to trial. In the evening as Li was returning to his hotel, he was abducted by a dozen unidentified men. They took him to a forest and worked him over. They slammed their fists into his head and ordered him to leave the city by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, or else they would decapitate him and cut off his hands and feet. “When he mentioned that kidnapping,” Bob Fu said, “it was the most frightened I had seen him. The incident shook him badly.”
Another case Li took on in 2017 involved the apparent murder of a certain Pastor Han, of Korean ethnicity, in Jilin, northeastern China. Han was a pastor in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who provided aid to North Korean refugees, and encouraged them to return to North Korea and spread the Gospel. It appeared that he was assassinated by North Korean operatives.
Towards the end of the year, Li met with the Beijing-based AFP journalist Joanna Chiu. After they met in a Starbucks, Li led her out into a small alley, across the street, and into another coffeeshop in order to avoid surveillance. He told Ms. Chiu how he’d been beaten, and also the suspicious death of the pastor.
In early February 2018, Li was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event dedicated to the discussion of religion in public life, attended by thousands, including the U.S. president, policymakers, and religious and business leaders. Bob Fu, in an interview with VOA after Li’s death, said that when Li was in the U.S. from February 5-11, the pastor of Jianxi Church was questioned about the whereabouts of Li and what he was doing in the United States. After he got back to China, he spoke with Fu twice, explaining that he was being investigated, and that danger felt imminent.
At 3:00 a.m. on February 26, 2018, Li Baiguang died in the Nanjing No. 81 PLA Hospital. In response to the widespread shock and suspicion, his family announced that he had died of late-stage liver cancer.
The death of Li Baiguang, like the death of Liu Xiaobo seven months ago, brings with it a momentous sense of ending. The PRC’s neo-totalitarian state grows more complete by the day; the discourse of political reform represented by Charter 08, and the rule-of-law trajectory sought by the rights defense movement, have hit a wall. Neither have room to expand. One by one, little by little, opportunities for further progress have been sealed and nixed. Truly, a ‘new era’ in China has begun.
The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through night.
 They are Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, Li Baiguang, Zheng Enchong, Guo Feixiong, Li Heping, Fan Yafeng, Zhang Xingshui, Chen Guangcheng, and Zhu Jiuhu (许志永、高智晟、滕彪、浦志强、莫少平、李柏光、郑恩宠、郭飞雄、郭国汀、李和平、范亚峰、张星水、陈光诚以及朱久虎).
 The Institute on Chinese Law & Religion was registered in Washington, DC. It is now inactive.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer, died on February 26, aged 49.
Li Baiguang, born on October 1, 1968, was the youngest of seven children in a tiny mountain village household in Jiahe county, Chenzhou, Hunan. His father died when he was seven years old. The family was impoverished. When Li reached school age, his playmates went to school, but he had to stay home another year and help his mother with chores. One day, after he herded the ducks back home, Li went to the school, leant on the window, and saw his friends all studying. He returned home and told his mother through tears: “If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll hack our ducks to death.”
In 1987, the child who used to sleep on the hard loft of a pigpen with his brothers matriculated to Xiangtan University (湘潭大学) majoring in philosophy. “While I was at university, my living expenses were roughly 50 yuan a month. Every cent of it was made by my mother selling bitter melon, squash, rice wine, and our pigs,” Li told an interviewer in 2010. One month in winter, when the family didn’t send money, he had to borrow from another student; by the next month, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. “It hurt me so deeply that I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to jump off a building. However, I was held back by the thought that if I did kill myself, I’d be letting my mom down.”
After graduating from the unremarkable Xiangtan University, Li scored well enough on a test to be admitted to China’s premier institution of higher education, Peking University’s School of Law. This feat by itself indicates his intelligence and grit. Despite that, “my family weren’t impressed that I’d gotten into PKU. When I finished my Masters and went onto a PhD, they were even less pleased. They said: You’re reading so many books, but no one back home benefits in the least. You’d be better off coming back and being a village cadre.”
At PKU, Li studied constitutional and administrative law; his advisor was the renowned Chinese constitutional law scholar Xiao Weiyun (萧蔚云). A series of lectures that he and classmates held about the constitution came in for criticism not only by his advisor (“Why aren’t you addressing the benefits of socialist rule of law, but instead talking about how French supreme court justices understand the constitution?” he jabbed), but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. In 1997 after Li received his PhD, his advisor was concerned that he would be trouble if he stayed, and thus rejected Li’s application for a teaching position at PKU.
At the end of that year, Li went to Hainan University. In the 1990s, Hainan was the largest Special Economic Zone in all of the country, and had attracted people from the rest of China hunting for opportunity. Many had been functionaries in the government until the violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement crushed their political aspirations; others were student activists, at a loss and disillusioned. At Hainan University, a faraway and marginal institution, Li Baiguang continued to hold academic salons with students, taking great joy in their discussions on democracy and the rule of law.
The Year of 1998
In early 1998, a friend from Li Baiguang’s home province introduced him to a small group of democracy activists in Guangzhou. They were part of a campaign to organize an opposition party across cities and provinces.
In the 1990s, there were two major campaigns to organize independent political parties. The first, led by Hu Shigen (胡石根) in Beijing in 1992, involved a few dozen and was quickly met with severe repression. The leaders were given heavy sentences, with Hu Shigen jailed for 20 years. The next was in 1998.
The global context of the 1998 party organization event is worth sketching out. Following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, U.S. Congress turned the annual review of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status into a debate and criticism of human rights conditions in China. For all that, from the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. never once failed to grant China MFN status, including in 1990, after the massacre in Beijing. China’s strategic goals through the 1990s were 1) to normalize trade relations with the U.S., 2) to join the World Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. and China, and China and the world, were engaging in “trade for human rights” deals. They included the following:
- In October 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (though did not ratify it until 2001);
- In November 1997, China’s most well-known political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), was released and went into exile in the U.S.;
- In June 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to abolish the annual review of Most Favored Nation status for China, and to grant China permanent normal trade relations;
- On June 25, 1998, President Clinton arrived in Xi’an, kicking off a tour of China. His hosts had him observe local elections in Xiahe village, on the outskirts of Xi’an. “I understand that soon, like nearly half a million other villages across China, you will be voting to choose your local leaders,” he remarked;
- In September, 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited China;
- In October 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; though 20 years later has yet to ratify it);
- In November 1998, the National People’s Congress passed the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees of the People’s Republic China” (《中华人民共和国村民委员会组织法》) which guaranteed that villages would be able to govern autonomously and carry out grassroots democracy.
The reader can very well imagine, in the context of all of this, how Chinese dissidents were full of hope about the unprecedented possibilities of 1998, and how their imagination was fired. The democracy activists’ plan was to formally and openly register a political party in China. This was, after all, one of the rights stipulated in the ICCPR, and the organizers were no longer interested in secretive and shadowy political opposition.
The 29-year-old law PhD Li Baiguang helped prepare the materials for the registration of the “Democracy Party of China.” He may have even authored the party’s charter. Having done what was entrusted to him, Li went back to Hainan. One afternoon, he received a telephone call telling him that the University’s Party Committee Secretary, as well as the head of the law school, wanted to speak with him. The three met at the law school, and they asked him about his teaching. When he left the meeting and went outside, two burly men were waiting. They strode over and, each grabbing an arm, hauled the five-foot Li into a waiting Toyota. Li asked, “Are you from the Ministry of State Security?” They laughed.
Li was detained for a week. They questioned him about his role in the party registration. All the related documents he had were confiscated during a raid of his apartment. They also demanded that he produce a written statement of guilt and repentance, and that he not leave Hainan. He wrote a confession and agreed to stay in the city. After that, security officials kept him under surveillance, and often demanded he grant them “chats.”
A fortnight later, in March 1998, Li booked an airline ticket from a friend’s house and the next morning quietly took the first flight out of Hainan straight to Beijing.
The day Clinton arrived in China, Wang Youcai (王有才) and his colleagues in Hangzhou traveled to government offices to register the Zhejiang branch of the Democracy Party of China. Their application was denied. In September, Shandong activists traveled to local government offices to register the Shandong branch of the Democracy Party of China, also to no avail. In Wuhan, activists led by Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) went to the Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and lodged the application for the Hubei provincial organizing committee of the Democracy Party of China, and were also rejected. In November, Yu Wenli (徐文立) and other activists in Beijing announced that they were establishing the Beijing and Tianjin headquarters of the party. Democracy Party organizers across the country were then tracked down and arrested, and at the end of 1998 charged with “subversion of state power” and given harsh prison sentences. Wang Youcai of Hangzhou got 11 years; Qin Yongmin of Wuhan got 12 years; Yu Wenli of Beijing, 13 years. Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) in Sichuan persisted in party organizing and was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1999.
Following this — despite the continued arrest and imprisonment of independent scholars and political dissidents, as well as the brutal suppression of Falun Gong in 1999 — Clinton in October 2000 signed into law permanent normal trade relations with China. The following year, China proceeded to join the WTO. Nearly 20 years later, however, China has not made good on its trade promises, nor does it intend to; instead, China has undermined WTO rules and norms, as a January 2018 report by the United States Trade Representative says. Thus, though China, in bad faith, played the “trade for human rights” deals of the 1990s, it won every hand. This is because the Chinese government well knew that U.S. companies were salivating over the China market, that the U.S. would go along with the pretense that the Chinese authorities were sincere, and that no one would follow-up on the broken promises.
Now in 2018, we can imagine ourselves in a time machine, and take a fresh look at how both laughable and tragic were these “trade for human rights” negotiations in 1998.
Li Baiguang was spared prison in 1998 only because he was an inadvertent beneficiary of the negotiations underway. So as to not ruin their grand trade deal, the Party took a relatively lenient approach against the non-core party organizers.
If it were 2018 in which all this took place, Li would not only have not escaped jail time, but he wouldn’t have even been able to flee Hainan. Whether by plane, boat, or train, his ID card would have thrown out a “person of interest” alert, and facial recognition technologies would have picked up his movements. He’d have had nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.
When he got to Beijing, Li holed up in a small house near Peking University; he didn’t contact anyone, and stayed off the telephone.
However, he didn’t stay hidden long. That year PKU celebrated its 100th anniversary of founding, and the houses of local residents around the campus were being razed for construction, sparking conflicts. Li and friends got involved in helping the residents resist the illegal demolition. One day, after he left a bookstore near the Southern Gate of PKU, he found that the bicycle he’d left by the door had been badly mangled. He knew it was a warning. As he explained in a later interview: “After that I holed up in the house again and dared not go out.”
Many of Li Baiguang’s friends and acquaintances in Beijing were young liberal intellectuals and political dissidents that had been tracked and tagged by the Ministry of State Security. Security agents were thus quickly able to identify his whereabouts. One evening in August of 1998, as Li was riding past the Eastern Gate of Peking University, he was knocked off his bicycle by a Volkswagen Santana. Two large men climbed out, shoved him in the car, hooded him, squashed him between them in the back seat, and rammed his head towards his crotch. After driving 40 to 50 minutes, he was dragged into a basement and interrogated by people who identified themselves as agents of the Beijing Bureau of State Security (北京市国家安全局), as well as agents who had come from Hainan. They wanted to know what he’d done since he left Hainan, and why he left without permission.
They released him that evening. The Beijing agents made him write a ‘guarantee letter’ promising that he would not flee again, and that he’d submit ‘thought reports’ regularly. Before long he began to find this unbearable and told the police that he would not write the reports anymore. His home was again raided, and they found that Li had cursed them and sworn revenge in his diary. He never kept a diary after that.
A friend remembers the deep impression left on Li by the harassment and monitoring of 1998: “They infiltrate your blood,” he said.
After his return to Beijing, Li relied on translating, proofreading, and writing to make a living. This was the kind of work that Li enjoyed and felt at home with. In graduate school at PKU, he had translated Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The book had already been translated before, but his version, titled in Chinese “The Way of the Ruler,” introduced it to a popular audience. In the summer of 1998 when he was proofreading “The New Asian Way,” he encountered the work Victorian author Samuel Smiles, in particular the classic “Self Help.”
He borrowed Smiles’ book from the PKU library and found it “deeply moving and inspiring.” Li wrote in a 2005 essay: “Samuel Smiles’ works, through moving stories that compel tears, gives amply convincing witness to the fact that nobleness of character and spirit is the salvation of every individual, country, and people — and that this is our sole path to freedom and happiness.”
Through the 1990s, numerous ‘shadow’ publication houses cropped up in Beijing doing a lively business in the book trade. In China, only books with an official publication number are allowed to be printed, and these publication numbers were only allocated to government-registered, state-run presses. Private publishers would buy publication numbers from the state presses to publish books. Most of the proprietors were intellectuals who couldn’t stand the oppressive restrictions of the official system; some were idealists who hoped to awaken the public through books and the spread of new ways of thinking. Many of these businesses were composed of just a few people, and most of what they published were translations.
Li Baiguang decided to translate and publish Samuel Smiles’ works (the copyright on which had already expired), and he became a publisher.
In January of 1999, Li published the Smiles classic “Self-Help” through the little-known Beijing-based Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社). In July, September, October, 1999, then in July and October in 2010, Li published a series of Smiles’ books under the Beijing Library Press, respectively “Character,” “Duty,” “Thrift,” “The Huguenots in France,” and “Life and Labour.” He marketed the series as the “Conscience Collection” (良知丛书). Li took on planning and editorial tasks for the series, while also performing some of the translation. He farmed out distribution and sales to contractors already established in the industry. Li’s obsession and dedication to the work is clear from the compressed timeline.
In November of 1999, The Commercial Press, a major Beijing publishing house, published Li Baiguang’s translation of American professor Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy,” a book of instruction on the history and fundamental tenets of democracy.
Among the works Li had first published was the 19th century French judge Louis Proal’s “Political Crime.” The Chinese version, based on the 1898 English-language translation, was published by Reform Press in April 1999. It immediately attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. As put by one of the translators and Li’s friend Wang Tiancheng (王天成), “The title of this book was just too outlandish for the authorities.” Indeed, the “political crimes” discussed in the book were not principally in reference to crimes against the government, such as treason and revolt, but instead crimes committed by governments and politicians, including assassinations, hatred, hypocrisy, political spoliation, electoral corruption, and so on.
State security agents came and confiscated everything off the desk of the typist. Li Baiguang went into hiding once more. “Political Crime” had its commercial life stunted.
The Conscience Collection, on the other hand, sold exceptionally well, in particular “Self-Help.” This put a little money in Li’s pocket.
Around strangers and new acquaintances, Li Baiguang was quiet and taciturn. But when he was with old friends, he wouldn’t quit talking. During gatherings at his apartment, once he got going on a topic, he rarely stopped, not caring whether his audience had lost interest or not. He also had a peculiar hand-gesture, well known to friends who tried to interrupt him: he pushed his palm down and said “Listen to me!” Those who know him, without exception, were left with a deep sense of his passion, energy, focus, and learning.
“He is a rather pure man,” one friend said.
After accumulating a small amount of capital with the Smiles venture, Li was in a position to buy up copyrights to translate and publish contemporary foreign books. This was not always successful, as his sales of American author and speaker John C. Maxwell’s series on leadership demonstrated. To make matters worse, not long after this one of Li’s distributors absconded with some of his money. Between 2002 and 2003, Li got out of the publishing business.
‘Stomp You to Death’
In around the year 2000, while he was still in the book business, the Ministry of State Security apparently decided that he wasn’t such a serious threat to national security after all, and assigned him to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for supervision.
On March 13, 2001, MSS agents in Beijing and Tianjin secretly arrested eight young people, six of whom were recent graduates, and two current graduate students, at universities in Beijing. They met each other through intercollegiate student clubs. In August of 2001, in the rented flat of a friend, the group signed their names, impressed their fingerprints, stacked their hands together and vowed to form an “organization.” The name they gave themselves was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会), a nod to the “New Youth” journal established by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu (陈独秀). Indeed, four of the young men were themselves CCP members; their guiding principles were “freedom, democracy, justice, equality.” Over the next few months they gathered now and then on campus, in a dorm, or outside, often speaking for hours at a stretch about official corruption, layoffs, or the burdens of farmers, among other emerging social problems in China. They also invited liberal scholars to come and give lectures. They were rarely unanimous in their ideas, but all agreed that Chinese society was becoming increasingly unequal by the day, and that the government was suppressing healthy discourse. They were united in the belief that China had to undergo democratic reforms.
The case of the “New Youth Study Group” was the most significant political incident to emerge in 21st century China. One of the two of the undergrads, it turned out, had long been an MSS asset; the other, the only female in the group, leveled accusations against four other members after numerous interrogation sessions. Statements given to the police by these two were used by prosecutors as the basis of charges of “subversion of state power” against the other four, who were sentenced to between 8 and 10 years of imprisonment.
On the evening of March 21, 2001, police came knocking on Li Baiguang’s door. He was taken to the Haidian district police station and interrogated; police wanted to know about his relationship with Yang Zili (杨子立). Yang, 28, was the oldest member of the New Youth Study Group; two years prior he had finished graduate studies at the Department of Mechanics at PKU, and was working as a software engineer. He and Li knew one another at PKU between 1995 to 1997, and Li introduced Yang, among other students, to thinkers like Hayek, Orwell, Mill, Montesquieu, and von Mises. Li also delivered lectures to Yang Zili and his friends on constitutional law, for which Li and Yang were summoned and questioned by state security.
Since returning Beijing in 1998, Li Baiguang had lived close to Yang and a few like-minded friends in Beijing. They would gather and converse, and Li sometimes delivered lectures to the “New Youth Study Group.”
The interrogation went for three hours that night. When police let Li go, they cautioned him: “We’re not through with you. We’ll see you again.” They told him to stay in town.
The police came again on March 24, three nights later. This time Li was taken to a secret interrogation facility at the foot of the mountains in Xiangshan, western Beijing. For the next seven days, as he recounted in a 2010 interview, he was put to extremely detailed questioning: they wanted to know where he grew up and what his family was like, his time studying in Beijing, his involvement in the Democracy Party of China in 1998, what he’s been doing in Beijing since, and other questions.
The secret interrogation likely touched on other things he was involved in — for instance, his submissions to VIP Reference (《大参考》), one of the largest pro-democracy email newsletters dispatched daily from the United States, which focused on news and analyses censored by the authorities. The newsletter’s influence was enormous from about 2000 to 2004, when it was said to have around one million recipients in China. Zhao Yan (赵岩), who worked with Li Baiguang over those years, told me that part of he and Li’s ‘underground work’ was submitting articles about rights defense incidents and internal Party struggles to VIP Reference. The only reason Li wasn’t caught by the MSS, Zhao Yan said, was because he wiped his computer daily. Li Hongkuan (李洪宽), the founder and operator of VIP Reference, said in a February 28 YouTube video: “In the process of founding VIP Reference…and over these years, Li Baiguang and I had always stayed in close touch.”
Secret police in the state security apparatus knew very well that Li Baiguang harbored a deep abhorrence toward the Chinese system of dictatorship, which he felt was unchanged for 5,000 years; they knew he castigated the Chinese, as a people, who have lost the sense of right and wrong and instead enjoyed the regressive tendencies and culture of mutual deception. These were the thoughts he often revealed to friends — but the fact that the secret police knew it all so clearly shocked him deeply. For a while after he was released, he wouldn’t dare to speak his mind as freely as he used to among friends.
After those seven days of interrogation in the secret MSS facility at Xiangshan, close friends of Li’s described him as being “panicked” and “shaken to the core.”
“They said they’re going to ‘stomp me to death,’” Li said in a phone call to his friend Wang Tiancheng. He told another friend that he was stomped on while in custody.
In the next two years he was visited continually and harassed by the neighborhood committee and local police. Police demanded that he listen to their orders and make himself available on demand. If he didn’t listen, they said, “we can run you out of town anytime we like. You don’t have a Beijing household registration. You’re just a temporary.”
Sacking Officials in Two Provinces and Five Places
Li Baiguang was introduced to Zhao Yan by Yu Meisun (俞梅荪) in 1997. Yu, an active liberal intellectual in Beijing, researched economic regulations at the State Council in the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were general secretary and premier. Zhao Yan is an independent, and maverick, freelance writer. In November 1998, a few months after the passage of the Organic Law of Villagers Committees, Zhao helped villagers in Harbin successfully dismiss corrupt officials through a vote. This was the first instance in which the new law was used to remove a village official; it attracted widespread attention from grassroots democracy activists at home and caused China observers to harbor illusions of a path to democracy.
Li was full of interest in Zhao’s work, and the two often chatted over tea. One day in late 2002, Zhao Yan said to Li: “Stop hanging about the house all day — what’s the point of digging into theory? Come out with me and take a look at the real world.” Zhao was a few years older than Li; at the time he had become the news director of the rural section of the “China Reform” (《中国改革》) magazine. The role meant that he was frequently approached by peasants from around the country complaining of local injustice. Zhao would head to the scene, conduct an investigation, then expose the the abuses in the magazine.
One of the first cases Li got involved in after teaming up with Zhao Yan was that of farmers in Fu’an (福安), Fujian Province, who’d had their land expropriated. The origins of the case stretched back 28 years, when a township government requisitioned land to build a reservoir; for 28 years, the farmers had not been compensated. They had petitioned for 20 years to no effect. Zhao and Li traveled to Fu’an, visited rural households, spoke with representatives of the aggrieved, and considered the options. The farmers said that trying to go the government route was a dead end, because the court refused to register their case. As Li said in a 2010 interview: “I was discussing it with Zhao Yan… through studying the law, I found there was a legal channel we could use. The reason these problems had been around so long was basically because the municipal Party Secretary, the mayor, the county Party Secretary, and the county governor had all simply been derelict in their duties. The ordinary folks pay the taxes for their government, so the government’s got a responsibility and a duty to resolve their problems. We could help the farmers initiate proceedings to strip these officials of their qualifications as people’s representatives in order to spur them into action and deal with this issue. Although these officials, whether mayors or Party secretaries, weren’t elected, according to the law their power comes from the people, so the people have a lawful right to dismiss them.” So Li and Zhao decided to help the villages by submitting a proposal to the local People’s Congress to dismiss the relevant officials. Li Baiguang acted as legal representative for the villagers.
The recall motion enumerated instances of government malfeasance, including the theft of farmland, embezzlement of land compensation and public infrastructure construction funds, misappropriation of relief funds for the poor, river pollution, and the receipt of bribes. It implicated numerous townships and villages in the Fu’an municipality. One day in early April 2003, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang assembled the village and township representatives, handed them pre-designed and typed forms, and looked on as they went door-to-door collecting signatures. The deputies wended their way through the mountains, working through the night, because they knew that they’d be blocked if the government found out. At noon the next day, the deputies brought in cardboard boxes and large bags with the signatures and wax thumb-prints of over 10,000 villagers. On April 8, Zhao and Li, as well as peasant deputy Miao Mengkang (缪孟康), submitted to the Fujian provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee and the Ningde municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee (one step up the chain of command from Fu’an) the motion for the recall of the mayor of Fu‘an as well as the ledger of 10,000 signatures in support of it.
This was the first instance in China where citizens had petitioned for the dismissal of a mayor. Li Baiguang, using the nom de guerre ‘Liu Baijiang’ (刘柏江), penned an article in the July issue of Modern Civilisation Pictorial (《现代文明画报》) with the headline “Can Citizens Dismiss a Mayor? A record of the first time in the New China that citizens demanded the dismissal of a city mayor.” What happened next was a textbook case of political governance with Chinese characteristics, which is true then and true today: first, the government mobilized police to prevent more people from signing the motion; second, they made threats to those who signed; third, they went to the offices of China Reform and pulled strings to stop further reporting and smeared Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang; fourth, they threatened and scared away journalists from other media; fifth, they told villagers that the dismissal proceedings had no legal basis, and thus were useless; sixth, they began exacting revenge against village deputies, including arrests; seventh, the provincial investigation team set up to look into the case came up with no results; eighth, they portrayed the incident as antagonistic toward the Party and the government; ninth, the mayor that villagers had petitioned to be dismissed, Lan Ruchun (蓝如春), was not only not dismissed, but promoted to deputy mayor of Ningde.
In January of 2004, Zhao and Li, working with local village deputies, again submitted a recall motion against Lan Ruchun. This time, under enormous public pressure, Lan was forced to resign, and the Fu’an municipal government gave villagers compensation of 1.5 million yuan ($237,000) for the expropriated land. This sum was less than a tenth of that owed.
In another case in Fujian Province, the government and investors had in the 1990s set out to develop a “Southeast Motor City” on the outskirts of Fuzhou (福州), the capital city. In doing so, they requisitioned a large amount of rural land — but after the fact, the peasants received neither the promised jobs in the factories in “Motor City,” nor any share of the benefits that accrued to the government from the development. Their share of the compensation was siphoned off by layer after layer of government, leaving them with next to nothing. In April 2004, Zhao and Li set about helping 20,000 villagers within Fuzhou municipality prepare a recall motion against the mayor of Fuzhou. Li Baiguang again was their legal representative.
In the same year in Tangshan (唐山) and Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), Hebei Province, Li Baiguang, working with Yu Meisun and Zhao Yan, represented tens of thousands of villagers in recall proceedings against corrupt officials.
In a 2004 essay about the recall motions he represented in five cities and two provinces, Li wrote with passion about how so many villagers “took the path of using the constitution as a weapon to defend their rights because under the current legal structures of China today, every other method they tried ended in failure: for years they went to local and central government offices to petition, constantly, to no effect; they lodged complaints in court, but the court refused to accept their case… the cold, selfish, greedy and colluding local government bureaucrat-mafias strangled the villagers out of even their most basic rights to subsistence.” Using the constitution to dismiss officials became their final remedy.
“This is a massive exercise in constitutional implementation,” Li told China Youth Daily in 2004. “Its value is not in whether it succeeds, but that through the process of studying and utilizing the constitution and the law, the seed of rule-of-law consciousness will begin to bud in the minds of Chinese villagers.” He added: “Understanding the proper relationship between the government and the people is their greatest gain.”
In a 2010 interview, Li said: “Back then we did it with such energy — standing up to these officials with the law, appealing to dismiss them every chance we could, taking them to court, and for the first time putting the fear into these insufferably arrogant men, it was really a delight.”
On another occasion though, he noted the failure of these motions and court cases to dismiss officials, a supposed constitutional right: “Rights without procedural guarantee are not real rights.” Indeed, no Chinese law provides such procedures.
Zhao Yan is the epitome of a certain Northeastern type; he has a robust physique, a gutsy attitude, and a forceful style of speech. Li Baiguang, meanwhile, is short, quiet, and restrained — but he executes with rigor and firmness. Between 2003 and 2004, the two of them traveled to seven or eight provinces, Zhao Yan as the investigative reporter, Li Baiguang as legal representative, getting themselves involved in countless land theft and compensation cases and cases of village governance and corruption. Wherever they went they handed out volumes of legal statutes they’d brought from Beijing, including the PRC Constitution, the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees , the Law on Land Administration (《土地管理法》), the Law on Deputies to the National People’s Congress and Deputies to the People’s Congresses (《人大代表法》), the State Compensation Law (《国际赔偿法》), the Administrative Procedure Law (《行政诉讼法》), and others, all to assist those whose rights had been infringed to file an administrative review or a complaint.
The villagers were often skeptical of such efforts. “We might use the law to solve problems, but government workers and police don’t, so what are we supposed to do?” they asked Li. His response: “Then you must insist on using the law! Even though in the process you may pay a price in blood and sweat, and perhaps even lose your personal freedom for a while, you have to keep going.” He firmly believed that persistence would lead to change. He told them a few stories that exemplified the power of using the law, including cases he was personally involved in. In one instance, the family farm of his client, Ms. Liu Jie (刘杰) in Heilongjiang, was expropriated, and she persisted in using legal rights defense (Li Baiguang also wrote an open letter to state premier Wen Jiabao, inviting him to appear him court to meet charges); another story he told was of Yao Lifa (姚立法) in Hubei successfully becoming a People’s Deputy; and another of blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) fighting for the rights of the disabled.
“The infringement of one’s rights is in fact a perfect opportunity for the awakening of civil rights consciousness,” Li said. “Before their rights are violated, they don’t grasp the natural conflict between power and rights. When rights are harmed, the fierce battle between power and rights begins. What we citizens can do is use the power of the law to repel those with unfettered power. The process is arduous, but there is simply no alternative.”
During his doctoral studies, Li Baiguang wrote a pamphlet titled “A Common Sense Reader for Chinese Citizens” (《中国公民常识读本》), using a question-and-answer format to address basic questions about human rights, government, autocracy, democracy, the constitution, economy, public opinion, education and faith, and military affairs, among other issues related to democratic constitutionalism. After the real world experiences of 2003 and 2004 however, he wanted to instead use actual cases to illustrate the basic principles associated with power and rights, burn them onto CD-ROM, and distribute them in every village. He saw the work as basic civics education for the Chinese people.
 Two weeks after the 1989 massacre, President Bush Sr. dispatched the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to reassure Deng Xiaoping that the anger at, and criticism, of the Chinese government were merely temporary, would soon pass, and would not impact U.S.-China relations. Details of the visit and the reassurances made can be found in the memoirs of Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
The story of Li Baiguang, including his transition to a lawyer, his new approach to rights defense, his meeting with President Bush, and his defense of house churches around the country, will conclude tomorrow…
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2018
As of January 15, 2018, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) had been held incommunicado for 920 days. This makes him the only 709 detainee who hasn’t been heard from since the notorious 709 Crackdown began in July 2015.
Last Friday, two lawyers, a former client, and three wives of 709 victims travelled from Beijing to arrive early morning at the First Detention Center in Tianjin, a half hour ride by high-speed train. The sun had risen, and a rich orange hue cloaked everything. A large-character slogan ran the length of the walls of the Detention Center: “Be Loyal to the Party, Serve the People, Enforce the Law with Fairness.” They were the first visitors waiting for the reception room to open. The three women were unable to deposit “meal charges” for Wang after calling a number thirty or so times and arguing with a female officer. The two lawyers, requesting a meeting with their client, were shown a piece of A4 paper that read “lawyers are not allowed to see Wu Gan and Wang Quanzhang.” Over the 30 months since Wang was arrested, his lawyers have made so many trips to Tianjin that they’ve lost count.
In August 2016, two 709 detainees were given heavy sentences and two others were given suspended sentences. By May 2017, more 709 lawyers and activists were released on bail or given suspended sentences after the government succeeded in forcing them to admit guilt in one form or another. By December 26, 2017, three of the last four 709 detainees received sentences or, as in Xie Yang’s case, were exempted from punishment.
The fate of Wang Quanzhang has been weighing on the minds of many, particularly as those who have been released reveal details of horrific torture. These include electric shocks so strong that they knock the victim unconscious on the spot; the “water cage” torture, where at least one detainee was locked in a submerged cage, with only the head above water; force feeding with unknown drugs; extreme sleep deprivation; beatings; and verbal and psychological abuses.
That Wang Quanzhang must have suffered the worst for refusing to yield is the consensus shared by the human rights community. Some fear that he may have been so physically debilitated that the authorities are now hiding him. Some worry that he’s already dead.
The latter fear was lifted last July after Chen Youxi (陈有西), a well-known state-connected lawyer, met with Wang (against the wishes of his wife) and tried to make him sign a Power of Attorney authorizing Chen to represent him. Wang refused. Chen later came under heavy criticism after describing the meeting on social media. “Chen Youxi was sent to help the government frame my husband,” said Wang’s wife Li Wenzu (李文足).
Indeed, in all the 709 trials, the government-assigned lawyers imposed on the detainees were part of the admit-guilt-for-leniency deal, acting as intermediaries between the government and the 709 detainees, and helping the government get what it wanted.
Wang Quanzhang’s Work
Wang Quanzhang, 42, was a lawyer with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm when he was swept up along with scores of other lawyers and activists in July 2015. Wang was born and raised in rural Shandong, and graduated from Shandong University in 2000 with a law degree. He was one of the earliest defenders of Falun Gong: while still in college, he provided legal assistance to practitioners not long after the brutal, nationwide suppression against it began in 1999. As a result, he was threatened and his home raided by police. A judge, it was said, wrote a letter to the university advising them not to issue his diploma. (He still received it).
After college, while working at the provincial library in 2005, Wang took up volunteer work for an NGO that had set up an experimental community school in a village near Jinan, the provincial capital. For the next three years, he gave free lessons about Chinese law to villagers on Saturdays for three years, paying his own travel costs. He taught them cases concerning land rights and other legal issues common in rural areas, and debated with them about whether it was power, or the law, that was supreme. The peasants believed that in China, power rules — not the law.
They were right then, and they’re right now.
In Jinan, Wang was subject to constant threats for his legal aid work. He was chased on the street, and at one time had to hide in the home of his friend, a professor, for days on end as plainclothes agents milled around outside the apartment building. He would later recount these episodes to friends as if they were someone else’s adventures.
In 2008 he moved to Beijing in part to escape the dangers of Jinan. A colleague thus called him “a lawyer on the run.”
In Beijing, Wang worked for an NGO called the “Empowerment and Rights Institute” (仁之泉工作室), one of the many small rights NGOs, like the school for villagers in Shandong, that sprung up in China around that time. He also did a stint at a think tank called the “World and China Institute” (世界与中国研究所). In 2009 he co-founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group NGO (China Action, 中国维权紧急援助组) with Peter Dahlin and Michael Caster, young Swedish and American activists respectively whom he had met at the “Empowerment and Rights Institute.” Peter and Michael came to China at a time when the country seemed eager to “integrate” with the world.
Through China Action from 2009 to 2013, Wang worked to expand access to legal assistance for victims, organize more structured trainings for fellow lawyers, and train victims to become citizen lawyers capable of dealing with the judiciary. After 2013, he stopped work at China Action and focused on defending individual cases in court.
In addition to Falun Gong cases, Wang also took on cases of illegal and unfair land expropriation, labor camp victims, prison abuses, and political prisoners such as journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇怀) and New Citizen Movement activists.
In the midst of all of the above, he found time to write articles commenting on current events using the pen name “Gao Feng” (高峰) — though samples of his writings are hard to come by.
The Repeatedly Beaten Lawyer
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), who has known Wang Quanzhang since 2010, described him as shy and unknown to his peers. That changed in April 2013, when Wang was given a 10-day “judicial detention” by a court in Jingjiang, Jiangsu (江苏靖江), towards the end of the trial of a Falun Gong case, for supposedly “violating court order.” From the account of his assistant, he defended his client ferociously despite frequent interruptions by the judge, whom he vowed to file a complaint against. His “not guilty” defense made the judge furious — merely practicing Falun Gong is a crime, according to the Party.
No lawyer had ever previously been detained inside the court during proceedings. Scores of human rights lawyers and citizen activists from all over the country descended on Jingjiang and protested in front of the courthouse. Having never witnessed such a scene before, the court relented and released Wang Quanzhang two days later.
In recent years Wang dealt almost exclusively with Falun Gong cases. For that, he took a lot more beatings inside and outside the court, as brutality against Falun Gong defendants, and sometimes their lawyers, occurs frequently. Many human rights lawyers such as Wang Yu (王宇), and more recently lawyer Lu Tingge (卢廷阁), can attest to this travesty unthinkable in a country with the rule of law.
In April 2014, Wang Quanzhang was among a number of lawyers and activists who went to Jiansanjiang (建三江) in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang to rescue four other lawyers who had been detained after they themselves sought to rescue Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained in a black jail called “Legal Education Base.” In the middle of the night he was hauled out of his sleeping bag, he wrote in the Chinese’ edition of The New York Times. “Two men quickly tied me up with ropes, with my arms behind me, pulling a black hood over my head.” He was put on a bus to a police station, where after some wrangling, two policemen hit his head against the wall. More violence was threatened until he agreed to sign a statement promising that he would not to take part in “illegal gatherings in Jiansanjiang.”
In June, 2015, in Liaocheng, Shandong (山东聊城), about a month before the 709 crackdown began, Wang Quanzhang was co-counsel with two other lawyers in the trial of several Falun Gong practitioners. At the end of the trial, which was marked by a fierce defense, the judge, Wang wrote: “Suddenly ordered the bailiffs to remove me from the courtroom for disrupting court order. A dozen or so bailiffs rushed into the courtroom. Some gripped me by the arm, one clenched me by the throat, and they hauled me out. At this point, someone had started fiercely punching me in the head; others were hurling abuse… I was dragged into a room on the first floor of the courthouse, and was ordered by one of the police to kneel. I refused. They started beating me again.”
The Chinese Government’s Fictitious Case Against Wang Quanzhang
Like all other 709 detainees, Wang Quanzhang was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” for six months. He was likely held in the same building as other Beijing lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Xie Yanyi, who have since been released and written about their ordeals.
For example, in A Record of 709, 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) described the sounds emanating from the room above between October 1 and 8 in 2015: “At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations and howling and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me.” He wondered whether it was Wang Quanzhang or Hu Shigen. “The fact that there has been no information whatsoever about Wang Quanzhang for more than two years is an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
On January 8, 2016, after the six months of secret detention were over, Wang Quanzhang was formally arrested for alleged “subversion of state power.” Over the twelve months that followed, the police used extended custody and a prosecutorial time delay technique, known as “returning case to police for further investigation” (退回补充侦查), to hold Wang without indictment or trial. This is a common practice used against political prisoners.
Into the later part of the 709 crackdown, the government has dispensed with such pretenses altogether, holding Wang Quanzhang indefinitely without any legal basis, real or otherwise.
On January 3, 2016, the Swedish national Peter Dahlin was detained in Beijing. In an interview with China Change, Dahlin said that lawyer Wang Quanzhang was at the center of the police interrogations. “The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.”
Back in his hometown in Shandong, toward the end of April 2016, local police, admitting that they were under orders from Tianjin, visited Wang Quanzhang’s aging parents and siblings. They talked Wang’s father into speaking on camera, advising his son to admit guilt in exchange for leniency. His sister, an average village woman who had never questioned the government until the crash course she went through with the disappearance of her younger brother, asked the police: “What crime has my brother committed?” The police told her that Wang defended Falun Gong practitioners, and doing so is opposing the Communist Party because Falun Gong was an “evil cult.”
In mid-February, 2017, Wang Quanzhang was indicted for “subversion of state power.” But neither his lawyers nor his wife were given a copy of the indictment despite their persistent demands for it. We don’t know how the Communist Party has built its case against him. We do know that they have been eager to have him admit guilt, without success: the hometown police told his family that “Wang Quanzhang has been very uncooperative.”
A human rights lawyer who represented another 709 detainee and made many trips to Tianjin, and who wishes to remain anonymous, shared an interesting observation: he believed that the government didn’t have a plan when it rounded up the lawyers and activists in July 2015. Instead, they devised it as they went along, using torture to subdue them and have them admit guilt. “The government could find no evidence of crimes against them in the existing laws; but they felt they must muzzle the lawyers, and used illegal methods to do so. That is, they arrested the lawyers and activists first, then looked for or fabricated ‘evidence’ against them. The purpose is to terrorize and deter the rights defense community through criminal punishment.”
The propaganda machine has worked in sync to disseminate the Party’s evolving narrative and belittle some of China’s most courageous citizens: when the 709 lawyers and activists were first detained, Party mouthpieces churned out articles and TV segments describing them as “the bad horses that hurt the entire herd.” By the time Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民) and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国) were tried in August, 2016, the activities of human rights lawyers and activists was recast into a conspiratorial “color revolution” with “anti-China foreign forces” behind the scenes. In the more recent TV confessions, lawyers Xie Yang (谢阳) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) were made to say that they were “exploited by Western anti-China forces” and brainwashed by “Western constitutionalism and other erroneous ideas.”
Free Wang Quanzhang
In the two and a half years of his disappearance, Wang Quanzhang’s toddler son has grown bigger. His wife Li Wenzu (李文足), who had never taken much interest in her husband’s professional work, has become his most vocal and effective advocate, enduring unceasing harassment from the police. She was recently awarded the inaugural Outstanding Citizen Award by a network of activists inside China for her courage and perseverance.
No statements from foreign governments, no inquiries from United Nations committees, no amount of media scrutiny, seems sufficient to unseat the Communist Party’s determination to use an iron fist to subdue any citizen it deems “dangerous” in its increasingly paranoid outlook on the world.
By all indications, it seems that Wang Quanzhang is not yielding either. Foreseeing what was to come, Wang left a letter for his parents in July 2015:
No matter how despicable and ridiculous we appear to be in the portrayal by the manipulated media, Mother, Father, please believe your son, and please believe your son’s friends.
I have never abandoned the qualities Father and Mother instilled in me: honesty, kindheartedness, integrity. In all these years, I have used these principles to guide my life. Even though I’ve often been steeped in despair, I have never given up thoughts for a better future.
My taking up the work—and walking down the path—of defending human rights wasn’t just a sudden impulse. Instead, it came from a hidden part of my nature, a calling that has intensified over the years—and has always been slowly reaching up like the ivy.
This kind of path is doomed to be thorny, tortuous, rocky.
But when I think of the difficult road we have gone through together, this path seems commonplace.
Dear Father and Mother, please feel proud of me. Also, no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live, and wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
After Four Detainees of the ‘709 Incident’ Are Indicted, Chinese State Media Name Foreign News Organizations, a US Congressman, & Three Embassies in Beijing as ‘Foreign Anti-China Forces’, China Change, July 15, 2016.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu explains why Chinese government is out to get them, China Change, July 23, 2015.
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.