China Change, August 13, 2017
On Monday one of China’s most well-known rights defense activists, Wu Gan (known by the moniker “The Super Vulgar Butcher” online) will be put on trial in the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. The court says that the case involves “state secrets” and has announced that it will be a closed hearing. For days now, activists and lawyers around the country have been warned not to travel to Tianjin to try to attend the trial or congregate outside the courthouse. Last December, Wu Gan was charged with subversion of state power. Since the Deng Yujiao case in 2009, he has been an active in the public sphere. All the way until he was arrested in May 2015, Wu Gan was a presence in countless cases involving social justice, grassroots elections, and human rights abuses. He cultivated a renown for his unprecedented ability to mobilize supporters both online and off.
The prosecutor’s Indictment against him refers to his involvement in 12 incidents, held up as evidence of how “Defendant Wu Gan has organized, plotted, and carried out subversion of the state regime and overthrow of the socialist system.”
Recently, Wu Gan asked his lawyers to publish a “Pretrial Statement” he had given them, which explained that all he had done in those cases was to help those searching for justice, exercising their rights as citizens granted and protected in the Chinese constitution and acknowledged around the world as universal values.
Given that neither Wu Gan himself nor his lawyers are able to mount a meaningful defense in a Chinese court, let alone get a fair trial, we provide you with a summary of each incident, and we ask the world to hear Wu Gan’s case and be his jury.
- The framing of three netizens from Fujian (April 2010)
In June 2009, the Fujian-based human rights defender Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼) exposed an incident — as told by the mother of the victim — in which a young woman from eastern Fujian province was in February of that year gang-raped and murdered by police. You Jingyou (游精佑), a local railway engineer who has an interest in social justice issues, recorded a video interview with the mother, while another human rights defender, Wu Huaying (吴华英), helped to spread the video online. On June 24 Fan Yanqiong, You Jingyou and Wu Huaying were criminally detained by the Fuzhou police and charged with “slander.” The fact that this incident, taking place in a remote part of Fujian, became known as the “case of the three netizens from Fujian,” and became a topic of major interest, receiving national attention and support from activists both online and off, was to a large degree due to the creativity of Wu Gan.
Wu Gan’s involvement in the case began in February 2010. On April 16, a week before the trial opened, Wu Gan set up a tent and began camping outside the Fuzhou Municipal No. 1 Detention Center, sending a constant stream of updates to followers online, creating buzz about the impending protests. On the day of the trial over 100 netizens from around the country gathered outside the Fuzhou Mawei Court to demonstrate. Images of Wu Gan holding a speaker and mobilizing the protesters at the scene became well-known to internet users. The case of the three Fujian netizens was the beginning of a model in China that turned such trials into public spectacles. For years afterwards this became one of the staples in the activist repertoire.
According to the Indictment against him, on the date of hearing, Wu Gan “hung banners and shouted slogans with others outside of the court and posted video on the Internet, severely affecting the People’s Court in its examination of the case according to the law, smearing the image of the judicial institution, and creating bad political effects both at home and abroad.”
“I got involved in this case,” Wu Gan said, “because it closely relates to the rights of all of us. We’re all plain old internet users — so if these three people are turned into criminals, then every time we go online and post something, we could also all be turned into criminals too.”
Fan Yanqiong, the lawyer, was sentenced to prison for two years, while the other two received sentences of one year each.
- The Fuzhou Cangshan-Jin’an-Mawei forced demolition case (April 2012)
In April 2012 Wu Gan responded to a request to return to Fuzhou and help defend the rights of a resident who had gotten into a conflict with the government over forced demolitions. The dispute arose because the resident found the compensation he was was offered far too low, and refused to relocate. In an attempt to force he and his family out, real estate developers cut off their water and electricity, then began stacking heavy construction supplies around the house, before directing workers to begin laying the structural foundations for the new buildings.
Wu Gan used a variety of techniques in the case: he made requests for open information from the government, exposed that the developers did not have permission to begin work, showing that it was thus illegal, put up posters in the vicinity about the fact, and began camping outside the Fuzhou Construction Bureau’s offices to demonstrate.
Because their home had already been damaged at this point, and the victims had no place to live, Wu Gan said he wanted to meet with the local leading cadres in the area to resolve the issue of their housing. When he found that one of them was a female, in order to stage a more eye-catching protest, Wu Gan bought a naked human model, then attached the face of the female cadre to the head. After the police angrily told them not to parade it around, Wu Gan and others dropped the plans for a march with the model.
Wu Gan made a recording of the violent scenes of forced demolition and put them online. “The government and the developers brought in the mob,” Wu Gan said. “Whoever disobeyed them would be beaten by the gang of thugs. I ran a big risk by going upstairs to record what they were doing, but the police did nothing to stop them.”
- Defending his father from false charges of embezzlement (September 2012)
Over his years of rights defense, protest, and supervising those in power across the country, Wu Gan was constantly concerned that his family would be targeted for retaliation. In September 2012 the Fujian authorities detained his father, Xu Xiaoshun (徐孝顺), on the charge of “embezzlement.” He was released on probation a couple of months later, and the case was afterwards dismissed. On July 3, 2015, when Wu Gan was formally arrested, Xu Xiaoshun was on July 4 again taken into custody with the same charges. The attempt by the authorities to put Wu Gan under pressure by persecuting his father couldn’t have been more obvious.
On January 19, 2017, Xu Xiaoshun was again released on probation. On May 3, 2017, the Fuqing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court declared that the facts in the case against Xu Xiaoshun were unclear and that there was insufficient evidence to try him, and his case was again dropped.
Beginning in May, Wu Gan’s father began the work of trying to get his son released. In his “Open Letter to Friends of Wu Gan Concerned With the 709 Incident,” he admitted frankly that in the past he hadn’t supported his son’s rights defense work. “We argued about it every time we met,” he wrote. But, he added, “What I know and believe is that he is a man full of enthusiasm, truth, and kindness.” The father was furious at the Bill of Indictment against Wu Gan, which turned Wu’s attempts to redress victims into the crime of “subverting state power.” He continued: “I was, deep inside, very proud of my son.”
According to the indictment, Wu Gan protesting outside the Fuqing Public Security Bureau for arresting his father, then posting information about the Public Security Bureau chief and bureau personnel online “severely harmed the image of public security organs and the People’s Police, and provoked people unfamiliar with the truth of the situation to hostility toward organs of the state regime.”
Wu Gan will be tried in secret in Tianjin on August 14. As his father, Xu Xiaoshun should be sitting in the courtroom, but on August 10 he was effectively put under arrest by Fujian security police and forcibly taken back to his hometown in Fuqing. The warnings given to dozens of other human rights lawyers and rights defenders, to “not go where you shouldn’t go,” show that the authorities are paranoid about the trial they’re about to hold. Officials don’t even mention the words “Tianjin” when issuing the warnings, showing that the trial for them has become a major political affair.
- Protesting the black jail in Jiansanjiang (March 2014)
Extralegal places of detention — “black jails” — are a major problem in China. After the abolition of the re-education through forced labor system in 2013, large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners and petitioners were transferred to black jails — set up in local government-controlled buildings or guest houses — or so-called “legal education bases.” On March 20, 2014, the human rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Wang Cheng (王成), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), and nine relatives of the victims, traveled to a “legal education base” on Qinglongshan Farm (青龙山农场), part of the Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration (黑龙江农垦总局), demanding the release of a number of illegally detained Falun Gong practitioners. In the morning of March 21 they were taken away by a group of public security officers, put under administrative detention, then charged with the crime of “using an evil religious organization to harm society and violate the law.” During the detention the four lawyers were savagely beaten, to the point that all four suffered broken ribs.
The Jiansanjiang Incident, as it was termed, attracted widespread attention among human rights lawyers and activists. People traveled from around China to Jiamusi, the nearest city in Heilongjiang, and then to the Jiansanjiang area to demonstrate. Wu Gan was part of a group of citizens that went to call out for the release of the lawyers. On March 26, 2014, he put the equivalent of a reward poster online, promising to pay 50,000 RMB to whoever could provide evidence of illegal conduct by the chief of the Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration’s Public Security Bureau, Liu Guofeng (刘国锋).
The charges against Wu Gan say that he set off a “human flesh search” online and published an “reward for the capture of a criminal,” and that these acts constituted “incitement of opposition to the state regime, creating a severely vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
Wu Gan responded to the doubts raised about his methods online, saying, “We can’t change this fucked up country all at once, but at the very least we will have done our best when it was at its darkest, we will have given one another warmth, shown the helpless that they’re not alone, and when we look back on all this we’ll be able to proudly say that we were part of it: I forked out my own money, I put in my own effort, I got involved, I didn’t sit back and do nothing!”
- Defending the Huang sisters from land requisitions in Huaihua, Hunan (May 2014)
In October 2009, the Mayang county government in Huaihua city, Hunan Province (湖南怀化市麻阳县政府) — without going through any public discussion with the villagers, or gaining any legal document to authorize the requisition of land — forcibly acquired over 10,000 mu (1,647 acres) of agricultural land from villagers at an extremely suppressed price. The government then sold this expropriated land to real estate developers, taking for themselves an enormous profit. This has been the model for how land transactions have been dealt with during China’s economic development for many years.
In November 2009, five Huang clans in the Dalilin village, Gaolin township, Mayang Miao autonomous county in Huaihua, began to defend the legal rights they had to their land assets, refusing to sign the documents that would have transferred the title. They also got into a physical conflict with some of the men the developers hired to carry out the forced demolition work. In August of 2012, at least five members of the Huang clan were arrested and sentenced on the charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” In January of 2013, when a number of them were released on probation, the two sisters sought help online. Lawyer Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yang, as well as Wu Gan learned about the case and got involved in it. Li Heping brought suit at the Huaihua Municipal Intermediate Court, and made an official request for public information from the Mayang county government for the land title information and the authorization for the demolitions. In November of 2013, three of the Huang clan buildings were violently torn down. On April 24, 2013, when Li Heping and a number of other lawyers held a hearing on behalf of the Huang clan at the Mayang Bureau of Land Resources, the Mayang county public security bureau chief ordered a gang of his subordinates to mob and bash them.
During the trial of second instance in May 2014, Zhu Ruifeng (朱瑞峰), a reporter with People’s Supervision Network (人民监督网), an independent website that has since been shut down, traveled to Mayang county to investigate — they were refused access by the Party secretary, Hu Jiawu (胡佳武). Wu Gan then made his way to the Huaihua Municipal Procuratorate and lodged a legal complaint against Hu.
Charges against Wu Gan, however, make no mention of the illegal government land requisitions in Mayang, instead claiming that Wu Gan’s protests outside the Mayang county government offices, and his complaint to the Procuratorate, constituted “inciting individuals who don’t know the truth of the matter to be unhappy with the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
- The case of the ‘Ten Gentlemen from Zhengzhou’ (May 2014)
On February 2, 2014, two students from the 1989 democracy generation — Yu Shiwen (于世文) and Chen Wei (陈卫) — organized an event to commemorate Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) near Zhao’s old family home in Hua county, Henan Province (河南省滑县). But in May that year, a number of participants were criminally detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The case came to be known as that of the Zhengzhou Ten (郑州十君子案).
Upon hearing of the case, activists from around China rushed to the two Zhengzhou detention centers where the participants were being held and began protesting. They unfurled banners, cried out slogans, demanded their release, and criticized the Zhengzhou authorities for depriving the detainees of their right to legal counsel. The number of protesters grew from a couple of dozen to about 70 at its peak. In the end, they were swept up and cleared out. Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Wu Gan said that “the authorities were frightened that so many people had gathered together.”
Later, most of those detained were released one after another, and Yu Shiwen, the only one that was charged, was released on probation in February 2017 without having been charged with a crime.
Nevertheless, Wu Gan’s protest has been taken as evidence constituting the crime of subversion of state power. The charges against him say that Wu Gan “agitated individuals who did not know the truth of the matter to hate organs of the state regime, creating a vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
- Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai’s administrative hearing
Cheng Hai (程海), a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, defended the New Citizens Movement (新公民运动) activist Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in 2014. When the trial opened, he demanded that the court rectify the numerous violations of legal procedure from the beginning of the investigation until the trial, but every time he tried to speak was interrupted by the judge. So he left the courtroom and lodged a complaint against the judge. In response, Beijing’s Changping District judicial bureau banned Cheng Hai from practicing law for one year. Nearly 190 lawyers from around the country jointly signed a petition demanding that the Changping district judicial bureau rescind its punishment, to protect the legal rights of lawyers. On September 5, 2014, over 100 human rights lawyers and citizen activists traveled to Changping to participate in the judicial bureau’s open hearing about the administrative punishment of Cheng Hai. Upon arrival, however, they were intercepted and prevented from attending by police and plainclothes officers. Wu Gan began holding up placards in protest of this illegal obstruction. Police also removed a number of lawyers and activists from the scene, including Wu Gan, locking them up for hours in the local police station. In the end, the punishment against Cheng Hai was sustained.
The charges against Wu Gan never explain why the police stopped lawyers and citizens from attending a public hearing held by a government agency — yet they still said that Wu Gan had “incited people online to travel to the scene of the hearing and illegally gather,” and they said that his holding up of placards in protest was “slandering and attacking organs of the state regime.”
- The case of Lu Yong’s civil appeal in Dali, Yunnan (December 2014)
In 2009 a man named Lu Yong (陆勇) rented a courtyard home on the shore of Erhai Lake in Shuanglang township, Dali, Yunnan (云南大理双廊镇洱海). The term of the lease was 20 years, and he paid it full in cash before the term began. The landlord, Li Hongjun (李红军), used the funds to build a three storey home elsewhere and moved in with his family. In 2010 tourism in Langyang township began to take off and rents shot up. The landlord reneged on the deal and moved his parents to occupy the old courtyard home. Lu Yong, who had already settled with his family in Beijing, went through two years of legal proceedings, including two trials, to finally get the house back in 2011. But in early 2014, the landlord bought off a judge at Dali’s Intermediate Court, Bao Kang (鲍康), who issued a “ruling for a retrial” (再审裁定书) that had no legal basis whatsoever. The “retrial” ordered that Lu Yong give the house back. Determined to defend right and wrong in his case, Lu Yong hired the Beijing-based Ruifeng Law Firm in response to the judge’s acceptance of bribes and twisting of the law. At the time Wu Gan was working as a consultant with the firm.
In January 2015, Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yuandong (谢远东) accompanied Lu Yong to Dali to make a formal complaint against Bao Kang, the judge, for bending the law to his personal ends, and submitted the evidence they possessed. They also submitted the evidence and complaints to the Dali Procuratorate, the Yunnan Provincial High Court, the Yunnan Provincial Procuratorate, and the Yunnan Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wu Gan drove their vehicle around the court for about an hour in protest, attracting seven or eight onlookers who came to see what was going on.
To Lu Yong’s bewilderment, his case also become part of the evidence against Wu Gan of subverting state power. The completely justified and fully-evidenced complaint against a judge in Dali turned into, in the charges against Wu Gan, the claim that “he attacked judicial organs, besmirched the judicial system, and maliciously stirred up trouble on the internet, attempting to incite people who did not know the truth to resent China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system.”
- The death of Fan Bengen in Suzhou (January 2014 to January 2015)
On December 3, 2013, the Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) returned home after having fled for some time to evade forced relocation. Shortly afterwards, numerous men with clubs stormed his home, beating his wife and son with their weapons. Fan Mugen took out a knife in self-defense, stabbing two of the aggressors to death. Lawyers from Beijing and elsewhere offered to represent him, and local human rights defenders in Suzhou traveled to the scene to prevent further attacks, collect evidence, and testify that Fan Mugen was engaged in genuine self-defense. On May 8, 2015, the Suzhou Municipal Intermediate Court publicly pronounced its verdict on Fan Mugen, finding him guilty of “intentional injury” and sentencing him to eight years imprisonment. The trial of second instance upheld the verdict. Large numbers of people however believed that he should have been found not-guilty and released.
Advocating on behalf of Fan Mugen in particular, and on deaths during forced demolition cases in general, has long been a focus of local Suzhou activists. Wu Gan began an online movement to raise funds for Fan Mugen’s defense.
The charges against Wu Gan say that he “actively started organizing fundraising online, maliciously created a disturbance, and incited people who didn’t know the facts to come to Suzhou to illegally assemble, stir up trouble and oppose the government.”
- The Baoding extortion case (March 2015)
Li Jie (李杰), the chief of Longzhuang village, Xinshi district, Baoding city, Hebei Province (河北省保定市新市区沈庄村), was in August 2013 charged with extortion and criminally detained. The Mancheng Court found Li Jie guilty of the crime in the trial of first instance and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. The trial of second instance found the case to be a grave miscarriage of justice, but the judge did not dare to violate the demands of the leader of the local politico-legal committee [a Party agency that controls the courts] and thus did not declare him not guilty. There have been countless cases of this kind in China.
On March 13, 2015, Wu Gan described the essence of the case on Twitter: “The politico-legal committee leadership in Baoding City, Hebei, is engaged in a ‘visual engineering’ project along the lines of Bo Xilai’s ‘strike the black’ campaign in Chongqing. They have no compunctions about declaring innocent people guilty in order to create the impression that they’re sending hardened mob elements to prison.” He called for the public to pay attention to the Li Jie case.
The Indictment against Wu Gan says that he “created a malicious disturbance online, stirring up resentment against China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system among people who didn’t know the true circumstances.”
- The shooting of Xu Chunhe in Qing’an, Heilongjiang (May 2015)
On May 2, 2015, Xu Chunhe (徐纯和), a petitioner from Suihua in Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江绥化), took his family on a trip outside the area. He was stopped and prevented from boarding a train by police officer Li Lebin (李乐斌), who then began beating him. After Xu grabbed ahold of Li’s baton during the struggle, in an attempt to stop Li, Li shot him to death on the grounds that he was attacking an officer. Xu Chunhe’s mother and three children saw the entire incident unfold.
In the face of a torrent of public criticism, officialdom turned on the propaganda machinery, unleashing their Fifty Cent Army to flood the internet saying that Li Lebin had opened fire in a lawful manner. Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Li Zhongwei (李仲伟), Xie Yang (谢阳), Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), and other lawyers, traveled to Heilongjiang to provide legal counsel to Xu Chunhe’s family. Wu Gan managed to get ahold of a surveillance tape of the incident and published the video online, leading it to go viral. Numerous activists began traveling to Qing’an to protest the injustice. The human rights lawyers who were attempting to intercede in the case were administratively detained, and any further lawyers who traveled to the area were similarly taken into custody.
In thanking the eyewitness who provided the video footage — a student who knew well the dangers of spreading such sensitive content — Wu Gan wrote at the beginning of the footage posted on YouTube: “It’s all because of the numbness and cowardice of people that our country has decayed to its present state.”
The charges against Wu Gan instead say that he “published a large number of Weibo posts warping the true facts of the manner… and incited others to travel to Qing’an county and illegally assemble.” He was also said to have “agitated the masses who don’t understand the truth to oppose organs of the state regime.”
The widespread attention that the Qing’an case received, and its impact on public opinion, is seen by many as one of the proximate causes of the mass arrests carried out from July 9, 2015, and onward against human rights lawyers and activists, known as the 709 Crackdown.
- The Jiangxi Leping miscarriage of justice (May 2015)
The Leping case took place in Leping of Jiangxi Province (江西乐平) in 2000, with an incident of kidnapping, rape, and a dismembered body. Two years later police arrested four men in Zhongdian village of Leping county: Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强), Fang Chunping (方春平), Cheng Fagen (程发根), and Cheng Li (程立). Under torture, the four of them “confessed” to the crime; by 2015 they had been in prison for over 13 years and had been given death sentences twice. In 2011 local public security officers arrested a criminal in another case, Fang Linzai (方林崽), who confessed to murdering and dismembering the victim in 2000. Lawyers representing the four victims then demanded that the authorities re-investigate the case, but the Jiangxi High people’s Court refused the lawyers’ access to the case files. In response, the lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯), among others, protested outside the court for days, holding placards demanding the court to allow them to read the files.
Wu Gan traveled to the court in May, by which time the lawyers had already been holding vigil for eight days and had still not gained access to the original case files. Wu Gan setup two retractable display banners outside the court, printing on them: “Jiangxi High Court president Zhang Zhonghou: just name your price!” (江西高院张忠厚院长，你开个价吧！) and “Lawless, immoral, inhuman: Violating the law, violating conscience, violating Party discipline, and violating Heaven’s principles” (无法无天无人性，违法违心违纪违天理). This was Wu Gan at his most idiosyncratic in the art of using public shaming as protest.
On May 19, 2015, Wu Gan was detained. Official media Xinhua wrote in a report several days later that he was being administratively detained for 10 days for “disrupting work unit order and publicly humiliating people.” But within that period Wu Gan was criminally detained by Fujian police on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” as well as “slander.” He was detained in Fujian and then transferred to Tianjin, where he became the 709 Crackdown’s inaugural prisoner.
The Indictment against him said that Wu Gan has “besmirched the image of the judicial organs, slandering and attacking the state’s judicial system.” For most observers, however, it was the authorities’ denial to allow lawyers to review supposedly public case files that dealt damage to the image of China’s judicial system.
Most ironically, the Jiangxi High Court did retry the Leping case and on December 22, 2016, issued new verdicts: the four defendants were found not guilty and immediately released. Yet Wu Gan’s protests outside court were still included in the criminal charges against him, demonstrating that China’s judicial system is not only unjust, but also absurd.
These are the 12 cases the prosecutors cited to support the charges of “subversion of state power” against Wu Gan. Interestingly, the indictment steers clear some of the more celebrated cases in which Wu Gan played larger roles and displayed uncommon gallantry, such as the Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) case (a young footbath waitress in Hunan who killed an official attempting to rape her), the Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰) case (a street vendor in Shenyang who killed a violent chengguan [semi-official streep cop] in self-defence), the Qian Yunhui (钱云会) case (a village chief in Zhejiang fighting against land grabs who was crushed to death by a heavy construction machinery), and the case of elementary school girls in Hainan who were brought to a hotel by the principal and a government official for sex. One can see why the indictment avoids these cases, which highlight how perverse, preposterous, and grossly unjust Chinese society can be, and how little the judiciary can do to safeguard justice without any meaningful rule of law.
“The rights of free speech, press, religious belief, demonstration, assembly, supervising the government and officials, as well as expressing discontent are all natural rights and civil rights endowed and guaranteed by the constitution (presuming the rights are not in name only),” Wu Gan wrote in My Pretrial Statement. “If a citizen is convicted of a crime for exercising these rights, it’s a disgrace to our country and will be ridiculed and spurned by the people of the world. Forcing someone to defend himself against a charge of guilt for exercising these rights is an insult.”
He continued: “I will be convicted not because I am really guilty, but because of my refusal to accept a state-designated lawyer, plead guilty, and make a televised confession for their propaganda purposes, and my resolution to reveal their brutal torture of me and the procuratorates’ misconduct… My crime of subverting the Communist regime is a great honor for me. In fighting for democracy and freedom and in defense of civil rights, a guilty verdict issued by a dictatorial regime is a golden glittering trophy awarded to warriors for liberty and democracy.”
A life-long academic on Chinese law and the judiciary, Professor Jerome Cohen, wrote of Wu Gan’s pretrial statement: “It is tragic testimony to the pathetic attempts of the Communist Party to drape its oppression in the mantle of ‘law.’ To me the saddest aspects are its reminder of the forced collaboration of China’s judges with its police, prosecutors and Party legal officials in suppressing the constitutionally-prescribed rights and freedoms of the Chinese people.”
The indictment and the trial of Wu Gan are themselves evidence of the nature of China’s judicial system and the “Chinese characteristics” that the indictment is so eager to defend. How the world judges Wu Gan is entirely another matter.
Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
My Pretrial Statement, Wu Gan, August 9, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, July, 2015.
Bill of Indictment Against Rights Activist Wu Gan, January 12, 2017.
Activist Who Rejected TV Confession Invites CCTV Interviewer to Be Witness at His Trial, Wu Gan, March 24, 2017.
To All Friends Concerned With the Imprisoned Human Rights Activist Wu Gan and the 709 Case, Xu Xiaoshun, father of Wu Gan, May 22, 2017.
Paying Homage to Liu Xiaobo from Behind Bars, Wu Gan, July 31, 2017.
Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017
It was heartbreaking and depressing recently to watch the community of Chinese activists and dissidents, especially friends of Liu Xiaobo, congregating on WhatsApp and frantically thinking of ways to save him. The appeals and statements, and the calls for signatures from a dozen or so sources, sounded like echoes bouncing off the walls that Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia were trapped behind. For China’s opposition movement, the passing of Liu Xiaobo feels like the climax of a continuous and ruthless campaign of elimination. Now, people are left to pick up the pieces, and they will need time.
I have been pointing out that over the past few years, starting from the now benign-looking crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013, the Party has been carrying out a what I call “targeted elimination” of key activists, dissidents, and intellectuals across the country. In Guangdong, they imprisoned Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and those pesky grassroots street demonstrators. In Wuhan, they put a few key activists in jail; the same was done in Suzhou and Shenzhen. In Xinyu, Jiangxi, they jailed Liu Ping and her small cohort. In Zhengzhou, a nascent, bustling citizen network used to gather frequently — but no more. In Beijing, Xu Zhiyong and key activists in the New Citizens Movement were sentenced, and prominent lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, as well as influential intellectuals, have been taken out one way or the other. The Sakharov laureate Hu Jia spent much of the year under house arrest in his Beijing home. Then in 2015, there was the consummate 709 Crackdown that targeted no fewer than 300 human rights lawyers and activists across the country. I can go on with the list, but you get the picture.
Those considered less than “leaders” have been chased around, driven out of their rentals, and subjected to all manner of harassment. Liberal commentators, journalists, and intellectuals have mostly stopped writing, because it has become too dangerous to analyze and reflect on the current conditions and the behavior of the government. Well, even if they write, their writings won’t survive anywhere inside China’s system of omnipresent censorship.
Come to think about it, that this calculated elimination should have come to Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace laureate, is only inevitable: how could the Party allow him to walk out of prison in 2020 and instantly become a Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi for China’s struggle toward democracy?
With Liu Xiaobo gone, the mood among activists is one of helplessness. I’m surprised how little argument over the statement “I have no enemies” there has been these days, and indeed, how it ceased to be relevant, while Liu Xiaobo lay dying, for it is unbearable, and preposterous, to bring back to mind its central proposal: “to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.” This statement used to be a lightening rod that sparked heated discussion. If Charter 08 represents a vision of China peacefully transitioning to a democracy, few today think it a viable option.
I was certain from the beginning that foreign governments — the United States and Germany in particular — were not going to do enough to make Liu Xiaobo’s last wish come true: “If I were to die, I’d rather die in the West” (as he said, via Liao Yiwu). They don’t care enough; they are absent-minded; they almost always underestimate the evil of the Chinese Communist Party; and they don’t know what it takes to get the upper hand with the CCP.
I find it particularly grievous that Liu Xiaobo’s close friends were denied a last chance to see him and say goodbye, despite their repeated and heartfelt pleas on humanitarian grounds. They’d have a much better chance entreating humanity from a pack of coyotes. Rubbing salt in the wound, plainclothes agents then played the role of “family and friends” at Liu Xiaobo’s memorial service.
Altogether, I feel that dying and being dead in the Party’s filthy hands is so ignominious that Liu Xiaobo would have been more dignified dying alone in a dungeon somewhere.
What is the path forward? What’s going to happen next in the struggle for democracy? The path forward is that there is no path forward. The Party has been working systematically to block that path: The elimination of key activists has been successful, and they are either in prison or have been rendered ineffective. To keep tabs on a few hundred or thousand activists is nothing for the Party. If you run down the list of the first batch of Charter 08 signatories — all 303 of them — and see where they are and what they have been doing now, you get a sense how this core group of Chinese citizens advocating change has been faring.
Meanwhile, the Party has been working overtime to cage in and lock down incipient civil society in China — an aspiration that has grown out of the economic and social transformations since the 1990s — by passing one draconian law after another from late 2014 to the present. This includes the law on the management of foreign NGOs, the National Security Law, the Internet Security Law, the revised Criminal Law, the Charity Law, the Counter-Terrorism Law, the counter-espionage law, and more recently, the draft Intelligence Law.
On July 15, Liu Xiaobo’s ashes were given a sea burial off the coast of Dalian and his widow and relatives had their arms twisted to obey the Party’s orders. Since then, a Chinese phrase, “crush the bones and toss the ashes” (挫骨扬灰), has sprung to the mind of many as the most apt description for the Party’s animus. It means that one is so hated that his bones must be ground up and his ashes cast away. Applying it to Liu Xiaobo, it is at the same time literal and true of the Party’s fear of both the man and what he symbolized.
Liu Xiaobo may not have enemies, but the despots in China know very well who their enemies are.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017
Yaxue Cao, December 31, 2016
If it wasn’t for the “Safety House” in which he was hiding as he wrote, the opening paragraph of Lam Wing Kee’s personal account would be beguilingly insouciant: there he stands at the window, painting his view of the Lei Yue Mun bay in the dazzling late afternoon light, with precise, unhurried sentences.
It is with this dissonant scene that Mr. Lam begins his narration of eight months of secret captivity in mainland China.
Doing what he had for years – hauling suitcases of tabloid-style exposés about Chinese leaders and politics to mainland China, and then mailing them to clients – he was stopped at customs in Shenzhen one day in October 2015 and pulled aside for questioning. It wasn’t his first time, but this time it was different. A Central Government Special Investigation Team (中央专案组) had been formed to target the book publishing and mailing business, newly seen as “a veiled attempt to overthrow the Chinese government.”
Handcuffed and hooded, he was taken to a two-story building in Ningbo on the coast. There were mountains on three sides, and fog shrouded the area in the morning and evenings. He discovered his whereabouts by squatting on the toilet and looking out through cracks in the window.
The room was padded to prevent suicide, a thought he briefly contemplated. Three surveillance cameras and two guards on rotation watched his every move. He was interrogated between 20 and 30 times about the Causeway Bay bookstore he worked at, the authors of the books, his clientele, and his boss, Gui Minhai (桂民海) who was abducted from Thailand and is still in custody. The interrogations must have been thin on substance given the number of sessions involved, so Mr. Lam’s account of them is at best sketchy.
On the third day of his abduction, he began to mark time by secretly pulling a thread off his orange jacket and tying a little knot each day. By the time he was removed from Ningbo there were 124 little orange knots.
He sought to communicate with his guards, but only one young man risked discovery to speak a few furtive words. A doctor who came to check his vitals took pains not to say any more than necessary, but nonetheless brought him some snow from outside — something he, a Hong Konger, had never touched before. He fancied that his main handler, Mr. Shi, might be above the others and the system he served, because he is “educated.” But humanity is a scarce commodity under terror.
They forced him to waive his right to notify relatives and hire lawyers. He signed. They presented him with a false confession, that he had committed the crime of illegally selling books. He signed. They forced him to write a statement of repentance. He did, according to their precise instructions. They made him confess on camera, several times. He was shocked to find that a “witness” at one of those sessions was played by a female cop. He did everything they made him do, because he saw that he had no choice.
In March 2016, they took him to Shaoguan, a city in northern Guangdong, and gave him a job in the local library. He reshelved books during the day and reported to his minder in the evening. From the cell phone they gave him he devoured every bit of news about the five booksellers in Hong Kong, and began to realize, from statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that what he was embroiled in was a big deal.
One night in April, two prostitutes knocked on his door. He saw that it was a noose to be tied around his neck and declined their company.
Having deemed him sufficiently conditioned and ready, in June the Special Investigation Team sent him back to Hong Kong to fetch the company computer that stored client information. He was given one day in which to do it, and also visit his relatives and an old teacher whose declining health was preoccupying him.
At the immigration check point he did what he had been instructed: he told Hong Kong police that he was back to close up the case. He’s safe and needs no help. Then he checked into a hotel designated by his minders.
He had planned to obey every command. “In any case,” he figured, “I’d go back [to the mainland] for a few more months, then everyone would be able to come back to Hong Kong and live peacefully like before.”
Things began to unravel after he boarded the MTR, going to the office in North Point to fetch the computer:
“Standing in the subway car were chattering students with smiles on their faces. Some passengers stared at their phones with their heads bowed. A pregnant woman boarded, and someone offered their seat. A courier had put his bags down and was squatting in a corner to sort his deliveries. Everyone was untroubled, except me, being followed and manipulated. What’s wrong with me? I’m in Hong Kong, and yet I still have no freedom.”
He began to feel a sense of repulsion at their plans, and the role he was assuming in them:
“What is even scarier, as the man named Shi told me, is that I have to continue working in the bookshop after they allow me to return to Hong Kong. He’ll keep in touch with me, and I’ll report what’s going on, through writing or photographs. They want to know about Hong Kong, especially those who are buying books about political affairs. I’ll be their eyes and ears. Good heavens, I’ll not only lose my own freedom, but betray others. If I yield today, I’ll be an accomplice tomorrow, forcing more people to submit. If I sell my soul today, I’ll be forcing others to sell their souls tomorrow.”
He was able to extend his stay for one more day, because he picked up the wrong computer.
He felt his love for Hong Kong acutely: the venders, the fortunetellers, the sidewalk food stands, and the crowds. He roamed Portland Street and went by Langham Place. From Shanghai Street, through Portland Street again, he walked towards Yau Ma Tei. He couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Hong Kong and going back to his captors. At dinner with his older sister, he dismissed the notion that only Christians were capable of doing good, and was stuck by an inscription on the homescreen of his brother-in-law’s phone: “When your attitude is right, happiness will come.”
At Festival Walk around noon the next day, where he was supposed to board the train and head to the border, he stopped and sat smoking in the bright sun. He was late, and the people on the other side of Luohu Bridge were waiting for him. He had stayed up all night reading news about the booksellers and the protest of six thousand Hong Kongers and pro-democracy legislators.
At the MTR entrance, he began to hesitate. He wanted another cigarette. Then a little poem that he had read when he was young came to him: “I have never seen / a knelt reading desk / though I’ve seen / men of knowledge on their knees.”
Then he made up his mind. He stubbed out the smoke and turned around. The rest of the story is now well known.
At the end of 2014, I was heartbroken that so many of the people I know or have reported on have gone to prison. I started to think that there weren’t too many left to put in jail. What did I know? Over the past two years, more people have been abducted, jailed, or secretly detained. More have been tortured. Harsher – much harsher – sentences have been handed down. The country is now on lockdown under a set of laws designed to restrict freedom in all areas. A narrative is being fostered that there is a U.S.-led conspiracy to bring down the communist regime.
At the end of 2016, however, the consensus among the people I work with is that, looking back some years later, we’ll find that 2016 is far from being the worst. The worst is yet to come.
I first read Mr. Lam’s account in August in a quiet cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, and read it once again on the eve of 2017. The power of his testimony is amplified by his considerable literary deftness. I have been wanting to capture that moment, on June 16, 2016, at the Kowloon Tong Station, when he put out his cigarette and turned around. To me, it’s one of the most important events of the year. In it is the kernel of hope I’m bringing with me into 2017, and beyond.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Yaxue Cao, December 25, 2016
On December 9, 2015, after dropping their two sons off at school, Pastor Yang Hua (仰华) and his wife Wang Hongwu (王洪雾) of the Living Stone house church (活石教会) in Guiyang, made their way to the 24th story of Guiyang International Center, which hosts the main hall of their congregation. At the same time every Wednesday, at three different church locations, Living Stone congregants hold a prayer service. A few days prior, government Neighborhood Committees and police stations dispatched personnel to go door-by-door to the homes of hundreds of Living Stone church members, warning them against attending the Wednesday service. “We’ll arrest whoever goes,” they were told. Needless to say, the authorities had the home addresses, workplaces, telephone numbers, and other personal information of every churchgoer. The few who were determined to attend that morning were intercepted by government agents, who deliberately collided with their car and then dragged them off to the local police station to settle the “accident.”
The prayer service was set to start at 9:30 a.m., but at 9:00 well over 100 “integrated law enforcement” agents swept in. There were personnel from the Bureau of Civil Affairs and the Bureau of Religious Administration, public security bureau agents, and a squad of SWAT police in full armed regalia. They demanded that Pastor Yang open all the doors. After he refused, they called over their locksmith. When the “law enforcement personnel” attempted to enter the office and the sound control room next to it, to take the computer hard drives, Pastor Yang stood blocking the doorway. He demanded that the technical personnel present their work identification cards. When they said they didn’t have any, he announced that they wouldn’t be allowed in. At that point, one of the commanders of the operation yelled out “SWAT police, come over here!” A few burly members of the SWAT team ran over, lifted Yang Hua off his feet, and carried him away to a corner next to the elevator, pinning him there.
Pastor Su Tianfu (苏天富), who had just finished his errands in the morning and arrived at the church, attempted, abortively, to reason with the agents. They began confiscating the church’s computers, equipment, and anything else they thought useful. They said they would provide a list of the items confiscated, but over a year later no such list has been forthcoming. They also confiscated the cellphones of Yang Hua, Hongwu, Pastor Su, and a number of couples who arrived for the service, deleting all photographs on them.
When the raid was over they posted two notices sealing the church doors, one saying that the church was an illegal civil organization, the other that it had set up a center of religious activity without authorization. Yang Hua and Hongwu were taken to the police station. Living Stone’s two branch locations were dealt with in a similar manner.
On December 14 Pastor Su was taken into custody at his home by police. Two days later when he was released, they warned him that he would be charged with “divulging state secrets” later. A year on, he is still technically “on bail pending further trial,” which means that his freedom of movement is restricted.
A few days after Yang Hua was arrested the authorities raided his home and took away his computer and everything else that they thought would be useful for their investigation.
On December 26, 2016, Yang Hua will be on trial for “deliberately divulging state secrets” (故意泄露国家机密罪). The Chinese government seems to deliberately time cases of political persecution around the Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations, as a means of avoiding international attention.
The “state secrets” in question is a document issued by an ad hoc office set up to eliminate the Living Stone Church, which goes by the title of the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church” (贵阳市依法处置贵阳活石教会指挥部). Dated December 3, 2015, the document bore the official seal of the Office of the Guiyang Municipal Stability Maintenance Work Leading Small Group (贵阳市维护稳定工作领导小组办公室). It said that “Dealing with the Living Stone church according to the law is a political task that must be given a high level of priority. Leaders of work units must be personally on task, fall in line with the entire city’s overall deployments, and earnestly mobilize to complete all the work.” Attached to it was a list of names of every Living Stone member, which was forwarded to each of their workplaces, demanding that those employees be investigated and placed under “stability control” (稳控).
The letter came to the attention of a young woman named Wang Yao (王瑶), who worked in the office of the Party Committee of the Maternal and Child Healthcare Hospital of Guiyang City. She knew a friend, Yu Lei (余雷), who attended Living Stone bible study sessions. So she gave Yu photographs of the document. Now, Wang and Yu have been tried for “illegally acquiring state secrets” (非法获取国家机密罪) and “illegally disseminating state secrets” (非法传播国家机密) respectively. Their judgements have not yet been handed down.
Two Young Preachers from Poverty
The two descriptions I kept hearing about the two pastors of the Living Stone church were, firstly, that they were from the poorest parts of Guizhou (Guizhou itself is one of the poorest provinces in China), and secondly that they were both very young. Pastor Su Tianfu was born in 1975, while Pastor Yang Hua was born in 1976; they come from the neighbouring counties of Qianxi (黔西) and Nayong (纳雍) respectively.
Zhang Tan (张坦), a member of the Living Stone church and an independent scholar of Christianity in China, explained that Guizhou was one of the 12 centers of missionary activity established by the China Inland Mission, the protestant organization founded by 19th century English missionary Hudson Taylor (戴德生). Yang Hua and Su Tianfu grew up in an area in which the China Inland Mission had once preached the Gospel, until early 1950s when missionaries were expelled by the Communist Party. Most Christians at that point were forcibly integrated into the Party-controlled “Three-Self” church movement. After the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Tan says, Christians in Guizhou began to embrace their faith ardently. In the poverty-stricken far-off reaches of mountainous Guizhou, he added, neither the Three-Self church nor house churches had much purchase.
Yang Hua was born Li Guozhi (李国志), the fourth sibling in a third-generation Christian family. When he was young, though, he not only refused to believe, but found the idea embarrassing. His father was an elder in a house church. He spent most of his time dealing with church affairs and relatively less on looking after his family. He also struck his kids at the slightest provocation. Nevertheless, after suffering a sudden accident in the family, and personally experiencing the transformative effect of prayer, Yang Hua became a Christian.
At around that time there were Christian workers offering in his hometown Bible study sessions, which he joined. Before long he felt the desire to spread the Gospel himself. At age 13 in 1989 (he probably had little idea what was taking place in Beijing that year), he cut short his studies and became a roaming preacher. First he followed a group in his hometown, then went onto Yunnan, Guangxi, Henan, Zhejiang, and other provinces to preach. Christians in Zhejiang wanted him to put down roots there, but he felt the urge to return to Guizhou.
In 1997 Yang Hua, then 21, moved from Zhejiang back to Guiyang.
Su Tianfu grew up in abject poverty. In 2011, in an interview with the Christian author Yu Jie (余杰), he mentioned that the only clothes he wore when growing up were hand-me-downs from relatives. In winter, he said, there was often hardly any food at home, so he only ate once a day. His father was a drunk who beat him. When he was unable to pay the miscellaneous expenses for junior high school, one of the teachers pitied him and only made him pay half up front. The rest he earned over summer, collecting trash, hauling sandbags at a construction site, and laboring as a road builder. When he finished middle-school he applied for junior teachers’ college (师专) because it was free. In his own words, he was a cynical and hopeless youth who was convinced that life had no meaning.
But he began to join a Bible study class at the teachers’ college. There was no pastor and no preacher; sometimes a fine arts teacher at the school, who was a Christian, would lead them in Bible study, or play hymns on tape that everyone would sing to. “Though I didn’t understand a great deal about the truth of it, I participated in the meetings regularly, and I felt in my soul a great sense of contentment,” Su said. “I felt joy.”
On Christmas 1993 Su Tianfu was baptized as a Christian — the first in his family. In 1997 at the age of 22 he quit his job teaching elementary school and went to Guiyang.
1997-2000: Each Their Own Ministry
The two young men first met while serving the “Dandelion” Christian Fellowship at Guizhou University of Technology. It was established in 1980 by two foreign missionaries who were teaching there.
In June of 1997, Su Tianfu went to Guangzhou to be further trained in pastoral care. In Guangdong he began to regularly participate in church meetings led by the renowned pastor Lin Xiangao (林献羔) of the Damazhan house church. He studied Cantonese and traveled with other disciples to found churches and spread the Gospel around Guangdong. In 2000 he married Ouyang Manping (欧阳满平), a young lady he’d gotten to know in their Bible training classes.
Back in Guiyang, Yang Hua joined a house church group of a few dozen members. It was there that he got to know Wang Hongwu, at the time a nurse at the charity clinic run by the church. When he revealed that he took an interest in her, however, he was curtly rebuffed. As Hongwu put it: “He didn’t fit my criteria. All the things a girl wanted, he didn’t have: a diploma, money, good looks — he didn’t measure up in any area.”
Yang Hua was deeply hurt, and for a while fell into terrible health. He had nosebleeds and high fever, and came to the clinic for treatment. This went on for a while until he decided he had to pull himself out of it. At a workers’ meeting one day, Yang Hua told a Ms. Li that “Next week I’m going out to the Yachi River” (鸭池河). He’d been planning and hoping to establish a church there for a long time, but had put it off because of the emotional turmoil of being rejected. Hongwu overheard the conversation. “My heart thumped,” she said. “It was like a shut door being suddenly flung open.”
Yachi River at the time was the headquarters to the Ninth Engineering Bureau of the Sinohydro (中国水利水电第九工程局有限公司), inhabited by thousands of construction workers and their families. Over the next two years, Yang Hua went door to door spreading the Gospel. There had been only one or two believers when he started, and number quickly mushroomed to over a hundred over the next two years. In 2000 he went back to Guiyang, and in 2001 he and Hongwu married.
Preaching and Training in Guizhou from 2000 to 2008
“Even though I’d lived in Guangzhou for quite a few years, had learnt Cantonese, and was gradually getting used to life there, there was always a voice in my heart telling me: ‘You have to return to your home province and begin a new phase of your Ministry.’ Though Guizhou was poor and behind-the-times, it was a much bigger canvas,” Su Tianfu said.
On the day that Su and his wife arrived in Guiyang, Yang Hua and another friend met them at the train station. Their journey together had begun.
In his interview with Yu Jie, Pastor Su explained what happened over those years. First, the two young men each led their own small-scale house church assemblies. They also returned to serve a mission in their hometowns in the Bijie (毕节) and Liupanshui (六盘水) prefectures, southwest Guizhou, populated by the Miao and Yi ethnic groups. As a way of alleviating the reliance on preachers coming out to the countryside, from 2003 to 2008 they held training sessions in Guiyang every year for ethnic Christian workers, and each session lasted three months, training 20 students each time.
Beginning in 2003 they arranged for Christian workers to travel around Guizhou, focusing on regions without churches, to conduct short- and long-term missionary work. They’ve relied on the donations of congregants for their livelihoods, though their wives have also worked to help support the family.
Their activities have alwasys been a matter of close attention for the authorities. In 2003 they got a tip off that the secret police were investigating them, and were likely going to make arrests. They prepared travel bags and were ready to flee at short notice, but in the end they didn’t flee. In the years followed, similar threats stalked them, until police interrogations and menace became a part of life.
A City on the Hill
By 2008 Yang Hua and Su Tianfu were being harassed and attacked wherever they went in Guizhou. They were increasingly running short of resources, until they were unable to pay the rent on their training venue.
It bothered them that the house churches they led in Guiyang had been underground. “Even though it was just a small meeting of a dozen or so people, we had to act like the underground [revolutionary-era] Communist Party you see on television dramas — using codewords, acting secretively as though we were doing something terrible,” Su said.
But at that point, as Su judged it in the 2011 interview, Guiyang had only one Three-Self church for a population of five or six million, plus a seminary and another small church on the outskirts of town. “On the one hand, a lot of people had never ever heard the Gospel, but on the other, the existing Christians had nowhere to meet.”
Through prayer and careful consideration together, their small church groups started to think clearly on what they wanted to achieve: they wanted their fellowship to grow and thrive in the open, and they wanted to make an impact on the city of Guiyang.
“Given that Christians are the light of the world, the church is the city on the hill. So it can’t be hidden. It’s got to be public,” Su Tianfu said.
The new church they opened would be the “Living Stone” church, a name that Yang Hua picked. It was drawn from Peter 2:4-5: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”
After spring in 2008 they began drawing up plans to rent an office space for worship. In Easter they held a dedication ceremony for a new church with about 50 members. Apart from regular services, the church held Christmas celebrations, hosted weddings, and organized excursions, all of which attracted more members.
Beginning in 2009 the Living Stone church each year baptized between a few dozen and over 100 new believers. Their Christmas celebrations attracted over 1,000, either participants or onlookers. The government was apprised of every large-scale activity in advance. When the authorities tried to interfere, the churchmen, often led by Pastor Yang Hua, argued their case strongly and never gave ground. In 2011, in a river on the southern outskirts of Guiyang, they held a baptism ceremony for 120 new Christians. With friends and family included there were probably between 300 to 400 people there. The government then mobilized at least twice as many security personnel to watch them.
As part of the church’s pastoral program with congregants, they encouraged all believers to also participate in small-scale house church meetings. Last year when the church was formally banned by the Guiyang authorities, there were over 20 of these small house church congregations, each with between one and a few dozen members. The effect of the small groups was to give believers a sense of family, return, and belonging, where spreading the Gospel, caring for one another, and caring for society became part of their way of life.
Most of the congregants were between 20 and 40, from all walks of life: businessmen, teachers, doctors, professionals, public servants, homemakers, students, and more.
For years they facilitated adoption of abandoned infants, fostered children with developmental disabilities, taught survival skills to children in orphanages, and performed other welfare services — all of which they were praised for in the local press. Separately, a number of church members founded or participated in charitable social programs of their own, helping disabled people, orphans, the elderly, and others. The church became an interconnecting structure, linking the community with the wider society.
Church management was handled by a 12-member board of directors elected by the congregation, which held meetings to discuss and make decisions on church affairs both large and small. When there were items of serious disagreement, they put the matter aside rather than have the majority overrule a minority. The goal was to eventually reach a consensus.
As the number of congregants continued to grow, the church bought three residential units on the 24th floor of the Guiyang International Center with a total 600 square meters. After they bought the units, the church began coming under more intense pressure from the authorities. Before they began using them, the government posted notices inside and outside the building stating that the newly established church was “an unapproved non-religious site established without permission,” and that pastors Su Tianfu and Yang Hua were unapproved, unregistered ministers.
On November 8, 2015, Living Stone congregants, under the menacing gaze of hundreds of riot police, SWAT police, regular police, and officials from a multitude of government agencies, held a ceremony dedicating their new church. When government agents later attempted to force them to join the regime-controlled “Three-Self” church movement, they were firmly rejected. The result was a campaign of harassment, threats, and efforts at blocking believers from attending.
Defending the Rights of Small Churches
Pastor Yang Hua and Pastor Su divided their duties roughly in half: Su handled internal affairs, and Yang took care of liaison and external activities. As one congregant told me in an interview: “We’ve been helping small rural churches around Guizhou for years. When these churches are raided and broken up and their members arrested, no one else even knows.” The small churches seek out Yang Hua, who finds lawyers to defend them. Quite a few cases have been defended successfully.
Hongwu, Pastor Yang’s wife, said that on every occasion that brothers and sisters of the faith have been attacked by the government, Yang Hua stands up for them.
In May 2014 the authorities made a series of arrests of churchgoers in Liupanshui (六盘水), at a church that had grown rapidly and had held regular services for over 20 years. Now it was called an “evil religion” and its members detained. Yang Hua engaged lawyers in Beijing and Shanghai who traveled with him to Liupanshui, where they were followed by government vehicles. Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), one of the lawyers, described the torture that believers were subject to while in custody: they were beaten hard with long wooden staffs, forced to stand for prolonged periods, starved, deprived of sleep, and had lit cigarettes stuffed into their mouths.
In 2015 there was a similar incident in Daguan, Qianxi county (黔西大关), where a number of locals, who had returned from years in Hangzhou as migrant workers, were arrested after setting up a thriving church. Yang Hua and two lawyers from out of town arrived to help. They were followed by government-hired thugs everywhere they went. The men rammed their vehicle into Yang Hua’s, and pulled out long machetes threatening to hack him and the lawyers to death.
More than one person has described Yang Hua as diminutive in size and “frail” in appearance: he’s just under 1.6m (5’3″), is somewhat hunched due to back inflammation (ankylosing spondylitis) and often in pain. But when the rubber hits the road and fellow Christians are being assailed and threatened, he’s on the front lines defending their rights, not in the least afraid. He carries of aura of invincibility. “Pastor Yang Hua’s courage and sense of responsibility is extraordinary,” a church member who was on some of these trips with Yang Hua told me.
Zhang Tan once wrote an article about how Yang Hua dealt with a traffic case. “No matter the size of the case, Yang Hua fights it from the lowest level court to the highest. Even if he’s losing every step of the way, he doesn’t give up.” The process, Zhang told me, has revealed the savagery of the government power, but it’s also shown Yang Hua’s tenacity.
In today’s China, this sort of resistance doesn’t have much practical value. In the Daguan case, the five churchmen arrested were all imprisoned on China’s “evil religion” laws, and the Living Stone church has now also been crushed. Indeed, some church members complained that the fate of Living Stone was precisely because Pastor Yang Hua got involved in too many affairs of other churches.
As far as the Chinese Communist Party is concerned, Christianity and its dissemination is in and of itself a question of ideological competition. For decades the Party has used the “Three-Self” church system to integrate and assimilate Christianity under the banner of “patriotism,” exerting strict doctrinal and administrative control over these “competing” faiths. The escalated repression in Zhejiang, Henan and other provinces over the last three years are another example of the Party and Xi Jinping’s determination to dig out this supposed threat by the root. The shutdown of the Living Stone church and the arrest of Pastor Yang Hua is simply one development in the overall political schema in China. It has little to do with the “leak” of a ridiculous government document.
Zhang said that Christianity in China has reached a point in time, and that Guiyang’s Living Stone church is a perfect product of this point in time.
The Judgment of the Party vs. the Judgement of God
Since his detention, Pastor Yang Hua’s wife and children have been prevented from seeing him because his case “involves state secrets.” The two lawyers she engaged met Yang Hua for the first time in March and again in May. Yang Hua revealed how his interrogators used torture to try to extract a confession. They fixed him to an iron chair, stomped his feet with their shoes, and threatened his life and that of his wife and children. They also told him: “We know we can’t change your faith, but we control everything. If we want, we can paint you as a greedy pastor and destroy your reputation.”
The lawyers said that despite the threats, Pastor Yang Hua didn’t give in. Nor did the church’s accountant, Zhang Xiuhong (张秀红), who was detained in July 2015 — she is still being held, though according to Chinese criminal procedure should have long ago either been tried or released.
In September, lawyers reported that Yang Hua was suffering from liver pain, and had scabies all over his body.
The authorities claim that the case has nothing to do with religion. But they’ve denied Yang Hua, and the three other detainees, the right to read the Bible while in custody. For months Yang Hua’s wife hand-copied Bible passages and mailed them to him, but in October that final connection too was severed too.
For the pending trial, police warned lawyers not to plead not-guilty (indeed, the judicial system in China is government-directed theater, and everyone is expected to follow the script). But in their Legal Opinion submitted to the court in November, the two lawyers questioned the legality and authority of the ad hoc agency set up to suppress the church, the “Guiyang Municipal Command Center for Legally Dealing With the Living Stone Church.” They also questioned the validity of the regulation cited by the prosecution: “Regulations on State Secrets, Their Classification, and Scope in Religious Work.” It’s a document whose existence has never been announced to the public, and whose issuer, legal remit, and period of effect remain unknown. Yet it forms the basis of the charges against Pastor Yang Hua.
Hongwu said that though she has received no announcement of the trial, the only reason she won’t be there is if she’s put under house arrest. Pastor Su, according to a source, has been taken out of Guiyang on an involuntary trip.
As for the fate of the Living Stone church and the trial of Pastor Yang, Zhang Tan shared his thoughts: China’s “governing the country according to the law” (依法治国) is about using harsh legal instruments to control the people, in the model of the Qin Dynasty. It’s about maintaining and exercising the power of rulers, and has nothing to do with protecting the rights of the people. This, he said, is really the “Chinese characteristics.” “Secrets” are everywhere in today’s China, he said. “For example, they want to demolish my home, so they have a ‘secret’ document for demolishing my home. If I get ahold of this document, it is me who violated the law, not they, who want to destroy my property. Only a dictatorship has secrets everywhere, and it’s only under a dictatorship that one finds such absurdities at every turn.”
Zhang Tan argues that throughout Chinese history, there have been benevolent governments and ruthless governments. But take any issue and compare today’s communist rule with that of the Qin or Ming — widely seen as the harshest and most abusive dynasties — and the regime of today is worse. “The Chinese nation,” he said, “has come to an end.”
A sense of peace fills the letters Pastor Yang Hua has sent to his wife and children from his cell. He told Hongwu that his conditions have improved, and that he had no more need of money or other supplies. His imprisonment, he wrote, is a sabbatical that Jesus granted him after 23 years of toil. He said he’ll enjoy it, “like a child who’s had his full of milk, sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, December 21, 2015.
December 15, 2016
Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.
YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.
Chang Ping: Thank you.
YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?
Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.
YC: How did you become a journalist?
Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”
After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.
After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》) was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.
Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.
YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.
Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.
As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”
Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!
About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.
I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.
YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”
Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.
YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.
Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.
But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.
YC: Why the rectification?
Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.
After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.
At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).
YC: I’ll find that and take a look.
Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”
In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.
YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?
Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.
In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.
After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.
YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”
Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.
YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?
Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.
I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.
YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.
Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.
Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.
In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏：真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.
At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.
Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.
Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.
Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.
YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.
When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?
Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.
When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)
YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?
Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.
Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.
YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.
Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended.
In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.
Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.
I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.
Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.
‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016
The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.
Yaxue Cao, November 27, 2016
Ms. Liu Huizhen (刘惠珍) is a villager in the District of Fangshan (房山区), on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing. She’s a victim of forced demolition who fought hard to preserve her property but lost it anyway. This year, she is one of the 70 or so Beijing residents who organized to compete for seats as district People’s Representatives. China held its once-every-five-year grassroots elections for county-district level People’s Representatives on November 15. In a joint statement, Ms. Liu and other independent candidates promised that “they will make sure every voter knows who they are and how to reach them with their problems, and as their representatives, will monitor the government and its functions.”
Financial Times, Washington Post, and other media outlets reported Ms. Liu’s candidacy. On November 17, BBC posted a striking 5-minute video of its Beijing correspondent John Sudworth visiting Ms. Liu, showing him blocked and manhandled by a throng of plainclothes cops, or government-hired thugs. The video went viral on WeChat, and got a lot of play on Twitter too.
On November 19, a CCTV journalist based in London — according to her Twitter bio in any case — with the handle @KongLinlin, accused John Sudworth of making “fake” news. She has since been identified as Kong Linlin (孔琳琳).
Several Twitter users, including BBC’s Stephen McDonell, asked her to point out which part of John Sudworth’s reporting was fake. She replied in Chinese:
“Liu Huizhen has been party to a lawsuit because of a housing demolition, and a BBC journalist in China got himself involved in the Chinese judiciary, trying to artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit. When he reported for Western audiences, he made no mention of the woman’s background, misleading people exactly the way he reported the Obama Red Carpet Gate.”
Ms. Kong is referring to the fact that Liu sued Fangshan District Housing and Urban-Rural Construction Committee for unlawful demolition and lost in the first instance and then, in 2015, the appeal.
In his reporting, Sudworth made no mention of the demolition suit, as it’s irrelevant to the elections. So how did Sudworth “artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit”?
Does Liu’s “background” matter in the elections, and in her role as an independent candidate? It appears to me that it’s the CCTV reporter who’s lumping together Liu Huizhen’s lawsuit with her participation in the elections.
Ms. Kong went on to explain why the story is supposedly fake:
“Isn’t he deliberately blurring this woman’s lawsuit and using Western political concepts to get involved in China’s rural economic disputes? Hasn’t he been making hate propaganda for BBC?” (Emphasis in original.)
Continuing to explain the alleged falsity of Sudworth’s reporting, she tweeted (English her own): “Deliberately reporting on unclear fact , depend on single resource ,misleading the audience .That is also a fake news.” (A Twitter user commented: “this is not how you type punctuation.”)
She picked it up some two hours later on November 20:
“A Chinese person who doesn’t abide by Chinese election laws but fantasizes that she can ‘participate’ in elections in the American way. It’s inevitable that she’d be ‘locked up’. Ms. Liu also supported Hong Kong independence — how could she have the right to be elected?”
According to Article 3 of China’s Electoral Law, “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 shall have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of ethnic status, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status or length of residence. Persons who have been deprived of political rights according to the law shall not have the right to vote and stand for election.”
Ms. Liu may have lost a civil lawsuit against her local government, but she’s not a criminal and has not been deprived of political rights. In November 2014, Liu and nine others in Beijing were detained for holding signs to support the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and she was released after seven months in detention.
By now, many Chinese Twitter users were arguing with and ridiculing Kong Linlin.
A few hours later, Ms. Liu Huizhen, who recently joined Twitter, became aware of the unfolding argument and tweeted: “You are a Chinese journalist, and you have no regard for fact. All you do is sing the praise [of the Party]. Have you eaten up your own conscience?”
“I’m Liu Huizhen,” she continued, “they blocked me from leaving my home because I declared that I would take part in the elections as a candidate. The world wouldn’t know such ugliness if the BBC didn’t happen to capture the truth. Ms. Kong Linlin, you may eat you dog food with your conscience unperturbed, but you’ve got no right to insult me!”
“I’ve decided to tweet more details of my candidacy. @KongLinlin, open up your titanium dog eyes to see who’s violating the law,” Liu went on.
“I submitted my name [to the district’s electoral committee] in mid-October, 2016 to stand for election. Around 10 am on October 30, I picked up the voter recommendation form and candidate CV form. Around noon on the same day, I began to seek support in the No. 50 electoral zone. By the next day, 24 voters in my zone had signed on to recommend me as a candidate for office of People’s Representative.”
According to Article 29 of China’s Electoral Law, any citizen with the recommendation of 10 or more voters can enter the primary selection.
Liu continued, “What the BBC video revealed was only a tiny fraction of my far more complicated experience. The repressive agents were so blatant that not even policemen dared intervene. So you tell me: who is backing them? I can’t imagine there are journalists like Kong Linlin who would defend them! I ask the whole world to judge this. Thank you everyone!”
She attached photographs of the neighborhood posting of five candidates for the No. 50 electoral zone, and her ballot, where she wrote in herself and another candidate.
An hour later, the CCTV journalist resumed her attack:
“You should also disclose how you received guidance, and how much funding you received, from overseas anti-China hostile forces.”
“How did BBC accidentally videotape you? How did you accidentally have photos as proof when you supported Hong Kong independence? You’ve actively taken part in anti-China political activities. Stop pretending you’re an innocent village woman.”
Ms. Kong provided no evidence for these accusations. To a Twitter user who pointed out her distorted logic, she replied: “I also support legitimate candidates who use the ballot to gain rights, but those who are funded by foreign political forces will have no lawful right to stand for elections in China.”
To a Twitter user who criticized the Chinese government’s use of thuggery to stop independent candidates, Ms. Kong has this to say: “China prohibits the use of illegal assembly to participate in People’s Representative elections. If [she] wants to be elected as a representative the American way, [she] should go to the United States.”
One comment asked Ms. Kong: “How many people together constitute ‘illegal assembly’?” while another comment pointed out: “So far, Ms. Liu’s ‘violation’ of the law only existed in your mouth, but I saw with my own eyes the violation of law by the thugs, I also see that you are defending such violations of the law. …By defending such violations of the law, you don’t show your high ground in rule-of-law thinking, but the lowness of your moral standard.”
To a Twitter user who asked Ms. Kong to explain what a “legitimate” candidate is, she replied:
“First of all, [a candidate] cannot be manipulated by foreign forces. This is a basic requirement for candidates in any country.” She didn’t reply when the same Twitter user asked her: “Which law defines whether or not a candidate is ‘manipulated by foreign forces’? Who has the right to define it? Through what procedures is it defined? Or is it just an arbitrary decision from the lips of the relevant organ?” (i.e. official government body.)
Finally, CCTV’s Kong Linlin had this to say to Ms. Liu Huizhen:
“Ms. Liu, to petition your case, you go to the court. Nobody is blocking you from taking part in the elections, except that you have to go through appropriate procedures and abide by Chinese law. You mix your petition with illegal assembly, and in addition, you collude with foreign forces, and support Hong Kong independence. You are doing so many things, and each one of them endangers the country. Don’t be sold out by those people in the end.”
Because of this prolonged argument between Ms. Kong Linlin and Ms. Liu Huizhen and a good number of Chinese Twitter users, I scrolled down Ms. Kong’s Twitter feed and had a few more peeks into her world:
- On UK public opinion against the Hinkley deal: “Very close mind .” (English her own.)
- She likes to use the word “democrazy” to answer Twitter users who express disgust with her views.
- On the Hamilton cast reading a statement to Vice President-elect Mike Pence: “Insult your audience is not the real free speech.” (English her own.)
- On the execution of Jia Jinglong (贾敬龙): “If the case is so easy to judge ,why we need a professional judge .” (English her own.)
- On Syria: “…it is all because of Obama.” (English her own.)
- On the CCP and China today: “Chinese young people have to thank that big mountain that blocks the wind for them when they wear high-end earpieces and listen to music and discuss current affairs, spared of the fate of the Iraqi, Libyan, and Syrian refugees who are displaced or die on their journey because of the harm of color revolutions.”
- On Western media: “To understand the evil side of western media , they try to provoke and make more troubles on the rising China.” [English her own]
- On the UK: “Hahaha, The British,’ like a lion,they like to roar,but can no longer hunt.'” (English her own.)
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Compare Ms. Kong’s worldview to that articulated in these two propaganda videos released during the trials of four lawyers and activists earlier this year:
‘We Have a Fake Election’: China Disrupts Local Campaigns, the New York Times, Nov. 15, 2016
For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, China Change, Nov. 1, 2016