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Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’
Yaxue Cao, November 11, 2018
Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:
It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.
I clicked his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.
Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”
In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself in to the local public security authorities, and was charged with intentional homicide.
The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.
The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.
Wu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”
A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao, and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.
The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguan (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan travelled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.
Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.
Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》), “Guide to Drinking Tea” (《喝茶宝典》), and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes” (《访民杀猪宝典》). In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.
In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.
In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”
Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative user of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese government’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.
Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.
At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.
Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case [involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].
Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.
As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”
In June that year he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.
One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”
As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.
This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.
What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.
The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.
For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.
Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.
The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.
Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database (http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.
Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.
Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.
Huang Yu, January 5, 2017
Zhen Jianghua has been placed under secrect detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated place,” his lawyer Ren Quanniu was told over the phone on December 13, 2017. Zhen continues to be denied access to his lawyers. — The Editors
Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) hadn’t yet gone to bed at midnight on September 1, 2017, when police burst into his apartment and put him in handcuffs. As he was being led out, he was unperturbed, and simply told his roommate: “Make sure you tell Xiao Li (小丽) to check Taobao and pick up my packages.” Xiao Li is Zhen Jianghua’s ex-wife. The phrase was code to say that she should spread the news of his arrest. Within a day the police had ransacked his house twice and confiscated his computer and all his documents. Not long after, his family received a notice of criminal detention for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power.”
Zhen Jianghua, 32 this year, is the key organizer behind an NGO known as Human Rights Campaign in China Service Center, or HRC China. It was formed in October 2008. Zhen took over it in October 2015, registering it in Hong Kong. His daily work involved aggregating and publishing updated news about human rights events in China, engaging with foreign media, and coordinating aid efforts — and sometimes protests — for human rights defenders who had been sent to prison.
The number of people in mainland China engaged in human rights relief work is vanishingly small — but even among this tight-knit group, Zhen Jianghua was one of an even smaller number who insisted on using his real name in the work. Openly engaging in these activities inside China brought Zhen an extraordinary array of difficulties in getting through daily life, and ended with the tragedy of prison.
He knew what was to come and made preparations for it. For several years, he only wore black: two sets of black t-shirts, two pairs of black shoes. Every night before bed, he did 50 push-ups, 50 squats, and 50 chin-ups. He ate vegetarian, or sometimes subsisted on meal replacement powder. He lived as plainly as possible. He also signed multiple blank copies of Power of Attorney, and gave them to friends. His Google account was set to automatically purge everything if he didn’t log in for two days. And he had a strict schedule for periodically wiping all data from his computer and phone.
From the moment he made the choice to engage in this work, he cut himself off from nearly all his friends, gradually becoming an island unto himself. “There’s nowhere safe in China,” he said. “You never know who’ll sell you out.” For both his own safety and that of others, he also rarely interacted with anyone in the same, small, rights defense community in China. Thus, if he was ever brought in and interrogated, he could indeed simply say: “I don’t know.”
“We can each see what the other’s doing,” he’d often say. “There’s no need to be in contact.”
The name he gave himself online was “Zhen Jianghua, you big fool.” His Facebook signature was: “In my own way, helping those who’ve already paid so great a price for their dreams — those who really need help.” After he was arrested, friends set up a Facebook page called “Southern Fool Concern Group” to post information about him.
This ‘southern fool’ was born in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province (广东江门). He graduated high-school through the vocational track, specializing in computing. Then he went straight to work. His first job, in 2005, was at an internet data center in Zhuhai (珠海). He worked hard and was eventually promoted to a managerial position. But the simple life of a computer programmer that he had led would be stirred up by the growing emergence of China’s censorship state.
One day at work, an elderly man came with his daughter. The man painted pictures for a living, and had set up his own online bulletin board on the side. He made a few posts about Mao Zedong, with titles like “An Overview of Mao,” and so on. He was using the servers of Zhen Jianghua’s company at the time, and suddenly his BBS had been shut down. Zhen thought at the time: this is very sensitive, we can’t talk about it, and it’s entirely normal that he was shut down. At the same time, he felt sorry for the old fellow and wanted to help him out. Later, when the company bought servers in Hong Kong, Zhen Jianghua moved this and other similar BBSs over, so they’d stay alive for a bit longer. But eventually none would survive the fate of being shut down.
As time went on, the government’s internet censors began calling Zhen’s company more and more, instructing they shut down particular websites. Nanjing University’s vibrant BBS, Little Lily, as well as Tsinghua University’s Shuimu BBS, were both blocked for non-campus access. Those were the changes that made Chinese netizens finally aware of the control and supervision that was taking place. Meanwhile, Zhen Jianghua’s company began engaging in top-down self-censorship, developing a program that examined the content of the servers and automatically shut it down for “bad traffic.” More recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published “Order 43” prohibiting websites and data companies to provide services without registering with the government.
In his spare time, Zhen Jianghua was involved in Wikipedia Chinese, and started joining technical events for Google developers. Through community activities, he made connections with grassroots people and taught them how to use the internet to advocate for their own interests. The world, for the young man, was diverging in two opposite directions.
For a while, he had to travel to Hong Kong frequently for business, and learned about the annual June 4 commemoration in Victoria Park. He admired the “Tiananmen Mothers.” “Those people emit radiance,” he said. He began making the annual trip to the Victoria Park commemoration. One year he brought a friend from China along and they helped hand out fliers. When the friend returned he was questioned by state security police (国保), got in trouble at his job, and was banned from leaving China for five years.
At this point Zhen Jianghua realized that if he was going to resist state power, his life would be changed fundamentally. He also realized that those, like his friend, who paid the price for doing so wouldn’t be remembered.
Yet he wasn’t quite ready for outright resistance. Instead, he tried his hand at a number of safe endeavors after his job as a programmer. For instance, he became a full time social worker for the Zhuhai Municipal Red Cross, where he primarily called in on the “hard-pressed masses,” delivering rice, oil, noodles, and later washing detergent to poor families. As a government affiliated social worker, his job was to maintain contact with the targets of the services and “keep their emotions stable.” He wasn’t able to keep this position for very long, because after adding his signature to an online call of support for Ai Weiwei in 2011, he was taken away by police for an inquiry, in front of his colleagues at work. Zhen quit of his own accord “to protect the Red Cross from any negative impact.” He was also the head social worker at Nanqingcun (南青村), where he dealt with female victims of domestic violence. The most he could do was advise that they file for divorce.
His brief period as a social worker inside the official system made him fed up. “Being a social worker in China is a debilitating job,” he said. “You have to sing the praises of the Communist Party morning to night, put on events, studiously avoid sensitive topics — such as why villagers are poor in the first place, and you can’t teach them their rights and how to empower themselves.” Zhen knew that delivering rice and cooking oil wasn’t addressing the fundamental issues, and that working inside the system made it impossible to think about the structural problems.
Zhen thought that if social work was forced to avoid sensitive issues and sensitive social groups, then it was not what he wanted. He quit and was on his own. He began participating in activities to help prisoners of conscience, in a personal capacity. He helped collect signatures and spread information about tainted milk formula with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father in Beijing whose son had been poisoned by melamine-tainted milk; he paid the phone bill for feminist activist Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) — neither of whom he had met. Later, when he met rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) for the first time, Zhen said by way of introduction that “My online name is ‘guest Zhen,’” to which Jiang replied that he remembered him as “the one who sent all those messages encouraging us years ago.” (Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years imprisonment on November 21, 2017, for “subversion of state power.”)
In late 2010 after Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) won the Nobel Peace Prize, a group of likeminded Chinese internet users wanted to get together and celebrate. Everyone was supposed to communicate via Twitter, but one activist who was often monitored by the authorities made the mistake of calling Zhen Jianghua and inviting him to the gathering. For the authorities, this was the first time that the online “guest” persona and the real life Zhen Jianghua were connected. After that, the police began calling in on him regularly, and whenever a politically sensitive date or activity arrived, they would take him on forced “travel.” He could also no longer attend the June 4th commemoration at the Victoria Park in Hong Kong.
But once his real identity was exposed, rather than backing off, he went all in.
Zhen began to launch projects on his own, mostly having to do with recording events or providing technical support. For instance, he launched a project called “Big Brother” to keep tabs on citizens who had been monitored by the state; he maintained a website called “Drink Tea Net” (喝茶网) which collected ordinary citizens’ testimonies of being questioned by police for their activism under the euphemism of “drinking tea.” He also established the site “Climb the Wall Net” (翻墙网) which provided technical assistance to netizens on how to circumvent Beijing’s Great Fire Wall.
In 2013 a student group at the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (北京理工大学珠海学院) invited him to give a talk about circumventing Beijing’s internet blockade. The students put up posters around campus for an event that taught “how to use Internet scientifically.” The event was shut down and the Party leadership at the university called the students in for questioning. “Do you have any idea what kind of person this Zhen Jianghua is?” they asked the students.
Zhen wasn’t too concerned with the state security police coming to harass him, nor did he mind being told to stay off campus. But when the security division at the university threatened to deny the graduation of students who’d invited him, Zhen Jianghua was furious. He tracked down the state security officers in charge of the case and said: “I can leave the area if that’s what’s required; if there’s an issue, come to me, don’t bother the students. They’re about to graduate, and if that’s denied it will have a huge impact on their lives.” The state security officers acquiesced to his proposal, and ordered him not to step foot on campus again.
“But actually, later I went to the school quite a lot. After all, a lot of people at the Beijing Institute of Technology are into internet technologies,” Zhen said. He felt that he had a way to negotiate with the state security police: he can always quit what he’s doing to let them save face.
Meanwhile, he was still involved in providing assistance to prisoners of conscience. “They’re the ones who’ve come out in the open and borne the brunt. The least we can do is offer them support.”
From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines
Beginning in 2010, Zhen Jianghua was constantly being kicked out of his rental apartments in Zhuhai. Every time he moved, not long after he’d settled in, state security officers would call the landlord, and the fearful landlord would ask him to move away.
Being jolted around with him was Zhen’s wife at the time, Xiao Li. Xiao Li and Zhen Jianghua met due to their shared joy in taking in stray dogs and cats. Their life together was never stable but for a while very romantic: every year on December 31 they’d travel to the seaside and watch the sun go down atop of a lighthouse; after passing the night there, they’d watch the sun come up on January 1. On Christmas day they’d walk around handing out candy and encouraging people to donate blood. They themselves had donated blood over 100 times. They’d also taken in over 20 stray cats; and because they couldn’t afford a vet, they learned to do sterilization surgery themselves.
The harassment they were suffering in Zhuhai eventually led the couple to move to Macau and work at the non-profit Fu Hong Society (扶康會), where they served people with autism. This precious, temporary peace lasted until July 9, 2015.
On that day and in the following days, over 300 human rights lawyers and activists in 23 provinces and cities across China were detained, summoned, or disappeared. This is known as the “709 Crackdown.” On January 12, 2016, after six months of secret detention, director of the Fengrui Law Firm Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), legal intern Li Shuyun (李姝云), legal assistant Zhao Wei (赵威), were formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
In early June 2016, Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭) and Li Wenzu (李文足), the wives of disappeared rights lawyers Li Heping (李和平) and Wang Quanzhang respectively, were taken into custody and brought to the Guajiasi police station in Tianjin. Before they were brought in, Wang Qiaoling sent out a message saying that she had been detained; soon thereafter, Zhen Jianghua’s HRC China verified the news and published it. At the police station, an officer pulled out his phone, turned on his VPN, clicked on the HRC China website, and held it up to Wang Qiaoling: “Look. You’ve been here for less than an hour, and the news is everywhere.”
Such is the extreme efficiency of Zhen Jianghua’s operation. From the beginning of the 709 arrests, he sprang into action and didn’t stop, doing three things simultaneously:
- Responding rapidly to instances of human rights abuse. As a social worker, he got in touch with and visited family members, and in every case tried to ensure that a support network was established for everyone who had been taken into custody;
- Educating family members and others that people who are arrested for political reasons are not guilty of anything;
- Based on previous experience, he would publicize news about arrests, mobilize social media, and contact foreign human rights officials so they would exert pressure on the Chinese authorities.
This sort of work was nothing like helping people scale the Great Fire Wall or organizing events. The pressure and stress Zhen was under rose dramatically, and it didn’t come with the earlier sense of satisfaction, when there was still the hope for an actual civil society in China. A friend described how he worked: every day he’d follow two or three cases, verify what had been initially reported, write a report, publish it, and then contact people about it. He sat down and powered through the work without rest, “like his life depended on it.”
He often worked through the night. He wouldn’t get much sleep during the daytime, either. If someone was suddenly arrested and the family needed support, he’d buy a train ticket right away and go. For their own safety he couldn’t tell his friends and family where he was going or what he was doing. His wife Xiao Li eventually got used to it, and they began to see less and less of each other. The year before last, on Zhen Jianghua’s birthday, Xiao Li baked him a cake. Zhen came over, quickly blew out the candles, ate a few mouthfuls, and got back to work.
Initially he gave himself a deadline of two years to set up HRC China, and once it was up and running, his plan was to hand the daily operations off to someone else. “I can’t get rid of it right now; no one is willing to take it on,” he joked to a friend in August of this year.
Xiao Li grew more and more uncomfortable with his work. She described Zhen’s work as walking a tightrope. There’s no way out. He must press forward — yet the further he goes, the narrower and thinner the rope becomes.
It’s from about this period that Zhen began preparing for prison. Friends asked him whether living like he did was worth it. He responded: “There are things that someone just has to do.”
Li Xuewen (黎学文), a Chinese writer who often comments on public affairs, says that what Zhen Jianghua has been through over the last decade is typical of the trajectory of Chinese human rights activists, where they go from doing behind-the-scenes work to ending up on the front lines themselves. When Zhen started, he was quietly involved in support work and broadcasting what was going on; but later, as the repression increased and the environment for human rights quickly deteriorated, he ended up stepping forward. He began arriving on the scene at rights defense protests, first holding placards, then spending time with the families of prisoners of conscience to help them through. Now he faces jail time himself. This transformation reflects the broader change in the human rights environment in China: After all the frontline activists were arrested, it’s the turn of those behind the scenes. Li Xuewen remarked: “Zhen Jianghua’s arrest is his coronation by the authorities for the years he has put into tenacious and courageous human rights work.”
The Chinese government has been tightening the net around NGOs since 2013, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the founder of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), was arrested and sentenced to prison; following this, Transition Institute (传知行) founded by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) was shut down. The repression culminated in the 709 Crackdown in 2015.
Zhen Jianghua didn’t spend the 2017 Chinese New Year with Xiao Li, but instead went to Beijing alone to spend it with families of 709 families. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu described Zhen as a lonely person as he departed on the third day of the new year.
A Stepping Stone
A month before Zhen Jianghua was arrested, NGO worker Xiao Ming asked him to film an interview with a daughter whose father died of occupational disease. As the interviewee became upset and unable to express herself, Zhen Jianghua picked up a pen and paper and began taking notes, kneeling next to and comforting her. Xiao Ming was surprised. “His professionalism, kindness, attention to detail, and empathy left me with a deep impression,” Xiao Ming said.
Zhen’s patience in going about his work was legendary. Over a few year period, he submitted over 100 requests for government data under freedom of information laws, and also submitted a number of enquiries about administrative conduct that violated the rights of individual citizens. In July of 2016 the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered Sina, Sohu, NetEase, Phoenix, and other commercial web portals to cease their columns of original news content. Zhen Jianghua mailed seven requests for open government information about the details of its demand on these web portals. After repeated follow-ups, three months later he finally got an answer from the Cyberspace Administration, which provided a detailed explanation. In response to his question about how much content had been deleted, they responded that the agency “did not preserve any record of it.” Zhen published the full text of the correspondence online.
He knew the sort of danger his activities would bring. He also knew that he probably couldn’t really change anything. But he thought he could at least show people that civil society in China still has a little room to breathe. He once wrote: “We are like a signpost. People will walk by. They will see the pits we’ve fallen into, a pit with corpses stacked up in it. If I am just that, maybe that’s not too bad.”
An Island Unto Himself
In early September 2016, Zhen Jianghua traveled to Wukan to interview villagers. He was arrested. His wife Xiao Li broadcast the news, and it began to circulate among friends in the rights defense community. After his release, he and Xiao Li began divorce proceedings. A seven year marriage had reached its end.
Despite the fact that they had drifted apart, Xiao Li didn’t want to divorce at first.
But Zhen didn’t like to further complicate life for Xiao Li. What did he have to offer her? All his energy was thrown into his work. He had no time to think about house chores they used to share. He would forget to put the dirty clothes in the laundry as he had been told to. He would often be gone for days without telling her where he was and what he was doing. This, after a long while, began to wear on his wife. “What’s the big deal if you tell me? I can also keep a secret!” she once said.
Xiao Li suffered depression. At its worst, she’d walk the seven kilometers home from work rather than take the bus, because she didn’t want to end up at sitting at home all alone. So she took her time ambling along the route, leaving work at 8:00 p.m. and getting to the door at around 11:00 p.m.
Both Li and Zhen’s relatives had been harassed by state security agents. They hadn’t lived in the same place for more than two years. Every time they moved, they ended up with fewer and fewer suitcases, to the point when they could put everything into a single suitcase. Zhen became more and more dejected in spirits: months after he began running HRC CHina full time, Xiao Li found that he was suffering insomnia, depression, and constant fatigue. Nor did exercise help. Zhen didn’t want to visit a counsellor, or let out to people around him.
Zhen had a progressive outlook toward gender relations. He often said that in a patriarchal society like China, marriage is an imposition on the woman; because of him, Xiao Li’s life had been turned upside down — he said that she should be able to discover her own self.
The last time they were in touch was August, 2017. Zhen called and asked whether she had time to look after his cats; she declined. In fact, she’d deleted Zhen’s contact information, because not long after their divorce, Zhen had called and told her that he’d already begun dating a female friend.
Late in the night on September 29, nearly a month after Zhen had been taken away, Xiao Li found herself outside the walls of the Zhuhai No. 1 Detention Center in a daze. She wrote in her diary: “We were separated by a mere wall. I thought I had mentally prepared myself well enough, but the reality crushed me all the same.”
Zhen had become estranged not only from his wife, but his parents too. Every time he went back to his hometown, state security police weren’t far behind. They’d sit his parents down and ask them to tell their son to abandon his activism and “turn over a new leaf.” As the time wore on, Zhen couldn’t stand the harassment and simply stopped going back home. Due to security concerns, he also drifted apart from others in the human rights defense community.
He who put so much effort into supporting others so they wouldn’t be cut off from the world, became an island unto himself.
Among those he had helped are the Feminist Five, the Yirenping Center’s Guo Bin (郭彬) and Yang Zhanqing (杨占青), families of the 709 crackdown, labor rights defender Meng Han (孟晗), and participants in a seaside memorial for Liu Xiaobo. He was also involved in assisting countless political prisoners who were given both heavy and light sentences. He believed that “We need to step out to do it in order to mobilize more people to join us.”
Yet as the crackdown has grown harsher, the number of his fellow travellers has grown steadily fewer.
After Zhen was arrested, the authorities told his parents that if they insist on using the lawyers that he had previously commissioned, he would be given a life sentence. If they used a lawyer provided by the government, however, he might get off with a light verdict.
His sister wrote about her fond memories of growing up with him. Her article was quickly deleted from the internet, and state security police went to her house to threaten her.
Xiao Li regrets the fact that now she’s simply an “ex wife.” Otherwise, she would be able to do so many things: write articles, mobilize support, meet with attorneys, remonstrate with officials, and speak to the media. But so what? “Before, posts and photos survived online for about two days; now it’s less than two hours.” Activist A Bai (阿白) says that in the age of Big Data, the surveillance system has grown so strong and smart that activists have no room to act.
In the 12 years Zhen Jianghua lived in Zhuhai, his favorite spot was the lighthouse. To get there, you had to jump a railing at the harbor, then scramble across the rocks — positioned high and low, at sharp, obtrusive angles — for about a kilometer.
The lighthouse seems to lead a solitary existence, but it knows there are others like it out there. Zhen Jianghua too lived like a lighthouse, persisting in his human rights work, in the dark, seemingly all alone.
The last time I saw him I asked: If you’re arrested, what should I do? He responded: “Don’t worry about me. Whether you mobilize people on the outside or not, it won’t make any difference. Just tell my parents and everyone else that I’ve been arrested. That’ll do.”
I still remember our parting words:
“So, what is the meaning of the work you’ve been doing?”
“Simply that, in China, there are still people who are doing it.”
(The names of certain individuals in the article have been changed for their security.)
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Components of a He Cha Session, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Transated from Chinese by China Change: 端傳媒《「南方傻瓜」甄江華：黑暗中行走的抗爭者》
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China Change, December 26, 2017
On the morning of December 26 courts in Tianjin and Changsha announced the verdicts respectively of Wu Gan, a seminal activist, and Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer. Xie Yang was found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” while Wu Gan’s refusal to cooperate led him to receive the more severe “subversion of state power.” Both were “convicted,” but Xie Yang was exempt from punishment, while Wu Gan was handed a heavy sentence of eight years.
In a live broadcast, Xie Yang was made to once again deny that he had been tortured, and to thank all parties for a “fair” trial and for “safeguarding” his rights. The first time he was forced to make this false admission was during his trial in May.
On the other hand, Wu Gan’s lawyer reported that he told the court, immediately after the sentence was announced, that “I thank the Communist Party for conferring me this high honor [subversion]. I will not forget my original aspiration, and will roll up my sleeves and work harder.” His remarks were a play on the official words of Xi Jinping; observers found it remarkable that a man who had just received such a harsh sentence would have the sense of humor, and guts, to do so.
It wasn’t until hours later that the authorities released a short clip of Wu Gan in court. Viewers will see why it took time: the authorities doctored the video, using clips of Wu Gan’s secret trial in August to show he was “contrite.” In August, Wu Gan wore a short sleeved T-shirt and read from a sheet of paper that he would not appeal, while yesterday he wore a dark, long-sleeved top.
Wu Gan’s lawyer Ge Yongxi (葛永喜) described on Twitter what the official clips purposefully omitted: Following “I admit that I have harbored thoughts of subverting state power,” Wu Gan added, “but I believe this is a citizen’s right, and my actions do not constitute crimes.”
Lawyer Ge Yongxi challenged the authorities to show the court recording in its entirety.
After Wu Gan’s sentence, his lawyers released a statement on his behalf.
Wu Gan’s Statement About His Sentence
For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who “subverts state power” is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights. Liang Qichao (梁启超, famous reformist at end of Qing dynasty) said that he and dictatorship were two forces inextricably opposed; I say: If I don’t oppose dictatorship, am I still a man?
They have attempted to have me plead guilt and cooperate with them to produce their propaganda in exchange for a light sentence — they even said that as long as I plead guilty, they’ll give me a three-year sentence suspended for three years. I rejected it all. My eight-year sentence doesn’t make me indignant or hopeless. This was what I chose for myself: when you oppose the dictatorship, it means you are already walking on the path to jail.
I’m optimistic despite the harsh sentence. Because of the internet, more and more people are waking up. The ranks of those ready to stand at the funeral of the dictatorship is growing stronger and larger by the day. Those who try to use jail to frighten citizens pursuing freedom and democracy, thus obstructing the progress of human civilization, won’t meet a good end. Their tyranny is based on a lack of self-confidence — a sign of a guilty conscience and fear. It’s a dead end. When the masses wake up, will the dictatorship’s end be far off?
I have been subjected to torture and other forms of inhumane treatment during my detention thus far — and it’s not an isolated occurrence, but a common phenomenon. I appeal to the international community to closely follow the deterioration of human rights in China, follow the Chinese Communist Party’s criminal detention of its own citizens, and especially of dissidents, along with the other abuses they’re subjected to, including: false charges, secret detention, forced confessions to the media, forced appointment of state-controlled defense counsel, torture and abuse in custody, and the stripping of every civil right of Chinese citizens.
I hereby name the individuals involved in persecuting, torturing, and abusing me: An Shaodong (安少东), Chen Tuo (陈拓), Guan Jiantong (管建童), Yao Cheng (姚诚), Yuan Yi (袁溢), Wang Shoujian (王守俭), Xie Jinchun (谢锦春), Gong Ning (宫宁), Sheng Guowen (盛国文), Cao Jiyuan (曹纪元), Liu Yi (刘毅), Cai Shuying (蔡淑英), Lin Kun (林崑).
The Twelve ‘Crimes’ of Wu Gan the Butcher, China Change, August 13, 2017.
Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important?, China Change, August 17, 2017.
Wu Gan’s Pretrial Statement, China Change, August 10, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, China Change, July 22, 2015.
Wu Gan, August 9, 2017
Wu Gan (吴淦), arguably the most celebrated activist in recent years in China’s struggle for justice and human rights, and a seminal user of online mobilization and peaceful direct action, was the first detainee of what has come to be known as the 709 Crackdown. Wu Gan became known for his role in mobilizing public support in the Deng Yujiao case (邓玉娇案) in 2009, and in the years following was involved in countless cases, both large and small. He became well known for his audacity and creativity. He also wrote three guides for potential activists and petitioners: Guide to Butchering Pigs (《杀猪宝典》) , Guide to Drinking Tea (《喝茶宝典》) and Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes (《访民杀猪宝典》). Wu Gan was detained on May 19, 2015, as he was demonstrating outside Jiangxi Superior Court, which had recently denied lawyers their right to access the case files of four wrongfully sentenced death row inmates. Like the rest of the 709 detainees, he was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place,” China’s euphemism for secret detention, and tortured. On December 23, 2016, Wu Gan was indicted. The prosecutors listed 12 crimes (which to everyone else read like a list of heroic deeds), and concluded that “defendant Wu Gan organized, plotted, and implemented the crime of subverting state power and overturning the socialist system.” One of the two 709 detainees still remaining in custody for refusing to compromise (the other being lawyer Wang Quanzhang), Wu Gan will tried on Monday, August 14, at Tianjin Second Intermediate Court. Below is a statement Wu Gan issued recently, published by his lawyers. The court says the trial will be held in secret because some elements of the trial involve “state secrets.” — The Editors
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). They are also universal values recognized and adhered to by countries around the world. 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.
In mainland China, if your ideology and beliefs are at odds with those favored by the authorities, you’re apt to be framed with a criminal charge. Since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, millions of people have been persecuted. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution and all other political movements, intellectuals, the 1989 generation, democracy party members, and Falun Gong practitioners have all been retaliated against for defending their legitimate rights. Which of them is a criminal? For decades political changes in China have been in form and not content, while the essence of the authoritarian system has remained unchanged.
Their accusations against me are now public knowledge. I’ve done nothing more than make some speeches, write three books, give moral support and assistance to innocent victims of injustice, expose the misconduct and criminal actions of the government and officials, and express my ideas through performance art. All this is simply exercising my legitimate rights as a citizen. These civil rights should be defended by all of us.
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. The special investigative team told me that my case would be decided by leadership on higher level, and that my trial is just a ritual carried out by the procuratorate and court. Although I know that this trial is only a farce to declare me guilty, I will not speak in my defense. An innocent person does not need to defend himself.
It doesn’t make sense to have a trial before many illegal acts against me are investigated and resolved. These misdeeds include: illegal police procedures, their brutal torture of me, occupation of my property, and forcing me to accept media interviews and give up the right to engage my own lawyer.
I know I will receive a heavy sentence, but I will never regret what I have done. I do feel guilty for involving my family in my case, and for having done so little for them. The sympathy and support of the public, and the dedication of my lawyers is my best “verdict.” Black and white, right and wrong will not be reversed forever, and justice will eventually prevail. The wheel of history rolls forward and can’t be stopped by anyone. Those who try to block the progress of human civilization will in the end find their place in history’s Hall of Shame.
Under the brutal rule of the “Great, Glorious, and Correct” Communist Party of China, it would be embarrassing if I wasn’t framed as a “criminal.” Life is short, so we’d better “commit our crimes” while we’ve still got the chance. 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.
I refuse to speak in defense of myself, but I take this opportunity to thank you for the award! Thank you!
Statement by Wu Gan
The Twelve ‘Crimes’ of Wu Gan the Butcher, August 13, 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.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
A few hours ago this morning, China time, veteran activist Xiao Yong (肖勇) made calls to fellow activists and told them that he was on a vehicle to Shaoyang, Hunan (湖南邵阳), and that Shaoyang Public Security Bureau issued him a notification for two-year reform-through-labor, a form of jailing widely used on dissidents and activists, and a notification of rights which states that he may request for an administrative review within three days.
He told Wen Yunchao (@wenyunchao), renowned media professional and activist based in Hong Kong, that the decision was based on his purchase of three motorcycles three years ago. At the time he reported the case of his own initiative and the local prosecutors had decided not to bring charges against him. However the public security told Xiao Yong today that the decision for reform-through-labor was based on his failure to report illegal incomes from that incident.
Xiao Yong has been an activist based in Guangzhou for the last few years. According to a friend of his with whom I spoke just a short while ago, he had traveled to many places in China to participate in rights struggles. While on trains, the friend said, he would engage travelers in conversations about freedoms and rights. And he had been frequently summoned by police to “hecha”, or to be interrogated, warned and threatened.
On March 30th this year, shortly after the Two Meetings (两会) in Beijing concluded where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao once again spoke of the urgent need for political reform and called upon the people to push for it, Xiao Yong and a dozen or so others were on street in Guangzhou holding signs such as “No vote, no future”, “Hu Jintao leads the way to disclose assets” and more. Six were detained on allegations of “illegally gathering, marching or demonstrating,” including Xiao Yong. They were released after a month or so on probation.
Xiao Yong was forced to go back to his hometown in Shaoyang, Hunan, where he has sustained a lot of pressure from not just authorities but also relatives and friends, his friend told me over the phone. He told friends that he felt the authorities were out to get him and they probably would throw him in jail as soon as this year.
The news of Xiao Yong’s abrupt two-year reform-through-labor came as a shock today. In Twitter’s Chinese community, people expressed disbelief and anger over such despicable abuses of power on the part of the Chinese government. Some remind us that this has been a pattern used on many other activists, while others see it as an attempt to terrify other activists.
For those of you who follow China’s human rights situation closely, Shaoyang has been in the news lately for the death of Li Wangyang (李旺阳), a dissident from the 1989 movement who was found dead in early June. Police insisted he had committed suicide, but too many questions are pointing to murder. His relatives and friends who brought the news his death to the world have since been held illegally without anyone being able to reach them.
Xiao Yong made it clear in his calls that he wants to get legal assistance to challenge his case.
Our readers may have already come across two headlines about China today: China, along with Russia, again vetoed a UN resolution seeking to sanction against Syria; the famed artist Ai Weiwei is being prevented by police from going to the court to hear the very verdict in his own case.
Today is one of those days that afford you a better look at the people running China.