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Q & A with Peter Dahlin, the Swedish NGO Worker Who ‘Endangered the National Security’ of China

January 3, 2017

This Q & A can be read as a companion piece to the Guardian report. It focuses more on Dahlin’s work, the interrogations, and the legal features of his case. Given that China’s Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizationstook effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective. – The Editors



Escorted to Beijing airport for deportation. Illustration by Nicolas Luna Fleck.


CHINA CHANGE: Peter, you are a Swedish national; on January 3, 2016, you were taken into custody by Chinese national security agents for allegedly “endangering national security.” It was not until nine days later that the international press reported that you had been disappeared on your way to the Beijing airport. Then, on January 15 and 19, the Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency reported your detention. On January 19, in a CCTV news section, you “confessed” that you “violated the Chinese law through your activities here, caused harm to the Chinese government, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” While it was appalling and a pain to watch, people also laughed because everyone immediately recognized that these were forced words. On January 26, you were deported and barred from entering China for the next 10 years. A lot went on over this 23-day period, and we hope to unpack it for our readers. First of all, please tell us how events unfolded on January 3, 2016.

PETER DAHLIN: I was taken in a raid on my home in Beijing late that evening, not on my way to the airport as reported. The misunderstanding is easy to see, as I had notified a few people in the press- and diplomatic corps that I might not make it out, leading people to assume I must had been taken at the airport.

Earlier that day, I heard that high-up officials in the Beijing domestic security police were inquiring about me, following accusations against me made by individuals who had at that time been held in ‘residential surveillance’ from several months to half a year. Less than 10 hours after I heard about that, State Security showed up at my home, with search and detention warrants for both me and my girlfriend.

For a few weeks we had been in a ‘heightened risk situation,’ knowing that something could happen to me or others. We had been taking precautions, clearing out and processing paperwork, tying up loose ends, and doubling down in IT-measures. I had not only heard stories from those who had been through detentions before, but as a form of preparation also read books like the great but unfortunately-titled In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon with stories on interrogations, secret detention, torture etc. This was of course the first time I myself was taken, but over the years there had been many similar situations, and thus this procedure to prepare had been undertaken numerous times before.

In this case, I took the preparation a bit further than normal. Since similar situations of heightened risks had happened numerous times before, besides our normal organizational procedures, I also had my own. In those cases I would keep a small overnight bag packed next to the bed, with passport, some clothes, medicine, and money, along with shoes and a jacket, and more or less have memorized the night flight schedule out of Beijing – if I ever got the message or call that an action against us was being taken and would need to try to leave the country. In this case I was already scheduled to leave China just a few days after I was taken, but moved my flight up to that very same night, and packed as much as I could – knowing that if something happened and I managed to get away, I would not be able to return and would have to start anew somewhere. In the end, the raid on my home happened just a couple of hours before I was set to leave for the airport.

CHINA CHANGE: I admit that, even though I’ve been a busy human rights and rule of law advocate for the last three or four years, I had barely heard of your organization — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (中国维权紧急援助组). So there is quite a bit of mystery around it. Can you describe your organization’s activities in China? A New York Times report mentioned seminars, legal aid work, and training sessions. The Chinese state media portray your activities in dark, conspiratorial and menacing terms. Help us demystify them. 

PETER DAHLIN: The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) was in operation from 2009 until early 2016, and it ran a number of different programs concurrently. It was largely unknown, as we operated quietly, and even though parts of the international rights community, and much of the press and diplomatic corps knew of us, we did not allow anyone to publicly speak about us, keeping our profile as low as possible while still being able to cooperate with others. A few reports linked on our dormant Twitter account are about the only public information available.

Since its founding, China Action has responded to attacks on lawyers, journalists, and other rights defenders, especially women defenders, but perhaps our main focus has been on training and capacity development for rights defenders. We have specialized in barefoot lawyers, with the goal of strengthening the legal movement and civil society, to develop the rule of law and improve protections for Chinese citizens.

Our founding program was the urgent action program, working to arrange lawyers for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk and to provide needed financial assistance for victims’ families, ranging from support for housing, medical bills, or a child’s education. We paid special attention to women HRDs and grassroots activists who often lacked the network and support of more high-profile defenders. We did this both on our own as well as in partnership with international and regional organizations. Later on, for the last few years, we have also had a subsection of that program to specifically address and arrange help for those with mental health support needs after detentions, kidnappings, interrogations etc.

Although primarily about direct support, through the urgent action program we also engaged in limited advocacy measures around priority cases, which involved ensuring diplomatic attention in Beijing or foreign capitals and communication with relevant human rights special procedures of the United Nations, and participation in the Universal Periodic Review of China, both alone and in collaboration with international organizations.

Many people may not be aware that governments and institutions in the EU and other countries have been offering assistance to Chinese state actors involved in the judicial system, such as police, judges, or prosecutors, in developing the “rule of law” (rule by law really), which is important. At the same time, at least until recently, there was a growing number of international and in particular Hong Kong-based organizations that provide financial assistance and training for licensed rights defense lawyers who work on public interest and rights defense cases. Unfortunately this approach has left a key group without any support. Due to financial or geographic limitations, the majority of rights abuse victims in China must rely on unlicensed barefoot lawyers, and yet this is precisely the group that has been most left out of the majority of rule of law development efforts. This is why we focused on barefoot lawyers, and our work was more preventive than reactive, with focus on training and capacity development to address the gaping hole in access to legal aid, especially among rural or poorer Chinese citizens.


Arriving at the secret detention compound. Illustration by Nicolas Luna Fleck.


CHINA CHANGE: Speaking of barefoot lawyers, Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) immediately comes to mind. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was a barefoot lawyer too in his early rights defense activities. Another example is Ni Yulan (倪玉兰). These are citizens who are not licensed lawyers, but who seek to defend rights through legal means. This is fascinating. Tell us more.

PETER DAHLIN: Because they are not licensed, the barefoot lawyers can almost never take up criminal cases. But in China, the main procedures for defending rights against government abuse are administrative laws and regulations, and this is where any citizen can get involved (although legal efforts by the State to limit their ability to take on cases continue). Barefoot lawyers can thus be both self-taught legal activists as well as lawyers who have lost their licenses. The work takes the form of filing lawsuits against government bodies responsible for illegal behavior such as torture, arbitrary detention, or forced evictions and demolitions. Barefoot lawyers have also taken the lead in testing and pushing the use of China’s 2008 Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information (《中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例》), scoring many successes. As a result, we have witnessed increased use of the Regulations in defending human rights.

In order to improve barefoot lawyers’ knowledge and practice of the Administrative Law, information disclosure regulations, and other procedures, China Action has run a number of different training programs since 2009. For example, our programs ranged from in-depth week-long training sessions in administrative law, shorter trainings on information disclosure, to specific legal issues, depending on the needs of target beneficiary groups.

To maximize the result and output of the main program, we designed the program in what we believe was both an innovative and cost-effective way:

A rights defense lawyer and an experienced barefoot lawyer would be responsible for each in-depth legal training session, selecting a group of participants from a cohesive area, along with guest teachers. Of those trained in these in-depth sessions, which would also include training in freedom of information (FOI) regulations, we would then select from the best of more suitable students, and arrange for them to, on a more local level, arrange their own shorter training in FOI or another specific legal topic. Thus the larger and more extensive trainings would give us a pool of local teachers for such smaller trainings.

When needed, a lawyer or barefoot lawyer in our network would attend those local trainings to assist. Finally, from the group trained in these shorter local trainings, the trainer would select the most dedicated participants and offer support for them to organize their own local trainings at the most grassroots level, to extend the output among the trainee’s friends and fellow barefoot lawyers.

This triple layer system allowed us to not only extend our results to the most local levels in a relatively low key and safe manner, but to ensure significant multiplier effects, all while keeping the costs very low.

Another key aspect of the training activities was about nurturing mutual trust among participants, which is part of the reason our training groups were never larger than 10 people, and always drawn from a coherent geographic area. This is especially important for barefoot lawyers who tend to have experience with only one or two particular legal issues. In this way, drawing a group of 10 barefoot lawyers from, say, Shandong to spend a week of in-depth study together would create new connections and expand their effectiveness, as they can build a mutual support network when dealing with issues outside their area of expertise. Each group would also get a direct connection to both the rights defense and barefoot lawyers arranging the training, greatly expanding networks for us as an organization, as well as for the participants, who would get a direct link to a mentor from who they could seek guidance.

The organization designed its own curriculum for these training and capacity development activities. A large part of that has included creating practical self-study guides with the beneficiaries, pairing the experts with the beneficiaries to create not only practical guides on, for example, information disclosure regulations or administrative detentions, but also manuals that deal with what the beneficiaries actually want. This approach would seem obvious, but looking at a lot of the material available, it often seems it’s produced by experts telling the readers/beneficiaries what they think they should know, instead of developing the material together with the group itself.

Finally, connecting the urgent action program and the training and capacity activities, the organization has also been working, on a small scale, to set up what we referred to as ‘legal aid stations’ around the country run by barefoot lawyers to enhance access to justice. This third core component thus consisted of barefoot lawyers who would receive training in issues ranging from arbitrary detention to information disclosure, alongside minor ongoing financial support, and they would then provide pro-bono assistance to victims in their respective regions. Many of these cases would have clear public interest components to them.

CHINA CHANGE: During your custody, did the Chinese security investigators tell you which of these activities are illegal and endangering China’s national security?

PETER DAHLIN: We always assumed that their key interest would be our work with urgent actions, and they certainly had a very strong interest in knowing which lawyers had been engaged for different cases, but their key interest turned out to be the barefoot lawyers we supported to provide pro-bono legal aid. They wanted to know about our ‘legal aid stations.’ When we first started, each station had several staff and an office, but beyond the very beginning stage, the aid was actually carried out by only one individual lawyer. However, we kept internally referring to them as ‘legal aid stations’, meaning State Security at first assumed that they were local branches of the organization, which of course was not the case at all.

They also had an interest in the various training activities, many of which over the years had been shut down by either local police or provincial state security. They found a few questionnaires from one of those trainings (distributed at all training activities for evaluation purposes), and found that some of the answers were rather anti-Party. That wasn’t helpful.

In general though, my own placement under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ was mostly because of the incompetence of State Security. They had been led, wrongly, to believe that I was personally involved in a list of activities, which I was not, and could easily prove I was not.

A key focus of my interrogations was lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), who has now been held in secret custody for over a year. Wang and I worked closely for many years, but we parted ways and haven’t worked together since early 2014. Our work was regarding holding trainings, offering informal mentoring to local lawyers, providing criminal defense for those facing trial, and developing training materials. It would be a stretch even for the State Security to argue that any of these was bad for China, let alone being illegal.

CHINA CHANGE: You said that Chinese security organs had been monitoring your organization’s activities before your detention. Can you expand on that? How did they do so?

PETER DAHLIN: Beginning in 2013, a co-worker was repeatedly summoned by another branch of State Security for long sessions of questioning. Using carrots and sticks, State Security tried to make this person a ‘mole,’ who would continue working with us but report to the police on me, my co-founder Michael Caster, and lawyers we worked with, or any others who worked with us. State Security asked this co-worker to make copies of documentation the person had access to, and any work I gave this person to do. On several other occasions we found that either I or Michael Caster had come up in police questioning of rights defenders we had worked with.



The patted cell. Illustration by Nicolas Luna Fleck.


CHINA CHANGE: You were detained in what’s essentially a black jail for 23 days, and you said you were interrogated every day. I’m always interested in knowing the questions they asked. Do you think you can go into more detail about your interrogations?

PETER DAHLIN: Overall, the interrogations were made harder by two facts: They found almost no paperwork in their raids, and their disappointment was visible when they raided my home. But they had taken in up to five people in this operation (and I also assumed that these people had been taken, although initially I could not be sure) and they were getting (some) information from them, which they used as leads for their interrogation of me. Three earlier partners had at this point been missing for many months, placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’, and numerous other staff and partners, (then-) current and previous, had been detained and/or questioned throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2015.

However, all core organizational aspects, details on projects, financing etc., have been the domain of only myself and Michael Caster. Others have been involved only in parts of a project or projects, without details on the organization as a whole. This was not what State Security had assumed early on. Making it clear that this was the responsibility of myself and Michael was imperative to lessen the burden on other staff and partners.

Michael was not in China at the time of the crackdown. I, being a Westerner with, I assumed, strong diplomatic support, felt a much greater sense of security than any Chinese national would. This, alongside with much information, accounts, banking etc., being based outside of mainland Chinese jurisdiction, also gave me a good position.

Thus, claiming to focus only on the administrative aspect of our work, and having poor Chinese language abilities, I could convincingly claim to only know the general outline of our work, but not the specifics for each project, and this approach allowed me to protect others.

I could, and did, also maintain the line, which is also true, that all our work had one thing in common, namely to enhance the practical application of law, that is, improve the enforcement of law, which is lacking greatly in China. We did not even involve ourselves in advocacy to improve the law itself, but focused on simply bringing practice in line with the law, especially on provincial and local levels. Even though the law is not meant to be followed to some extent, having this focus should logically decrease how and to what extent we are seen as a threat.

Despite this approach to limit what I needed to say, they did utilize extensive technical forensics on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, USBs, etc. Everything stored is done so in encrypted form, and they never got the passwords to access those. On the other hand, using file recovery programs they could access parts of documents that had been worked on, deleted, etc. What they could get was limited, but they were able to gain access to some new documents or parts of documents every day.

This meant that I had to plan my interrogation keeping in mind to limit information, remove details such as names, locations etc., while at the same time make sure not to say anything that might be contradicted by the document they might have the next day. Keeping this in mind late at night after hours of questioning was perhaps the hardest part, but due to preparation it went fairly well. Basically, I had to make sure not to directly lie, but also make sure to not give out information that could be used against me or others.

The first 24 hours, I was under detention and not residential surveillance, they asked about my background, family and education, a few coworkers, and they also brought up the names of Wang Quanzhang, Xing Qingxian (幸清贤) and Su Changlan (苏昌兰). The first three days were handled by a ‘bad cop’ interrogator, who overplayed his hand and made me uncooperative, since I don’t respond well to being forced. After that, a ‘good cop’ took over most interrogations. All along I knew my girlfriend, who has no connection to my work, was sitting in the same facility somewhere, unable to give them anything, which at least at first I assumed State Security would think of as being uncooperative and possibly take measures to try to force non-existent information out of her.

For the first two weeks there was, on average, one session per day, lasting usually five to six hours, often held throughout the evening and night, with some minor variation. Later on they would accompany those with what I came to think as ‘fireside chats,’ with the ‘good cop’ coming into my cell, opposite to the interrogation room, to have informal chats. He’d offer cigarettes and an occasional Nescafé. These fireside chats would allow for more philosophical discussions, and for me to offer more extended explanation on why I disagreed with this or that.

Later on, one interrogation session would also double as a lie detector test, or ‘psychological test to enhance communication’ as they framed it. They attached electrodes to my fingers and used specialist cameras on the pupils, asking me a combination of test and real questions. The guy brought in to administer it couldn’t quite get it working, and in the end they didn’t seem to get anything from it, and stopped it for the last part of that interrogation session.

They used an interpreter at the interrogations, but as time went on they started to shed that charade, since the interrogators had far better English than the interpreters.

Two weeks into my detention, they realized that neither I nor China Action was related to the alleged crimes of Xing Qingxian and Su Changlan. They also realized we did not work with Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所), and had had no partnership with Wang Quanzhang for years. On top of that, upon learning that the activities I developed and worked on with Wang were related to provision of legal aid, training lawyers, and developing training materials, they must have realized that these would not be all that useful to smear him or convict him of any national security crimes.

They also became aware of my medical condition and just how serious it was. Not wanting to have a dead Western human rights activist on their hands, they paid close attention to my condition for the rest of my custody, which limited what methods they could use against me. I also knew that media broke the story after the first two weeks, and it was quickly gaining momentum, as I had expected it would. I realized that media had broken the story because the interrogator asked me one day about the reporter, Megha Rajagopalan at Reuters who first wrote about it. The annoyance and anger was very clear.

It must be around this time that they decided to eventually deport me and move on. For the remaining days, they tried to get from me as much information about how NGOs work and about civil society in general. Of course I would also be used as a propaganda tool against foreigners, civil society, and NGO work. For the last week or so the amount of interrogations dwindled, and besides some more “fireside chats” I was just killing time waiting for the next step in the process. This mostly consisted of staring into the suicide padded wall, spending time doing some basic calisthenics, and trying to remember Bob Dylan lyrics. His song “Love minus zero / no limit” was especially helpful to keep my mind occupied for a few days. Each day and every minute was feeling longer, not shorter, and it started getting to me.

Many people who talk on the subject of solitary confinement mention that at some point your thoughts turn to suicide. It was never a serious consideration for me, but yes, at some point I spent hours analyzing the room and considering the possibilities for committing suicide. The padding and setup was so meticulous, though, that I realized it was not going to be possible even if I wanted to.

CHINA CHANGE: The reports said that your organizations received grants from various sources, the largest donor being EU, but the Chinese seem to have a fixation on NED – the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. How is that?

PETER DAHLIN: The EU was by far our largest donor, but my interrogators had almost no interest in this fact. Instead their focus was on NED, whose support to us, being crucial for one of our key programs and the organization as a whole, was nonetheless limited to a few hundred thousand dollars through the five years the program ran. To some extent they were also interested in rapid response assistance groups like Front Line Defenders. Me pointing out that the EU had supported numerous training activities for Chinese state actors, and that we were basically just doing the same for barefoot lawyers perhaps made them realize focusing on the EU angle would be more difficult in terms of painting it as a crime, a threat to national security, or in general play the ‘anti-China forces’ card. At this point they had also stopped trying to paint me as an EU spy.

Specifically, they wanted me to admit that NED was guiding us, that they were the ones giving orders on what we should do. I think this was partially because it’d fit their narrative, but also (to a lesser extent) because they don’t understand the grantmaker and grantee relationship. Likewise, they liked to refer to the barefoot lawyers we support as our ‘branches.’

Naturally they also inquired about other organizations, like International Service for Human Rights, who provides training on international law related issues (outside of China), and various groups based in Hong Kong. They however had very little information on our work with such groups, and it passed as a topic of conversation.

State Security became aware of our ‘legal aid station’ work from an internal NED document they somehow had access to, but the document did not contain names or exact locations, so a fair amount of time was spent on interrogating me about who these lawyers were. The names of some of the lawyers were provided by coworkers, and later documents they retrieve through file recovery work on hard drives etc. provided the legal aid station lawyers’ names. In the end, State Security gathered enough information about it, and it was the first program to be shut down as we started closing the organization after my deportation.

CHINA CHANGE: I have read a fair amount of interrogations of Chinese human rights defenders, and the interrogators always want to know whom they are connected to. I imagine they want to know every single person you have worked with or known in China.

PETER DAHLIN: They seemed to place a lot more interest on people than the work. They asked about a long list of people — some appeared in documents they had found, and others whose names had come up during interrogations of someone else. They wanted to know who attended our trainings, but they seem to accept that, due to the breadth and amount of our work, I could not have retained names of attendees of various trainings in my head, or even which teachers had been involved in what trainings. They also asked me about people simply because they are well known HRDs, key rights defense lawyers, and NGO workers. But I maintained, as I had done earlier, that my work focused on administrative issues and, having poor Chinese, I had very limited knowledge of most of these people, except for a few which they already had evidence that we had worked with directly.

They assumed that we would have connection with domestic NGOs, but that was in fact not the case. Likewise, our cooperation with international groups is limited to a handful of groups. They spent considerable time trying, but got very little on that topic. Same with the Fengrui Law Firm and people like Wang Yu and Li Heping, with whom we have had only limited contact.

They spent considerable time trying to convince me that some coworkers had ratted me out and I should respond in kind and come clean, basically that all blame was being placed on me, and if I didn’t defend myself my fate would be far worse. This mostly just triggered my Churchillian instinct. When they realized after repeated attempts that I would do nothing but defend them, they gave up. I remember repeating the same line over and over again: These people “not only constitute the best China has to offer, but people any nation should be proud to have as their citizens.”


“I’ve violated the Chinese law through my activities here; I’ve caused harm to the Chinese government; and I’ve hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”


CHINA CHANGE: The television confession — tell us what that was like.

PETER DAHLIN: Toward the end, when it became clear that deportation was likely, a late night final deposition was made in the interrogation room which basically summarized the key points they had learned from interrogations of me and others.

The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.

The next day, in the early evening, the ‘good cop’ walked into my cell. Cigarettes and small talk. He said a panel of judges would decide on my fate, whether bringing charges or deportation. The best way, he said, would be to record an interview on camera for them to review. Knowing that they already finished the active investigation and would not get any more information by an interview, that my girlfriend would be kept for as long as I would, and that only with my deportation would she be set free, and also knowing that time was ticking in terms of my medical condition (by that time I had already lost some 5-6 kilos), I said yes.

What followed is easy to imagine. He came back with a paper with both questions and answers written down, which in their mind ‘summarized’ our discussions over these weeks. Some arguments followed as they wanted me to call Wang, Xing and Su criminals, despite none of them having been tried. My refusal was finally accepted and some changes were made.

When I saw the final line on that paper, “having hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” I realized that the recording was obviously for CCTV, though they had never said so. Later, when I was led into a meeting room, also part of the same secure wing as the cell and interrogation room, I saw the CCTV ‘journalist’ and her cameraman.

The CCTV lady was about my age, perhaps slightly older, not overly friendly, but relaxed and someone with obvious experience as an interviewer. All the key State Security people, maybe 8 of them or so, were sitting in the back behind myself, the CCTV woman and the camera man. We ran through the questions and answers pretty quickly. The only hiccup was saying that final line on hurt feelings. After the 4th attempt the ‘journalist’ said to me, “you really don’t want to say this, do you?”

However, that line on hurt feelings is a key reason I agreed to do it despite knowing it was for CCTV and PR. It’s a well-known meme in the China community, and I knew that everyone would know the true nature of the ‘confession’ when they heard that line. Basically, including that line negated the whole purpose of it, from the point of view of the international community, and to some extent, inside China too.

CHINA CHANGE: Following your deportation, the Beijing-based lawyer and legal scholar Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) penned a commentary, taking issue with the legal procedure of your deportation. He said that the deportation order should have been made by a court if you were guilty of a crime, or by the PSB or national security agency if you were found to have violated an administrative statute but had not committed a crime. Your case had never been brought to a Chinese court, and yet the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that you confessed to having committed “the crime of funding criminal activities that endanger China’s national security.” She, a government spokeswoman, convicted you of two crimes in one breath! I bring this up because the arbitrariness of the entire episode highlights precisely the importance of your organization’s work and the work of those barefoot lawyers and human rights defenders. It’s so basic – it’s the ABC of ABC of the rule of law, yet it’s not acceptable to the Chinese government and it’s demonized by state propaganda.   

PETER DAHLIN: As far as the law is concerned, I was placed under residential surveillance and investigated for violation of Article 107 — using foreign funding for illegal and subversive activities. But besides accusing me of supporting Su Changlan’s alleged protests and of me being the mastermind behind Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun’s alleged crime of taking Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, across China’s borders, they could not really pinpoint any activity that I had undertaken that would be illegal (besides illegal business operations, which is not a national security crime). And I had nothing to do with these two incidents anyway.

Their argument that actions supported by us would challenge national security, based on the National Security Law, is easily dismissible. They did spend time picking on our operating in the mainland without registration, and thus failing to pay tax, but that was not the crime I was accused of and it seemed just a minor issue for them.

In the end, I was deported under the new Espionage Law, but was not allowed to receive any documentation of any kind about any step in the legal process against me: the list of confiscated items, the house search, personal search, detention, residential surveillance, deportation, and the ban from entering China for 10 years — nothing.

Also, deportation under criminal charges would require a court decision, with notification to the embassy, myself, and the allowance of a lawyer, even if only a state-appointed one — but none of those things happened. That would render the process itself illegal, since deportation can only be decided by the police if it’s part of an administrative punishment, and if the latter is true I would first have to be released from criminal detention and moved to an administrative detention facility. Even with the world watching, China’s police and justice system couldn’t even operate, despite having such a wide range of tools and exceptions available, within their own law.

CHINA CHANGE: The way your case was dealt with, the Chinese law is apparently irrelevant despite all the rhetoric of the state media about the law being served. What do you think your real ‘crime’ is anyway? The Global Times said you stepped on a red line, what’s the red line?

PETER DAHLIN: Well, it’s hard to know who claimed I had participated or directed actions that led to “crimes,” as all of these people remain detained and incommunicado. So what led to the action being taken, I don’t know.

What can be said is that nothing that I was doing in 2016 was any different from, say, 2013. What earlier led them to want to monitor and keep tabs on us now meant they wanted to take us down. That would be in line with a general harshening of the climate, a greater focus on “anti-China” or “foreign forces” in their work to counter civil society growth, and also seeing an opportunity to use me as a tool concurrent with the new law and regulations on foreign funding and NGO operation.

CHINA CHANGE: Before and around the year 2008, the international community was euphoric about China embracing international norms. I remember there was a catchy phrase in those years in state media: “China and the World Joining Tracks” (“与世界接轨”), about China’s supposed integration into the world order. Today you don’t hear this phrase anymore and China’s outlook has changed. Many independent NGOs have been shut down over the past couple of years. You came to China almost 10 years ago as a young man, and 10 years later you were expelled as a national security threat. Do you have any final thoughts as we conclude this Q and A? 

PETER DAHLIN: Outsiders are slow to react and adjust their thinking, which I guess is natural. However, it will become harder and harder for outsiders, including politicians, to keep up the charade that China is continuing its peaceful rise and, if only incrementally, developing a system of laws, and therefore creating a better society. The longer Xi Jinping stays in power, the harder it will be to continue to pretend things are developing in the right direction — but few nations want to be the first to reverse course in how to develop ties and interact with China, especially if economic ties are threatened. Luckily, China is so inept at PR that their threats against sovereign nations who seek to change course are becoming clearer, with the UK being a good example. Not even the Tory party can pretend anymore, as seen in the report they released (The Darkest Moment).

Despite having my life’s work, in a professional sense, thrown into the garbage, and the fact that my lifelong medical condition came from my time in China, I’d still say it was worth every bit despite the risks. We cannot publicize the specifics of our work, especially on urgent actions, but knowing the results for myself was enough to motivate me to continue. Even if the positive results we saw as a result of our interventions were cut in half, I’d still say it was worth it all. Sometimes you’ve got to “put your money where your mouth is,” as they say, and I believe I did that.





What Is a “Legal Education Center” in China

By Teng Biao, published: April 3, 2014


Four lawyers on March 21, 2014, in front of the "Legal Education Base of Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration"

Four lawyers on March 21, 2014, in front of the “Legal Education Base of Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration”

On March 20, Chinese rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Wang Cheng (王成) and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) visited the city of Jiansanjiang (建三江), where the “Legal Education Base of Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration” was located, to demand the release of innocent citizens who have been detained for practicing Falungong. On March 22,  the Jiansanjiang Public Security Bureau gave the four lawyers each a 15-day administrative detention penalty for “using cult activities to harm society.” Over the last two weeks or so, more rights lawyers and scores of citizen activists across the country converged on Jiansanjiang to hold protests to free the detained lawyers. Zhang Junjie has since been released and reported that he and three others were savagely beaten, but the local police have since detained at least ten people. On March 27, 49 rights lawyers and scholars and citizens wrote (in Chinese) to the Minister of Public Security and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate demanding an investigation of the black jail and the alleged crimes that took place there. – The editor


In China, a “Legal Education Center,” informally known as a “brainwashing class,” is a form of black jail. It is used to imprison innocent citizens without any legal procedure. It is “non-judicial imprisonment” and “arbitrary detention” strictly prohibited by the United Nations’ human rights treaties. It also violates China’s own Criminal Law and Criminal Procedural Law.

On a scale of worse to the worst, torture occurs far more frequently and cruelly in detention centers than in jails, and labor camps were still worse, but the so-called legal education centers are the worst of all. The number of innocent citizens tortured to death in these centers across China is in four figures.

Activists shouting "Good Morning" to the four detained lawyers.

Activists shouting “Good Morning” to the four detained lawyers.

For example, the “Legal Training Center” in Chenggu county, Shaan’xi (陕西省城固县) is a closed-off site that has been detaining petitioners without any legal authorization. Xu Lingjun (胥灵军), a disabled veteran and petitioner, had been detained here for a long period. He died of starvation on March 17th, 2010, in the center. An autopsy found no food in his stomach except for two small pieces of ice, the size of a coin.

Another example, the “Hubei Provincial Legal Education Institute” is located in Mahu village, Hongshan District of the provincial capital of Wuhan (武汉洪山区马湖村). Wang Yujie (王玉洁), a then 24-year-old woman, was arrested and detained there on March 11th, 2011. She was given an injection of poison and then forced to write a statement denouncing her faith. Wang Yujie could not walk after the injection and endured great pain. She was detained there for two months and died four months later after she was released and returned home.

In another example, 45-year-old Chinese citizen Yuan Pingjun (袁平均) lived in the telecommunication bureau’s dormitory on Gexin street in Xinhua District, Shijiazhuang municipality. He was forced into a “brainwashing class” of a legal education center on August 2nd, 2010 and died there nine days later on the 11th.

The four lawyers have been to these centers in Heilongjiang, Sichuan and other provinces, at the requests of family members, to intervene in cases of arbitrary detention and to file complaints against this illegal practice. This trip is their third to Jiansanjiang, near China’s borders with Russia, to expose the crimes of the black jail there and to free a few Falungong practitioners.

Zhang Shoufen (张守芬) was a local case. She was put in a labor camp for two years for practicing Falungong when she was employed by No. 3 Middle School of Qixing Farm. On October 16th, 2009, she was kidnapped at the Jiansanjiang train station and brought to “Jiangsanjiang Legal Education and Training Center” where she was cruelly tortured. On November 17th relatives who were summoned to come to get her found that she had become mentally ill as a result of torture.

“Legal Education Centers” in China are not about law nor education. Instead, they are black jails that arbitrarily detain innocent citizens, such as believers and petitioners. Its “brainwash class” could last from fifteen days to two months, and in some cases, several years. Arrest, detention and beating were perpetrated without any warrant, trial, term limit, oversight, or accountability.

“Legal Education Centers” blossom everywhere across China. For instance, in Heilongjiang Province alone, a partial tally found brainwashing classes in Wuchang (五常), Qinglongshan (青龙山) in Jiansanjiang, Liulu in Qitai River (七台河六吕). The Politics and Law Committee in Mishan city (密山市) hosts a brainwashing class, so does the residential building across the street from Xinxing Square in Shuangyashan city (双鸭山市). They exist in the cities of Haerbin (哈尔滨), Jixi (鸡西), Daqing (大庆), Mudanjiang (牡丹江),  Qiqihaer (齐齐哈尔), Hegang (鹤岗), Yichun (宜春), etc.

Activists in front of the Legal Education Base, demanding four lawyers' right to counsel be respected.

Activists in front of the Legal Education Base, demanding four lawyers’ right to counsel be respected.

According to statistics, more than 3,000 deaths across China have been directly or indirectly  attributed to torture in these legal education centers over the years. The provinces where most deaths occurred are Heilongjiang (黑龙江), Hebei (河北), Liaoning (辽宁), Jilin (吉林), Shandong (山东), Sichuan (四川) and Hubei (湖北). Heilongjiang is No. 1. Little wonder that the local Jiansanjiang government is scared of human rights lawyers and the truth.

A recent study investigated 329 districts or counties in 173 municipalities and found 449 of these legal education centers that are named variously Legal Education School, Legal Education Training Center, Education and Transformation Class. Some even name themselves “Caring Education Centers.” These illegal facilities are mostly rampant in Shandong, Hebei, Sichuan, Hubei, and provinces in Northeast. The study recorded 365 cases of citizens being tortured to death in these black jails.

Reeducaion-through-labor camps were abolished across China in the second half of 2013. However, the number of brainwashing classes has been on the rise in many cities and provinces. According to incomplete statistics, in the second half of 2013, 1044 Chinese citizens were kidnapped and put into these classes, six times of the number recorded in the first half of 2013.

Rights lawyer Wu Lei (伍雷), who was among the many lawyers and citizens in the past two weeks who converged in Jiansanjiang to protest the detention of his colleagues, randomly sampled a few local residents about the Legal Education Center. The locals know about it, loathe it and fear it.


(The article is based on a series of tweets by Dr. Teng Biao, a leading human rights lawyer and a legal scholar in China.)



11 Detained After Protesting ‘Black Jail’ in China, the New York Times


(Translated by Joseph Wang)

Eleven Rights Lawyers Seized and Beaten While Visiting a Black Jail in Sichuan

On the morning of May 13, while visiting a black jail in Ziyang, Sichuan province (四川资阳), seven rights lawyers from Beijing and Chengdu were intercepted, beaten and kidnapped by unidentified men. After that their cellphones ceased to answer.

Upon learning the news of their colleagues’ encounter, four more lawyers went to Ziyang to help. They were first followed by men in plain clothes, and then they too were snatched.

Jiang Tianyong

Jiang Tianyong

Li Heping

Li Heping

Tang Jitian

Tang Jitian

Liang Xiaojun

Liang Xiaojun

The eleven lawyers are: Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), Tang Tianhao (唐天昊), Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), Li Heping (李和平), Zhang Keke (张科科), Guo Haiyue (郭海跃), Wang Cheng (王成), Yang Huiwen (杨慧文) and Wen Haibo (温海波).

Rights lawyer, legal scholar Teng Biao tweeted Monday evening, Beijing time, that several lawyers were hurt. Jiang Tianyong’s legs were hurt by rocks, and Tang Tianhao was bleeding from his head.

By Beijing time Tuesday morning, three lawyers were released and have since returned to Chengdu, the provincial capital, while the whereabouts of the other eight are still unknown. They were taken away around 2 am Tuesday from the police station where they had been held.

According to several other rights lawyers following and reporting the incident online, the black jail has the improbable name of the “Rule of Law Education Center of Ziyang Municipality” (资阳市法制教育中心). From outside, it looks like a resort, but it houses what the authorities called the “rule of law classes” (法制学习班). Some have been jailed there for five or six years, and some were tortured to death. During the last Chinese New Year season, there were as many as 260 people illegally jailed there. (See below for address and telephone numbers of the facility.)

Teng Biao (@滕_彪_) posted on Weibo that “the so-call Rule of Law Education Centers can be found all over China, and they are also known as brainwashing camps, or study class, but they are really concentration camps where torture is used routinely. There are a shocking number of Falungong practitioners, petitioners and others who have been detained in these facilities across China. Lawyers said that more prisoners had been tortured to death in these illegal detention centers than in jails or re-education-through-labor camps. In this particular Center in Ziyang, at least three are known to have died of torture.”

Rule of Law Education Center of Ziyang Municipality 资阳市法制教育中心

Address: 资阳市雁江区迎接镇二娥湖山庄法制教育中心

Tel: 28-26741799, 28-26332128, 28-2674103

Director Xu Hongyan 徐红艳  Tel: 28-26741031  Cell: 13547291868



Twitter accounts: @tengbiao, @lvshi798; Weibo accounts: @滕_彪_, @李方平律师

The Artificial, Shameful and Evil Supreme Body of State Power

Xu ZhiyongBy Xu Zhiyong, published: March 11, 2013
To the regular readers of this blog, Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) is no stranger. He’s one of the founders of Gong Meng (公盟), or Open Constitution Initiative, a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to providing legal assistance to the disempowered and to developing civil society. As hundreds of others, Dr. Xu has recently been placed under house arrest because he is deemed a threat to stability and therefore must be locked up to ensure serene meetings of both the NPC and CPPCC, now in session in Beijing. During his confinement last week, he wrote a long letter, his second one, to Xi Jinping (original here, the first was written during the 18th Party’s congress last November). With his approval, this is a partial translation of the recent letter.
It’s interesting to note that Dr. Xu was a two-term people’s representative, in 2003 and 2006, in Haidian District, Beijing. In 2011, he again campaigned for the District people’s representative in the constituency of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications where he teaches, but was met with deliberate obstruction on the part of the university administration. He lost to no other than Fang Binxing (方滨兴), the father of the hated Great Fire Wall of China and the president of the university.

Once again the meetings have started. At the meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), you will be “elected” as the nation’s President. There will be no surprises, as there have never been over the last 60 years or so. Meanwhile, tens and thousands of people, myself included, who seek a just society, continue to face illegal restrictions on our freedom of movement in the name of “stability maintenance.”

The Chinese Constitution states that the NPC is the ultimate authority in legislation, election, supervision, and decision-making on important matters of the country, having more power than any parliament in the world, but in reality, NPC is nothing more than a rubber stamp, and its annual convention more like a press event for the emperor’s new clothes, a grand show full of artifice, disgrace and evil.

CCTV’s Evening News claims that the NPC has representatives from every ethnic group, every occupation, every level of social status, with many young people, many with advanced degrees, many workers, many farmers, etc. In the previous era, the most classic example was Vice-Premier Chen Yonggui (陈永贵)wrapping a white towel around his head, to show he was a representative of the peasants. Today we have Shen Jilan (申纪兰)who has been a “peasant representative” for sixty years. Does she really represent China’s rural population? Who has voted for her? On what basis can she say she represents the farmers? Besides applauding and voting “yea,” what else has she done as a “representative?”

This year, a young woman of the post-’90s generation has become a representative because she had helped someone courageously, but she has no idea why she has become a representative. A woman told the media that she represented the “foot washing girls.” Do they know who they are and why are they there?

The most absurd aspect of “people’s representatives” in China is the idea of representatives having to represent a certain class. According to the system of representation, no matter what your profession is, once you are elected to be a representative, you assume the duty of a member of the country’s legislative body according to the law. This is a representative’s most important duty, so much so that it becomes their only professional identity. A representative’s basic job is to draft laws, elect the head of the nation and national officials, and decide the nation’s budget, and his or her job has no connection to their original identity as a worker or a farmer. But this plain and simple truth has been distorted by the propaganda machine. It makes it look like only workers may represent workers, and only farmers may represent farmers; that, instead of enacting laws and welding the power to vote, the representatives are meeting just to give the leaders “advice.” Look, it says, we have workers, farmers, ethnic minorities, intellectuals, 90’s generation, even foot-washing girl, how broad the representation is and how splendid our socialist democracy truly is!

Since only farmers may represent farmers, in the old time when two third of the Chinese population was farmers, the NPC would have necessarily been the National Congress of Farmers’ Representatives. To avoid such awkwardness, China reduced the representation of the farmers to one eighth, and later raised it to one fourth. Such discrimination, worse than the racial discrimination over one hundred years ago in the United Stated, wasn’t corrected until 2010. But the absurd idea of identity representation is still being widely touted as a “superiority of socialism.”

In name, the NPC is China’s supreme body of state power, but its members are moonlighters. Each year they convene for two weeks only, but even that is too long. Making legislative proposals is supposed to be their job, but in reality, each proposal is screened by the head of the delegation and then by the presidium. China has no shortage of serious issues to discuss, such as elections, the budget, anti-corruption efforts, frontier ethnical groups, territorial disputes, so on and so forth, but the main job of the representatives is actually to hash out the wording of the “Report on the Work of the Government.”

Housed in heavily guarded hotel rooms according to strict hierarchy of each representative’s worth, ordinary representatives are no more than “extras” on a movie set who have no independence whatsoever to speak of. On the other hand, during China’s district/county level of elections of representatives, the state has employed almost every form of the state power to clamp down on independent candidates, including tearing the candidates’ posters, summoning them, investigating their tax records, intimidating voters, sabotaging meetings, refusing to accept lawsuits against government wrongdoings, illegally restricting candidates’ freedom of movement, and more.

The Congress conducts “elections” and voting without the least competition, for there is only one candidate for each position, and that candidate is likely to have been decided beforehand, if not several years before. On top of that, the representatives know nothing about the candidates, nor do they care whether the candidates are competent or corrupt. After all, some of China’s most corrupt officials, such as Cheng Kejie (成克杰), Wang Huaizhong (王怀忠), Wang Baosen (王宝森) and Liu Zhijun (刘志军), have all been elected in such a manner through each level of People’s Congress. And on each level, the process is controlled strictly by the Communist Party.

The representatives don’t bother to ask questions about how the country’s trillions are spent, the gapping deficit in China’s social security fund, the monstrous spending on stability maintenance that surpasses the military spending. No, they have no questions. Each resolution is passed in near-perfect vote of yea, and the rubber stamp is thus stamped. Inside the system, this is called “walk the procedures.” The representatives don’t care. Their positions don’t come from the people; for them, being a representative is an honor bestowed on them by the power holders, and it is a cherished ticket to the club of the privileged.

For being so artificial, the NPC cannot help but being ugly. Everyone is canny with his or her own calculations, fathoming carefully the intention of a superior, speaking only the “right” things, making only the “appropriate” proposals. Shen Jilan, who has never voted a no is able to hold onto her representative status for over sixty years, while Yao Xiurong (姚秀荣),who began to speak up for the disempowered in her second term, has since disappeared. They show one face when they are sitting at the podium and another when they are not. What they speak is never what they think. They discuss trivial matters, falling asleep listening to reports. In the evenings they swirl around dinner parties to forge connections. The few young and fresh faces in their midst look more like decoration than anything else. In front of the media, they would sometimes talk about the livelihood of the people; and their proposals are forgotten as soon as they are made. When they speak during the sessions, they do so in the order of their official rankings and seniority, in the style of partyspeak. They are unanimously “inspired” when they review the government’s work report; they ingratiate their superiors but also take the opportunity to promote themselves. They pledge loyalty before the voting; during panel discussions they condemn in unison petitioners, a nuisance for their officialdom.

Ordinary citizens don’t care who represent them. Not that it matters if they do. Year after year, the citizens of this country make the annual NPC and CPPCC their pastime by picking the most flabbergasting proposals and speeches, laughing at the yawning and slobbering representatives, gossiping the movie stars’ luxurious homes, the fallen corrupt officials, and the mistresses of the superrich. It gets more ridiculous every year.

Hidden behind such falsity and shamefulness is the inevitable evil. Some lies go away, such as that of the Great Leap Forward, but other lies have been paraded for more than six decades. Among them are lies that the system of people’s congress is China’s “fundamental political system,” and that the NPC is “the supreme body of state power.” Moreover, the system is billed as the most advanced democracy, and presented every March in a grand ceremony! Behind the extravagant show, however, black jails dot the capital city from Jiujingzhuang camp (久敬庄), run by the state, to certain outlaying, walled-in residences in Changping (昌平), from the backyard of the Youth Guesthouse (青年宾馆) to the basement of Juyuan Guesthouse (聚源宾馆), not to mention the Beijing Offices of all levels of local governments. Thousands of government employees and temporary hires crowd the entrances of the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Committee of the CCP, the Supreme Court, and the State Bureau for Letters and Calls [to intercept petitioners], while petitioners, in the number of tens and thousands, are subjected to harassment, illegal stalking, illegal detention, and brutal physical abuses.

In November 6, 2012, Petitioner Zhang Yaowen (张耀文) from Henan province was taken away from Jiujingzhuang relief center by force, and was beaten to death in a car with tinted windows because he refused to surrender his cell phone. Since his death, his sister Zhang Yaohua has not been able to file a case in any court.  

I hope there will be no more sacrifice of innocent Chinese citizens to the show in 2013! 

The grandiose National People’s Congress has nothing to do with the people. The most deep-rooted belief of China’s political system is still “power grows from the barrel of the gun,” and the operation of the regime is built on this terror-based ideology: Politics is barbaric; whoever wins the power struggle will rule; the harder your fist the more say you have; politics is for self-enrichment; the red regime cannot change color, and stability is above everything else; politics is cruel, a life-and-death game in which one must have no qualms in pursuing one’s objectives. In short, China’s foundation is not the people, not humanity, not conscience, but guns, the law of jungle, and the duo of violence and lie.       

Over the decades, citizens of China have grown indifferent to whoever become the representatives, to the “rubber stamp” itself, to the trillions in taxpayers’ money, to the lavish show itself. Never do they think the country is theirs. But in a country where even monks are fitted with administrative grade levels, how can anyone truly stay away from politics? When a country is built on an artificial, shameful and evil foundation, how can we expect to have a sound society? 

Every March, the state propaganda apparatus hangs out the “Learn from Lei Feng” flag in an attempt to rebuild “socialist morality.” CCTV’s “Touch the Heart of China” evening gala was all about smuggling goods for the party: the honorary president of the Red Cross recommended legislation to punish private charities; “the most beautiful born-after-1990”girl was bewildered that she had become a people’s representative; “the most beautiful female teacher” propped herself up from her sickbed to pledge life-long commitment to communist ideals, so on and so forth. On the other hand, the last thirty years have seen a slow awakening of civil awareness with citizens taking initiatives to claim their civil rights and responsibilities, but the dirty hands of the government have been everywhere to obstruct them and sabotage them.     

I understand there isn’t a society that’s perfect. I don’t expect every official to be a role model and a clean civil servant, but they at least cannot be such a hypocritical, greedy, cruel and despicable group as they are today. I don’t expect everyone to be an angel, but at least they should not be distrustful, hostile and mutually harmful as they are now. It might be too much to ask for perfect fairness and justice, but China must not be a place shrouded in the smog of injustice as it is today. This country must change its foundation and bring to an end the authoritarianism. China shall be reinvented on the principle of liberty, justice and love.  

I hope Mr. Xi Jinping will be one of the greatest idealists of our time. The mission of a real man is not to prolong the life of a rotten interest group, but to build a free and happy future for the 1.3 billion Chinese. It’s been over sixty years, and now it’s time to put an end to the lie of “the supreme body of state power,” to eradicate the belief in “gun-barrel regime.” And it is time to finally make good on the promise of the “People’s Republic.” 


The Plight of a Young Chinese Volunteer

By Xu Zhiyong

Today and tomorrow, we bring to you two articles about the case of a young man called Song Ze. He was a volunteer at Dr. Xu Zhiyong’s Open Constitution Initiative, an NGO dedicated to providing legal aid to disempowered people in China. We at SRIC are in no position to fully report the many cases such as Song Ze’s, but what we can do, and are trying to do here, is to illustrate a case well enough so that it sheds light and provides insight. On China’s black jails which this article explains very well, you may also want to watch Melissa Chan’s report that allegedly got her expelled from China. Hannah is the translator of the following piece by Dr. Xu. –Yaxue  

Around noon on May 4th, 2012, Song Ze (宋泽) received a phone call in which the caller said someone who had been put in a “black jail” [an illegal prison used mostly to detain petitioners, disempowered citizens who went to Beijing to file a complaint about his/her local government] hoped for help, and asked Song Ze to meet him in the lobby of Beijing South Railway Station at 2 o’clock. Same as ever, Song Ze did not hesitate to respond.

As Song Ze waited at the bottom of the designated escalator, an unexpected thing happened — his phone suddenly lost its signal. But he waited patiently anyway. After ten minutes or so, the signal returned, and with it suddenly appeared several men, who forcibly carried him off. A day later, he was spotted by a petitioner in the basement of the You Anmen (右安门) police station. More than ten days after Song Ze had gone missing, lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) finally managed to meet him in Fengtai District’s Detention Center.  At that point Song Ze had already been detained as a criminal suspect, charged with “provoking disturbances.”

What had Song Ze done?

Song Ze’s original name is Song Guangqiang (宋光强), born in 1985 in a mountain village in Xiangyang (襄阳), Hubei Province. He graduated from Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in 2010, majoring in international politics, and also minoring in finance. He received a dual-degree in law and economics. After graduating from college he worked at a foreign-capital enterprise, but he could not give up the ideals in his heart. In October 2011, he wrote a long letter to me, relating his own experience and dreams growing up, hoping to join the team of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟).

The first impression Song Ze gives people is that he is reticent and shy, but deep down he is a passionate idealist. He does not care how much money he makes, how hard he has to work; all he cares about is how his own actions would affect society.

As it turned out, the Petitioners’ Rescue Program was lacking in manpower, and so Song Ze’s responsibility was to contact the volunteer rescuers, to purchase new, or pick up donated, clothes and blankets, to distribute clothing and give sick people emergency aid. All winter long, Song Ze more or less had no Sundays and no holidays, keeping busy with volunteers at Beijing South Railway Station’s nearby ghetto, in the underground tunnel and other places where poor petitioners gathered. For many cold, cruel windy nights, he checked the bridge tunnels one by one to make sure new petitioners had cotton-padded blankets.

In China, even if it is just pure aid for the needy, humanitarian efforts face huge pressure because of the special identity of rescuees on the one hand and the social ideals of the rescuers on the other. On the night of the Lantern Festival (lunar January 15th), volunteers who were distributing rice dumplings to petitioners were blocked forcibly by police. Volunteer Yuan Wenhua was taken away, so was Song Ze when he asked the policemen to show their IDs. The rest of us waited outside the police station until they were released.

As winter passed and there was no need to worry about people freezing to death, Song Ze turned to providing emergency medical aid and to watch “black prisons.”

Black prisons are places where local governments illegally detain petitioners. If the petitioners try to go to the Prime Minister’s house or foreign embassies near Dongjiaominxiang (东交民巷), Wangfujing Street (王府井大街) or other places where they are not supposed to petition, they could be taken away by police. During the so-called sensitive time of Two Meetings each year, they could be apprehended just passing through Chang’an Street (长安街) and being found carrying petitioning materials. All these are labeled “irregular petitioning” and the petitioners who have been rounded up are sent to Jiu Jing Zhuang (久敬庄), the detention and deportation center run by the State Bureau of Letters and Calls. Jiu Jing Zhuang would order local governments’ Beijing offices to take away petitioners from their jurisdictions on the same day they arrive in Jiu Jing Zhuang. However, most petitioners cannot be dispatched back to their homes that same day. They must wait to be sent home, perhaps needing a few days or a few weeks, and this turns into a profiteering opportunity for some people.

People running the black prisons are those who have connections with officials in the State Bureau of Letters and Calls or local governments’ Beijing offices. They rent hotel basements, hire thugs, forcibly take the petitioners from Jiu Jing Zhuang, illegally detain them, and then order the local governments to come to get the petitioners and pay a fee for the latters’ stay. They fetch 80 to 200 RMB per petitioner per day.

Each year the black prison atrocities reach their height during the Two Meetings (National People’s Congress and National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). On the eve of the Two Meetings this year, Song Ze verified 49 black prison locations and sent out a map of Beijing’s black prisons. On March 5, 80-year-old petitioner Hu Yufu (胡玉甫) was put in a black prison. On the 7th he fell ill, begging to get treatment. To this, the secretary of the Committee of Politics and Law said, “Petitioners cannot be indulged! If he is sick, let him figure out what to do.” Hu was finally sent to the emergency room on the 12th, and died on the morning of 13th.  Song Ze helped his son sue the Party secretary, mayor and other officials of Xinxiang municipality (in Henan province) for illegally detaining his father.

Starting from September of 2008, our organization’s volunteers visited and watched black prisons, exposing this crime to the public, and rescuing the petitioners. Over the last few years, conditions in black prisons have had improved, and police have taken more action to investigate them upon receiving reports. But black prisons still exist in large numbers. To visit black prisons and to try to rescue prisoners there exemplifies a citizen’s willingness and courage to right a wrong, but in this upside-down country, Song Ze was thrown in jail for this very reason.

Why was Song Ze detained?

On January 11 of this year, Zhao Zhenjia (赵振甲) , Song Ze and others received an urgent text message from Hunan petitioner Yu Hong seeking help. They braved the severe cold of Beijing searching for four hours, and finally found the exact position of Chenzhou’s (of Hunan province) black prison. Afterwards they got in contact with over ten reporters and volunteers, and together they went on a rescue mission.

On the morning of January 13, Zhao Zhenjia, Peng Zhonglin, Guan Weishuang, Song Ze, and others, ten people in total, came to the black prison. While videotaping the process, they broke into the room and rescued three elderly people who had sought help. They were 73-year-old Yu Hong, 57-year-old Chen Bixiang and 82-year-old Long Jiangbao. One of them had been detained for over 40 days already. The living conditions there were awful with no heat, and each person had only a thin blanket. They were not given enough food either, often just one pack of ramen noodles per person per day.

There were only a few guards on duty then, and before they realized what was going on, the petitioners had already been rescued. But soon the police came. Instead of punishing the real criminals, they tried to take away these courageous citizen volunteers. While arguing with the police, they managed to take the three petitioners onto a bus, even though some guards followed them onto the bus.

That day, when I hurried over to the scene, the rescuers had already gotten onto the bus and left. I told Song Ze (over the phone) that I would be waiting for them near OCI’s office on the East Third Ring Road. They got off the bus, with four guards from the black prison in tow. I stopped a taxi, Song Ze and three petitioners got in promptly, and I blocked the door to fend off the guards. The taxi made a loop and took Song Ze and the three petitioners to the office of OCI. He bought meal for them, and send them to the nearby long-distance bus station with enough money for them to go home.

This rescue mission became the very reason for Song Ze’s arrest, the charge being “provoking disturbance” and the reason for the charge being “disrupting the public order.” Before Song Ze, 60-year-old Zhao Zhenjia (赵振甲) had already been given a year and a half of reform-through-labor, a form of imprisonment, for his participation in the same event.

Of course, Song Ze could have been retaliated against for another reason. Several days before his arrest in early May, he did something that irked the authorities: he took a cab to Shandong, picked up the wife of Chen Kegui (nephew of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng), took her to Beijing and hid her. I regret to have sent him to do this—he risked too much.

But I had never imagined Song Ze would end up in prison.

Citizen Song Ze

Song Ze’s case was one directly handled by Beijing Public Security Bureau. Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) made several trips to the detention center before finally being granted a meeting with Song Ze. Apart from the rescue on January 13, he was interrogated about how he met me and what he had done at OCI.

When the 37 days that he was sentenced were up, Song Ze was not freed. It is now such a preposterous case that the charges against Song Ze are too ridiculous to show to the world. The prosecution has not issued approval for an arrest, but the PSB does not want to let him go. Now they have placed him in residing under surveillance (监视居住).

In reality, residing under surveillance is more formidable than imprisonment. According to the new Criminal Procedure Law, the authority may designate the location for residing under surveillance, but it shall notify their relatives. But China being China, Song Ze’s family has not received any notification. He can still meet with his lawyer when detained in the detention center, but it’s been more than 40 days since he was put under residential surveillance, no one has been able to see Song Ze; and the PSB has refused to answer any questions on his whereabouts.

In our time, Song Ze is hard-to-find idealist. As he wrote in his letter to me, “I tried to force myself to just live my own life, but I discovered that this is quite difficult to do. If I see someone on the roadside in need of help but give no hand, I would be pained afterward. If I see something unfair around me but do nothing about it, I feel ashamed. When I see others who are able to give lot of help to the needy, I would blame myself for being useless, wishing I could do more……” We are all very concerned about Song Ze, and worry about what he is being putting through.

Xu Zhiyong (许志永), July 12, 2012