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Mo Zhixu, February 4, 2018
“Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.”
In 1981, Polish president Wojciech Jaruzelski ordered a crackdown on the growing Solidarity movement. Eight years later, under pressure of internal unrest as well as a cultural thaw in the Soviet Union, the Polish Communist government and Solidarity held roundtable talks. On June 4, 1989, free parliamentary elections were held in Poland and the Communists suffered a crushing defeat. Jaruzelski resigned in 1990 and Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa took his place as president. Poland marked its transition to democracy without shedding a drop of blood.
Poland’s case is unique among the political transitions in the collapse of the Soviet and Eastern European communist bloc. Unlike the Soviet Union, where reform was led primarily by Communist Party bureaucrats and went through a chaotic implementation, or Czechoslovakia, where change came through the sudden mass demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution, Polish democracy emerged as a product of the state coming to an agreement with society.
In the view of political scientist Juan José Linz, this phenomenon has to do with Poland’s unique political and social structure. Unlike other Eastern European countries, Poland was not a totalitarian system even though it was also a communist country.
After World War II, Poland did not experience agricultural collectivization. Land remained privately owned and private economy had had a significant percentage in agriculture — a strong contrast with events in other Soviet satellite states.
In addition, the traditional influence of the Catholic Church in Poland remained intact through decades of Communist government. In 1978, Karol Józef Wojtyła from the Krakow parish was selected to become Pope John Paul II of the Roman Catholic Church. As the history’s first Polish pope, his nationality played a major role in shaping the social movement in his homeland. Each of Pope John Paul II’s returns to Poland to celebrate Mass was tantamount to a large-scale social mobilization and at the same time a demonstration of the power of civil society.
A few years ago, my friends Jia Jia (贾葭), Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) and Michael Anti (安替) met with former Polish President Wałęsa and inquired about his country’s experiences in the transition to democracy. To their surprise, Wałęsa stated bluntly, “My friends, the Polish transition can’t be a model for China. We were blessed to have a Polish Pope.” At a loss for words, Anti replied: “God bless Poland!”
The fact that Poland was not a totalitarian state left room for the growth of civil society. Because of it, organizations like Solidarity could arise in Poland and garner widespread support against the Communist regime.
Following China’s market reforms, Chinese citizens gained more personal, economic, social, and cultural autonomy. Mainland Chinese society seemed to have departed from the familiar dictatorial style, giving many hope that civil society would appear in China and form a local version of the Solidarity movement that would bring peaceful democratic change.
Until a few years ago, this prospect didn’t seem too far-fetched. Limited marketization did bring a handful factors favorable to the growth of civil society, such as the emergence of new social classes, market-oriented media outlets, the establishment of judicial institutions that have the appearance of rule of law, and the growing space for expression on internet. These developments resulted in the spread of the ideas of universal freedom and civil rights, the rise of rights defense activities, and the willingness of participation of the the emerging social classes. People were encouraged by these phenomenon and began to harbor an optimistic picture that the growth of civil society would be tolerated by the regime, that a healthy interaction would develop between the government and the civil society, and that China could thus transition toward democracy.
This optimistic vision was quickly shattered.
After some initial observation, the authorities tightened control over all of these rising social fields: the media and internet were brought under ever-stricter control; human rights defenders and NGOs also faced mounting pressure. Furthermore, the government has been strengthening its grip on the new social classes by establishing party cells in what it calls “the new economic organizations and the new social organizations.”
Some might think these measures are only a product of Chinese leaders’ regimented political mindset, and their optimistic vision is still viable as long as the leaders of the regime change their way of thinking.
But upon closer examination of contemporary China’s political and social structure, you will see that the problem lies not in the mindset of the leadership, but is deeply built into the system.
China’s reform toward marketization has also been called a marginal revolution. This revolution developed as agrarian land was contracted to households, individuals were allowed to create their own businesses, enterprises cropped up in towns and villages, and special economic zones were established in coastal cities. The authorities adjusted accordingly, fuelling the hope that such reforms would eventually make inroads to systemic change, or the most difficult “deep water of reform.”
But in practice, little change has been effected on the system. On the contrary, the reforms on the margins have been adapted to reinforce the system. Specifically, the Party, government, and military saw little substantial change; the Party retained control over the core economic departments, strengthening itself through financial avenues — a phenomenon reflected in the fact that the government has grown more in power and resources while the masses have been regressing. In terms of society and culture, the regime’s monopoly has remained strong but at the same time it has introduced some market elements to strengthen itself.
Thus, the economic progress achieved during the marginal reforms reinforced the regime’s financial capacity and allowed it to double down on its control over society. Contrary to what the optimists had envisioned, market reforms have not touched the root of the political system. Rather, reform has been used as a kind of calibrating tool for the system to retain complete control in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.
With the system still firmly in control, factors that optimists believed would herald social change never got off the ground, and the gains civil society made were lost. For example, reacting to the demands of the the new social class, market-oriented media outlets developed a liberal trend for a limited period, but because the industry is subject to Party monopoly, they have ultimately bent to the will of the political system. Faced with combined political and economic pressure, the fate of the internet was similar.
The limited market reform in mainland China didn’t relax the political system’s need for absolute control. It’s more apt to see China as a neo-totalitarian regime with characteristics of a market economy — it can by no means be called merely “authoritarian,” as some do. The neo-totalitarianism does afford the Chinese masses a certain degree of personal, economic, and cultural freedom as well as some social space. Yet that social space is tightly controlled by the state and given little potential for free growth.
In the face of the neo-totalitarian regime’s total control and persistent suppression, the prospect that a civil society born of social movements will usher in progressive political transformation seems increasingly distant and elusive. But history continues. In the 1980s, Poland’s non-totalitarian nature permitted democratic transition through state-society negotiation. Other Communist countries made the transition all the same, whether through peaceful mass demonstrations or violent regime change.
No matter the methods, when a totalitarian regime imposes absolute control over society and robs the people of their rights, it does so against popular support. Social progress may be hindered, but the people will continue to resist the system from within. When the window of opportunity presents itself, history will bring change — at once unpredictable yet in hindsight inevitable.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
Chinese original 《莫之许：新极权下没有所谓公民社会》
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2018
As of January 15, 2018, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) had been held incommunicado for 920 days. This makes him the only 709 detainee who hasn’t been heard from since the notorious 709 Crackdown began in July 2015.
Last Friday, two lawyers, a former client, and three wives of 709 victims travelled from Beijing to arrive early morning at the First Detention Center in Tianjin, a half hour ride by high-speed train. The sun had risen, and a rich orange hue cloaked everything. A large-character slogan ran the length of the walls of the Detention Center: “Be Loyal to the Party, Serve the People, Enforce the Law with Fairness.” They were the first visitors waiting for the reception room to open. The three women were unable to deposit “meal charges” for Wang after calling a number thirty or so times and arguing with a female officer. The two lawyers, requesting a meeting with their client, were shown a piece of A4 paper that read “lawyers are not allowed to see Wu Gan and Wang Quanzhang.” Over the 30 months since Wang was arrested, his lawyers have made so many trips to Tianjin that they’ve lost count.
In August 2016, two 709 detainees were given heavy sentences and two others were given suspended sentences. By May 2017, more 709 lawyers and activists were released on bail or given suspended sentences after the government succeeded in forcing them to admit guilt in one form or another. By December 26, 2017, three of the last four 709 detainees received sentences or, as in Xie Yang’s case, were exempted from punishment.
The fate of Wang Quanzhang has been weighing on the minds of many, particularly as those who have been released reveal details of horrific torture. These include electric shocks so strong that they knock the victim unconscious on the spot; the “water cage” torture, where at least one detainee was locked in a submerged cage, with only the head above water; force feeding with unknown drugs; extreme sleep deprivation; beatings; and verbal and psychological abuses.
That Wang Quanzhang must have suffered the worst for refusing to yield is the consensus shared by the human rights community. Some fear that he may have been so physically debilitated that the authorities are now hiding him. Some worry that he’s already dead.
The latter fear was lifted last July after Chen Youxi (陈有西), a well-known state-connected lawyer, met with Wang (against the wishes of his wife) and tried to make him sign a Power of Attorney authorizing Chen to represent him. Wang refused. Chen later came under heavy criticism after describing the meeting on social media. “Chen Youxi was sent to help the government frame my husband,” said Wang’s wife Li Wenzu (李文足).
Indeed, in all the 709 trials, the government-assigned lawyers imposed on the detainees were part of the admit-guilt-for-leniency deal, acting as intermediaries between the government and the 709 detainees, and helping the government get what it wanted.
Wang Quanzhang’s Work
Wang Quanzhang, 42, was a lawyer with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm when he was swept up along with scores of other lawyers and activists in July 2015. Wang was born and raised in rural Shandong, and graduated from Shandong University in 2000 with a law degree. He was one of the earliest defenders of Falun Gong: while still in college, he provided legal assistance to practitioners not long after the brutal, nationwide suppression against it began in 1999. As a result, he was threatened and his home raided by police. A judge, it was said, wrote a letter to the university advising them not to issue his diploma. (He still received it).
After college, while working at the provincial library in 2005, Wang took up volunteer work for an NGO that had set up an experimental community school in a village near Jinan, the provincial capital. For the next three years, he gave free lessons about Chinese law to villagers on Saturdays for three years, paying his own travel costs. He taught them cases concerning land rights and other legal issues common in rural areas, and debated with them about whether it was power, or the law, that was supreme. The peasants believed that in China, power rules — not the law.
They were right then, and they’re right now.
In Jinan, Wang was subject to constant threats for his legal aid work. He was chased on the street, and at one time had to hide in the home of his friend, a professor, for days on end as plainclothes agents milled around outside the apartment building. He would later recount these episodes to friends as if they were someone else’s adventures.
In 2008 he moved to Beijing in part to escape the dangers of Jinan. A colleague thus called him “a lawyer on the run.”
In Beijing, Wang worked for an NGO called the “Empowerment and Rights Institute” (仁之泉工作室), one of the many small rights NGOs, like the school for villagers in Shandong, that sprung up in China around that time. He also did a stint at a think tank called the “World and China Institute” (世界与中国研究所). In 2009 he co-founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group NGO (China Action, 中国维权紧急援助组) with Peter Dahlin and Michael Caster, young Swedish and American activists respectively whom he had met at the “Empowerment and Rights Institute.” Peter and Michael came to China at a time when the country seemed eager to “integrate” with the world.
Through China Action from 2009 to 2013, Wang worked to expand access to legal assistance for victims, organize more structured trainings for fellow lawyers, and train victims to become citizen lawyers capable of dealing with the judiciary. After 2013, he stopped work at China Action and focused on defending individual cases in court.
In addition to Falun Gong cases, Wang also took on cases of illegal and unfair land expropriation, labor camp victims, prison abuses, and political prisoners such as journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇怀) and New Citizen Movement activists.
In the midst of all of the above, he found time to write articles commenting on current events using the pen name “Gao Feng” (高峰) — though samples of his writings are hard to come by.
The Repeatedly Beaten Lawyer
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), who has known Wang Quanzhang since 2010, described him as shy and unknown to his peers. That changed in April 2013, when Wang was given a 10-day “judicial detention” by a court in Jingjiang, Jiangsu (江苏靖江), towards the end of the trial of a Falun Gong case, for supposedly “violating court order.” From the account of his assistant, he defended his client ferociously despite frequent interruptions by the judge, whom he vowed to file a complaint against. His “not guilty” defense made the judge furious — merely practicing Falun Gong is a crime, according to the Party.
No lawyer had ever previously been detained inside the court during proceedings. Scores of human rights lawyers and citizen activists from all over the country descended on Jingjiang and protested in front of the courthouse. Having never witnessed such a scene before, the court relented and released Wang Quanzhang two days later.
In recent years Wang dealt almost exclusively with Falun Gong cases. For that, he took a lot more beatings inside and outside the court, as brutality against Falun Gong defendants, and sometimes their lawyers, occurs frequently. Many human rights lawyers such as Wang Yu (王宇), and more recently lawyer Lu Tingge (卢廷阁), can attest to this travesty unthinkable in a country with the rule of law.
In April 2014, Wang Quanzhang was among a number of lawyers and activists who went to Jiansanjiang (建三江) in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang to rescue four other lawyers who had been detained after they themselves sought to rescue Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained in a black jail called “Legal Education Base.” In the middle of the night he was hauled out of his sleeping bag, he wrote in the Chinese’ edition of The New York Times. “Two men quickly tied me up with ropes, with my arms behind me, pulling a black hood over my head.” He was put on a bus to a police station, where after some wrangling, two policemen hit his head against the wall. More violence was threatened until he agreed to sign a statement promising that he would not to take part in “illegal gatherings in Jiansanjiang.”
In June, 2015, in Liaocheng, Shandong (山东聊城), about a month before the 709 crackdown began, Wang Quanzhang was co-counsel with two other lawyers in the trial of several Falun Gong practitioners. At the end of the trial, which was marked by a fierce defense, the judge, Wang wrote: “Suddenly ordered the bailiffs to remove me from the courtroom for disrupting court order. A dozen or so bailiffs rushed into the courtroom. Some gripped me by the arm, one clenched me by the throat, and they hauled me out. At this point, someone had started fiercely punching me in the head; others were hurling abuse… I was dragged into a room on the first floor of the courthouse, and was ordered by one of the police to kneel. I refused. They started beating me again.”
The Chinese Government’s Fictitious Case Against Wang Quanzhang
Like all other 709 detainees, Wang Quanzhang was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” for six months. He was likely held in the same building as other Beijing lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Xie Yanyi, who have since been released and written about their ordeals.
For example, in A Record of 709, 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) described the sounds emanating from the room above between October 1 and 8 in 2015: “At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations and howling and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me.” He wondered whether it was Wang Quanzhang or Hu Shigen. “The fact that there has been no information whatsoever about Wang Quanzhang for more than two years is an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
On January 8, 2016, after the six months of secret detention were over, Wang Quanzhang was formally arrested for alleged “subversion of state power.” Over the twelve months that followed, the police used extended custody and a prosecutorial time delay technique, known as “returning case to police for further investigation” (退回补充侦查), to hold Wang without indictment or trial. This is a common practice used against political prisoners.
Into the later part of the 709 crackdown, the government has dispensed with such pretenses altogether, holding Wang Quanzhang indefinitely without any legal basis, real or otherwise.
On January 3, 2016, the Swedish national Peter Dahlin was detained in Beijing. In an interview with China Change, Dahlin said that lawyer Wang Quanzhang was at the center of the police interrogations. “The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.”
Back in his hometown in Shandong, toward the end of April 2016, local police, admitting that they were under orders from Tianjin, visited Wang Quanzhang’s aging parents and siblings. They talked Wang’s father into speaking on camera, advising his son to admit guilt in exchange for leniency. His sister, an average village woman who had never questioned the government until the crash course she went through with the disappearance of her younger brother, asked the police: “What crime has my brother committed?” The police told her that Wang defended Falun Gong practitioners, and doing so is opposing the Communist Party because Falun Gong was an “evil cult.”
In mid-February, 2017, Wang Quanzhang was indicted for “subversion of state power.” But neither his lawyers nor his wife were given a copy of the indictment despite their persistent demands for it. We don’t know how the Communist Party has built its case against him. We do know that they have been eager to have him admit guilt, without success: the hometown police told his family that “Wang Quanzhang has been very uncooperative.”
A human rights lawyer who represented another 709 detainee and made many trips to Tianjin, and who wishes to remain anonymous, shared an interesting observation: he believed that the government didn’t have a plan when it rounded up the lawyers and activists in July 2015. Instead, they devised it as they went along, using torture to subdue them and have them admit guilt. “The government could find no evidence of crimes against them in the existing laws; but they felt they must muzzle the lawyers, and used illegal methods to do so. That is, they arrested the lawyers and activists first, then looked for or fabricated ‘evidence’ against them. The purpose is to terrorize and deter the rights defense community through criminal punishment.”
The propaganda machine has worked in sync to disseminate the Party’s evolving narrative and belittle some of China’s most courageous citizens: when the 709 lawyers and activists were first detained, Party mouthpieces churned out articles and TV segments describing them as “the bad horses that hurt the entire herd.” By the time Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民) and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国) were tried in August, 2016, the activities of human rights lawyers and activists was recast into a conspiratorial “color revolution” with “anti-China foreign forces” behind the scenes. In the more recent TV confessions, lawyers Xie Yang (谢阳) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) were made to say that they were “exploited by Western anti-China forces” and brainwashed by “Western constitutionalism and other erroneous ideas.”
Free Wang Quanzhang
In the two and a half years of his disappearance, Wang Quanzhang’s toddler son has grown bigger. His wife Li Wenzu (李文足), who had never taken much interest in her husband’s professional work, has become his most vocal and effective advocate, enduring unceasing harassment from the police. She was recently awarded the inaugural Outstanding Citizen Award by a network of activists inside China for her courage and perseverance.
No statements from foreign governments, no inquiries from United Nations committees, no amount of media scrutiny, seems sufficient to unseat the Communist Party’s determination to use an iron fist to subdue any citizen it deems “dangerous” in its increasingly paranoid outlook on the world.
By all indications, it seems that Wang Quanzhang is not yielding either. Foreseeing what was to come, Wang left a letter for his parents in July 2015:
No matter how despicable and ridiculous we appear to be in the portrayal by the manipulated media, Mother, Father, please believe your son, and please believe your son’s friends.
I have never abandoned the qualities Father and Mother instilled in me: honesty, kindheartedness, integrity. In all these years, I have used these principles to guide my life. Even though I’ve often been steeped in despair, I have never given up thoughts for a better future.
My taking up the work—and walking down the path—of defending human rights wasn’t just a sudden impulse. Instead, it came from a hidden part of my nature, a calling that has intensified over the years—and has always been slowly reaching up like the ivy.
This kind of path is doomed to be thorny, tortuous, rocky.
But when I think of the difficult road we have gone through together, this path seems commonplace.
Dear Father and Mother, please feel proud of me. Also, no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live, and wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
After Four Detainees of the ‘709 Incident’ Are Indicted, Chinese State Media Name Foreign News Organizations, a US Congressman, & Three Embassies in Beijing as ‘Foreign Anti-China Forces’, China Change, July 15, 2016.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu explains why Chinese government is out to get them, China Change, July 23, 2015.
Xu Zhiyong, November 19, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was released on July 15, 2017 after serving four years for organizing social movements such as the New Citizen Movement and the equal education rights campaign. He is a 44-year-old legal scholar, a pioneer of China’s rights defense movement, and a founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng 公盟) in 2003 which offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. — The Editors
After getting out of prison I discovered a pessimistic sentiment in many of my friends. Some of them fled China. Others said that the Chinese people aren’t worth saving. With this totalitarian surveillance state and its repressed people, it feels like history is running in reverse. But I’m an optimist at heart and I remain optimistic. I see that authoritarianism is actually weakening, while the strength of liberty and democracy is on the rise. More and more citizens have woken up.
The authoritarian ideology, once powerful beyond compare, is in rout. The last few years have seen challenges to economic growth and nationalism—the pillars of legitimacy in the age of reform and opening up [China’s economic and social reforms beginning in the 1980s]. The economy is in recession, and nationalism has met with setbacks in the Diaoyu Islands and along the Sino-Indian frontier. Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture are incompatible with Communism. A privileged class predicated on profit is sure to be brittle and weak. As we can see from the example of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯),* rule by vested interests betrays the current of history. When the time comes, it collapses overnight.
China’s finances are in a bad way. The economy relies on a monetary policy of forced stimulation that has reached a dead end. Endless sums are created, lent, and spent on inefficient infrastructure investments, betraying the principles of economics and making financial crisis unavoidable. The split Party and civil administration are almost like a double government, the hierarchies are multitudinous, and the burden upon the people is among the highest in the world. State revenues decrease while the cost of maintaining stability rises rapidly. Just like the imperial dynasties in their final years, today’s financial situation is dire.
However, the biggest uncertainty comes from the central leadership. Chinese officials are unenthusiastic and shirk their responsibilities by deferring everything to orders from above. Totalitarian systems are doomed to grow weaker over the generations as factional compromise saps the regime’s core strength and places mediocrities in positions of power. Even if there is someone who wants to restore the old order, his efforts will lead nowhere. He is ridiculed, not revered, by the majority. The leader is the greatest uncertainty of the system and indeed of the entire country.
Meanwhile, society is marching forward. Private wealth is increasing. Technology is improving, the world is becoming one. Pro bono lawyers, entrepreneurs of social care, independent intellectuals, and victims of the powers-at-large, the number of awakened Chinese citizens has increased during these four years [while I was in prison].
But we are still relatively scattered. How to concentrate the powerful energy of civil society is an urgent task that demands our full responsibility.
What does China need most for its social transformation? A mature civil society. If there is a mature civil society, we will incur fewer costs and a beautiful future awaits. Revolution is not the design of any one individual. Our responsibility is not to knock down walls—though of course, living freely and candidly is equal to knocking down walls. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for change. Our responsibility lies in construction, constructing ourselves as a civil body.
Is civil society possible? There is space for it. The critical matter is what is to be done, how it is to be done, and to which degree. We need to be wise and methodical. To build civil society and unite those Chinese who seek democracy and constitutional rule on one platform, I offer six key phrases.
The citizen is a common identity. This identity conveys rich inner meanings of power and responsibility, it implies a society and nation of citizens. The day that 1.3 billion Chinese are citizens is the day that China is truly beautiful. To become genuine citizens is our present and final objective. More importantly, citizenship can be an identity—yours, mine, everyone’s common identity. We can’t say “you are democracy, I am democracy,” but we can say “you are a citizen, I am a citizen.” This concept has roots in China over a century old. It cannot be taken from us or censored. However fearful people may be in private, all can come out and say “I am a citizen.”
Freedom, Justice, and Love are our shared core values. These values ought to be the new height following freedom, equality, and fraternity, the desired values of a future society. Freedom is the true sovereignty of individual action and existence, its scope expands with the development of civilization. Justice means a fair and just society—its meaning is richer than the egalitarianism that was once applied to the stratified French society. It is a society with democracy, rule of law, and rational boundaries between individuals—each to his own, each to his ability, each is provided for. Love is more generous and profound than fraternity; it is the wellspring of life and happiness.
One day these will become the core values of Chinese civilization. They don’t come from our ancestors. The core values of France—liberté, égalité, fraternité—were not those of the nobility, they were created by the people of France during their great revolution. Creating Freedom, Justice, and Love is the struggle of our generation of Chinese. For our ancient people and their civilization, these values will usher in renaissance and take common root across all humanity.
Truth shall be the common guiding principle in our actions. To be a true citizen. To uphold the citizen’s identity, rights, and responsibilities. To uphold and proactively implement the freedoms and rights written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Late-stage totalitarianism also preaches democracy and liberty, but it doesn’t really mean it. In its crowning absurdity, the core values of socialism have become sensitive phrases and subject to online censorship. We uphold these things. The truth is the ultimate deconstruction of lies and absurdity, and the greatest tool for building a beautiful China. The 1.3 billion Chinese need not take radical action. If they all took the rights contained in the Constitution seriously, China would change.
A Beautiful China is our common direction. The China of our dreams is not only beautiful, but also free, just, and happy. A beautiful China encompasses beauty, but even more so embodies deeper values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom. Freedom, Justice, and Love is our direction, it is our mission and glory. Ours shall be a beautiful country reborn on the land where authoritarianism reigned for thousands of years. This is our purpose in life.
Citizens are not an isolated circle. Say not “you citizens,” but “we citizens.” Do not reject the noble identity of citizen just because some unscrupulous people may appropriate this title. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, judges, civil servants, regardless of your wealth, social class, you are citizens. All us Chinese shall identity as citizens. We may not necessarily all eat at the same table, lawyers and entrepreneurs may have their own circles, but our identity is a common one—the citizen.
The force of liberal democracy must be united. The identity of “citizen” is the best platform and the most solid cornerstone. Regardless of your social status or group, we are working forward together to a common goal. Communities of citizens can rise in each region and every industry. Assemble together, stay in touch with current affairs, and when the timing is favorable, take steps to coordinate with each other, for example by meeting on the last Saturday of each month. When millions and millions of Chinese assemble with the same identity, the same core values, and discuss the fate of the country and the people, they will have begun to form a civil body.
Being a citizen and building civil society does not equal being under someone’s leadership or joining some organization, it means independently wanting to be a citizen among citizens. Citizens in different regions act autonomously and make progress of their own accord. A community of citizens and civil society is necessarily an organic development.
Being a citizen, especially being a community of citizens, means standing up to oppression. If you abandon your identity in the face of pressure and don’t even want to be a citizen anymore, then you will have nothing to show for it. As the common body that shows the way towards social progress, the only way to build strength is to experience oppression and learn from the experience. If even the simple act of a same city dinner gathering (同城聚餐) means suppression, so be it. But this requires our perseverance. When the days comes that we are not even allowed to eat, there is still no problem: just go on hunger strike for a day. Even better, everyone go on hunger strike for a day. Have faith: your identity as a citizen can withstand oppression. It cannot be taken away from you.
I earnestly beseech every one of my compatriots seeking democracy and liberty to know their identity as a citizen and its significance. Be a dignified and upright citizen together with those who share your ideals and ambition, discuss with them when you meet, follow current affairs, spread the citizen’s ideal, and uphold social justice. If you are entrepreneurs, you can seek like-minded friends among your business circles and gather as citizen entrepreneurs. If you are lawyers, you can seek the like-minded among your legal circles and gather as citizen lawyers. If you are judges, you can discover the like-minded and gather as citizen judges. You have common ideals regardless of your professional fields, your wealth, or status. Seek out and join hands with the citizens by your sides.
I am a citizen, we are citizens. This is a pious faith. This is our responsibility to an ancient people. This is the struggle of our generation of Chinese, its undertaking, and its glory.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong (许志永)
*Yuan Shikai was a general of the former Qing Dynasty who manipulated China’s republican movement in an attempt to establish his own dictatorship. His actions contributed to the chaotic warlord era.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2, April 13, 2014.
Meng Han, October 11, 2017
Continued from Part One
Governmental Dysfunction and NGO Work
In our time of great changes, the term “NGO”—when applied to our Service Center—inevitably has some political connotation. NGO workers have nothing to do with any criminal activities, but have everything to do with governmental dysfunction. It is precisely because of this that we drew attention from society. It is also because of this that the media, scholars, and workers have taken an interest in us and observed our work. As a matter of fact, it is inevitable that NGOs will impact the government in any country. The core issue is in what manner NGOs are making an impact. In my opinion, the involvement of the Service Center in Lide’s labor dispute, at the request of the workers, was positive, progressive, and moved society forward.
For many years local governments have focused on GDP, political achievement, and stability in economic development. Have they ever realized that the contradiction between employees and employers has intensified, and that workers and migrant peasant workers will be the biggest victims if they continue to do things this way? I am very familiar with this group of people for I was a laid-off worker. The saying “behind high-rise buildings there are shadows, and under neon lights blood and tears” is a true portrayal of this class of people.
Compared with unorganized and extreme rights activities, these organized rights activities are no doubt rational progress. The success of the Lide workers’ struggle is precisely because of this. During the process, this group may be unstable and may encounter all kinds of conflicts, but they must go through this process. Those who are unaware of their rights must be awoken from their slumber. They can win as long as they think from their point of view, advocate and defend their rights and interests, overcome difficulties, keep up their resistance, believe in organizing themselves, and rely on collective strength. I believe that they have the courage and that they certainly have a strong desire to win.
During this process, I have tried to understand how young workers’ enthusiasm and older workers’ awareness of their goals entered into agreement. Did our recommendations play a complementary role? When I look back, that is exactly how it worked. We prepared several negotiation plans and various suggestions. For instance, to make sure that the social security arrears must be paid while they could make some compromises on reserve fund[i] and overtime pay. They adopted these suggestions. There were numerous such examples.
Now I am absolutely convinced that in the past few years the contradiction between labor and owners has become increasingly prominent, and many workers are worried that their legitimate rights and interests are wantonly infringed upon and exploited. Government dysfunction, mutual prevarication, bureaucratic government-led “unions,” and complicated and lengthy legal procedures all led to the frustration and desperation of workers when they wanted to make a complaint. And it is for these reasons that NGO institutions such as the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center came into being and provided what was needed. It is also at this time that the idea of “serving the workers and making the interests of workers the top priority” took root in my heart. However, even so, I cannot forget the serious consequences brought about by the disorderly rights struggle of the workers. We have ample examples in which workers lost their freedom, health, and even lives in chaotic and unorganized rights struggles. Therefore, the Service Center tried to guide the workers to set up workers’ organizations during its involvement in the Lide workers’ rights activities to ensure orderliness. Did such an act constitute a major factor of our violation of the law? From the actions of the government, we see that it has come to this conclusion.
I would like to repeat the words I have said more than once: In this era, in fact, almost everyone understands that the most important reason for the workers’ strike was that the workers held the strike for their decency and dignity. This aspect of the strike was reported in the media and online. In fact, the strike was also a heroic struggle against the bureaucracy and owners. It is entirely different from anti-government behavior. I thought that everyone should have understood this.
I do not even care to figure out why and how the state media demonized our work by accusing us of “criminal offenses.” I just want to figure out why the workers’ rights and interests are generally infringed upon and what effective ways there are to protect the rights and interests of workers. That’s what I want to do.
If our organizing and guiding workers to help them protect their legitimate rights and interests are criminal offenses, then I want to ask: is it not a criminal offense when the police use force to suppress an NGO’s normal work and the judiciary institutions abuse criminal law against NGOs?
The Path for Workers to Fight for Their Rights Has Been Blocked
While in prison, I had time to think. I got excited all over again every time I recalled how I first met the Lide workers.
At that time, I did a very important thing—my colleagues and I guided workers to form a steering group through an election. After that, they met other workers and actively carried out promotional activities. Strictly speaking, these activities were full of vitality, happiness, and pleasantness. There was no element of coercion, force, or threat, only suggestion to participate in the activities to defend their own interests. There was also another move—broadcasting a successful rights case, and asking ordinary workers to get on the stage and talk about their experiences in defending their rights and their views on advocating their rights. Now I know very well that it is very hard to do the same again, but how effective a move it was.
One thing I’d like to add is that, after the victory of the workers’ strike, we strived to collect the most effective and best practices adopted during their rights activities and organized workers’ tours to give talks to workers in other places. Workers elsewhere benefited from the new working method we adopted. We guided workers on how to use media and its influence to completely change the passive and weak position of workers in their struggle. This does not just mean a different entry point or different ways of defending rights. In fact, this reflects the civil rights awareness by the new generation of workers in current society.
It is these new methods of work that put workers’ rights activities onto the right track. It changed the previous disorderly situation where workers fought individually in demanding pay and defending their rights. They put the facts on display, and collectively faced the employer, the government, and the media. This is not only a show of determination, confidence, and strength, it is also a heightened sense of rights awareness and reflection of collective wisdom of the workers.
When I look back at the events two years ago, I have to admit that my heart is very heavy. For a long time—in fact from the time when I was a worker at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine—I have had this problem.
I remember a female worker, a representative of the workers, at the hospital who had worked there for more than a dozen years and got a lot of recognition and awards. When she was laid off by the hospital, she received no social security or health insurance. At the time when the strikes achieved some initial victory, her legs were in so much pain she could barely stand up. When she left with a meager ¥20,000 (about US$3,300 at the time) of humanitarian relief, I felt so sad I almost cried out loud. This is something that has sat heavily on my chest.
Having these painful thoughts in mind, I feel that I should tell the process, motives and my feelings during these events. To be honest, this is a bit scary. People in general accept certain things directly in real time. They experience happiness, uneasiness, anger, or pain in the real situation. But I know how things will change, and they unfold the way I foresee them. This advanced knowledge doesn’t make me happy. On the contrary.
It is rather obvious that the road for workers’ rights advocacy has been blocked and the back door has long been closed, too. The economy has developed to this day but workers do not have the right to strike or organize their own trade unions. If workers do not even have the right to associate, how can workers protect their rights in this era of powerful capital? We cannot allow this situation of keeping low labor costs to continue. In order to end this situation, workers need to organize, to set up their own trade unions, and to have their right to strike! A society where workers and NGOs are suppressed through so-called law and administrative means is not a society ruled by law.
I felt a heavy burden off my shoulders after expressing these feelings and views, even though Lide workers’ strikes became my crime. As in the past, before the legal process was completed, the case had been coordinated in advance by government offices to set the tone.
At the moment, what we still see is a judicial system succumbing to external power, lawyer’s defenses subjected to various restrictions, and a manipulated judicial process. All these led to an unfair trial in my case. Such an unjust judicial system shook my already wavering faith in the law. However, the prosecution by the procuratorate and the judgment of the court against me were just to meet the needs of external power. They have become the guardian of local interests. It is the working class who get hurt the most!
This is only one aspect of the real tragedy of the working class, an aspect that makes every worker uneasy. As an older worker, however, I have something else that I worry about too—the continued deterioration of labor-owner relations in the market economy will lead to the instability of labor relations as a whole. To this today, the interests and rights of a large number of workers in our country’s development and urban construction are still infringed upon. Doubtlessly, the government should take the responsibility.
As an older worker, I can only express my deep admiration for those labor NGO staff, labor rights lawyers, as well as people from all walks of life who are concerned about labor rights. In the protection and maintenance of workers’ rights and interests, their acts may not be noticeable, but they have done a lot of work. It is they who have given the workers determination and courage to advocate for their rights and interests.
In my opinion, what we did is correct. There is no doubt about it.
Their Method of Solving Problems is Imprisonment
The workers’ strike has been associated with my life spent in detention.
I clearly remember how they talked to me in the interrogation room: some police officers freely assumed my guilt and asked me to incriminate other colleagues of the Service Center in exchange for a lighter sentence. It is from this dirty deal that I saw their abuses. Their oppression of ordinary and honest people like us has gone beyond handling a criminal case.
This makes everything look like persecution.
I remember I remained silent for a long time while staring at them. My thoughts were heavy and painful. They took turns to interrogate me day and night, repeatedly modifying the interrogation transcripts and forcing me to sign. It really shocked me. For so many months and so many times, they wanted to get from me materials that could be used to incriminate others.
This lasted for a long time. I always persuaded myself: even though they did not wear police uniforms, they were police, whom I ran into in my work all the time. I remember that their investigation began right after the Lide workers’ strike. At that time the workers had been organized. We were all clear that neither of us could get the problem solved by doing this. It was just a farce. But still….
In order to create an atmosphere suited for their handling of my case, they kept pressuring me to plead guilty. They have acted like that even to this day.
I have been trying to free myself from this suffocating, unbearable, and menacing atmosphere. We were punished by the “law.” In fact we were presumed guilty from the very beginning. The rest of it was to move through the so-called legal procedures, which they did without scruples.
Their repeated sentences can never change my mind.
The confrontation between workers and the police because of the rights activities is my pain. No, the pain is not ours, but that of our time! For this reason, Lide workers’ strike is but a microcosm in this era, because they reflect the plight of all workers.
Everyone knows that it is workers who are the masters of this country. But they have no status, no power, no resources. All they can do is to unite against the exploitation of the owners. If the government cannot even accept these activities, that means those of us who desire decent work and a dignified life will pay too high a price.
I do not even want to write these words. No one at any time can impose their will on me and make me violate my principles as a man.
I want to go out of the prison cell and breathe fresh air. In any case, I cannot abandon what I believe.
For an ordinary person like me, going to jail twice is like a thunderbolt from a blue sky. Meanwhile, you are fully aware that workers’ rights and interests are infringed upon, and more and more workers are demanding pay owed to them. Many workers even lost their lives because of this.
The functional departments that lost their initiative were eager to find ways to solve problems. But the miracle did not happen. So sending us to prison is the “best way.”
Love and Pain
Long-term imprisonment has deteriorated my health. Continued treatment made me so weak. But what made me really suffer is being separated from my partner. We have never been separated, or taken a vacation alone, or lived our lives divided in two halves.
Words cannot express how much she gave me spiritually and materially. Without her, I would not be able to stand the storm—either in 2013 or 2015. Without her, I would have perished. Now, when her career is flourishing, she has to spend a lot of energy to care for and support me.
She is a rare, sincere, and optimistic person. She has to—in her own way—suffer the tragedy brought to her because of my work. She spent a lot of effort to care for those old unemployed peasant workers, helping them to be employed again. If everyone knew this, many would take her as an example and actively engage in the care of those older unemployed workers. Everyone can feel it and they all like her.
This is my private matter, and she is the woman in my private space. When I heard our private life mentioned in a media report, I could not describe how awful I felt. To outsiders, it seems only a moral issue. But for me, it is purely private. Because of this, I feel very angry.
This report is like a thorn that has taken root in my body. Any remarks about her will touch my heart and give me pain. For me, she is not only my family, girlfriend, confidant, she is also a responsibility in my personal memory.
Every second at night in prison is getting heavier. How can I make myself fall asleep? Regardless, ordinary people should have our own private space.
At the end of October 2016, I suffered tremendous pressure. My colleagues were tried and sentenced. I was dealt with separately and my trial kept being delayed. The police intentionally showed the video of my colleagues at their trial. It was a tough day for me. Suddenly I felt that I could no longer stand it. But at the same time, my insistence of adhering to my principles and the responsibility of finding the truth were on my shoulders. I felt that I could barely hold on and I was about to break down….
Now, if I could return to that moment, what would I feel? I would not feel shame, nor would I feel angry, but something else. I once again could feel the uneasiness, nervousness, and heaviness that pressed me so much I could not even lift my head.
Then came the most ridiculous day. On November 3, my trial opened and ended smoothly as previously rehearsed. Everything disgusted me and made me feel helpless. I felt humiliated. Suddenly I understood: It is not important any more how I play my role in this drama. I would be seen as a bad actor anyway.
I understand the most important point: in this event, no matter how hard I try and how strongly I carry myself through as an individual, the outcome would be the same.
Despite the disguised threats and the promises the authorities have made, I will not hesitate to help those workers if they need it, knowing very well that I may once again face the same outcome.
Whenever I sit in the dining room with other “criminals,” I always appear to have been lost in my thoughts. My heart was filled with complex feelings. Sometimes I felt a kind of loss. I had had the same feeling after the verdict. But I don’t want to believe that this feeling of loss is becoming more and more intense now.
My Future Road
Over the past few years, day in and day out, workers’ rights work has become my entire life, occupying my mind. Whenever I think of those workers who struggle for just their basic rights, those experiences will soon make my adrenaline run high. I have been for some time feeling lost because of these experiences and the pain their memories brought me.
I feel lonely, even bored. But I do not want to infect others with this emotion.
Is this the event that makes me restless? If so, how can I go on like this?
I started thinking. The first thing I thought about was that I should really get back all I had lost in these years: the ability to self-analyze and think for myself. In addition, I must be responsible for my ideas and confidence. I will also be responsible for my work and my actions. Although the road to my ideals may be tortuous and long, we have started our journey after all.
Yes, this is very important. This is also the direction of my life.
These are my “Notes from Prison”—my experiences and my feelings, my various observations, impressions and views.
I had these thoughts alone while in prison and have not told anyone how I felt. I should truthfully write down all that I have experienced and felt, and why I did this or that. Now, only one question remains: what will I be like in the future?
I feel as if I’m climbing Mount Everest. Today I am in a state where I have exhausted all my strength and energy in defending workers’ rights and interests, from beginning to end.
If I feel it necessary to further argue for myself, I would suggest: “Go and ask workers and migrant peasant workers!”
And I will continue to complete the unfinished work.
Third revision, written in prison, August 23, 2017.
My thoughts, wrapped with the storm of yesterday, beat my heart like mind-blowing waves crashing into the shore.
The past still remains. Everything present is the continuation of history, which is a train hurtling forward with tears and blood. This huge inertia cannot change just because someone has good intentions. New impetus needs to be injected for history to change and be created. Of course we also need to have new ideas that keep up with the times.
There is no doubt that after more than three decades of reform, our country has made huge progress that impresses the world. In the process, workers and farmers have sacrificed a great deal. Now, the period during which people of all classes benefit from the reforms has been irreversibly ended. The gap between the rich and poor has widened continuously. Overall, rights and interests of the new generation of workers have often been flouted. The increasing wealth will not solve the increasingly sharp contradictions between labor and ownership. We urgently hope that law can really play its role in today’s market-oriented society. This process will be accompanied by pain. It requires both the government and people of all walks of life, as well as workers, to understand and tolerate each other. It requires common and creative wisdom—the past events prove that the workers are full of such wisdom.
Written in prison, August 28, 2017
[i] Reserve Fund refers to the Housing Reserve Fund, a compulsory 5 percent or more withholding by the government from an employee’s paycheck to be used for housing compensation. But in practice, the requirements for withdrawing one’s reserve fund are onerous.
Liu Shaoming, a 1989 Veteran and a Labor Activist, Remains Imprisoned Without Sentence, China Change, May 31, 2017.
Hermann Aubié, August 9, 2017
About three weeks ago, shortly after the world learned about your terminal liver cancer diagnosis of late May 2017, you died aged 61 in the Northeast region of China where you were born. As the poet Tang Danhong wrote, you departed as “an innocent prisoner into the eternal light” (无罪的囚徒，融入永恒的光芒). What a cruel tragedy to live out your last days in a hospital bed under lock and key after fighting most of your life for freedom and human rights!
Although I’ve never had the chance to meet you in person, I feel like I’ve lost someone very close to me, as if your death has torn away a part of myself. While you were behind bars in Jinzhou prison, I was trying my best to better understand what your human rights struggle was all about and to imagine your thoughts on what happened in China and around the world during the last eight years you spent in prison. More recently, as I was anticipating your release in June 2020, aged 64, I even indulged in imagining your surprise at seeing a young Frenchman coming from nowhere brandishing a newly written book about your struggle for freedom of expression and human rights. There was so much I wanted to talk about together, and I regret that we will no longer have the chance.
Words can hardly express the emotion and revulsion I feel at the injustice and cruelty of the Chinese government. I remain lucky and grateful to have discovered your thoughts and actions through your writings and your friends – it may never be possible to come to terms with your departure and to find closure, but I take comfort in imagining how many people are mourning your loss around the world and taking over the causes and values that you defended by engaging in new and ongoing struggles.
As a student who fell in love with China in the early 2000s and devoured hundreds of books and articles on China to quench my curiosity and satiate the hunger of my ignorance, reading your critical analyses of Chinese politics and society was vastly enlightening. Your works compelled me to question my assumptions and unlearn many of the false narratives that I took for granted about Chinese culture and history. It was thanks to you that I also enjoyed learning the Chinese language – unlike the heavy, wooden register of Chinese officialdom, the language you used felt natural and your arguments more intuitive, especially when it came to our shared human condition and aspiration for universal values.
Before becoming China’s most prominent political prisoner, you first emerged in the mid-1980s as a literary critic and a lecturer in humanities whose growing reputation gave you the opportunity to travel for several months as a visiting scholar to Northern Europe, Hong Kong and the USA.
Then, as the democracy movement of spring 1989 started to unfold while you were in New York City, you refused to watch from a comfortable distance and left Columbia University for Beijing to participate directly in the protests on Tiananmen Square by advising students and raising funds. Over several weeks, you gradually transformed from an observer to one of the leaders of the protests who drafted speeches calling for institutional reforms and rejection of violence. One of your most important contributions was to organize the June 2nd hunger strike with your friends Zhou Duo, Gao Xin, and Hou Dejian, who would later together with you become known as the “Four Gentlemen” (四君子) for successfully negotiating with the leaders of the martial law troops a peaceful withdrawal of thousands of students from Tiananmen Square on the eve of the June 4th massacre (六四大屠杀). Two days later, you got arrested by the authorities who labelled you a “black hand” (黑手) behind the “political turmoil” (政治风波) and detained you for nineteen months in Qincheng prison, China’s “Bastille” for elite prisoners. In the meantime, the state blacklisted your name and expelled you “outside the system” (体制外).
From then on, the party-state had made of you a “criminal” and the Western media a “dissident.” By then, you felt forced to let your first family move abroad so they can start a new life without fear of being persecuted through “relational repression” (关系镇压). After your release from prison, during which you signed a “repentance document” that you will never forgive yourself for, you painfully reflected on the tragic ending of the 1989 protests and felt much guilt as a “survivor of the massacre.”
As a result, you chose to embark on a path of redemption by committing to a long struggle for human rights and constitutional government that would make you suffer and sacrifice your limited freedom for the freedom of others. Over time, sustained by your wife Liu Xia, the love of your life with whom you married in 1996 while in detention in a “Re-education through labour” (劳教) camp of Dalian, you proved to yourself and others that people can change for the better, and you gradually came to embody the promise of a better, kinder and more humane China.
While interviewing your friends, I heard touching stories about your integrity and generosity both as a person and as president of the Independent China PEN Centre, an NGO founded in 2001 to defend the freedom of expression of Chinese writers and journalists who are persecuted for their writings and to support the spouses of those who are imprisoned.
Then, as I got deeper into your writings, I came to understand more clearly your philosophy about how we ought to live and act in everyday life, of the importance of listening to our conscience and rejecting lies. In particular, you highlighted the urgency of unlearning the “enemy mentality” (敌人意识) that the Chinese regime relentlessly instils with its propaganda about “hostile forces” trying to “split China” or “spread chaos” – a false worldview meant to justify the regime’s oppression. In a post-Brexit, Trump era, your message also applies in an increasingly divided Western world blighted by violent racism and scapegoating.
In your 2003 essay titled “Using truth to undermine a system based on lies”, you looked back at your early life under Mao and acknowledged the difficulty of unlearning “Mao Speak” (毛语), especially its Manichean worldview:
I realize that my entire youth was spent in a cultural desert and that my early writings had all been nurtured in hatred, violence, and arrogance − or, alternatively, in lies, cynicism, and loutish sarcasm. These poisons of “Party culture” had permeated several generations of Chinese, and I was no exception. Even in the liberal tides of the 1980s, I had not been able to purge myself of them entirely. I knew at the time that Mao-style thinking and Cultural Revolution-style language had become ingrained in me, and my goal had been to transform myself from the bone marrow out. Hah! − Easier said than done. It may take me a lifetime to rid myself of the poison.
As you then explained in a 2005 essay titled “Gao Zhisheng’s lesson”, one way of getting rid of the poison is to “unlearn ‘dehumanization’ as a distinctive feature of Party culture” (摆脱党文的”非人”) through “introspective awareness” (自省意识) and “self-reflection” (自思), without which a “moral high ground type of arrogance” (“山小”的道德傲慢) could emerge anytime.
But today, looking back at the distressing circumstances of your death, how could our grief and anger not fill us with rage and make us hate that cold-blooded regime who treated you so heartlessly in your last days, and who even went as far as viciously manipulating the public discourse about your hospital treatment and funerals? Despite it all, though, I guess you would still want us to refuse to participate in the regime’s lies, hatred, violence and enmity that “poison hearts and minds” as a way to widen the space for freedom of expression and civil society. Under such conditions, as you persuasively argued, Chinese citizens could then minimize the risks of the regime’s unpredictable repression, and keep organizing solidarity initiatives such as the signature of open letters to call for the release of political prisoners.
When your old friend Bao Zunxin (1937-2007) passed away aged 70, you offered his wife to help organize his funerals despite the threats from the police. This was because, like you, he was seen by the regime as a “hostile element” (敌对分子) since he supported the pro-democracy protests of 1989. As the funeral ceremony got disrupted by police forces, you noted that because “the dead are the most revered” (死者大) in Chinese tradition, the police felt awkward about enforcing order, and you went on blaming the“stupidity”of the higher authorities whose“lack of confidence in their own legitimacy” (对它自身的合法性缺少自信) had yet again led them to order the police to take extreme measures. Before the police interrupted you, you honoured Bao Zunxin as an “enduring spirit of freedom” who paid a price for maintaining his dignity and with whom you shared a “common ideal and passion” by “throwing your selves into the people’s anti-authoritarian human rights struggle.” You both agreed that that the “cynical utilitarianism” of the CCP or what you also called its “pig philosophy,” only encourages political apathy and mindless consumerism that goes against the “mainstream of world civilization”. Finally, you wrote about Bao Zunxin’s work as an “unfinished enlightenment” that you would strive to take over and push forward.
After your arrest in December 2008, the regime’s police, prosecutors and judges (公检法) responded to your advocacy of peaceful dialogue and non-violent gradual political reform by putting you on trial in December 2009. They singled out a few of your writings and the signatures you collected for the moderate political manifesto titled Charter 08 to sentence you under the trumped-up charge of “inciting subversion of state power” to 11 years in prison. In response to the continuing hostility of the Chinese regime, you reaffirmed with calm and eloquence what you stood for 20 years earlier during the democracy protests at Tiananmen Square: “I have no enemy, no hatred” (没有敌人，也没有仇恨). And yet, the regime went on treating you like a top enemy of the state, transferring you from Beijing to Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province in order to keep you away from public attention. Adding insult to injury, they even launched a propaganda campaign vilifying you as the “West’s tool” who “will be abandoned by the Chinese people” for “crossing the line of freedom of speech into crime.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
Quite remarkably, in response to your prison sentence which was particularly severe by the standards of that time, many individuals — including many Charter 77 signatories — came together from around the world to nominate you for the 2010 Peace Nobel Prize in honour of your “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights.” When Liu Xia announced you the award, you cried with sadness and told her that “it should go to all the departed spirits of June Fourth.” As the Chinese regime would not let you attend the ceremony in Oslo, you were represented by an empty chair on the podium which became a symbol of an ongoing protest against your imprisonment that was widely circulated on the internet despite China’s censorship. In a dismal move, the regime chose to react to this expression of solidarity and empathy by ruthlessly detaining Liu Xia at your home, while also sentencing her brother, Liu Hui, to 11 years in prison on another trumped-up charge.
During the 8 years and a half that you spent behind steel gates, countless “human rights disasters” (人权灾难) took place across China and around the world. For example, in March 2014, the female human rights lawyer Cao Shunli died aged 53 after months of detention without receiving adequate medical care. And a year after, the Tibetan Buddhist social and environmental activist Tenzin Delek Rinpoche who was also sentenced to life imprisonment under a fabricated charge eventually died in prison aged 65 without even medical parole.
Tragically, like the female dissident Lin Zhao (1932-1968) who was executed under Mao, all these victims of the regime’s enemy mentality have joined these “departed spirits” (亡灵) who had left us all too soon on that night of June Fourth 1989. The spirit of the “children of June 4th” whom you eulogized every year with poems expressing the great sadness and pain you felt as a survivor, can only hope to find redemption through your struggle for historical justice and human rights.
As you can see today, Chinese human rights advocates and civil society are now facing particularly hard times. And yet, it does not mean that the ideals of human rights and constitutional government are losing traction within Chinese society. As you said, every little act of solidarity or resistance against lies and hatred is meaningful and the long-term implications of living in truth should not be underestimated. Although oppression is worsening under Xi Jinping, I still share your optimism and your dream of a “future free China that lies in civil society” (未来的自由中国在民间). Indeed, despite all the hostilities coming from China’s unelected leaders, many Chinese citizens and their supporters around the world are keeping up the good fight for justice and I’m sure your struggle for freedom of expression, human rights and social justice will remain an eternal source of inspiration for many to come.
My thoughts are now with Liu Xia, who was disappeared since July 15 and who must still be suffering from the “intangible prison of the heart” (无形的心狱). As your ashes spread across the ocean, the regime still won’t let your departed spirit rest in peace by allowing Liu Xia and her brother to live well by moving around freely. Now more than ever, the international community must shout their indignation against the Orwellian brutality of Xi Jinping’s government. It must show its full support until all China’s innocent prisoners of conscience and their families are freed to love and support each other without being driven into exile by fear and suffering.
This would be the most concrete way of ensuring that however cruel were your final years, your efforts to build China’s democratic future were not in vain.
Goodbye Xiaobo, I miss you!
Hermann Aubié 寒涛
Hermann Aubié is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University; he completed his PhD at the Centre for East Asian Studies of the University of Turku (Finland) in 2016 with a dissertation titled “Liu Xiaobo’s Struggle for Human rights: A Contextual Analysis from a Historical Perspective” which is forthcoming as a book.
After doing his BA and MA at the University of Western Brittany in France and the University of Glasgow, he spent five years working in China as a teacher, researcher and consultant for the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue.
Overall, his research focus is on contemporary politics, human rights, and civil society transformations in China and East Asia, with particular attention on how citizens use the law and media to promote socio-political change, and to redress injustice for individuals/groups who are persecuted and discriminated against.
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Remembering Liu Xiaobo — And What the U. S. Can Do, Yang Jianli, July 22, 2017.
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 Organizations” took effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective. – The Editors
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.
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.
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.”
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.