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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.
Guo Yushan, September 22, 2016
On September 22, after nearly two years in detention and a trial in August, lawyer Xia Lin (夏霖), my friend, will finally face his sentence.
Whatever he’s been charged with, it’s clear to everyone that it was only because he defended me that he has been imprisoned, and suffered as he has to this day.
In May 2014, Xia Lin got dragged into a number of disputes because of his involvement in Pu Zhiqiang’s (浦志强) case. One day in mid June, me, Xia Lin, and Kaiping (黄凯平) were sharing drinks at Beijing Worker’s Stadium, lamenting Pu’s case. At a break in the conversation, Xia Lin suddenly said to me: “If you get sent to prison in the future, I’ll be your lawyer. I’ll fight your case publicly to the end and I’ll do whatever it takes.” I replied that, of course, if I’m thrown in jail, fight it by all means, fight it as you see fit, and you don’t have to worry about the consequences for me. That we concluded, with Kaiping as witness, raising our hands in toast and draining our cups.
Who’d have thought that the day would come so soon? Three months after the drinks at Worker’s Stadium, both Kaiping and I were taken into custody [in October 2014]. Xia Lin indeed defended me. A month later, he was also detained. In the time that followed I was bounced between three detention centers, while he was kept in the Beijing First Detention Center. A year later I was released on bail — but they kept him behind bars because he refused to supply a confession. Another year passed, and only now is he going to meet a verdict.
We’ve all paid the price we expected.
The price is bound to be exacted, given that we’ve chosen our stance toward this country since when we were young. Xia Lin made his choice in the flush of his youth, as part of the 1989 generation, choosing to go to Tiananmen Square, wearying his spirit in the struggle with his peers to improve this country. He again made his choice when he was a student at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law (西南政法学院), where he made an open vow never to be a lackey or collaborator with evil.
This he achieved. He never wavered from his course for 27 years. From Guizhou to Beijing, from a commercial lawyer to a human rights lawyer: the road of life he took became rockier and rockier, but more and more soul stirring.
As for the price of a life to be paid — Xia Lin, like me, is ready for it. He’s much more awake than I to the reality of how the system reacts, and its brutality.
Our lives have been interwoven together, as if by fate, from our first meeting in Mao Haojian’s (茅海建) course on modern Chinese history at Peking University. In 2004 after fellow students and I were surrounded on the Jingyuan Lawn on campus, where we protested [over the death of a female student], he came with law books and an attorney contract, walking around the lawn, always within reach. In 2008 during the Deng Yujiao case (邓玉娇案), he was in Badong County, Hubei, and I rushed there from Beijing to be a help to him.
In 2012, after I drove Chen Guangcheng to the American Embassy, Xia Lin sat in my study and combed through all the possible charges the authorities could resort to for reprisal, from “subversion of state power” to “illegal business operations.” He analyzed and whittled through them one by one. Two years later, when I found myself in prison, all that probing became precious legal experience.
We all know the fates we’ll come to assume in history. Both Xia Lin and myself, and so, so many of our colleagues, are all fated to be the stepping stones, the paving stones, for the age of the future. Accepting this humble place in history is our honor.
As for what lays ahead, we’ve not changed what has animated us from the beginning, and we won’t.
Whether we’re slandered or given heavy sentences — what surprise will it be in today’s China? When I was first arrested, I repeated to myself, and to the authorities, over and over again: If I were to be sentenced, one day will be the same as a decade. With Xia Lin, who is so proud, it’s the same.
The September 22 sentence might be, say, 11 years imprisonment, or it might be 2 years, but however many years it is, it will have had nothing to do with the law. This is our fate. We have no choice but to accept it.
Such is our world — so top up the goblet. On September 22 I’ll be outside the court with wine, waiting for the outcome. But for Xia Lin, for myself, for the judge Yi Daqing (易大庆), for the 101 Special Investigation Team assigned to my and Xia Lin’s case, this isn’t the conclusion. It’s just the beginning.
September 20, 2016
Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) was the head of the now disabled Transition Institute (传知行), an independent think tank in Beijing that advocates political and economic liberalization. Mr. Guo was one of the founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng公盟). He was detained in October 2014, tortured during detention, and released on bail in September 2015.
Also by Guo Yushan:
Civil Disobedience in Sodom – A Letter to Xu Zhiyong, August 10, 2013.
China Change, September 1, 2016
Human rights cannot be treated as a stand-alone issue anymore.
President Obama is going to China again, this time to attend the G-20 summit on September 4 and 5 in Hangzhou. Every time the President, the National Security Adviser, or the Secretary of State visits China, or every time Chinese leaders visit the U.S., human rights organizations and activists, inside and outside China, take it as an opportunity for change, asking the President or the senior leaders to pressure the Chinese government for human rights improvements, and to raise a number of individual cases.
To be sure, the administration makes an effort to hear from activists and NGOs. Just two days ago, for instance, National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Chinese human rights advocates in the White House to hear about a range of human rights violations, and their specific requests.
The American leaders and high level officials do raise concerns and express their disappointment at the human rights situation in China. They raise specific cases and names, and sometimes that leads to better treatment in jail for persecuted Chinese citizens.
But overall, American concern and pressure have made little impact; all these dialogues and conversations, private or public, have produced few results. The human rights situation and the rule of law in China have steadily deteriorated.
The frustration in Washington, D.C. is palpable. From White House to Capitol Hill to the State Department, the prevalent sentiment seems to be that “we can’t influence the Chinese,” or “we have too many fish to fry with the Chinese and we need their cooperation.”
We at China Change are not surprised that nothing works. Nor are we surprised that people are sinking into self-defeatist propositions.
All evidence considered, we believe that the problem is that the U. S. has never put the money where its mouth is – it has not had a human rights policy toward China.
That’s right: we are not urging the U. S. to reconsider its human rights policy toward China; we are urging it to actually get one:
Human rights cannot be treated as a stand-alone issue anymore. U.S. officials talk about it with their counterparts in China. If it yields something, great; if it doesn’t, “Oh well, let’s move on.” When human rights is cordoned off from other issues, this is what happens: it allows both sides to make pro forma statements and then go on to other matters.
It can’t go on like this anymore. Human rights must be integrated with, and linked to, and leverage on, other engagements. How? That’s something the U. S. government needs to figure out.
The U. S. has to set clear human rights benchmarks for China according to international human rights standards. It is one thing to say that human rights issues are important to the U.S., but quite another to demonstrate that unequivocally. With no benchmarks to meet and with no consequences to be felt, why should the Chinese care about what the U. S. says? In fact, why do they even believe you really mean it? Maybe you don’t mean it as much as you say you do.
Human Rights Watch has for years urged democracies around the world to set human rights benchmarks in their interactions with China (here, here, and here), and their recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Human rights, rule of law, and the development of civil society in China are national security issues for the U. S. The fact that the U. S. is leaving them loose and dealing with them haphazardly is hurting its own interests.
The U. S.–China relationship has been experiencing difficulties, and it’s only going to get worse for a very simple reason: once you scrape away the bare surface of the relationship, you will find that every single problem the U. S. has with China is in fact a human rights problem!
The lack of human rights and rule of law in China is what makes much of China an ill-informed region with a population manipulated with false information, rife with negative ideas and attitudes about the U. S. and the outside world. Such deliberate disinformation and agitation (which China is exporting beyond its borders) has real consequences.
The threat that a totalitarian China poses to the U.S. and world peace goes far beyond disinformation, and surely the national security advisers to the President know that very well. Or, do they?
Speaking today at an environmental summit about combating climate change, President Obama said, “It won’t happen if we just pay lip service to conservation but then refuse to do what’s needed.” The same applies to dealing with human rights in China.
As far as human rights are concerned, we don’t expect President Obama’s meeting with the Chinese will be any different from his other meetings with them over the past eight years, because we believe that any meaningful work has to start from here, in Washington, D.C., and other capitals of the free world.
It has to start from real leadership at home.
Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016
Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Li Maizi (李麦子), is one of the “Feminist Five” in China who were detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2015; they were planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation, which is insidiously prevalent in China. The women were released after 37 days in detention following an unprecedented international outcry. I met with Li Tingting recently over a Sunday brunch, and we spoke about her detention, women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, and civil society. — Yaxue Cao
YC: Let’s begin from your experiences during the arrest of the Feminist Five on March 6.
Li Tingting: At that time my girlfriend and I were living in a rental. The police came knocking on the door at about 10:30 pm, but I didn’t open it — initially I thought that they weren’t looking for me. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, and had the event the following day to get ready for. But they knocked on the door continuously for about 30 minutes, and from their conversation I knew they were after me. They said they’d been monitoring my phone calls, and that I’d just called so-and-so. Then they called in a locksmith company to pry open the lock, so I opened the door for them. They looked flustered and furious and made a show of trying to frighten me. They took out a blank warrant of detention as well as a blank notice of criminal detention, slapped them onto the table, and began searching the apartment. They confiscated all of our electronics, including computers and cell phones, of which I had more than one. Then, they took us away. Downstairs, they were going to put Suan Xiaola (酸小辣, Li Tingting’s partner) and myself in different vehicles, and I told her: just say you were only staying with me for a couple of days and had planned to leave tomorrow. The police then forbade us from talking. Suan never acknowledged our relationship — if she did the police would exploit our intimate relationship to get information from her. At the local police station, the police went through our private conversations, listening to them one by one. It was infuriating. Later an opportunity presented itself: an officer asked me how to unlock my phone. I said: “I can do it for you,” and then went in and deleted my entire WeChat history. At that point I didn’t think that they’d detain us, because we hadn’t even carried out our activities — there was nothing we’d done for them to lock us up.
On that first night we arrived at the police station at 12am. The following evening we were led into a basement carpark and taken away in a 9-seater van. At that point they’d already let my girlfriend go. The whole time they were afraid I’d escape, and held me by the arm the entire trip. Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) was in front of me. I was in the middle. Wang Man (王曼) was in the back.
YC: Had the other two been brought from elsewhere to the same police station?
Li Tingting: Right. We drove for a long time. I don’t know where we ended up. Wei Tingting was in front of me, and it was easier to speak with her. I said: “It looks like we’re going to a detention center. Let’s keep our mouths shut for 37 days, and then we’ll be let go.” My thinking at that point was really naive. When we got to the detention center we were handcuffed and made to stand and wait. I was chatting with Wei Tingting. She remarked: “This is on my to-do list.”
YC: Ah — going to jail being on one’s to-do list. That would have to be a “Chinese characteristic.”
Li Tingting: Wei Tingting asked me: What is there to do in jail? I said, you can have a one night stand. She said: can you really? In the end when she left jail she really did find a girlfriend.
YC: Based on the interrogation, what did the police primarily want to find out?
Li Tingting: Their early questions were all about this anti-sexual harassment activity that we had planned, and they asked about it thoroughly, again and again. Then they asked about foreign forces, whether we were being used by foreign forces. They were extremely nervous about these “foreign forces.” “Who are paying for your activities?” they asked. But I didn’t know, and I really had no idea.
YC: Do these kind of activities need much funding at all?
Li Tingting: They do — for instance to cover the cost of printing materials. Some activities are paid for by volunteers themselves. The police asked about this over and over again. Then they asked about our other public protests: Occupying Man’s Room, the Wounded Bride protest, and the head shaving protest, as well as how we exposed our breasts to oppose domestic violence. When they printed out photos of our bare chests, they even censored out our nipples with black crosses. I thought it was hilarious.
YC: Where was that topless protest?
Li Tingting: The photos were posted to social media, but they were professional shots taken in a studio. They asked again and again: “Why are you doing these activities?” I said that everything we did was for gender equality in China, it’s not for anything else. Another question they asked was: Why are you working at an NGO? I said: “I have to work, I need to survive.”
YC: What kind of question is this? Is working at an NGO illegal or scandalous in China?
Li Tingting: There was a period in which every day they asked us about our organization. They also raided our office.
YC: At that time you were at Yirenping. What specific work did you do there?
Li Tingting: I did gender equality advocacy. Later I did LGBT work. They were asking about the details of those projects — they wanted every possible detail of them. They asked so many questions, but I was not in charge, nor in control of a lot of resources, nor did I receive any money from “foreign forces.” Besides, even if we did receive money from abroad, did the law prohibit it? Now China has passed the NGO law, but there wasn’t the law at that time.
They’re very good at scaring us. They’ll suddenly burst into the room and yell: “Li Tingting, you haven’t been honest with us, you’re lying again!” Then they’ll intimidate me, saying: “We’ve gathered such-and-such new evidence.” I thought it was quite amusing. Just like a cops and robbers movie, like they were deliberately acting out the drama, trying to scare you.
YC: Were you scared?
Li Tingting: I was at first. But as they just kept doing this, I got used to it and wasn’t afraid anymore. I feel that, while you are in their clutches like that, it’s like playing a game of chess with them. When you’re locked inside, you can’t think about when they will release you. I always expected the worst, so I’d be psychologically prepared.
YC: Did you ever think that your work would land you in jail?
Li Tingting: I was more prepared for it than others. Before we were arrested, lawyer Chang Boyang (常伯阳) was taken in, and the offices of Yirenping (亿人平) in Zhengzhou were raided. At that point I knew that there was risk in doing what we did. Actually, even earlier, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was arrested, I’d considered this possibility.
YC: Do you know Xu Zhiyong?
Li Tingting: I don’t know him. But the fact that he can be charged with disturbing public order and sentenced for four years, just for helping the children of parents with non-Beijing household registration (户口) attend school in Beijing, means that the authorities could use the same charges against us.
When lawyer Chang Boyang was released, he told us a lot. It was a very good preparation for me. He said, firstly, don’t collaborate with the police; secondly, don’t go along with the kind of predatory behavior that inmates often resort to to survive; and thirdly, if someone bullies you, ring the alarm. These points were extremely useful for life behind bars.
YC: How have these 37 days in prison changed and impacted you, a young NGO worker and rights advocate?
Li Tingting: For a long time after being released I had a very hard time focusing. After a period of mental training, I improved to some degree. Another thing is that I often had nightmares of being arrested. Others in the Feminist Five were the same. Also, we’re now all on the Chinese media blacklist, so no one dares to speak about or report on us.
Another direct impact is that our NGO was shut down, so I had no stable work and source of income. We became a “model case” in the NGO crackdown, and the surveillance against us was increased as a result. In the past we were just “troublemakers,” but now we’ve become political offenders in their eyes. Even though the platform of our movement is gender equality, once the government arrests you, life becomes harder. The government is still resorting to all sorts of methods to prevent the issue from reaching a wider audience.
YC: I recently saw the film Hooligan Sparrow (流氓燕). An elementary school principal in Hainan province took 11-year-old students from his own school to a hotel room, and it was suggested that these young girls were offered up as gifts for the “use” of local officials. It’s such a revolting act that you’d think the All China Women’s Federation (妇联) would immediately come out and condemn it. But the Women’s Federation didn’t make a sound. But when rights lawyers and activists went to the scene to protest (lawyer Wang Yu and lawyer Tang Jitian, as well as several other female activists, went to Hainan with “hooligan sparrow”), they were stalked, violently confronted, and later harshly retaliated against. This incident demonstrates how important citizen power is in China. If civil society doesn’t come out and organize protests, this society has no effective channel for seeking justice or resolving problems.
We also know that in February of this year Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) was closed. As far as you know, what’s the current state of affairs in terms of civil advocacy on behalf of the rights of women and children in China?
Li Tingting: Right now the “path struggle” (路线之争) is more obvious than ever. When us young people began doing street activism, a lot of the older generation of feminists were supportive — including when we went to universities to give speeches, a lot of the teachers in the state system were very welcoming. Now the number of teachers that invite us to speak has dropped considerably. In 2012 and 2013 many universities invited us to come and give speeches. When I went to the Shandong University of Finance and Economics, I was received by the dean of the law school. At that time, even though we were considered sensitive, we weren’t so sensitive that state-affiliated teachers didn’t dare cooperate with us.
YC: What exact is this “path struggle” that you just referred to?
Li Tingting: It’s that there are women’s rights activists in China who think we’ve made this issue politically sensitive and have negatively impacted their own work. They keep a distance from us now. We used to work with the Women’s Federation, but not anymore.
YC: The detention and release of the Feminist Five was quite a shock to me in different ways. I had never heard of any of you, nor had our site written about women’s rights before then, because I had never really considered it part of our focus. When you were detained right before International Women’s Day, I was slow to react, thinking you’d be released after a few days at most. I was shocked because, firstly, I never thought the kinds of activities you engaged in would land you in jail, and it was an alarm bell for how bad things were deteriorating for activists — activists of any kind. Secondly, the global response was something rather amazing, unprecedented in speed and scale. The fact that feminist organizations and LGBT networks like All Out came out, in the tens of thousands signing petitions, also created a classic case study for effective activism, because these are not the “usual suspects” who speak out for human rights in China. And as it happened, Xi Jinping and his wife were to preside over the UN Women’s Summit. What a joke, but also, what an opportunity!
So ever since the release of the Feminist Five, I have been talking to the usual suspects about identifying the unusual suspects in each case, and about exploring potential opportunities.
Now, let’s talk about the state of LBGT rights in China.
Li Tingting: Most of mainland China’s LGBTs are still living in the closet. They might come out of the closet in their circle of friends; they might have their own communities, or bars, but they do not come out to their parents and employers, because the cost would be very high.
YC: The costs include?
Li Tingting: If you’re homosexual, you will be fired. If you tell your parents, they will beat you, curse you. There’ll be family discord. Some have been sent to mental hospitals, others have been stalked or detained. There are a lot of such cases. I knew a case where parents twice sent their daughter to a mental hospital and forced her to take medication until she promised her parents that she’d never engage in homosexual relationships again. Such private violence against LGBT is prevalent in China.
Take myself for example. My aunt, who is my mother’s eldest sister, cursed me in the most vicious language when she learned that I’m a lesbian. When I had my wedding ceremony with Suan Xiaola, she said I was a pervert and my parents would die as a result of me marrying my partner. It was so hurtful. I’ve never been close to her — what makes her think she has the right to judge my life? Well, just because she’s my mother’s older sister, she feels she has the authority to do so.
YC: What about your mom?
Li Tingting: My mom was embarrassed by me. She didn’t attend my wedding, my dad wouldn’t let her. She also said to me: “Can you not have your ceremony so close to us?” In other words, don’t shame us on our doorsteps. But my girlfriend’s parents were supportive. They spoke to my mom, so my mom called my aunt, telling her that “my daughter’s life is not your business.”
YC: Are there individuals and organizations openly advocating the legalization of gay marriage?
Li Tingting: Yes, there are. Some couples advocate gay marriage, like us, by holding marriage ceremonies to make a political statement about their rights and their desire to see the legalization of same-sex marriage in China. In Changsha, a gay couple went to the government asking to register their marriage. There has been an effort to rally support for same-sex marriage from parents whose children are homosexuals. This is a very good strategy, because Chinese culture values family, and parents want to see their homosexual children living in a family setting. Also, when parents support their children, it greatly increases the visibility of the issue.
YC: I read in the news recently that, in a college in Guangzhou, a lesbian proposed to her partner on the day of their graduation. Yesterday I noticed that there is an All Out signature campaign that collected over 20,000 signatures in two days since its initiation. According to Wang Xiaoyu — one of the lesbian students, though that’s not her real name — Party officials at her college outed her to her parents, and threatened to withhold her diploma. The police also raided her apartment.
Li Tingting: I know this case. The university sent people who opened her apartment, and had the police search it.
YC: That’s right, to collect “evidence.” Evidence of what?
Li Tingting: They said these students were manipulated by foreign forces.
YC: You’re kidding! “Foreign forces” everywhere! In a way, this incident reflects the official attitude of the Chinese government: it’s like, we’ll hold our nose and tolerate you homosexuals, but don’t “overdo” it, or we’ll get you. So, it’s worrisome. Now on top of that, we all know that over the last three years the rights advocacy work, not only in political rights but also women’s rights, has all but been shattered as a result of severe crackdowns and the promulgation of laws, especially the foreign NGO management law. Is there room for LGBT advocacy work?
Li Tingting: Yes, there is, because it hasn’t been politicized. But as soon as an LGBT activist is arrested for his or her work, it will become political.
YC: Give us some examples.
Li Tingting: The more mainstream advocacy that I just spoke about, the homosexual friends and family associations that identify with mainstream family values — they are occasionally reported on in mainstream media outlets. And they raise funds from the public, because they want the support of average citizens. There is also the Chinese Rainbow Media Awards given to media outlets that are friendly to the LGBT subject. In other cases, advocacy groups work with companies to hold job fairs just for gays and lesbians. One such event was held by a foreign company.
There is also a network of public interest lawyers known as “the rainbow lawyers” — they help meet the legal needs of the LGBT community.
The other recourse is lawsuits. The first case was in 2013, when a lesbian named Yanzi in Chongqing sued a psychological counseling center that used electric shocks to “treat” homosexuality. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness. That was a historic ruling. Since then there have been other lawsuits, but not all of them were successful. [Here, here, and here.]
But with litigation, if you are getting support from NGOs, the government can accuse you of working with foreign forces, because most advocacy NGOs receive funding from foundations overseas.
YC: Are you saying then that the civil advocacy work right now is still being done by NGOs?
Li Tingting: Right. Work done by civil society has already decriminalized and depathologized homosexuality, but they haven’t managed to normalize it. The wider public and the government are still prejudiced against homosexuality, like it’s something dishonorable. The problem is that they simply have no interest in actually understanding this group of people. But because LGBT groups have started to spring up in recent years, the police need to monitor them, and they also need to understand them. The reason this issue is still fairly safe is in part because the authorities don’t really want to touch it. So the government’s lack of advocacy and support also protects this population, allowing them to continue their advocacy in the current climate.
YC: Have you gotten involved yourself?
Li Tingting: Of course. Getting married is a prime example. When I was in second year university in Xi’an, myself and three others founded a “Lesbian Community Training Group.”
YC: Doing what?
Li Tingting: We played board games the first time. When we grew in number, we begin some advocacy work. Mainly it was service delivery: for instance, psychological counselling, providing all kinds of other support.
YC: One thing I noticed was that, when the five of you went to prison, the lawyers who took on your cases were all human rights lawyers. I was puzzled: you’re advocating women’s rights — are there no other lawyers who are willing to represent you?
Li Tingting: They were the only ones who dared. Our’s was a political case. There were also public interest lawyers willing to take it on, but their defense strategy was completely different to that of human rights lawyers. And I definitely prefer the human rights lawyers.
YC: When I meet you, the impression I get from you is that you’re really free — your facial expressions and gestures, everything about you seems to proclaim: I’m free. And yet this totalitarian system every day presents you with another message: I’m controlling you, you’re not free. You make me think of myself when I was in my 20s. At the time I was still living in China, and every single day I felt a fundamental, intrinsic sense of freedom clashing sharply against the external oppressiveness. But at that time there was no internet, no so-called civil society, so disgust and helplessness became a state of life. But I had never thought, in 2016, the term “freedom” still remains a remote, dangerous expression. You’ve been jailed, and you’re gay — tell us about your existential state.
Li Tingting: I think that the pressure is inescapable — it affects your personal relationships, and it affects your daily life. So we’ve all had to become superhuman: we have to stand against the pressure, and also work while under it. The government’s invisible tentacles are reminding you every single moment: “I’m watching you.” I’ve always been a rebellious person, incompatible with a mainstream lifestyle. Other people have said I’m “radical.” But once you choose your way of life, you have to walk the path to the end. So, freedom has its costs. Every way of life has its costs, it’s just a matter of what costs you choose.
YC: I hate the very thought, but have you considered the possibility that you’ll be jailed again? You didn’t think you’d be jailed when you planned the anti-sexual harassment protests on buses and subways. Maybe one day you’ll do something that you don’t think is dangerous in the least, and yet you might get arrested.
Li Tingting: Right. We can’t control whether we’re arrested or not, so there’s no point thinking about things we can’t control. We can’t censor ourselves excessively.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
André Gattonlin, Marie Holzman, and Noël Mamère, July 18, 2016
This is a translation of Donnons le prix Sakharov à un intellectuel ouïghour published in the French newspaper Libération on July 14, 2016. – The Editors
The Sakharov Prize is awarded every year in October, to honor individuals or organizations who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The award, which was created in 1985 by the French MP Jean-François Deniau, may well be awarded this year to an Uighur intellectual who was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison. It turns out that this professor from Minzu University (University for Nationalities) in Beijing had been discovered in 2008 by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was invited to spend a week in France under a program called “Personalities of the Future.” This project gave civil society actors under 35 years of age from around the world the opportunity to meet personalities of their choice in order to sharpen their knowledge of the workings of our country.
Since these “Personalities of the Future” were also chosen for their moral qualities, it is not surprising that many of them, including Ilham Tohti, chose to meet with organizations made up of human rights defenders, or representatives from the legal world or from trade unions. In other words, France invited people who might carry far and wide the universal values for which our country is proud to be a beacon.
This is what Ilham Tohti has tried to do. Having received an excellent education in Uighur as well as in Chinese, he had the rare privilege of being able to become a university professor in Beijing and to provide education in economics and geopolitics. His pedagogical gifts, the strength of his arguments and the breadth of his views quickly made him a charismatic teacher whose courses, taught in Chinese, were avidly followed by his Uighur students as well as by Han, Mongolian, and Tibetan students, among others. He expanded his circle by creating a site, Uighur Online, from which he conveyed constructive suggestions aimed at those active in China’s political and economic life, with the purpose of improving the situation in Xinjiang, the far west Chinese province, which is the cradle of the Uighur ethnic group and which joins together eight million people in the interior of China.
However, since September 11, 2001, and the subsequent worldwide struggle against terrorism, the Uighurs have become a favorite target of the Chinese government which accuses them of all evils: fundamentalism, Islamism, and terrorism. The new anti-terrorism law, passed on December 27, 2015, has simply added one more layer to this. While the counter-productive and repressive strategies regarding ethnic groups—such as Tibetans and Uighurs—have so far raised tensions between Han and non-Han ethnic groups, via torture, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and the heavy-handed policing of even the most peaceful demonstrations supporting religious or cultural identity, the Chinese government has found nothing better to do than to sentence to life imprisonment, under the pretext of “separatism,” one of the only Uighur intellectuals who had attempted, by any means, to find common ground for cooperation between Uighurs and Hans.
46 years old, Ilham Tohti has already received several awards, including the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN American Center in 2014. World leaders have protested his conviction as unfair. It is time for French public opinion to take up his case: by dint of discussing the harm done by ISIS or Boko Haram, we’ve come to forget that certain Muslim citizens could make a difference and bring peace to a world torn by hatred and xenophobia. Ilham Tohti is certainly one among them. His place is not in the No. 1 Detention Center in Urumqi in Xinjiang. The Sakharov Prize would be both a tribute and a message of hope sent to an innocent victim of the ruthless dictatorship of Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is up to the European Deputies to rouse themselves on his behalf!
André Gattonlin is a French senator. Marie Holzman is the President of Solidarité Chine. Noël Mamère is a deputy of the National Assembly. This op-ed was translated from the French by Elliot Sperling, Professor Emeritus of Eurasian Studies, Indiana University.
Essential readings about Ilham Tohti:
My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen by Ilham Tohti, 2011.
Present-Day Ethnic Problems in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region: Overview and Recommendations (downloadable PDF) by Ilham Tohti, 2011-2013.
Voice of America Interview with Uyghur Professor Ilham Tohti, November, 2013.
Ilham Tohti, a 30-minute Documentary , October, 2015.
A Short Introduction to Ilham Tohti, 2016 (downloadable PDF)