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Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer, died on February 26, aged 49.
Li Baiguang, born on October 1, 1968, was the youngest of seven children in a tiny mountain village household in Jiahe county, Chenzhou, Hunan. His father died when he was seven years old. The family was impoverished. When Li reached school age, his playmates went to school, but he had to stay home another year and help his mother with chores. One day, after he herded the ducks back home, Li went to the school, leant on the window, and saw his friends all studying. He returned home and told his mother through tears: “If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll hack our ducks to death.”
In 1987, the child who used to sleep on the hard loft of a pigpen with his brothers matriculated to Xiangtan University (湘潭大学) majoring in philosophy. “While I was at university, my living expenses were roughly 50 yuan a month. Every cent of it was made by my mother selling bitter melon, squash, rice wine, and our pigs,” Li told an interviewer in 2010. One month in winter, when the family didn’t send money, he had to borrow from another student; by the next month, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. “It hurt me so deeply that I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to jump off a building. However, I was held back by the thought that if I did kill myself, I’d be letting my mom down.”
After graduating from the unremarkable Xiangtan University, Li scored well enough on a test to be admitted to China’s premier institution of higher education, Peking University’s School of Law. This feat by itself indicates his intelligence and grit. Despite that, “my family weren’t impressed that I’d gotten into PKU. When I finished my Masters and went onto a PhD, they were even less pleased. They said: You’re reading so many books, but no one back home benefits in the least. You’d be better off coming back and being a village cadre.”
At PKU, Li studied constitutional and administrative law; his advisor was the renowned Chinese constitutional law scholar Xiao Weiyun (萧蔚云). A series of lectures that he and classmates held about the constitution came in for criticism not only by his advisor (“Why aren’t you addressing the benefits of socialist rule of law, but instead talking about how French supreme court justices understand the constitution?” he jabbed), but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. In 1997 after Li received his PhD, his advisor was concerned that he would be trouble if he stayed, and thus rejected Li’s application for a teaching position at PKU.
At the end of that year, Li went to Hainan University. In the 1990s, Hainan was the largest Special Economic Zone in all of the country, and had attracted people from the rest of China hunting for opportunity. Many had been functionaries in the government until the violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement crushed their political aspirations; others were student activists, at a loss and disillusioned. At Hainan University, a faraway and marginal institution, Li Baiguang continued to hold academic salons with students, taking great joy in their discussions on democracy and the rule of law.
The Year of 1998
In early 1998, a friend from Li Baiguang’s home province introduced him to a small group of democracy activists in Guangzhou. They were part of a campaign to organize an opposition party across cities and provinces.
In the 1990s, there were two major campaigns to organize independent political parties. The first, led by Hu Shigen (胡石根) in Beijing in 1992, involved a few dozen and was quickly met with severe repression. The leaders were given heavy sentences, with Hu Shigen jailed for 20 years. The next was in 1998.
The global context of the 1998 party organization event is worth sketching out. Following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, U.S. Congress turned the annual review of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status into a debate and criticism of human rights conditions in China. For all that, from the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. never once failed to grant China MFN status, including in 1990, after the massacre in Beijing. China’s strategic goals through the 1990s were 1) to normalize trade relations with the U.S., 2) to join the World Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. and China, and China and the world, were engaging in “trade for human rights” deals. They included the following:
- In October 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (though did not ratify it until 2001);
- In November 1997, China’s most well-known political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), was released and went into exile in the U.S.;
- In June 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to abolish the annual review of Most Favored Nation status for China, and to grant China permanent normal trade relations;
- On June 25, 1998, President Clinton arrived in Xi’an, kicking off a tour of China. His hosts had him observe local elections in Xiahe village, on the outskirts of Xi’an. “I understand that soon, like nearly half a million other villages across China, you will be voting to choose your local leaders,” he remarked;
- In September, 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited China;
- In October 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; though 20 years later has yet to ratify it);
- In November 1998, the National People’s Congress passed the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees of the People’s Republic China” (《中华人民共和国村民委员会组织法》) which guaranteed that villages would be able to govern autonomously and carry out grassroots democracy.
The reader can very well imagine, in the context of all of this, how Chinese dissidents were full of hope about the unprecedented possibilities of 1998, and how their imagination was fired. The democracy activists’ plan was to formally and openly register a political party in China. This was, after all, one of the rights stipulated in the ICCPR, and the organizers were no longer interested in secretive and shadowy political opposition.
The 29-year-old law PhD Li Baiguang helped prepare the materials for the registration of the “Democracy Party of China.” He may have even authored the party’s charter. Having done what was entrusted to him, Li went back to Hainan. One afternoon, he received a telephone call telling him that the University’s Party Committee Secretary, as well as the head of the law school, wanted to speak with him. The three met at the law school, and they asked him about his teaching. When he left the meeting and went outside, two burly men were waiting. They strode over and, each grabbing an arm, hauled the five-foot Li into a waiting Toyota. Li asked, “Are you from the Ministry of State Security?” They laughed.
Li was detained for a week. They questioned him about his role in the party registration. All the related documents he had were confiscated during a raid of his apartment. They also demanded that he produce a written statement of guilt and repentance, and that he not leave Hainan. He wrote a confession and agreed to stay in the city. After that, security officials kept him under surveillance, and often demanded he grant them “chats.”
A fortnight later, in March 1998, Li booked an airline ticket from a friend’s house and the next morning quietly took the first flight out of Hainan straight to Beijing.
The day Clinton arrived in China, Wang Youcai (王有才) and his colleagues in Hangzhou traveled to government offices to register the Zhejiang branch of the Democracy Party of China. Their application was denied. In September, Shandong activists traveled to local government offices to register the Shandong branch of the Democracy Party of China, also to no avail. In Wuhan, activists led by Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) went to the Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and lodged the application for the Hubei provincial organizing committee of the Democracy Party of China, and were also rejected. In November, Yu Wenli (徐文立) and other activists in Beijing announced that they were establishing the Beijing and Tianjin headquarters of the party. Democracy Party organizers across the country were then tracked down and arrested, and at the end of 1998 charged with “subversion of state power” and given harsh prison sentences. Wang Youcai of Hangzhou got 11 years; Qin Yongmin of Wuhan got 12 years; Yu Wenli of Beijing, 13 years. Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) in Sichuan persisted in party organizing and was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1999.
Following this — despite the continued arrest and imprisonment of independent scholars and political dissidents, as well as the brutal suppression of Falun Gong in 1999 — Clinton in October 2000 signed into law permanent normal trade relations with China. The following year, China proceeded to join the WTO. Nearly 20 years later, however, China has not made good on its trade promises, nor does it intend to; instead, China has undermined WTO rules and norms, as a January 2018 report by the United States Trade Representative says. Thus, though China, in bad faith, played the “trade for human rights” deals of the 1990s, it won every hand. This is because the Chinese government well knew that U.S. companies were salivating over the China market, that the U.S. would go along with the pretense that the Chinese authorities were sincere, and that no one would follow-up on the broken promises.
Now in 2018, we can imagine ourselves in a time machine, and take a fresh look at how both laughable and tragic were these “trade for human rights” negotiations in 1998.
Li Baiguang was spared prison in 1998 only because he was an inadvertent beneficiary of the negotiations underway. So as to not ruin their grand trade deal, the Party took a relatively lenient approach against the non-core party organizers.
If it were 2018 in which all this took place, Li would not only have not escaped jail time, but he wouldn’t have even been able to flee Hainan. Whether by plane, boat, or train, his ID card would have thrown out a “person of interest” alert, and facial recognition technologies would have picked up his movements. He’d have had nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.
When he got to Beijing, Li holed up in a small house near Peking University; he didn’t contact anyone, and stayed off the telephone.
However, he didn’t stay hidden long. That year PKU celebrated its 100th anniversary of founding, and the houses of local residents around the campus were being razed for construction, sparking conflicts. Li and friends got involved in helping the residents resist the illegal demolition. One day, after he left a bookstore near the Southern Gate of PKU, he found that the bicycle he’d left by the door had been badly mangled. He knew it was a warning. As he explained in a later interview: “After that I holed up in the house again and dared not go out.”
Many of Li Baiguang’s friends and acquaintances in Beijing were young liberal intellectuals and political dissidents that had been tracked and tagged by the Ministry of State Security. Security agents were thus quickly able to identify his whereabouts. One evening in August of 1998, as Li was riding past the Eastern Gate of Peking University, he was knocked off his bicycle by a Volkswagen Santana. Two large men climbed out, shoved him in the car, hooded him, squashed him between them in the back seat, and rammed his head towards his crotch. After driving 40 to 50 minutes, he was dragged into a basement and interrogated by people who identified themselves as agents of the Beijing Bureau of State Security (北京市国家安全局), as well as agents who had come from Hainan. They wanted to know what he’d done since he left Hainan, and why he left without permission.
They released him that evening. The Beijing agents made him write a ‘guarantee letter’ promising that he would not flee again, and that he’d submit ‘thought reports’ regularly. Before long he began to find this unbearable and told the police that he would not write the reports anymore. His home was again raided, and they found that Li had cursed them and sworn revenge in his diary. He never kept a diary after that.
A friend remembers the deep impression left on Li by the harassment and monitoring of 1998: “They infiltrate your blood,” he said.
After his return to Beijing, Li relied on translating, proofreading, and writing to make a living. This was the kind of work that Li enjoyed and felt at home with. In graduate school at PKU, he had translated Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The book had already been translated before, but his version, titled in Chinese “The Way of the Ruler,” introduced it to a popular audience. In the summer of 1998 when he was proofreading “The New Asian Way,” he encountered the work Victorian author Samuel Smiles, in particular the classic “Self Help.”
He borrowed Smiles’ book from the PKU library and found it “deeply moving and inspiring.” Li wrote in a 2005 essay: “Samuel Smiles’ works, through moving stories that compel tears, gives amply convincing witness to the fact that nobleness of character and spirit is the salvation of every individual, country, and people — and that this is our sole path to freedom and happiness.”
Through the 1990s, numerous ‘shadow’ publication houses cropped up in Beijing doing a lively business in the book trade. In China, only books with an official publication number are allowed to be printed, and these publication numbers were only allocated to government-registered, state-run presses. Private publishers would buy publication numbers from the state presses to publish books. Most of the proprietors were intellectuals who couldn’t stand the oppressive restrictions of the official system; some were idealists who hoped to awaken the public through books and the spread of new ways of thinking. Many of these businesses were composed of just a few people, and most of what they published were translations.
Li Baiguang decided to translate and publish Samuel Smiles’ works (the copyright on which had already expired), and he became a publisher.
In January of 1999, Li published the Smiles classic “Self-Help” through the little-known Beijing-based Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社). In July, September, October, 1999, then in July and October in 2010, Li published a series of Smiles’ books under the Beijing Library Press, respectively “Character,” “Duty,” “Thrift,” “The Huguenots in France,” and “Life and Labour.” He marketed the series as the “Conscience Collection” (良知丛书). Li took on planning and editorial tasks for the series, while also performing some of the translation. He farmed out distribution and sales to contractors already established in the industry. Li’s obsession and dedication to the work is clear from the compressed timeline.
In November of 1999, The Commercial Press, a major Beijing publishing house, published Li Baiguang’s translation of American professor Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy,” a book of instruction on the history and fundamental tenets of democracy.
Among the works Li had first published was the 19th century French judge Louis Proal’s “Political Crime.” The Chinese version, based on the 1898 English-language translation, was published by Reform Press in April 1999. It immediately attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. As put by one of the translators and Li’s friend Wang Tiancheng (王天成), “The title of this book was just too outlandish for the authorities.” Indeed, the “political crimes” discussed in the book were not principally in reference to crimes against the government, such as treason and revolt, but instead crimes committed by governments and politicians, including assassinations, hatred, hypocrisy, political spoliation, electoral corruption, and so on.
State security agents came and confiscated everything off the desk of the typist. Li Baiguang went into hiding once more. “Political Crime” had its commercial life stunted.
The Conscience Collection, on the other hand, sold exceptionally well, in particular “Self-Help.” This put a little money in Li’s pocket.
Around strangers and new acquaintances, Li Baiguang was quiet and taciturn. But when he was with old friends, he wouldn’t quit talking. During gatherings at his apartment, once he got going on a topic, he rarely stopped, not caring whether his audience had lost interest or not. He also had a peculiar hand-gesture, well known to friends who tried to interrupt him: he pushed his palm down and said “Listen to me!” Those who know him, without exception, were left with a deep sense of his passion, energy, focus, and learning.
“He is a rather pure man,” one friend said.
After accumulating a small amount of capital with the Smiles venture, Li was in a position to buy up copyrights to translate and publish contemporary foreign books. This was not always successful, as his sales of American author and speaker John C. Maxwell’s series on leadership demonstrated. To make matters worse, not long after this one of Li’s distributors absconded with some of his money. Between 2002 and 2003, Li got out of the publishing business.
‘Stomp You to Death’
In around the year 2000, while he was still in the book business, the Ministry of State Security apparently decided that he wasn’t such a serious threat to national security after all, and assigned him to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for supervision.
On March 13, 2001, MSS agents in Beijing and Tianjin secretly arrested eight young people, six of whom were recent graduates, and two current graduate students, at universities in Beijing. They met each other through intercollegiate student clubs. In August of 2001, in the rented flat of a friend, the group signed their names, impressed their fingerprints, stacked their hands together and vowed to form an “organization.” The name they gave themselves was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会), a nod to the “New Youth” journal established by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu (陈独秀). Indeed, four of the young men were themselves CCP members; their guiding principles were “freedom, democracy, justice, equality.” Over the next few months they gathered now and then on campus, in a dorm, or outside, often speaking for hours at a stretch about official corruption, layoffs, or the burdens of farmers, among other emerging social problems in China. They also invited liberal scholars to come and give lectures. They were rarely unanimous in their ideas, but all agreed that Chinese society was becoming increasingly unequal by the day, and that the government was suppressing healthy discourse. They were united in the belief that China had to undergo democratic reforms.
The case of the “New Youth Study Group” was the most significant political incident to emerge in 21st century China. One of the two of the undergrads, it turned out, had long been an MSS asset; the other, the only female in the group, leveled accusations against four other members after numerous interrogation sessions. Statements given to the police by these two were used by prosecutors as the basis of charges of “subversion of state power” against the other four, who were sentenced to between 8 and 10 years of imprisonment.
On the evening of March 21, 2001, police came knocking on Li Baiguang’s door. He was taken to the Haidian district police station and interrogated; police wanted to know about his relationship with Yang Zili (杨子立). Yang, 28, was the oldest member of the New Youth Study Group; two years prior he had finished graduate studies at the Department of Mechanics at PKU, and was working as a software engineer. He and Li knew one another at PKU between 1995 to 1997, and Li introduced Yang, among other students, to thinkers like Hayek, Orwell, Mill, Montesquieu, and von Mises. Li also delivered lectures to Yang Zili and his friends on constitutional law, for which Li and Yang were summoned and questioned by state security.
Since returning Beijing in 1998, Li Baiguang had lived close to Yang and a few like-minded friends in Beijing. They would gather and converse, and Li sometimes delivered lectures to the “New Youth Study Group.”
The interrogation went for three hours that night. When police let Li go, they cautioned him: “We’re not through with you. We’ll see you again.” They told him to stay in town.
The police came again on March 24, three nights later. This time Li was taken to a secret interrogation facility at the foot of the mountains in Xiangshan, western Beijing. For the next seven days, as he recounted in a 2010 interview, he was put to extremely detailed questioning: they wanted to know where he grew up and what his family was like, his time studying in Beijing, his involvement in the Democracy Party of China in 1998, what he’s been doing in Beijing since, and other questions.
The secret interrogation likely touched on other things he was involved in — for instance, his submissions to VIP Reference (《大参考》), one of the largest pro-democracy email newsletters dispatched daily from the United States, which focused on news and analyses censored by the authorities. The newsletter’s influence was enormous from about 2000 to 2004, when it was said to have around one million recipients in China. Zhao Yan (赵岩), who worked with Li Baiguang over those years, told me that part of he and Li’s ‘underground work’ was submitting articles about rights defense incidents and internal Party struggles to VIP Reference. The only reason Li wasn’t caught by the MSS, Zhao Yan said, was because he wiped his computer daily. Li Hongkuan (李洪宽), the founder and operator of VIP Reference, said in a February 28 YouTube video: “In the process of founding VIP Reference…and over these years, Li Baiguang and I had always stayed in close touch.”
Secret police in the state security apparatus knew very well that Li Baiguang harbored a deep abhorrence toward the Chinese system of dictatorship, which he felt was unchanged for 5,000 years; they knew he castigated the Chinese, as a people, who have lost the sense of right and wrong and instead enjoyed the regressive tendencies and culture of mutual deception. These were the thoughts he often revealed to friends — but the fact that the secret police knew it all so clearly shocked him deeply. For a while after he was released, he wouldn’t dare to speak his mind as freely as he used to among friends.
After those seven days of interrogation in the secret MSS facility at Xiangshan, close friends of Li’s described him as being “panicked” and “shaken to the core.”
“They said they’re going to ‘stomp me to death,’” Li said in a phone call to his friend Wang Tiancheng. He told another friend that he was stomped on while in custody.
In the next two years he was visited continually and harassed by the neighborhood committee and local police. Police demanded that he listen to their orders and make himself available on demand. If he didn’t listen, they said, “we can run you out of town anytime we like. You don’t have a Beijing household registration. You’re just a temporary.”
Sacking Officials in Two Provinces and Five Places
Li Baiguang was introduced to Zhao Yan by Yu Meisun (俞梅荪) in 1997. Yu, an active liberal intellectual in Beijing, researched economic regulations at the State Council in the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were general secretary and premier. Zhao Yan is an independent, and maverick, freelance writer. In November 1998, a few months after the passage of the Organic Law of Villagers Committees, Zhao helped villagers in Harbin successfully dismiss corrupt officials through a vote. This was the first instance in which the new law was used to remove a village official; it attracted widespread attention from grassroots democracy activists at home and caused China observers to harbor illusions of a path to democracy.
Li was full of interest in Zhao’s work, and the two often chatted over tea. One day in late 2002, Zhao Yan said to Li: “Stop hanging about the house all day — what’s the point of digging into theory? Come out with me and take a look at the real world.” Zhao was a few years older than Li; at the time he had become the news director of the rural section of the “China Reform” (《中国改革》) magazine. The role meant that he was frequently approached by peasants from around the country complaining of local injustice. Zhao would head to the scene, conduct an investigation, then expose the the abuses in the magazine.
One of the first cases Li got involved in after teaming up with Zhao Yan was that of farmers in Fu’an (福安), Fujian Province, who’d had their land expropriated. The origins of the case stretched back 28 years, when a township government requisitioned land to build a reservoir; for 28 years, the farmers had not been compensated. They had petitioned for 20 years to no effect. Zhao and Li traveled to Fu’an, visited rural households, spoke with representatives of the aggrieved, and considered the options. The farmers said that trying to go the government route was a dead end, because the court refused to register their case. As Li said in a 2010 interview: “I was discussing it with Zhao Yan… through studying the law, I found there was a legal channel we could use. The reason these problems had been around so long was basically because the municipal Party Secretary, the mayor, the county Party Secretary, and the county governor had all simply been derelict in their duties. The ordinary folks pay the taxes for their government, so the government’s got a responsibility and a duty to resolve their problems. We could help the farmers initiate proceedings to strip these officials of their qualifications as people’s representatives in order to spur them into action and deal with this issue. Although these officials, whether mayors or Party secretaries, weren’t elected, according to the law their power comes from the people, so the people have a lawful right to dismiss them.” So Li and Zhao decided to help the villages by submitting a proposal to the local People’s Congress to dismiss the relevant officials. Li Baiguang acted as legal representative for the villagers.
The recall motion enumerated instances of government malfeasance, including the theft of farmland, embezzlement of land compensation and public infrastructure construction funds, misappropriation of relief funds for the poor, river pollution, and the receipt of bribes. It implicated numerous townships and villages in the Fu’an municipality. One day in early April 2003, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang assembled the village and township representatives, handed them pre-designed and typed forms, and looked on as they went door-to-door collecting signatures. The deputies wended their way through the mountains, working through the night, because they knew that they’d be blocked if the government found out. At noon the next day, the deputies brought in cardboard boxes and large bags with the signatures and wax thumb-prints of over 10,000 villagers. On April 8, Zhao and Li, as well as peasant deputy Miao Mengkang (缪孟康), submitted to the Fujian provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee and the Ningde municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee (one step up the chain of command from Fu’an) the motion for the recall of the mayor of Fu‘an as well as the ledger of 10,000 signatures in support of it.
This was the first instance in China where citizens had petitioned for the dismissal of a mayor. Li Baiguang, using the nom de guerre ‘Liu Baijiang’ (刘柏江), penned an article in the July issue of Modern Civilisation Pictorial (《现代文明画报》) with the headline “Can Citizens Dismiss a Mayor? A record of the first time in the New China that citizens demanded the dismissal of a city mayor.” What happened next was a textbook case of political governance with Chinese characteristics, which is true then and true today: first, the government mobilized police to prevent more people from signing the motion; second, they made threats to those who signed; third, they went to the offices of China Reform and pulled strings to stop further reporting and smeared Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang; fourth, they threatened and scared away journalists from other media; fifth, they told villagers that the dismissal proceedings had no legal basis, and thus were useless; sixth, they began exacting revenge against village deputies, including arrests; seventh, the provincial investigation team set up to look into the case came up with no results; eighth, they portrayed the incident as antagonistic toward the Party and the government; ninth, the mayor that villagers had petitioned to be dismissed, Lan Ruchun (蓝如春), was not only not dismissed, but promoted to deputy mayor of Ningde.
In January of 2004, Zhao and Li, working with local village deputies, again submitted a recall motion against Lan Ruchun. This time, under enormous public pressure, Lan was forced to resign, and the Fu’an municipal government gave villagers compensation of 1.5 million yuan ($237,000) for the expropriated land. This sum was less than a tenth of that owed.
In another case in Fujian Province, the government and investors had in the 1990s set out to develop a “Southeast Motor City” on the outskirts of Fuzhou (福州), the capital city. In doing so, they requisitioned a large amount of rural land — but after the fact, the peasants received neither the promised jobs in the factories in “Motor City,” nor any share of the benefits that accrued to the government from the development. Their share of the compensation was siphoned off by layer after layer of government, leaving them with next to nothing. In April 2004, Zhao and Li set about helping 20,000 villagers within Fuzhou municipality prepare a recall motion against the mayor of Fuzhou. Li Baiguang again was their legal representative.
In the same year in Tangshan (唐山) and Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), Hebei Province, Li Baiguang, working with Yu Meisun and Zhao Yan, represented tens of thousands of villagers in recall proceedings against corrupt officials.
In a 2004 essay about the recall motions he represented in five cities and two provinces, Li wrote with passion about how so many villagers “took the path of using the constitution as a weapon to defend their rights because under the current legal structures of China today, every other method they tried ended in failure: for years they went to local and central government offices to petition, constantly, to no effect; they lodged complaints in court, but the court refused to accept their case… the cold, selfish, greedy and colluding local government bureaucrat-mafias strangled the villagers out of even their most basic rights to subsistence.” Using the constitution to dismiss officials became their final remedy.
“This is a massive exercise in constitutional implementation,” Li told China Youth Daily in 2004. “Its value is not in whether it succeeds, but that through the process of studying and utilizing the constitution and the law, the seed of rule-of-law consciousness will begin to bud in the minds of Chinese villagers.” He added: “Understanding the proper relationship between the government and the people is their greatest gain.”
In a 2010 interview, Li said: “Back then we did it with such energy — standing up to these officials with the law, appealing to dismiss them every chance we could, taking them to court, and for the first time putting the fear into these insufferably arrogant men, it was really a delight.”
On another occasion though, he noted the failure of these motions and court cases to dismiss officials, a supposed constitutional right: “Rights without procedural guarantee are not real rights.” Indeed, no Chinese law provides such procedures.
Zhao Yan is the epitome of a certain Northeastern type; he has a robust physique, a gutsy attitude, and a forceful style of speech. Li Baiguang, meanwhile, is short, quiet, and restrained — but he executes with rigor and firmness. Between 2003 and 2004, the two of them traveled to seven or eight provinces, Zhao Yan as the investigative reporter, Li Baiguang as legal representative, getting themselves involved in countless land theft and compensation cases and cases of village governance and corruption. Wherever they went they handed out volumes of legal statutes they’d brought from Beijing, including the PRC Constitution, the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees , the Law on Land Administration (《土地管理法》), the Law on Deputies to the National People’s Congress and Deputies to the People’s Congresses (《人大代表法》), the State Compensation Law (《国际赔偿法》), the Administrative Procedure Law (《行政诉讼法》), and others, all to assist those whose rights had been infringed to file an administrative review or a complaint.
The villagers were often skeptical of such efforts. “We might use the law to solve problems, but government workers and police don’t, so what are we supposed to do?” they asked Li. His response: “Then you must insist on using the law! Even though in the process you may pay a price in blood and sweat, and perhaps even lose your personal freedom for a while, you have to keep going.” He firmly believed that persistence would lead to change. He told them a few stories that exemplified the power of using the law, including cases he was personally involved in. In one instance, the family farm of his client, Ms. Liu Jie (刘杰) in Heilongjiang, was expropriated, and she persisted in using legal rights defense (Li Baiguang also wrote an open letter to state premier Wen Jiabao, inviting him to appear him court to meet charges); another story he told was of Yao Lifa (姚立法) in Hubei successfully becoming a People’s Deputy; and another of blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) fighting for the rights of the disabled.
“The infringement of one’s rights is in fact a perfect opportunity for the awakening of civil rights consciousness,” Li said. “Before their rights are violated, they don’t grasp the natural conflict between power and rights. When rights are harmed, the fierce battle between power and rights begins. What we citizens can do is use the power of the law to repel those with unfettered power. The process is arduous, but there is simply no alternative.”
During his doctoral studies, Li Baiguang wrote a pamphlet titled “A Common Sense Reader for Chinese Citizens” (《中国公民常识读本》), using a question-and-answer format to address basic questions about human rights, government, autocracy, democracy, the constitution, economy, public opinion, education and faith, and military affairs, among other issues related to democratic constitutionalism. After the real world experiences of 2003 and 2004 however, he wanted to instead use actual cases to illustrate the basic principles associated with power and rights, burn them onto CD-ROM, and distribute them in every village. He saw the work as basic civics education for the Chinese people.
 Two weeks after the 1989 massacre, President Bush Sr. dispatched the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to reassure Deng Xiaoping that the anger at, and criticism, of the Chinese government were merely temporary, would soon pass, and would not impact U.S.-China relations. Details of the visit and the reassurances made can be found in the memoirs of Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
The story of Li Baiguang, including his transition to a lawyer, his new approach to rights defense, his meeting with President Bush, and his defense of house churches around the country, will conclude tomorrow…
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
China Change, February 28, 2018
We don’t know what Xi Jinping was expecting when the proposed removal of the term limit for state chairman was announced on February 25 — but he was wrong if he was expecting that the news would be received like a beam of light from the sky, eliciting awe and relief, as depicted in a recent CCTV propaganda video glorifying Xi as the father figure of the people and the country.
Xi and his loyalists seem to have been stung by the shock and ridicule — and sometimes the pointed silence — coming from Chinese social media. The censors clamped down fast and heavily. An explainer in People’s Daily a few hours after the announcement summarized ten “major changes” proposed by the Party, except for the one change that everyone was talking about: the removal of term limits. It was tucked away in a long succession of empty rhetoric towards the end of the piece.
From Monday to Wednesday, the CCP held the Third Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. Its communique, approved and published on Wednesday, made no mention of the proposed constitutional amendments.
Meanwhile, several sources reported that Xi was angered that Xinhua first broke the news about the proposed constitutional changes in English and highlighted the abolition of term limits. Reports said that an editor was fired, and leaders at Xinhua were forced to make self-criticisms.
Meanwhile, human rights lawyers received warnings from lawyers associations, Justice Bureaus, as well as police that they should not talk about the removal of term limits, and by all indications they have been silent.
Chen Xiaoping, a journalist with a legal background who hosts a show at Mingjing Media, reported that he belongs to a WeChat group of constitutional scholars from two of China’s most prominent universities — Peking and Tsinghua — and “the chat group has fallen into a dead silence since the proposed constitutional amendments were announced.” He reminisced how, in 1982, the last time China’s constitution was amended, People’s Daily called for a public discussion four months before the law was passed. Well, that was then, and the amendment was to limit the chairman’s term, a corrective after Mao Zedong’s brutal lifetime rule.
In the internet age in 2018, however, China is unable to have an open and candid debate about a change that will have monumental consequences for everyone in China, and indeed the world. Some, however, have spoken out, and a sampling of their reactions is featured below.
Li Datong (李大同) is a 66-year-old, well known journalist and editor in Beijing. A reporter with the official newspaper China Youth Daily (《中青报》) during the student democracy protest in 1989, he collected over 1,000 signatures of journalists calling for a dialogue with the authorities. In 1995 he founded “Freezing Point” (《冰点》), a cutting-edge current affairs and investigative reporting section in China Youth Daily. The publication of “Freezing Point” was cancelled in 2005 by the Central Propaganda Department for “commenting recklessly on current politics.”
Li responded to the proposed abolition of term limits by urging the 55 People’s Representatives from Beijing municipality in the National People’s Congress to vote no to the proposed abolition of term limits:
Addressed to: Xu Tao (徐韬), Ren Ming (任鸣), Yang Yuanqing (杨元庆), Chen Jining (陈吉宁) and the other 55 Beijing delegates to the National People’s Congress,
Greetings! I am a Chinese citizen and a voter in Beijing. You are the delegates that we elected; you represent us in the political sphere, engaging in politics and representing our right to vote.
After discussion with numerous like-minded constituents, we reached a consensus to send you this urgent appeal: in the upcoming First Plenum of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress, please cast a dissenting vote — veto the Central Committee’s proposal to amend the 14th Article of the PRC Constitution, which abolishes the term limit for the post of state chairman.
It is widely known that the 1982 constitutional amendment that limited the tenure of the post of state chairman to two terms was an epoch-marking political reform for the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China, after the enormous suffering of the Cultural Revolution. This amendment was a precaution against personal dictatorship, and the most effective legal restraint of one individual placing themselves above the Party and the nation. It accorded with the tide of history, and marked a significant step forward in China’s political civilization, as well as being one of the most important legacies of Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. Only on this basis can China make progress, and there is absolutely no reason to reverse from it. The abolition of the term limit for the state leadership will be ridiculed by civilized countries around the world; it will reverse the wheels of history, planting the seeds of another period of chaos in China, and bring about untold harm.
We ask that in the highest interest of the Chinese people, for the long-term peace and stability of China, and in order to uplift and truly safeguard China’s political civilization, you earnestly consider our request and cast a vote against the proposal!
Citizen Li Datong
February 28, 2018
He Weifang (贺卫方), law professor at Peking University:
“The standard for procedural justice is that once a game starts, participants should abide by the pre-established rules to the maximum extent. Unilaterally changing the rules is unacceptable. In order to prevent the strong from changing the rules for their own benefit — for instance, breaking the rule on tenure limits — those who change the rules should abide by the pre-established rules, while new participants can use the new rules.”
Li Yinhe (李银河), a sociologist known for her study of sex, wrote, in response to the question “Professor Li, what do you think?”
“Perhaps you’re afraid that because the topic is sensitive, you don’t want to directly say it — so I’ll guess that your question must be about the Central Committee’s proposal. I think that bringing back the system of lifetime rule is not going to work. It’s a reversal of history and takes China back to the Mao era. Yet the National People’s Congress will very likely pass it unanimously. Because they’re not truly elected representatives of the people, they won’t represent the people in casting votes, and they’ll vote as the leader wants them to.”
Wang Ying (王瑛), a former private equity fund manager who has spoken out on political topics in recent years:
“I am citizen of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Ying. I hold that China’s realization of a republic is an ideal reached after 100 years of blood and struggle, and that it is also the commitment of the governing party. The February 25, 2018 announcement of the Chinese Communist Party regarding an amendment to the 14th Article of the Constitution — that is, the proposal to abolish the term limit on the position of state chairman — is a thoroughgoing betrayal, a departure, and a reversal. I know that there’s nothing you people won’t dare do, and that you can pass it with a unanimous vote, and can guarantee that the votes will be unanimous, and that the words of a regular person are of no use. Yet, I am a citizen of China, I don’t plan to emigrate, and this is my ancestral land! If I didn’t even register my objection to this, I would have no human dignity. I have no control over what happens to this proposal, but I need to give myself a reason to live on. I publicly protest this retrograde ‘proposal,’ and I protest turning the will of the so-called party into the will of the nation, flagrantly writing it directly into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
Zhang Qianfan, professor of constitutional law at Peking University, penned a commentary for the Financial Times’ Chinese edition:
“Currently, China does not have a politically neutral institution of power, like a court, to tell us what can and cannot be amended [in the Constitution]. Nevertheless, everyone has a set of scales of justice in their own hearts, and the people are the ultimate interpreters and deciders on the Constitution. Whether it’s amending the Constitution, writing a Constitution, or establishing laws, the most important thing is to win the hearts of the people. The four previous constitutional amendments had different emphases, but they were ultimately about constantly improving it, thus they comported with the tide of history and won the widespread support of the people. On the other hand, Chinese history amply demonstrates that violating a long-held consensus on the Constitution held by the Chinese people, as well as the overall trend of constitutional government in global civilization — even if it appears to be supported by the people, but does not enjoy genuine social support — will in the end not stand the test of time.”
The June 4 student leaders Wang Dan (王丹) and Wuer Kaixi (吾尔开希), along with those involved in the political reforms of the 1980s, including Yan Jiaqi (严家祺), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Su Xiaokang (苏晓康), the widow of Fang Lizhi (方励之), Li Shuxian (李淑贤), published a statement. It says, in part:
“The whole of human history, including the 5,000 years of China’s history, shows that lifetime rule of a nation’s top leader cannot be separated from tyrannical government. It will with certainty bring calamity to the people. In the arduous process of attempting to avoid this disaster, humanity gradually began to form the ideal of democratic, constitutional governance, with different countries establishing actual constitutional democracies. The Chinese people have already struggled for over 100 years to implement a constitutional democracy, in order to avoid the disaster of tyranny and dictatorship. […]
“We call upon overseas Chinese to use any variety of means to oppose Xi Jinping setting himself up as a dictator-for-life as China’s head of state. This is an opportunity to mark a turning point in the growth and establishment of Chinese civil society. Let us work together for the future of a rule-of-law constitutional democracy in China, for the freedom, equality, rights, and happiness of the Chinese people, and for fairness and justice in Chinese society!”
Xi Jinping’s Abolition of the Term Limit Ruptures Assumptions of Party’s Adaptability and Stability, Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018.
Mo Zhixu, February 27, 2018
On February 26, China’s official news agency Xinhua published the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s Proposed Amendments to China’s constitution (Chinese). The Party proposed revising the clause “The term of office of the Chairman (国家主席) and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress, and they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms” to “The term of office of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” During the Party’s 19th congress in November, 2017, no one in the new politburo standing committee appeared to be the potential successor of Xi Jinping, as Hu Jintao was to Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping was to Hu Jintao. People then already predicted that Xi Jinping would continue to stay in power after his term ends in five years, with the only unknown being: will he follow Deng Xiaoping’s example to hold onto power as the chairman of the Central Military Committee or/and the general secretary of the Party (the two positions have no term limit), or will he amend the constitutional term limit on the term of the chairman so that he will also keep the nominal position of the chairman?
Even though the proposed removal of term limit is only the dropping of the other shoe, it caused a huge stir. Since yesterday, one can sense a certain desperation in every chat group on WeChat; searches for “yi-min” (immigration) spiked, and people have been discussing which countries they can flee to.
There are complex reasons why such a constitutional change has jolted Chinese society, the most fundamental being that the two-term limit enshrined in the current Constitution, which was amended in 1982, is the political and economic mental setup of the Deng Xiaoping era. To dismantle it is to hit the reset button for a new era.
The two-term cap in the 1982 constitution was a result of Chinese leadership’s painful re-evaluation of the Cultural Revolution: a supreme leader who had life tenure had enough time to elevate his power to be worshiped by all others, and he had absolute power over the lives and deaths of others. Those who paid the highest price were the ones who once had occupied high positions. Abolishing life tenure and replacing it with a limited term would prevent the emergence of the likes of Mao. It was, in the first place, a self-protection measure for those in high power.
In practice, however, the term limit and the institution of collective leadership had a greater effect: to effectively curb the power of the number one leader. As China shifted its focus to economic development, China has been able to give a pragmatic or even reasonable appearance in its governance, even though the regime has remained a dictatorship. To political scientists who have observed China closely, such as professors Andrew Nathan and David Shambaugh, this appearance was an indication of the regime’s “resilience.”
Such an appearance has afforded average people an optimistic outlook of China’s future, while ensuring that foreign capital could trust the system. These have been the psychological fundamentals of China’s rapid economic growth over the past decades.
In China’s liberal discourse, the two-term cap has been regarded as a landmark of political reform, a manifestation of the Chinese communist party’s self-reinvention.
For a long time now, China’s emerging middle class has wanted to pursue change but has been equally scared of chaos: that is, they’re dissatisfied with China’s autocratic polity and hope that it reforms, yet simultaneously, as beneficiaries of the current arrangements they’re opposed to radical change. Their vested interests guide their psychological orientations, and make them more inclined to advocate gradual reform. To a great degree, China’s rapid social and economic development and transformation has taken place under remarkably stable political conditions. Aside from credit earned through the so-called ‘performance legitimacy,’ the CCP’s ability to adapt and reform has been widely accepted, and is a bedrock assumption of China’s political stability.
Gradual Reform — Gone With the Wind
For these reasons, the abolishment of the term limit, while first threatening those in power, strikes the strongest blow against the faith in China’s economic and political system. This is because for the last few years, Xi Jinping’s power has swollen enormously, vitiating the public’s belief in the basic rationality of communist rule. The cancellation of the term limit is the straw that will break the camel’s back: now, the leadership has returned to strongman rule and there are no limits to his power, and thus the appearance that it is a fundamentally pragmatic regime has also been crushed.
The explosion in people searching the phrase “immigration” is a perfect example of the psychological trauma of the latest news. The post-1989 period already saw a severe challenge to the narrative of Communist Party self-reform and adaptation; now, that narrative seems based merely on the reforms of the 1980s, and in particular the 1982 constitutional amendment which saw term limit implemented for state leadership posts.
Since he came to power, Xi Jinping has increased the suppression and control of society, and prospects of gradual reform are simply no longer on the table. The abolition of the term limit system would completely tear away the basis for claims about the CCP’s adaptability, and has turned all hopes for gradual reform based on this argument into a joke. This is equivalent to a death penalty for gradual reform, about as effective as the emergency cabinet established at the end of the Qing Dynasty to deal with the Xinhai Revolution.
Over the last few years, many people unhappy with Xi’s rule had pegged their hopes on Xi being disabled in a (fictitious) power struggle; while others had resigned themselves to wait until 2022 when he would hand over power. But Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th Party Congress destroyed the former wish, and the elimination of term limit has burst the bubble of the latter.
Xi Jinping’s power and the political line he has pursued will now continue indefinitely. But more importantly, the basic assumptions about China’s politics and economy, about the future of Xi Jinping, and about the prospects of reform, have all been punctured by this development. There are now no immediate prospects for change. This is why what was such an unsurprising announcement has led to such universal shock and lamentation.
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.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
February 16, 2017
Torture has long been a chronic disease plaguing China’s judicial system. It is not only that nearly every case of judicial injustice in China is attended by torture, but that torture is much more widely applied than merely as a means of extracting a confession during the criminal investigation process. It’s often used as a form of humiliation, a torment of the flesh and the spirit simultaneously, with an array of methods that are unrestrained and completely unscrupulous. The goal is to have the captive or internee surrender their minds to the authorities, and so prisons and extra-judicial detention facilities — like Legal Education Bases (or centers), brainwashing classes, and shuanggui facilities — make widespread use of torture. Torture aimed to humiliate is used in a particularly concentrated way on prisoners of conscience.
In particular since the 709 arrests in July 2015, human rights lawyers and defenders have been held in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” the essence of which is identical to forced disappearances. The ad hoc nature of these internment facilities, on top of denial of access to legal counsel, has led to a rapid increase in reports of torture over the last year. When rights lawyer Li Chunfu (李春富) was released on a form of bail recently, he exhibited clear symptoms of mental breakdown; news has also emerged of cruel electric baton torture applied to Li Heping (李和平) and Wang Quanzhang (王全璋); Wu Gan (吳淦) has also made a criminal complaint, through his lawyers, of torture suffered in custody. The human rights lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳), in particular, has narrated the details of atrocious torture he suffered through transcripts made by his legal counsel. The veracity and detail of the cruelty on display is without question, and has caused outrage inside China and abroad. Law societies and human rights groups in dozens of countries have issued denunciations, and the European Union, as well as diplomats from multiple countries stationed in China, have expressed their concern and demanded that the Chinese government conduct an immediate investigation.
What happened to our colleagues can happen to any of us, or any Chinese citizen, for that matter, hence our anxiety, grief, and rage. These human rights defenders represent the conscience of China, and yet in the 18 months of their detention, they’ve been subjected to a dozen types of torture by their own countrymen, a team of over 40 special agents who work in rotation — we simply cannot fathom it: what way is this to treat a country’s own citizens? The fact that the inhuman torture has been simply allowed to take place by the police, openly and without compunction or obstruction, begs the question: what kind of system of justice is this? What kind of political system forces humans into this depravity? What kind of political system allows these criminal torturers to act so wantonly, outside of any restriction or law?
In the face of this blatant torture, our conscience does not allow us to remain silent. We must stand up to censure it, to conquer our own fears and cowardice, and defend basic human dignity.
Together we reiterate the following articles from China’s own Constitution:
Article 33 (paragraph 3): “The State respects and preserves human rights.”
Article 35: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”
Article 41: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions regarding any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints or charges against, or exposures of, any state organ or functionary for violation of the law or dereliction of duty, but fabrication or distortion of facts for purposes of libel or false incrimination is prohibited.”
By implication, the Chinese Constitution prohibits torture. In addition, the National People’s Congress in September 1988 ratified the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“United Nations’ Convention Against Torture”) and on November 3, 1988, that convention became effective in China.
It is thus clear that preventing and punishing torture is an unshirkable duty of the government, and a responsibility it must assume.
We believe that prohibiting torture is not only for the purpose of preventing cases of judicial injustice — it is also to grant citizens the protection of not fearing for their lives, and to accord basic dignity towards, and integrity of, their own body and minds. If, for whatever reason, torture is tolerated, then everyone in China — including police, prosecutors, judges, and currently serving or former Party and government officials — are themselves also at risk of becoming victims.
We believe that the torture of one is the torture of all, and that to strike terror in one is to strike terror in all.
We believe that every individual, including those who have truly committed crimes, should be treated with humanity and not be subject to torture. The prohibition of torture is the fundamental ground of a modern, civilized judiciary, and is a basic dividing line between civilization and barbarism.
For all these reasons, we the undersigned, on the basis of China’s Constitution, the UN Convention Against Torture, and a sense of common justice for Chinese citizens and humanity, hereby establish the “China Anti-Torture Alliance.”
The Alliance will be a community based on the aforementioned shared beliefs, without a formal organizational structure. It is open to all, without respect to nationality or other attachments, and may be joined or withdrawn from at will.
All kind and upstanding citizens inside or outside China, who cherish peace and seek to safeguard human rights, are welcome to join our ranks, and to reject torture wherever it appears. Our goal is to promote and supervise the actual implementation of the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture in China.
Those who wish to join the Alliance can express their wish to do so to any of the founders of the initiative, or by sending an email to the official electronic mail address of the Alliance. Please include your first and last name, your occupation, location, and other contact information, to facilitate contact.
February 7, 2017
Teng Biao (滕彪), lawyer, United States
Yu Wensheng (余文生), lawyer, Beijing
Liu Shihui, lawyer (刘士辉), Guangdong
Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), legal activist, United States
Hu Jia, (胡佳), citizen, Beijing
Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), lawyer, Beijing
Yuan Xiaohua (袁小华), citizen, Hunan
Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), citizen, Hubei
Sun Desheng (孙德胜), citizen, Hubei
Liang Bo (梁波), reporter, United States
Chen Jiangang (陈建刚), lawyer, Beijing
Wang Zang (王藏), poet, Beijing
Alliance email address:
Editors’ note: As of now, over 800 Chinese lawyers and human rights defenders have signed to join the Alliance. Check out the signing sheet here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14jjifjhzVdSZ1IhqYTvXjlk02ithQ15PdvCgaOBB8aw/pub
Translated by China Change.
By Bruce Lui, published December 4, 2015
The Chinese Communist Party marked the anniversary of its inaugural “National Constitution Day” on December 4 with more action than words: workers’ rights NGOs were raided and activists detained; the author of “A History of Brainwashing” was sentenced to nearly two years in prison; and a book on constitutionalism disappeared from stores. The People’s Daily frontpage, meanwhile, seemed to suggest China is now a one-man show… — The Editors
December 4, 2015, is China’s second National Constitution Day (國家憲法日)—a day that was announced with much fanfare for the first time last year. As of 5 p.m. Beijing time [as this article was written], there is not a single word about it on the homepage of Xinhua, which displays hundreds of other news items. Nor have the words “Constitution Day” appeared anywhere in the major internet portals like Netease, Tencent, or Sohu.
On the homepage of People’s Daily Online, three of its over one hundred headlines have to do with Constitution Day, but they were tucked under yesterday’s report on the third anniversary of the Eight Rules about Party discipline issued by the CCP.
That the state media gives a cold treatment to the first anniversary of Constitution Day is perhaps a reflection of the Chinese authorities: The constitution has not been honored anyway, and it’s better not to bring attention to it or make any pretenses. In any case, few know about it, and those who do know don’t take it seriously anyway.
Such a flippant attitude towards the constitution and the law speaks to the true character of the government, and the contrast between this year’s silence and last year’s outpouring of coverage is stark indeed.
In October 2014, the CCP Central Committee approved the Decision Concerning Several Major Issues In Comprehensively Advancing Governance According to Law, making December 4 China’s Constitution Day, to commemorate the constitution passed on December 4, 1982.
“The life of the constitution lies in its implementation,” Xi Jinping said. So Let’s take a look at how China is implementing its constitution.
Article 35 says “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Article 36 says “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” Article 37 says “Freedom of the person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable.” Articles 38-41 promise to protect citizens’ dignity; prohibit unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s residence; safeguard citizens’ freedom and privacy of correspondence; and prohibit retaliation against citizens who criticize the government and officials.
But in the past year or so, at least a few hundred human rights lawyers and their assistants have been arrested, confined to house arrest, disappeared, or prohibited from leaving the country; some had their homes raided and their communications intercepted. Publishers of banned books and their employees were disappeared in Thailand or China. The founder of a Hong Kong-based current affairs magazine was tried in mainland China. Liu Xiaobo couldn’t communicate with family members, and relatives have not been allowed monthly visits. Since Professor Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison, his relatives have not been able to visit him on a regular basis. Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was arrested for commemorating the 1989 democracy movement, has been detained beyond the legally prescribed terms, with his trial being postponed twice for a total six months.
In addition, to implement the constitution, there must be a constitutional review system that scrutinizes constitutional violations on the part of the government and those in power. But unfortunately, no progress has been made in this regard. As legal scholar Jiang Ping (江平) has pointed out, the biggest deficiency of the constitution is the absence of constitutional review, and that the courts in China cannot actually base their judgements on the constitution. When local governments violate the constitutional rights of citizens, citizens cannot hope that citing the constitution will help their complaints. Qiao Xiaoyang (乔晓阳), director of the Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, who has never studied law, wrote that China won’t have a constitutional supervision committee or a Constitutional Court—it will simply improve the constitutional supervision by the NPC Standing Committee.
When Chinese President Liu Shaoqi was assaulted by Red Guards in Zhongnanhai in August 1967, he held up a copy of China’s constitution to defend himself: “I’m the President of the People’s Republic of China! I’m a citizen!” But the constitution didn’t protect him, the second president of the People’s Republic of China, from a brutal death.
Let’s hope that such tragedy won’t happen again in China. If it does, I don’t think anyone will be holding up the constitution to protect themselves.
The silence on the National Constitution Day shows us how quickly things change in China, how memory evaporates, and what the constitution is really worth to the Chinese government.
Bruce Lui (呂秉權) is a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. Prior to his post there, he had a celebrated career reporting in China for over a decade with two major Hong Kong broadcasters, winning multiple awards for his reports on nuclear testing, human rights abuses, corruption, and more.
By Wang Mo, published: November 22, 2015
On October 3, 2014, Chinese activists Xie Wenfei (谢文飞, a.k.a. Xie Fengxia 谢丰夏), and Wang Mo (王默, real name Zhang Shengyu 张圣雨) held banners in the streets of Guangzhou, expressing support for the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. They were arrested the same evening and indicted on May 12, 2015, for “inciting subversion of state power.” On Nov. 19, Wang Mo was tried in a Guangzhou court (Zhang had been tried separately a week earlier.) Verdicts in both trials are pending. Following is an abbreviated translation of Wang Mo’s defense. The translation remains unauthorized because permission could not be secured from the writer. – The Editors
Decades ago Chinese Communist Party, crying slogans about opposing corruption, opposing dictatorship, and pursuing liberty and democracy, subverted the Nationalist regime of the Republic of China and drove the Nationalist government to Taiwan. The Republic of China was then split into two countries: the Mainland and Taiwan, and the Republic of China [as it was known] was no more.
I was charged with the crime of “inciting subversion of state power” and found myself a defendant in the court simply because I held a banner in support of Occupy Central in Hong Kong. I have no idea what logical or causal connection there is between a simple banner and inciting the subversion of state power.
Common sense tells me that as long as the state exists, a state regime will exist. Only if a country is invaded, defeated, annexed, or split apart by foreign invaders could its regime really be said to have been subverted. Hong Kong is part of China, and all that Hong Kong people want through their protests is universal suffrage, based on one-person one-vote, for the election of the city’s chief executive, and greater freedom. All these are stipulated in the constitution as the rights of citizens, and protected by the law. From afar in Guangzhou I held a banner to express my support for the Hong Kongers, and you are telling me that’s inciting subversion of state power? If this act of mine counts as inciting subversion of state power, then what crime are the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers guilty of?
I’d like to hereby solemnly declare that all along it has been my private wish to topple the rule of the Chinese Communist Party’s autocracy—a dictatorial regime—but not to subvert the state regime. A country should belong to its people; it’s not the property of this party or that party. A ruling party being toppled from power isn’t the same as the state being subverted, because as long as the country exists then the state regime will exist. Of course, if the court believes that the country is the Party and the Party is the country, and that China is indeed the Communist Party’s country, then trying to subvert the ruling party would be equivalent to subverting the state regime. So, would the court please explicitly state that China belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, and that China’s governing paradigm is that of the model of a Party-State? Failing that, the attempt to charge me with inciting subversion of state power has no ground.
A century ago the Xinhai Revolution succeeded, signalling the end of 2,000 years of feudal imperialism. Since 1949, the Chinese communists have imprisoned countless political opponents—people who pursued liberty and democracy, and to that end sought to get rid of the communist dictatorship—on charges of subversion. But it was the Chinese communists who seized power with slogans claiming they were pursuing liberty and democracy. Please tell me: in China today, where is the liberty? Where is the democracy?
The Chinese constitution expressly stipulates: All state power belongs to the people, citizens have the freedom express themselves, assemble, organize, march, demonstrate, and to elect and be elected. That’s to say that only the people have the right to decide to whom state power belongs, and have the right to remove from power any ruling party. Voting is a mechanism for entrusting power to, or remove power from, a ruling party. The people may also express their support or opposition to the ruling party or government through such actions as speech, assembly, the formation of organizations, protests, etc.
Let me explain why I personally wish to remove the Chinese communist dictatorship from power. Since they seized power in 1949, the communists have instigated political campaigns, including land reform, collectivization, the Three-Anti and Five-Anti campaigns, and countless others—including the madness of the Cultural Revolution—which have directly or indirectly led to the unnatural deaths of around 20 million Chinese people. In the three years from 1958-1960, it’s believed that around 50 million Chinese starved to death as a result of the communists’ disastrous agricultural policies and plunder of grain from the rural population. As someone from the countryside, I cannot forget these 50 million lives. Further, in the 1980s the Communist Party began forcibly implementing birth control policies that continue to this day, which include induced abortions at late term pregnancy, forced injection of drugs to cause miscarriage, forced abortions and other methods, all of which have directly or indirectly led to the unnatural killing of around 30 million babies and fetuses. Taken together, the Chinese Communist Party has eliminated the lives of 100 million Chinese people.
Starting in the 1980s, even though the Party, in order to ensure its own survival, abandoned mass political mobilization and persecution and began focusing on economic construction, it has never ceased its slaughter of the Chinese people. In June 1989 on the streets of Beijing, hundreds and thousands of young students and people from all walks of life came out to oppose corruption, and countless died during the Party’s bloody crackdown. Over all these years too, others have died at the hands of the police or other security enforcers, from such varied causes as: Being sent to black jails, being incarcerated in mental hospitals, being beaten to death, dying during forced demolition of their homes or as their land is expropriated, dying from beatings by the chengguan, dying from ethnic repression, religious suppression, or in prison under the guise of playing “hide and seek,” drinking hot water, or dying from torture as the police attempt to extract a forced confession. The Chinese communists have never ceased relying on violence and persecution to maintain their dictatorship.
In the face of such an inhuman, bloody, sinister, and dark regime, that has in the space of just 66 short years severed the lives of 100 million people, it is my constitutional right to wish to topple and subvert it, and such a wish is also in accord with natural law. Getting rid of the outlaws and allowing the people to live in peace, and using violence to end violence have always been the innate rights of those living under oppression. There’s no crime in my wanting to subvert that regime—the real criminals are those whose hands are dripping with the blood of the Chinese people, the power-holders who uphold their dictatorship, and the running dogs, accomplices, and hired thugs who work on behalf of that regime.
The charge of “inciting subversion of state power” is naked political persecution, the Chinese Communist Party’s tool for shutting down and repressing political opposition. In this context, the public prosecutor and the judge on the case are merely fulfilling a “political task” by staging a trial with the sole purpose of sending political opponents to jail. There’s no possibility of fairness or justice in this; conscience and human nature are absent from the prosecutor and judge. I hope that after the conclusion of today’s trial, the names of the prosecutors and the judges will be remembered by many, and I also believe that one day, for your role in this case, aiding in the political persecution of myself and Xie Wenfei, you’ll pay a price.
I would like to thank my defense counsel Chen Keyun (陈科云) and Tan Chenshou (覃臣寿) , as well as Chen Jinxue (陈进学) for his prior involvement. Thanks are also due to the two lawyers defending Xie Wenfei. I also thank the friends who have given me financial aid from the day I was arrested, as well as the supporters who came to the court today but were blocked from entering and made to stand outside. I also thank the friends, netizens, brothers, and kindred spirits who have shown so much support, concern, and attention since I was taken into custody. It was the support from all of you that kept up my spirits in prison, allowed me to rid myself of fear and loneliness, made life a little easier, and led me to not give up. It’s your support that has made me realize that the journey towards liberty and democracy in this land of ours is never a solitary one. Countless members of previous generations came before us, among us we have a great many sympathisers, and after we’re gone there will be innumerable to follow. It’s your support that has given me warmth and strength.
Democracy movement for China has no path of retreat. Nor is there any possibility of a third way, or a middle way, by which we can negotiate with the CCP. Resistance is the only way: continual, endless resistance, and every possible form and manner of resistance. Only through resistance will we gain freedom, only through resistance will we gain dignity, and it is only resistance that will bring about change.
September 19, 2015
For Freedom, Justice and Love — My Closing Statement to the Court, Xu Zhiyong, January 22, 2014.
The Sovereignty of the People: My Conviction and My Dream, Guo Feixiong’s Court Statement, November 28, 2014.
The Southern Street Movement, China Change, October 19, 2013.