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By Yaqiu Wang, published: July 22, 2015
On May 19, rights activist Wu Gan (吴淦), better known for his online name “Super Vulgar Butcher” or the “Butcher” for short, set up two pull-up standees in front of the Jiangxi Province Higher People’s Court. He was there to protest the court’s denial of the defense’s access to files of the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case” (“乐平冤案”). In May 2002, police arrested four suspects in a case of robbery, rape, and dismemberment that occurred in Leping, Jiangxi province, in 2000. The four confessed under torture and were sentenced to death with a stay of execution. In early November 2011, a suspect in another case claimed responsibility for the crime. In light of the admission, rights lawyers took on the case by representing the four and requesting a retrial, but the Jiangxi Higher Court refused their repeated and lawful request to review the case files. This case, as well as the Nie Shubin case (聂树斌案) and the recently overturned Huugjilt case, are among the typical cases of miscarriage of justice that China’s rights lawyers pursue. Correcting wrongs in China’s faulty judicial system is at best difficult, if not impossible altogether, and rights lawyers have, over time, come to develop methods to put pressure on the courts. On that day, the lawyers for the four victims had already staged a sit-in outside the courthouse for over a week to no avail.
Wu Gan, who works for Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所), had messages for the chief justice of the court, Zhang Zhonghou (张忠厚). The poster on Wu Gan’s right was an image of tomb stone for Zhang and a couplet deploring his lack of a righteousness and basic humanity; on his left, the poster announced that the “Butcher” was raising money on behalf of the four victims so that they could bribe the justice for a retrial, a prevalent vice in China’s judicial system, and asked the chief justice to set a price. Wu Gan stood between the two posters with both his middle fingers up. It was Wu Gan’s signature protest.
Wu Gan was detained that day and received a penalty of 10 days of administrative detention for “disturbing order of the work unit, and publicly insulting people.” However, on May 27, he was criminally detained by the police in Fujian, his home province, and transferred to the remote Yongtai Detention Center (永泰看守所), for allegedly “creating disturbances” and “defamation.”
On May 28, many of the media throughout China — including the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) mouthpiece media such as the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and China Central Television (CCTV) — started bombarding their audiences with reports about Wu Gan. The People’s Daily article said that Wu Gan was an “arrogant, vulgar, vicious person who used offensive speech,” and was given to slandering people. The article also “exposed” Wu’s private life saying he was “having an extramarital affair,” that he had “abandoned his ex-wife,” and that Wu’s father and brother were “outlaws.” Xinhua and CCTV proceeded further to discredit Wu based on interviews with Wu’s “former colleagues” and “village relatives.”
At present, the search results for “Super Vulgar Butcher” or “Wu Gan” on Google or Baidu give sites containing articles reposted or rewritten from the aforementioned CCP mouthpiece media, showing the extent of the Party’s propaganda efforts to discredit Wu Gan. Dissident columnist Mo Zhixu commented: “The People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and CCTV are all out to defame the Butcher. Few since 1949 have enjoyed such solemn treatment.” “Nothing new,” an online author pointed out insouciantly. “Among those who enjoyed the same treatment were Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), and Peng Dehuai (彭德怀).”
Made a Name for Himself in the Deng Yujiao Case
Wu Gan, who is 43 years old this year, was born in a village in Fujian province’s Fuqing municipality (福建福清). Based on his own account, he didn’t finish junior high school and, as an adult, served as a soldier, a security checker at an airport, and engaged in business. Wu Gan has long publicized his personal information online in order to “dispel the doubts of netizens, and challenge unscrupulous officials to do the same.”
Beginning in 2008, Wu Gan became active in major forums, blogs, and used many internet names before finally settling on “Super Vulgar Butcher.” Wu Gan says he chose this name to spurn “the so-called elites who theorize too much and do too little.”
On May 10, 2009, a government official from Badong county in Hubei province (湖北巴东) named Deng Guida (邓贵大), along with other county officials, went to a leisure center. While there, the officials propositioned a 21-year-old female attendant Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for sexual favors but Deng rejected them. Outraged, Deng Guida tried to rape her. In a panic, Deng Yujiao pulled a fruit paring knife she was carrying and stabbed Deng Guida. Deng Yujiao then took the initiative to get Deng Guida to a hospital emergency room and dial 110 to surrender herself. Deng Guida died, and the Badong police opened an investigation into Deng Yujiao on suspicion of intentional homicide.
On May 14, Wu Gan posted a description of the case online, alongside his personal information, his ID number, and the account number set up to receive donations. He said he would take actions “to help this sister who defended her honor with a [fruit] knife.” Wu Gan’s friend, You Jingyou (游精佑), told China Change that, although he did not know Wu Gan at that time, once he learned that he and Wu were from the same province, he quickly sent a thousand yuan donation. “After I sent the money,” You said, “I thought that, apart from the Deng Yujiao-related activities, Wu himself will have expenses. I then sent another thousand yuan to Wu’s own account making clear that this money was for his own personal use, to spend as he pleased, and requested that he not put the money into the donation account. The next day, Wu Gan called me and said that he would also put the second thousand yuan into the public donation account.”
On May 16, Wu Gan went to Badong county to assist Deng Yujiao’s relatives in hiring a lawyer, and Wu was also the first non-family member to visit Deng Yujiao in the hospital. Wu Gan posted updates on the progress of the case and gave many media interviews. A photograph of Wu Gan at Deng Yujiao’s bedside giving her a thumbs up went viral, making Wu Gan an instant online celebrity. It also gave the local government a taste of the power of public opinion on the internet. Following these actions, lawyers from Beijing took on the case, netizens from across the country formed “observation groups” in solidarity with Deng Yujiao, and journalists headed to Badong county to investigate the case. On May 28, on the pretext of “preventing lightning strikes,” the local government cut off television broadcasts, the internet, and even interrupted part of the shipping on the Yangzi River by ordering that ships not stop at the Badong port, bringing the local areas into a state of “semi-martial law.”
On June 16, the Badong County People’s Court issued a verdict exempting Deng Yujiao from criminal punishment.
Around the same time, the Chinese government also scraped a planned policy to require personal computers sold in China be equipped with the “Green Dam” software that would purportedly filter pornography but was really a massive state surveillance initiative, after the planned move had been met with overwhelming criticism online. Looking back, that was a hopeful time of Chinese internet when netizens found their places and voices in social media but the censorship had yet to fully catch up, and when liberal Chinese enthused that the internet would change China.
The Case of the Three Netizens in Fujian
One evening in 2008, a 25-year-old female named Yan Xiaoling (严晓玲), who resided in Minqing county in Fujian province (福建闽清), returned home along with friends from a night at a KTV feeling sick and died the next day. The local police identified the cause of death as “ectopic pregnancy” leading to “bleeding from a tubal rupture.” Yan’s mother, however, believed that her daughter had died after being serially raped by a group of men, including local policemen, and repeatedly petitioned the authorities for investigation into her daughter’s death. Three netizens in Fujian, Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼), You Jingyou (游佑精), and Wu Huaying (吴华英), assisted Yan’s mother in writing petitions and making a video. The details of this case spread quickly online.
From June to July 2009, police in Fujian arrested a large number of netizen activists involved in this case. The three netizens were arrested for “slandering.” While the case was being heard, Wu Gan went several times to Fujian to participate in a series of demonstrations. Wu established a “netizens’ concern group,” gave briefings on the court hearings, wrote an open letter to the Fujian People’s Congress, and undertook other actions as well. During the court hearings, Wu held placards at the entrance to the court, put up banners, shouted slogans, sang songs, and reported the court situation live on Twitter. Remembering Wu Gan’s activism, You Jingyou told China Change: “In the spring of 2010, the warden at the detention center told me that someone had pitched a tent in front of the detention center but ‘was quickly driven off.’ I laughed to myself and thought that person had to be the Butcher as no other person in this world would pull such a stunt.”
On April 16, 2010, the day the court was to pass judgment in the case, the court was surrounded by a cordon of hundreds of police and several layers of barricades. About a thousand people gathered at the court entrance loudly shouting: “The three netizens are not guilty of any crime!” In the end, the court sentenced Fan Yanqiong to prison for two years while You Jingyou and Wu Huaying were each sentenced to one year. A netizen who was present tweeted, “After the sentencing of You Jingyou and the others, the Butcher slumped on the floor, his eyes red and wet.”
The case against the three netizens of Fujian was seen as the Chinese government’s landmark case for suppressing freedom of speech on the internet. Since that case, online freedom of speech has steadily declined. In today China, internet in 2010 feels positively like a golden age.
The cases, both large and small, in which Wu Gan participated and played a leading role were too numerous to keep tabs on. Many of these cases, such as the Qian Yunhui Case, visits to the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, the Xia Junfeng Case, and the Fan Mugen Case, gained wide attention from both domestic and foreign media thanks largely to legal and citizen activism. (Click here for a link to a China Change report on a land rights incident in which Wu Gan participated.)
In the recent incident of police shooting dead a destitude peasant in Qing’an city of the northernmost Heilongjiang province (黑龙江庆安), Wu Gan announced online that he was willing to provide legal assistance and to raise fund for the family of Xu Chunhe (徐纯合), the victim. The next day, Wu Gan stated that he had met with an eyewitness to the shooting scene and had also obtained smart phone video footages of the incident. Obstructed by police, Wu Gan was unable to go to Qing’an himself, but he made public the video, audio and photographs relating to the incident that he had obtained. In the video, Xu Chunhe’s child is heard telling her father: “Stop fighting, father! Let’s go home!” The heart wrenching video quickly spread throughout the internet.
Shortly before his own detention, Wu Gan raised over 36,000 RMB for Ren Ziyuan (任自元), a Shandong high school teacher who was released in May after serving ten years in prison for “inciting subversion” and suffering debilitating torture, to help the latter to transition to life outside prison.
Over the years, the authorities surveilled, harassed, evicted, and temporarily detained Wu Gan. When the news came that Wu Gan had been criminally detained this time, some netizens exclaimed that “Wu Gan has finally paid the price.”
The “Hog Butchering Model ”
When Wu Gan got involved in a case, he would first issue information about the case online, and appeal to netizens to follow the case and collect personal information about the officials involved in the case, especially evidence of their corruption. On the internet, Wu Gan often satirized and spoofed these officials. Meanwhile Wu Gan would call on noted rights lawyers, scholars, and media personalities to become involved in the case. When the moment was right, he himself would go to the scene and also mobilize netizens and petitioners to do the same. On the scene, apart from holding placards, shouting slogans, and other such commonly used means of protest, Wu Gan would also perform a variety of performance art. In addition, he would set up online crowd funding to pay for the activists and to assist the families of the victims. Wu Gan called his unique form of activism “butchering hogs.”
The act he staged in front the courthouse in Jiangsi notwithstanding, other examples include: After Yu Shiwen (于世文), Chen Wei (陈卫) and ten others were arrested by the Zhengzhou police in early 2014 for commemorating Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) and those who perished in the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, Wu Gan issued an ‘arrest warrant’ online for the arrest of the then Bureau Chief of the city’s Public Security Bureau. Wu himself then went to Zhengzhou and posted copies of his arrest warrant at subway entrances, on electric poles, at entrances to government departments, and other such places. During the Kunming elementary students’ prostitution case, Wu Gan put up a sign that read “Tomb of the Kunming Justice Department” outside the entrance to the court. Artist Kuang Laowu (邝老五) commented: “When Wu Gan took part in helping others defend their rights, he used performance art consciously and aptly to move the case toward a reasonable solution.”
Based on his own experiences, Wu Gan wrote articles to pass on his methods to those struggling to defend their rights or to right an injustice. “The Butcher’s Bible” (《杀猪宝典》) is one. “Rights Defense Guidebook for Property Owners Facing Eviction and Demolition” (《被拆迁征地户维权宝典》) and the “Petitioners’ Hog Butchering Guidebook” (《访民杀猪宝典》) are two other examples. In the widely circulated “The Butcher’s Bible,” Wu Gan wrote: “You should know that what the officials fear most are death and losing their official positions. So you must grip him like a mad dog bites or like dogskin plaster sticks to the skin, attacking his official position. There are many ways of doing this. You may use performance art, live webcasts, online spoofing, reporting him to his superiors, exposing him on the internet, digging up dirt on him, his family and others close to him, and describing all of his wrongdoings in his offical capacity. Blame him for all the misconduct of his predessessors. There is no injustice in doing this because, as the incumbent, he represents an office, and should bear all the responsibility for it.” “When you are butchering hogs, you want to be high profile, open, and transparent as this is the best way to protect yourself. Go butchering hogs with your head raised high, and don’t act like you are conducting underground activities. It would be best to live webcast your action, so do your homework to learn how to use internet first.”
Wu Gan made use of the human resources of noted lawyers, scholars, and the average netizens; he integrated seamlessly online public opinion and real actions; he transformed online pressure into offline pressure. The dissident community greatly approved his methods. Wu Qiang (吴强), a political science professor at Tsinghua University, said that the hog butchering methods are “a Chinese-style radicalism and a most effective model of non-violent struggle.” Chen Guangcheng believes that “the hog butchering model is most noteable for its bold creativity,” and its “invaluable and effective methods are worth popularizing.” Chen also noted that arresting Wu Gan is “an attempt to put a stop to the spreading application of the hog butchering model that fuses online and offline actions.”
Wu Gan’s career as a rights activist is not without controversy. In the Kunming elementary students prostitution case, one netizen expressed doubts: “Wu Gan purportedly raised more than 40,000 yuan from netizens, and flew three round trips to Kunming. That sounds to me like a tourist. I say, give a half directly to the victims, and give the other half to me: I will put on the same performance art that the Butcher performed and I guarantee my performance will be of higher quality.” In the Xia Junfeng case, there were also netizens who accused Wu Gan of pocketing 30,000 yuan from netizens’ contributions to Xia’s surviving wife and child, but Xia’s wife came out on Weibo and dismissed the charge.
People who have come to know Wu Gan spoke about him warmly.
Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), who served a nine-month prison term in 2011-2012 for organizing protests in support of the three netizens in Fujian, told China Change: “Wu Gan has an air of worldliness about him, and perhaps some of the ‘elite’ don’t like this. But what I’ve seen is his sincerity and sense of right and wrong. He has a sense of humor and is an optimist. He cries when he sees the sufferings of political prisoners and their families, so he braved slander to raise money for them.”
Young activist Huang Bin (黄宾), who has met face to face with Wu Gan four times, wrote on his blog: “In order to denigrate the Butcher, the media inside China’s Great Firewall concocted a great deal of defamatory materials against him without elaborating on the specifics, and these clumsy propaganda tactics would perhaps fool some people who do not know Wu Gan. But most people who have met with and spoken to him admire his courage, honor, and the sacrifices he has made.”
Wang Lihong told China Change, “Because of his notoriety, many victims of injustice called him up for help. He would patiently listen to them and write down their stories. Once he could verify the accuracy of a case, he would go out and put up a fight, often against local authorities, with his idiocincratic methods.
Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇), “China’s Protest Archivist” who is routinely harassed by security police, told China Change that: “When I was driven out of Guangdong province by the security police and had no place to go, Wu Gan brought me to his relative’s home in Fuzhou for shelter, helped me find work, and told netizens in Fuzhou to take care of me. He is an optimistic and chivalrous person. Accusations of misusing funds are sheer rubbish put out by the Fifty Centers [people paid by the Party to slander people]. They tarnish every rights defender who is an effective doer.”
Since Wu Gan’s Arrest
Since his arrest, people have come out to support him, especially petitioners who have built connections with him over the years through grassroots activism. The “Hog Butchering Workshop” (杀猪工作室) makes regular announcements about case development, and an expert consultation group (屠夫案知名专家顾问团) consisting of well-known intellectuals, journalists, legal professionals and other personalities, as well as a citizen support group, have been formed. Netizens established a website and a Twitter account dedicated to Wu Gan.
Meanwhile, internet censorship of Wu Gan is extraordinarily severe. No information about his case could be published on Weibo or WeChat, including photos of Wu Gan and people supporting him. His wife’s bank account, to which supporters had been sending donations, became inaccessible recently.
Fujian police established a task force for the Wu Gan case. He was interrogated dozens of times in the first days by many police officers, some from Beijing, according to his lawyers Wang Yu (王宇) and Li Fangping (李方平) who were able to meet him and report about the meetings in the first few weeks of his detention, despite vindictive obstruction by the detention center. On June 29, however, his lawyer Yan Xin (燕薪) was denied of meeting on the grounds that the case is involved with national security.
On July 7, Wu Gan was formally arrested and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “creating disturbances.”
On July 10, Chinese authorities astounded the world by arresting lawyers and staffers at Fengrui Law Firm, including Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), director of the firm. As of July 21, at least 242 rights lawyers, staffers and activists in 24 provinces have been criminally detained, disappreared, held incommunicado in what’s known as “residence under surveillance,” summoned, or temporarily detained. The Party’s proganda jauggernaut has since been running full gear, churning out reports, commentaries, TV segments that announced the firm as a “major criminal ring” and the rights lawyers “pests” and “troublemakers” in a style reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, the ugliest pages of the CCP rule.
Wu Gan told his lawyer Li Fangping, “I wind up in prison after so many years of fighting injustices, so I might as well relax and take a break. My job now is stay well, keep my spirits up and my morale high.” He wanted his wife to be strong and take good care of herself, and he asked the lawyers to bring him books on philosophy and Tang and Song poetry. Yan Xin, the last lawyer who visited Wu Gan on June 8, brought back these words from him: “My case is an absurd and entertaining movie. The filming has begun, and I have gotten into character.”
 On May 2 this year, in Heilongjiang province’s Qing’an city, a middle aged man named Xu Chunhe took his three young children and his 80 year old mother to the train station to board a train. After Xu was stopped for no reason by train station attendants, Xu had an altercation with the police on duty, and was shot to death by the police. A heated debate ensued online over whether or not the police had sufficient reason to open fire. Netizens demanded that the local authorities make public surveillance video from the scene, but the Qing’an authorities refused to do so. On May 5, Xu Chunhe’s cousin signed an agreement with the Harbin Railway Police stating that he would not pursue the matter any further. On May 14, CCTV aired an edited version of the surveillance video of shooting incident and announced the conclusions of the local railway police: the police acted appropriately in shooting Xu Chunhe. On May 16, Wu Gan issued a statement questioning whether Xu was seen throwing his daughter down in the video. After that, many more analyses and photographs appeared online casting doubt on the CCTV video.
Yaqiu Wang (王亚秋) researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.
Washington Post: She was a quiet commercial lawyer. Then China turned against her. Profile of Lawyer Wang Yu, July 18, 2015.
AP: Activist known for brash tactics among dozens held in China, July 26, 2015
Chinese version 《屠夫吴淦》