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Four Years Afar

Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018

 

Xu Zhiyong was released from prison on July 16, 2017, after serving four years for his role in the New Citizens Movement. Xu is a seminal figure in China’s rights defense movement with the founding of “Gongmeng” (公盟) in 2003, a NGO providing legal assistance to victims of social injustice. It was a training ground for some of the earliest human rights lawyers and took on some of the most high-profile cases of the time. Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009. After that Xu Zhiyong and colleagues sought new ways to continue their work for change, resulting in the New Citizens Movement. Between 2013 and 2014, dozens of participants were thrown in jail, including Xu himself. China Change had extensive coverage of the movement and the crackdown, and a lengthy interview titled “Who Is Xu Ziyong?”  Scroll down midway for a new, 6-minute video in which Xu Zhiyong speaks about his current projects and hopes for the future. The following article was first posted on July 20 in Xu’s new blog, and China Change is pleased to offer a complete translation of it. –– The Editors

 

Xu Zhiyong_20180911

Photo: China Change.

 

It’s been a year since my release from prison. Friends often ask about my life during those four years. It seems as if it were a lifetime ago. That’s how it feels.

It was a summer morning[1] –– the first time in three months I had been allowed to walk out the door of my home. A municipal public security bureau (PSB) car took my wife and I to the hospital for a prenatal check-up. After that I watched her to go to work.

When we returned to my residential compound, there were police cars and many mysterious strangers in front of my building. At the stairway, I was handed a criminal summons notice for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Dozens of people entered my home and conducted a search.

I had already been deprived of my freedom for three months. On April 12 [2013], I was intercepted at the airport departure gate on my way to Hong Kong, per invitation, to participate in a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the Sun Zhigang case.  From then on, people from the domestic security police’s wenbao (文保) division [i.e., political police responsible for culture and education work units] kept watch in the corridor 24/7; I couldn’t even go out to buy food.

On March 31, Yuan Dong (袁冬) and several others had gone to Xidan [西单, downtown Beijing about two miles west of the Tiananmen Square] calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets. Citizens of a normal country have freedom of speech. But this is China. They were taken into custody.

In April, Zhao Changqing (赵常青), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Sun Hanhui (孙含会) and others were detained in succession. Two days earlier, Song Ze (宋泽) disappeared. I sent my unfinished manuscript “Free China” to Xiao Shu (笑蜀), and prepared for imprisonment.

What’s meant to be will be. “Gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” was just an excuse.

What the autocrats were really concerned about was the New Citizens’ Movement. The “citizen” badge, the avatar, and the core values of “freedom, justice, love.” When, on the same day, banners were hung in more than 20 cities calling for the public disclosure of officials’ assets, it looked like a nascent political opposition was taking shape.

After May, I had three “talks” at a farm near Xiaotangshan [a small town in Changping district, Beijing] with someone who claimed to be the principal person in charge of the Beijing Municipal PSB. We argued about ideas, and he urged me to “admit my mistakes.” The meaning was very clear: if I surrendered, I could go home, but if I didn’t capitulate, I’d be facing 10 years or more, and there would be more than one criminal charge.

Think about your family. I said I could stop working and do nothing. If indeed I was mistaken regarding individual matters, I could admit to them, and I myself also reflect on them.

How did they want me to acknowledge them? It must be done in front of the media. A TV confession. That was asking me to renegade my mission.

For so many years, so many people and I worked hard together. Then all of a sudden, I was supposed to turn around and say that I’d done wrong? This is a question of character. I treasure freedom and I love life, but between destroying my character and being thrown behind bars, I can only choose the latter. Since there is no way to retreat, let whatever may come, come.

The car drove straight to the Beijing Municipal Special Police Division. It was the fourth negotiation. Two people who “talked” with me earlier showed up. “Shall we have more talking, or shall we go ahead with legal procedures?”

You’ve already begun crackdown, what else is there to talk about? We were deadlocked for two or three hours. The special police rushed in, put me in a car and drove off. I was blindfolded.

I got out of the car. I heard the sound of a plane and thought I was back at Beijing No.1 Detention Center, where I was detained in the summer of 2009.

It was Daxing (大兴). The cell in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center was already prepared. It was specially set up the day before. There were twelve people in the cell; except for me, everyone else were theft suspects. The vast majority of the more than 400 people detained in the No. 3 Detention Center were there for allegedly stealing mobile phones on public buses.

My code name was 716; the day was July 16, 2013.

No one was allowed to call me by my name. The “head” prisoner said that it was the same for an accomplice of Zhou Bin’s[2] who was detained here last year: he was also called by a code name.

When the broadcast system called out: “716, 716!”, I pretended not to hear. Two days later, the calls changed to “Xu Zhiyong.”

Almost every day they interrogated me for long hours –– regarding the New Citizens’ Movement, citizens’ dinner gatherings, equal education rights for migrant workers’ children, and calls for officials to disclose their assets. I talked about ideas, and didn’t avoid discussing my own actions.

With respect to questions involving other people, I didn’t say a word. “It’s not convenient to say” was my answer, or I would tell the transcriber to simply note “silent.”

Xu Zhiyong, 228

Top two: the scene of the 228 petition. Bottom: outside a Beijing subway station in 2013, a policeman came over to make inquiry as Xu Zhiyong called on people to participate in another petition for equal education right.

I was the one who went to the copy shop to print the flyers for the “228” petition for equal education rights.[3] They repeatedly asked me where the copy shop was. I knew they were unlikely to be hard on the shop; at most, just threaten them a bit.

But I didn’t want innocent people to be harassed and frightened. My principle was not to give information about other people. I sat on the iron chair from morning till night, refusing to answer. The stalemate lasted for six days. Then they gave up.

They asked how much money Wang Gongquan (王功权)[4] gave to Gongmeng (公盟, Open Constitution Initiative). I said, “I can’t tell you.” “Why are you holding it back when he himself has already told us?”

I didn’t say a word. My words must not become testimonies that are used to incriminate others.

This is also legal common sense. He gave me cash, only the two of us knew about it. This fact is not the same as a legal fact. Legal facts require at least two people’s testimony that mutually corroborates the other. If only one person says it, then it’s useless; it doesn’t become legal evidence.

I thought of all kinds of torture. When even life can be given, then torture doesn’t matter.

[Lawyer Zhang] Qingfang appeared in front of the iron-grated window, and we smiled at each other. What I remember best is his passionate and voluble manner during the Yanyuan Lectures. We were both PhD students at Peking University Law School. He was the class of ‘98, and I was ‘99.

He and lawyer Hu Yu (胡育) both came to see me almost every week. We exchanged information, and it was extremely important for the defense in political cases. They took and later disseminated a video of me speaking, handcuffed and in a prison garb. Because of this video, the interrogators were livid.

Later, the Party-state tightened control, and it’s now impossible for political prisoners to have such opportunities. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has not been allowed to meet with a lawyer for three years. They said this is according to their law. But how many countries in the world have such evil laws?

In defending political cases, it’s very important for lawyers to speak out. Regardless of whether a prisoner is prepared to go to jail or compromise in exchange for freedom, widespread outside attention is valuable. At a minimum, the attention would result in more safety for the prisoner. Speaking only in the authoritarian court setting is essentially saying nothing.

Even if you want to compromise, it’s a compromise on the part of the political prisoner,  not on the part of the family and the lawyers. What family members and lawyers can do is to speak out, tell the story, and talk about how an idealist pursues democracy and freedom, how he or she upholds ideals and serves the society.

Every time a lawyer meets with his or her client and then tells the outside world, it’s basically the outside world’s only source of information. What autocrats fear most is the spread of the power of conscience. If lawyers are under too much pressure, they can talk to the family of their client, and then the family can speak to the media and put the news out online.

Li Wei (李蔚)[5] was held next door; sometimes we were able to say hello to each other. Sometimes when I was taken out of the cell for interrogations, I could see Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in #201 cell, in quiet contemplation, as I walked down the hallway. Sometimes during the let-out time, I could hear the cry, “Call on officials to publicly disclose their assets!” They were Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) and Ma Xinli (马新立). In September, I knew that [Wang] Gongquan had also been taken in. One day we met in the hallway. We raised our shackled hands, and cupped one fist into the other hand to greet each other.

I told Qingfang to tell the others that those who could leave should do their best to leave; we don’t need so many friends going to jail.

My happiest day in the detention center was the news transmitted over the walkie-talkie that Song Ze (宋泽)[6] was released on bail. Later, I learned from a fellow prisoner that when Song Ze left the detention center he had grown long hair, and that he had never complied with the jailhouse rules.

Early November, the gloom hung the heaviest.

One day they began to ask about “a country of the people and for the people,” a constitutional vision for a beautiful China.

In the fall of 2011, on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911, many constitutional scholars held bi-weekly discussions that lasted for five months with continuous research output. Where is China headed?  What the Chinese people need is a constitutional consensus.

They stopped letting my lawyers see me. For a Chinese legal professional, this suggested a subversion charge. Some of the cell arrangements, such as not having to be on duty at night, were cancelled.

They began to use night interrogations –– just when I was about to fall asleep, they came to get me. Straight through until dawn. I was expecting that, perhaps next, I would be deprived of sleep for days –– a form of torture. I said to them that if they did the same tomorrow, I would refuse to cooperate.

The second night, I didn’t say a word; it was a stalemate till dawn.

It was a weekend. Back to the cell, I lay down on the bed plank amid the blaring TV.

I was exhausted. Everywhere was grey. Initially, it was one charge, with a maximum sentence of five years; now there were two counts, which means at least 10 years. Under five years, it’s part of life; ten years and more, it’s a career. That’s a fundamental difference.

There is a lot of suffering in life. Prison was never a surprise for me. When I bought a home in 2004, the purpose was very clear: when I was released from prison one day, I’d have a place to live. But ten years would be a long time when that became a reality! I was overcome by immeasurable pain and sadness.

Suddenly a voice said, in a flash, “Make it a happy experience” (快乐体验). In 2009, when I was at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, there was a similar moment of sudden light.

Those are moments when history is made.

Embracing everything in life with happiness. I got up, and using a small piece of sandstone, wrote “make it a happy experience” on the wall of cell #208.

I had no paper or pen –– this probably was a rule targeting me, I had quite a few words. On July 31, I wrote: “For freedom, justice, love, and happiness for all beings, for your glory, Lord, I want to live your life in this world.”

On December 5, Nelson Mandela passed away, and I wrote “Long Road to Freedom.”

I’ve always believed there’s a mysterious and inexorable force in me, leading me and spurring me on. He always flashes light in the darkest moments of my life. He created this world. He is the ultimate cause of everything –– the universe, life, evolution, humanity, and civilization.

They came for me on third night, menacing. As soon as I came out of my cell, the guard yelled, “Squat down!” I laughed. It is the rule of the detention center that when a suspect leaves his cell he must squat and put his hands behind his head, fingers interlaced. I never abided by that rule.

As soon as I sat down in the interrogation room, a new face, a man in his thirties, unleashed a torrent of invective and abuse.

Who do you think you are? Scum, bastard, degenerate…  he exhausted almost all of the insulting words there are in the Chinese language. He paced back and forth, waving his arms, stomping his feet, twisting out his cigarette butts, making threatening gestures and monstrously screaming. It seemed that he was about to tear me to pieces and gobble me up.  Both my hands were shackled to the iron chair, and I sat quietly. This went on for about an hour. Then he stopped. The room became quiet.

I raised my head, and looking into his eyes, asked him, “Are you done performing?”

I was genuinely concerned for this person. Who is he? What did he just do? For whom?  How could he utter those words if he had the slightest sense of right and wrong? Unless he is mentally ill –– he is not, he is putting on a show.

It was like watching from high above a little marionette shook and screamed loudly on the blue earth. He looked so pathetic that I had to show my concern.

He suddenly fell apart. He said, in a succession of quick utterances, “Alas, I am really sorry; I was indeed performing; oh dear, I really can’t do this job! Why are they asking me to do this?”

He had completely forgotten about his colleagues around him, as well as the watching eyes supervising them in another room. Later, we chatted for a while. He was a graduate of Renmin University. He repeatedly apologized, saying that he shouldn’t have cursed and insulted me, and that he had failed.

If I had any fear, or felt humiliated, they would have won. Whatever worked on you, they would use it against you. For me, beating would only inspire me. In Linyi, Shandong province, at the entrance of the black jail in the Youth Hostel, brutal violence did not make me submit.[7] Nor did insults have any use.

In a post-totalitarian society, ideology is dead. There is no more class hatred. Beating people is just a job, a role to play.

From a historic perspective, we each play our own role. What’s there to be afraid when you transcend the confines of this world and look at yourself and the world around you from the vantage point of distance? You see the preordained role of each person in the world; there is only compassion.

Just like that, the quasi-torture of me was over.

On December 15, the news of Mandela’s death was broadcast on television. I thought of the song “The Glorious Years” by Beyond. How many people must bear the cost for a nation to be saved? Countless ancestors shed blood. We are their successors. We’re very fortunate.

2014 arrived. In the brightly lit cell, on the large shared plank bed, each went to sleep with their own dreams. I recalled the distant ring bells, the open countryside of my childhood, the wheat waving in the spring breeze. And the green lawns of New Haven,[8] and the cross atop of a church pointing to the blue sky and white clouds. And the clamor and roar on New Year Eve on the southern shore of Lake Weiming, straddling two centuries. The distant bells; the years of youth in the river of time.

I prepared for trial.

As far as the law was concerned we were not guilty, of course. Opposing segregation based on hukou, or household registration, promoting equal education rights, and calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, all of these is simply public expression and an exercise of freedom of speech as stipulated in China’s Constitution. We didn’t block roads or traffic; we didn’t “disrupt social order”; our actions resulted in no social harm whatsoever.

All of the witnesses for the prosecution were either policemen or security guards, and none of them testified in court. And not a single city resident was a victim.

The Party didn’t respect the law, nor did it care about procedures. The lawyers fought hard about the key issues of whether the New Citizen cases should be handled together or separately, and the appearance of witnesses in court.

The New Citizen “cases” were obviously a single case. We all identify as citizens, recognize the core values ​​of “freedom, justice, and love,” and work together to promote educational equality and the public disclosure of officials’ assets. The allegations against us, as well as the case materials, were the same; there was no legal reason to try us separately.

The authorities used rogue, unlawful methods to force the case to be divided into separate cases in order to minimize the impact of the New Citizen trial. That was the only explanation.

We requested witnesses to appear in court to testify, a reasonable request in any normal country, but the judge refused.

Without respect for procedures, it was impossible for the trial to be just.

The so-called “trial” then was no more than a formality; all we could do was use non-cooperation to protest. My lawyers and I agreed to sit through the trial in complete silence.

The trial was held on January 22, 2014. The police cordoned off the intersection near the court. Many friends came to the courthouse that day, and many more friends were restricted from coming. Thank you all!

My lawyers Zhang Qingfang and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱) explained briefly the reasons why we must be silent, and then stopped talking. Regardless of how the judges asked, all three of us maintained silence.

Enraged, the presiding judge called for an adjournment. He urged me to speak. I didn’t.

In private, other judges and prosecutors said to me that they were sorry, there was nothing else they could do –– they did so to let me know that they still had a conscience. Only the presiding judge was full of hostility toward me. There are fewer and fewer people like him in the autocratic system.

When the trial resumed, we maintained our silence. No matter what the judges or prosecutors said, we ignored it all. The angry presiding judge announced the court would adjourn again, and threatened me and my two lawyers.

With basic procedural justice trampled upon, how could we cooperate? The next part of the hearing was pointless. One by one, the prosecutors presented their “evidence.” The judge asked the defendant if there was any objection. No answer from me. Any objections from the lawyers? Silence.

They are all in it together, so let them do their own show. At one point, I dozed off.

It was finally over at four o’clock in the afternoon.  When I gave my final statement, the judge interrupted several times. Finally, I was forced to stop.

It’s not important what was said in court, “For freedom, justice, and love –– my court statement” has already been disseminated outside the courtroom.

She came on the day of the trial. Our daughter was born just nine days before. I got down on my knees. Actually, those of us who believe in destiny don’t care about the price. But our loved ones bear the cost. Four days after the first-instance trial, the verdict was pronounced. The four-year sentence was not a surprise. But for a wife and a 13-day old baby, it was much too long.

We filed an appeal on the final day of the appeal period. Not to change the outcome, but just to lengthen the battle front, so more people could learn about the citizen movement.

The major facts were unclear and the procedure was seriously illegal, but the authoritarian court is not a place to reason. The court of second instance, the Beijing High People’s Court, didn’t hold a court “hearing.” They were afraid of another trial. On the day the verdict was announced, I declared in a loud voice when I was taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs: “The absurd judgment cannot stop the trend of progress of human civilization, and the haze of communist dictatorship will inevitably be dispelled; the sunshine of freedom, justice, and love will inevitably shine in China!”

There is joy everywhere. My last days at the detention center were leisurely. There was a fundamental improvement in my shuangsheng ability (a variation of poker). I could now remember cards. After each round the loser would have to drink cold water. A young man who had been to the juvenile detention facility when he was a teen promised me that he was going to open a hot spicy soup stall after he got out. I promised to help him. I don’t know where he is now.

On April 27, a young guard said goodbye to me after breakfast. His family is in Fengtai (丰台), and they also suffered forced eviction and demolition of their home; he had consulted me about some legal issues.

 

      For English subtitles, click setting.

 

The first stop was Tianhe Prison (天河监狱). It was formerly known as the “South Building”; the transfer station was well known for its perversely strict management. Prisoners who were not from Beijing were sent here and then transferred to their place of residence to serve their sentences. I had heard many stories about the “South Building”, so from the outset I didn’t have a good impression.

At the beginning, the prison was unusually harsh. Then we were under regular management. During the last three months up until we got out of prison, the management loosened up. With each change, one felt happier. The same changes, if done in reverse order, it would be hard to endure.

Tianhe is the starting point for prison, it played the role of hell. New prisoners had nothing, not even a single drawer. There was no private space whatsoever. You couldn’t read, you couldn’t take an afternoon nap. Every day, before we watched TV for study, the warden shouted, “Bow your heads, raise your heads, bow your heads, raise your heads…”

I must resist, for human rights, and also to carve out some space for myself.

On the first day, because I wore slippers in the corridor, the lieutenant blocked me, and I said I would not obey. He yelled, do you dare to write that down? I said, Give me a piece of paper and I will write it down that I refuse to obey order. I did just that and signed my name.

There was a small library there for the prisoners from Beijing who remained at Tianhe. I went and got a book. The lieutenant told me to take it back; I refused. He shouted at the cell leader, “Take it away from him!” I said, “Who is going to come over here and have a fight with me?” The cell leader was a skinny young man. He used to work at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau; his crime was taking bribes. He didn’t know what to do. I was able to keep the book.

I know that I had the strength to resist because of the attention on me from hundreds of thousands of people. That is my good fortune and also the hope of the nation. Compared with many who came before me, I was lucky.

I would often stand in front of the window in the cell, thinking about the golden dandelions in the sun and the sparking stars, the cuckoo singing throughout the night, the happiness. Also my boyhood.

The one month of resistance was over. On May 30, 2014, I was told to gather my things.  The deputy warden said he didn’t know which prison I was being transferred to. We had talked about privileges in prison before. He said that I might be sent to Yancheng (燕城). Usually a prisoner would go to a second prison for another two months, and then to some other prison. I hoped that my situation would stabilize as soon as possible.

The police car got on the highway. The wheat fields on both sides were just turning  yellow. When I was a child, this was my favorite season. White mushrooms, hard working ants, panicked hares whizzing by. Those distant times.

The car drove to a yard with a high electrified wall. Seeing “Liulin Prison” (柳林监狱), my heart said, my Longchang Yi (龙场驿)![9]  Five hundred years later, I was also in a remote place. Far away from it all.

Liulin Prison is divided into seven wards; each ward had about 100 prisoners and 20 prison guards.

In my ward, the Superintendent (the leader, later renamed ward captain) was a decent person. He said to me privately that all people have a conscience. He said in the minds of the the prison guards, there are three categories of prisoners. “The first category is you,” he said, “so no need to explain.” The second category, he said, is those guilty of corruption—the larger social environment is just like this. The third category is ordinary criminals.

A few days later, he said that the reading room was ready. We then took 200 some books from the prison library to the reading room, including traditional cultural classics such as The Book of Songs, The Analects, and Instructions for Practical Living, as well as world classics such as Les Miserables and War and Peace.

The one that I cherished the most and kept for the entire three years I was there was The Federalist Papers.

Sixteen people lived in one cell. Robbery, murder, theft, drug trafficking, bribery and other crimes were all mixed together. A small society. These were hardened people to begin with, and when they were stuck together in such a harsh environment, they became worse –– it was a vicious cycle.

There were no mirrors in the prison. Anything that could injure a person was not allowed, so there was no glass, no bamboo sticks, etc.; they feared self-inflicted wounds.

In the first month at Liulin Prison, the labor was weeding and turning up the soil. We removed the weeds on both sides of the road and then turned the soil over and over again. It was a perversity on the part of the prison: they wouldn’t allow anything to grow freely, including weeds.

I then was sent to the large workshop to wrap chair frames with plastic wire. I didn’t want to earn credit to reduce my sentence. Labor was symbolic, so I’d do a little bit of cleaning, and occasionally I’d wrap a chair too.

An optimistic person can work everywhere, and wherever I am, there is space for me. My work was to think and write.

A rule was applied to me at the beginning: I could study half the time and do labor half the time. After I swept the floor, I read in a corner of the workshop.

The first two months were my “study period.” After that, the Superintendent  and his deputy called me outside and said that prison rules stipulated that no reading was allowed in the workshop.

I said I must be allowed to read; if you don’t let me read, I will switch into total noncooperation, and you can just go ahead and send me to the “training team.”

The training team is a prison within a prison. In the beginning, you’re tied to a bed with iron chains 24 hours a day. Usually there’s a ceremony for those sent to the training team: a large meeting is held, the disciplinary violations are announced in a stern voice, the police raise the prisoners’ arms high overhead, press their heads down as low as possible, and hurriedly stuff them into a truck. It was the posture used for struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution. For many people, that was a frightening place. I didn’t care. Actually, it’s perfect for a meditation retreat.

The Superintendent made concessions. “Well, just bring one book at a time.” A few months later, a floor supervisor found me reading a book in the workshop. The warden reminded me to be watchful. I said that my reading was out in the open, and I would never hide from anyone.

Outside the window, dusk fell. In the distance, the high-speed train hurled past. It connected the city and my life.

A huge white bird, flapping its wings, landed in Liulin. The northern coast was not far away. Many years ago, I listened to a big sister telling her story in the dark clouds and cold wintry wind of the northern coast. In the summer of 1989, it was the first time I, a wandering boy, came to see the sea, under the gloomy sky with several big ships and a few seagulls in view. I stayed with her until late at night, an atlas for a headrest, and fell asleep amid the sea breeze. It was the coast of Tanggu, not far away.

I stayed at Liulin for less than five months. In the late autumn. On October 22, [2014], we were all transferred to Kenhua Prison (垦华监狱).

Kenhua is about ten kilometers from Liulin. There are several prisons in the area. This place called Chadian is an enclave of Beijing in Tianjin. Zhou Enlai is said to have chosen this wilderness to detain Kuomintang war criminals.

Kenhua means reclaiming China. The name is as suggestive as my hometown Minquan –– civil rights.

Kenhua was newly built, not big, and could accommodate 1,000 plus prisoners, but only 600 or 700 people were detained there. Ten people lived in one cell. There was less green there than Liulin. Liulin has pear-leaved crabapple groves, jujube forests, corn fields, and old willows everywhere. In Kenhua, the road had two rows of small trees on each side, and there was a wide expanse of clover growing in a clearing.

The biggest problem with the food was its monotony. If you only looked at the weekly menu, it was not too bad: salted vegetables and steamed buns in the morning and evening, stir-fry at noon, Monday cabbage, Tuesday eggplant, Wednesday potato slices….  Each week there were two dishes that included a bit of meat, and two meals of rice. But year in, year out, we only had these 10-20 dishes; we never saw anything else.

Each month, prisoners could fill out purchase orders for pig’s head meat, salted duck eggs, fruits, etc., but the types of extra food you could buy were always the same, year in and year out. There were only ever two kinds of fruit –– apples and oranges. I didn’t see any other fruits for several years. Picking a green onion or radishes from the ground behind the squad leader’s back was a great luxury.

Therefore a peach or a banana could be used as a reward for a labor competition for such a group of people who have seen the world.

What luxurious happiness it would be to be with two or three good friends, having a few small dishes at a food stall with a few bottles of beer on a summer evening!

There was no life here, only poetry and a distant place.

A happy time was when we collected debris. The prison was a tofu-dregs project with construction waste left everywhere, so going downstairs to the lawn to collect debris became frequent labor. There was a rich life amid the clover. The pill bug waited quietly, the little gray spider ran desperately, the praying mantis lifted its machete. And the ants were always busy.

That was their home. They didn’t know the high electrified walls, and they didn’t know the world outside. They were free.

Our space was much larger than that of the ants, but we felt the pain of lost freedom.

Humans don’t have wings to fly, nor fins to swim; we live and die on this planet like dust. I once lived like these ants, and didn’t feel it was painful. What’s habitual and constant is no suffering.

Freedom, pain, happiness, everything in this world is born because of comparison. So God created a hellish world.

To make it a perfect world and to turn life into an experience of happiness –– this is the meaning of life. My Longchang Yi.

I had a lot of time to think. Real, quiet thinking. On the outside, even if my phone is turned off, my mind still can’t settle down. But there, it was useless to ponder what was happening outside. I was relieved of those responsibilities, so I could really calm down.

For several days in a row I thought about the theory of special relativity, and for several consecutive days I thought about the question: what is time?  I wanted to know the truth of the world, time, space, energy, quality, matter, life, humanity…

To be precise, I was quietly waiting for a divine revelation. All flashes of light and thought come from God, and all human knowledge comes from that ultimate spiritual homeland.

The progress of civilization means to know nature, to know oneself, and to know God, from a higher place.

Over the past 300 years, the understanding of nature and science has taken a big step forward, while the other foot, the understanding of God and religion, has remained in the same place.

People are animals looking up at the stars. We will always question our previous lives and the afterlife and be concerned about the meaning of life. We always longing for a refuge for the soul.

The roads of the past are old. This is the era of a new civilization.

I am blessed. I’ve received so much new knowledge. I know the truth of the world. I know the meaning of life. I wrote it down carefully, and saved it. I’m grateful for being on a sacred mission.

I still have a lot of time to long for you. When thinking of you, I stared out the window at the flowering crabapple in bloom and the green fields. It was another spring. I missed as I walked in the prisoners’ formation. Looking up at the sky, I saw a flock of ducks flying north to a distant nest. When I missed you, I gently plucked a four-leaf clover and I wanted to give it to you as a birthday present. I wanted to give you everything that was the best in this life. I missed you at a small corner in the noisy workshop as I pondered the fate of mankind. At this predestined place for meditation, you disturbed me, again and again, giving me life, happiness and longing.

My cellmate Tian Shudong (田树东) had lumbar disc surgery. He helped a friend collect debt, and was sentenced to 13 years for “robbery.” He once shared a cell with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father imprisoned for his baby son who was one of the many victims of the tainted milk powder.

Every day Lai Huaichao (赖怀超), Wu Min (吴敏), myself, and a few others, used a stretcher to carry Tian to the workshop, and after work, we carried him back. Both of them were in for corruption. Wu Min studied physics at Nanjing University, so I often sought him out to discuss physics questions.

About 40% of the people in my ward were convicted of corruption. Among them there were six bureau-level officials; they were smart people and we were able to discuss philosophy together. Each month there were newcomers, and some would leave. When someone left, everyone else felt a little sunshine coming through.

In the last six months of my sentence, our cell had eight people: one Ph.D., two Masters, and three with undergraduate degrees. Several were in for corruption, one was a murderer, and one a robber. Old Li, who slept under me in the bunk, was the general manager of a state-owned enterprise, sentenced to twenty years for corruption and bribery. He had already served nine years, and still had nine to go. He had only received a two-year sentence reduction when a new policy prohibited sentence reductions for corruption offenders. He had shingles.

Tian Shudong was lying on the stretcher in the workshop. One day the political instructor saw him and shouted, get up! I almost lost my temper. One day, he made four prisoners raise their arms and tortured an inmate with mental-illness; I held back my anger, because there was important work to be completed.

In June 2016, after a heavy rain, during the night, the hallway was filled with vomiting sounds. I also had a stomach ache, but it was slight. By my estimate, 40 people were vomiting and had diarrhea; 80% of the inmates had fever, stomach pain and other symptoms. In the entire prison, more than 400 people were poisoned by food. We ruled out all kinds of possibilities and concluded that it was very likely a problem with the drinking water. A few days later at an assembly, the deputy prison warden mentioned this incident, and downplaying it, said that everyone should pay attention to personal hygiene. He was scared of speaking the truth.

It was the place predestined for my personal cultivation. I often thought: what is human nature? And I recalled that debate in the detention center.

My cellmates argued heatedly about whether they could steal from a hospital. They mainly stole mobile phones in the subway, and during a national holiday week they could make 50,000 to 80,000 RMB. Some mainly stole from the mall. There were also those who stole from patients in the hospitals.

Two people approved. The cell “boss” said, the thief is a profession that has existed since time immemorial. “It doesn’t matter if the cat’s white or black, as long as it’s able to make money, it’s a good cat.”[10] He had been in Beijing for three decades since his teens, and he had bought a house and married. His was a history of personal struggles full of blood and tears. The other one who was unscrupulous about stealing from hospital patients was the young man who would later become the cell “boss.” He said that stealing is stealing, so “whatever.”

Four people felt uncertain about their takes: they didn’t support it nor did they oppose it.

Four people resolutely opposed it. Among them was Little Anyang. He was 21 years old; when he was nine he was tricked into going with a gang boss to Shanghai.  Countless times, the boss beat him violently. Speaking about it, he was still fearful. This was his fourth prison run; the previous two times he was sentenced to one year each. Thieves like him normally were sentenced for the most part to one year or less, because the evidence that police were able to seize was usually just a single cell phone or a few hundred RMB.

He said, how can you steal money from a sick person? I will never do something like that!

Everyone has their own moral baseline. Everyone’s behavior is supported by their value system. “This society is just like this” is the reason many criminals give in defending themselves. That debate left me with such a deep impression. I often think, what is evil?

In the spiritual world of humanity, there lives an abundance of species, thoughts, and doctrines. They compete against each other to entice and dominate “I.” The “I” often struggles between temptations.

Robbery, theft, rape –– at that moment a species exceeds the rationality of normal people and dominates the “I.” Or, they lack the rationality of normal people. Under the control of certain value systems, the self becomes selfish and greedy.

Human nature is good. It won’t do things for evil purposes. To do evil is to be controlled by a certain species. Bad guys are actually sick people. Therefore, a civilized punishment is not “a tooth for a tooth” but is for redemption. In the new civilization, there is no hatred, no matter how much pain history has seen.

All people have a conscience. Therefore, I am always optimistic, believe in human nature, and believe in the power of conscience. Even at the darkest time, the depths of our souls are still sunny. We are made incomparably strong by the power of grace, and we are poised to be a reformed people and create history.

Spring Festival 2017. It was my last New Year there. Every festive season the cell was decorated with balloons and ribbons. It was sad on holidays. We had seven days off, three and a half days were for education, raising the flag, etc., and the rest of the time we played cards, chess, and watched TV.  Everyone cared most about the better food: two meals with stir-fried meat dishes, and on the first and fifth day of the New Year, two dumpling meals.

In between holidays, the time was endless. Winter and spring were good times. New Year’s Day, Spring Festival, tomb-sweeping festival, May Day, Dragon Boat Festival, one by one, we looked forward to each. The hardest time was summer, for a long stretch of time, there was no holiday. It was very hot, and people were irritable. Every year, the theme of the three months of summer was “Safe Summer.”

In the bustling world outside, sometimes it was only when the leaves fluttered off the trees and fell onto your head that you would reminded of the arrival of the fall. But in prison, through the narrow window, through the thick bars, you could clearly see the river of time slowly passing by. The crabapples blossomed, bore fruit, their leaves fell, and the snow followed. The crabapples blossomed again.

I remembered the New Year’s Day of 1987, the sound of reading aloud under a kerosene lamp, the snow falling outside the window. I was a teenager and wrote down my dream for life in my diary. It’s been thirty years.

The road is long — the road leading to a free China, a beautiful China.

I’ve become a determined revolutionary. It’s not that I have changed my mind. It’s just that previously I always had illusions about others. It wasn’t that I put my faith in someone; what it was is that I was tempted by life and didn’t want to shoulder responsibility for this ancient people. But having watched CCTV “Evening News” for three years, a voice said: Stop evading your destiny.

One can work anywhere. One can cultivate oneself anywhere. With three busy years, I completed the most important thing in my life. I wrote down more than 200,000 characters by hand, and hand copied it twice. I had finished my mission two months before I was released from prison. I breathed a long sigh of relief.

Carefully, I read The Federalist Papers one more time, and returned it to the library.  I reread the Bible, the Koran, and some Buddhist and Taoist books. I pondered the citizens’ movement, the political transformation, and my beautiful China.

North of the Great Wall, south of the Yangtze, the Kunlun mountains, the East China Sea. The sun has risen in the east for 5,000 years. This vast and beautiful land has seen vicissitudes. I am your child, China; suffering and hardship belong to me, so do glory and pride.

An honest, fair, and kind-hearted people will sustain a new civilization. A perfect world under the sun. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China.

Exactly at midnight on July 15, 2017, the warden woke me up in a friendly voice: hurry, get going, go home. I said, what about my notebooks? Earlier I had handed them over for examination. Let’s talk about it at the gate, he said. I was tricked. I went out the main gate and asked for my nine notebooks. They didn’t give them back to me, they didn’t even give me a receipt. I gave up after nearly two hours of impasse. Many friends were waiting for me, and some had to overcome layers of obstacles to get closer to the prison. Thank you all!

I’m back, China.

Citizen Xu Zhiyong, July 2018

 

 

[1] Xu Zhiyong was arrested on July 16, 2013.

[2] Zhou Bin (周滨) was the son of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a former member of the CCP Standing Committee and the former secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.

[3] A large group of migrant parents and volunteers gathered outside the Beijing Municipal Education Commission on February 28, 2013, petitioning that their children be allowed to take college entrance exams in Beijing where they lived, not back to their hometown where their household registrations was.

[4] Wang Gongquan is a wealthy businessman and a key figure and participant in the New Citizens Movement.

[5] Li Wei was one of the New Citizens Movement activists detained in the crackdown.

[6] Song Ze was a New Citizens Movement activist and an assistant to Xu Zhiyong.

[7] In October, 2005, while visiting the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, Shandong, Xu Zhiyong was beaten up by thugs taking order from the local government.

[8] Xu Zhiyong spent a semester at Yale Law School in 2004 as a visiting scholar.

[9] Longchang yi is where the Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucian official and philosopher Wang Yangming was exiled in today’s Guizhou for protesting official corruption.

[10] This is a variation on Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

 

 


Related:

Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 10, 2014.

Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 13, 2014.

 


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At China Change, a few dedicated staff on a shoe string budget bring you information and produce videos about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (2 of 2)

Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018

Continued from The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (1 of 2)

 

Li Baiguang 2005, 与刘晓波等自由知识分子、维权律师一起

Front row from left: Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), Li Baiguang (李柏光), Fan Yafeng (范亚峰), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟); back fron from left: Teng Biao (滕彪), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), Wang Yi (王怡), Mo Shaoping (莫少平), Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Yu Meisun (俞梅荪), and Wang Guangze (王光泽). 2005.

 

Rights Movement Spread All Over the Country

By 2004, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang were under constant threat. Fuzhou police told the village deputies that Zhao and Li were criminals, and demanded that the deputies expose the two. The Fujian municipal government also dispatched a special investigation team to the hometowns of Li and Zhao to look into their family backgrounds. A public security official in Fu’an said: “Don’t you worry that Zhao and Li are still on the lam — that’s because it’s not time for their date with the devil just yet. Just wait till that day comes: we’ll grab them, put them in pig traps, and toss them into the ocean to feed the sharks!”

On September 17, 2004, Zhao Yan was arrested by over 20 state security agents while at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. At that point he had already left the China Reform magazine and was working as a research assistant in the Beijing office of The New York Times. He was accused of leaking state secrets, denied a lawyer for several months, and eventually sentenced to three years on charges of fraud.

On December 14, 2004, Li Baiguang and three lawyers, while on their way to Fu’an to handle a rights defense case that was likely a trap, were hemmed in by police vehicles and arrested. Li was accused of illegally providing legal services, because he did not possess a law license. On the evening of December 21, a dozen police officers from Fu’an broke into Li’s apartment in Beijing, pried open his cabinets, and confiscated his hard drives and documents related to dismissing officials.

Thanks to the efforts of his friend Yu Meisun and a host of liberal intellectuals and journalists, Li Baiguang was released on bail after 37 days in custody. December to January are the coldest months of the year in Fujian, and there was no heating. In a cell with dozens of people, Li Baiguang recalled later, “I wore a suit, and it was cold. As a form of punishment, they told the cell boss to make me bathe in freezing seawater every day. I lost a lot of hair, and lost so much weight that my cheekbones protruded. When I came out my nephew hardly recognized me.”

The removal of officials between 2003 and 2004 was one of the key campaigns that initiated the rights defense movement, and one of the largest-scale rights defense activities in China. Around the same time, rights defense initiatives took place. During the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident in March 2003, three Peking University law PhDs, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Yu Jiang (俞江) and Teng Biao (腾彪) wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding that they conduct a constitutional review of the law “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities” (《城市流浪乞讨人员收容遣送办法》). He Weifang (贺卫方), Xiao Han (萧瀚), He Haibo (何海波), and two other well-known legal scholars demanded that the NPC conduct an investigation into how the ‘administrative measures,’ commonly known as ‘custody and repatriation,’ were actually being implemented. Gao Zhisheng began defending Falun Gong practitioners in court, demanded that the government respect freedom of belief, and called for the torture against practitioners to cease. Numerous other lawyers and legal scholars also began taking up human rights defense cases, bringing them to public consciousness. Other notable cases of the period included the defence of Hebei private entrepreneur Sun Dawu (孙大午), who was accused of ‘illegal fundraising’; the case of injured investors in the Shanbei oil fields; the case of Christian Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) who was arrested for printing the Bible; the Southern Metropolis Daily editor and manager Cheng Yizhong (程益中) and Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) who were punished for reporting on the Sun Zhigang case and broke the news of SARS; the ‘Three Servants’ religious case that involved hundreds of believers; the libel case against the authors of the Survey of Chinese Peasants (《中国农民调查》), and other incidents.

In fall of 2003 Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui (张星水) founded the organization Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政) in Beijing, later changing its name to the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟). Gongmeng, as it’s often known per the Chinese title, became a hub — and incubator — for human rights lawyers and legal activists. They held a meeting nearly every week, and Li Baiguang was one of the regular participants.

In the winter of 2003 there was an upsurge in the participation of independent candidates in People’s Representative elections in Beijing, and a number of these candidates were successful.

Many independent NGOs focused on environmental protection, AIDS control and prevention, women’s rights, and disabled rights, had sprung up in Beijing and other cities. They used the law and advocacy to propagate rights awareness.

 

Li Baiguang, Taishi village

In Taishi village in Guangdong, Guo Feixiong assisted the villagers’ effort to village head for embezzlement of public fund.

 

Entering 2005, the dismissal of officials in Taishi Village (太石村), Guangdong Province, as well as the Linyi Family Planning Case in Shandong (临沂计生案), became public events involving lawyers, public intellectuals, and citizen activists from around the country.

At the end of 2005, Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine highlighted 14 human rights lawyers and legal scholars, including Li Baiguang, as 2005 People of the Year.[1] It said that “these 14 rights defense lawyers aren’t afraid of power; they wield the constitution as a weapon, harness the power of the internet, and work to defend the rights of the 1.3 billion Chinese people granted in their own constitution, while pushing for the establishment of democracy and rule of law in China.” In the ensuing years, with the exception of one or two, these 14 lawyers and scholars would be arrested, tortured, disappeared, disbarred, or forced into exile. Still, the grassroots rights defense movement they helped to kick off would continue to expand, and gain new energy in the age of social media. We shall not elaborate on that here.

‘Turning into an Ant’

In late July 1999, after publishing Samuel Smiles’ “The Huguenots in France” (issued under the Chinese title “The Power of of Faith” 《信仰的力量》) , Li Baiguang went to a church in the Haidian district of Beijing, bought a copy of the Bible, and began to read it. In January 2005 after he was released from prison, he began attending the Ark Church in Beijing (北京方舟教会) to study the Bible and pray. The Ark Church was a meeting place for many dissidents, rights lawyers, Tiananmen massacre victims, and petitioners — and for this reason the house church suffered regular harassment by the police. On July 30, 2005, Li was baptized in a reservoir in Huairou (怀柔), Beijing. He loudly proclaimed his witness, telling of the several times in his life when he brushed shoulders with death. He spoke of the time that an inner voice told him to stop, as he was considering plunging to his death from a building at university. He told of the catastrophes he escaped in 1998, 2001, and then in 2004. He spoke of the cumulative impact that Samuel Smiles’ books had on him, and, finally, he expressed his gratitude to Jesus.

He began to tremble violently as he read, and only after the baptism was complete and he had sat down a while did it subside.

 

Li Baiguang, 2005, 受洗前宣读《爱的见证》

Li Baiguang read aloud his testimony before being baptised in July 2005.

 

For Li Baiguang, the freedom of the mind and soul and political freedom are simply two sides of the same coin. In 2000, while translating Smiles, Li wrote an essay titled “The Fountainhead of Modern Freedom is the Freedom of Individual Conscience” (《现代自由的源头是个体的良心自由》). He came to believe that only faith can shape and form conscience, and further, that the emergence of individual conscience is the origin and basis of freedom. This also makes it the source of the courage and motivation to fight for freedom and against despotism. He doesn’t believe that the widespread failure of Chinese to distinguish right and wrong, and the country’s moral decay, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Communist Party’s dictatorship.

In April 2006, in a session of “The Middle Forum” (《中道论坛》) with Fan Yafeng, Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), and Qiu Feng (秋风), Li said he was tired of liberal intellectuals’ decades-long discussions of grand themes like constitutional governance, reform, and future China. He described his own turning point of involvement in actual, real life rights defense work. Of the eight years between 1997 and 2005, he said, he too spent the first five focused on all sorts of macro abstractions. “Recently I’ve had a realization: I’m willing to become an ant. I want to take the rights and freedoms in the books and, through case after case, bring them into the real world bit by bit. This is my personal stance. The path to this is legal procedure. In summer, the ant gathers food. Today, I’m also transporting food under the framework of rights defense, and in doing so accumulating experience and results for the arrival of the day of constitutional government.”

“According to the principles of political mechanics, it’s impossible to change minds overnight in such a large system. All you can do is loosen the screws one by one and turn the soil over clump by clump,” he said. Li held high hopes in the future of the nascent rights defense movement, and the gradual dismantling of autocracy from the margins. He thought that the rights defense movement would be crucial to China’s future establishment of a constitutional democracy.

This was the first time he proposed the ‘ant’ idea. In the years afterward, this is how he characterized his work and it became very familiar to his friends.

In May 2005, the Midland, Texas-based NGO China Aid, as well as the Institute on Chinese Law & Religion[2], invited seven Chinese rights lawyers and legal scholars to join a “China Freedom Summit.” Among those invited, Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, and Zhang Xingshui were blocked from leaving China; Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, Yu Jie, and Guo Feixiong were able to make it to the United States. Li Baiguang delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute titled “The Legal Dimensions of Religious Freedom: Reality and Prospects in China.” It proposed a systematic approach for defending religious freedom according to the law in China, and included the following actions:

  • Submit an application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for constitutional review of laws, regulations and policies related to freedom of religious belief, and demand the annulment of unconstitutional laws that infringe upon religious freedom;
  • Apply for religious services for prisoners in detention centres, prisons, and re-education camps in China who believe in God, or have come to believe while in detention, and send the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the above detention facilities;
  • Provide relief to Christians whose religious freedom has been infringed upon by agents of the state;
  • Provide restitution to Christians who have had their persons or their residences illegally searched by agents of the state;
  • Provide restitution to Christians who are being subjected to re-education through forced labor;
  • Provide restitution to Christians or Christian organizations who have been punished with large fines;
  • Provide restitution for those who have been harmed by the dereliction of duty of state organs.

On May 8, while at the Midland office of China Aid for one week of Bible study, the group learned that they would be granted a meeting with President Bush in the White House. On the morning of May 11, President Bush met with Yu Jie, Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, China Aid director Bob Fu, and Institute on Chinese Law & Religion director Deborah Fikes, in the Yellow Oval Room.

Li Baiguang, Bush meetingLi Baiguang presented President Bush with a gift — a copy of a proposal to make a documentary titled  “American Civilization.” It was exquisitely designed by the artist Meng Huang (孟煌). In 2003, Li and his intellectual friends in Beijing designed together two major documentary projects. One of them was a 30-episode series that would introduce the democratic experience in 30 countries. Another, “American Civilization,” would be a 100-episode documentary series that would provide Chinese people a comprehensive introduction to the establishment of America, including its political life, its judicial system, education system, and religious beliefs. “I want to make it a television special for the education of the public,” Li said. He established the Beijing Qimin Research Center (北京启民研究中心) to push the plans forward, but in the end the two ambitious projects were aborted.

The three Christians from China being received by President Bush was, at the time, a major news story. But for the ten years following, the meeting with the U.S. President was remembered more for a controversy that surrounded it: the so-called “rejecting Guo incident.” This is a reference to the fact that Guo Feixiong was excluded from the meeting, purportedly by Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who argued that the meeting was for Christians only and Guo should not attend because he was not a Christian. Later, Li Baiguang expressed his regret that this had taken place. He told rights defense lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) that if it didn’t occur, along with the enormous acrimony around it, the different groups in Chinese civil society might have been more unified and stronger.

Also during this trip to the U.S., Li was invited by Bob Fu to be China Aid’s legal consultant. When Li returned to China, he said in a 2010 interview, apart from his regular rights defense work, he “traveled across the country to provide legal support to persecuted house churches.” Li partnered with China Aid in this fashion until his death.

During that same period, Li sat the bar, passed, and became a lawyer. In December 2007 he hung his shingle with the Common Trust Law Firm (共信律师事务所) in Weigongcun, near Peking University.

In June 2008, Li and six other Chinese dissidents and rights lawyers were awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award.

Law Career

Li Baiguang was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08. But after that point he gradually retired from the media and public spotlight. “Although the substance of my rights defense work has not changed,” he said in the 2010 interview, “my methods are more low-key and moderate than before. I no longer write articles attacking and castigating the authorities; all I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy.”

Li Baiguang, 阅卷

Reading case files with colleagues in Fuzhou, 2017.

Over the following years Li, as a lawyer, left his footprints in every Chinese province except Tibet, acting as defense counsel in several hundred cases of persecuted Christians. The cases he was involved in include: the Shanghai Wanbang Church in 2009 (上海万邦教会), petitioning for Uighur church leader Alimjan Yimiti (阿里木江) in 2009, the 2010 Guangzhou Liangren Church case (广州良人教会), the 2010 Shuozhou Church case in Shanxi (山西朔州), the 2012 Pingdingshan Church case in Henan  (河南平顶山) , the 2014 Nanle case (南乐), and the Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) case in 2017, among others.

As for the result of defending house churches, Li Baiguang summed it up in 2010 as follows: “If we look at the outcome of the administrative review of every rights case, the judgment has ruled against the church almost without exception. But later, I found a very strange phenomenon: after the conflict dies down, looking back a year later, we find that the local public security and religious bureaus no longer dare storm and raid these house churches, and congregants can meet freely. Using the law as a weapon to defend religious freedom works. Where we’ve fought cases, churches and religious activities in the area have since been little disrupted.”

Li Baiguang_Photo_手拿材料During the same period, Li also defended numerous dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, petitioners, and peasants entangled in compensation disputes. These include Guo Feixiong’s appeal in 2009, the Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) case in 2011, the lawsuit filed against the government in 2013 by Wang Xiuying (王秀英) for being sent to re-education through forced labor during the Olympic Games, the defense of lawyers Zhang Kai (张凯) and Liu Peng (刘鹏) in 2015, as well as the defense of 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) in 2015, the mass arrest in Wuxi on April 16, 2016, the commemoration of the June 4 massacre by seven citizens in 2016, the mass arrests in Fuzhou as well as Suzhou during the G20 in 2016, and the defense of lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) in 2017.

While he was engaged in all this, Li also held rights defense training sessions for house churches around China. According to Bob Fu, director of China Aid, over the last roughly ten years, Li has trained several thousands people; the most recent was in January 2018 in Henan — conducted while he was lying on his back after he injured his leg, as church leaders from the local district gathered around to hear him discuss how they should defend their rights according to the law.

 

Li Baiguang, Urgent Action training session

Training barefoot lawyers.

 

Between 2011 and 2013, Li taught in a number of training sessions for “barefoot lawyers” under the aegis of the “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group” (中国维权紧急援助组). In 2016 he also helped with a workshop for independent candidates for People’s Deputies elections. The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group is an NGO founded by the Swede Peter Dahlins, American Michael Caster, and rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in 2009, offering legal training to rights defense lawyers and funding cases.

Li was extremely dedicated and hardworking, according to Dahlins. He focused on details, followed guidelines, and was always a long term thinker. Dahlins often joked with Michael Caster that Li Baiguang, who had met presidents and prime ministers, dressed and looked like a peasant.

Li also took part, with other human rights lawyers and activists, in trainings on the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms in Geneva under the aegis of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (维权网), an NGO that promotes human rights and rule of law in China.

Li Baiguang, 得撒豆腐村In around 2009, the 40-year-old Li, who had been single his whole life, married his former college friend Xu Hanmei (徐寒梅). In around 2010 they moved to Jurong (句容), a small city near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and settled down in a village called Desadoufu (得撒豆腐村). The name Desa comes from the Hebrew “Tirzah,” a Canaanite town mentioned in the Old Testament; the village, originally known for its stone mills used to grind soybeans for tofu, got its name from a church established by Western missionaries. It’s since become a tourist attraction for its pseudo-classical building complexes meant to recall the past.

Most residents in the town are Christians, Li Baiguang told friends. The community built its own kindergarten and elementary school, vegetable gardens, and sports pitch. “I felt like they built their own little Shangri-La,” Yang Zili said.

The Jianxi Church (涧西教会) that Li was associated with is the largest in the area, with around 200 stable congregants, most of whom were like Li: well-educated, having moved permanently to the village from elsewhere in China. For weekend church service, parishioners and catechumen (gradual converts) came from Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui and elsewhere, packing the church to the rafters. For these reasons, the church came to be watched closely by local religious affairs officials.

‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here’

Li Baiguang was not part of any of the public incidents that have been brought to national attention by activists and netizens since 2008. In the mass arrests during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, Li was not among them. When the New Citizens Movement became active between 2012 and 2013 and activists held regular dinner events, Li did not get involved. He wasn’t even part of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group (人权律师团), founded in 2013. The 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers didn’t implicate him, though for a while he signed up for being a defense counsel for 709 detainee lawyer Xie Yanyi. Numerous human rights lawyers have been barred from leaving the country; Li, on the other hand, traveled back and forth to America at will from 2006 to 2018.

Even when he was given trouble by police and state security, he did his best not to go public with it.

Per his own assessment in 2010, the authorities were “tolerating me to a much greater degree.” But his state of hypervigilance tells another story. A friend, Zheng Leguo (郑乐国), said that whenever he was with Li Baiguang in public places, Li would quickly scan his eyes over everyone in the vicinity to detect anything out of order. He was extremely careful about what he ate. When they ate at McDonalds, Li chose a table near the door,  that way he could see people coming in and going out, and he could also escape at a moment’s notice if need be.

For Li Baiguang, 2017 was a disturbing year.

In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 15th anniversary of China Aid held at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation only event. During his remarks, Li said that apart from the suppression of civil society and human rights lawyers, attacks against house churches were also getting more severe. “From this point forward, human rights in China will enter its darkest period.” He added that rights defenders in China would use their God-given wisdom and intelligence to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; he also called on the international community and NGOs to do what they could to help. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here,” he said, citing Romans 13.

Li Baiguang_China Aid 15th Anniversary

Li spoke at the 15th anniversary of China Aid in January, 2017.

Li’s remarks were somehow leaked, according to Bob Fu, and reached the Chinese authorities — when Li returned home was treated “with severity.”

On October 17, 2017, a case Li was defending, involving seafood farmers in Wenling, Zhejiang, suing the government for malfeasance, went to trial. In the evening as Li was returning to his hotel, he was abducted by a dozen unidentified men. They took him to a forest and worked him over. They slammed their fists into his head and ordered him to leave the city by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, or else they would decapitate him and cut off his hands and feet. “When he mentioned that kidnapping,” Bob Fu said, “it was the most frightened I had seen him. The incident shook him badly.”

Another case Li took on in 2017 involved the apparent murder of a certain Pastor Han, of Korean ethnicity, in Jilin, northeastern China. Han was a pastor in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who provided aid to North Korean refugees, and encouraged them to return to North Korea and spread the Gospel. It appeared that he was assassinated by North Korean operatives.

Towards the end of the year, Li met with the Beijing-based AFP journalist Joanna Chiu. After they met in a Starbucks, Li led her out into a small alley, across the street, and into another coffeeshop in order to avoid surveillance. He told Ms. Chiu how he’d been beaten, and also the suspicious death of the pastor.

In early February 2018, Li was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event dedicated to the discussion of religion in public life, attended by thousands, including the U.S. president, policymakers, and religious and business leaders. Bob Fu, in an interview with VOA after Li’s death, said that when Li was in the U.S. from February 5-11, the pastor of Jianxi Church was questioned about the whereabouts of Li and what he was doing in the United States. After he got back to China, he spoke with Fu twice, explaining that he was being investigated, and that danger felt imminent.

At 3:00 a.m. on February 26, 2018, Li Baiguang died in the Nanjing No. 81 PLA Hospital. In response to the widespread shock and suspicion, his family announced that he had died of late-stage liver cancer.

Coda

The death of Li Baiguang, like the death of Liu Xiaobo seven months ago, brings with it a momentous sense of ending. The PRC’s neo-totalitarian state grows more complete by the day; the discourse of political reform represented by Charter 08, and the rule-of-law trajectory sought by the rights defense movement, have hit a wall. Neither have room to expand. One by one, little by little, opportunities for further progress have been sealed and nixed. Truly, a ‘new era’ in China has begun.

The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through night.

 

[1] They are Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, Li Baiguang, Zheng Enchong, Guo Feixiong, Li Heping, Fan Yafeng, Zhang Xingshui, Chen Guangcheng, and Zhu Jiuhu (许志永、高智晟、滕彪、浦志强、莫少平、李柏光、郑恩宠、郭飞雄、郭国汀、李和平、范亚峰、张星水、陈光诚以及朱久虎).

[2]  The Institute on Chinese Law & Religion was registered in Washington, DC. It is now inactive.

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao

 

Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量:纪念李柏光律师》

 

 

 

 

New Citizens Movement Leader Xu Zhiyong Released From Prison

China Change, July 15, 2017

 

 
Xu zhiyongDr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), leader of the New Citizens Movement, was released from prison on July 15, after serving a 4-year sentence.

Xu Zhiyong’s defense lawyer Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) confirmed that Dr. Xu has returned home in Beijing. He was picked up earlier by the security police, a source said.

Yesterday, scores of citizens traveled to the vicinity of Kenhua Prison in Ninghe District in Tianjin where Xu Zhiyong had been imprisoned since he was sentenced in February 2014. Dr. Xu, 44 years old, is a legal scholar and the founder of Gongmeng, a civil society group that pioneered China’s “rights defense movement” and in recent years campaigned for equal education rights for migrant workers’ children in large cities, and engaged in citizen activism under the banner “Freedom, Justice, and Love.”

The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement began in April 2013. Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013.

FullSizeRender

Dr. Xu Zhiyong’s essays were published last fall,  “highly recommended” by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Friends who tried to visit Xu this morning were blocked by three plainclothes security agents at the entrance of his residential compound. It’s unclear whether Dr. Xu will be placed under some kind of restriction in his movement and communications — illegal but common practices used by the Chinese government against leading dissidents.

Yesterday, activists who went to the prison to welcome Dr. Xu found that the roads around the prison were closed, allowing only inbound traffic. During the night, police raided the guest rooms of the activists. On the morning of the 15th, police stopped activists approaching the prison, telling them that Xu Zhiyong had been released already.

On July 13, Liu Xiaobo, the founder of China’s political opposition movements and the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, died in custody from liver cancer, marking, some say, the end of an era and with it the hope of a gradual transition to democracy in China.

Dr. Xu is a leader of the younger generation of Chinese activists; he returns, four years later, to a much harsher environment for political opposition.

 

 


Related:

The China Manifesto – detained activist Xu Zhiyong calls for end to ‘barbaric’ one party rule, The Telegraph, January 23, 2014.

Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part One, April 10, 2014.

Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part Two, April 13, 2014.

 

 

 

 

14 Cases Exemplify the Role Played by Lawyers in the Rights Defense Movement, 2003–2015

By Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, published: August 19, 2015

Photo: @chrlcg

Photo: @chrlcg

 

The Chinese government has lately carried out a massive campaign to arrest, summon, and threaten Chinese lawyers. The propaganda machine has followed in lock-step, operating at full strength to tarnish these lawyers’ reputations by describing them as a “criminal gang,” “hooligans,” and “scum of the lawyer community” (herehere, and here).

Rights lawyers first emerged in the 2000s at the onset of a Chinese rights-defense movement. For more than a decade, they have fought courageously for legal justice and been on the front lines of promoting rule of law in China by taking part in innumerable cases of all sizes dealing with some of the most important problems in Chinese political and social life, such as social justice, free expression, religious freedom, food safety, property rights, economic charges, political rights, power abuses, wrongful convictions, and the rights of ethnic minorities and disabled people.

Some of them call themselves “die-hard lawyers.” Lawyer Si Weijiang explains (Chinese) that the “die-hard lawyer” are no different from ordinary criminal defense lawyers, except that they’re particularly persistent about procedures and refuse to play by any of the “hidden rules” of the Chinese legal system.

Though more and more lawyers have begun to join the fight for justice and their numbers have grown from just a handful to (according to some estimates) over a thousand, rights lawyers remain a tiny minority among China’s 270,000 practicing lawyers. But in contrast to the distorted and insulting way the propagandists present them, to a great degree they are the only true lawyers in China.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) around 2005.

Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) around 2005.

For their efforts, they have been subjected to all sorts of attacks from the authorities, including having their licenses revoked, physical threats, being summoned for questioning, imprisonment, and torture. Despite all of this, more than 200 individuals—many of them rights lawyers themselves and members of the legal community—have refused to be intimidated and have recently signed a statement (Chinese) of protest, accusing China’s Ministry of Public Security of carrying out an illegal and abusive act against rights lawyers.

We have selected 14 cases from the past dozen years that represent and exemplify the rights-defense movement, our goal being to answer a question that many of our readers might ask: “What kinds of cases do rights-defense lawyers handle?”

In China’s legal environment, the efforts of rights-defense lawyers often end in failure. In the eyes of the authorities, however, these Sisyphean efforts clearly represent a kind of defiance. Examining the cases that rights lawyers have taken on over the years helps us understand the origins and logic of the fierce repression they are experiencing under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.

Sun Zhigang Case (Custody and Repatriation)

Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

In 2003, a recent university graduate from Hubei named Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) found a job in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong (广州广东). As he had only recently arrived, he had yet to obtain a temporary residence permit. On March 17, police apprehended him in the street on suspicion of being an “illegal migrant” and sent him to a “custody and repatriation” center, used to hold people unable to produce an ID card, temporary residence permit, and work permit together. Three days later, Sun Zhigang was brutally beaten to death by guards and other inmates while he was being held in a medical clinic affiliated with the center. News of his death rocked China after it was reported in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily.

In May, three young legal scholars named Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) submitted a recommendation to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, pointing to the restriction of citizens’ personal freedom under custody and repatriation as a violation of the constitution and requesting that the regulations governing the measure be changed or abolished. In June, the State Council announced that the Custody and Repatriation Measures would be abolished. At the same time, those who took part in the beating of Sun Zhigang were tried and convicted.

Xu Zhiyong also provided defense for Yu Huafeng (喻华峰), the general manager of the Southern Metropolis Daily who was retaliated for his paper’s investigation of the Sun Zhigang story and the SARS story.

Many at that time believed that Sun Zhigang’s death would “bring about the birth of a system of constitutional review (Chinese) long-hoped-for by Chinese people.” The “successful rights defense” of the three young legal scholars was praised as a milestone in China’s legal history, and the incident filled Chinese intellectuals with hope about the development of rule of law in China.

Educational Equality Movement (Household Registration System)

Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜)

Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜)

After the “Sun Zhigang Affair,” the three young legal scholars and their friends established a public-interest civil society organization called “Gongmeng” (also known as “Open Constitution Initiative”). Consisted mostly of lawyers, Gongmeng worked to provide legal aid in cases involving social injustice. After Gongmeng experienced many years of repression, it evolved into the “New Citizen Movement.” One of the movement’s initiatives concerned the fight to provide the children of China’s migrant population with equal rights to education by ending the segregation of those with rural household registration and the discrimination and injustice associated with that status. The education equality movement called for the children of migrant workers to have the right to take the university entrance examination in the cities where their parents had come to work, instead of forcing those children to leave their parents and return to their places of household registration in order to take the exams. Xu Zhiyong organized many signature and petition campaigns in support of this cause.

The education equality movement achieved limited success in provincial cities throughout China, but Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013 and sentenced the following January to four years in prison for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Lawyer Ding Jiaxi, another important participant in the New Citizen Movement, was also sentenced to 3½ years’ imprisonment in 2014.

Sun Dawu Case (Economic Reform)

Sun Dawu is a well-known private entrepreneur from Hebei Province and chairman of the Dawu Group, a producer of agricultural and pastoral products. Unable for many years to borrow money from state-owned banks, the Dawu Group turned to its employees, friends and relatives, and local residents to raise capital—a method commonly used by private businesses in China.

In May 2003, Sun Dawu was arrested on charges of “illegally taking public funds.” After he received near-unanimous support from public opinion and experts, Sun was given a suspended sentence and released. Sun’s defense counsel Xu Zhiyong considered this to be the “most ideal resolution” (Chinese) in a country where a court cannot admit that it shouldn’t have tried the case in the first place. Xu Zhiyong later wrote that he had hoped to “use Sun Dawu’s case to promote market reforms in China and improve the environment in which private enterprise can exist and grow.”

Four years later, in March 2007, a wealthy young woman entrepreneur from Zhejiang named Wu Ying (吴英) was arrested by the authorities for “illegally taking public funds.” Wu Ying’s fate was starkly different from that of Sun Dawu, however, as the Zhejiang High People’s Court eventually sentenced her in 2012 to death, suspended for two years, for the crime of “fraudulent fundraising.”

After the mass arrest of lawyers on July 10, Sun Dawu wrote to express his support for rights lawyers: “Corrupt officials and people with special privileges don’t believe in the law and won’t care one bit whether or not there are lawyers. But ordinary people want their society to be well ordered. In the past, when they had an economic dispute, a divorce, or were involved in some criminal violation, they might have gone looking for connections or someone powerful to protect them. Now, the first thing people will think of is getting help from a lawyer.”

Taishi Village Recall Case (Anti-Corruption, grassroots democracy)

Left to right: Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and Liu Shihui, three rights leaders in Guangzhou.

Left to right: Guo Feixiong, Liu Shihui, and Tang Jingling, three rights leaders in Guangzhou.

In 2005, residents of Taishi (太石村), a village in Panyu District, Guangzhou (广州番禺), formally requested to recall the village head because of dissatisfaction over graft and corruption by members of the village committee. The Panyu government mobilized several hundred police officers to suppress the recall campaign, beating many participants and arresting several of their leaders.

As the situation in Taishi became more serious, it attracted widespread attention and intervention by rights-defense activists, lawyers, scholars, and media organizations from both inside and outside China. The Guangzhou-based lawyers Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Yan (郭艳) were sought out to take on the case by village residents and rights activist Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄). Lawyers Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Zhang Xingshui (张星水), Teng Biao (滕彪), Li Heping (李和平), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) were among those who formed the “Taishi Village Legal Advisory Group” to provide support to this case.

The recall campaign ended in failure, but this case gave further momentum to the rights-defense movement. As Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) wrote: “The Taishi Incident is not only a striking indicator of how far local democracy in China has come; it is also an incident in which ordinary people have again paid a price and one that will certainly be inscribed in the history of progress toward grassroots democracy in China.”

The lawyers who took part in the Taishi Village case went on to become core figures in the rights-defense movement for many years. Tang Jingling, Li Heping, Xu Zhiyong, and Pu Zhiqiang are all behind bars today. Though Gao Zhisheng has been released from prison, he has not yet regained his freedom.

Guo Feixiong, one of the pioneers of the rights defense movement and the central figure in the Taishi Village case, is also behind the bars today. Lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青), who represented Guo, is among the lawyers detained on July 10th.

Linyi Violent Family Planning Case (One-Child Policy)

Li Heping (李和平)

Li Heping (李和平)

Coercion and violence have always been part of the implementation of China’s “one-child” birth control policy. In 2005, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) began investigating the “birth control campaign” being carried out in Linyi, Shandong (山东临沂), where the authorities made widespread use of detention and beatings, carried out forced tubal ligation and abortion, imprisoned families that had “too many children,” tore down houses, and forced people to attend and pay for “study classes.” In addition to helping victims defend their rights, Chen Guangcheng invited several lawyers from Beijing—including Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富), Li Heping, and Teng Biao—to go to Linyi to carry out on-the-ground investigations and provide legal aid.

Beginning in August 2005, Chen Guangcheng and his wife were put under residential surveillance and subjected to numerous beatings. Not long afterward, a local court sentenced Chen to four years and three months in prison for “intentional destruction of property” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic.”

After Chen Guangcheng was released from prison in September 2010, he was once again put under house arrest. This led to a nationwide campaign to “Free Chen Guangcheng.” In April 2012, Chen escaped his village of Dongshigu. After hiding out in the US Embassy, he went into exile in the United States.

Melamine Milk Powder Case (Food Safety)

Li Fangping (李方平)

Li Fangping (李方平)

In September 2008, Beijing resident Zhao Lianhai (赵连海) discovered that his infant son had a 2mm stone in his right kidney. Upon further investigation, he found that companies were mixing the industrial chemical melamine in their milk powder in order to give the appearance of having higher levels of protein. He established a website called “Home for Kidney-Stone Babies,” which he used to investigate, report on, and exchange information about poisoned dairy products and to call on victims of melamine milk-powder poisoning to join together in a lawsuit to defend their rights. 300,000 infants were found to suffer from urinary-system diseases after consuming melamine-laced milk powder. At least six children died as a result.

In November 2009, Zhao Lianhai was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of “provoking a serious disturbance.” Li Fangping (李方平) acted as his lawyer. One year later, Zhao was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

Between 2008 and 2011, Peng Jian (彭剑), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Li Fangping (李方平), and more than 100 other public interest lawyers sued the Sanlu Group in the Supreme People’s Court and hundreds of local courts—including in Hong Kong—to seek compensation for the victims and their families. More than 200 poisoned babies got justice beyond the official plan for state compensation, with the highest amount of compensation awarded to an individual reaching 350,000 yuan.

Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), one of the lawyers who took part in the lawsuit against the Sanlu Group, is one of the lawyers detained on July 10, while Li Fangping is one of the 269 lawyers called in for questioning and threatened since that date.

Tan Zuoren Case (Political Persecution)

Tan Zuoren (谭作人) is a writer and editor from Sichuan. After the Wenchuan Earthquake (汶川) in 2008, he called on civil society to investigate the construction quality of schools that had collapsed during the earthquake and set up a database collecting information about the thousands of students who lost their lives in the school collapses. In March 2009, Tan was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion.”

Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强).

Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强).

After the court handed down a five-year sentence against Tan Zuoren in February 2010, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) excused himself. Standing in the hallway outside the men’s room, Tan’s wife heard him bawl like a child. Pu said: “This was a political trial, decided on the basis of political factors.”

Even though Tan Zuoren has now been released from prison, Pu Zhiqiang is unfortunately behind bars in what is commonly believed to be retaliation by the authorities against his history of advocacy in rights-defense cases. Another one of Tan Zuoren’s defense lawyers, Xia Lin, has also been jailed for defending civil society leader Guo Yushan (郭玉闪).

Tang Hui Case (Re-Education Through Labor)

Re-education through labor (also known as laojiao) was a system of administrative punishment in which public security organs could directly sentence offenders to up to four years of imprisonment and compulsory labor without trial by a court. Tens of thousands Chinese were sent to laojiao after it was set up in 1957, and over the years the number of ridiculous grounds for which people were sent to laojiao grew too numerous to mention—for example, playing mahjong, cursing officials, or posting items online. Laojiao camps were rife with various human rights violations, and those sent to laojiao were forced to work overtime and were frequently abused and beaten.

In October 2006, a 10-year-old girl who came to be known as “Lele” was abducted from nearby her home in Yongzhou, Hunan (湖南永州). She was put to work in a nearby brothel and raped by numerous men before being found by family members nearly three months later. Lele’s mother, Tang Hui (唐慧), went to the police to demand a criminal investigation, but her demands led nowhere. This led her to begin petitioning.

Since July 10, five lawyers have been blocked from traveling outside China. From left to rights: Cheng Hai, Si Weijiang, Zhang Qingfang, and Li Fangping.

Since July 10, five lawyers so far have been blocked from traveling outside China. From left to rights: Chen Wuqian, Si Weijiang, Cai Ying, Zhang Qingfang, and Li Fangping. Photo: @chrlcg. Click to enlarge.

In August 2012, the Yongzhou Public Security Bureau sentenced Tang Hui to laojiao for 18 months on charges of “disturbing social order.” When Tang Hui requested an administrative review by the Hunan Laojiao Committee, that committee annulled the original laojiao decision and released Tang Hui after less than two weeks. In January 2013, Tang Hui and her legal team including Pu Zhiqiang applied for state compensation from the Yongzhou Laojiao Committee. A court eventually awarded her compensation in the amount of 2941 yuan.

Public calls for the abolition of laojiao had been growing over recent years, and those calls reached their high point around the time of the Tang Hui case. At the end of 2013, the NPC Standing Committee announced that laojiao would be abolished. Lawyers handling Tang Hui’s case—Si Weijiang (斯伟江), Xu Liping (徐利平), Hu Yihua (胡益华), and Pu Zhiqiang (who handled several other cases involving laojiao)—have been credited with making major contributions toward the ultimate elimination of laojiao.

Xia Junfeng Case (Violence by Urban Enforcement Officers)

One day in May 2009, a Shenyang street vendor named Xi Junfeng (夏俊峰) and his wife were selling barbecued meat skewers on the street when they were accosted by around a dozen members of the local urban enforcement squad (or chengguan)—a para-police organization set up in Chinese cities to enforce urban planning regulations and maintain order. An argument ensued, and officers began beating Xia, who was then taken to the local chengguan office. There, he was subjected to further beatings by two officers. As the beating was going on, Xia pulled out a knife he carried to slice sausages and fatally stabbed two officers and wounded another in the course of trying to escape. During the trial, the court refused to accept the testimony of six witnesses who saw the officers beat Xia Junfeng in the street and only accepted testimony from other chengguan officers. In September 2013, Xia Junfeng was executed for intentional homicide.

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao, who represented Xia Junfeng in his appeal trial, said: “The decision in this case is intended to send a message: namely, that no defiance of the government will be tolerated—even when that defiance is directed at local law-enforcement personnel.”

The afternoon that Xia Junfeng was executed, 25 Chinese lawyers issued a joint statement (Chinese) protesting the execution and demanding that the Supreme People’s Court release its written decision confirming the death sentence. They also demanded that the Supreme People’s Court reform its process of reviewing death sentences by doing away with the secrecy surrounding that process and implementing the principle of judicial openness.

Nian Bin Case and the Leping Case (Wrongful Convictions)

In July 2006, several members of two households were poisoned in Pingtan County, Fujian (福建平潭), leading to the deaths of two children. Local police investigators established that someone had poisoned the families with rat poison and identified neighbor Nian Bin (念斌) as the chief suspect.

Nian was arrested by police and subjected to severe torture in an effort to secure a confession. His hands and feet were bound, books were tied around his ribs while police beat him with a hammer, and slivers of bamboo were placed in the spaces between his ribs. In the process of handling the case, police also fabricated test results showing that the deaths were caused by rat poison, revised the timeline of the crime, and concealed crucial witness testimony.

4 lawyers in front of the Jiangxi Higher Court last May demanding access to case files.

4 lawyers in front of the Jiangxi Higher Court last May demanding access to case files.

Nian Bin was forced to endure numerous trials and was sentenced to death four separate times, with Nian appealing the verdict each time. On August 22, 2014, the Fujian High People’s Court issued a final verdict in the “Nian Bin Poisoning Case,” proclaiming Nian innocent of all charges and releasing him from custody. The victory in the Nian Bin case was the product of many years of perseverance by a group of Chinese lawyers who sought justice in his case, including Si Weijiang, Zhang Yansheng (张燕生), Li Xiaolin (李肖霖), Zhang Lei (张磊) and Gongxun Xue (公孙雪).

The “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case” on the other hand was connected to a robbery, rape, and dismemberment case that occurred in Leping, Jiangxi (江西乐平), in 2000. In May 2002, police arrested Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强) and three other suspects. The four men were forced to confess under torture and sentenced to suspended death sentence, and they remain imprisoned to this day.

However, as early as November 2011, the suspect in another case confessed responsibility in the Leping case. Lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯) joined together to prepare a petition requesting that the case be retried, but the Jiangxi High Court refused their lawful request to review files in the case. In May of this year, they carried out a sit-in protest together with victims’ family members outside the Jiangxi High Court. Wu Gan (吴淦), an activist taking part in the protest, was arrested in May. Among the lawyers recently arrested or summoned, Zhang Weiyu of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所) was briefly detained, while Zhang Kai was summoned for questioning and given a warning.

Jiansanjiang Case (Religious Freedom, Falun Gong)

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

Four lawyers on March 21, 2014, in front of the “Legal Education Base of Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration.” From left to right: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng, and Tang Jitian.

In March 2014, rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) went to Heilongjiang to provide legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners who were being held illegally in a so-called “legal education base”—really a “black jail”—at Qinglongshan State Farm. The next day, the four lawyers were taken away by local public security officers and placed under administrative detention for “using a cult to endanger society.” During their detention, the lawyers were brutally beaten. After news spread of their detention, other lawyers and ordinary people from throughout the country went to Jiansanjiang to show their support, many of them also ending up subject to detention and abuse.

At the end of April, the Heilongjiang General Administration for Agricultural Reclamation disbanded its “legal education bases.” Lawyer Li Fangping remarked (Chinese): “This outcome was achieved through rights defense lawyers putting their own bodies on the line in protest.”

Wang Quanzhang (王全璋)

Wang Quanzhang (王全璋)

In China, it is extremely dangerous to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Gao Zhisheng, who was the first lawyer to investigate the persecution of Falun Gong, was punished with nine long years of torture and imprisonment between 2005 and 2014. After being released from prison on August 7, 2014, he remains under “soft detention” at a relative’s home in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and is unable to be reunited with his family in the United States.

In addition to Gao Zhisheng, other well-known rights defense lawyers who have defended Falun Gong practitioners include Wang Yu (王宇), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Jiang Tianyong, Mo Shaoping (莫少平), Li Heping, and Shang Baojun (尚宝军). These lawyers not only understand that they have no chance of winning these cases—they are also clear that their defense of Falun Gong cases has the potential to bring them huge risks and even personal harm. There have been instances of licenses being revoked and lawyers being subjected to surveillance, detention, home raids, and beatings for defending Falun Gong practitioners’ religious freedom.

Ilham Tohti Case (Free Expression)

Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提) was an economics professor at Minzu University of China (formerly known as Central University for Nationalities). In the 1990s, he started using his writings and lectures to criticize and make recommendations regarding the central government’s policies toward ethnic minority groups. For this, the authorities punished him by barring him from publishing and suspending him from teaching.

In 2006, Ilham Tohti established a website called Uyghur Online, which disseminated news and provided a platform for peaceful Uyghur-Han interaction. The website was frequently attacked by hackers and was finally forced to shut down in 2009.

Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原)

Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原)

After the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Ilham Tohti was subjected to much harsher treatment in Beijing, including short-term detentions, house arrest, verbal and physical abuse, and being barred from traveling abroad. He was arrested in January 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment that September for the crime of “separatism.” Many foreign governments, human rights groups, and international organizations have issued statements strongly protesting and condemning the verdict against Ilham Tohti.

Rights lawyers Li Fangping and Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原) served as defense counsel for Ilham Tohti, preparing a meticulous analysis of the charges against him and pointing out all of the various procedural violations during the trial. After the trial had concluded, the two defense lawyers pointed out on WeChat that the Xinhua News Service reporting on the trial contained many factual errors and concealed other facts and that it was a serious violation of the law for the court to allow the media to reveal evidence from the case files before Ilham Tohti had had a chance to appeal. Wang Yu (王宇) also previously took part in the Ilham Tohti case.

Fan Mugen Case (Resistance to Forced Evictions)

Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) was forced to go into hiding when he couldn’t bear the violence of the gangs carrying out forced evictions in his neighborhood. He returned to his home in Yanshan Village, Tong’an Town, Suzhou (苏州通安镇严山村), after 6 a.m. on December 2, 2013. Early the next

Wang Yu (王宇)

Wang Yu (王宇)

morning, a gang of around 14 or 15 men charged into Fan Mugen’s home brandishing steel clubs. Fan Mugen, his wife, and their son were all injured in the attack. Fan Mugen defended his family with a knife, fatally wounding two of the most violent attackers.

Lawyers Wang Yu (王宇), Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Guo Haiyue (郭海跃), Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), and Lü Zhoubin (吕州宾) all got involved in the case on behalf of Fan’s defense. Several dozen rights-defense lawyers and public intellectuals have taken part in efforts to support Fan Mugen, including holding seminars, filing requests to disclose official information, submitting written allegations of wrongdoing to state judicial bodies, and organizing a legal support team. Fan Mugen’s trial was held in February 2015, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison on May 8.

Fan Mugen and his family members were preparing to appeal when their lawyer Wang Yu was thrown in jail. Wang was the first lawyer to “disappear” during the sweeping arrest of lawyers on July 10. The only female lawyer among the detained lawyers, she is currently held under “residential surveillance at a designated place” and has been denied of access to lawyers for having “endangered the state security.”

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website; Yaqiu Wang researches and writes about human rights in China.

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Posts on the recent arrest of rights lawyers on ChinaChange.org:

Breaking: This Morning in Beijing, One lawyer Gone Missing, Another Lawyer Kidnapped, and Fengrui Law office Visited by Police, China Change, July 9, 2015.

Biographies of Lawyers, Staffers and Activists Detained or Disappeared in the July 10 Nationwide Raid Against Rights Lawyers, China Change, July 23, 2015.

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, by Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.

The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, by Matthew Robertson and Yaxue Cao, July 27, 2015.

Getting Rid of Lawyers Is the Start of Fascism, by Zhai Minglei, July 27, 2015.

What Can You Do in the Face of Terror – A Chinese Entrepreneur Responds to Arrest of Rights Lawyers, by Sun Dawu, July 24, 2015.

What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’, by Yaqiu Wang, August 2, 2015.

A Letter of Protest Against China’s Arrest of Rights Lawyers, to be read at a rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and then formally delivered, by multiple groups in DC area, August 12, 2015.

Wu Gan the Butcher, by Yaqiu Wang, July 22, 2015.

Tackling a Wall of Lies  – Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese Human Rights Lawyer, by Abertine Ren, September 14, 2014.

 

中文版《维权律师代理的典型案件(2003-2015)》

 

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls: One Chinese NGO’s Alleged Crime of “Illegal Business Operation”

By Wan Yanhai, published: May 13, 2015

 

Guo Yushan (郭玉闪)

Guo Yushan (郭玉闪)

In March 2007, Guo Yushan (郭玉闪)and others co-founded Transition Social and Economic Consulting Limited, otherwise known as Beijing Transition Institute. In July 2013, Beijing Bureau of Civil Affairs sent Transition Institute (TI) a violation notice, alleging that the organization had not registered, and was operating publicly as a “private non-enterprise” without legal basis. Four years earlier in 2009, Gongmeng[1] (公盟, or Open Constitution Initiative) was outlawed by the government for the same “reason;” the contents of its entire office, including research data, was confiscated. Falling prey to the same tactics that had affected groups like Aizhixing (爱知行) and Gongmeng, TI was twice the target of audits from Beijing Municipal Tax Bureau, in 2009 and 2013.

On October 9, 2014, Guo, the head of TI, was criminally detained under the crime of “provoking disturbance.” Along with Guo, several TI staff members and associates either disappeared or went into detention. On January 3, 2015, Beijing Security Bureau formally arrested Guo, the legal representative of TI Ltd., and He Zhengjun (何正军), TI’s manager, for the crime of “illegal business operation.” On April 15, 2015, the case was transferred to the Haidian District procuratorate for indictment.

Needless to say, the blow to TI is somber, and more than that, it has sounded the alarm for other nonprofit organizations registered as businesses. This essay explained why, over the last decade or so in mainland China, non-profit, public-interest organizations have resorted to registering as businesses, their predicament, and the harassment they have been met with.

He Zhengjun (何正军)

He Zhengjun (何正军)

In the 1980’s, a China devastated by the Cultural Revolution began the process of reforms and modernization. Many officials, some retired and others still holding offices, started civil society groups outside the government, focusing on training talent, independent research and social service. Since the founders were high-level government retirees or employees, these entities were able to obtain the official seals and bank accounts needed for operation without having to register with government regulators, perhaps with approving instructions from certain Party offices or governmental agencies. Some of these entities were hosted by existing organizations.

As the 21st century began, driven by the trend of global issues and collaboration, such as environmental protection, poverty alleviation, AIDS prevention and treatment, and gender equality, international funders thronged to China, and there was an explosive growth of independent civil society groups. The government was also looking forward to the capital, technology and vigor that foreign funders and civil society participation would bring.

Since the development of civil society organizations had been severely restricted in China, many independent civil society groups registered as businesses, while conducting for the most part nonprofit activities in the public interest. Well-known examples include the Beijing Red Maple Hotline for Women and the China branch office of Green Peace.

Wang Xingjuan (王行娟) had worked as a journalist before going to work at the Beijing People’s Publishing House; she was best known for writing a biography of He Zizheng (贺子珍), one of Mao Zedong’s wives. In 1987, Wang and several other women officials, reporters and researchers founded Beijing Women’s Institute (北京妇女研究所), hosted by China Management Science Institute (中国管理科学研究院). In 1992, they started a hotline to provide counseling service for women.

In 1995, the American First Lady Hilary Clinton compiled a list of Chinese women leaders she planned to meet when attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing; Wang Xingjuan was on the list. When the Chinese state security agencies got word of the list, they began to investigate Wang and Women’s Institute, and discovered that their host, the China Management Science Institute, founded by a retired high-ranking official, was not registered. To protect itself, the Institute severed its ties with the Women’s Institute.

Wang Xingjuan (王行娟). Photo: http://www.storm.mg/article/48105

Wang Xingjuan (王行娟). Photo: http://www.storm.mg/article/48105

A desperate Wang found, at this juncture, a woman-owned trade company named Red Maple willing to lend its support. Her organization was able to survive as a registered business. The hotline continued to operate, and received funds from foreign foundations.

As a long-time volunteer at the Women’s Institute, I borrowed from its experience when I registered the Aizhixing Health Institute, working on HIV/AIDS issues, as a business in Beijing in 2002.

The government took an amicable stance towards women’s groups of the academic type. After registering as a business, such groups did not have to pay sales and income taxes upon receiving foreign donations, as these funds did not constitute business income. That is to say, if the donations were not all spent by the end of the year and donors did not ask for a refund, the group can save the remainder for future use. There is another upside to registering as a business: groups can then take advantage of China’s relatively more open business laws and operate programs in locations around China and the world.

At the end of 2003, groups that were even more independent than Red Maple, including Beijing Aizhixing and Beijing Open Constitutionalism Social Sciences Institute, which later became Gongmeng, also registered as business groups. The tax agencies then determined such groups must pay an income tax on unspent donations at the end of the year. This could be solved, and no taxes need be paid, if the group arranged with the donor not to send funds for that quarter. The consequence, however, was that NGOs with a business registration found it difficult to save money. Should the funder withdraw support, the organization may not be able to survive, let alone provide social service or conduct independent research.

In 2004 and 2005, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Croatia saw waves of what came to be known as the Colored Revolution. Russia accused some American foundations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Institute, of being the hidden sponsors of these changes. Chinese Communist leadership began paying closer attention to the development of China’s civil society.

In March 2005, the district Industry and Commerce Bureaus throughout Beijing sent NGOs registered as businesses the “Registration Transfer Notice to Private Social Science Institutes.” It said, “in accordance with the spirit of documents from the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, the Beijing Party Committee and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, private social science institutes, as business units, social groups, social force and nonprofit social organizations operated by individual citizens using non-state assets and dedicated to philosophical and social science study, shall be classified as private non-enterprise business units that are within the scope of the ‘Private Non-enterprise Unit Registration and Management Interim Rules,’ and shall be managed by both civil affairs department and the Federation of Social Sciences.”

The notice states that “those institutes that registered with industry and commerce bureaus and whose names include ‘philosophy’ or ‘social sciences,’ as well as those enterprises or individual businesses whose chief or secondary mission is ‘philosophical or social science activities’ or ‘social science and humanities research and experimental development,’ must transfer their registration to civil affairs agencies. The industry and commerce agencies shall cancel their registrations, shrink the scope of their operation upon inspection, or change the names they register under.”

According to this measure, individual human rights groups found their registration canceled, and the majority of these groups changed their names. For example, my own Beijing Aizhixing Health Education Institute became the Beijing Aizhixing Information Consulting Center.

In 2008, around the time of the Olympics, Chinese civil society groups faced various forms of harassment and threats from tax authorities, industry and commerce bureaus, banks, civil affairs bureaus, and public security bureaus. Some were the target of tax fraud investigations, while others were threatened with shutdown. Banks demanded that groups modify their grant agreements with donors and start paying business tax. In some cases, public security cited violations and shut down groups and their programs.

On December 25, 2009, PRC State Administration of Foreign Exchange issued Notice 63,  “On Issues Concerning the Administration of Foreign Exchange Donated to or by Domestic Institutions,” going into effect on March 1, 2010. The rules safeguarded the cash flow between groups founded by the government and their foreign donors, but tightly restricted the donations from Chinese businesses to foreign charities, as well as the ability of religious groups to receive donations in foreign currency. Those who suffered the greatest impact, however, were independent, cutting-edge groups within China.

The fifth clause of the notice states: “Where the donations occur between domestic enterprises and overseas non-profit organizations, the domestic enterprises shall present the following documents so as to proceed in the Banks: …… (3) a notarized donation agreement with the purpose of donation prescribed; ……” It made clear that donation agreements required notarization.

Notarizing grant agreements poses a complex problem. Information about the donor and the grant agreement has to be notarized in the country where the donor resides, and then verification from the Chinese embassy in that country is required. Only then can the recipient withdraw the foreign donation from the bank and legally obtain the funding.

Some groups, in order to sidestep the complex process of international notarization, signed business contracts directly with funders, and paid business tax so that the donation was treated in business terms. However, this changed outright the nature of such donations. When Chinese civil society groups receive foreign funds, their purpose is to serve the Chinese people; they are only forced to accept and to rely upon these funds in the face of the twin hurdle of zero government funding and restrictions on domestic fundraising. When grant agreements changed to business contracts, it inadvertently ran up the legal risk for these groups on both economic and political fronts. Some groups received donations through individuals in the group, which likewise posed legal risks.

In recent years, the Chinese government opened up registration to civil society groups, encouraging public interest groups to register with civil affairs agencies, and supporting their development through government procurement of NGO services. However, it still limits the registration of groups that work on political and legal issues.

While groups dedicated to social service are beginning to earn recognition and monetary support from the government, the remaining groups that continue to need to register as businesses mainly work on advocacy and human rights defense; their sources of support are primarily from overseas. Given the recently passed the “Counterespionage Law” (a complete translation) as well as the “Foreign NGO Management Law” (a bilingual version) and the “National Security Law” (a complete translation) currently under consideration, it would appear that the alternative of business registration for NGOs has now dead-ended.

 

[1] Gongmeng (公盟): A legal advocacy NGO foundered by Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao and two others in 2003 and shut down in 2009. The group restarted in 2010 under the name Citizen. – Translator

 

万延海Wan Yanhai (万延海) “is one of the most prominent leaders in the global campaign against HIV/AIDS. He launched China’s first HIV/AIDS counseling hotline in 1992 while working for China’s National Health Education Institute. In 1994, he founded AIZHI Action Project, an NGO that uses health education, research, publishing, and conferences to confront the growing HIV/AIDS crisis in China. He directs the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, the largest AIDS NGO in China. The institute works on HIV/AIDS and public health related policy, legal aid and human rights, and community outreach among the most vulnerable population. Yanhai organized several challenging campaigns in China including a national compensation campaign for the victims of HIV infection caused by blood transfusion or blood products, a national working group for the educational rights of people with HIV, hepatitis or other health problems, and a China HIV/AIDS NGO Network.” (From Yale World Fellows) Fleeing persecution, Dr. Wan left China with family in 2010. He now lives in the U. S.

 

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Related:

The Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Recommendation for the Indictment of Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun, April 2, 2015.

Transition Institute releases a list of its alleged “illegal publications” (in Chinese), April 29, 2015.

China’s new foreign NGO law will help silence critics, Maya Wang, March 25, 2015.

Chinese law would bring civic groups under state security supervision, Simon Denyer, March 23, 2015.

A Slow Death? China’s Draft Foreign NGO Management Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 10, 2015.

The Future is Already Present? How the Draft Foreign NGO Management Law Could Be Applied, Elizabeth Lynch, May 11, 2015.

One Love: How Foreign NGOs & Governments Should Respond to China’s Draft Foreign NGO Law, Elizabeth Lynch, May 12, 2015.

 

(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original: 《萬延海專欄:傳知行「非法經營罪」敲響的警鐘

 

China’s Independent NGOs Face Hard Times

A translation of a VOA report in Chinese, published: March 11, 2015

Professor Xia Min of CUNY: “Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”

 

A documentary produced by the well-known investigative journalist Chai Jing, formerly with CCTV, Under the Dome, has struck a deep chord in China. At the end of the documentary, Chai mentions that as China’s revised Environmental Protection Law is implemented, civil society environmental groups will have the unprecedented right to bring public interest lawsuits against polluting companies.

However, according to a Beijing News (《新京报》) article [1], since the law went into effect in January 2015, only three suits have been brought out of more than 700 environmental groups accredited to bring public interest litigation. The newspaper reports that most of these are organizations run by the government, including many trade associations, that are lukewarm at best about such lawsuits. Only a handful of civil society groups are “both able and willing” to try. The vast majority of civil society NGOs often lack both funding and energy for such an undertaking, nor do they have law professionals on board.

Freedom, justice, and love.

Freedom, justice, and love. Gongmeng’s logo. 

The dilemma of public interest litigation Chinese environmental NGOs face is a reflection of what Chinese civil society looks like today. According to available statistics, China has more than half a million NGOs that are registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, a significant number of these are semi- or quasi-official organizations, some of which indeed only parade with an NGO front in order to qualify for government funding. The vast majority of the small number of independent civil society groups work in areas that are not considered politically sensitive, such as charity, environmental protection and the rights of women and children. In addition, China has another 1.5 million civil society groups that are not formally registered. These groups are likely to meet with pressures from the government if they venture into politically sensitive areas such as worker rights, the rule of law, or the rights of HIV patients [infected through government-sanctioned malfeasance].

Deteriorating Conditions for Independent Civil Society Groups

According to the New York Times, China’s independent civil society groups have “…long struggled to survive inside China’s ill-defined, shifting margins of official tolerance.” However, this sliver of margin for NGOs is shrinking further. Within the last several months, the Chinese government has targeted many NGOs.

Chinese human rights lawyer and former member of Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng, 公盟), Teng Biao, said that since Xi Jinping assumed power, the environment for independent NGOs has deteriorated. “Groups that used to be able to do things, such as the Transition Institute (传知行) and Liren rural libraries (立人图书馆) that were not considered too sensitive, have now been shut down. A lot of the people in charge of the groups were arrested and sentenced. The government’s controls on funding sources, as well as its ideological control, are clearly tightening,” he said.

In May 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued, for internal circulation, the “Report on the Current Status in the Area of Ideology,” known as “Seven Don’t” for short, in which Party members are asked to wage a struggle against “dangerous” Western values.  “Do not mention civil society” ranks third among the seven forbidden topics.

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at CUNY, said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping at its center, sees ideas about civil society and  “small government, big society,” promoted by the West, as two prominent and gigantic traps Western nations set up for China. “This is why last year we saw enormous destruction visited on some Chinese NGOs, with the most symbolic landmark incident being the arrest of Xu Zhiyong and approximately one hundred other people in his team; he himself got a four-year sentence,” Xia said.

Li Yingqiang (李英强), founder of Liren Library, gave a lecture on "How to Change the World."

Li Yingqiang (李英强), founder of Liren Library, gave a lecture on “How to Change the World.”

The founder of Open Constitution Initiative (OCI) and constitutional scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in January 2014. Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled that Xu was guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu Zhiyong’s imprisonment, as well as the long-term harassment of other civil society groups, throws into relief the Chinese rulers’ zero-tolerance policy toward any societal force that may pose a threat to its power. Teng Biao said: “They are afraid that civil society NGOs, including some human rights defense groups and defenders, are growing in strength, and thereby becoming a challenge to the government. To be blunt, they are afraid that peaceful evolution, Color Revolution, will endanger the party’s rule.”

Limited Space for Civil Society Organizations

Other viewpoints hold, however, that the Chinese government does not take a monolithic stance towards NGOs. According to the Economist, some Party members believe that it is impossible to completely bar the growing middle class from social participation, and carefully limited participation can help the CCP win popular support. By 2014, four types of civil society groups can freely register, and they are trade associations, science and technology groups, charity groups, and groups dedicated to social service. Karla Simon, author of the book Civil Society in China, is confident that as the registration threshold is lowered, Chinese NGOs are likely to double within the next several years.

Tightening Control on Funding Sources of NGOs

Even so, CCP still insists on tightly controlling the funding sources of NGOs. The Economist reports that money for a lot of Chinese NGOs comes directly from local governments. In 2012, Guangdong provincial government gave as much as 466 million RMB to NGOs, while Yunnan province spent 300 million. However, in order to receive funding, civil society groups need sponsorship from entities with government ties, and they are not allowed to solicit funds from the public, even though they have permission to receive corporate and individual funding. This means that, through funding channels, the government can effectively rein in the vast majority of NGOs.

In addition, the Chinese government has recently stepped up monitoring of NGOs that receive foreign donations. In November 2014, Guangzhou government issued “Management Rules of Social Organizations,” putting in place the requirement that, effective January 1, 2015, NGOs that receive foreign funding must submit a written report to registration and relevant authorities 15 days before the receipt of funds at the latest. This requirement in effect blocks the funding conduit for the majority of labor NGOs which rely on foreign funding. According to the New York Times, employees of Transition Institute said that the bulk of the 3-4 million RMB of their organization’s budget is from overseas. Such overseas connections increasingly convince the Chinese government that Transition Institute is a dangerous entity. In its opinion, overseas funding is a tool for subversion.

Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), founder of TI, was detained last October.

Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), founder of TI, was detained last October.

Sometimes, even when NGO funding is domestic, they are still targeted by the government. Xia Ming of CUNY said, “Even when your money is from within China, the government still targets you quite harshly. One of the more obvious examples is Xu Zhiyong getting money from Wang Gongquan (王功权), a billionaire, who was arrested for a time too. This is the best kind of warning to make sure that Chinese private entrepreneurs would not get mixed up in supporting civil society organizations.” Wang Gongquan is a co-founder of the New Citizens Movement headed by Xu Zhiyong. On September 13, 2013, the Beijing police placed Wang in criminal detention, allegedly for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Wang was paroled in January, 2014.

China is also ramping up controls on foreign NGOs in China. Fu Ying, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress (NPC), told the media before the Third Session of the 12th NPC began, that China needs to better manage foreign NGOs from the standpoint of national security. She said that legislation will be undertaken so that foreign NGO activities can abide by them. According to Chinese media reports, the Foreign NGO Management Law will require foreign NGOs to register and receive government approval before setting up branches in China.

Anxiety about a Color Revolution in China

Chan Kin-man (陈健民), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Director at the Civil Society Research Centre, believed that even though Chinese NGOs are growing exponentially in number, the space for their activities is shrinking. Xia Min of CUNY said that CCP will not, in all probability, allow independent civil society groups to develop unfettered. “The outcome of deepening civil society development must be the organizing of political parties,” he said. “Therefore, I think Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”

Judging from the series of steps the government has taken towards NGOs recently, while it may have sensed already the enormous potential of these groups, they are held to be dispensable up against the goal of sustaining CCP rule.

 

[1] I was unable to find this article in Beijing News. It might have been censored. – The editor.

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Related:

National security? China ready to slam door on foreign NGOs, the Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2015.

In China, Civic Groups’ Freedom, and Followers, Are Vanishing, New York Times, February 26, 2015.

Chinese civil society: Beneath the glacier, The Economist, April, 2014.

 

(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original