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Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017
Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) is one of the twenty or so 709 detainees during China’s sweeping, still ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. He was held incommunicado from, July 12, 2015 to January 18, 2017, in Tianjin. As a human rights lawyers, Xie Yanyi’s career spans from 2003 to the time when he was detained, representing dozens of cases involving religious freedom, freedom of speech, forced expropriation of land and property, corruption, local elections, political prisoners, and more. Meanwhile, he has been known for passionately advocating democratic transition in China. During the 553 days of disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, and his mother died without him knowing it. In September he posted a book titled “A Record of 709 Crackdown and 100 Questions about Peaceful Democracy in China” in which he recounted his experience during the six-month secret detention and following year in Tianjin Second Detention Center. He is the second 709 lawyer, after lawyer Xie Yang in Hunan, who has spoken out about torture and other degrading treatments perpetrated on human rights lawyers and activists. On September 6, Xie Yanyi posted an open letter to Xi Jinping, the Communist Party, and fellow Chinese, calling for an end to the one-party dictatorship, releasing all political prisoners, and setting the course to transition China into a constitutional democracy. Predictably, he has been harassed and threatened by police. China Change is pleased to bring you translation of excerpts of Xie Yanyi’s recollections and reflections on 709 atrocities. — The Editors
The Police Are Here
I got home in the middle of the night on July 11, 2015 and fell asleep right away. The next morning, not long after I had gotten up, I heard a knocking at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw Captain Wang’s men from Domestic Security. I tidied up a bit and opened the door. They wanted me to go to the office of the neighborhood committee for a little chat. I went there with them, where Miyun District domestic security personnel had been joined by Beijing domestic security. They asked about the same old things. At a break in the conversation I went to relieve myself and discovered that people from Domestic Security were following me into the bathroom. It was then I realized the gravity of the situation. Our conversation continued until noon, when we had fast food in the office. We had just finished eating when ten or so plainclothes officers burst in. The first one flashed his badge at me. He said he was from the Tianjin Public Security Bureau and asked if I was Xie Yanyi. I said yes. I saw from his badge that he was surnamed Liu. Then he handcuffed me. I protested, but no one paid attention. They swarmed around me as I was led downstairs. We got into an SUV, where I sat in the backseat between two men. There were about two or three cars following behind us . We sped off. Soon we arrived at the Miyun Chengguan police station (密云城关派出所). There was an interrogation room equipped with an iron chair that the suspect could be buckled into. They made me sit there to begin my questioning. This was the first time in my life I had been handcuffed and interrogated. At first I was confused, but once I was sitting I calmed down. I had no idea that it was just the beginning of a long ordeal and contest.
The Black Hood
At nightfall I was taken out of the police station. Not only did they handcuff me again, they also put a black hood over my head. I was escorted to an SUV. It sped off as soon as it hit the highway. I naively wondered if they were just doing this to frighten me. Maybe they’ll just drive in a circle and then bring me home? But the car kept going at top speed, and there was no sign of stopping. I was cramped, wrapped in place by the people on either side of me. And I was nervous. I felt like they had tied the hood too tightly and that it would suffocate me. I asked them politely if they could take it off, promising I wouldn’t act out if they did, but they said it was an order and they had to follow. I then begged them to loosen it a little so I could breathe, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. Then I reasoned with them, trying to win their sympathy, and asked again if they could loosen it a little. The man in the passenger seat shouted, “You won’t suffocate to death!” When those words fell on my ears, I realized that pleading was no use. I should instead stay as calm as possible.
About an hour later the car reached its destination. I couldn’t see anything and had no way of knowing our exact location. They had me get out of the car and squat down. Soon a few people came and did what seemed like a handover procedure. As they talked, I sensed I was being handed over to army troops. They changed my handcuffs but didn’t remove the hood. After we had gotten into another car, I turned to the soldier on my left and mentioned my difficulty breathing. Would he mind loosening the hood a little so that I could breathe through the gap? This soldier pulled the black hood up a little bit. I took the opportunity to thank all of them profusely for their kindness. In response, the soldier on my right pressed a little bit less against me. Not longer after our car entered a compound. We were let in by the gatekeeper, then drove up to a building. After a bit, someone called me out of the car. The men on either side of me took me into the building and told me to watch my step. We went up to the second floor and turned right into a room, where they told me to stand facing the wall. Someone came and took the hood off my head, then told me to strip naked. Then I was asked to squat twice. They searched my body to see if I had hidden anything.
The Special Room
When they were done inspecting me they had me turn to face them, then starting taking photos. They took away my clothes and gave me two sets of soft, casual clothes. One man announced the daily schedule for me and informed me that the next day I was to study the prison rules and regulations posted on the wall. Everyone left except for two soldiers, who stood on either side of me. I asked them if I could rest. They said no, that according to the rules I had to wait until 10:30. So I sat down and read the rules. Then I sized up the room. It was not quite 20 square meters [66 square feet]. To the right of the entrance was a bathroom. A single bed stood against the outer wall of the bathroom. To the right of the bed was open space. Opposite the bed was a padded desk draped with a blue tablecloth. In front of that was a soft high-backed chair. At the far end of the room a heavy curtain was pulled over the window to keep out the light. The walls were completely padded. Even the corners of the desk, the foot of the bed, and the chair were padded and rounded. Around 10 they told me I could get ready for bed and gave me a toothbrush, a towel, and a spoon. Even the handles of the toothbrush and the spoon were rounded and made of rubber. If I wanted to use the bathroom or do anything else, I had to announce my intention and be granted permission before I could proceed. There were always two soldiers guarding me. When I slept at night one would watch me from the head of the bed, the other from the foot. It seemed all these measures were meant to keep me from killing or mutilating myself.
The Interrogation Begins
On the first day, I got into bed as soon as it was time to rest. I couldn’t fall asleep right away, as my mind replayed the events of the day and I considered what fate could be in store for me. Everything felt like half-dream, half-reality. Just as I was about to drift off, someone charged into my room, booming, “Get up and clean up. The special investigation team (专案组) wants to see you!” I had no choice but to get out of bed and get dressed. I moved the toothbrush and other things from the desk to the bed, then sat down and waited for the special investigators. I thought, “The grueling interrogation is about to begin.”
Two men came in. One looked to be over 40 years old, tall and strong. He said his last name was Jiang (姜). The other man was a bit shorter, bespeckled, a little fat, around 30 years old. Later he would call himself Cao Jianguang (曹建光). The first night they questioned me until four or five in the morning. I had just collapsed into bed when the on-duty soldiers woke me up again. After breakfast the interrogators came back. A tall, skinny man wearing glasses had replaced one of the others from before. He said his last name was Wang (王), so I called him Old Wang. (Nearly a year passed before I learned from someone else that Old Wang isn’t surnamed Wang, but Yan [严], so now I call him Lieutenant Yan.) The first two, if I’m right, were from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, while Lieutenant Yan is from the Tianjin PSB. I would see more of him after I was transferred to Tianjin.
They also asked me to confess, but I had nothing to confess. It was unbearable in the beginning. I became aware that I might not get out in the short term, and that I needed a plan, so I thought of writing a letter to my wife. My wife had just told me she was pregnant. We already had two boys and were supporting a large family, but our shared faith doesn’t permit abortion. She had secretly taken out her birth control ring. Then I was taken away, and that was where our conversation ended. I told the special investigators that I wanted to write a letter to my wife. At first they said no, then added that they had to ask for instructions. That evening I started to fast. Besides protesting my illegal detention and demanding the letter, I also hoped to make my psychological crisis a physical one, to divert my attention from the mental pressure through the pain of hunger, and to give myself some happiness when I did eat again. I fasted for over 72 hours, until lunch on the fourth day. They gave me pen and paper. The guard added that if I fasted again they would feed me through a tube.
The interrogations continued as usual every day. Sometimes they would question me three times in one day, morning, afternoon, and night; or else twice in a day.
Transfer to Tianjin
Just before noon on September 8, 2015, I was told to inventory the items they had confiscated from me and sign the list. That night I was informed that due to building renovations I was to be transferred. Right then we left the residential surveillance location in Beijing, and I was secretly transferred to a residential surveillance location in Tianjin. It must have been in a People’s Armed Police building, since I was guarded by armed police officers. (The place in Beijing must also have been a PAP building, too. I think it was in the Xiaotangshan area of Changping, Beijing. I remember when I was there often hearing the sound of fireworks nearby. Perhaps it wasn’t far from a cemetery or a crematorium?)
In Tianjin they took off the white gloves. They did all sorts of things to get me to confess: starving me, forbidding me to move my legs, beating me, intimidating me, forcing me to sleep in a fixed posture, disciplining me. For half a month I was made to sit on a block for 16 hours straight every day.
I was kept in Room 8, facing rooms 11 and 12. I saw these numbers once through the gap in my blinders when I was taken out for my room to be disinfected.
What Happened October 1-10 Above Room 8?
At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations, howling, and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me. That was when I decided that I absolutely had to control myself, find a way to get out as early as possible, and expose this torture.
I guarantee this is not a hallucination. I hope the day will come when people on the outside can see the site of this terrible torture with their own eyes: the room above Room 8 at the 709 residential surveillance location must be a special room. I often heard them moving all kinds of equipment, dragging it here and there. There was the incessant sound of installation and adjustment, lasting for two months straight at least. I don’t know what happened up there. Just before the 709 residential surveillance came to an end—that is, in the last few evenings before the 709 detainees were formally arrested in early or mid-January 2016—from Room 8 I heard people organizing files, stacking papers on top of each other. It often sounded like meetings were being held up there, too.
Devils in White
After I was transferred to Tianjin, it was around October when they suddenly started giving me daily checkups. They would take my blood pressure and check my heart rate. I could tell they were nervous. Every other week or two they would bring in an electrocardiogram and check my heart. With this change I realized some among us must have started having health problems. There was a Director Zhou, and a doctor who I think was named Liu He, who examined me. Every doctor and nurse was expressionless and stony-faced, like robots. They did not interact with me beyond routine business, and I never felt a drop of good will from them. I had no way of knowing their names or identities. This was terrifying. They did whatever the higher-ups told them to do, regardless of how I felt about it. If I made a request of any kind, they either would ask the special investigators for instructions or simply not respond at all. You would think they were angels in white, but the more I saw them, the more they seemed like devils in white.
While in Tianjin, nearly all of the 709 detainees, as I’ve since learned, were forced to take medicine. Every day a physician would bring the medicine, and every time they would shine a flashlight in my throat to make sure I’d swallowed. It was about four white pills each time. They said I had elevated transaminases and that it could be a problem with my liver. But I’m a vegetarian. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I’m in good health and haven’t had any health problems. I’m also not in the habit of taking medicine. I think everyone’s body is unique. Even if a certain indicator is high for someone else, for me that same reading could be just fine. I tried reasoning with them several times and refused to take the medicine. Then the physician, the discipline officer and the warden had to come force feed the pills to me. I had no choice but give in. After about two months the medicine stopped.
Sitting on the Block
At first I had a high-backed chair in my room. Then it was swapped for a block with nothing to lean on when I sat down. I sat there for at least 12 hours a day, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. When you’re sitting on the block you are not allowed to rest your hands in your lap for support, andthe on-duty soldiers carry out orders to the letter. You can all try sitting on a block, or a stool, without resting your hands, so that you only have the strength of your back to support you. An hour is fine. What about ten hours, a hundred hours, a thousand hours? Few of you will be able to imagine it. If you aren’t cooperative during an interrogation, all they have to do is to put you on that block, and you will succumb to their control.
I’ll give an example. Once I asked to revise an interrogation transcript. They beat me and boxed my ears. For more than ten days after they only gave me half rations, nothing more than a few bites of vegetables and one small steamed bun or a few mouthfuls of rice. For 16 hours, from morning to night, I had to sit, and when I slept I had to hold a posture as dictated by the guards. They asked me to sit on the block like a soldier: head up, chest out, back straight, hands on knees. Except for using the bathroom, I was not allowed to move at all from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the end I sat so long that my legs tingled and went numb. When I had to relieve myself, I physically couldn’t. They don’t have to beat you and they don’t have to curse at you. All they have to do is make you keep sitting like that. You’ll either die or be crippled.
Day after day the interrogations went on. Starting with my lawsuit against Jiang Zemin (江泽民) for violating the constitution and popular will by staying on as chair of the Central Military Commission in 2003, to the 2005 signature campaign to help lawyer Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), to advocating for direct election of members of the Beijing Lawyers Association in 2008, to signing Charter 08, to the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, to human rights cases I had taken on over the years, to rescuing fellow lawyers, to petitions, to letters of appeal I had written, like the one calling for Tang Jitian (唐吉田) to have his right to practice law reinstated, and the one calling for the release of Chen Yongzhou (陈永洲) and the protection of his rights as a journalist; from raising funds at a seminar in Zhengzhou for the lawyers detained in Jiansanjiang (建三江), to Liu Jiacai’s (刘家财) incitement of subversion case, to Zhang Xiangzhong’s case (张向忠), to Falun Gong cases, to Xu Dong’s case (许东), to the Qing’an shooting (庆安), and on and on, and then to taking the position of legal advisor in Qin Yongmin’s organization Human Rights Observer (秦永敏，人权观察), to helping Qin Yongmin himself; from giving interviews to foreign media, to my participation in academic symposia in Hong Kong, to my compilation of Roads of Faith (《信仰之路》), to the articles on peaceful democratic transition I had posted online, and even to a dinner I had organized in Beijing in early 2015—they asked me about all of these.
When they asked about other people—who was at a particular event, who had participated—my default answer was: I don’t know, I couldn’t quite remember. I insisted on this during the endless interrogations, but as long they didn’t get what they wanted they wouldn’t stop. When they had tried everything, when they had asked me repeatedly and I wouldn’t comply, they brought printouts from the internet, my communication history, online records, to verify with me one by one. They were the ones who brought up theoe names, but in the interrogation transcripts, they made it look as though I had given these names to them. Later, they didn’t even bother to play this trick; instead they would simply type up “transcripts” and have me sign them.
But early on and often I vowed to them that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I insisted that my actions had nothing to do with anyone else, that I’d take full responsibility for all my deeds, that I respect the facts and the law, and that I would not shirk my own problems.
They took great pains with me, because they also had to report to their superiors. If I didn’t sign, that meant I didn’t comply, and that would be their failure. They told me if I made it difficult for them, they wouldn’t let me go. If I had a bad attitude, they had all sorts of ways to torment me. Once you’re in the detention center, if you don’t cooperate, they punish all the inmates in the same cell and don’t let them have daily yard time. In short, they had a thousand different ways to force me to submit, but one thing is certain: during more than a year and a half of interrogations , I didn’t identify a single person, and I didn’t give them a single piece of information that would implicate anyone else.
Their method is to turn everything upside-down inspecting your computer, your phone, your books, your possessions, your contacts, all records of your life. From elementary to high school, your parents, your family, your relatives, your friends, everything about you is in their grasp. It is a boundless war (超限战), meaning there is nothing they won’t do to get what they want. For example, they showed me photos of my newborn daughter, videos of my son in class and playing the horsehead fiddle; and they threatened to detain my wife, Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊). That nearly broke me.
Walking was the only diversion I had. Except for when they forbade me to move at all, every day I asked the two soldiers for permission to walk back and forth the two or three meters between my two minders. By my rough estimate, I must have walked at least a couple of thousand kilometers during my six months of secret detention. At first walking was one of the greatest pleasures, but later on I walked so much I hurt the ligaments in my knees. But still I told myself to keep walking. I was afraid that they would take away this one small freedom from me.
In February or March 2016, Lieutenant Yan and Officer Li came and had me inventory my credit cards, bank cards, ID card, household registration, and personal records, and had me sign a statement about my confiscated possessions. They said as soon as I signed they would send everything back to my wife. I noticed right away they didn’t have a laundry list of the items, yet this document I had to sign stated that “all of the above-mentioned items were on my person [at the time of my detention].” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I objected immediately. It was summer when they detained me and I was only wearing shorts. I had had nothing on me besides my keys and some loose change. In any case, it makes no sense for anyone to carry his or her household registration and personal files. But if I didn’t sign they wouldn’t send anything back. My wife had to care for our three children and she doesn’t work. She needed those documents. I had no choice but to sign. When I got out, however, I saw that hundreds of thousands of yuan had vanished from my bank account. I heard that Chen Guiqiu (陈桂秋), lawyer Xie Yang’s wife (谢阳), also saw all her savings evaporate overnight. To this day, the bank has been evading my inquiries about my account activities during my detention.
All of the 709 detainees wore red vests in the detention center. Ordinary criminals wear blue vests; death row inmates and people convicted in certain corruption cases, like the 2015 Tianjin explosions, wear yellow; and inmates who are ill wear green. Red is for the highest level of inmates, the ones dealt with most strictly. My vest number was 166. I know that Wu Gan’s (吴淦) is 161 and Xing Qingxian’s (幸清贤) is 169. I was in cell C5. One of them was probably in C6, the other in C7. We were all close by, but red vests were forbidden from seeing each other and were questioned separately. I had to ask permission to do anything, including drinking water or using the toilet. The HD cameras set up in the cell monitored our every move. Every day when I had to relieve myself, the on-duty cellmate would go to the intercom by the door and report this to the discipline officer. Once the discipline officer approved, two cellmates would lead me to the bathroom, one in front of me and one behind. I never spent a cent on anything in the detention center, both in protest of the substandard meals and of the unsightly one-upmanship that went on among my fellow inmates. I went on eating my ration of cabbage every day. It was true that, several times, the detention center sent me food and supplies (I suppose they did the same for the other 709 detainees, too), and on those occasions I’d have a share for myself and distribute the rest among my cellmates. And the moldy peanuts my cellmates threw away were my favorite treat.
People have asked me if I gave any oral or written confessions. In those 500 long days, I wrote at least two notes of repentance. For the first one I wrote the bare minimum. I didn’t use words like “confess” or “repent,” and I put the primacy of human rights, peaceful democracy, and the rule of law at the core of my self-criticism. They weren’t satisfied and forced me to write another note. In the second one I admitted that I had incited subversion by advocating for peaceful democracy in my writings. At last, when I had done what they had asked, they didn’t forget to make me title it “Note of Repentance.”
Let me explain my thinking at the time: First, I wanted to make things a bit easier in case I had to stand trial, the sooner to rejoin my family. Second, I told myself that I had to get out and bear witness to the torture we were suffering, to keep the public’s attention on my peers still in prison, to help others avoid this treatment, and to pave the way for this whole injustice to be reversed! Third of all, I was completely cut off from the outside world. They found all kinds of ways to keep me in submission: not letting the cell block out for exercise if I was uncooperative; telling me everyone else had been released except for me; showing me the videos of the trials of Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), and of Wang Yu’s (王宇) televised interview, and showing me their confessions and notes of repentance; playing me videos of my kids; showing me the photo of my newborn daughter; and on and on.
Once they dressed me up and taped me reading a statement they had prepared. They promised me up and down that the video was only for their superiors, not for the public. They made me write things and videotape things. I once told them in no unclear terms that all of this wasn’t about my own needs but about their superiors’. To me, whether I was inside or outside prison I would shoulder my responsibility just the same, and neither was easy.
As I watched Hu Shigen’s trial, I was stunned, and inspired, by the look in his eyes. I also made plans for the worst. In the court, Mr. Hu admitted that he was guilty of subversion of state power, but he also used the opportunity to lay out his political theory, turning CCTV and many other state media outlets into his podium. He expounded on the three factors of peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy and the five proposals. I thought that if the day came for me to stand trial, I would do the same as Mr. Hu and present to the public the concept of peaceful democracy and the policies to implement it. It was just like they say, seek and you shall find, a result befitting my years of devotion to the effort to realize peaceful democracy in China. I imagined the scene in the courtroom. If my family could be there too, I would also tell my children, “Daddy loves you. Daddy can’t go fishing or catch grasshoppers with you anymore. Daddy is doomed to miss your childhood. But Daddy hopes you will remember that conscience has no price.”
The interrogators, I sensed, were not at ease doing what they did. From the highest to the lowest, they were beholden to personal interest, force, and power. They had no moral sense, each ready to jump ship if he had to save himself. The 709 case, I would say, was a hot potato from the very start. I was questioned by people who called themselves Old Jiang and Cao Jianguang (both from Beijing), Old Wang (who turned out to be surnamed Yan), Liu Bo (Lieutenant Liu), Officer Li (Tianjin), and two or three others whose names I don’t know. There was also one from the Ministry of Public Security who might have been surnamed Liu, who recited the Heart Sutra for me. They said that, year in and year out, they dealt with cases involving the big tigers, the highest-level officials. They were clearly not just ordinary public security bureaucrats. The thing is, though these insiders looked and acted strong, they knew full well that they were breaking the law and that this time they were facing extraordinary opponents. I could sense that nearly every one of them wavered at one time or the other, feeling tormented themselves and not knowing what to do. Then there were the armed police who guarded me. Except for the cruelty of the imprisonment itself, I clearly sensed their conscience, their natural goodness, and their disapproval of the atrocities perpetrated against me.
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place
This coercive practice known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place” is probably rooted in intraparty struggles and corruption investigations. In recent years it has spread and been legalized. In Party parlance this form of custody is known as “double designation” (双规) or “to be isolated and investigated.” It can be perverse or straightforward, lax or strict. It all depends on the demands and preferences of whoever’s in charge. It is essentially domestic discipline—extrajudicial punishment.
When you are under residential surveillance at a designated place, such as I was, there is no outside mechanism to monitor the process, no channel for relief, not even a legal mechanism to protect your health or your sanity. Your family and your lawyers are left in the dark, unable to meet or communicate with you. No one even knows if you’re alive or dead. In the process abuse and torture are inevitable. This is why cases continuously emerge of unusual deaths, mental illness, and bodily harm occurring during the residential surveillance.
I Challenge You
Since I was released I’ve felt conflicted. I wanted to expose these crimes, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even the perpetrators. After much consideration, I still decided to speak what I know, because even exposing the criminals would benefit their children and their grandchildren. I would like here to address the head of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, Zhao Fei (天津市公安局局长赵飞), and his subordinates: I believe that yourselves and the special investigators all have the qualifications, as well as the duty, to stand up and explain the 709 case to your superiors, including the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Central Committee of the CCP, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and the entire nation. What happened? What exactly did these lawyers and citizens do? Is what they have done legal or illegal? Reach into your conscience and tell us: Are their actions and conduct truly harmful to a country, a people, a society? Were they defending the rule of law and human rights, or were they committing crimes? Who exactly is afraid of them? Who ordered you to torture these lawyers and citizens? What were you trying to accomplish? Why did you pick Tianjin to handle the 709 case, as it went against procedural law? Who made that decision?
Director Zhao Fei, I demand that you stand up and tell your fellow countrymen why you let torture happen under your watch. What was going on in the room (the torture chamber) above Room 8 from October 1 to 10? What happened to Hu Shigen? What happened to Wang Quanzhang? What was the plan for 709 crackdown? Who planned the Cultural Revolution-style trials of public opinion and the media smear campaigns? How did you get government-appointed lawyers involved? Whose despicable idea was it to force some of us to confess and to televise the confessions? Who gave you the right to tape the 709 detainees? You didn’t even make exceptions for the young paralegals Zhao Wei (赵威) and Li Shuyun (李姝云). You labelled these 20-somethings subverters of state power. Who decided to turn everyone into an enemy of the state? Who decided to charge us with picking quarrels and provoking troubles first, then switch the charge to inciting subversion of state power, and finally to subversion of state power itself? As a law enforcer, did you give expert legal advice to your superiors? Who ordered the cruel and criminal treatment of the detainees—the secret detentions, the starvation, the sleeping postures, the ban on movement, the 16-hour sessions of sitting like a soldier? Who ordered that we be forced to sign the transcripts of our interrogations, deprived of our right to petition, deprived of our right to defense, forced to take medicine? Who ordered you to appoint lawyers for us against our will and devise all kinds of tactics to intimidate us? Who sent the procurators and special investigators to coax me and try to change my mind? When you confiscated my possessions, why didn’t you inventory my credit cards, my bank card, my ID and all the other items? Why haven’t you returned what you took from me? Who gave you the right to monitor the phones and online communications of citizens?
Calm in the Storm
My time inside was hard to endure. The detention center is a bit better; residential surveillance is much worse. Truth be told, I was eager to leave my imprisonment the first three months, but then I slowly settled down. After I got to the detention center they continued to interrogate me regularly and try to persuade me to do their bidding. They even enlisted my cellmates and the discipline officer to change my mind. I told them that they were the ones who were fretting over gains and losses, and that, for me, it wouldn’t matter if things turned out to be one way or the other. At this age, I told them, I shoulder my responsibility when I’m on the outside, and I do the same when I was sitting in prison. Sitting in prison might even be a bit easier and quieter.
Having reached an equilibrium, I really look down on them: some of their ideas and ways of doing things are so low and so despicable. They aren’t worthy opponents in intelligence or ability. I pity them more and more. They deceive, they bluff and they fret. They put on an act in front of me. As for me, I have learned from experience the power of the Dao: the have-nots conquer the haves, the calm conquer the restless, the weak conquer the strong.
Excerpted and translated from Chinese by China Change.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
Zhao Xin, September 11, 2016
“Chinese state media spilled much ink on the “three factors” and “five main proposals” to demonize Hu Shigen, but avoided discussing Hu’s “three stage” roadmap to change. This is because if the 88 million Communist Party members hear about such a moderate and rational roadmap for transition, some of them may very well embrace it, leading to fissures within the ruling clique itself.”
From August 2 to 5, The Tianjin Intermediate People’s Court carried out a four-day so-called “open trial” against Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), where they were charged with subversion of state power. The first two were sentenced to 7.5 and 7 years of imprisonment, while the latter two were given suspended sentences. Their punishments were so severe, on evidence that was so rash and far-fetched, in a trial that was so expedited, that both foreign media and China watchers were outraged. The Chinese activist community called it Beijing’s version of the “Moscow show trials.”
The four were among the over 20 human rights lawyers and activists arrested in what’s known as the “709 incident” (referring to a rash of arrests on July 9, 2015). Over the past year they have been put through secret detentions and forced to “make statements” dismissing their own lawyers, while also being deprived visitation from them. After the four trials, not one of the victims lodged an appeal. In the following weeks and months, more lawyers and activists will be forced to perform the same farcical show trials.
However, one of the unintended products of the four trials in August is the discussion and dissemination of “Hu Shigen thought” and the “topple-the-wall movement,” thanks to the hysterical vilification of the veteran dissident. Immediately following the trials, Communist Party mouthpieces including Xinhua, People’s Daily, CCTV, and Legal Daily, published articles with headlines like “How Hu Shigen’s ‘Topple-the-Wall’ Theory Bewitches and Poisons the People’s Minds,” “Using the ‘Topple-the-Wall’ Theory to Subvert State Power,” “Instead of Repenting, Hu Shigen Sentenced for Trying to ‘Topple the Wall’,” and “Trying to ‘Topple the Wall’ But Only Toppling Himself.”
All of these were clear demonstrations that Hu Shigen was being tried and punished as a thought criminal. The concept of “toppling the wall” has been familiar to Chinese political activists for a long time already, but thanks to the Communist Party’s propaganda, many people who are afraid of politics, or afraid to ask about politics, are inquiring: What is Hu Shigen’s thinking? What is the ‘topple the wall’ movement?
As someone who has known and worked with Hu Shigen for 26 years, I’ve been asked many of these questions myself. In the following passages I will set down what I know about these questions, as a preliminary explication.
I. Hu Shigen’s ideas are the consensus for China’s peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy
During the show trials, the state media reported the following: “According to the testimony of multiple witnesses, this gathering (in an Anhui restaurant called Qi Wei Shao, 七味烧) was not a simple dinner party. Instead, it was a meeting for exchanging views and perfecting ideas about subverting state power, and for planning and implementing the overthrow of the socialist system. The gathering had a number of strict and set regulations, with clear, explicit topics for discussion about the subversion of state power, including a summary of the activities to subvert state power undertaken in 2014, and the secret conspiracy and plot for continued organization to subvert state power in 2015. The meetings also set forth systematic theories, methods, and steps for the subversion of state power, and these were also concrete acts by Hu Shigen and others to organize, plot, and carry out the subversion of state power.”
The activists were also accused of “widely spreading so-called ‘state transition’ and other subversive theories.”
In reality, the so-called “Hu Shigen thought” and so-called “state transition and other subversive theories” are no more than topics that have become a matter of widespread consensus in Chinese civil society about China’s peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy. The reason the Chinese authorities made such an implausible attempt to point out Hu Shigen’s “harmful thinking” was in order to leverage his status as a veteran of the democracy movement to make false charges against rights defense lawyers and human rights defenders, casting the peaceful attempts to defend civil rights and the rule of law as nefarious efforts to subvert state power. The goal, of course, is to strangle the rights defense movement of the last decade or so.
In the years since the June 4 massacre in 1989, China’s civil society has gone through different stages of political activism for change, and it has also reached a consensus that China needs a peaceful, rational and nonviolent transition, not a violent revolution, toward democracy; that rights defense should be based on the law (thus the role of lawyers came to the fore); and that a free and democratic constitutional republicanism, not a totalitarian dictatorship, is the future for China.
A component of this consensus is that the Communist Party could transform itself into a socialist party, or a democratic socialist party, participate in democratic elections, and that its officials could hold government offices. It could even, after laying down a clear roadmap for transition to a constitutional government, consider making the Communist Party itself a legal transitional ruler.
For all these reasons, it’s clear that this is a moderate, rational, and constructive consensus, and that it can guide Chinese society toward a broad and open road with the least risk, the lowest cost, and the greatest value, where there are no losers and only winners. But all this has been besmirched by a terrified dictatorship as “subversive thinking.”
II. The Three Factors (三个主要因素) and the Five Proposals (五个方案) for China’s Peaceful Transition to a Constitutional Democracy
Chinese state media have engaged in widespread and targeted criticism of the three factors and five proposals for China’s transition. The “three factors” refers to the three main forces needed to push forward China’s transition:
- A powerful citizenry: A mature civil society and a strong citizenry are the fundamentals for social progress;
- Splits in the ruling clique: Given that the Communist Party has previously produced types like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, it’s entirely possible that a catalyzing figure, like Chiang Ching-kuo or Boris Yeltzin, may yet emerge;
- The involvement of the international community: A hardline totalitarian regime is not in the interest of the world.
The Five Proposals include:
- Transition: That the transition to constitutional government be peaceful, steering clear of violence;
- Nation-building: That a democratic constitutional government system be established;
- Livelihood: The communists tax heavily but neglect the people, while maintaining massive bureaucratic institutions. Post-transition China will need to focus on education, healthcare, care for seniors, housing, welfare, and other aspects of the people’s livelihood;
- Rewards: All those who made contributions and sacrifices should be recognized through rewards, thus asserting a set of social values;
- Punishments: Reconciliation should be extended on the basis of truth and righteousness, while the obstinate criminals will be accorded punishments.
III. The Three-Stage Roadmap for Social Change
During the trial in Tianjin, Hu Shigen “confessed” the following: “On multiple occasions of citizen meal gatherings (同城饭醉) with lawyers and petitioners present, I talked about my concept of a ‘peaceful transition,’ in particular the ‘three main factors,’ ‘three stages (三个阶段),’ and ‘five proposals’ for transition. I inculcated these ideas in other people in order to achieve the goal of a ‘color revolution.’”
Chinese state media spilled much ink on the “three factors” and “five main proposals” to demonize Hu Shigen, but avoided discussing Hu’s “three stage” roadmap to change. This is because if the 88 million Communist Party members hear about such a moderate and rational roadmap for transition, some of them may very well embrace it, leading to fissures within the ruling clique itself.
The three stage roadmap for social progress that Hu Shigen proposed can be summarized as follows:
- The Phase of Enlightenment
The root of this enlightenment can be traced back to the enlightenment movement at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican Era. The Democracy Wall-era of Wei Jingsheng and others in the late 1970s was a continuation of this, with the most recent episode being the enlightenment of public intellectuals in the post-1989 era. While this enlightenment has not been completed over the last century, and faced brutal repression under communist rule, the ideas have not died. The importance of movements to enlighten and transform the thinking of the masses by spreading truth and common sense has been a consensus of all liberal Chinese citizens who favor democracy.
In 2004, when Hu Shigen was still serving out his 20-year sentence in prison for organizing political groups and activities shortly after the Tiananmen Massacre, I wrote an essay titled: “The Plight of Hu Shigen Is a Test of the Conscience of Every Chinese,” in which I quoted something he said to me during the post-June 4th white terror. He said (roughly): China doesn’t need heroics. What China needs is for every citizen to find a little conscience and courage inside themselves, a bit of public spiritedness and sense of civil responsibility. If everyone can think, beginning with themselves, to proactively get involved, then our country will definitely have hope and future.
This is what he ardently hoped for — and he practiced what he preached. Over the last few years he and Zhao Changqing (赵常青) and other like-minded people have steadily organized and expanded the same-city dinner gatherings across the country. They have met with threats and crackdown, but the activities remain alive among activists.
- The Rights Movement Phase
At the heart of civil consciousness and the development of non-government citizen organizations, is the struggle and defense of citizens’ rights. This includes economic rights, political rights, cultural rights, religious rights, and personal rights.
The Communist Party claims that it’s the vanguard of the working class, and that its political base is an alliance of workers and peasants. But the greatest irony is that, given that the Chinese economy is an oligarchy and reforms are rudderless, those harmed the most by China’s vested interest groups have been workers, peasants, and urbanites.
So where is the social base for those in favor of constitutional democracy? Where is the breathing room for this opposition group to survive? Which groups should those committed to China’s social advancement represent? This is what Hu Shigen thinks, and it’s also the consensus of China’s rights defense community: we need to rupture the authorities’ plan to marginalize us, and also the tendency to marginalize ourselves. We defend everyone’s rights, be they workers, farmers, city-dwellers, businessmen, military officials, intellectuals, religious believers, victims of forced sterilization, the elderly, and those demanding equal education and healthcare. In the final analysis, if one has no political rights, then one has no right to other rights. A system of constitutional democracy is for safeguarding all lawful rights of every Chinese citizen.
As early as 1991, again since his release in 2008, Hu Shigen emphasized repeatedly: rights defense is the greatest enlightenment. Every citizen should help to defend the rights of everyone from every strata who has been harmed, and use every rational and reasonable means to do so. Only by completely disintegrating the Communist Party’s social base and undermining its foundation can the temple of constitutional democracy be constructed.
That is the “Topple the Wall” theory.
- The Truth and Reconciliation Phase
How will a post-democratic transition China treat the 88 million Communist Party members and their families? This is a massive social constituency. If they have no future, China has no future — because they’ll form the greatest obstruction to social progress. Absorbing and reconciling with them, thereby reducing as much as possible the obstacles to peaceful transition, needs to be at the forefront of our work.
Hu Shigen was determined to learn from the examples of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, who advocated a truth and reconciliation movement in their country. At an appropriate time in the future it will be necessary to carry out the same process in China. Just as Archbishop Tutu said: If there is no truth, there can be no justice, and if there is no forgiveness there can be no future.
Hu Shigen remarked on many occasions that since the social transition in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party has been needlessly terrified and anxious about a future peaceful transition to constitutional democracy in China. The reason, as Hu said during that Qi Wei Shao dinner, is because the social transformation of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe demonstrated one principle very clearly: as long as Communist Party officials aren’t “blinded by their Party nature so much that they sacrifice their lives for it,” and as long as they mobilize when the time is right and become a force for social progress and not an obstruction, then they will have made a great contribution to the future constitutional democracy. Whether the Chinese Communist Party re-organizes itself to become the Chinese Socialist Party, or the Socialist Democratic Party, current party members will be in a relatively better position to play a larger role in every aspect of Chinese society to promote positive changes.
According to statistics, following the social transition of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as many as 95 percent of the key social positions, with the massive social resources those posts commanded, were still held by former Communist Party members. Hu Shigen joked about this: There are golden bricks in the Berlin Wall — we’re just waiting for the Chinese Yeltsin. In the future, China is bound to produce minor and major “Yeltsins,” guiding the China’s transition to constitutionalism.
Twenty six years ago, Hu Shigen declared before me: Sitting around and waiting for freedom is a poor cousin to getting up and fighting for it. Twenty six years later in the Qi Wei Shao restaurant in Beijing, Hu Shigen is said by communist mouthpiece media to have made the following rousing declaration before his colleagues: “It’s better to mount a rebellion than wait to be shot.”
August 11, 2016
Zhao Xin (赵昕) is a student leader in 1989 and one of the earliest rights movement activist. After years of being blocked from traveling overseas, he was able to leave China recently and relocate to San Francisco. This article was written for China Change.
Chinese state media sources:
China Sentences Hu Shigen, Democracy Advocate, to 7 Years in Prison, the New York Times, August 3, 2016.
Hu Shigen: The Prominent Yet Obscure Political Prisoner, Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016.
August 6, 2016
Over the last week, we all wondered whether the American Bar Association would go ahead with conferring its inaugural International Human Rights Award to the Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu. On August 1 she appeared on camera in China, repenting her courageous work fighting for justice and the rule of law, and repudiating the ABA award because she is a Chinese person and loves her country — as though receiving the award would be a betrayal of China.
It was indeed Wang Yu speaking, but from an undisclosed location, after nearly 13 months in secret detention, to three people whose faces and identities were hidden. We cannot begin to fathom what has happened to her and dozens of other human rights lawyers and activists who have been detained — but luckily now the whole world understands the simple fact that when she’s not free, she’s not free to speak her mind.
One thing we do know is that the Chinese government hates international recognition of the courageous Chinese citizens who seek to uphold justice, and who work to make China a freer and more just place. Hu Jia’s own account illustrates this perfectly:
In 2008, I was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” because I engaged in activities to promote human rights and liberty before the Olympic Games.
The European Parliament awarded me the Sakharov Prize, and I was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I was in prison, the head of the Beijing municipal political police led a group of public security and foreign ministry officials to pay a visit to me in prison — they were putting me under intense pressure, trying to force me to make a public announcement that I rejected both the Sakharov Prize and the nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In exchange, these officials said that they would reduce my sentence by 2.5 years, and also pay me double the cash award of the Sakharov Prize, as economic “compensation.” These secret political police, and the jailers in their charge, lobbied me with this proposal on up to seven occasions. I flatly rejected all of these despicable, filthy political dealings. Thus, I am deeply aware of how moral support, and awards from the international community, place the Communist Party’s security organs and foreign affairs officials under enormous pressure.
We know too well what happened after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: China threw a tantrum at Norway, retaliating against not just the Norwegian government, but also salmon farmers.
We applaud the ABA for going forward with the inaugural International Human Rights Award to Wang Yu as planned. It’s the right thing to do.
This was an extraordinary week. In four days, a Chinese court in Tianjin tried four “subversion” cases at lightning speed, each a tightly-orchestrated affair that lasted only a couple of hours. Family-appointed lawyers were replaced by puppet lawyers that were there to merely stand in as “defense counsel,” to follow the script: no wives, relatives, friends, or free members of the public were allowed in court, or anywhere near the courthouse. Of course, all four were convicted.
China wants the world to believe that the cases were processed in court, but these show trials have only succeeded in once again affirming what we already knew: there is no such thing as the rule of law under the tyranny of dictatorship. Indeed, there is no such thing as a court.
What’s on trial, of course, is once again China’s conscience. These citizens, whether lawyers or human rights defenders, are committed to seeking basic justice according to the Chinese law, and helping those most vulnerable. Over the years, they came to the rescue of the families of victims of poisoned milk powder, victims of violent forced demolitions, private entrepreneurs whose assets were illegally expropriated, believers who were persecuted… the list goes on.
Sadly, in most cases, they were not been able to “rescue” those they tried to rescue, given that no courts in China actually uphold justice. But they kept on, tenaciously, one case at a time. In the process, they have come to ask the question of how to make China a just place. They met in restaurants and in house churches, discussing plans to provide legal assistance and to start public opinion campaigns for victims of injustice. These meetings in good faith became “evidence” of their supposed subversive intent, and grounds for torture and imprisonment.
These lawyers and activists are part of a long tradition of Chinese citizens who fought for their basic human and political rights: the Xidan Democracy Wall, the Tiananmen Movement, the opposition movement of the 1990s, the rights defense movement since the early 2000s, the New Citizens Movement, and the struggle for rule of law as represented by China’s small but brave band of human rights lawyers and activists.
They are, together, the rock of China, and the salt of the earth.
As ludicrous as these show trials were, this week’s performance was not confined to the courtroom. Over the past week, a narrative of an American-led international conspiracy has been propagated at a hysterical pitch, on social media, on CCTV, and in the front pages of the Party’s mouthpieces. The regime has claimed that these lawyers and activists are nothing but pawns of the United States and the West in general who, scheming for a “color revolution,” want to destabilize China and overthrow the government.
This war of propaganda does not just aim at fanning nationalist, anti-American sentiment. It also aims at intimidating the U. S. (which, by the way, has been too accommodating to China at the expense of undermining its own values), and the international community. They want the rest of the world to scurry off at the very word “subversion”; they want to see that Chinese citizens who embrace dignity, freedom, and justice get no support, and will no longer even dare to seek support from the outside world — whether lawyers, journalists, workers, parents, netizens, farmers, or even the Communist Party’s own cadres, for that matter.
That’s why we are here today, to show our support and appreciation for ABA for its steadfastness in upholding this important award to Wang Yu, whose has been known as Zhan Shen, “the warrior goddess,” to those who knew her. She will not be able to speak as a free person anytime soon, nor will she any time be able to travel across China to help those she strived to assist: the school girls who were presented to officials as sexual gifts, the practitioners of Falun Gong detained and tortured, or farmers who defended their homes from forced demolition.
But there might be a day when she, like the Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, will speak out, with a few simple words, to tear down the wall of lies that has enclosed her for the time being.
No one comes to claim this award today. Because of this absence, and the void it presents, we feel we must speak.
This is a time when the international community, and indeed the United States, must recalibrate its commitment to the values the human race has come to embrace, for the sake of peace and security on earth.
A group of Chinese activists currently living in the U. S.
August 6, 2016
China Smears Foreign Diplomats in Another 4-Minute Video, As Trials of Rights Lawyers and Activists Continue in Tianjin
August 4, 2016
This is indeed an extraordinary week. In a beguiling internet style, the Weibo account of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Youth League posted another 4-minute video on August 4, obviously shot by domestic security police, a day after posting one that portrays rights lawyers and dissidents as part of a vast American conspiracy undermining China. In addition, under the hashtag #警惕颜色革命 (“Beware of Color Revolutions”), the Youth League account also posted numerous music videos and articles attacking the United States, rights lawyers, activists, President Tsai of Taiwan and internet freedom. This wave of propaganda is not just for a domestic audience; it aims to intimidate the U.S. and the free world too. A transcript of the narration in the video follows. We add explanations in brackets. — The Editors
The Farce Outside the Tianjin Second Intermediate Court
August 1, 2016
Today we have to talk about something — and if we don’t get to the bottom of it, they’ll go around deceiving people. Everyone knows that a group of foreigners came to our city of Tianjin the other day. What were they doing here? Were they looking for business opportunities? Did they come to take in the beautiful scenery? To try some of the fried dough twists on 18th street? Or some of Tianjin’s famous Goubuli meat buns? None of the above. They came here provoking trouble!
Just take a look. On August 2, the trials of Zhai Yanmin and others began in Tianjin. On August 1, this mob of foreigners came outside the Tianjin Second Intermediate People’s Court where they met up with the families of the defendants on the street opposite the courthouse. First, they got together for a friendly and familiar little chat. And it seems to me, looking at the scene, that they’ve all known each other for quite some time. And then, the foreigners asked those two women into their vehicle and made their way to the courthouse.
Maybe you’re all wondering: Just who are these foreigners? And you’d be hitting the nail on the head with that question. Let’s just take a look at their vehicles. Look right here. [Camera points to the diplomatic plate of one of the cars, showing the first two digits and blurring the rest: 22xxxx is either a US or UK Embassy vehicle.]
If you’ve got any smarts about you, you definitely know what’s going on.
Chatting and laughing together, this crowd arrived at the court entrance. Then, upon seeing foreign journalists, the first woman [Fan Lili, wife of Gou Hongguo] suddenly pulled a sad face and expertly fell down, sat on her butt, and made a scene yelling and crying. [She was roughed up by a plainclothes police officer, who pushed her to the ground, according eyewitness accounts.]
The second woman [Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu] somehow pulled out a sheet of paper and began shouting too. Our “foreign friends” then, like they were well-trained, made a circle around them, as though they were making a little busking stage for the heroines to display their talents. Truly, these were well-trained performers. [The diplomats encircled the two wives to stop plainclothes police dragging them away.]
A few minutes before, their faces were beaming with radiance; a few minutes later they were suffering pitifully. Suddenly changing the mood like that is just too dramatic and confusing for us ignorant masses to understand.
[Li Wenzu speaking quickly in the background: “Do you see? They were hitting us. They knocked her to the ground.”]
Even though it was a lousy show, luckily it was a well rehearsed routine, and they were able to pull it off quickly, so that the foreign journalists who’d be waiting outside could go home early and hand in their homework. You may wonder how they knew they’d have this assignment to do. Come on. Don’t you know who these guys are? [Zooming in on an AP journalist’ Press Card.]
I have to complain about this. The second woman yelled out: “Two diplomats have been seized! Two diplomats have been seized!” [Listen carefully, she said, “昨天晚上…我们有两位家属被他们抓了” – “Last evening two family members were detained.” She was referring to Wang Qiaoling, lawyer Li Heping’s wife, and Liu Ermin, wife of Zhai Yanmin, who were temporarily detained by police and wasn’t released until a day later. For the remaining of the week, they were placed under house arrest.]
This gives one the heartfelt wish to ask this lady: Dear, have you ever heard of “diplomatic immunity?”
This bunch of people really pulled off a well-coordinated, smooth act. However, one minute on stage requires ten years of training, and this is just the latest of many similar self-scripted and self-directed farces that have been performed over the years.
In February 2011 in Beijing, the then-U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, just by “coincidence” happened to be walking through Wangfujing in Beijing, and “just happened” to come across six or seven separatist elements putting on a so-called Jasmine Revolution there. There also “just happened” to be around 100 foreign journalists gathered there beforehand. Hah — so now doesn’t the scene look familiar?
Huntsman states the reason clearly himself. After returning to the U.S. he entered the presidential race, and in a televised debate put it right on the table: “We should be reaching out to our allies and constituencies in China. They’re called the young people, they’re called the internet generation. There are 500 million internet users in China, and 80 million bloggers and they are bringing about change, the likes of which is gonna take China down… GONNA TAKE CHINA DOWN… TAKE CHINA DOWN… DOOWN.”
American politicians and Chinese public intellectuals have been trying to explain it away, but those with a discerning eye can see it clearly. Jon Huntsman is simply making clear what has been an open secret for a long time. This assault meant to smack down China has been going on for years.
Let’s return to the farce outside the Tianjin Second Intermediate Court. On August 2 after the court hearing, Zhai Yanmin accepted a joint interview with multiple domestic and overseas media. A journalist asked: “Did your family come to the hearing today?” [Zhai Yanmin’s wife had been detained and then placed under house arrest since July 31. She recounted the circumstances on social media.]
Zhai Yanmin gave a candid response: “It’s me who stopped my family from coming to the hearing. I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to bear it.”
So I say to you, friends: it seems that what took place outside the Tianjin court wasn’t as simple as it appears.
After Four Detainees of the ‘709 Incident’ Are Indicted, Chinese State Media Name Foreign News Organizations, a US Congressman, & Three Embassies in Beijing as ‘Foreign Anti-China Forces’, China Change, July 15, 2016.
Hu Shigen: The Prominent Yet Obscure Political Prisoner, Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016.
Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016
In 2005, when Hu Shigen was serving the 13th year of his 20 year prison sentence for forming the Chinese Free Democratic Party, he was awarded that year’s Outstanding Democracy Activist Award by the California-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation. This is an excerpt of a speech given by exiled dissident Ren Bumei (任不寐) titled “Hu Shigen and the Highest Aspirations of Our Age” (《 胡石根与我们时代的精神高度》), upon accepting the award on Hu’s behalf. Hu, among the first four of the July 9, 2015 detainees to be indicted, is being put through a show trial today (August 3, Beijing Time) in the Tianjin Second People’s Intermediate Court. This is our first post in a series about Hu Shigen. — The Editors.
I’m grateful for the trust and confidence placed in me by Hu Shigen’s family and friends that allowed me, unworthy as I am, to share the honor bestowed on Mr. Hu. As a matter of fact, I can hardly represent Mr. Hu to say anything to the jury or the public. He’s spent 13 dark years in prison, and this award will add little to his suffering or glory. Instead, it is an opportunity for us. So today, I’d rather speak as an independent intellectual, recognizing the value of Hu Shigen’s existence for our time, and what it symbolizes for China’s cause of freedom.
Mr. Hu Shigen was born in the countryside of Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, on November 14, 1954. His father, extremely impoverished, died when Hu was five — after putting up for adoption the three youngest of seven children. Hu Shigen didn’t begin his schooling until he was nine years old, when he enrolled in the Shitou Street Elementary School in Nanchang. As the oldest boy, at age 16 Hu began working at the Jiangxi Automobile Manufacturing Factory to support the family. In 1979 he passed the national college entrance exams to become a student at Peking University in Beijing. From 1979 to 1985, Hu Shigen studied at PKU, majoring in Chinese language (中国语言专业).* After graduate school, he was assigned to a teaching position at Beijing Language College (now Beijing Language and Culture University). He was quickly promoted to be an associate professor and vice department chair. He would have lived as a comfortable professor, but the arrival of the Tiananmen Movement and the June 4th massacre changed his life forever.
Hu didn’t exhibit much political passion during the “soul-racking 56 days” of protest and repression. But it was in the post-Tiananmen period, when droves of student leaders and participants like myself were fleeing Beijing, telling of our escapes at every opportunity, and the entire country was shrouded in terror, that Hu Shigen came into his own.
Thus, June 4, 1989, became a dividing line. Those who continued to resist in the midst of the terror lock-down were the real political heroes of China. The manner of Hu Shigen’s resistance was regarded by many as radical. I don’t know until this day whether this was a scholarly, rational assessment, or just a cover for cowardice. Hu Shigen initiated the Chinese Free Democratic Party (中国自由民主党), the Chinese Progressive Alliance (中华进步同盟) and the Chinese Free Workers’ Union (中国自由工会) with Wang Guoqi (王国齐), Wang Tiancheng (王天成), Kang Yuchun (康玉春), An Ning (安宁), Liu Jingsheng (刘京生), Chen Wei (陈卫), Chen Qinglin (陈青林), Xing Hongwei (刑宏伟), Gao Yuxiang (高玉祥), Zhang Chengzhu (张承珠), Xu Dongling (许东岭), Zhao Xin (赵昕) and many more. They printed, posted, and mailed thousands of fliers promoting freedom and democracy, condemning dictatorship, and calling for a redressal of the June 4th Massacre.
They were planning to rain down fliers on Tiananmen Square from a remote-controlled airplane on the third anniversary of June 4. But their plans were leaked, and on May 28, 1992, Hu was arrested as the “principal organizer of a counter-revolutionary ring.”
Those who were tried with him told us how, in the fascist court, he roared thunderously, like a lion. We learned from eyewitnesses that he and his accomplices adopted a no-compromise, no-cooperation stance in court, and that he and Wang Guoqi, Wang Tiancheng, and Chen Wei, even shouted “Long Live Freedom and Democracy!” and “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” Even today I still feel a quiver when I imagine the scene. What gives us pause is this: Why are these commonsense convictions still so shocking and unnerving?
Of course no one was more shocked by such resolve than the authorities. At the end of the “trial,” Mr. Hu Shigen was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “the crime of organizing a counter-revolutionary ring” and “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda.” He and his peers were among the few democracy activists to receive such lengthy sentences in the post-June 4 years.
In 1995 Mr. Hu Shigen was sent to Beijing Second Prison to serve his term. That prison became notorious because of him. He fasted on June 4 every year to commemorate the massacre and the dead. For nine years he was locked up in a brig cell (禁闭室) for “rejecting reform” and “inciting disturbances.” Because of police brutality, his hands and feet are permanently crippled. This year The Washington Post interviewed John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation. According to Mr. Kamm, the Chinese government told him that Hu Shigen was not qualified for parole based on his attitude toward reforming himself. So Mr. Hu Shigen is continuing his one man defiance of the state.
I agree with the assessment of others: Hu Shigen is a prominent political prisoner that few know about. Even though over 20 people across China were thrown in jail in the case of the “Chinese Free Democratic Party,” and it has been declared the biggest “counter-revolutionary ring” since 1989, the case has received little media attention, and few have paid attention to Mr. Hu Shigen’s conditions. Early last year, a friend googled “胡石根” and found only 600 or so results.
Just as the prophets of the Old Testament said: misfortunes doubles down on those who were chosen to be the light and the salt, and put through tribulations. Hu Shigen and his like are not only the enemies of tyranny, they have also been forgotten by our times and rejected by their contemporaries — in particular by their dearest loved ones. The latter is so destructive that it resembles the work of Satan. Zhao Xin, a close friend of Mr. Hu Shigen, vividly recalled how Hu was slashed by his wife with a knife, eleven slashes in all, for not listening to her demands that he cease his activities. The marriage fell apart after 12 years, and he has met his daughter only once over the years since.
Having spent 13 years in prison, he has developed health conditions that have never been effectively treated, such as hepatitis B, lumbar disc herniation, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraines. On October 17, 2004, his older sister Hu Fengyun wrote to the prison authorities voicing her concern about his health. On December 9, 2004, his younger brother Hu Shuigen wrote me that his health had been deteriorating rapidly and he was afraid that Hu Shigen might die in prison. He called on the international media and human rights groups to “save” Hu Shigen.
In May last year, I met someone in Zhengzhou who was a “criminal” in the same case as Hu Shigen. That was when I began to learn of his story, and I was shaken to the core. While I was ashamed of myself, it was also the first time since 1989 that I felt so proud of China: in this society of victims of political disaster, we have Hu Shigen. I hugged this friend and bid him goodbye, determined to speak out for Hu Shigen.
I don’t mean to create a Hu Shigen myth, for the story of Hu Shigen is already a myth of our times.
Hu Shigen seems to be the post-Tiananmen Wang Weilin — but he’s not. That photograph of Wang as The Tank Man hangs on the office walls of numerous political activists around the world — but no one has heard of Hu Shigen. And yet, Hu Shigen is the Wang Weilin of the post-Tiananmen era. Hu Shigen, also, both is and isn’t the Václav Havel of China. After the June 4 crackdown, China’s intellectuals placed their hopes in a Havel-like figure, and yet no Chinese care to mention the Havel of China. Hu Shigen is also the Lin Zhao after Lin Zhao, the young women executed in custody during the Cultural Revolution, after a prison sentence of 20 years for two poems she wrote. And yet he’s not that, either. At a time when everyone is tearfully searching for Lin Zhao, Hu Shigen has assumed the same suffering, and the same propensity to shock the soul as she — and yet no one has written a word about him. In the peculiar age we live in, not only has Lin Zhao become a hero (which is as it should be), those who memorialize her have also become heroes (which is also of course as it should be), but Hu Shigen is the post-Lin Zhao Lin Zhao. Hu Shigen is also the Sophie of China — but also not. In China Sophie’s Choice has become a code word for the misery of the Cultural Revolution, in ways parallel to the misery of the Holocaust. Hu Shigen, on the other hand, is right now being tormented by his own choice, yet is absent from all this lofty discussion. Yet, Hu Shigen is the Sophie of China. Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi — but also not. Aung San Suu Kyi received the attention and support of the world, including the adulation of China’s intellectuals — yet Hu for over a decade has not received an ounce of similar respect. But all the same, Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hu Shigen has also fallen into a spiritual prison that’s been built around him — this is the shame of our entire generation of “public intellectuals.” The fact that they are not even ashamed of this makes it all the more shameful. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, lamented in a famous speech: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the crime itself; second the reaction of the world to that crime. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century of the Christian era, a great and cultivated nation put power into a band of assassins who transformed murder from a secret transgression into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State. He will find the monstrous story of the human slaughterhouses, the lethal chambers, the sealed trains, taxing the powers of belief… But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of mankind, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of the civilized world in the face of this immense, systematic carnage of human beings…”
But allow me alter those famous words for our use: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the Hu Shigen case itself; second, the fact that this age produced a such a ceaseless number of outstanding public intellectuals in China. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century, a nation that has produced so many public-spirited intellectuals, has put power into a band of assassins who transformed violence and imprisonment into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State — and where matters of such great import never became the topic of open discussion among the country’s intellectuals. He might find that the story of the persecution of Hu Shigen, for establishing the Chinese Free Democratic Party, taxes the powers of belief. But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of China, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of China, international human rights organizations, and public intellectuals, in the face of this immense, systematic persecution of Hu Shigen.”
*Hu Shigen was a college classmate of Hu Chunhua (胡春华), the Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and current Party Secretary of Guangdong province. According to Mr. Wu Renhua, the researcher of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, who shared the same bunk-bed with Hu Shigen in graduate school, since his release in 2008, whenever Hu Chunhua attended class reunions, Hu Shigen was excluded.
Ren Bumei is an exiled Chinese dissident living in France.