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China Change, July 27, 2018
Xu Lin (徐琳), who described himself as “a dissident, poet, singer-songwriter and senior construction engineer in mainland China,” was put on trial in the Nansha District Court in Guangzhou on July 27, where he faced charges of ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’ (寻衅滋事) for a series of songs about sensitive political topics that he composed, sung, and posted online.
Xu pleaded not guilty to the charges. The court did not deliver a sentence at the end of the trial.
Xu Lin was arrested and criminally detained in September 2017 while visiting his sick father in Hunan. Among the list of his supposed crimes were the songs he composed supporting human rights lawyers targeted in the July 9, 2015 crackdown, as well as articles he wrote.
The authorities initially said they would reserve two seats in the court for Xu’s family members to witness the trial, but this was denied on the actual day, according to a Ms. Wang, Xu Lin’s wife, who was interviewed by RFA immediately after the trial.
“The trial has just finished, and there were definitely major issues with it. It was completely unfair to Xu Lin. Right now, whatever they say goes. You can’t say anything. And even if you do, they won’t listen,” she said in the interview. Ms. Wang was in the end able to observe the proceedings through a closed video feed in the court house.
Two defense lawyers, Lin Qilei (蔺其磊) and Liu Hao (刘浩), pointed out the procedural irregularities of the case, and stated that citizens had the right to express themselves, to criticize the government, and to produce creative work that commentates on current affairs. The lawyers argued that Mr. Xu’s case is a case of persecution.
Mr. Xu himself was anything but repentant. He said in his court statement that he was merely exercising his constitutional rights. “If I am found guilty, shame on you, not me.”
Public security authorities had made extensive preparations for Xu’s trial, staging paramilitary and uniformed police in the streets within a two or three kilometer radius of the court, according to Xu Kun (徐昆), an activist who managed to get into the court house. He was quickly apprehended by seven or eight officers and dropped off at the train station, he said in an interview with RFA.
“The police seemed to know that people would be coming [to watch the trial].”
Liu Sifang (劉四仿), another activist composer who worked with Xu and was also arrested late last year, says that Xu may have been able to avoid prosecution if he expressed his penitence, declared guilt, asked for the favor of the authorities, and promised not to re-offend. It’s a course of action Xu declined to embark upon.
Xu’s commitment to his ideas are clear from his blog posts and lyrics.
On April 9, 2016 — his 52nd birthday — Xu reflected on the meaning of his activism and the significance of imprisonment, and even death, in the service of his commitments. He wrote:
“What can I do outside of jail? I don’t organize, and even less join violent movements. I also don’t have the ability to call everyone to rise up and oppose the authorities at key moments. The greatest skill I have is song composition. Though many people rate my songs very highly, if they’re not heard by 10 million people, then no matter how many I write, it won’t have much of an impact. If my imprisonment leads to my songs being spread much more widely, and wakes up more people, who rise up and resist, well then I’m ready to go to jail. I’m even content to die.”
Xu also wrote in 2016, “Popular songs are one of the most powerful weapons for mobilizing people… everyone’s brave resistance to this dictatorship is an endless fountain of inspiration for my works.”
Xu’s songs include “The Secretly Detained Human Rights Lawyers,” with the lyrics: “Mother, father, forgive your son’s filial failure. I couldn’t be with in your older years, because my comrades have disappeared for two years.”
Trained as a construction engineer, where he worked as a senior manager, Xu has pursued his activism through writing and song for nearly two decades. He has composed works about the June 4 massacre, the political persecution of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, the plight of petitioners in China, and other topics. He was part of the 2013 Southern Street Movement in Guangdong, and has composed poems about the persecution of dissidents since 2010.
His August 2015 energetic, rock-tinged composition “Song of the Righteous Lawyers,” appeared to infuriate the authorities, leading to a month-long detention.
“We are brave rights defense lawyers. We bear the mission of safeguarding fairness and justice,” the chorus says.
Xu Lin had previously been threatened by Guangdong authorities, in a particular thug-like manner as he recounts in a December 2015 video on YouTube. “One of the police officers said that the station was really sick of me, and that someone in the public security division threatened to find someone to break my legs. Every time I made a post, they’d come and get me, until I was dead. They said the same thing to my wife.”
If the goal of the intimidation was to stop Xu Lin from posting his songs and poems online, it didn’t work. “They don’t frighten me,” he said in the same video. “This simply demonstrates all the more that this evil system has to be abolished.”
China Change, April 15, 2018
A WeChat group dedicated to raising money for Chinese prisoners of conscience and their families has recently been shut down by Chinese police, and its administrators targeted. One of the administrators of the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’ (全国旅游群), Guo Qingjun (郭庆军), was arrested by domestic security police in Changchun, Jilin Province, at his workplace on April 11. Guo’s wife, Zhang Yuying (张宇英), sent out a message that the couple’s house had been raided and Guo’s computer confiscated. At least seven other individuals associated with the group from around China have also been targeted, including Bao Luo (保罗), Lu Bi (卢比), Liu Chunlin (刘春林), Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), Sun Wenke (孙文科), Li Xiaohong (李小红), and an individual known as Meizi Qingxuan (梅子轻旋).
Guo’s family is aware that though he was arrested in Changchun, it is in fact police from his hometown in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, that are handling his case. On April 12 Guo’s wife received the official notification of criminal detention, which stated that he was suspected of “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
An individual familiar with the circumstances of the case said that apart from the eight people arrested, over 100 members of the chat group have been summoned and questioned by domestic security police. Guo, under pressure from the authorities, had already announced the disbanding of the National Tourism Chat Group several days prior to his arrest.
According to Radio Free Asia, citing an individual familiar with the case, the chatgroup was focused on prisoners of conscience, petitioners, and rights defenders in difficult circumstances. Guo’s National Tourism Chat Group kept books on donations, and sent money to individuals that donors wanted to help. This is known as ‘food delivery.’ The Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website explained that, for instance, the National Tourism Chat Group sent money to cover basic living expenses for the families of political prisoners Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), Yuan Bing (袁兵), Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) and others, to enable them to get through trying periods.
The locations at which the other seven targeted individuals are being detained is as yet unknown.
In China, providing relief to prisoners of conscience and their families is an act fraught with peril. As a way of not tipping off the authorities to the purpose of the group, and thus have it immediately shut down, the group managers took the name of ‘National Tourism,’ so they’d be able to help the families over the long term.
An activist who did not reveal his identity for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia that Guo Qingjun was one of the founders of the recently targeted ‘Rose chatgroups,’ as well as an important member of China Human Rights Observer (中国人权观察).
Guo lives in Changchun with his family; his day job is at a foreign-invested enterprise, and for years he has been involved in rights defense and citizen activism. He has largely tried to keep a low profile, though has been repeatedly warned to stop his activism by Chinese secret police.
Below is the limited information currently available on the individuals targeted:
Dai Xiangnan (phone number 13410097523) was a graduate of Peking University. In recent years he has been involved in NGO work in Shenzhen. In late 2015 when Guangdong-based labor NGOs were rolled up in a crackdown, he signed an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, and the State Council, demanding that the authorities rationally and legally respond to the efforts of workers to collectively defend their rights, as well as labor rights NGOs.
Lu Bi (phone number 13316556166) is an activist in Shenzhen. He was taken away from his residence on April 11.
Liu Chunlin (phone number 13725526191) is an architect.
One of the detained is a civil servant in Shenzhen. The identity of the others has not yet been verified.
A member of the chatgroup, Zhou Xiaolin (周筱霖), the owner of the Guyang Teahouse (古养茶馆) in Shenzhen, was summoned by police for questioning on April 13.
The Ganzhou public security bureau refused to answer a reporter’s questions about the case.
The ‘food delivery’ charity work that these individuals were engaged in is one of the many forms of activism that human rights defenders in China have developed to help the families of individuals who have been arrested and punished for political reasons. Yet, as the authorities suppression of rights defenders intensifies, even this modest act has come under the purview of the official crackdown. In 2013 the authorities forcibly disbanded a ‘Food Delivery Party’ (送饭党) led by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) in Beijing. Guo was later himself arrested, tortured, and had his Transition Institute (传知行研究所) dismembered and banned.
The crackdown against the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’, as well as the attack on the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ is ongoing, and it’s likely that more members of these loose online networks will be summoned, interrogated, and in some cases formally arrested and charged with crimes.
Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups, China Change, April 4, 2018.
Buffett-Style Dinner Bids Woo Chinese for Just Society, Bloomberg News, August 20, 2013.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders
Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018
“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The Chinese government attacks human rights defenders (HRDs) – those who peacefully defend and promote human rights – on a range of fronts. First, and most critically, are the government’s attacks on HRDs at home. The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders has gone from bad to worse under Xi Jinping, and we can expect the downward trend to accelerate now that Xi is no longer constrained by term limits. While the resilience of China’s beleaguered HRDs is remarkable, their numbers are shrinking; a few prominent examples of HRDs detained, disappeared, or dead at the hands of the state include: Ilham Tohti, Liu Xiaobo, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Li Baiguang, and Cao Shunli.
Second, China harasses, obstructs, and jails HRDs who attempt to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report details the various ways the Chinese government interferes with civil society engagement at the UN, from restrictions on travel and detention (to prevent activists, as in the case of Cao Shunli, from traveling to Geneva), to reprisals and threats against family members of HRDs.
Third, and the focus of this article, China challenges the concept and even the term “human rights defenders” at the UN. With the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Declaration) celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and China undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, this is an important moment to press China on its utter lack of compliance with the Declaration.
I recently wrote at China Change about China’s aggressive promotion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” at the Human Rights Council (HRC) to undermine settled international human rights norms and push its vision for “global human rights governance.” This article will look at China’s recent moves in its long-term effort to dilute the concept and “harmonize” the term “human rights defenders,” while at the same time appearing to be a “responsible actor” on human rights at the UN. This two-fold strategy was on display in November 2017, when the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, which China joined, while it sought at the same time to weaken the text and the impact of the resolution.
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Brief
The term “human rights defender,” surprisingly, does not appear in the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (the Declaration’s sobriquet), nor in its unwieldy official title: “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” Thus, not surprisingly, the Declaration lacks a precise definition of the term “human rights defender.” Article 1 of the Declaration states simply: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” Those who exercise this right (through peaceful, nonviolent means) are human rights defenders; human rights defenders are identified first and foremost by what they do.
The Declaration highlights those rights that HRDs (and others) already have pursuant to international human rights law –– such as those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and other human rights instruments –– which are fundamental for the defense of human rights. These rights include, among others, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of expression and opinion, free flow of information, the right to participate in public affairs, the right to due process and an effective remedy for violations of human rights defenders’ rights, and the right to solicit and receive funds for rights defense work. (See inter alia, arts. 5-9, 12,13; and discussion in Chinese here.)
States have various duties and responsibilities under the Declaration, including “to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to create a safe and enabling legal and administrative environment for the effective guarantee and enjoyment “of all those rights and freedoms in practice.” (Art. 2.)
China’s Role in the Drafting of the Declaration
The drafting of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders took 14 years and was described by Amnesty International as “tortuous” in a 1995 account. The glaring absence of the term “human rights defenders” from the Declaration’s title and text –– despite the usage of the term during negotiations of the text –– speaks to the contentiousness of the process that brought the Declaration into being.
In 1985, the UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council), created a working group to draft the Declaration. At first, the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries were primarily responsible for moves that hindered progress on the draft text; however, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other geopolitical shifts, the States most responsible for obstruction and delay on the draft were Cuba, China, and Syria, with Mexico and Iran playing supporting antagonistic roles.
In 1994, according to Amnesty’s account, China and Cuba argued to remove from the draft an article relating to the right to solicit and obtain resources for the work of HRDs. In 1995, China and Cuba also pushed for inclusion of wording that would have limited defenders to the right to peacefully oppose only violations of their own rights, rather than human rights abuses suffered by others. In addition, China supported a proposal offered by Cuba that would have created numerous limitations on the work of HRDs, including restricting the work of HRDs to its “humanitarian essence.” Amnesty concluded at the time that the “root problem is that a small group of governments seem determined to prevent the creation of a useful instrument for the defence of human rights.”
The fractious working group eventually reached agreement on a final text, and on December 9, 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus ( i.e., without a vote). The adoption was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly (December 10, 1948). Although the Declaration on HRDs is not legally binding, its adoption by consensus –– despite the struggle it took to reach an agreed text –– is a sign of political will among UN Member States for the principles, language, and action items contained in the Declaration.
China Pushes Back Against Growing Momentum for Protection of HRDs
During the past 20 years, however, countries have differed greatly in the extent to which they have embraced, or opposed, the Declaration and the changes it helped catalyze. China has continuously undermined protection for human rights defenders at the UN, and persistently wages war on the term, regardless of where it may show up (e.g., HRC resolutions in June 2016 on the elimination of discrimination against women and violence against women). As HRW notes in its recent report, The Costs of International Advocacy, during the June 2016 session, a Chinese diplomat stated that the HRC “should not promote such a controversial concept.”
As human rights defenders have become recognized as a vital part of the international human rights mechanisms, and the UN creates more space for civil society, China and other States (e.g., China’s friends in the so-called Like-Minded Group) have intensified their efforts to silence them. A UN official quoted by HRW said: “The whole UN machinery tries to make space for civil society while the PRC machinery works the other way, trying to shrink the space for NGOs.”
The tactics used by China and other authoritarian regimes to silence those who try to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms has led to a greater focus on the issue of reprisals at the Human Rights Council and in the UN system as a whole. In September 2017, China abstained from an HRC resolution on cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms and reprisals. Earlier, China challenged the treaty body chairs’ adoption of the San Jose Guidelines, measures aimed to protect civil society actors from reprisals for their efforts to engage with the treaty bodies.
China’s Efforts to Undermine HRDs in the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 2017
In October 2017, during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his annual report in the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee –– a key component of the UN human rights infrastructure –– a Chinese diplomat delivered a statement that summarizes some of the key arguments China marshals against HRDs at the UN (English) (Chinese). Ms. Qu Jiehao stated:
“China is of the view that as there is no clear and universal definition worked out through intergovernmental negotiation on “human rights defenders”, countries have different views on who can be defined as ‘human rights defenders.’ All people should enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis. Human rights defenders should not be regarded as a special group to be granted special rights and status. Those who have violated law or engaged in criminal activities in the name of ‘human rights defenders’ to undermine the interests of the majority of people or public order should be brought to justice according to law.”
China and other countries that are not friendly toward HRDs use the absence of a definition of the term “human rights defenders” in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to argue that the term and concept “human rights defenders” is ambiguous and controversial–– notwithstanding the robust and expanding UN (not to mention regional and national) infrastructure on human rights defenders.
Moreover, China speciously argues that the Declaration on HRDs creates “special rights” for HRDs. The text of the Declaration is clear, however, that the rights highlighted therein are contained in the UDHR and other core human rights instruments, and are specifically emphasized because they are critically important to the defense of human rights. The Chinese government also invokes its domestic laws (e.g., those that in practice are used to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly) to argue that HRDs are engaged in “illegal conduct,” and thus are not only undeserving of protection, but also criminally liable. China also invokes “non-interference in internal affairs” on this issue, as it does with so many issues at the UN.
A resolution on human rights defenders, with different themes and emphases, is introduced biennially, in alternating years, in the GA’s Third Committee in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Norway takes the lead on the HRD resolutions, as it did in November 2017 in the Third Committee, and strives to achieve a consensus text to signal to HRDs around the globe that the UN unanimously supports them.
On November 20, Ambassador May-Elin Stener, the Deputy Permanent Representative for Norway to the UN, introduced the draft resolution on human rights defenders (A/C.3/72/L.50/Rev.1) in the 51st meeting of the Third Committee of the GA’s 72nd session (UN Web TV @ 14:00). The resolution calls for an end to violence and reprisals against HRDs and the active promotion of the Declaration and its implementation during 2018. The resolution also provides for a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly during its 73rd session in 2018 on the promotion of the Declaration, and requests the Secretary-General to “undertake a comprehensive assessment and analysis of progress, achievements and challenges” on how the UN mechanisms can better assist States in “strengthening the role and security of human rights defenders.”
After Ambassador Stener presented oral revisions to the draft resolution (beginning @ 17:44) that reflected further negotiations, she invited the Committee to adopt the resolution by consensus, as orally revised, so “the Third Committee can send a clear message of unanimous support of human rights defenders in all parts of the world.”
Estonia, speaking for the EU (beginning @ 31:05), expressed a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the text. Estonia stated that the EU welcomed “the aim of this resolution” to use the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “in a manner that is supportive of the work of the human rights defenders around the world.” But he expressed the EU’s concern that there were “a number of areas” that “could have benefitted from a strengthening of the text, including more accurate references to existing official UN documents and the removal of unnecessary qualifiers.” But in the interests of achieving consensus, the EU agreed to the final text.
Although China also joined the consensus on the adoption of the resolution, and did not call for a vote, as it had in 2015, it nevertheless issued a statement challenging certain aspects of the resolution.
The Chinese delegate (beginning @ 33:10) welcomed the tabling of the resolution and said that it joined the consensus after oral amendments. In particular, the delegate expressed China’s appreciation for Norway accepting its proposals on a few specific paragraphs, including preambular (i.e., introductory) paragraph 7 (discussed below). He then laid out China’s positions and reservations.
With respect to preambular paragraph (PP) 9, which describes rights defenders’ work as “positive, important, and legitimate,” China stated:
“Preambular paragraph 9 contains preconceived notions that the roles and activities of human rights defenders are legitimate. China reiterates that … human rights defenders must carry out their activities in a peaceful and lawful way. Human rights defenders, if acting in violation of domestic law, shall be equally sanctioned by the law as others. No state shall employ the issue of human rights defenders as a tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
China also expressed concern about operative (i.e., action-oriented) paragraph (OP) 7, which condemns the criminalization of, and intimidation and violence against human rights defenders for reporting and seeking information on human rights abuses, and OP 8, which urges States to protect the right of everyone to interact with international human rights bodies. China stated that these two paragraphs “go beyond the scope of the application of the Declaration.”
With respect to the paragraph calling for a high-level meeting of the GA in its next session (OP 14), the Chinese delegate stated, “the paragraph is ambiguous about the nature of the meeting.” He continued: “China wishes to highlight that this meeting shall be of a commemorative nature and its purpose is to promote the declaration. China is not in favor of the adoption of an outcome document in this meeting.”
The Chinese delegate noted that China had called for a vote on the human rights defenders’ resolution two years earlier in 2015 but this year (2017) it joined the consensus, because it believed that the current text had improved compared with the 2015 resolution. The call for a vote in 2015 by China and Russia was unprecedented; at the time, Amnesty expressed concern about “actions taken by some Member States to undermine the crucial principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998.”
With respect to the 2017 resolution, China’s change to PP 7 is potentially significant ––a footnote was added to the term “human rights defenders.” The footnote states: “The term human rights defenders applies consistent with the purposes, principles and provisions of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” This unnecessary addition, which China took responsibility for, is perplexing. It may be an opening salvo in a bid to undermine the common understanding of the work of HRDs and their rights, and the States’ responsibility to protect them. The fact that the representative of the Russian Federation (beginning @ 37:30) expressed support for the footnote is cause for concern. The delegate stated that Russia was “pleased to see” in the orally amended document “specifications regarding the term human rights defenders.”
Moreover, Switzerland expressed concern about China’s addition of the footnote (beginning @ 47:45), stating: “we regret the addition of a footnote under PP 7, which seeks to define the term human rights in the resolution. Switzerland believes that this footnote is applicable only in the context of this resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and we reserve our position for the future.”
Different iterations of the draft resolution also reflect a struggle over its title. The title of the first version of the resolution tabled in late October 2017 (A/C.3/72/L.50) included a parenthetical with the shorthand name for the Declaration’s cumbersome title: “Twentieth anniversary and promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly referred to as the Declaration on human rights defenders).” [Emphasis added.] The parenthetical didn’t last long. In the next version of the negotiated text (A/C.3/72/L.50. Rev.1), the “commonly referred to as” language was moved to a footnote, and in the final version of the resolution that was adopted by the Third Committee, the footnote had disappeared, and the “commonly referred to as” language resurfaced in an easy-to-miss spot at the end of the third preambular paragraph.
In late December 2017, the GA adopted by consensus the Third Committee’s final draft resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration. Now that we are well into 2018, it’s incumbent upon all stakeholders to proactively promote the Declaration and work towards strengthening its implementation.
* * *
What can be done at the UN during the 20th anniversary year of the Declaration?
There are several significant opportunities for civil society engagement on China and the issue of human rights defenders in 2018.
First, China’s next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will take place in November 2018. The deadline for NGO submissions is March 29. China’s national report is due in July 2018. Despite the fact that States are obligated to consult with domestic civil society in the process of drafting their National reports, China’s practice, not surprisingly, has been to enlist GONGOs in an effort to appear to “satisfy” this requirement.
Second, as Tess McEvoy of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) notes, the resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “gives human rights defenders the opportunity to channel analyses and recommendations related to implementation into UN processes, with the ultimate aim of establishing better implementation and procedures.” The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders will take place sometime during the fall of 2018, and input from HRDs worldwide will be sought in advance for a report to be presented at that meeting.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Website of the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst
Janika Spannagel, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), November 2017 http://www.geschichte-menschenrechte.de/en/schluesseltexte/erklaerung-zu-menschenrechtsverteidigern-1998/
International Service for Human Rights, Third Committee of the UN General Assembly: A Practical Guide for NGOs (2017)
Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin, China and the International Human Rights System (Chatham House, October 2012)
Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy (September 2017)
Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Repression & Resilience: Annual Report on Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2017)
Safeguard defenders, September 19, 2017
Among the many revelations into the systematic repression of the human rights community to have come to light since the beginning of the 709 Crackdown have been accounts from those released about the access of police and state security to chat logs and emails, even communications and documents those people thought they had deleted.
This heightened awareness has certainly pushed the idea of taking digital security precautions in how to prevent sensitive information from falling into the hands of police in the event of detention. However, the focus of trainings and guidebooks is often directed in the wrong direction, namely on more advanced hacking and sophisticated intrusion. This continued focus on advanced threats actually has and will continue to harm human rights defenders’ safety. This is because it is not only nearly impossible to defend against such high level threats but that also in almost every case this is not the real threat. In the end, time is consumed trying to defend against a largely non-existent threat.
It is true that the capability of the Chinese Government concerning data forensics and hacking has developed like other aspects of the country, but those often limited resources are used against other bigger, and usually international, targets. On top of that, police and state security know well that the impunity with which they can act means that they have more direct, easier, access to whatever a human rights defenders’ computer or phone might hold; namely the use of direct threats, torture and intimidation against family, friends and loved ones. There are exceptions, but against these tools of repression, few people can stand up for long.
Real security must thus be based on the fact that a defenders’ computer and phone will be taken, and chances are that they will be forced to give up the information the police is after. The threat of torture or disappearance is sadly quite effective against even the best password or encrypted file. Any training and training material must be based on this reality. Digital security requires physical and behavioral changes in addition to passwords and applications.
The reality is also that digital security solutions that decrease the efficiency of our phones and computers are likely to be abandoned after time, regardless of the quality or number of trainings the rights defender or journalist has attended. Security solutions are only solutions if they are actually applied and maintained, something a lot of training material seems to gloss over when they offer solutions that are realistically not feasible for the majority of rights defenders.
Real security, that is sufficient and sustainable, can only come from finding the middle path, by focusing on real threats, while offering solutions that come from basic behavior rather than advanced technological solutions.
The newly released Practical Digital Protection self-study guide has been developed with these considerations in mind. It was developed over 12 months, together with journalists, lawyers, NGO workers and rights defenders across China, looking at their own experiences with security issues, detentions, interrogations and data forensic techniques applied by police and state security. The manual doesn’t only provide behavior-based solutions, but also real-life stories from defenders illustrating how their own best or worst case solutions have had a direct impact on how their technology has either been used against them, their partners, and coworkers, or prevented from being exploited by the State.
The following abridged story is one of several from the Practical Digital Protection manual.
A seasoned rights defense lawyer received a message on Telegram from a trusted colleague that the police had been asking questions about her and that she should expect to be detained or at least questioned. She had at this point already taken on many rights defense cases and worked with many other similar lawyers for several years. She was quite skilled in cybersecurity, having always been afraid police might detain her or take her computer and try to use her information against her. She rarely used WeChat, and never for work. She even knew how to use hidden encryption, not only to protect the data itself, but also to hide its very existence. Police can’t ask about what they don’t know exist she figured, correctly.
The information she had wasn’t just about her, but also about others. If this information fell into the wrong hands it didn’t just mean possible imprisonment for her, but for others. She had already been smart enough to realize that normal encryption would be of little help. If police knew what to ask for, she doubted that she would be able to resist for long, as she as a lawyer was well aware that the legal protections against torture and mistreatment in China are barely worth the paper they are written on.
When the police eventually detained her and placed her alone in a cell, to undergo more than a month of interrogations, they also seized her computer, several phones, and USBs.
After a few days in detention, she was very surprised when the police began to start each new day by showing her documents from her computer. She knew these documents had been stored in a hidden encrypted space that the police did not have access too, or even knew about. She was frantic each time the police produced one of these documents. These documents threatened to expose some of her sensitive rights defense work and provide evidence that would make it easy for the police to go after her clients or other lawyers she had worked with.
Before being detained she had agreed to a cover story with her colleagues who might also be detained. Some of the documents the police produced challenged their cover story, and severely increased hers and their risks.
The documents the police had were very random. Many of them were also just partial, a few pages of a larger document. How did they get these documents, she continued to wonder.
In the end, the police did not find the ‘smoking gun’ they were looking for, and even though she remains to this day under threat, having been released on ‘bail’, with police able to pick her up again any day they wish, the fact that most documents remained protected saved her.
Only after her release, with time and access to information online did she figure out what had gone wrong. File Recovery program it read. With this, she would learn of something that even many of those skilled in Cybersecurity fails to understand, or if they do understand it, fails to realize how big of a threat it is.
Data, she realized, are like memories. They linger for a long time, and even when they begin to fade, it happens slowly, and only parts of it disappear. Data, once ‘deleted,’ she realized, is not actually deleted, but continues to lie on the hard drive, only not visible to the normal user. It’s all still there, until the space holding the data is filled up with something new. The fact that most of data was in an encrypted space didn’t always matter, as many of the documents she had produced over the years had been created on the desktop (outside the encrypted area), before being moved to the encrypted space (which leaves traces of the original). An act of laziness. Many documents had also been deleted over time, she like most thus assumed they were safe. It had been deleted after all.
So what had happened? All those documents that had been on her normal hard drive, once moved to the encrypted storage, were readily available to the police using File Recovery, easy to use programs available for free online. All they had to do was scan her hard drive in detail, and step by step pieces of old data long ago deleted could be put together. This is because the documents weren’t properly erased from her computer. But there are solutions. Programs such as CCleaner for example, securely delete files to make sure nobody can ever recover them. Understanding how data deletion really works, and making secure deletion part of a normal routine will drastically increase security.
Safeguard Defenders new practical digital protection manual (English and Chinese editions) can be found at practicaldigitalprotection.com.
In addition to the current Chinese- and English language editions, other editions are being produced in collaboration with Reporters Without Borders, with a Vietnamese and a Turkish edition coming this fall.
Safeguard Defenders 的最新数字安全实用手册目前有英文版和中文版，可以在网站 practicaldigitalprotection.com 下载。
Also from Safeguard Defenders:
What to Make of the Explosive New WeChat and QQ Spying Revelations? September 10, 2017
Safeguard Defenders, September 10, 2017
A new report by a Lookout, a Cybersecurity company, has generated renewed interest in the security, or lack thereof, of WeChat and QQ (https://blog.lookout.com/xrat-mobile-threat). Despite this, there has been limited attention paid to this explosive new revelation.
It has long been known that due to WeChat keeping its servers inside China, the lack of legal protection of privacy data, and the control over companies by police, that WeChat data is not safe, and can, without protection, be accessed by police or other state actors more or less at will. This has naturally made people shy away from using WeChat for any more serious or political discussions. More and more court cases of people being prosecuted simply based on private chat messages to friends have further illustration this. At the same time, at the time of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, it was shown that a ‘Trojan’ virus was being employed to surveil users remotely.
xRAT. That’s the name of the new discovery. Like the earlier virus found, it’s a ‘Trojan’ virus, meaning it masks itself as something else, for example a PDF file, and you will be unaware of if you have it on your phone by now. It specifically targets you through your WeChat or QQ account.
So what’s the big deal?
The ‘Trojan’ operates with administrator privileges. It means it can access and control any and all aspects of your phone. It also means it can do so without you noticing. In fact, it can remotely get ‘full control’. If you want to understand what this means it is this: it has as much access to your phone as if you were to give it to someone, and then tell them your PIN code. Full control.
This means that not only your WeChat or QQ use is exposed. All of your phone is exposed. Photos stored, downloads, documents, any Apps to other services installed, chat logs, phone records, contact lists, and of course, your browser and its entire browsing history, which may include credit card and password and login information to other service, for example encrypted emailing you use.
In short, any phone that has WeChat on it, and is also used to access work emails, or secure chat programs like Telegram or Signal, can now be in the hands of Chinese police or state security. For the community of supporters of human rights in China it moves from bad to terrible. You can now, if you communicate with human rights defenders in China through secure Apps or emailing on a phone that has WeChat or QQ installed, inadvertently be giving the Chinese police material that will incriminate those human rights defenders and land them in prison.
To make matters worse, administrator privilege means you microphone can be turned on, and stream whatever is heard to the Chinese police. Same with video camera and camera. It is a most sophisticated spying tool with far-reaching consequences. It can, it goes without saying, read you location, as well as the specific meta-data of your phone.
If that wasn’t enough, there is one last thing, which makes it such a sophisticated virus. It can auto destruct itself. And when doing so, it can not only delete itself from your phone, but wipe much of your phone log data, making it hard even for technically skilled people to know that the virus was ever there. In short, you might never know if your phone, your use, is the reason someone has landed in prison.
A number of control centers in China has been identified to where such data and traffic goes. The code is such that there is little doubt that this ‘Trojan’ comes from the same people behind the earlier ‘Trojan’ targeting Hong Kong Occupy Central people, just much more sophisticated.
Should I worry? What to do?
First off, there is still some lack of understanding how the infection spreads to your phone. At the same time, there is little reason to think resources would be spent to develop such a tool, and then not try to use it. An earlier, much less sophisticated version, was used extensively during the Occupy Central movement. Why would the police and state security organs not use a tool if it’s already been developed, and if it’s this powerful? It should go without saying that you need to operate as if it’s being used widely, and as if you were a target.
Most people with risk awareness will already have made sure to not use WeChat or QQ, or if they felt a strong need to have it, have it installed on a second phone which is not used for anything else. If you need WeChat, like many unfortunately feel they do, at the very least, install it on a blank, factory-reset second phone, like a super cheap android phone. Due to microphone remote control, make sure to never have it in your office or at any discussions.
Secondly, your current phone, if infected, will not be secure just by uninstalling WeChat and QQ. You will have no choice but to do a factory reset. This may be an inconvenience, but it is the only way. It goes without saying that any existing PIN codes, passwords to work emails, etc., will need be changed after you have done this factory reset.
From the editors:
Since this post was launched, we have heard several complaints such as this one: “the article misrepresents the malware report, which does not mention WeChat or QQ as delivery method, but instead as targeted data.” It is true that the threat is posed by a ‘Trojan’ virus, an external program designed to utilize weaknesses through WeChat and QQ. The vulnerability begins when the xRAT “Trojan” has infected your phone, and the “Trojan” aims at infecting those using WeChat or QQ. The WeChat and QQ programs themselves do not contain the “Trojan.” The silent mode in which it can operate nonetheless makes it hard to know if your phone has been infected. The mode of infection, for example through having downloaded and opened a PDF or other type of file, continues to be studied and the mode of infection is not yet clear.
China Change, August 13, 2017
On Monday one of China’s most well-known rights defense activists, Wu Gan (known by the moniker “The Super Vulgar Butcher” online) will be put on trial in the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. The court says that the case involves “state secrets” and has announced that it will be a closed hearing. For days now, activists and lawyers around the country have been warned not to travel to Tianjin to try to attend the trial or congregate outside the courthouse. Last December, Wu Gan was charged with subversion of state power. Since the Deng Yujiao case in 2009, he has been an active in the public sphere. All the way until he was arrested in May 2015, Wu Gan was a presence in countless cases involving social justice, grassroots elections, and human rights abuses. He cultivated a renown for his unprecedented ability to mobilize supporters both online and off.
The prosecutor’s Indictment against him refers to his involvement in 12 incidents, held up as evidence of how “Defendant Wu Gan has organized, plotted, and carried out subversion of the state regime and overthrow of the socialist system.”
Recently, Wu Gan asked his lawyers to publish a “Pretrial Statement” he had given them, which explained that all he had done in those cases was to help those searching for justice, exercising their rights as citizens granted and protected in the Chinese constitution and acknowledged around the world as universal values.
Given that neither Wu Gan himself nor his lawyers are able to mount a meaningful defense in a Chinese court, let alone get a fair trial, we provide you with a summary of each incident, and we ask the world to hear Wu Gan’s case and be his jury.
- The framing of three netizens from Fujian (April 2010)
In June 2009, the Fujian-based human rights defender Fan Yanqiong (范燕琼) exposed an incident — as told by the mother of the victim — in which a young woman from eastern Fujian province was in February of that year gang-raped and murdered by police. You Jingyou (游精佑), a local railway engineer who has an interest in social justice issues, recorded a video interview with the mother, while another human rights defender, Wu Huaying (吴华英), helped to spread the video online. On June 24 Fan Yanqiong, You Jingyou and Wu Huaying were criminally detained by the Fuzhou police and charged with “slander.” The fact that this incident, taking place in a remote part of Fujian, became known as the “case of the three netizens from Fujian,” and became a topic of major interest, receiving national attention and support from activists both online and off, was to a large degree due to the creativity of Wu Gan.
Wu Gan’s involvement in the case began in February 2010. On April 16, a week before the trial opened, Wu Gan set up a tent and began camping outside the Fuzhou Municipal No. 1 Detention Center, sending a constant stream of updates to followers online, creating buzz about the impending protests. On the day of the trial over 100 netizens from around the country gathered outside the Fuzhou Mawei Court to demonstrate. Images of Wu Gan holding a speaker and mobilizing the protesters at the scene became well-known to internet users. The case of the three Fujian netizens was the beginning of a model in China that turned such trials into public spectacles. For years afterwards this became one of the staples in the activist repertoire.
According to the Indictment against him, on the date of hearing, Wu Gan “hung banners and shouted slogans with others outside of the court and posted video on the Internet, severely affecting the People’s Court in its examination of the case according to the law, smearing the image of the judicial institution, and creating bad political effects both at home and abroad.”
“I got involved in this case,” Wu Gan said, “because it closely relates to the rights of all of us. We’re all plain old internet users — so if these three people are turned into criminals, then every time we go online and post something, we could also all be turned into criminals too.”
Fan Yanqiong, the lawyer, was sentenced to prison for two years, while the other two received sentences of one year each.
- The Fuzhou Cangshan-Jin’an-Mawei forced demolition case (April 2012)
In April 2012 Wu Gan responded to a request to return to Fuzhou and help defend the rights of a resident who had gotten into a conflict with the government over forced demolitions. The dispute arose because the resident found the compensation he was was offered far too low, and refused to relocate. In an attempt to force he and his family out, real estate developers cut off their water and electricity, then began stacking heavy construction supplies around the house, before directing workers to begin laying the structural foundations for the new buildings.
Wu Gan used a variety of techniques in the case: he made requests for open information from the government, exposed that the developers did not have permission to begin work, showing that it was thus illegal, put up posters in the vicinity about the fact, and began camping outside the Fuzhou Construction Bureau’s offices to demonstrate.
Because their home had already been damaged at this point, and the victims had no place to live, Wu Gan said he wanted to meet with the local leading cadres in the area to resolve the issue of their housing. When he found that one of them was a female, in order to stage a more eye-catching protest, Wu Gan bought a naked human model, then attached the face of the female cadre to the head. After the police angrily told them not to parade it around, Wu Gan and others dropped the plans for a march with the model.
Wu Gan made a recording of the violent scenes of forced demolition and put them online. “The government and the developers brought in the mob,” Wu Gan said. “Whoever disobeyed them would be beaten by the gang of thugs. I ran a big risk by going upstairs to record what they were doing, but the police did nothing to stop them.”
- Defending his father from false charges of embezzlement (September 2012)
Over his years of rights defense, protest, and supervising those in power across the country, Wu Gan was constantly concerned that his family would be targeted for retaliation. In September 2012 the Fujian authorities detained his father, Xu Xiaoshun (徐孝顺), on the charge of “embezzlement.” He was released on probation a couple of months later, and the case was afterwards dismissed. On July 3, 2015, when Wu Gan was formally arrested, Xu Xiaoshun was on July 4 again taken into custody with the same charges. The attempt by the authorities to put Wu Gan under pressure by persecuting his father couldn’t have been more obvious.
On January 19, 2017, Xu Xiaoshun was again released on probation. On May 3, 2017, the Fuqing Municipal Intermediate People’s Court declared that the facts in the case against Xu Xiaoshun were unclear and that there was insufficient evidence to try him, and his case was again dropped.
Beginning in May, Wu Gan’s father began the work of trying to get his son released. In his “Open Letter to Friends of Wu Gan Concerned With the 709 Incident,” he admitted frankly that in the past he hadn’t supported his son’s rights defense work. “We argued about it every time we met,” he wrote. But, he added, “What I know and believe is that he is a man full of enthusiasm, truth, and kindness.” The father was furious at the Bill of Indictment against Wu Gan, which turned Wu’s attempts to redress victims into the crime of “subverting state power.” He continued: “I was, deep inside, very proud of my son.”
According to the indictment, Wu Gan protesting outside the Fuqing Public Security Bureau for arresting his father, then posting information about the Public Security Bureau chief and bureau personnel online “severely harmed the image of public security organs and the People’s Police, and provoked people unfamiliar with the truth of the situation to hostility toward organs of the state regime.”
Wu Gan will be tried in secret in Tianjin on August 14. As his father, Xu Xiaoshun should be sitting in the courtroom, but on August 10 he was effectively put under arrest by Fujian security police and forcibly taken back to his hometown in Fuqing. The warnings given to dozens of other human rights lawyers and rights defenders, to “not go where you shouldn’t go,” show that the authorities are paranoid about the trial they’re about to hold. Officials don’t even mention the words “Tianjin” when issuing the warnings, showing that the trial for them has become a major political affair.
- Protesting the black jail in Jiansanjiang (March 2014)
Extralegal places of detention — “black jails” — are a major problem in China. After the abolition of the re-education through forced labor system in 2013, large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners and petitioners were transferred to black jails — set up in local government-controlled buildings or guest houses — or so-called “legal education bases.” On March 20, 2014, the human rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Wang Cheng (王成), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), and nine relatives of the victims, traveled to a “legal education base” on Qinglongshan Farm (青龙山农场), part of the Heilongjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration (黑龙江农垦总局), demanding the release of a number of illegally detained Falun Gong practitioners. In the morning of March 21 they were taken away by a group of public security officers, put under administrative detention, then charged with the crime of “using an evil religious organization to harm society and violate the law.” During the detention the four lawyers were savagely beaten, to the point that all four suffered broken ribs.
The Jiansanjiang Incident, as it was termed, attracted widespread attention among human rights lawyers and activists. People traveled from around China to Jiamusi, the nearest city in Heilongjiang, and then to the Jiansanjiang area to demonstrate. Wu Gan was part of a group of citizens that went to call out for the release of the lawyers. On March 26, 2014, he put the equivalent of a reward poster online, promising to pay 50,000 RMB to whoever could provide evidence of illegal conduct by the chief of the Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation Administration’s Public Security Bureau, Liu Guofeng (刘国锋).
The charges against Wu Gan say that he set off a “human flesh search” online and published an “reward for the capture of a criminal,” and that these acts constituted “incitement of opposition to the state regime, creating a severely vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
Wu Gan responded to the doubts raised about his methods online, saying, “We can’t change this fucked up country all at once, but at the very least we will have done our best when it was at its darkest, we will have given one another warmth, shown the helpless that they’re not alone, and when we look back on all this we’ll be able to proudly say that we were part of it: I forked out my own money, I put in my own effort, I got involved, I didn’t sit back and do nothing!”
- Defending the Huang sisters from land requisitions in Huaihua, Hunan (May 2014)
In October 2009, the Mayang county government in Huaihua city, Hunan Province (湖南怀化市麻阳县政府) — without going through any public discussion with the villagers, or gaining any legal document to authorize the requisition of land — forcibly acquired over 10,000 mu (1,647 acres) of agricultural land from villagers at an extremely suppressed price. The government then sold this expropriated land to real estate developers, taking for themselves an enormous profit. This has been the model for how land transactions have been dealt with during China’s economic development for many years.
In November 2009, five Huang clans in the Dalilin village, Gaolin township, Mayang Miao autonomous county in Huaihua, began to defend the legal rights they had to their land assets, refusing to sign the documents that would have transferred the title. They also got into a physical conflict with some of the men the developers hired to carry out the forced demolition work. In August of 2012, at least five members of the Huang clan were arrested and sentenced on the charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” In January of 2013, when a number of them were released on probation, the two sisters sought help online. Lawyer Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yang, as well as Wu Gan learned about the case and got involved in it. Li Heping brought suit at the Huaihua Municipal Intermediate Court, and made an official request for public information from the Mayang county government for the land title information and the authorization for the demolitions. In November of 2013, three of the Huang clan buildings were violently torn down. On April 24, 2013, when Li Heping and a number of other lawyers held a hearing on behalf of the Huang clan at the Mayang Bureau of Land Resources, the Mayang county public security bureau chief ordered a gang of his subordinates to mob and bash them.
During the trial of second instance in May 2014, Zhu Ruifeng (朱瑞峰), a reporter with People’s Supervision Network (人民监督网), an independent website that has since been shut down, traveled to Mayang county to investigate — they were refused access by the Party secretary, Hu Jiawu (胡佳武). Wu Gan then made his way to the Huaihua Municipal Procuratorate and lodged a legal complaint against Hu.
Charges against Wu Gan, however, make no mention of the illegal government land requisitions in Mayang, instead claiming that Wu Gan’s protests outside the Mayang county government offices, and his complaint to the Procuratorate, constituted “inciting individuals who don’t know the truth of the matter to be unhappy with the system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
- The case of the ‘Ten Gentlemen from Zhengzhou’ (May 2014)
On February 2, 2014, two students from the 1989 democracy generation — Yu Shiwen (于世文) and Chen Wei (陈卫) — organized an event to commemorate Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) near Zhao’s old family home in Hua county, Henan Province (河南省滑县). But in May that year, a number of participants were criminally detained and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The case came to be known as that of the Zhengzhou Ten (郑州十君子案).
Upon hearing of the case, activists from around China rushed to the two Zhengzhou detention centers where the participants were being held and began protesting. They unfurled banners, cried out slogans, demanded their release, and criticized the Zhengzhou authorities for depriving the detainees of their right to legal counsel. The number of protesters grew from a couple of dozen to about 70 at its peak. In the end, they were swept up and cleared out. Speaking to Radio Free Asia, Wu Gan said that “the authorities were frightened that so many people had gathered together.”
Later, most of those detained were released one after another, and Yu Shiwen, the only one that was charged, was released on probation in February 2017 without having been charged with a crime.
Nevertheless, Wu Gan’s protest has been taken as evidence constituting the crime of subversion of state power. The charges against him say that Wu Gan “agitated individuals who did not know the truth of the matter to hate organs of the state regime, creating a vile political impact domestically and internationally.”
- Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai’s administrative hearing
Cheng Hai (程海), a human rights lawyer based in Beijing, defended the New Citizens Movement (新公民运动) activist Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in 2014. When the trial opened, he demanded that the court rectify the numerous violations of legal procedure from the beginning of the investigation until the trial, but every time he tried to speak was interrupted by the judge. So he left the courtroom and lodged a complaint against the judge. In response, Beijing’s Changping District judicial bureau banned Cheng Hai from practicing law for one year. Nearly 190 lawyers from around the country jointly signed a petition demanding that the Changping district judicial bureau rescind its punishment, to protect the legal rights of lawyers. On September 5, 2014, over 100 human rights lawyers and citizen activists traveled to Changping to participate in the judicial bureau’s open hearing about the administrative punishment of Cheng Hai. Upon arrival, however, they were intercepted and prevented from attending by police and plainclothes officers. Wu Gan began holding up placards in protest of this illegal obstruction. Police also removed a number of lawyers and activists from the scene, including Wu Gan, locking them up for hours in the local police station. In the end, the punishment against Cheng Hai was sustained.
The charges against Wu Gan never explain why the police stopped lawyers and citizens from attending a public hearing held by a government agency — yet they still said that Wu Gan had “incited people online to travel to the scene of the hearing and illegally gather,” and they said that his holding up of placards in protest was “slandering and attacking organs of the state regime.”
- The case of Lu Yong’s civil appeal in Dali, Yunnan (December 2014)
In 2009 a man named Lu Yong (陆勇) rented a courtyard home on the shore of Erhai Lake in Shuanglang township, Dali, Yunnan (云南大理双廊镇洱海). The term of the lease was 20 years, and he paid it full in cash before the term began. The landlord, Li Hongjun (李红军), used the funds to build a three storey home elsewhere and moved in with his family. In 2010 tourism in Langyang township began to take off and rents shot up. The landlord reneged on the deal and moved his parents to occupy the old courtyard home. Lu Yong, who had already settled with his family in Beijing, went through two years of legal proceedings, including two trials, to finally get the house back in 2011. But in early 2014, the landlord bought off a judge at Dali’s Intermediate Court, Bao Kang (鲍康), who issued a “ruling for a retrial” (再审裁定书) that had no legal basis whatsoever. The “retrial” ordered that Lu Yong give the house back. Determined to defend right and wrong in his case, Lu Yong hired the Beijing-based Ruifeng Law Firm in response to the judge’s acceptance of bribes and twisting of the law. At the time Wu Gan was working as a consultant with the firm.
In January 2015, Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yuandong (谢远东) accompanied Lu Yong to Dali to make a formal complaint against Bao Kang, the judge, for bending the law to his personal ends, and submitted the evidence they possessed. They also submitted the evidence and complaints to the Dali Procuratorate, the Yunnan Provincial High Court, the Yunnan Provincial Procuratorate, and the Yunnan Commission for Discipline Inspection. Wu Gan drove their vehicle around the court for about an hour in protest, attracting seven or eight onlookers who came to see what was going on.
To Lu Yong’s bewilderment, his case also become part of the evidence against Wu Gan of subverting state power. The completely justified and fully-evidenced complaint against a judge in Dali turned into, in the charges against Wu Gan, the claim that “he attacked judicial organs, besmirched the judicial system, and maliciously stirred up trouble on the internet, attempting to incite people who did not know the truth to resent China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system.”
- The death of Fan Bengen in Suzhou (January 2014 to January 2015)
On December 3, 2013, the Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) returned home after having fled for some time to evade forced relocation. Shortly afterwards, numerous men with clubs stormed his home, beating his wife and son with their weapons. Fan Mugen took out a knife in self-defense, stabbing two of the aggressors to death. Lawyers from Beijing and elsewhere offered to represent him, and local human rights defenders in Suzhou traveled to the scene to prevent further attacks, collect evidence, and testify that Fan Mugen was engaged in genuine self-defense. On May 8, 2015, the Suzhou Municipal Intermediate Court publicly pronounced its verdict on Fan Mugen, finding him guilty of “intentional injury” and sentencing him to eight years imprisonment. The trial of second instance upheld the verdict. Large numbers of people however believed that he should have been found not-guilty and released.
Advocating on behalf of Fan Mugen in particular, and on deaths during forced demolition cases in general, has long been a focus of local Suzhou activists. Wu Gan began an online movement to raise funds for Fan Mugen’s defense.
The charges against Wu Gan say that he “actively started organizing fundraising online, maliciously created a disturbance, and incited people who didn’t know the facts to come to Suzhou to illegally assemble, stir up trouble and oppose the government.”
- The Baoding extortion case (March 2015)
Li Jie (李杰), the chief of Longzhuang village, Xinshi district, Baoding city, Hebei Province (河北省保定市新市区沈庄村), was in August 2013 charged with extortion and criminally detained. The Mancheng Court found Li Jie guilty of the crime in the trial of first instance and sentenced him to 15 years imprisonment. The trial of second instance found the case to be a grave miscarriage of justice, but the judge did not dare to violate the demands of the leader of the local politico-legal committee [a Party agency that controls the courts] and thus did not declare him not guilty. There have been countless cases of this kind in China.
On March 13, 2015, Wu Gan described the essence of the case on Twitter: “The politico-legal committee leadership in Baoding City, Hebei, is engaged in a ‘visual engineering’ project along the lines of Bo Xilai’s ‘strike the black’ campaign in Chongqing. They have no compunctions about declaring innocent people guilty in order to create the impression that they’re sending hardened mob elements to prison.” He called for the public to pay attention to the Li Jie case.
The Indictment against Wu Gan says that he “created a malicious disturbance online, stirring up resentment against China’s socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics judicial system among people who didn’t know the true circumstances.”
- The shooting of Xu Chunhe in Qing’an, Heilongjiang (May 2015)
On May 2, 2015, Xu Chunhe (徐纯和), a petitioner from Suihua in Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江绥化), took his family on a trip outside the area. He was stopped and prevented from boarding a train by police officer Li Lebin (李乐斌), who then began beating him. After Xu grabbed ahold of Li’s baton during the struggle, in an attempt to stop Li, Li shot him to death on the grounds that he was attacking an officer. Xu Chunhe’s mother and three children saw the entire incident unfold.
In the face of a torrent of public criticism, officialdom turned on the propaganda machinery, unleashing their Fifty Cent Army to flood the internet saying that Li Lebin had opened fire in a lawful manner. Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Li Zhongwei (李仲伟), Xie Yang (谢阳), Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), and other lawyers, traveled to Heilongjiang to provide legal counsel to Xu Chunhe’s family. Wu Gan managed to get ahold of a surveillance tape of the incident and published the video online, leading it to go viral. Numerous activists began traveling to Qing’an to protest the injustice. The human rights lawyers who were attempting to intercede in the case were administratively detained, and any further lawyers who traveled to the area were similarly taken into custody.
In thanking the eyewitness who provided the video footage — a student who knew well the dangers of spreading such sensitive content — Wu Gan wrote at the beginning of the footage posted on YouTube: “It’s all because of the numbness and cowardice of people that our country has decayed to its present state.”
The charges against Wu Gan instead say that he “published a large number of Weibo posts warping the true facts of the manner… and incited others to travel to Qing’an county and illegally assemble.” He was also said to have “agitated the masses who don’t understand the truth to oppose organs of the state regime.”
The widespread attention that the Qing’an case received, and its impact on public opinion, is seen by many as one of the proximate causes of the mass arrests carried out from July 9, 2015, and onward against human rights lawyers and activists, known as the 709 Crackdown.
- The Jiangxi Leping miscarriage of justice (May 2015)
The Leping case took place in Leping of Jiangxi Province (江西乐平) in 2000, with an incident of kidnapping, rape, and a dismembered body. Two years later police arrested four men in Zhongdian village of Leping county: Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强), Fang Chunping (方春平), Cheng Fagen (程发根), and Cheng Li (程立). Under torture, the four of them “confessed” to the crime; by 2015 they had been in prison for over 13 years and had been given death sentences twice. In 2011 local public security officers arrested a criminal in another case, Fang Linzai (方林崽), who confessed to murdering and dismembering the victim in 2000. Lawyers representing the four victims then demanded that the authorities re-investigate the case, but the Jiangxi High people’s Court refused the lawyers’ access to the case files. In response, the lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯), among others, protested outside the court for days, holding placards demanding the court to allow them to read the files.
Wu Gan traveled to the court in May, by which time the lawyers had already been holding vigil for eight days and had still not gained access to the original case files. Wu Gan setup two retractable display banners outside the court, printing on them: “Jiangxi High Court president Zhang Zhonghou: just name your price!” (江西高院张忠厚院长，你开个价吧！) and “Lawless, immoral, inhuman: Violating the law, violating conscience, violating Party discipline, and violating Heaven’s principles” (无法无天无人性，违法违心违纪违天理). This was Wu Gan at his most idiosyncratic in the art of using public shaming as protest.
On May 19, 2015, Wu Gan was detained. Official media Xinhua wrote in a report several days later that he was being administratively detained for 10 days for “disrupting work unit order and publicly humiliating people.” But within that period Wu Gan was criminally detained by Fujian police on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” as well as “slander.” He was detained in Fujian and then transferred to Tianjin, where he became the 709 Crackdown’s inaugural prisoner.
The Indictment against him said that Wu Gan has “besmirched the image of the judicial organs, slandering and attacking the state’s judicial system.” For most observers, however, it was the authorities’ denial to allow lawyers to review supposedly public case files that dealt damage to the image of China’s judicial system.
Most ironically, the Jiangxi High Court did retry the Leping case and on December 22, 2016, issued new verdicts: the four defendants were found not guilty and immediately released. Yet Wu Gan’s protests outside court were still included in the criminal charges against him, demonstrating that China’s judicial system is not only unjust, but also absurd.
These are the 12 cases the prosecutors cited to support the charges of “subversion of state power” against Wu Gan. Interestingly, the indictment steers clear some of the more celebrated cases in which Wu Gan played larger roles and displayed uncommon gallantry, such as the Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) case (a young footbath waitress in Hunan who killed an official attempting to rape her), the Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰) case (a street vendor in Shenyang who killed a violent chengguan [semi-official streep cop] in self-defence), the Qian Yunhui (钱云会) case (a village chief in Zhejiang fighting against land grabs who was crushed to death by a heavy construction machinery), and the case of elementary school girls in Hainan who were brought to a hotel by the principal and a government official for sex. One can see why the indictment avoids these cases, which highlight how perverse, preposterous, and grossly unjust Chinese society can be, and how little the judiciary can do to safeguard justice without any meaningful rule of law.
“The rights of free speech, press, religious belief, demonstration, assembly, supervising the government and officials, as well as expressing discontent are all natural rights and civil rights endowed and guaranteed by the constitution (presuming the rights are not in name only),” Wu Gan wrote in My Pretrial Statement. “If a citizen is convicted of a crime for exercising these rights, it’s a disgrace to our country and will be ridiculed and spurned by the people of the world. Forcing someone to defend himself against a charge of guilt for exercising these rights is an insult.”
He continued: “I will be convicted not because I am really guilty, but because of my refusal to accept a state-designated lawyer, plead guilty, and make a televised confession for their propaganda purposes, and my resolution to reveal their brutal torture of me and the procuratorates’ misconduct… My crime of subverting the Communist regime is a great honor for me. In fighting for democracy and freedom and in defense of civil rights, a guilty verdict issued by a dictatorial regime is a golden glittering trophy awarded to warriors for liberty and democracy.”
A life-long academic on Chinese law and the judiciary, Professor Jerome Cohen, wrote of Wu Gan’s pretrial statement: “It is tragic testimony to the pathetic attempts of the Communist Party to drape its oppression in the mantle of ‘law.’ To me the saddest aspects are its reminder of the forced collaboration of China’s judges with its police, prosecutors and Party legal officials in suppressing the constitutionally-prescribed rights and freedoms of the Chinese people.”
The indictment and the trial of Wu Gan are themselves evidence of the nature of China’s judicial system and the “Chinese characteristics” that the indictment is so eager to defend. How the world judges Wu Gan is entirely another matter.
Yaxue Cao edits this site. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
My Pretrial Statement, Wu Gan, August 9, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, July, 2015.
Bill of Indictment Against Rights Activist Wu Gan, January 12, 2017.
Activist Who Rejected TV Confession Invites CCTV Interviewer to Be Witness at His Trial, Wu Gan, March 24, 2017.
To All Friends Concerned With the Imprisoned Human Rights Activist Wu Gan and the 709 Case, Xu Xiaoshun, father of Wu Gan, May 22, 2017.
Paying Homage to Liu Xiaobo from Behind Bars, Wu Gan, July 31, 2017.