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May 9, 2018
On July 9, 2015, Wang Yu (王宇) became the first target in a campaign of mass arrests against human rights lawyers in China. Over the next roughly two weeks, over 300 rights lawyers were arrested, interrogated, detained, and threatened — thus begetting the notorious ‘709 Incident.’ After over a month in secret detention at a black site in Beijing, Wang Yu was transferred to Tianjin for a continuation of her detention, then under so-called ‘residential surveillance at a designated place’ (指定居所監視居住). For over a year she was not allowed to see her lawyer, family, or communicate with the outside world. Another 20 or so lawyers and activists, including Wang Yu’s husband Bao Longjun (包龍軍), were given similar treatment. During the secret detention and their time in detention centers, they were severely tortured, including by sleep deprivation, prolonged interrogation, forced-feeding with unidentified drugs, beatings, insults, being hand- and foot-cuffed, or having their family’s safety threatened. Some were even placed in cages submerged in water, so-called ‘water cage’ torture. Currently, three individuals are serving prison sentences, three were released on suspended sentences, and all others except one were released on a probationary form of ‘bail.’ Lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has been detained for over 1,000 days, neither sentenced nor released, and no one even knows whether he is dead or alive.
In August 2016, Wang Yu and her husband were released on a probationary form of bail (取保候審), whereupon they were forcibly taken to an apartment building in Ulanhot, Inner Mongolia. There they were reunited with their son, Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓轩), who had previously been coercively removed from Beijing and placed in Ulanhot to continue high-school. In Ulanhot, their movements were closely monitored, they were followed wherever they went, and their apartment was fitted out with an extensive array of surveillance cameras that pointed to their doorway, stairs and in and out of the building entrance. Wang Yu believed that the apartment itself was bugged too. Around a year later they were allowed to return to their own home in Beijing. Now, though they’re apparently ‘free,’ every move they make is still surveilled by the authorities, and Wang Yu has been unable to resume her profession as a lawyer.
Among China’s human rights lawyers, Wang Yu has been called the ‘Goddess of War.’ Prior to the 709 crackdown, she traveled the country taking on all manner of human rights cases. The image of Wang the lawyer in the ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ documentary, handing out fliers about the law under the beating sun in Hainan, left a deep impression of her commitment.
On July 8, 2016, the American Bar Association announced that it had selected Wang Yu to receive its inaugural ABA International Human Rights Award, “in recognition of her dedication to human rights, justice and the rule of law in China.” This news seemed to rattle the Communist Party. The authorities knew perfectly well that the 709 crackdown was an illegal, politically motivated large-scale persecution of human rights lawyers, and that the cruelty of torture methods they used exceed what most people can conceive. They fear the moral support that the international community was extending to the targets of their attacks.
In an attempt to sever such support, in the days leading up to the award ceremony, the authorities forced a detained Wang Yu to record at least two similar video statements castigating and rejecting the award. In one news clip, broadcast on CCTV, China’s state-run central TV, she says: “I haven’t really done anything in terms of human rights, so this sort of award is using me to besmirch the reputation of the Chinese government and besmirch the image of China. Thus, I insist on not approving, acknowledging, or accepting it. Nor will I have any other individual or organization accept the award on my behalf. If, despite my explicit rejection, they force the award upon me, this will be a violation of my human rights, and I strongly protest.”
In another clip broadcast on Phoenix, a state-run TV station thinly-masked as commercial TV in Hong Kong, she sits outdoors with a grass lawn behind her. In front of her are a number of official journalists whose faces the audience couldn’t see. She says, her voice halting: “As far as I’m concerned, this award is using me as a tool to attack and denigrate the Chinese government. I’m a Chinese person; I only accept the leadership of the Chinese government. I don’t want this or similar awards, not now, nor in the future.”
Two Tianjin lawyers claiming to represent her even sent a letter to the ABA, saying that the ABA award constituted an “infringement on the reputational rights of Ms. Wang Yu… Ms. Wang Yu reserves the right to pursue your organization as liable for such infringements.” The letter demanded that the ABA “cease and desist” in giving her the award.
On the basis that Wang Yu was in detention and could not speak of her own free will, the ABA dismissed the ploy and went ahead giving the award in Wang Yu’s absence on August 6, 2016, during its annual convention in San Francisco.
Two weeks after the award, a nationalistic website in China published an article by a “former NGO worker” who claimed to have worked at ABA’s office in Beijing. It described one boss as being lazy and incompetent, and another as rude and lecherous. It portrayed the ABA Beijing office as a place where Chinese employees were discriminated against and where “humanity and dignity…was worthless.” It insinuated, without clear factual statements, that ABA’s activities in China were political and ABA was a tool of the U.S. government being used to instigate a color revolution.
Now we have come full circle: in the book “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories from inside China’s system for enforced disappearances” published in November 2017 by Safeguard Defenders, Wang Yu for the first time reveals what she experienced under residential surveillance (China Change has an excerpt). In a new report recently released by the same organization, Wang Yu revealed how she was forced to rebuke and reject the ABA’s award. On television, she appears with a slightly puffy face, sitting outdoors before a grass lawn. In front of her are a number of official journalists whose faces the audience couldn’t see. She says, her voice halting: “I haven’t really done anything in terms of human rights, so this sort of award is using me to besmirch the reputation of the Chinese government and besmirch the image of China. Thus, I insist on not approving, acknowledging, or accepting it. Nor will I have any other individual or organization accept the award on my behalf. If, despite my explicit rejection, they force the award upon me, this will be a violation of my human rights, and I strongly protest.”
The following statement by Wang Yu about this incident is reproduced below with permission.
Wang Yu’s Account
It is difficult to explain, why I went on television, what kind of mental process I had gone through. And until now, I still feel it is difficult to describe, I don’t know how to talk about it. Actually, I do want to talk about it in detail, but I always feel sad. I am still struggling to get over the trauma. But I know I should speak out, even if just in this simple way.
It was about April 2016 and I had already been transferred to the Tianjin First Detention Centre. I had just finished my breast surgery at that time and the guards and interrogators were taking quite good care of me. My interrogator said if I cooperated then my case would be “dealt with leniently.” He meant I could be released soon. They also kept reminding me that my dream of sending my son overseas to study could happen only once I had been released from the detention centre.
How, then, did they want me to cooperate? They said all the 709 Crackdown people need to demonstrate a good attitude before they would be dealt with leniently. They said a PSB [Public Security Bureau] boss would come to the detention centre in a few days and they wanted me to say to him that: “I understand my mistake, I was tricked, and I was used. I denounce those overseas anti-China forces and I am grateful for how the PSB has helped and educated me.” After that, they stopped taking me to the interrogation room and moved me to a staff office where they fixed up space for me to eat and memorise the material my interrogator gave me.
Around about the end of April, the interrogator told me the boss was coming today and that we should make the video. He promised me the video would only be shown to that boss, and it would definitely not be shown to the public. He told me not to worry and just follow the script they had given to me. If I couldn’t memorize it all, then we could just re-record it. They also told me that everyone who was caught up in the 709 Crackdown had already made such videos. I kept asking them to confirm that it wouldn’t be shown in public and they promised it would not. Despite their assurances, I was still very unhappy about having to do the video.
In the afternoon, I was taken to the office again. A few minutes later, a man came in; he was in plainclothes and about 50 years old. A young man in his 20s followed with a camera. They both said something similar to me; something about how they would find a way out for me. I have suffered a lot of memory loss in the past few years so even if I try to remember exactly what happened, I can’t. But I do remember asking him who would see the video and he repeatedly said that it was only for their boss and not for television.
The young man finished setting up the camera, then the older one started asking questions. I don’t remember the exact questions, but it was basically the same as my interrogator had told me to study. I didn’t answer very well, because my memory was bad and also I didn’t want to make the video. I really messed up some of the questions and they had to ask me again and again. After three or four hours, they eventually left.
Some 20 days later, I heard that the so-called PSB boss had said that last video was not good enough and that we had to record it again. So, we recorded it again, but two days later, my interrogator said it still wasn’t acceptable. The next time they came with a camera and a computer, with the script typed into the computer in a huge font size. They wanted me to read it from the screen and look into the camera. We recorded it like this many times and finally they left. But another two days later they came back and said it still wasn’t good enough, so we did it all again. But that didn’t pass either.
It was about the beginning of June, one day before the Dragon Boat festival, when my interrogator told me that another boss was coming and wanted to talk to me. If I behaved well I could get out of the detention centre. Not long after, two men in their 50s or 60s in plainclothes, came in. They surprised me by shaking my hand when they first arrived. Later, I learned they were the vice-director and division chief of the Tianjin PSB. They talked briefly about my health and my situation and then asked me to give a self-evaluation. I said: “Of course, I think that I am a good person and also a good lawyer. I believe in behaving with kindness and I am professional in my work and have always won my clients’ approval.”
After that they often took me to their office to talk with them. They kept trying to persuade me to do an interview on television, but I kept saying no.
In the beginning of July, my interrogator talked to me alone. He said, “Think carefully. If you don’t agree to go on television how will you be able to get out? How will your husband Bao Longjun be able to get out? How will your son ever be able to study abroad?”
I thought hard about it for a few nights. I thought, neither me nor my husband can communicate with anyone from outside. Who knows when it will all end. And my poor son was home without us. We didn’t know how he was doing. Although, my interrogator told me that he had been released and was living in Ulanhot, he might be under surveillance, he didn’t have his parents with him. What kind of future would he have?
I though the two so-called “bosses” who had been talking with me looked like they would keep their word. After speaking with them for many days, I trusted them, and the people around me treated me much better. Much better than when I was in RSDL [residential surveillance at a designated location], where they were very cruel to me.
So, I decided to accept. I just wanted to see my son so much. I thought, if I couldn’t get out my son would never be able to study overseas. I might get out many years later, but by then what would have happened to my son? If he was harmed now, the trauma would stay with him his whole life. I needed to be with him during this stage of his life. I decided that I would do my best to help my son go to a free country and study. He would no longer live like a slave, suffering in this country. He has to leave, he must leave, I thought. That was the most urgent thing. So I had to do it, even if it meant doing something awful.
I also considered the possibility that they might break their promise—and if they did I vowed to fight. So, I said yes to their request to go on television, but only if they released me first. I started practicing the script they prepared for me and we rehearsed it many times, almost every day before I left the detention center.
On 22 July 2016, they went through the formality of my “release on bail.” They took me from the Tianjin First Detention Centre to the Tianjin Police Training Base under Tianjin Panshan Mountain. I stayed there for about 10 days.
They transferred me to Tianjin Heping Hotel and for the next two days I was still under their control. I did the interview in a western-style building near the Heping Hotel a few days later. That afternoon, about 4 or 5pm I was reunited with my son. He hugged me and cried for a long time. I also quietly shed tears.
The next day, my son and I met his father Bao Longjun who had also just been released on bail.
After my release I became very depressed. We were kept under house arrest in Ulanhot. My son and his father often made fun of me because of what I had said on that television interview and I felt very hurt and under a lot of pressure. One time, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I asked my son, “Would you rather I suffered and went on television so I could be with you, or would you prefer that I didn’t go on television but then stayed in prison?” My son said emphatically: “I want my mum with me!”
Hearing my son say this, I believe that everything I suffered was worth it. This was the only way I could be reunited with my son, so I had to do it.
When I got back home, I gradually began to understand what kind of pain my son had been through over the past year. Such cruelty caused my son to suffer from severe depression and that made me even more determined to settle my son overseas so that he could heal both mentally and physically.
So, this is my story. I don’t expect everyone to understand. I just want to say that my son is everything to me. Perhaps, I had no other choice.
The Nightmare – An Excerpt of Lawyer Wang Yu’s Account of 709 Detention and Torture, Wang Yu, November 13, 2017.
New York Times editorial: Show Trials in China, August 6, 2016.
She was a quiet commercial lawyer. Then China turned against her. Washington Post, July 18, 2015.
May 2, 2018
The following is an essay by Liu Xia’s longtime friend Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) explaining the circumstances of the phone call and providing an excerpt of the call for the first time. — The Editors
‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom to Liu Xia
Liao Yiwu, Chinese writer in exile
On April 30, 2018, at 4:00 p.m. in Germany, I spoke to Liu Xia at her home in Beijing. She said: “Now, I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. If I can’t leave, I’ll die in my home. Xiaobo is gone, and there’s nothing in the world for me now. It’s easier to die than live. Using death to defy could not be any simpler for me.”
I felt like I’d just been shocked with a jolt of electricity. I told her to wait. I know that the Chinese Ministry of State Security agents that have been holding her under house arrest, since Xiaobo passed away last July and Liu Xia was forcibly taken to Dali in Yunnan for a while, have been promising her, again and again, guaranteeing that she’d be able to leave the country and seek treatment for her deep clinical depression. First they told her to wait until the 19th Party Congress was over; next they told her to wait until the conclusion of the ‘Two Sessions’ in Beijing in March of this year. On April 1, before Liu Xia’s 57th birthday, the German Ambassador called her to convey Chancellor Merkel’s special respects, and invited her to play badminton in Berlin before long.
According to my information, in early April the German Foreign Minister had already made specific arrangements, including as to how they’d not alert the news media, how they’d covertly collect Liu Xia at the airport, and how they’d arrange her treatment and recovery and more. In my own calls with Liu Xia, I sought Liu Xia’s opinions many times, and discussed the matter in meetings and correspondence with good friends Herta Muller, Harry Merkle, Carolin, Silvia, and the international representative of Liu Xia’s photographic art Peter Sillem. We went over every possible detail. Due to Herta Muller’s support, the Literature House in Berlin was willing to provide her an apartment for an interim period. Carolin said she would host a poetry reading for her, while Silvia were going to help her enter a residency program. Peter Sillem had already reached out to hospitals and experts on her behalf.
We’ve all been patiently and quietly waiting.
We’ve all quietly awaited this special patient.
Liu Xia has no criminal record, and according to the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, she has the freedom to travel wherever she wishes.
We’ve been low key about it because after Xiaobo’s death, Liu Xia has been devastated, and the clinical depression she had suffered for years came back worse than ever, driving her to the brink of mental collapse. As long as she is in China, we have no way of looking after her. When Liu Xia told Xiaobo that a special rescue squad in Germany (including the 82-year-old Wolf Biermann and wife) were working to help them, Xiaobo, dying, was moved to tears.
In my April 30 conversation with Liu Xia, I said I’d no long keep it quiet. I will take action, and I will selectively reveal some truth that I have been holding back. I said to her that I would publicize her cries, which was uncontrollable even with her taking large doses of antidepressants, in the evening of April 8, 2018. She said yes.
The following statements were transcribed from audio recordings of our conversation that evening. In the first instance, I called and poured out my concern: I feared that Liu Xia would once again be ‘disappeared.’ I worried that the Chinese government would do the same as they did last year when they announced that Xiaobo and Liu Xia didn’t want to leave the country. Luckily I had her handwriting attesting to the opposite, and remarkably this became the strongest evidence that punctured the lies.
I insisted on Liu Xia writing another application to leave the country, and at first Liu Xia demurred again and again. She then panicked, after that threw the phone down. I waited a little while and called her back, and she cried out in tears:
“The German Embassy knows all about my situation. The whole world knows. So what’s the point of me writing those things again and again?”
“But what you’re facing is very special… the German government has been in discussions about this all along…”
“I don’t have anywhere to send it from. Nor do I have a cell phone nor a computer.”
“OK. That’s OK.”
“You know we don’t have all that stuff, but you still want me to do this and do that…”
“Over here, we…”
“So I’ll write it tomorrow and hand it in tomorrow. You can record it now: I’m so fucking angry that I’m ready to die here…. If I’m dead, it’ll all be done with…. It’s obvious that I don’t have all the ways and means in hand….”
“That foreign ministry spokesperson said that you fully enjoy all the provisions of Chinese law…”
“I know all that. You don’t have to repeat it. I’m not an idiot.”
“OK. Let me tell you about the arrangements: after we get you over here, we’ve got a place called the Literature House where you stay for a while and then apply to join an arts program. At the moment, the responses everywhere are very positive, and everyone agrees that this should be done very quietly….”
I couldn’t go on, because Liu Xia was crying non-stop. The audio recording went for 16 minutes and 30 seconds. I excerpted the first seven minutes, and at about the four minute mark played over it the piano solo “Dona, Dona.” I felt waves of emotion well up inside me. When I turned the music off, I yelled out “Liu Xia!” Her crying abated and she said: “After the German Ambassador called, I started packing. I wasted no time — what more do you want me to do?”
The general meaning of the lyrics is: a calf is being brought to the butchers, a swallow is flitting around above its head. The calf thinks to itself: If only I could turn into a swallow with wings and fly away, how grand it would be. Unfortunately, the calf is not a swallow.
Like her husband Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia had a passion for works related to Holocaust. Liu Xia even said that she felt she’d been a Jewish person in her previous life.
Dona, Dona became a byword for genocide: the millions of Jewish people were the calf after calf, resigned to their fate, being led to the slaughter. Please, people, with Liu Xia, it’s Dona, Dona now, and please allow me to use Liu Xia’s sobbing as its new lyrics……
Dona, Dona, give her freedom.
Dona, Dona, please cry out loudly for her.
Composed in the late Berlin night on April 30, 2018.
我如遭電擊，我說再等等。我知道，長期監管她的國保警察們，自去年7月曉波剛走，劉霞被強制挾持到雲南大理期間，就開始許願，一而再，再而三地許願——保證讓她出國治療深度抑鬱症。先是吩咐等到中共十九大召開之後，接下來是吩咐等到今年3月的人大、政協兩會閉幕之後。在4月1日她57嵗生日前，德國大使還致電給她，轉達了默克爾總理的特別問候，并相約不久後在柏林打羽毛球。據我所知，4月上旬，德國外交部已經作了具體安排，包括如何不驚動新聞界，如何將她從機場接到某一隱蔽地點，安排治病和調養等等。而我自己在通話中，也多次徵求劉霞意見，又多次與好友赫塔▪米勒（Herta.Müller）、哈瑞▪麥克（Harry Merkle）、卡羅琳（Carolin）、西爾維亞（Silvia），以及劉霞藝術攝影的全球代理人彼得▪西冷（Peter Sillem）聚會和通信，事無鉅細地溝通。由於赫塔的張羅，柏林文學之家願意為她提供過渡期公寓，之後，卡羅琳答應為她舉辦一場詩歌朗誦讀會，西爾維亞答應替她聯繫一個在歐洲的入住計劃，而彼得已替她聯絡好相關醫院和專家。
我們低調是因為曉波走了，她深受刺激，多年的抑鬱症再度加重，使之瀕臨崩潰，而她在國內，我們沒法照顧她。劉霞曾告訴垂危的曉波，他倆在德國有我們這個特別救援小組 (其中還包括82嵗的沃爾夫▪比爾曼 Wolf Biermann 夫婦)，曉波的淚水奪眶而出。
With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework
Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018
During the past year, China, supported by authoritarian allies like Russia, Turkey and Egypt, has taken an increasingly aggressive anti-human rights posture at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) and elsewhere in the UN system where human rights are a core focal point. Its aim appears to be nothing less than “disappearing” the existing human rights framework –– one of the UN’s three pillars established by the UN Charter — from the mission and work of the UN, and replacing it with a Chinese version that focuses almost exclusively on “the right to development,” “dialogue” and “mutually beneficial cooperation.” China hasn’t won yet, but it’s seizing the moment of the Trump presidency, Brexit, the rise of authoritarianism globally, and Xi Jinping’s elevation as “president for life,” to push its agenda at the Human Rights Council with an unprecedented pace and boldness.
China’s first-ever HRC resolution, titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” was adopted by the Council in June 2017. I discuss this resolution in China Pushes ‘Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN. On March 23, 2018, the HRC adopted China’s second resolution, titled “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” (hereinafter “MBC resolution”). The MBC resolution is almost mind numbing in its repetitive use of bromides and lack of any apparent substantive content. But, as with China’s June 2017 resolution, more is going on than meets the casual observer’s eye.
Despite the challenges facing the U.S. State Department and its human rights apparatus under the current administration, to its credit the U.S. called for a vote at the Human Rights Council (where most resolutions are adopted by consensus, without a vote) on both of China’s resolutions. The MBC resolution was adopted by a vote of 28 in favor, with 17 abstentions and 1 “no”–– the United States. The strongly worded Explanation of Vote issued by the U.S. sheds light on China’s motivation behind the MBC resolution, which echoes China’s aim in advancing its June 2017 resolution: the gradual disembowelment of the existing UN human rights framework.
In its explanation, the U.S stated:
“It is clear that China is attempting through this resolution to weaken the UN human rights system and the norms underpinning it. The ‘feel good’ language about ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as States, to respect. For these reasons, the United States is calling a vote and will vote against this resolution. We encourage other countries not to support this resolution.”
Noting that China’s resolution insists that governments be respected, the U.S. countered: “A call for governments that abuse their own citizens’ rights to be respected has no place in a forum dedicated to respecting and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individual.” It describes the resolution as an effort by China “to insulate itself from criticism of its human rights record by demanding ‘respect.’” The U.S. further stated: “The only way for any government to achieve respect is for that government to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Several of the abstaining countries criticized the resolution; Switzerland stated that the resolution contained “vague and ambiguous language that weakens fundamental human rights principles.”
There is only one paragraph in the two-page resolution that focuses on the human person as the subject of, and beneficiary in the realization of human rights. Otherwise, “mutually beneficial” appears to mean for the benefit of states only — that through “dialogue” and “cooperation” they will be spared any criticism on their human rights record. The introductory (preambular) paragraph, which reaffirms that “the human person is the central subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and consequently should be the principal beneficiary and should participate actively in the realization of these rights and freedoms,” was apparently added only after negotiations; this text is absent from an earlier draft of China’s resolution.
The MBC resolution effectively takes the individual out of the picture. China frames the realization of human rights as purely a matter for states, focusing solely, as Human Rights Watch put it, on “intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue rather than actual human rights violations or accountability for those [violations].” There is not even one mention of the word “individual” in the resolution, nor do the terms “human rights defender” or “civil society” appear. But “cooperation,” appears 19 times, and the words “mutually” or “mutual,” are mentioned 13 times, “dialogue” makes 6 appearances, and “constructive” is used 5 times.
The sole nod to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the resolution – that NGOs should also “contribute actively” to “promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” — rings hollow in light of the Chinese government’s relentless crackdown on NGOs and human rights defenders at home and at the UN.
Like China’s June 2017 resolution on “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” the MBC resolution also contains one of the key mottos of Xi Jinping’s “New Era.” The MBC resolution states: “Recognizing the importance of fostering international relations based on mutual respect, fairness, justice and mutually beneficial cooperation, with the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings, in which human rights are enjoyed by all.” [Emphasis added.] It was this hollow phrase, with uncertain meaning, that an earlier Chinese government statement extolled as demonstrating “China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”
On March 11, 2018, shortly before the MBC resolution was adopted in Geneva, China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing adopted proposed amendments to the PRC Constitution, one of which enshrined the slogan “building a community of shared future for human beings” in the preamble. In the statement explaining its “no” vote, the U.S. addressed the inappropriateness of the slogan’s appearance in a UN resolution:
“Furthermore, Chinese spokespersons in Beijing . . . have been clear about their intent to glorify their head of State by inserting his thoughts into the international human rights lexicon. None of us should support incorporating language targeting a domestic political audience into multilateral settings. This is especially true as the term has no clear meaning internationally and is vulnerable to subsequent interpretation and reinvention by the one country that uses the phrase.
At a daily news briefing on March 26, 2018, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying disingenuously overstated the significance of the resolution’s adoption, but made clear the Chinese government’s intent. She said, “The international community has reached an important consensus that only through dialogue and cooperation can the human rights cause of all countries be better promoted and protected.” [Emphasis added.] The MBC resolution does not say “only”; nevertheless, the resolution might be viewed as bringing China one step closer to its goal of “only dialogue and cooperation” in the field of human rights.
Hua Chunying further stated: “I think the comments by this U.S. official in Geneva . . . were extremely unreasonable, and also reflects the consistent ignorance and haughtiness of the U.S. side.”
China will have its third Universal Periodic Review in November. An earlier draft of the MBC resolution reveals China’s vision of how it thinks that review should unfold: without criticism and without any consideration of the Chinese government’s actual human rights record. An earlier draft of its resolution provided that the HRC “recognizes the crucial role of the Universal Periodic Review in contributing to the advancement of mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights…”
This paragraph in the resolution as adopted, following negotiations, reads: “Emphasizes the importance of the universal periodic review as a mechanism based on cooperation and constructive dialogue with the objective of, inter alia, improving the situation of human rights on the ground and promoting the fulfillment of the human rights obligations and commitments undertaken by States…” [Emphasis added.]
It’s incumbent on the U.S. and those states that abstained on the MBC resolution vote to make China’s Universal Periodic Review count — for the sake of the countless victims of human rights abuses in China, and for the human rights defenders in China who are working at great personal risk to protect and promote human rights on the ground. Wang Quanzhang, Liu Xia, Tashi Wangchuk, Ilham Tohti, Huang Qi, among many others, should be named, and Liu Xiaobo, Li Baiguang, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and Cao Shunli remembered. We must do what we can to prevent China from turning its upcoming Universal Periodic Review into a victory celebration for “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
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
Also by Andrea Worden:
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.
The Cost of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, September, 2017.
China Change, April 4, 2018
Between February and March this year, rights activists from provinces around China were summoned, questioned, and threatened by secret police who demanded that they withdraw from the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ also known as the ‘Rose team.’ These chatgroups have attracted relatively large numbers of internet users on different portals such as QQ, Skype, WeChat, Telegram, and WhatsApp. The intervention by Chinese police took place following the criminal detention of Xu Qin (徐秦), a leading activist and a spokesperson among these online groups, on February 9. She was accused of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Prior to this, the initiator of the Rose chatgroups and Wuhan dissident Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) was detained on January 9, 2015.
Between March 2013 and December 2014, Qin published a series of 12 open letters demanding that the government open a dialogue with the citizenry, that it safeguard human rights, and that it initiate a peaceful transition towards democracy in China. By the end of 2014, nearly 2,000 people had signed this appeal, the vast majority of them petitioners who had for years been suppressed and denied access to justice. Naming his movement after the rose, Qin set up chat groups on QQ, Skype, and WeChat, eventually resulting in a series of Rose groups online. Each group elected its own chat administrator through competitive elections and voting; altogether the initiative became a virtual gathering ground for like-minded petitioner-activists.
On June 4, 2014, Qin and his group set up the ‘Rose China’ website. It had 13 sections, including ‘Rights Observer,’ ‘Focus News,’ ‘Major Issues of Public Welfare,’ ‘Learning Center’ and more. The site also began holding online lecture series and meetings. Qin Yongmin tried to set up an organization called ‘China Human Rights Observer,’ though the authorities refused to register it as an official civil group.
Rose China’s website, hosted on servers outside the country, went offline for a short period recently, but is back up and running now.
In June 2016, the Wuhan Municipal Procuratorate indicted Qin Yongmin with “organization, scheming, and carrying out [a plot to] subvert the state regime.” It wasn’t until August 2017 that Qin saw his lawyer for the first time. His trial has been postponed again and again, and is now set for May this year. The indictment cited his organizing the Rose Group, among other things, as evidence of crime.
Qin, 64, is one of China’s most veteran political prisoners. The earliest years of his activism go back to the 1970s. In 1981 he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for participating in the ‘China Democracy Party,’ and was freed in 1989. He spent 1993 to 1995 in a forced labor camp after initiating the ‘Peace Charter’ (《和平宪章》). In 1998 Qin established the website China Rights Observer in Wuhan, as well as the Hubei branch of the China Democracy Party, for which he was charged with subversion of state power and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He completed the sentence in November 2010.
Xu Qin, 55, got into activism by the need to defend her own rights — but she soon began defending the rights of others, and became an active participant in the Rose chatgroups. After Qin Yongmin was arrested in 2015, Xu took up the mantle of leadership of the Rose groups, and began to speak publicly about China’s human rights situation, in particular to foreign journalists, making her one of the few active voices in the now largely dormant China human rights scene. On February 9, 2018, before the Chinese New Year, Xu Qin disappeared while visiting her hometown of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province. It was soon confirmed that she had been arrested. In March she was placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ and the initial charge of ‘provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble’ was upgraded to ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ She has not been allowed access to a lawyer.
Since February, a number of activists have been summoned and questioned by state security officers, including Ding Yu’e (丁玉娥) in Shandong, Guo Chunping (郭春平) in Henan, Wang Jiao (汪蛟) in Anhui, Huang Genbao (黄根宝) in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, and Fan Yiping (范一平) in Guangzhou. State security agents demanded that they leave the Rose chatgroups and threatened “If you don’t listen, you’ll bear the consequences yourself.” Guo Chunping was beaten by police while in custody.
Even human rights lawyers have been questioned about their possible connections with the Rose chatgroups. On March 30, Friday, the recently disbarred lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) was visited by two police who wanted to ask questions “about WeChat Rose chatgroups.” Lawyer Sui wondered why the Rose groups have become the target of such widespread action and concluded that the interrogations and arrests had to have been ordered and coordinated by a central organ in Beijing. He declined police’s request for questioning.
Separately, the whereabouts of at least two activists (Yang Tingjian [杨霆剑] in Jiangxi and Xu Kun [徐昆] in Yunnan) are currently unknown. But their disappearance is believed to be connected to crackdown on Rose chatgroups.
The Rose activists that were interrogated by police were told that these chatgroups have been designated an ‘illegal organization.’ Police said that 51 people have been arrested so far in connection with the groups, though there is currently no way of independently corroborating the figure.
Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (民生观察网), a Chinese human rights website, on March 29 published a statement that said: “From the limited information revealed by the media, it is clear that the Chinese communist authorities have launched a national, large-scale suppression of the Rose chatgroups, in order to, 1) crush the chatgroups by conducting mass summonses, threats, and arrests of participants, and 2) gather ammunition for bringing false charges against Rose chatgroup leaders Qin Yongmin, Xu Qin, and
China Change understands from activists in China that many people have already quit the Rose chat groups, and that some chat rooms were long ago suspended, shut down, or had no administrators. Some activists say, however, that a few groups are still active. The chief editor of the Rose China website quit the Whatsapp Rose chat group for activists in Hubei.
The targeting and attempted obliteration of the Rose chatgroups indicates that the government in Beijing is methodically dismantling activist groups, including even loose or casual connections between activists. In the past five years, it has first taken out the leading activists across the country and imprisoned them, including with the now infamous 709 incident against human rights lawyers. Having done that, it is now engaged in a second and third round, to purge any continuing human rights activities.
Members of Petitioners Group ‘Rose China’ Detained, Yaqiu Wang, January 18, 2016.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown
China Change, January 24, 2018
On Monday evening the Guangzhou-based lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) was notified by his law firm that government officials from the provincial Justice Department would inspect the firm the following morning and that Sui, in particular, must be present. He felt a nervous chill and began to suspect that his communications on a series of human rights cases he has represented had upset high-level officials.
On Tuesday morning (January 23), two officials from the Justice Department arrived, announcing on the spot that Sui’s law license had been revoked. The written announcement cited two incidents as cause of the punishment: that he disrupted court order while defending New Citizen Movement activists on April 8, 2014, by quitting the court in protest; and that he took photos of client Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) against regulations during a meeting.
Sui Muqing himself is one of the lawyers who has been detained and placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” during the 709 Crackdown in 2015. He and his peers believe the government abruptly revoked his license because he has continued to represent rights lawyers since his release from secret detention in early 2016.
Over the past five years or so, lawyer Sui has defended freedom of expression, religious freedom, and other civil rights in scores of prominent political trials across China, including that of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Wang Qingying (王清营), Wang Zang (王藏), Huang Wenxun (黄文勋), Chen Yunfei (陈云飞), Huang Qi (黄琦), and others.
Sui is known for his hard work and prolific communication about cases he takes on, and he rarely refrains from expressing his views on politics and the law. He’s also known for his hard-charging style in court. These, we believe, are the real reasons the government is disbarring him.
Sui said he would request a hearing to express his objections against the decision, though he knows it’s unlikely the government will reverse it.
The sudden disbarment marks a new development in a series of detentions and disbarments in recent months, and it appears to be part of a deliberate and determined campaign to remove and deter human rights lawyers.
Last week, on January 15, Beijing-based rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) was stripped of his license. He believes the decision was retaliation for an open letter he published last October calling the Party’s 19th Congress to impeach Xi Jinping. Yu was detained early Friday morning outside his apartment by a dozen police. Two days prior, he had published an open letter calling for the democratic election of Chinese leaders. In July 2017 he was forced out of his law firm, and attempts to open his own firm have been blocked.
In the same week, Shanghai-based lawyer Peng Yonghe (彭永和) lost his law license for demanding financial transparency from the Shanghai Lawyers Association and for a letter he was involved in calling for the crime of subversion of state power to be abolished.
In December, 2017, the Yunnan provincial Justice Department revoked the licenses of lawyers Wang Liqian (王理乾) and Wang Longde (王龙得). For years the two had fought hard for their right to meet clients under judicially-stipulated conditions. They also challenged the legitimacy of the local Lawyers Association, which amasses large fees from members but seldom defends their rights.
On October 31, 2017, lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函), who represented 709 lawyer Wang Yu, was detained in Shenyang on unclear charges.
Also in October, another lawyer in Changsha, Wen Donghai (文东海) was placed “under investigation” for “seriously disrupting court order.” He also faces disbarment. Wen Donghai also represented Wang Yu, and Li and Wen visited Wang Yu in July 2017, providing the first update to the outside world on the first 709 detainee.
In September 2017, Shandong lawyer Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武)’s license was revoked for defending a man who made disparaging comments about Xi Jinping on WeChat.
Also in December 2017, by the recommendation of the Hangzhou Lawyers Association, lawyer Wu Youshui (吴有水) was given a nine month administrative penalty for online expressions that “belittle and attack the Communist Party and the socialist system, and negate the political, judicial and management mechanisms of lawyers stipulated by the constitution…”
In September, 2016, lawyer Li Jinxing (李金星) was suspended for one year for defending political prisoner Guo Feixiong.
Human rights lawyers across China are regularly summoned by provincial and local Justice Departments, who issue receive warnings and threats. The regime’s Justice Departments at all levels have an office that “manages” lawyers. Lawyers go through a mandatory annual review by the departments, which renew their licenses — a mechanism designed to keep lawyers on a short leash and ensure they submit to the state, lest they lose their livelihoods.
Lawyers associations are another tool that maintains tight control over lawyers: they are run by lawyers trusted by the government, and frequently recommend punishment for their colleagues who take on human rights cases.
In China two years after the 709 Crackdown, the legal climate has severely deteriorated; the government is determined to either root out human rights lawyers or force them into submission.
Chinese Minister of Justice Zhang Jun (张军) spoke at a national forum on lawyers in early January. He didn’t use the term “human rights lawyers,” but when he spoke of the “few bad ones,” they were who he meant: “punishment and criticism must be further carried out. We must proactively take measures against the few bad ones in the legal profession, using it as an example for others and maintaining the overall interest and image of the profession. In this regard, some of our lawyers associations and Justice Departments have not done a good job.”
He emphasized that lawyers must be subject to the leadership of the Party, and support “the socialist system.”
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
14 Cases Exemplify the Role Played by Lawyers in the Rights Defense Movement, 2003–2015, Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, August 19, 2015.
Huang Yu, January 5, 2017
Zhen Jianghua has been placed under secrect detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated place,” his lawyer Ren Quanniu was told over the phone on December 13, 2017. Zhen continues to be denied access to his lawyers. — The Editors
Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) hadn’t yet gone to bed at midnight on September 1, 2017, when police burst into his apartment and put him in handcuffs. As he was being led out, he was unperturbed, and simply told his roommate: “Make sure you tell Xiao Li (小丽) to check Taobao and pick up my packages.” Xiao Li is Zhen Jianghua’s ex-wife. The phrase was code to say that she should spread the news of his arrest. Within a day the police had ransacked his house twice and confiscated his computer and all his documents. Not long after, his family received a notice of criminal detention for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power.”
Zhen Jianghua, 32 this year, is the key organizer behind an NGO known as Human Rights Campaign in China Service Center, or HRC China. It was formed in October 2008. Zhen took over it in October 2015, registering it in Hong Kong. His daily work involved aggregating and publishing updated news about human rights events in China, engaging with foreign media, and coordinating aid efforts — and sometimes protests — for human rights defenders who had been sent to prison.
The number of people in mainland China engaged in human rights relief work is vanishingly small — but even among this tight-knit group, Zhen Jianghua was one of an even smaller number who insisted on using his real name in the work. Openly engaging in these activities inside China brought Zhen an extraordinary array of difficulties in getting through daily life, and ended with the tragedy of prison.
He knew what was to come and made preparations for it. For several years, he only wore black: two sets of black t-shirts, two pairs of black shoes. Every night before bed, he did 50 push-ups, 50 squats, and 50 chin-ups. He ate vegetarian, or sometimes subsisted on meal replacement powder. He lived as plainly as possible. He also signed multiple blank copies of Power of Attorney, and gave them to friends. His Google account was set to automatically purge everything if he didn’t log in for two days. And he had a strict schedule for periodically wiping all data from his computer and phone.
From the moment he made the choice to engage in this work, he cut himself off from nearly all his friends, gradually becoming an island unto himself. “There’s nowhere safe in China,” he said. “You never know who’ll sell you out.” For both his own safety and that of others, he also rarely interacted with anyone in the same, small, rights defense community in China. Thus, if he was ever brought in and interrogated, he could indeed simply say: “I don’t know.”
“We can each see what the other’s doing,” he’d often say. “There’s no need to be in contact.”
The name he gave himself online was “Zhen Jianghua, you big fool.” His Facebook signature was: “In my own way, helping those who’ve already paid so great a price for their dreams — those who really need help.” After he was arrested, friends set up a Facebook page called “Southern Fool Concern Group” to post information about him.
This ‘southern fool’ was born in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province (广东江门). He graduated high-school through the vocational track, specializing in computing. Then he went straight to work. His first job, in 2005, was at an internet data center in Zhuhai (珠海). He worked hard and was eventually promoted to a managerial position. But the simple life of a computer programmer that he had led would be stirred up by the growing emergence of China’s censorship state.
One day at work, an elderly man came with his daughter. The man painted pictures for a living, and had set up his own online bulletin board on the side. He made a few posts about Mao Zedong, with titles like “An Overview of Mao,” and so on. He was using the servers of Zhen Jianghua’s company at the time, and suddenly his BBS had been shut down. Zhen thought at the time: this is very sensitive, we can’t talk about it, and it’s entirely normal that he was shut down. At the same time, he felt sorry for the old fellow and wanted to help him out. Later, when the company bought servers in Hong Kong, Zhen Jianghua moved this and other similar BBSs over, so they’d stay alive for a bit longer. But eventually none would survive the fate of being shut down.
As time went on, the government’s internet censors began calling Zhen’s company more and more, instructing they shut down particular websites. Nanjing University’s vibrant BBS, Little Lily, as well as Tsinghua University’s Shuimu BBS, were both blocked for non-campus access. Those were the changes that made Chinese netizens finally aware of the control and supervision that was taking place. Meanwhile, Zhen Jianghua’s company began engaging in top-down self-censorship, developing a program that examined the content of the servers and automatically shut it down for “bad traffic.” More recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published “Order 43” prohibiting websites and data companies to provide services without registering with the government.
In his spare time, Zhen Jianghua was involved in Wikipedia Chinese, and started joining technical events for Google developers. Through community activities, he made connections with grassroots people and taught them how to use the internet to advocate for their own interests. The world, for the young man, was diverging in two opposite directions.
For a while, he had to travel to Hong Kong frequently for business, and learned about the annual June 4 commemoration in Victoria Park. He admired the “Tiananmen Mothers.” “Those people emit radiance,” he said. He began making the annual trip to the Victoria Park commemoration. One year he brought a friend from China along and they helped hand out fliers. When the friend returned he was questioned by state security police (国保), got in trouble at his job, and was banned from leaving China for five years.
At this point Zhen Jianghua realized that if he was going to resist state power, his life would be changed fundamentally. He also realized that those, like his friend, who paid the price for doing so wouldn’t be remembered.
Yet he wasn’t quite ready for outright resistance. Instead, he tried his hand at a number of safe endeavors after his job as a programmer. For instance, he became a full time social worker for the Zhuhai Municipal Red Cross, where he primarily called in on the “hard-pressed masses,” delivering rice, oil, noodles, and later washing detergent to poor families. As a government affiliated social worker, his job was to maintain contact with the targets of the services and “keep their emotions stable.” He wasn’t able to keep this position for very long, because after adding his signature to an online call of support for Ai Weiwei in 2011, he was taken away by police for an inquiry, in front of his colleagues at work. Zhen quit of his own accord “to protect the Red Cross from any negative impact.” He was also the head social worker at Nanqingcun (南青村), where he dealt with female victims of domestic violence. The most he could do was advise that they file for divorce.
His brief period as a social worker inside the official system made him fed up. “Being a social worker in China is a debilitating job,” he said. “You have to sing the praises of the Communist Party morning to night, put on events, studiously avoid sensitive topics — such as why villagers are poor in the first place, and you can’t teach them their rights and how to empower themselves.” Zhen knew that delivering rice and cooking oil wasn’t addressing the fundamental issues, and that working inside the system made it impossible to think about the structural problems.
Zhen thought that if social work was forced to avoid sensitive issues and sensitive social groups, then it was not what he wanted. He quit and was on his own. He began participating in activities to help prisoners of conscience, in a personal capacity. He helped collect signatures and spread information about tainted milk formula with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father in Beijing whose son had been poisoned by melamine-tainted milk; he paid the phone bill for feminist activist Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) — neither of whom he had met. Later, when he met rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) for the first time, Zhen said by way of introduction that “My online name is ‘guest Zhen,’” to which Jiang replied that he remembered him as “the one who sent all those messages encouraging us years ago.” (Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years imprisonment on November 21, 2017, for “subversion of state power.”)
In late 2010 after Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) won the Nobel Peace Prize, a group of likeminded Chinese internet users wanted to get together and celebrate. Everyone was supposed to communicate via Twitter, but one activist who was often monitored by the authorities made the mistake of calling Zhen Jianghua and inviting him to the gathering. For the authorities, this was the first time that the online “guest” persona and the real life Zhen Jianghua were connected. After that, the police began calling in on him regularly, and whenever a politically sensitive date or activity arrived, they would take him on forced “travel.” He could also no longer attend the June 4th commemoration at the Victoria Park in Hong Kong.
But once his real identity was exposed, rather than backing off, he went all in.
Zhen began to launch projects on his own, mostly having to do with recording events or providing technical support. For instance, he launched a project called “Big Brother” to keep tabs on citizens who had been monitored by the state; he maintained a website called “Drink Tea Net” (喝茶网) which collected ordinary citizens’ testimonies of being questioned by police for their activism under the euphemism of “drinking tea.” He also established the site “Climb the Wall Net” (翻墙网) which provided technical assistance to netizens on how to circumvent Beijing’s Great Fire Wall.
In 2013 a student group at the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (北京理工大学珠海学院) invited him to give a talk about circumventing Beijing’s internet blockade. The students put up posters around campus for an event that taught “how to use Internet scientifically.” The event was shut down and the Party leadership at the university called the students in for questioning. “Do you have any idea what kind of person this Zhen Jianghua is?” they asked the students.
Zhen wasn’t too concerned with the state security police coming to harass him, nor did he mind being told to stay off campus. But when the security division at the university threatened to deny the graduation of students who’d invited him, Zhen Jianghua was furious. He tracked down the state security officers in charge of the case and said: “I can leave the area if that’s what’s required; if there’s an issue, come to me, don’t bother the students. They’re about to graduate, and if that’s denied it will have a huge impact on their lives.” The state security officers acquiesced to his proposal, and ordered him not to step foot on campus again.
“But actually, later I went to the school quite a lot. After all, a lot of people at the Beijing Institute of Technology are into internet technologies,” Zhen said. He felt that he had a way to negotiate with the state security police: he can always quit what he’s doing to let them save face.
Meanwhile, he was still involved in providing assistance to prisoners of conscience. “They’re the ones who’ve come out in the open and borne the brunt. The least we can do is offer them support.”
From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines
Beginning in 2010, Zhen Jianghua was constantly being kicked out of his rental apartments in Zhuhai. Every time he moved, not long after he’d settled in, state security officers would call the landlord, and the fearful landlord would ask him to move away.
Being jolted around with him was Zhen’s wife at the time, Xiao Li. Xiao Li and Zhen Jianghua met due to their shared joy in taking in stray dogs and cats. Their life together was never stable but for a while very romantic: every year on December 31 they’d travel to the seaside and watch the sun go down atop of a lighthouse; after passing the night there, they’d watch the sun come up on January 1. On Christmas day they’d walk around handing out candy and encouraging people to donate blood. They themselves had donated blood over 100 times. They’d also taken in over 20 stray cats; and because they couldn’t afford a vet, they learned to do sterilization surgery themselves.
The harassment they were suffering in Zhuhai eventually led the couple to move to Macau and work at the non-profit Fu Hong Society (扶康會), where they served people with autism. This precious, temporary peace lasted until July 9, 2015.
On that day and in the following days, over 300 human rights lawyers and activists in 23 provinces and cities across China were detained, summoned, or disappeared. This is known as the “709 Crackdown.” On January 12, 2016, after six months of secret detention, director of the Fengrui Law Firm Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), legal intern Li Shuyun (李姝云), legal assistant Zhao Wei (赵威), were formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
In early June 2016, Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭) and Li Wenzu (李文足), the wives of disappeared rights lawyers Li Heping (李和平) and Wang Quanzhang respectively, were taken into custody and brought to the Guajiasi police station in Tianjin. Before they were brought in, Wang Qiaoling sent out a message saying that she had been detained; soon thereafter, Zhen Jianghua’s HRC China verified the news and published it. At the police station, an officer pulled out his phone, turned on his VPN, clicked on the HRC China website, and held it up to Wang Qiaoling: “Look. You’ve been here for less than an hour, and the news is everywhere.”
Such is the extreme efficiency of Zhen Jianghua’s operation. From the beginning of the 709 arrests, he sprang into action and didn’t stop, doing three things simultaneously:
- Responding rapidly to instances of human rights abuse. As a social worker, he got in touch with and visited family members, and in every case tried to ensure that a support network was established for everyone who had been taken into custody;
- Educating family members and others that people who are arrested for political reasons are not guilty of anything;
- Based on previous experience, he would publicize news about arrests, mobilize social media, and contact foreign human rights officials so they would exert pressure on the Chinese authorities.
This sort of work was nothing like helping people scale the Great Fire Wall or organizing events. The pressure and stress Zhen was under rose dramatically, and it didn’t come with the earlier sense of satisfaction, when there was still the hope for an actual civil society in China. A friend described how he worked: every day he’d follow two or three cases, verify what had been initially reported, write a report, publish it, and then contact people about it. He sat down and powered through the work without rest, “like his life depended on it.”
He often worked through the night. He wouldn’t get much sleep during the daytime, either. If someone was suddenly arrested and the family needed support, he’d buy a train ticket right away and go. For their own safety he couldn’t tell his friends and family where he was going or what he was doing. His wife Xiao Li eventually got used to it, and they began to see less and less of each other. The year before last, on Zhen Jianghua’s birthday, Xiao Li baked him a cake. Zhen came over, quickly blew out the candles, ate a few mouthfuls, and got back to work.
Initially he gave himself a deadline of two years to set up HRC China, and once it was up and running, his plan was to hand the daily operations off to someone else. “I can’t get rid of it right now; no one is willing to take it on,” he joked to a friend in August of this year.
Xiao Li grew more and more uncomfortable with his work. She described Zhen’s work as walking a tightrope. There’s no way out. He must press forward — yet the further he goes, the narrower and thinner the rope becomes.
It’s from about this period that Zhen began preparing for prison. Friends asked him whether living like he did was worth it. He responded: “There are things that someone just has to do.”
Li Xuewen (黎学文), a Chinese writer who often comments on public affairs, says that what Zhen Jianghua has been through over the last decade is typical of the trajectory of Chinese human rights activists, where they go from doing behind-the-scenes work to ending up on the front lines themselves. When Zhen started, he was quietly involved in support work and broadcasting what was going on; but later, as the repression increased and the environment for human rights quickly deteriorated, he ended up stepping forward. He began arriving on the scene at rights defense protests, first holding placards, then spending time with the families of prisoners of conscience to help them through. Now he faces jail time himself. This transformation reflects the broader change in the human rights environment in China: After all the frontline activists were arrested, it’s the turn of those behind the scenes. Li Xuewen remarked: “Zhen Jianghua’s arrest is his coronation by the authorities for the years he has put into tenacious and courageous human rights work.”
The Chinese government has been tightening the net around NGOs since 2013, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the founder of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), was arrested and sentenced to prison; following this, Transition Institute (传知行) founded by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) was shut down. The repression culminated in the 709 Crackdown in 2015.
Zhen Jianghua didn’t spend the 2017 Chinese New Year with Xiao Li, but instead went to Beijing alone to spend it with families of 709 families. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu described Zhen as a lonely person as he departed on the third day of the new year.
A Stepping Stone
A month before Zhen Jianghua was arrested, NGO worker Xiao Ming asked him to film an interview with a daughter whose father died of occupational disease. As the interviewee became upset and unable to express herself, Zhen Jianghua picked up a pen and paper and began taking notes, kneeling next to and comforting her. Xiao Ming was surprised. “His professionalism, kindness, attention to detail, and empathy left me with a deep impression,” Xiao Ming said.
Zhen’s patience in going about his work was legendary. Over a few year period, he submitted over 100 requests for government data under freedom of information laws, and also submitted a number of enquiries about administrative conduct that violated the rights of individual citizens. In July of 2016 the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered Sina, Sohu, NetEase, Phoenix, and other commercial web portals to cease their columns of original news content. Zhen Jianghua mailed seven requests for open government information about the details of its demand on these web portals. After repeated follow-ups, three months later he finally got an answer from the Cyberspace Administration, which provided a detailed explanation. In response to his question about how much content had been deleted, they responded that the agency “did not preserve any record of it.” Zhen published the full text of the correspondence online.
He knew the sort of danger his activities would bring. He also knew that he probably couldn’t really change anything. But he thought he could at least show people that civil society in China still has a little room to breathe. He once wrote: “We are like a signpost. People will walk by. They will see the pits we’ve fallen into, a pit with corpses stacked up in it. If I am just that, maybe that’s not too bad.”
An Island Unto Himself
In early September 2016, Zhen Jianghua traveled to Wukan to interview villagers. He was arrested. His wife Xiao Li broadcast the news, and it began to circulate among friends in the rights defense community. After his release, he and Xiao Li began divorce proceedings. A seven year marriage had reached its end.
Despite the fact that they had drifted apart, Xiao Li didn’t want to divorce at first.
But Zhen didn’t like to further complicate life for Xiao Li. What did he have to offer her? All his energy was thrown into his work. He had no time to think about house chores they used to share. He would forget to put the dirty clothes in the laundry as he had been told to. He would often be gone for days without telling her where he was and what he was doing. This, after a long while, began to wear on his wife. “What’s the big deal if you tell me? I can also keep a secret!” she once said.
Xiao Li suffered depression. At its worst, she’d walk the seven kilometers home from work rather than take the bus, because she didn’t want to end up at sitting at home all alone. So she took her time ambling along the route, leaving work at 8:00 p.m. and getting to the door at around 11:00 p.m.
Both Li and Zhen’s relatives had been harassed by state security agents. They hadn’t lived in the same place for more than two years. Every time they moved, they ended up with fewer and fewer suitcases, to the point when they could put everything into a single suitcase. Zhen became more and more dejected in spirits: months after he began running HRC CHina full time, Xiao Li found that he was suffering insomnia, depression, and constant fatigue. Nor did exercise help. Zhen didn’t want to visit a counsellor, or let out to people around him.
Zhen had a progressive outlook toward gender relations. He often said that in a patriarchal society like China, marriage is an imposition on the woman; because of him, Xiao Li’s life had been turned upside down — he said that she should be able to discover her own self.
The last time they were in touch was August, 2017. Zhen called and asked whether she had time to look after his cats; she declined. In fact, she’d deleted Zhen’s contact information, because not long after their divorce, Zhen had called and told her that he’d already begun dating a female friend.
Late in the night on September 29, nearly a month after Zhen had been taken away, Xiao Li found herself outside the walls of the Zhuhai No. 1 Detention Center in a daze. She wrote in her diary: “We were separated by a mere wall. I thought I had mentally prepared myself well enough, but the reality crushed me all the same.”
Zhen had become estranged not only from his wife, but his parents too. Every time he went back to his hometown, state security police weren’t far behind. They’d sit his parents down and ask them to tell their son to abandon his activism and “turn over a new leaf.” As the time wore on, Zhen couldn’t stand the harassment and simply stopped going back home. Due to security concerns, he also drifted apart from others in the human rights defense community.
He who put so much effort into supporting others so they wouldn’t be cut off from the world, became an island unto himself.
Among those he had helped are the Feminist Five, the Yirenping Center’s Guo Bin (郭彬) and Yang Zhanqing (杨占青), families of the 709 crackdown, labor rights defender Meng Han (孟晗), and participants in a seaside memorial for Liu Xiaobo. He was also involved in assisting countless political prisoners who were given both heavy and light sentences. He believed that “We need to step out to do it in order to mobilize more people to join us.”
Yet as the crackdown has grown harsher, the number of his fellow travellers has grown steadily fewer.
After Zhen was arrested, the authorities told his parents that if they insist on using the lawyers that he had previously commissioned, he would be given a life sentence. If they used a lawyer provided by the government, however, he might get off with a light verdict.
His sister wrote about her fond memories of growing up with him. Her article was quickly deleted from the internet, and state security police went to her house to threaten her.
Xiao Li regrets the fact that now she’s simply an “ex wife.” Otherwise, she would be able to do so many things: write articles, mobilize support, meet with attorneys, remonstrate with officials, and speak to the media. But so what? “Before, posts and photos survived online for about two days; now it’s less than two hours.” Activist A Bai (阿白) says that in the age of Big Data, the surveillance system has grown so strong and smart that activists have no room to act.
In the 12 years Zhen Jianghua lived in Zhuhai, his favorite spot was the lighthouse. To get there, you had to jump a railing at the harbor, then scramble across the rocks — positioned high and low, at sharp, obtrusive angles — for about a kilometer.
The lighthouse seems to lead a solitary existence, but it knows there are others like it out there. Zhen Jianghua too lived like a lighthouse, persisting in his human rights work, in the dark, seemingly all alone.
The last time I saw him I asked: If you’re arrested, what should I do? He responded: “Don’t worry about me. Whether you mobilize people on the outside or not, it won’t make any difference. Just tell my parents and everyone else that I’ve been arrested. That’ll do.”
I still remember our parting words:
“So, what is the meaning of the work you’ve been doing?”
“Simply that, in China, there are still people who are doing it.”
(The names of certain individuals in the article have been changed for their security.)
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Components of a He Cha Session, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Transated from Chinese by China Change: 端傳媒《「南方傻瓜」甄江華：黑暗中行走的抗爭者》
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