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A Chinese Millennial’s Crime and Punishment: The Story of Li Tingyu

Huang Simin, October 13, 2016

 

“If you want to understand your own country, then you’ve  already stepped on the path to criminality.” — Ai Weiwei

“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” — Li Tingyu

li-tingyu-bike

 

Born and raised in Guangdong, Li Tingyu (李婷玉) was a student at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou where she majored in English but dropped out in senior year. She had been working with her boyfriend Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) on the self-published media known as 非新闻 (“Non-News”) until the couple’s detention on June 16 this year. The two were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and are currently detained in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan.  

Li Tingyu and Lu Yuyu have become well-known online in recent years for their dogged work, through the Non-News blog, in searching, collating, and publishing information about mass incidents around China.

As Li Tingyu’s lawyer, I came to understand her personal background and history in the course of representing her and meeting her in custody. She gave her permission for me to set it down.

Childhood Encounter with Migrant Workers

The question “How’d you end up here?” sounds like the beginning of an interrogation. When I asked Li Tingyu, she wasn’t put off. She laughed, then told me her story.

Li was born in 1991 in a small, well-off village in Foshan, Guangdong Province. She grew up in complete comfort, attended elementary school in the village, and had not the slightest understanding of the outside world. The village had a large number of “migrant workers,” however, and her best friend was from Chongqing — the daughter of a migrant worker. The girl’s mother collected trash for a living, and her father worked in a factory. They had to pay very high tuition — a few thousand yuan, which was a big chunk of household income — for the daughter to attend school in the village. The girl one day invited Li Tingyu to her place to play, and Li was shocked by the overcrowded ghetto of shanty houses. She couldn’t understand why the other villagers, of which she was a part, could do nothing but collect rent and lead a life of leisure, while migrant workers had to wear themselves down with arduous manual labor. In the end the friend from Chongqing had to go back home to continue her studies.

Later on, her readings exposed her to the issues of the Hukou system and workers’ rights, and she grasped at once what was going on — the experiences and observations of her childhood had left her with a deep impression.

A Petite Rebel

When she was in junior high school in the early 2000s, Li developed an appetite for devouring books and news stories online, mostly on politics, society, and the economy. She was fascinated by pedagogy, and after learning about the educational systems elsewhere in the world, penned an earnest letter to her headmaster demanding that he not “ruin us students with exam-oriented education.” Of course, the principal of a middle school in China is not going to follow this sort of advice. But at that age Li Tingyu was already developing independent ideas about how things were, and making her own choices. She managed to spend the minimum effort to get through the exams and still got grades near the top of her class, and used the rest of her time to read what she wanted. It was a boarding school, so Li would often burrow under the blanket with a flashlight and a book deep into the night.

By the time Li Tingyu was in high school, the atmosphere online was fairly liberal [the years leading up to the Olympics in 2008] — at least, much better than it is today — and blogs were all the rage. Li read them avidly, and gained an ever deeper understanding of Chinese society. She said that this period was a kind of awakening for her.

Li recalled her politics teacher in senior high school — he personally participated in the 1989 student movement, was punished by local authorities, and in 1991 left his hometown and came with the son to Guangzhou, finally winding up in this small town teaching high school. This teacher wasn’t like the others, forcing students to woodenly parrot political texts — instead, he often ended up speaking about his experiences in the student movement. He encouraged students to go and read up about what really happened. This teacher left a deep impression on the students. Luckily — and unexpectedly — the teacher wasn’t reported to the authorities.

Li Tingyu also recalled how her classmates would pass around Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs on QQ, a Chinese messaging app. Through all this, her understanding of China continued to evolve.

The GoAgent ‘Savior’

At some point during senior high school Li read an essay by Zhang Ming, a well-known academic and liberal intellectual, analyzing the wreck that is China’s university system. From that point on Li held a low regard for life at university. She chose English for two reasons: she was good at it and she saw English as a tool for assimilating more information. Knowing that books in Chinese were often censored in facts and interpretation, she often went straight to English. The Sun Yat-sen University library had a number of English volumes on the June 4 movement, and she read them all.

Li says that, to a large extent, the internet changed her life — especially in the third year of undergraduate studies, when she learnt how to “jump the Great Firewall” with a VPN called GoAgent. She had installed GoAgent on the computers of at least 50-60 of her friends. There were teachers at the university who asked her help to install the software. Li said that through all this she experienced an ineffable “savior”-type feeling: only through being able to access free information was it possible to understand the reality in China. Even if her fellow students only wanted to read celebrity news to begin with, as time went on, they’d start paying attention to social issues. She was once reported by a fellow student for “politically incorrect” speech, and her school counselor urged her to be a more careful about who she revealed her thoughts to.

Lu Yuyu2

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu.

A ‘Good Life’ Without Dignity

Li recalled a conversation she once had with a friend online about the “reincarnation party” (an internet term, primarily used on Weibo, that refers to individuals who have had their accounts deleted, and who then re-establish a second, third, or fourth ‘life’ on Weibo to continue their protest). The friend was a graduate student of sociology at Peking University, doing research on the topic. The friend remarked, with an obvious sense of superiority, about how the internet at Peking University wasn’t restricted, that he can find find out whatever information he wants easily, and how he would emigrate to live a better life.” I interjected that there are plenty of people who think like this. Li recalled, still indignant, “he didn’t care about fighting against the information restrictions; instead, he bragged about his privilege of having more access than others.”

“Do you think there is dignity in living a good life in this country?” she asked him.

I fell silent. Indeed, having a true life of dignity in China comes at an enormous cost. In a society that lacks the most basic rights, the “dignity” that most people enjoy is as false and fleeting as soap bubbles. In reality, it’s the Li Tingyus of China, now in jail, who are actually living with dignity.

The Turning Point

Everyone has a turning point at some time in their lives — the episodes that drive us to do what we do now. A few years ago I was in the office of lawyer Li Heping, looking over files and documentary materials on the “Leping death penalty case,” when I violently broke into tears. In the end, I forgot I had to catch my train. From that point on things inside me changed. Li Heping, though, is now in detention for supposed “subversion of state power.”

I asked Li Tingyu whether she had a turning point. She mentioned a few episodes that did it. Once, doing homework on media studies, she stumbled across a website in India that contained an account of self-immolations in Tibet. The news stunned her. During the “Southern Weekend incident,” in which her friends from senior high school went along to support, and in the end were taken into custody. She and her friends used Weibo to get the message out about the friends’ detention. That was the first time that Li had been that close to a specific act of resistance. Later, she encountered activists, and that also brought changes to her life.

I asked why she quit university when she was in the fourth and final year. She responded, earnestly, that she’d figured it out years ago that the diploma meant little to her. I responded that I’d also been something of a rebel, but I couldn’t do something like that — especially given that it only requires sticking at it for a few more months until graduation.

She thought quietly for a moment, and said she grew up with her grandparents, and after they died she moved in with her mom and dad, but they never really communicated. “No one really looked after my life,” she said.  

I didn’t probe further. So many of our feelings are so deep inside. How much solitude and suffering must one silently bear to gain that level of resolve and courage? All I can say is: I wish you well, Li Tingyu.

 

September 5, 2016

 

Huang Simin (黄思敏) is a Hubei-based lawyer.

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Related:

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today, by Wu Qiang, July, 2016

Case against two citizen journalists who compiled China protest blog transferred for prosecution, HKFP, September, 2016

 

 

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?

Wu Qiang, July 6, 2016

As we were readying to post this translation, we learned that two lawyers met with Lu Yuyu and two other lawyers met with Li Tingyu on July 6 in the Dali Detention Center, Yunnan Province. — The Editors

 

 

“June 13, Monday, 94 incidents,” Lu Yuyu’s last tweet read on June 15. On June 24, the news spread that Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and his girlfriend Li Tingyu (李婷玉) were detained for “provoking disturbances.”

Open his blogpost that day and you can see the 94 incidents grouped into categories, 5 of them highlighted, each with a link to the original post on Chinese social media (though some have long been censored). We learn that on June 13,  in 21 provinces and 3 municipalities directly under the central government, workers protested for unpaid wages; taxi drivers blocked roads in protest against Didi Dache, a Chinese version of Uber; farmers protested against environmental degradation or land expropriation; property owners protested various forms of exploitation and fraud; investors protested scams that robbed them of years of savings; veterans lodged a petition for fair treatment; passersby protested police brutality…

This is what Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu have been doing for four years every day: researching, tallying, and publishing information about protests in China. He knew this day would come. Nor am I surprised.

I first met Lu Yuyu in a cafe in Fuzhou in July, 2013. I was an academic researcher on social movements and he was a frontline citizen reporter. As such, he was a unique participant in the events he recorded. The notes from that two-hour interview became the raw material for my research paper, but I never sorted them out and published it. Now that he is detained, I re-opened my notes to recall “Lao Lu” (Old Lu) — as activists affectionately called him.  

Lu Yuyu was born in 1979 and didn’t finish college. In October, 2011, he was identified by police in Shanghai and called in for an interrogation after he re-posted news about the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng. He didn’t make a fuss over it, online or off. Instead, he began a one-man protest. Between April and September 2012, he alone picketed the government, demanding that officials disclose their assets and that citizens be given the right to vote. Picketing was once the main activity of the Southern Street Movement. But Lu Yuyu realized that, while his protest tested his courage, it made little impact.   

Eventually he was driven out of Shanghai by police. He stayed in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Fuzhou. Everywhere he was, he was driven away — a common practice by the Chinese police against activists. In some cases, the police would threaten the landlord who rent them the apartment, or the friends providing a play to stay. These days, local security police drive away activists in their jurisdiction as part of their stability maintenance obligations. Lu Yuyu stayed in Fuzhou somewhat longer than elsewhere, and that was how we met for the interview.  

Also around April 2012, Lu Yuyu began to collect information about rights defense incidents across the country, then sorting and publishing them. Soon after he started, foreign media outlets began picking up the news, some even contacting him directly to verify information. In the process, he grew more meticulous about verifying data, including seeking multiple sources, and contacting participants and internet posters directly. Lu became a unique citizen journalist.

Lu Yuyu told me that he searches Weibo, QQ, and BBSs everyday, identifying the basic information about each incident through text and photos posted online. Then he searches other sources to verify the information, including time, location, cause, demands, scale, and whether there was a crackdown, before posting it online. As with his post on June 15, he also sorts the incidents by day, week, month, region, and nature of the protest, as well as highlighting incidents involving more than 1,000 protesters.      

For instance, in June 2013 Lu recorded 53 mass incidents in which people fought for the protection of their rights. Among these, nearly half involved violent clashes. The majority were in response to expropriation of land and forced demolitions, as well as labor protests, with 13 and 11 incidents in each category. There were 9 incidents caused by government non-action and 7 caused by police or urban enforcement brutality. Finally there were 5 protests respectively in response to environmental issues and corruption. The groups that were most involved were rural people, with 22 incidents, and urban workers and residents, also with 22 incidents, while the rest were single-issue business proprietors, students, teachers, taxi drivers, and petitioners. Geographically, most of the resistance was in Guangdong (12 cases), while the rest were in Guangxi (5), Jiangsu (4), Zhejiang (4), with progressively fewer in more inland and less developed areas. Protest statistics increased only slightly in July, for a total of 59 cases. But the number of worker strikes in Guangdong jumped up significantly, reflecting a burgeoning workers movement in the Pearl River Delta. This trend continued all the way until 2015 when the authorities began their crackdown on labor organizing.

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu.

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu. Photo: online.

Whether for someone like me, a researcher of social movements, or for anyone who takes an interest in China’s rights defense incidents, Lu Yuyu’s record-keeping is unique and irreplaceable. In particular, it’s important to note that the Chinese government stopped publishing statistics on “mass incidents” in 2008. The trend of protests with more than 10 people had begun at 10,000 in 1994, increasing steadily every year, with 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and an estimated total of more than 100,000 in 2008. Statistics on the incidents involving over 1,000 people is retained as internal information and isn’t published. The media can only go by the fragmentary information reported online, given that there’s no official continuous statistics. Social movement researchers have an even more difficult time, often only able to piece together trends gleaned from the limited information in printed publications. These printed materials are often highly susceptible to propaganda restrictions and whatever the policies of the day happen to be. Though the incidents of resistance catalogued by Lu Yuyu using new media platforms are far less in number than what official sources had been reporting a decade ago, they have been the only independent source of information that the outside world has had recourse to.

The most obvious change was after 2013, when the proportion of land dispute cases dropped and the number of labor disputes and urban protests increased. Labor rights protests often revolve around unpaid wages and social security issues, while urban resistance mostly related to “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” activism and other specific complaints — for instance, equal access to education, the taxi system, opposition to police violence, and so on. This shows that rights defense activities have become increasingly urbanized , and that urban residents and workers are becoming the key actors in the rights defense movement in China.

Lu Yuyu summed it up by saying that, given the same protest, those in rural areas are more likely to be suppressed, while urbanites are more likely to be successful. Mass protests in rural areas are often swiftly followed by violent suppression, and this happens less in urban settings.

Although, after 2014 this contrast also began to change. As the number of large-scale urban protests increased, the number of violent clashes climbed. This very much shows the shifting power of Chinese social movements and their changing trends: As the middle-class rises and urban residents are more empowered, city protests have quietly replaced the more dispersed rural protests since the 1990s; protesters are also finding that they are able to resolve their demands through their struggle. On the other hand, the old model of rights defense in rural areas, of “resisting according to the law,” has instead often been terminated by harsh repression. As a result, more and more rural people have been shepherded into cities, and the rate of urban-based protests has also accelerated.

Lu Yuyu. Photo: online.

Lu Yuyu. Photo: online.

Another aspect to it is that, entering 2014, the frequency of mass incidents involving more than 1,000 people dropped, stabilizing at an average of 30 per month, apparently showing that rights defense mobilization has been effectively suppressed. Post-2014, the authorities used more severe preventative suppression, including “cleansing the internet” campaigns, attacking “big Vs,” apprehending activists, news disseminators, and NGO workers. All this decreased the likelihood of large-scale protest incidents. For those spontaneous and sudden mass protests, along the lines of the Weng’an model  (瓮安模式) of some years ago, it was quite effective. Similarly, for the forms of public resistance that rely on a high-degree of organization, like the Wukan protests, it was also effective. The kind of prophylactic form of suppression also made Lu Yuyu’s work of compiling and spreading such news suddenly more dangerous.

Since 2015, Lu Yuyu found that the number of protests involving 10 or more people shot up. He recorded 28,950 incidents in 2015, a 34% increase from 2014. In the first half of 2016 the number continued to climb, while the number of large protests involving 1,000 people or more reached about 40 per month. What do all these numbers mean? Did social conflicts continue to escalate as the regime adjusted its stability maintenance policies? Or is it that a souring economy engendered more labor unrests, which spread to Henan and other heartland provinces?

What will it lead to as these protests grow in number and coalesce on cities? Lu Yuyu’s statistics do not provide answers, but they have helped inform much research on China, including my own. At the same time, the Chinese government has come to see high-frequency protests as the biggest threat to its regime because, as in Tunisia, they can trigger an avalanche of protest. These perceived threats are driving China to transition from a stability maintenance mode to a mechanism of total security lockdown.

The regime’s ubiquitous menace of power has had a profound effect on the daily lives and activities on practically all activists in China over the last few years, and has gradually pushed many of them to the margins of society. Resistance has thus become a way of life for those on the fringes. Lu Yuyu was spending 4 to 5 hours every day online dedicated to searching for traces of protests. (At the beginning it took him sometimes over 10 hours.) To ensure that he’d have continuous statistics, he had no choice but to quit his job. Due to the obvious dangers of his work, Lu never used a fixed IP address to publish his information, but would instead make his way about the city, borrowing open WiFi connections. In early 2013, a student at Sun Yat-sen University took note of his work and began sharing the burden. They pushed updates on Sina Weibo and Twitter, and ran a blog for the publication of the statistics and preliminary categorizations. Li Tingyu, having gradually become part of Lu’s solitary enterprise and life, also became his partner. She decided to drop out of university, live on the margins, and to lead a life of resistance. It’s full of danger, but also full of purpose.

This was their own form of protest.  

 

(The essay has been edited with permission of the author.)
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
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Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China, June 2016.

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.
吴强 《追蹤抗爭的盧昱宇失蹤了》