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Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018
Xu Zhiyong was released from prison on July 16, 2017, after serving four years for his role in the New Citizens Movement. Xu is a seminal figure in China’s rights defense movement with the founding of “Gongmeng” (公盟) in 2003, a NGO providing legal assistance to victims of social injustice. It was a training ground for some of the earliest human rights lawyers and took on some of the most high-profile cases of the time. Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009. After that Xu Zhiyong and colleagues sought new ways to continue their work for change, resulting in the New Citizens Movement. Between 2013 and 2014, dozens of participants were thrown in jail, including Xu himself. China Change had extensive coverage of the movement and the crackdown, and a lengthy interview titled “Who Is Xu Ziyong?” Scroll down midway for a new, 6-minute video in which Xu Zhiyong speaks about his current projects and hopes for the future. The following article was first posted on July 20 in Xu’s new blog, and China Change is pleased to offer a complete translation of it. –– The Editors
It’s been a year since my release from prison. Friends often ask about my life during those four years. It seems as if it were a lifetime ago. That’s how it feels.
It was a summer morning –– the first time in three months I had been allowed to walk out the door of my home. A municipal public security bureau (PSB) car took my wife and I to the hospital for a prenatal check-up. After that I watched her to go to work.
When we returned to my residential compound, there were police cars and many mysterious strangers in front of my building. At the stairway, I was handed a criminal summons notice for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Dozens of people entered my home and conducted a search.
I had already been deprived of my freedom for three months. On April 12 , I was intercepted at the airport departure gate on my way to Hong Kong, per invitation, to participate in a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the Sun Zhigang case. From then on, people from the domestic security police’s wenbao (文保) division [i.e., political police responsible for culture and education work units] kept watch in the corridor 24/7; I couldn’t even go out to buy food.
On March 31, Yuan Dong (袁冬) and several others had gone to Xidan [西单, downtown Beijing about two miles west of the Tiananmen Square] calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets. Citizens of a normal country have freedom of speech. But this is China. They were taken into custody.
In April, Zhao Changqing (赵常青), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Sun Hanhui (孙含会) and others were detained in succession. Two days earlier, Song Ze (宋泽) disappeared. I sent my unfinished manuscript “Free China” to Xiao Shu (笑蜀), and prepared for imprisonment.
What’s meant to be will be. “Gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” was just an excuse.
What the autocrats were really concerned about was the New Citizens’ Movement. The “citizen” badge, the avatar, and the core values of “freedom, justice, love.” When, on the same day, banners were hung in more than 20 cities calling for the public disclosure of officials’ assets, it looked like a nascent political opposition was taking shape.
After May, I had three “talks” at a farm near Xiaotangshan [a small town in Changping district, Beijing] with someone who claimed to be the principal person in charge of the Beijing Municipal PSB. We argued about ideas, and he urged me to “admit my mistakes.” The meaning was very clear: if I surrendered, I could go home, but if I didn’t capitulate, I’d be facing 10 years or more, and there would be more than one criminal charge.
Think about your family. I said I could stop working and do nothing. If indeed I was mistaken regarding individual matters, I could admit to them, and I myself also reflect on them.
How did they want me to acknowledge them? It must be done in front of the media. A TV confession. That was asking me to renegade my mission.
For so many years, so many people and I worked hard together. Then all of a sudden, I was supposed to turn around and say that I’d done wrong? This is a question of character. I treasure freedom and I love life, but between destroying my character and being thrown behind bars, I can only choose the latter. Since there is no way to retreat, let whatever may come, come.
The car drove straight to the Beijing Municipal Special Police Division. It was the fourth negotiation. Two people who “talked” with me earlier showed up. “Shall we have more talking, or shall we go ahead with legal procedures?”
You’ve already begun crackdown, what else is there to talk about? We were deadlocked for two or three hours. The special police rushed in, put me in a car and drove off. I was blindfolded.
I got out of the car. I heard the sound of a plane and thought I was back at Beijing No.1 Detention Center, where I was detained in the summer of 2009.
It was Daxing (大兴). The cell in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center was already prepared. It was specially set up the day before. There were twelve people in the cell; except for me, everyone else were theft suspects. The vast majority of the more than 400 people detained in the No. 3 Detention Center were there for allegedly stealing mobile phones on public buses.
My code name was 716; the day was July 16, 2013.
No one was allowed to call me by my name. The “head” prisoner said that it was the same for an accomplice of Zhou Bin’s who was detained here last year: he was also called by a code name.
When the broadcast system called out: “716, 716!”, I pretended not to hear. Two days later, the calls changed to “Xu Zhiyong.”
Almost every day they interrogated me for long hours –– regarding the New Citizens’ Movement, citizens’ dinner gatherings, equal education rights for migrant workers’ children, and calls for officials to disclose their assets. I talked about ideas, and didn’t avoid discussing my own actions.
With respect to questions involving other people, I didn’t say a word. “It’s not convenient to say” was my answer, or I would tell the transcriber to simply note “silent.”
I was the one who went to the copy shop to print the flyers for the “228” petition for equal education rights. They repeatedly asked me where the copy shop was. I knew they were unlikely to be hard on the shop; at most, just threaten them a bit.
But I didn’t want innocent people to be harassed and frightened. My principle was not to give information about other people. I sat on the iron chair from morning till night, refusing to answer. The stalemate lasted for six days. Then they gave up.
They asked how much money Wang Gongquan (王功权) gave to Gongmeng (公盟, Open Constitution Initiative). I said, “I can’t tell you.” “Why are you holding it back when he himself has already told us?”
I didn’t say a word. My words must not become testimonies that are used to incriminate others.
This is also legal common sense. He gave me cash, only the two of us knew about it. This fact is not the same as a legal fact. Legal facts require at least two people’s testimony that mutually corroborates the other. If only one person says it, then it’s useless; it doesn’t become legal evidence.
I thought of all kinds of torture. When even life can be given, then torture doesn’t matter.
[Lawyer Zhang] Qingfang appeared in front of the iron-grated window, and we smiled at each other. What I remember best is his passionate and voluble manner during the Yanyuan Lectures. We were both PhD students at Peking University Law School. He was the class of ‘98, and I was ‘99.
He and lawyer Hu Yu (胡育) both came to see me almost every week. We exchanged information, and it was extremely important for the defense in political cases. They took and later disseminated a video of me speaking, handcuffed and in a prison garb. Because of this video, the interrogators were livid.
Later, the Party-state tightened control, and it’s now impossible for political prisoners to have such opportunities. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has not been allowed to meet with a lawyer for three years. They said this is according to their law. But how many countries in the world have such evil laws?
In defending political cases, it’s very important for lawyers to speak out. Regardless of whether a prisoner is prepared to go to jail or compromise in exchange for freedom, widespread outside attention is valuable. At a minimum, the attention would result in more safety for the prisoner. Speaking only in the authoritarian court setting is essentially saying nothing.
Even if you want to compromise, it’s a compromise on the part of the political prisoner, not on the part of the family and the lawyers. What family members and lawyers can do is to speak out, tell the story, and talk about how an idealist pursues democracy and freedom, how he or she upholds ideals and serves the society.
Every time a lawyer meets with his or her client and then tells the outside world, it’s basically the outside world’s only source of information. What autocrats fear most is the spread of the power of conscience. If lawyers are under too much pressure, they can talk to the family of their client, and then the family can speak to the media and put the news out online.
Li Wei (李蔚) was held next door; sometimes we were able to say hello to each other. Sometimes when I was taken out of the cell for interrogations, I could see Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in #201 cell, in quiet contemplation, as I walked down the hallway. Sometimes during the let-out time, I could hear the cry, “Call on officials to publicly disclose their assets!” They were Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) and Ma Xinli (马新立). In September, I knew that [Wang] Gongquan had also been taken in. One day we met in the hallway. We raised our shackled hands, and cupped one fist into the other hand to greet each other.
I told Qingfang to tell the others that those who could leave should do their best to leave; we don’t need so many friends going to jail.
My happiest day in the detention center was the news transmitted over the walkie-talkie that Song Ze (宋泽) was released on bail. Later, I learned from a fellow prisoner that when Song Ze left the detention center he had grown long hair, and that he had never complied with the jailhouse rules.
Early November, the gloom hung the heaviest.
One day they began to ask about “a country of the people and for the people,” a constitutional vision for a beautiful China.
In the fall of 2011, on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911, many constitutional scholars held bi-weekly discussions that lasted for five months with continuous research output. Where is China headed? What the Chinese people need is a constitutional consensus.
They stopped letting my lawyers see me. For a Chinese legal professional, this suggested a subversion charge. Some of the cell arrangements, such as not having to be on duty at night, were cancelled.
They began to use night interrogations –– just when I was about to fall asleep, they came to get me. Straight through until dawn. I was expecting that, perhaps next, I would be deprived of sleep for days –– a form of torture. I said to them that if they did the same tomorrow, I would refuse to cooperate.
The second night, I didn’t say a word; it was a stalemate till dawn.
It was a weekend. Back to the cell, I lay down on the bed plank amid the blaring TV.
I was exhausted. Everywhere was grey. Initially, it was one charge, with a maximum sentence of five years; now there were two counts, which means at least 10 years. Under five years, it’s part of life; ten years and more, it’s a career. That’s a fundamental difference.
There is a lot of suffering in life. Prison was never a surprise for me. When I bought a home in 2004, the purpose was very clear: when I was released from prison one day, I’d have a place to live. But ten years would be a long time when that became a reality! I was overcome by immeasurable pain and sadness.
Suddenly a voice said, in a flash, “Make it a happy experience” (快乐体验). In 2009, when I was at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, there was a similar moment of sudden light.
Those are moments when history is made.
Embracing everything in life with happiness. I got up, and using a small piece of sandstone, wrote “make it a happy experience” on the wall of cell #208.
I had no paper or pen –– this probably was a rule targeting me, I had quite a few words. On July 31, I wrote: “For freedom, justice, love, and happiness for all beings, for your glory, Lord, I want to live your life in this world.”
On December 5, Nelson Mandela passed away, and I wrote “Long Road to Freedom.”
I’ve always believed there’s a mysterious and inexorable force in me, leading me and spurring me on. He always flashes light in the darkest moments of my life. He created this world. He is the ultimate cause of everything –– the universe, life, evolution, humanity, and civilization.
They came for me on third night, menacing. As soon as I came out of my cell, the guard yelled, “Squat down!” I laughed. It is the rule of the detention center that when a suspect leaves his cell he must squat and put his hands behind his head, fingers interlaced. I never abided by that rule.
As soon as I sat down in the interrogation room, a new face, a man in his thirties, unleashed a torrent of invective and abuse.
Who do you think you are? Scum, bastard, degenerate… he exhausted almost all of the insulting words there are in the Chinese language. He paced back and forth, waving his arms, stomping his feet, twisting out his cigarette butts, making threatening gestures and monstrously screaming. It seemed that he was about to tear me to pieces and gobble me up. Both my hands were shackled to the iron chair, and I sat quietly. This went on for about an hour. Then he stopped. The room became quiet.
I raised my head, and looking into his eyes, asked him, “Are you done performing?”
I was genuinely concerned for this person. Who is he? What did he just do? For whom? How could he utter those words if he had the slightest sense of right and wrong? Unless he is mentally ill –– he is not, he is putting on a show.
It was like watching from high above a little marionette shook and screamed loudly on the blue earth. He looked so pathetic that I had to show my concern.
He suddenly fell apart. He said, in a succession of quick utterances, “Alas, I am really sorry; I was indeed performing; oh dear, I really can’t do this job! Why are they asking me to do this?”
He had completely forgotten about his colleagues around him, as well as the watching eyes supervising them in another room. Later, we chatted for a while. He was a graduate of Renmin University. He repeatedly apologized, saying that he shouldn’t have cursed and insulted me, and that he had failed.
If I had any fear, or felt humiliated, they would have won. Whatever worked on you, they would use it against you. For me, beating would only inspire me. In Linyi, Shandong province, at the entrance of the black jail in the Youth Hostel, brutal violence did not make me submit. Nor did insults have any use.
In a post-totalitarian society, ideology is dead. There is no more class hatred. Beating people is just a job, a role to play.
From a historic perspective, we each play our own role. What’s there to be afraid when you transcend the confines of this world and look at yourself and the world around you from the vantage point of distance? You see the preordained role of each person in the world; there is only compassion.
Just like that, the quasi-torture of me was over.
On December 15, the news of Mandela’s death was broadcast on television. I thought of the song “The Glorious Years” by Beyond. How many people must bear the cost for a nation to be saved? Countless ancestors shed blood. We are their successors. We’re very fortunate.
2014 arrived. In the brightly lit cell, on the large shared plank bed, each went to sleep with their own dreams. I recalled the distant ring bells, the open countryside of my childhood, the wheat waving in the spring breeze. And the green lawns of New Haven, and the cross atop of a church pointing to the blue sky and white clouds. And the clamor and roar on New Year Eve on the southern shore of Lake Weiming, straddling two centuries. The distant bells; the years of youth in the river of time.
I prepared for trial.
As far as the law was concerned we were not guilty, of course. Opposing segregation based on hukou, or household registration, promoting equal education rights, and calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, all of these is simply public expression and an exercise of freedom of speech as stipulated in China’s Constitution. We didn’t block roads or traffic; we didn’t “disrupt social order”; our actions resulted in no social harm whatsoever.
All of the witnesses for the prosecution were either policemen or security guards, and none of them testified in court. And not a single city resident was a victim.
The Party didn’t respect the law, nor did it care about procedures. The lawyers fought hard about the key issues of whether the New Citizen cases should be handled together or separately, and the appearance of witnesses in court.
The New Citizen “cases” were obviously a single case. We all identify as citizens, recognize the core values of “freedom, justice, and love,” and work together to promote educational equality and the public disclosure of officials’ assets. The allegations against us, as well as the case materials, were the same; there was no legal reason to try us separately.
The authorities used rogue, unlawful methods to force the case to be divided into separate cases in order to minimize the impact of the New Citizen trial. That was the only explanation.
We requested witnesses to appear in court to testify, a reasonable request in any normal country, but the judge refused.
Without respect for procedures, it was impossible for the trial to be just.
The so-called “trial” then was no more than a formality; all we could do was use non-cooperation to protest. My lawyers and I agreed to sit through the trial in complete silence.
The trial was held on January 22, 2014. The police cordoned off the intersection near the court. Many friends came to the courthouse that day, and many more friends were restricted from coming. Thank you all!
My lawyers Zhang Qingfang and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱) explained briefly the reasons why we must be silent, and then stopped talking. Regardless of how the judges asked, all three of us maintained silence.
Enraged, the presiding judge called for an adjournment. He urged me to speak. I didn’t.
In private, other judges and prosecutors said to me that they were sorry, there was nothing else they could do –– they did so to let me know that they still had a conscience. Only the presiding judge was full of hostility toward me. There are fewer and fewer people like him in the autocratic system.
When the trial resumed, we maintained our silence. No matter what the judges or prosecutors said, we ignored it all. The angry presiding judge announced the court would adjourn again, and threatened me and my two lawyers.
With basic procedural justice trampled upon, how could we cooperate? The next part of the hearing was pointless. One by one, the prosecutors presented their “evidence.” The judge asked the defendant if there was any objection. No answer from me. Any objections from the lawyers? Silence.
They are all in it together, so let them do their own show. At one point, I dozed off.
It was finally over at four o’clock in the afternoon. When I gave my final statement, the judge interrupted several times. Finally, I was forced to stop.
It’s not important what was said in court, “For freedom, justice, and love –– my court statement” has already been disseminated outside the courtroom.
She came on the day of the trial. Our daughter was born just nine days before. I got down on my knees. Actually, those of us who believe in destiny don’t care about the price. But our loved ones bear the cost. Four days after the first-instance trial, the verdict was pronounced. The four-year sentence was not a surprise. But for a wife and a 13-day old baby, it was much too long.
We filed an appeal on the final day of the appeal period. Not to change the outcome, but just to lengthen the battle front, so more people could learn about the citizen movement.
The major facts were unclear and the procedure was seriously illegal, but the authoritarian court is not a place to reason. The court of second instance, the Beijing High People’s Court, didn’t hold a court “hearing.” They were afraid of another trial. On the day the verdict was announced, I declared in a loud voice when I was taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs: “The absurd judgment cannot stop the trend of progress of human civilization, and the haze of communist dictatorship will inevitably be dispelled; the sunshine of freedom, justice, and love will inevitably shine in China!”
There is joy everywhere. My last days at the detention center were leisurely. There was a fundamental improvement in my shuangsheng ability (a variation of poker). I could now remember cards. After each round the loser would have to drink cold water. A young man who had been to the juvenile detention facility when he was a teen promised me that he was going to open a hot spicy soup stall after he got out. I promised to help him. I don’t know where he is now.
On April 27, a young guard said goodbye to me after breakfast. His family is in Fengtai (丰台), and they also suffered forced eviction and demolition of their home; he had consulted me about some legal issues.
For English subtitles, click setting.
The first stop was Tianhe Prison (天河监狱). It was formerly known as the “South Building”; the transfer station was well known for its perversely strict management. Prisoners who were not from Beijing were sent here and then transferred to their place of residence to serve their sentences. I had heard many stories about the “South Building”, so from the outset I didn’t have a good impression.
At the beginning, the prison was unusually harsh. Then we were under regular management. During the last three months up until we got out of prison, the management loosened up. With each change, one felt happier. The same changes, if done in reverse order, it would be hard to endure.
Tianhe is the starting point for prison, it played the role of hell. New prisoners had nothing, not even a single drawer. There was no private space whatsoever. You couldn’t read, you couldn’t take an afternoon nap. Every day, before we watched TV for study, the warden shouted, “Bow your heads, raise your heads, bow your heads, raise your heads…”
I must resist, for human rights, and also to carve out some space for myself.
On the first day, because I wore slippers in the corridor, the lieutenant blocked me, and I said I would not obey. He yelled, do you dare to write that down? I said, Give me a piece of paper and I will write it down that I refuse to obey order. I did just that and signed my name.
There was a small library there for the prisoners from Beijing who remained at Tianhe. I went and got a book. The lieutenant told me to take it back; I refused. He shouted at the cell leader, “Take it away from him!” I said, “Who is going to come over here and have a fight with me?” The cell leader was a skinny young man. He used to work at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau; his crime was taking bribes. He didn’t know what to do. I was able to keep the book.
I know that I had the strength to resist because of the attention on me from hundreds of thousands of people. That is my good fortune and also the hope of the nation. Compared with many who came before me, I was lucky.
I would often stand in front of the window in the cell, thinking about the golden dandelions in the sun and the sparking stars, the cuckoo singing throughout the night, the happiness. Also my boyhood.
The one month of resistance was over. On May 30, 2014, I was told to gather my things. The deputy warden said he didn’t know which prison I was being transferred to. We had talked about privileges in prison before. He said that I might be sent to Yancheng (燕城). Usually a prisoner would go to a second prison for another two months, and then to some other prison. I hoped that my situation would stabilize as soon as possible.
The police car got on the highway. The wheat fields on both sides were just turning yellow. When I was a child, this was my favorite season. White mushrooms, hard working ants, panicked hares whizzing by. Those distant times.
The car drove to a yard with a high electrified wall. Seeing “Liulin Prison” (柳林监狱), my heart said, my Longchang Yi (龙场驿)! Five hundred years later, I was also in a remote place. Far away from it all.
Liulin Prison is divided into seven wards; each ward had about 100 prisoners and 20 prison guards.
In my ward, the Superintendent (the leader, later renamed ward captain) was a decent person. He said to me privately that all people have a conscience. He said in the minds of the the prison guards, there are three categories of prisoners. “The first category is you,” he said, “so no need to explain.” The second category, he said, is those guilty of corruption—the larger social environment is just like this. The third category is ordinary criminals.
A few days later, he said that the reading room was ready. We then took 200 some books from the prison library to the reading room, including traditional cultural classics such as The Book of Songs, The Analects, and Instructions for Practical Living, as well as world classics such as Les Miserables and War and Peace.
The one that I cherished the most and kept for the entire three years I was there was The Federalist Papers.
Sixteen people lived in one cell. Robbery, murder, theft, drug trafficking, bribery and other crimes were all mixed together. A small society. These were hardened people to begin with, and when they were stuck together in such a harsh environment, they became worse –– it was a vicious cycle.
There were no mirrors in the prison. Anything that could injure a person was not allowed, so there was no glass, no bamboo sticks, etc.; they feared self-inflicted wounds.
In the first month at Liulin Prison, the labor was weeding and turning up the soil. We removed the weeds on both sides of the road and then turned the soil over and over again. It was a perversity on the part of the prison: they wouldn’t allow anything to grow freely, including weeds.
I then was sent to the large workshop to wrap chair frames with plastic wire. I didn’t want to earn credit to reduce my sentence. Labor was symbolic, so I’d do a little bit of cleaning, and occasionally I’d wrap a chair too.
An optimistic person can work everywhere, and wherever I am, there is space for me. My work was to think and write.
A rule was applied to me at the beginning: I could study half the time and do labor half the time. After I swept the floor, I read in a corner of the workshop.
The first two months were my “study period.” After that, the Superintendent and his deputy called me outside and said that prison rules stipulated that no reading was allowed in the workshop.
I said I must be allowed to read; if you don’t let me read, I will switch into total noncooperation, and you can just go ahead and send me to the “training team.”
The training team is a prison within a prison. In the beginning, you’re tied to a bed with iron chains 24 hours a day. Usually there’s a ceremony for those sent to the training team: a large meeting is held, the disciplinary violations are announced in a stern voice, the police raise the prisoners’ arms high overhead, press their heads down as low as possible, and hurriedly stuff them into a truck. It was the posture used for struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution. For many people, that was a frightening place. I didn’t care. Actually, it’s perfect for a meditation retreat.
The Superintendent made concessions. “Well, just bring one book at a time.” A few months later, a floor supervisor found me reading a book in the workshop. The warden reminded me to be watchful. I said that my reading was out in the open, and I would never hide from anyone.
Outside the window, dusk fell. In the distance, the high-speed train hurled past. It connected the city and my life.
A huge white bird, flapping its wings, landed in Liulin. The northern coast was not far away. Many years ago, I listened to a big sister telling her story in the dark clouds and cold wintry wind of the northern coast. In the summer of 1989, it was the first time I, a wandering boy, came to see the sea, under the gloomy sky with several big ships and a few seagulls in view. I stayed with her until late at night, an atlas for a headrest, and fell asleep amid the sea breeze. It was the coast of Tanggu, not far away.
I stayed at Liulin for less than five months. In the late autumn. On October 22, , we were all transferred to Kenhua Prison (垦华监狱).
Kenhua is about ten kilometers from Liulin. There are several prisons in the area. This place called Chadian is an enclave of Beijing in Tianjin. Zhou Enlai is said to have chosen this wilderness to detain Kuomintang war criminals.
Kenhua means reclaiming China. The name is as suggestive as my hometown Minquan –– civil rights.
Kenhua was newly built, not big, and could accommodate 1,000 plus prisoners, but only 600 or 700 people were detained there. Ten people lived in one cell. There was less green there than Liulin. Liulin has pear-leaved crabapple groves, jujube forests, corn fields, and old willows everywhere. In Kenhua, the road had two rows of small trees on each side, and there was a wide expanse of clover growing in a clearing.
The biggest problem with the food was its monotony. If you only looked at the weekly menu, it was not too bad: salted vegetables and steamed buns in the morning and evening, stir-fry at noon, Monday cabbage, Tuesday eggplant, Wednesday potato slices…. Each week there were two dishes that included a bit of meat, and two meals of rice. But year in, year out, we only had these 10-20 dishes; we never saw anything else.
Each month, prisoners could fill out purchase orders for pig’s head meat, salted duck eggs, fruits, etc., but the types of extra food you could buy were always the same, year in and year out. There were only ever two kinds of fruit –– apples and oranges. I didn’t see any other fruits for several years. Picking a green onion or radishes from the ground behind the squad leader’s back was a great luxury.
Therefore a peach or a banana could be used as a reward for a labor competition for such a group of people who have seen the world.
What luxurious happiness it would be to be with two or three good friends, having a few small dishes at a food stall with a few bottles of beer on a summer evening!
There was no life here, only poetry and a distant place.
A happy time was when we collected debris. The prison was a tofu-dregs project with construction waste left everywhere, so going downstairs to the lawn to collect debris became frequent labor. There was a rich life amid the clover. The pill bug waited quietly, the little gray spider ran desperately, the praying mantis lifted its machete. And the ants were always busy.
That was their home. They didn’t know the high electrified walls, and they didn’t know the world outside. They were free.
Our space was much larger than that of the ants, but we felt the pain of lost freedom.
Humans don’t have wings to fly, nor fins to swim; we live and die on this planet like dust. I once lived like these ants, and didn’t feel it was painful. What’s habitual and constant is no suffering.
Freedom, pain, happiness, everything in this world is born because of comparison. So God created a hellish world.
To make it a perfect world and to turn life into an experience of happiness –– this is the meaning of life. My Longchang Yi.
I had a lot of time to think. Real, quiet thinking. On the outside, even if my phone is turned off, my mind still can’t settle down. But there, it was useless to ponder what was happening outside. I was relieved of those responsibilities, so I could really calm down.
For several days in a row I thought about the theory of special relativity, and for several consecutive days I thought about the question: what is time? I wanted to know the truth of the world, time, space, energy, quality, matter, life, humanity…
To be precise, I was quietly waiting for a divine revelation. All flashes of light and thought come from God, and all human knowledge comes from that ultimate spiritual homeland.
The progress of civilization means to know nature, to know oneself, and to know God, from a higher place.
Over the past 300 years, the understanding of nature and science has taken a big step forward, while the other foot, the understanding of God and religion, has remained in the same place.
People are animals looking up at the stars. We will always question our previous lives and the afterlife and be concerned about the meaning of life. We always longing for a refuge for the soul.
The roads of the past are old. This is the era of a new civilization.
I am blessed. I’ve received so much new knowledge. I know the truth of the world. I know the meaning of life. I wrote it down carefully, and saved it. I’m grateful for being on a sacred mission.
I still have a lot of time to long for you. When thinking of you, I stared out the window at the flowering crabapple in bloom and the green fields. It was another spring. I missed as I walked in the prisoners’ formation. Looking up at the sky, I saw a flock of ducks flying north to a distant nest. When I missed you, I gently plucked a four-leaf clover and I wanted to give it to you as a birthday present. I wanted to give you everything that was the best in this life. I missed you at a small corner in the noisy workshop as I pondered the fate of mankind. At this predestined place for meditation, you disturbed me, again and again, giving me life, happiness and longing.
My cellmate Tian Shudong (田树东) had lumbar disc surgery. He helped a friend collect debt, and was sentenced to 13 years for “robbery.” He once shared a cell with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father imprisoned for his baby son who was one of the many victims of the tainted milk powder.
Every day Lai Huaichao (赖怀超), Wu Min (吴敏), myself, and a few others, used a stretcher to carry Tian to the workshop, and after work, we carried him back. Both of them were in for corruption. Wu Min studied physics at Nanjing University, so I often sought him out to discuss physics questions.
About 40% of the people in my ward were convicted of corruption. Among them there were six bureau-level officials; they were smart people and we were able to discuss philosophy together. Each month there were newcomers, and some would leave. When someone left, everyone else felt a little sunshine coming through.
In the last six months of my sentence, our cell had eight people: one Ph.D., two Masters, and three with undergraduate degrees. Several were in for corruption, one was a murderer, and one a robber. Old Li, who slept under me in the bunk, was the general manager of a state-owned enterprise, sentenced to twenty years for corruption and bribery. He had already served nine years, and still had nine to go. He had only received a two-year sentence reduction when a new policy prohibited sentence reductions for corruption offenders. He had shingles.
Tian Shudong was lying on the stretcher in the workshop. One day the political instructor saw him and shouted, get up! I almost lost my temper. One day, he made four prisoners raise their arms and tortured an inmate with mental-illness; I held back my anger, because there was important work to be completed.
In June 2016, after a heavy rain, during the night, the hallway was filled with vomiting sounds. I also had a stomach ache, but it was slight. By my estimate, 40 people were vomiting and had diarrhea; 80% of the inmates had fever, stomach pain and other symptoms. In the entire prison, more than 400 people were poisoned by food. We ruled out all kinds of possibilities and concluded that it was very likely a problem with the drinking water. A few days later at an assembly, the deputy prison warden mentioned this incident, and downplaying it, said that everyone should pay attention to personal hygiene. He was scared of speaking the truth.
It was the place predestined for my personal cultivation. I often thought: what is human nature? And I recalled that debate in the detention center.
My cellmates argued heatedly about whether they could steal from a hospital. They mainly stole mobile phones in the subway, and during a national holiday week they could make 50,000 to 80,000 RMB. Some mainly stole from the mall. There were also those who stole from patients in the hospitals.
Two people approved. The cell “boss” said, the thief is a profession that has existed since time immemorial. “It doesn’t matter if the cat’s white or black, as long as it’s able to make money, it’s a good cat.” He had been in Beijing for three decades since his teens, and he had bought a house and married. His was a history of personal struggles full of blood and tears. The other one who was unscrupulous about stealing from hospital patients was the young man who would later become the cell “boss.” He said that stealing is stealing, so “whatever.”
Four people felt uncertain about their takes: they didn’t support it nor did they oppose it.
Four people resolutely opposed it. Among them was Little Anyang. He was 21 years old; when he was nine he was tricked into going with a gang boss to Shanghai. Countless times, the boss beat him violently. Speaking about it, he was still fearful. This was his fourth prison run; the previous two times he was sentenced to one year each. Thieves like him normally were sentenced for the most part to one year or less, because the evidence that police were able to seize was usually just a single cell phone or a few hundred RMB.
He said, how can you steal money from a sick person? I will never do something like that!
Everyone has their own moral baseline. Everyone’s behavior is supported by their value system. “This society is just like this” is the reason many criminals give in defending themselves. That debate left me with such a deep impression. I often think, what is evil?
In the spiritual world of humanity, there lives an abundance of species, thoughts, and doctrines. They compete against each other to entice and dominate “I.” The “I” often struggles between temptations.
Robbery, theft, rape –– at that moment a species exceeds the rationality of normal people and dominates the “I.” Or, they lack the rationality of normal people. Under the control of certain value systems, the self becomes selfish and greedy.
Human nature is good. It won’t do things for evil purposes. To do evil is to be controlled by a certain species. Bad guys are actually sick people. Therefore, a civilized punishment is not “a tooth for a tooth” but is for redemption. In the new civilization, there is no hatred, no matter how much pain history has seen.
All people have a conscience. Therefore, I am always optimistic, believe in human nature, and believe in the power of conscience. Even at the darkest time, the depths of our souls are still sunny. We are made incomparably strong by the power of grace, and we are poised to be a reformed people and create history.
Spring Festival 2017. It was my last New Year there. Every festive season the cell was decorated with balloons and ribbons. It was sad on holidays. We had seven days off, three and a half days were for education, raising the flag, etc., and the rest of the time we played cards, chess, and watched TV. Everyone cared most about the better food: two meals with stir-fried meat dishes, and on the first and fifth day of the New Year, two dumpling meals.
In between holidays, the time was endless. Winter and spring were good times. New Year’s Day, Spring Festival, tomb-sweeping festival, May Day, Dragon Boat Festival, one by one, we looked forward to each. The hardest time was summer, for a long stretch of time, there was no holiday. It was very hot, and people were irritable. Every year, the theme of the three months of summer was “Safe Summer.”
In the bustling world outside, sometimes it was only when the leaves fluttered off the trees and fell onto your head that you would reminded of the arrival of the fall. But in prison, through the narrow window, through the thick bars, you could clearly see the river of time slowly passing by. The crabapples blossomed, bore fruit, their leaves fell, and the snow followed. The crabapples blossomed again.
I remembered the New Year’s Day of 1987, the sound of reading aloud under a kerosene lamp, the snow falling outside the window. I was a teenager and wrote down my dream for life in my diary. It’s been thirty years.
The road is long — the road leading to a free China, a beautiful China.
I’ve become a determined revolutionary. It’s not that I have changed my mind. It’s just that previously I always had illusions about others. It wasn’t that I put my faith in someone; what it was is that I was tempted by life and didn’t want to shoulder responsibility for this ancient people. But having watched CCTV “Evening News” for three years, a voice said: Stop evading your destiny.
One can work anywhere. One can cultivate oneself anywhere. With three busy years, I completed the most important thing in my life. I wrote down more than 200,000 characters by hand, and hand copied it twice. I had finished my mission two months before I was released from prison. I breathed a long sigh of relief.
Carefully, I read The Federalist Papers one more time, and returned it to the library. I reread the Bible, the Koran, and some Buddhist and Taoist books. I pondered the citizens’ movement, the political transformation, and my beautiful China.
North of the Great Wall, south of the Yangtze, the Kunlun mountains, the East China Sea. The sun has risen in the east for 5,000 years. This vast and beautiful land has seen vicissitudes. I am your child, China; suffering and hardship belong to me, so do glory and pride.
An honest, fair, and kind-hearted people will sustain a new civilization. A perfect world under the sun. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China.
Exactly at midnight on July 15, 2017, the warden woke me up in a friendly voice: hurry, get going, go home. I said, what about my notebooks? Earlier I had handed them over for examination. Let’s talk about it at the gate, he said. I was tricked. I went out the main gate and asked for my nine notebooks. They didn’t give them back to me, they didn’t even give me a receipt. I gave up after nearly two hours of impasse. Many friends were waiting for me, and some had to overcome layers of obstacles to get closer to the prison. Thank you all!
I’m back, China.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong, July 2018
 Xu Zhiyong was arrested on July 16, 2013.
 Zhou Bin (周滨) was the son of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a former member of the CCP Standing Committee and the former secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
 A large group of migrant parents and volunteers gathered outside the Beijing Municipal Education Commission on February 28, 2013, petitioning that their children be allowed to take college entrance exams in Beijing where they lived, not back to their hometown where their household registrations was.
 In October, 2005, while visiting the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, Shandong, Xu Zhiyong was beaten up by thugs taking order from the local government.
 Xu Zhiyong spent a semester at Yale Law School in 2004 as a visiting scholar.
 Longchang yi is where the Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucian official and philosopher Wang Yangming was exiled in today’s Guizhou for protesting official corruption.
 This is a variation on Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 13, 2014.
China Change, July 15, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永), leader of the New Citizens Movement, was released from prison on July 15, after serving a 4-year sentence.
Xu Zhiyong’s defense lawyer Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) confirmed that Dr. Xu has returned home in Beijing. He was picked up earlier by the security police, a source said.
Yesterday, scores of citizens traveled to the vicinity of Kenhua Prison in Ninghe District in Tianjin where Xu Zhiyong had been imprisoned since he was sentenced in February 2014. Dr. Xu, 44 years old, is a legal scholar and the founder of Gongmeng, a civil society group that pioneered China’s “rights defense movement” and in recent years campaigned for equal education rights for migrant workers’ children in large cities, and engaged in citizen activism under the banner “Freedom, Justice, and Love.”
The crackdown on the New Citizens Movement began in April 2013. Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013.
Friends who tried to visit Xu this morning were blocked by three plainclothes security agents at the entrance of his residential compound. It’s unclear whether Dr. Xu will be placed under some kind of restriction in his movement and communications — illegal but common practices used by the Chinese government against leading dissidents.
Yesterday, activists who went to the prison to welcome Dr. Xu found that the roads around the prison were closed, allowing only inbound traffic. During the night, police raided the guest rooms of the activists. On the morning of the 15th, police stopped activists approaching the prison, telling them that Xu Zhiyong had been released already.
On July 13, Liu Xiaobo, the founder of China’s political opposition movements and the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, died in custody from liver cancer, marking, some say, the end of an era and with it the hope of a gradual transition to democracy in China.
Dr. Xu is a leader of the younger generation of Chinese activists; he returns, four years later, to a much harsher environment for political opposition.
The China Manifesto – detained activist Xu Zhiyong calls for end to ‘barbaric’ one party rule, The Telegraph, January 23, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part One, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part Two, April 13, 2014.
By Mo Zhixu, April 13, 2016
“When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal….”
On April 8, 2016, after a year and half in detention, two activists arrested in 2014 for holding banners on the streets of Guangzhou in support of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement—Wang Mo (王默) and Xie Wenfei (謝文飛, real name Xie Fengxia 謝豐夏)—were sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. In addition, they will be deprived of political rights for three years. On the same day Zhang Shengyu (張聖雨, real name Zhang Rongping 張榮平), who held a placard in support of the Hong Kong students, was sentenced to four years.
That all three were convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” is no surprise. During the trial last November, Wang Mo and Xie Wenfei not only shouted pro-freedom slogans in court, but their defense statements were upfront, and were disseminated widely online. About them was none of the oft-seen attempts to depoliticize their stance, or hide their positions; instead, each man voiced their ideals openly and directly. In doing that, they represented the ethos of today’s new wave of activists.
Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu all recognize themselves, and are recognized by others, as members of the “Southern Street Movement” (南方街頭運動). This “movement” sprung up in the last few years, and has a distinct character: It contains a thoroughgoing opposition to the political system, promulgating slogans like “abandon one-party dictatorship” and “establish a democratic China.” Further, the Southern Street Movement doesn’t focus on interacting with the regime as a path to change, but instead directly appeals to the people. The movement treats itself as a match, attempting to set ablaze a conflagration of mass protests across the country and thus activating a comprehensive transformation. For all these reasons, the movement is often seen as a radical form of political opposition.
Political opposition movements have always been around in mainland China, despite the ever-present threat of harsh crackdowns by the dictatorship. After 1989, there was the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主黨) in 1992, the secret campaign to organize the Social Democracy Party (社會民主黨), the campaign to openly form the China Democratic Party (中國民主黨) in 1998, the joint signature campaign around Charter 08 in 2008, and so on. All of these movements are deeply tied to the 1989 student movement, and carried on the basic demands of the 1989 student movement: among the chief demands has always been to call for a full re-evaluation of the historical incidents in China—referring to previous political campaigns like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the massacre of students—and to make known the truth of history. The key representatives in this movement had often participated in the student movement and other democratically-inclined protests. Because of all this, these post-89 groups are seen as opposition movements led by elites who rebelled against the system from which they had come.
In contrast, the Southern Street Movement was only in its embryonic stages a few years ago in Guangzhou. Most of its membership was composed of new social classes: entrepreneurs, small business owners, laborers. So the movement came to have about it a genuine grassroots feel, and it demonstrated new mechanisms in which democratic movements can take rise. Specifically, it was the incursion of free markets that augmented the formation of these new social classes—but they found that the fruits of their own innovation were systematically robbed from them, that their basic rights as citizens had been stripped away, and that any attempts to demand their rights or benefits would be met with total suppression.
It was the recognition that they were being systematically deprived of their rights and interests that became fertile soil for a tendency toward opposition among this newly formed population. New social classes empowered by markets are able to readily apprehend that there exists between them and the political system a vast and deep chasm of opposing interests. It’s no accident that the movement sprung from Guangdong, the most fertile ground for the new social classes.
While the 1989 student movement and subsequent political movements were inspired by ideals and historical memory, the Southern Street Movement makes a clear break from that in the guiding ethos of its resistance: it’s a new creature brought about by contemporary circumstances. In an information-rich age, the movement didn’t have a design; instead it learned from many popular civil society movements over the last decade or so. Like other movements that sprung up around the same time, such as the New Citizens Movement (新公民運動), the Southern activists would hold periodic events like “criminal feasts” (飯醉; the Chinese term literally means “eat and drink” but is a homophone for “commit a crime”), or organize flash mobs, or get on Twitter and QQ groups to transmit their message to the people. Clearly, in the face of a “stability maintenance” system that becomes more harsh by the day, the Southern activists’ stance and mobilization tactics were bound to meet with suppression. And this is precisely what has happened: it was attacked from the very beginning, and the brutal clean-up operations against Southern members continues to this day.
Due to the zero-tolerance policy toward dissent by the authorities, most people have never even heard of political opposition, whether it’s the Southern Street Movement or otherwise. Meanwhile, its stance of total opposition to the government, and plans for thorough political transformation, actually differ quite significantly from mainstream liberal thought.
What the mainstream liberals really hope for is that liberal developments take place from within the system, to arrive at a gradual transformation via a kind of dialogue with the regime. Thus, they’re more apt to recognize and support the more restrained and gradualist agenda of the New Citizens Movement, and not the radical approach of the Southern Street Movement. For all this, since the birth of the Southern movement till today, it has not only needed to face down attacks by the regime but also survive in the absence of any support from mainstream liberals. It’s been a lonely struggle all along. Wang Mo and others have engaged in lengthy disputes with liberals on Weibo about this.
Though the Southern activists like to see themselves as a match that lights a fire, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that, in the face of a neo-totalitarian system that is strengthening its power by the day, this agenda is too simplistic. The regime has ample resources and means of identifying and weeding out activists. On the eve of the recent court judgement, for instance, due to suspicions that there would be protests on the day, Guangzhou police mounted a sudden raid on over a dozen activists while they while were eating dinner together. They were all given a criminal summons and several of them were forcibly escorted back to the place of their household registration.
Just as the New Citizens Movement went quiet after being hit with an intense and rapid succession of crushing blows in 2013, the Southern movement will likely also be forced to give in as the Party’s continuous siege drags on. Nevertheless, the conflicts and antagonisms between the marketized neo-totalitarian system and the people are only escalating, and one match could very well spark a blaze. The sacrifices of the Southern activists may come to nil, but they can’t be said to be mistaken.
When the Southern activists stood amidst heavy traffic and photographed themselves holding placards of protest, the feeling it gives is a little surreal: one struggles to understand how those strolling past maintain their indifference, or how the action fails to gain more support and attention online. It invites curiosity, and makes one wonder how grassroots activists like Xie Wenfei, Wang Mo, and Zhang Shengyu, maintain such firm conviction, such extraordinary courage, to not only resist blows from the dictatorship, but also withstand glaring indifference.
Perhaps this is inseparable from their own experiences: their deep recognition that their opposition to the unfairness of the system is right and correct, and that the goals they pursue are legitimate and indisputable. All this is what sustains them and allows these lonely warriors to light up our age.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
Guangzhou Activists Sentenced to Jail After Backing Hong Kong Protests, the New York Times, April 8, 2016.
Grassroots Activist Tells Court: I Committed No Crime Trying to Subvert the Communist Regime, Wang Mo, November 22, 2015.
The Southern Street Movement, China Change, October, 2013.
China activists push limits, protest dictatorship, AFP, December, 2013.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
By Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, published: August 19, 2015
The Chinese government has lately carried out a massive campaign to arrest, summon, and threaten Chinese lawyers. The propaganda machine has followed in lock-step, operating at full strength to tarnish these lawyers’ reputations by describing them as a “criminal gang,” “hooligans,” and “scum of the lawyer community” (here, here, and here).
Rights lawyers first emerged in the 2000s at the onset of a Chinese rights-defense movement. For more than a decade, they have fought courageously for legal justice and been on the front lines of promoting rule of law in China by taking part in innumerable cases of all sizes dealing with some of the most important problems in Chinese political and social life, such as social justice, free expression, religious freedom, food safety, property rights, economic charges, political rights, power abuses, wrongful convictions, and the rights of ethnic minorities and disabled people.
Some of them call themselves “die-hard lawyers.” Lawyer Si Weijiang explains (Chinese) that the “die-hard lawyer” are no different from ordinary criminal defense lawyers, except that they’re particularly persistent about procedures and refuse to play by any of the “hidden rules” of the Chinese legal system.
Though more and more lawyers have begun to join the fight for justice and their numbers have grown from just a handful to (according to some estimates) over a thousand, rights lawyers remain a tiny minority among China’s 270,000 practicing lawyers. But in contrast to the distorted and insulting way the propagandists present them, to a great degree they are the only true lawyers in China.
For their efforts, they have been subjected to all sorts of attacks from the authorities, including having their licenses revoked, physical threats, being summoned for questioning, imprisonment, and torture. Despite all of this, more than 200 individuals—many of them rights lawyers themselves and members of the legal community—have refused to be intimidated and have recently signed a statement (Chinese) of protest, accusing China’s Ministry of Public Security of carrying out an illegal and abusive act against rights lawyers.
We have selected 14 cases from the past dozen years that represent and exemplify the rights-defense movement, our goal being to answer a question that many of our readers might ask: “What kinds of cases do rights-defense lawyers handle?”
In China’s legal environment, the efforts of rights-defense lawyers often end in failure. In the eyes of the authorities, however, these Sisyphean efforts clearly represent a kind of defiance. Examining the cases that rights lawyers have taken on over the years helps us understand the origins and logic of the fierce repression they are experiencing under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.
Sun Zhigang Case (Custody and Repatriation)
In 2003, a recent university graduate from Hubei named Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) found a job in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong (广州广东). As he had only recently arrived, he had yet to obtain a temporary residence permit. On March 17, police apprehended him in the street on suspicion of being an “illegal migrant” and sent him to a “custody and repatriation” center, used to hold people unable to produce an ID card, temporary residence permit, and work permit together. Three days later, Sun Zhigang was brutally beaten to death by guards and other inmates while he was being held in a medical clinic affiliated with the center. News of his death rocked China after it was reported in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily.
In May, three young legal scholars named Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) submitted a recommendation to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, pointing to the restriction of citizens’ personal freedom under custody and repatriation as a violation of the constitution and requesting that the regulations governing the measure be changed or abolished. In June, the State Council announced that the Custody and Repatriation Measures would be abolished. At the same time, those who took part in the beating of Sun Zhigang were tried and convicted.
Xu Zhiyong also provided defense for Yu Huafeng (喻华峰), the general manager of the Southern Metropolis Daily who was retaliated for his paper’s investigation of the Sun Zhigang story and the SARS story.
Many at that time believed that Sun Zhigang’s death would “bring about the birth of a system of constitutional review (Chinese) long-hoped-for by Chinese people.” The “successful rights defense” of the three young legal scholars was praised as a milestone in China’s legal history, and the incident filled Chinese intellectuals with hope about the development of rule of law in China.
Educational Equality Movement (Household Registration System)
After the “Sun Zhigang Affair,” the three young legal scholars and their friends established a public-interest civil society organization called “Gongmeng” (also known as “Open Constitution Initiative”). Consisted mostly of lawyers, Gongmeng worked to provide legal aid in cases involving social injustice. After Gongmeng experienced many years of repression, it evolved into the “New Citizen Movement.” One of the movement’s initiatives concerned the fight to provide the children of China’s migrant population with equal rights to education by ending the segregation of those with rural household registration and the discrimination and injustice associated with that status. The education equality movement called for the children of migrant workers to have the right to take the university entrance examination in the cities where their parents had come to work, instead of forcing those children to leave their parents and return to their places of household registration in order to take the exams. Xu Zhiyong organized many signature and petition campaigns in support of this cause.
The education equality movement achieved limited success in provincial cities throughout China, but Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013 and sentenced the following January to four years in prison for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Lawyer Ding Jiaxi, another important participant in the New Citizen Movement, was also sentenced to 3½ years’ imprisonment in 2014.
Sun Dawu Case (Economic Reform)
Sun Dawu is a well-known private entrepreneur from Hebei Province and chairman of the Dawu Group, a producer of agricultural and pastoral products. Unable for many years to borrow money from state-owned banks, the Dawu Group turned to its employees, friends and relatives, and local residents to raise capital—a method commonly used by private businesses in China.
In May 2003, Sun Dawu was arrested on charges of “illegally taking public funds.” After he received near-unanimous support from public opinion and experts, Sun was given a suspended sentence and released. Sun’s defense counsel Xu Zhiyong considered this to be the “most ideal resolution” (Chinese) in a country where a court cannot admit that it shouldn’t have tried the case in the first place. Xu Zhiyong later wrote that he had hoped to “use Sun Dawu’s case to promote market reforms in China and improve the environment in which private enterprise can exist and grow.”
Four years later, in March 2007, a wealthy young woman entrepreneur from Zhejiang named Wu Ying (吴英) was arrested by the authorities for “illegally taking public funds.” Wu Ying’s fate was starkly different from that of Sun Dawu, however, as the Zhejiang High People’s Court eventually sentenced her in 2012 to death, suspended for two years, for the crime of “fraudulent fundraising.”
After the mass arrest of lawyers on July 10, Sun Dawu wrote to express his support for rights lawyers: “Corrupt officials and people with special privileges don’t believe in the law and won’t care one bit whether or not there are lawyers. But ordinary people want their society to be well ordered. In the past, when they had an economic dispute, a divorce, or were involved in some criminal violation, they might have gone looking for connections or someone powerful to protect them. Now, the first thing people will think of is getting help from a lawyer.”
Taishi Village Recall Case (Anti-Corruption, grassroots democracy)
In 2005, residents of Taishi (太石村), a village in Panyu District, Guangzhou (广州番禺), formally requested to recall the village head because of dissatisfaction over graft and corruption by members of the village committee. The Panyu government mobilized several hundred police officers to suppress the recall campaign, beating many participants and arresting several of their leaders.
As the situation in Taishi became more serious, it attracted widespread attention and intervention by rights-defense activists, lawyers, scholars, and media organizations from both inside and outside China. The Guangzhou-based lawyers Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Yan (郭艳) were sought out to take on the case by village residents and rights activist Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄). Lawyers Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Zhang Xingshui (张星水), Teng Biao (滕彪), Li Heping (李和平), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) were among those who formed the “Taishi Village Legal Advisory Group” to provide support to this case.
The recall campaign ended in failure, but this case gave further momentum to the rights-defense movement. As Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) wrote: “The Taishi Incident is not only a striking indicator of how far local democracy in China has come; it is also an incident in which ordinary people have again paid a price and one that will certainly be inscribed in the history of progress toward grassroots democracy in China.”
The lawyers who took part in the Taishi Village case went on to become core figures in the rights-defense movement for many years. Tang Jingling, Li Heping, Xu Zhiyong, and Pu Zhiqiang are all behind bars today. Though Gao Zhisheng has been released from prison, he has not yet regained his freedom.
Guo Feixiong, one of the pioneers of the rights defense movement and the central figure in the Taishi Village case, is also behind the bars today. Lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青), who represented Guo, is among the lawyers detained on July 10th.
Linyi Violent Family Planning Case (One-Child Policy)
Coercion and violence have always been part of the implementation of China’s “one-child” birth control policy. In 2005, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) began investigating the “birth control campaign” being carried out in Linyi, Shandong (山东临沂), where the authorities made widespread use of detention and beatings, carried out forced tubal ligation and abortion, imprisoned families that had “too many children,” tore down houses, and forced people to attend and pay for “study classes.” In addition to helping victims defend their rights, Chen Guangcheng invited several lawyers from Beijing—including Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富), Li Heping, and Teng Biao—to go to Linyi to carry out on-the-ground investigations and provide legal aid.
Beginning in August 2005, Chen Guangcheng and his wife were put under residential surveillance and subjected to numerous beatings. Not long afterward, a local court sentenced Chen to four years and three months in prison for “intentional destruction of property” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic.”
After Chen Guangcheng was released from prison in September 2010, he was once again put under house arrest. This led to a nationwide campaign to “Free Chen Guangcheng.” In April 2012, Chen escaped his village of Dongshigu. After hiding out in the US Embassy, he went into exile in the United States.
Melamine Milk Powder Case (Food Safety)
In September 2008, Beijing resident Zhao Lianhai (赵连海) discovered that his infant son had a 2mm stone in his right kidney. Upon further investigation, he found that companies were mixing the industrial chemical melamine in their milk powder in order to give the appearance of having higher levels of protein. He established a website called “Home for Kidney-Stone Babies,” which he used to investigate, report on, and exchange information about poisoned dairy products and to call on victims of melamine milk-powder poisoning to join together in a lawsuit to defend their rights. 300,000 infants were found to suffer from urinary-system diseases after consuming melamine-laced milk powder. At least six children died as a result.
In November 2009, Zhao Lianhai was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of “provoking a serious disturbance.” Li Fangping (李方平) acted as his lawyer. One year later, Zhao was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
Between 2008 and 2011, Peng Jian (彭剑), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Li Fangping (李方平), and more than 100 other public interest lawyers sued the Sanlu Group in the Supreme People’s Court and hundreds of local courts—including in Hong Kong—to seek compensation for the victims and their families. More than 200 poisoned babies got justice beyond the official plan for state compensation, with the highest amount of compensation awarded to an individual reaching 350,000 yuan.
Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), one of the lawyers who took part in the lawsuit against the Sanlu Group, is one of the lawyers detained on July 10, while Li Fangping is one of the 269 lawyers called in for questioning and threatened since that date.
Tan Zuoren Case (Political Persecution)
Tan Zuoren (谭作人) is a writer and editor from Sichuan. After the Wenchuan Earthquake (汶川) in 2008, he called on civil society to investigate the construction quality of schools that had collapsed during the earthquake and set up a database collecting information about the thousands of students who lost their lives in the school collapses. In March 2009, Tan was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion.”
After the court handed down a five-year sentence against Tan Zuoren in February 2010, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) excused himself. Standing in the hallway outside the men’s room, Tan’s wife heard him bawl like a child. Pu said: “This was a political trial, decided on the basis of political factors.”
Even though Tan Zuoren has now been released from prison, Pu Zhiqiang is unfortunately behind bars in what is commonly believed to be retaliation by the authorities against his history of advocacy in rights-defense cases. Another one of Tan Zuoren’s defense lawyers, Xia Lin, has also been jailed for defending civil society leader Guo Yushan (郭玉闪).
Tang Hui Case (Re-Education Through Labor)
Re-education through labor (also known as laojiao) was a system of administrative punishment in which public security organs could directly sentence offenders to up to four years of imprisonment and compulsory labor without trial by a court. Tens of thousands Chinese were sent to laojiao after it was set up in 1957, and over the years the number of ridiculous grounds for which people were sent to laojiao grew too numerous to mention—for example, playing mahjong, cursing officials, or posting items online. Laojiao camps were rife with various human rights violations, and those sent to laojiao were forced to work overtime and were frequently abused and beaten.
In October 2006, a 10-year-old girl who came to be known as “Lele” was abducted from nearby her home in Yongzhou, Hunan (湖南永州). She was put to work in a nearby brothel and raped by numerous men before being found by family members nearly three months later. Lele’s mother, Tang Hui (唐慧), went to the police to demand a criminal investigation, but her demands led nowhere. This led her to begin petitioning.
In August 2012, the Yongzhou Public Security Bureau sentenced Tang Hui to laojiao for 18 months on charges of “disturbing social order.” When Tang Hui requested an administrative review by the Hunan Laojiao Committee, that committee annulled the original laojiao decision and released Tang Hui after less than two weeks. In January 2013, Tang Hui and her legal team including Pu Zhiqiang applied for state compensation from the Yongzhou Laojiao Committee. A court eventually awarded her compensation in the amount of 2941 yuan.
Public calls for the abolition of laojiao had been growing over recent years, and those calls reached their high point around the time of the Tang Hui case. At the end of 2013, the NPC Standing Committee announced that laojiao would be abolished. Lawyers handling Tang Hui’s case—Si Weijiang (斯伟江), Xu Liping (徐利平), Hu Yihua (胡益华), and Pu Zhiqiang (who handled several other cases involving laojiao)—have been credited with making major contributions toward the ultimate elimination of laojiao.
Xia Junfeng Case (Violence by Urban Enforcement Officers)
One day in May 2009, a Shenyang street vendor named Xi Junfeng (夏俊峰) and his wife were selling barbecued meat skewers on the street when they were accosted by around a dozen members of the local urban enforcement squad (or chengguan)—a para-police organization set up in Chinese cities to enforce urban planning regulations and maintain order. An argument ensued, and officers began beating Xia, who was then taken to the local chengguan office. There, he was subjected to further beatings by two officers. As the beating was going on, Xia pulled out a knife he carried to slice sausages and fatally stabbed two officers and wounded another in the course of trying to escape. During the trial, the court refused to accept the testimony of six witnesses who saw the officers beat Xia Junfeng in the street and only accepted testimony from other chengguan officers. In September 2013, Xia Junfeng was executed for intentional homicide.
Teng Biao, who represented Xia Junfeng in his appeal trial, said: “The decision in this case is intended to send a message: namely, that no defiance of the government will be tolerated—even when that defiance is directed at local law-enforcement personnel.”
The afternoon that Xia Junfeng was executed, 25 Chinese lawyers issued a joint statement (Chinese) protesting the execution and demanding that the Supreme People’s Court release its written decision confirming the death sentence. They also demanded that the Supreme People’s Court reform its process of reviewing death sentences by doing away with the secrecy surrounding that process and implementing the principle of judicial openness.
Nian Bin Case and the Leping Case (Wrongful Convictions)
In July 2006, several members of two households were poisoned in Pingtan County, Fujian (福建平潭), leading to the deaths of two children. Local police investigators established that someone had poisoned the families with rat poison and identified neighbor Nian Bin (念斌) as the chief suspect.
Nian was arrested by police and subjected to severe torture in an effort to secure a confession. His hands and feet were bound, books were tied around his ribs while police beat him with a hammer, and slivers of bamboo were placed in the spaces between his ribs. In the process of handling the case, police also fabricated test results showing that the deaths were caused by rat poison, revised the timeline of the crime, and concealed crucial witness testimony.
Nian Bin was forced to endure numerous trials and was sentenced to death four separate times, with Nian appealing the verdict each time. On August 22, 2014, the Fujian High People’s Court issued a final verdict in the “Nian Bin Poisoning Case,” proclaiming Nian innocent of all charges and releasing him from custody. The victory in the Nian Bin case was the product of many years of perseverance by a group of Chinese lawyers who sought justice in his case, including Si Weijiang, Zhang Yansheng (张燕生), Li Xiaolin (李肖霖), Zhang Lei (张磊) and Gongxun Xue (公孙雪).
The “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case” on the other hand was connected to a robbery, rape, and dismemberment case that occurred in Leping, Jiangxi (江西乐平), in 2000. In May 2002, police arrested Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强) and three other suspects. The four men were forced to confess under torture and sentenced to suspended death sentence, and they remain imprisoned to this day.
However, as early as November 2011, the suspect in another case confessed responsibility in the Leping case. Lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯) joined together to prepare a petition requesting that the case be retried, but the Jiangxi High Court refused their lawful request to review files in the case. In May of this year, they carried out a sit-in protest together with victims’ family members outside the Jiangxi High Court. Wu Gan (吴淦), an activist taking part in the protest, was arrested in May. Among the lawyers recently arrested or summoned, Zhang Weiyu of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所) was briefly detained, while Zhang Kai was summoned for questioning and given a warning.
Jiansanjiang Case (Religious Freedom, Falun Gong)
In March 2014, rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) went to Heilongjiang to provide legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners who were being held illegally in a so-called “legal education base”—really a “black jail”—at Qinglongshan State Farm. The next day, the four lawyers were taken away by local public security officers and placed under administrative detention for “using a cult to endanger society.” During their detention, the lawyers were brutally beaten. After news spread of their detention, other lawyers and ordinary people from throughout the country went to Jiansanjiang to show their support, many of them also ending up subject to detention and abuse.
At the end of April, the Heilongjiang General Administration for Agricultural Reclamation disbanded its “legal education bases.” Lawyer Li Fangping remarked (Chinese): “This outcome was achieved through rights defense lawyers putting their own bodies on the line in protest.”
In China, it is extremely dangerous to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Gao Zhisheng, who was the first lawyer to investigate the persecution of Falun Gong, was punished with nine long years of torture and imprisonment between 2005 and 2014. After being released from prison on August 7, 2014, he remains under “soft detention” at a relative’s home in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and is unable to be reunited with his family in the United States.
In addition to Gao Zhisheng, other well-known rights defense lawyers who have defended Falun Gong practitioners include Wang Yu (王宇), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Jiang Tianyong, Mo Shaoping (莫少平), Li Heping, and Shang Baojun (尚宝军). These lawyers not only understand that they have no chance of winning these cases—they are also clear that their defense of Falun Gong cases has the potential to bring them huge risks and even personal harm. There have been instances of licenses being revoked and lawyers being subjected to surveillance, detention, home raids, and beatings for defending Falun Gong practitioners’ religious freedom.
Ilham Tohti Case (Free Expression)
Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提) was an economics professor at Minzu University of China (formerly known as Central University for Nationalities). In the 1990s, he started using his writings and lectures to criticize and make recommendations regarding the central government’s policies toward ethnic minority groups. For this, the authorities punished him by barring him from publishing and suspending him from teaching.
In 2006, Ilham Tohti established a website called Uyghur Online, which disseminated news and provided a platform for peaceful Uyghur-Han interaction. The website was frequently attacked by hackers and was finally forced to shut down in 2009.
After the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Ilham Tohti was subjected to much harsher treatment in Beijing, including short-term detentions, house arrest, verbal and physical abuse, and being barred from traveling abroad. He was arrested in January 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment that September for the crime of “separatism.” Many foreign governments, human rights groups, and international organizations have issued statements strongly protesting and condemning the verdict against Ilham Tohti.
Rights lawyers Li Fangping and Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原) served as defense counsel for Ilham Tohti, preparing a meticulous analysis of the charges against him and pointing out all of the various procedural violations during the trial. After the trial had concluded, the two defense lawyers pointed out on WeChat that the Xinhua News Service reporting on the trial contained many factual errors and concealed other facts and that it was a serious violation of the law for the court to allow the media to reveal evidence from the case files before Ilham Tohti had had a chance to appeal. Wang Yu (王宇) also previously took part in the Ilham Tohti case.
Fan Mugen Case (Resistance to Forced Evictions)
Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) was forced to go into hiding when he couldn’t bear the violence of the gangs carrying out forced evictions in his neighborhood. He returned to his home in Yanshan Village, Tong’an Town, Suzhou (苏州通安镇严山村), after 6 a.m. on December 2, 2013. Early the next
morning, a gang of around 14 or 15 men charged into Fan Mugen’s home brandishing steel clubs. Fan Mugen, his wife, and their son were all injured in the attack. Fan Mugen defended his family with a knife, fatally wounding two of the most violent attackers.
Lawyers Wang Yu (王宇), Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Guo Haiyue (郭海跃), Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), and Lü Zhoubin (吕州宾) all got involved in the case on behalf of Fan’s defense. Several dozen rights-defense lawyers and public intellectuals have taken part in efforts to support Fan Mugen, including holding seminars, filing requests to disclose official information, submitting written allegations of wrongdoing to state judicial bodies, and organizing a legal support team. Fan Mugen’s trial was held in February 2015, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison on May 8.
Fan Mugen and his family members were preparing to appeal when their lawyer Wang Yu was thrown in jail. Wang was the first lawyer to “disappear” during the sweeping arrest of lawyers on July 10. The only female lawyer among the detained lawyers, she is currently held under “residential surveillance at a designated place” and has been denied of access to lawyers for having “endangered the state security.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website; Yaqiu Wang researches and writes about human rights in China.
Posts on the recent arrest of rights lawyers on ChinaChange.org:
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, by Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, by Matthew Robertson and Yaxue Cao, July 27, 2015.
Getting Rid of Lawyers Is the Start of Fascism, by Zhai Minglei, July 27, 2015.
What Can You Do in the Face of Terror – A Chinese Entrepreneur Responds to Arrest of Rights Lawyers, by Sun Dawu, July 24, 2015.
What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’, by Yaqiu Wang, August 2, 2015.
A Letter of Protest Against China’s Arrest of Rights Lawyers, to be read at a rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and then formally delivered, by multiple groups in DC area, August 12, 2015.
Wu Gan the Butcher, by Yaqiu Wang, July 22, 2015.
Tackling a Wall of Lies – Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese Human Rights Lawyer, by Abertine Ren, September 14, 2014.
The Court Statement by Guo Feixiong
Translated by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, published: November 28, 2014
According to the defense lawyers, the trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng was forced by the court to conclude at Beijing time 2:50 am, November 29, in Tianhe Court, Guangzhou. Despite repeated interruptions by the head judge and denial of his right to make a closing statement, Guo Feixiong defended himself forcefully and eloquently. China Change is pleased to present his court statement in full in English. – The Editor
1984, Orwell’s masterpiece about totalitarianism that could have been a blow-by-blow script for the People’s Republic of China, also happens to be the year that launched my personal journey as part of China’s movement for freedom and democracy.
That year, on a blustery, chilly night, in a café on the campus of East China Normal University (華東師範大學) in Shanghai, I had the good fortune to hear an old man speak. The lines of his face were as rugged as if hewn by a blade, and his short, thin frame was almost entirely muffled in a gray trench coat. In sharp Mandarin with a southern Chinese accent, he was criticizing Deng Xiaoping, then the top leader in China, for being a dinosaur, for stifling thought, and for suppressing the creative freedom of writers at the slightest provocation. I had arrived in Shanghai from a remote part of Hubei Province less than three months before. This venerable old man was Wang Ruowang (王若望), and this was the first time I ever saw anyone lambaste the supreme leader by name in public. The impact on me runs so deep I cannot describe it.
Shanghai in that era was experiencing an “Indian Summer” of unprecedented freedom for the expression of liberal ideas. Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), an enlightened politician, had reversed a political pendulum that had swung to the extreme left and had declared at the Fourth Congress of the All-China Writers’ Association that the Communist Party would no longer interfere with creative freedom. Liberal-minded professors, intellectuals and writers were full of impassioned thoughts and words on politics and philosophy. In seminars, academic conferences, salons and cafés, they called for free thought and political reform. It was as if an invisible hand was guiding them to vie with one another to show who could bring more novelty and depth to the introduction of modern culture and thought and who dared most to give voice to the need to oppose dictatorship and fight for democracy. Wang Ruowang was one of the boldest of the free-thinking writers.
To be honest, these sowers of freedom, and their peers all around China, may not have been as expert in their academic disciplines as they ought to have been. Yet the way they wrote and acted was reminiscent of the dauntless and passionate thought of the French Enlightenment. Theirs was the idealism, innocence and simplicity that characterizes the original human spirit and that set the tone for the democrats who followed them. I personally owe my awakening to this Indian Summer in China. I gained much from the bold, open and diverse views that were expressed. As a student of philosophy, I drew from the theoretical riches of the Chinese and Western classics; my character and political tendencies are entirely a product of the free spirit of the 1980s.
I heard Mr. Wang’s speech at a time when I was wending my way through a variety of political discussions and seminars. From the sidelines, I watched a soccer-fan riot, strikes at dining halls, and other outbreaks of the restless young. Those were years when people found the confines of their post-totalitarian life increasingly unbearable. An impulse for direct action grew among the students and finally exploded in the student protests of December, 1986. Shanghai was at the center of those protests.
The demonstrations of December 22, 1986, marked the first time I joined an independently organized and high-risk democracy movement. I clearly recall the nerve-wracking moment when a few of us, banner in hand, suddenly faced several thousand young workers who rushed forward, with thumping strides, to join us. Such a public assembly would have been high treason in earlier times.
I was already teaching at a college in Wuhan (武漢) when immense waves of protest in spring, 1989 inundated China. I acted out of my sense of duty as an intellectual that year, just as I had in 1986. In the years that followed, I returned several times to Wuhan and would linger at sites where I had spoken in public. Sometimes particularly dangerous moments came back to me. I recalled a time when, rallying to a student’s sudden yell of “Charge!” (a vestige of the military propaganda films we had grown up with), hundreds or even thousands broke into a run. In an incredible, surreal moment, the bridge over the Yangtze River began to sway under our feet and twist like a snake. Deep inside I understood that my life was inexorably tied to the era of Tiananmen.
The massacre of students and other young people in Beijing who were protesting peacefully on the Boulevard of Everlasting Peace (長安街) on June 4, 1989, was one of the most grotesque events in human history. It cleaved Chinese society irreconcilably from its government. At that moment I decided never to compromise with the autocrats who had slaughtered innocent citizens and to throw myself into the work of bringing freedom and democracy to China to the full extent of my abilities and of the will of heaven.
Censorship and draconian social control prevented people from learning until much later how, from that darkest moment onward, many intrepid souls, each on his own island, began as if by agreement to explore and build an opposition movement. Within the next decade or so, my generation of activists tried a number of peaceful tactics of resistance, like the mythical Chinese emperor who tasted every herb for the first time and unlocked the secret of medicine. In the late 1990s, liberalism as a system of political thought seeped deeper into China, and after that the thinking of democrats reached maturity.
As the millennium dawned, the Internet, out of the blue, came in to connect the long-isolated activists to one another. From 2003 to 2005, constitutionalist liberals founded the “rights defense” movement, which provided for China’s political opposition a highly original, homegrown and ineradicable path on which to grow and expand.
On January 28, 2005, Fan Yafeng (範亞峰) and I joined several others in attending the farewell ceremony in honor of the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who had been ousted and held under house arrest until his death because of his support for the 1989 protesters. Hugging a large photo of Mr. Zhao to my chest, I left the ceremony with a heavy heart. A throng of policemen was on the other side of the street. I turned back toward the funeral home and asked Fan how many people he thought had been there. After a pause, he answered that it looked like at least two or three thousand.
Fan and I had been meeting with others on how to promote effective connections within civil society. We noticed one major difference from the 1980s: the commemorations of the reformist politician Hu Yaobang in 1989 had been open and legal, but in order to attend Mr. Zhao’s funeral, people had to register using their government-issued IDs as police looked on. The uncertainty of such exposure, like the sword of Damocles, kept many people away. Still, several thousand people braved the odds to attend. To us, this proved that moral courage was returning everywhere, and we had new hope for the future of the democracy movement. Responding to this subtle political signal, we decided to take a series of steps to try to push the movement to a new stage.
Within half a year, an unprecedented number of groups were formed for political and legal action. This development showed the spiritual ties between the Tiananmen protests and the new rights-defense movement. Activists drew their strength from their shared tie with the towering figure, Hu Yaobang, who died with his character unsullied by betrayal.
We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open. We kept no secrets. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village (太石) residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and support from society at large. As participation grew, hunger strikes emerged. With the help of courageous human rights lawyers, citizens at the grassroots fought back, drawing attention to wrongs they had suffered and using political means that not long before had been unthinkable. The tide of this movement brought the political opposition back from the margins, making it once again central to the spiritual life of civil society. Terrified, the post-totalitarian machine sprang into action, and crackdown followed.
As a founder of this movement as well as one of its foot soldiers, I came into the line of fire several times. From April, 2005, until now, I have been criminally detained four times and jailed three times, for a total of five years. I was taken to six detention centers, evenly split among the provincial, municipal and district levels. The police have interrogated me more than two hundred times, which is probably some sort of record. Sometimes they had other prisoners carry me, more than once a day, and faint from hunger striking, on a stretcher to a room where they tied me to an iron chair. My five hunger strikes lasted 3, 59, 24, 75, and 25 days respectively, for a total of 186 days.
My extreme fasting struck a chord within the liberal camp and set a sort of example for the relay hunger strikes in 2006. One friend, though, a secular humanist, told me that he did not understand what I was doing. “We who believe in liberal democracy call for humanism and rational self-interest,” he said, “but you are always starving and putting yourself through the wringer. This seems shaky on humanitarian grounds and in any case cannot accomplish much.”
I did not want to resort to high-sounding principles so never formally responded to his criticism. Over time, I stopped keeping diaries of my strikes, writing memoirs, or publicly encouraging others to fast. But when occasions arose, I still did strikes on my own.
Why? Why fast and insist on fasting? My answer has always been the same: a hunger strike is not only a strong voice of protest against political persecution in a totalitarian system, but also address of the highest ideals that reside within myself – the ideals that I am serious about what I am doing and am loyal to the cause of freedom and democracy. Fasting keeps my mind free from the danger of taint.
The prototype for hunger strikes is the self-mortification of monks, who challenge the physical limits of the human body in order to pursue ideals. Like theirs, my fasting is safe and under control. Its process is dignified. After my first hunger strike, I was struck by how dazzling white the walls around me were, which I had until then looked at but never saw. It was then that I understood the inner purity of true believers. Suddenly I, who had been enmeshed in the pettiness of daily life, had the chance to cast it off and seek that purity. The clarity that protracted physical deprivation brought to me gradually helped to purge me and to help me reach an inner purity.
The system of free democracy that we aspire to transcends our personal destinies of success and failure. This is the sacred nature of this earth, which transcends the earth and rules it at the same time. The price that I pay to immerse my life in this movement is worth it. Perhaps not always, of course – and yet each fasting brings an experience of sustained euphoria, when I feel how truly fortunate I am to be sharing or projecting the spirit within me. Its bright image provides ultimate and pure joy. In our transient and prosaic life, what can eternity mean? Eternity is just such moments.
I never urged other people to join any of my longer hunger strikes. The rule for the 2006 relay hunger strike was that each person fasts no longer than 48 hours. This was not because I believe fasting to be against human nature. It is not. It is a powerful means of peaceful resistance, a show of inner strength for democrats, and a testimony to responsible suffering. It contains an idealism that is inherent in humanity and natural law and that is implicit in individual freedom, autonomy and the sovereignty of the people.
Our generation faces ubiquitous political terror imposed by a regime that has a rare record of brutality. This is why we need to draw upon the ideals that lie within each of us in forceful and disciplined ways. This is rational self-interest. Democracy is not opposed to passions, self-interest, and materialism; it is about accommodating such things and setting rules for them. The democracy movement is there to awaken our awareness and agency as free human beings and citizens. My hunger strikes are my homework as a prisoner. They purify and motivate me. I cherish this personal experience and its political ideals.
When faced with interminable interrogation by police and secret police, I provide almost no information. Because I keep silence and refuse to cooperate, my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling things like “You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is the real SOB here – you or the Party!” Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few “standard bearers,” as they put it, to accept parole. Later generations might find it hard to imagine that in 2007 an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.
For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an “illegal business operation.” I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear. The next morning, in fury and pain, I threw myself headlong toward the window and then the wall. Death was to be my protest. I survived, fortunately, but after Chinese New Year, the taser shocks resumed.
Through all of this, including the torture, I held to two principles; don’t abandon ideals and don’t betray anyone. Eventually, my interrogators were impressed and relented somewhat. Put to draconian tests, treatment hardly in keeping with peacetime, I stuck with precepts I had learned in childhood. I can smile and tell others and myself that my behavior under duress was consistent with being a human being. I have not wronged others. That is enough. I have lived.
It has been said that it is easier to go to your death in a surge of courage than to submit to a sacrifice that is slow and drawn out. In fact, sacrifice is not the hardest thing there is. After your eyes close and your body is destroyed, your spirit can endure forever. The endless physical and mental agony imposed by unbridled violence, which leaves you drained of life and denies you the relief of death, may be harder to guard against than the choice of self-sacrifice.
I do not use my personal choices as benchmarks in the judgment of others. People who compromise temporarily under pressure and return to the path of righteousness later have my wholehearted respect. Even those who break down and capitulate should not be judged harshly. The horrors of my experience have made me more tolerant and understanding of the hard choices that everyone confronts. Only when we offer our understanding and support can victims recover their mental health and dignity. We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule.
In 2007, the security apparatus gave up on interrogating me and sentenced me to five years in prison. I had thwarted their aim. However weak my pushback, it stuck in their craw. Meanwhile, for democrats generally, it was a flourishing time. Hu Jia was struggling against the tide, Gao Zhisheng’s human rights work was showing tremendous courage, and Zhang Zuhua and Liu Xiaobo were mobilizing intellectuals to give voice to constitutional reform. Both Hu and Liu received prestigious prizes from the international community. Since then, China’s multipolar opposition movement has come back stronger after each crackdown, and this fact is deeply unsettling to the rulers. I would like to think that the resultant “butterfly effect” contains a few flappings of my own wings.
Today, with the exception of Wang Gongquan (王功權) – an activist in the New Citizens movement (新公民運動) who is known as “the conscience of the business world” – and the Three Heroes of Chibi – Huang Wenxun (黃文勳), Yuan Xiaohua (袁小華) and Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), who have to date been detained for fifteen months without due process or indictment – the honor of imprisonment is no longer so hard to attain. Dozens of democrats have won it in smooth processes that include few surprises.
The mental and physical tortures that are used to extort confessions, grotesque and fantastic in their variety, are on the wane. Even though the practice persists, the brutal powers that we contend with must feel a bit of shame over their vicious acts. Our dream, passed from generation to generation among activists, to see “the prisons overloaded with conscientious objectors,” is nearing realization. Our faith is that totalitarianism, which negates so completely the humanity in its minions, will one day be driven from the earth.
During my challenge to the government and the tumult of my arrest and imprisonment, my wife and children have suffered the most. On the morning of March 10, 2006, when Taishi village residents were running for People’s Congress, my wife was stopped by secret police on her way out to buy groceries. When I went out to reason with the agents, they beat me up and left me with a bloody face. When I took my ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to buy books, several secret agents took turns taking photos and videos of them on the bus. They did this obtrusively, making an intimidating show for other passengers to observe.
My daughter, older than her brother, came to know fear. One day, when the four of us went out for our regular morning exercise in a small nearby park, six or seven agents followed on our heels, speaking loudly in Cantonese. My daughter kept turning her head to watch them, her little face terrified. She whispered to me, “Daddy, this is all your fault! Your fault!”
I felt too pained to say anything. Over the last eight years, this scene has played over and over again in my mind.
In the spring of 2007, Guangdong security agents who were interrogating me threatened that, if I continued to refuse to confess and accept parole, my son would not be allowed to go to elementary school and my daughter would be assigned to a middle school far away. When she goes to high school, they continued, the computer will assign her to a rural school from which she will not be admitted to university. I had no reason to doubt them. I knew the rules they operate under and knew their track record.
On February 8, 2006, I went on a hunger strike outside the gates of the State Council building. I did this to protest the threats to my children’s safety, to protest a police shooting of several innocent farmers who had been protecting their land from illegal seizure, and to protest curbs on press freedom in the case of Freezing Point magazine. I was detained, and then, from prison, could no longer do public protests.
On November 14, 2007, the Tianhe District Court (天河區法院) announced my five-year prison sentence. As I was being taken away, I turned and asked my wife, who had been allowed to attend, “Is our son in school?” She said no, they won’t let him go. At the Guangzhou municipal detention center, I tossed and turned that night, barely able to sleep at all. A few days later, a cellmate who had been sentenced for white-collar crime suddenly asked me, “Dude, how come that whole patch of your head turned white?” I did not quite believe him. There was no mirror in the cell, so I could only ask other cellmates to take a look, and I believed the story only after everyone said the same thing. Then, for the first time, I knew the ancient tale of Wu Zixu (伍子胥) – whose hair turned white overnight in flight, after his entire family was executed by the king – might not be imaginary.
The man who had discovered my white hair appeared to be in his fifties. I told him about the fate of my son. At first, he merely shook his head: there should be no way something like this can happen in this day and age. I explained what happened in detail. He had a good opinion of me and came to believe what I was saying. This white-collar criminal, who during his childhood had been ruthlessly persecuted because he came from a landowner family that had been labeled as “class enemies,” suddenly fell to his knees and covered his face, sobbing without a sound. I did not cry when they turned my son out of school, but this man did. Although I did not cry, my heart bled. In the year that followed, a voice inside kept reminding me, “Things cannot go on like this; I can’t sit by and watch the future of my children be destroyed; I must act.”
This was why, in 2008, I suggested to my wife, through the visitor’s window in Meizhou Prison (梅州監獄), that the three of them should find a way to leave China. It was a choice that a parent in my shoes had to make, hoping that his children could go to a free country where their right to education would not be blocked. With the help of several people, including the fearless Ms. Wang, my family made its way to Thailand. But there, their visa applications ran into unexpected difficulties; several Chinese who behaved suspiciously moved into their hotel; and they almost got run over by a mysteriously-driven car.
At this pivotal juncture, it was the esteemed Reverend Bob Fu (傅希秋), along with a wonderfully kind Christian woman from England, who took tremendous personal risk to bring my family to the United States. The United States government and people took them in and helped them. Schooling will never be a problem again. I am most grateful to all the people who helped us, and I thank the humanitarianism of the American government and the Christian Church. I shall remember their great deeds until the day I die. Through their help, I began to feel, in the most direct and deep way, how universal, selfless and noble human love is, and how generous democratic culture is. For me it was a kind of baptism.
After my release on September 13, 2011, I was finally able to communicate with my family through the Internet. My daughter sent me a comic strip she drew of her escape and her stay abroad. It shows how helpless and lost she felt, how hard it was to adapt to a different country, and how much she misses her childhood friends back home. As I read it, my tears flowed, on and off by turns, for three days.
I am a man, and I had never shed a tear over anything in jail, including my children. Yet when my daughter asked me, “Cried after you read it, didn’t you?,” I said I did. I cried a lot.
My daughter was no longer the baby who had once wanted me to hold and carry her. She was grown, indeed had grown tall. She was now proud and rebellious, and wanted to make her own decisions on everything; I felt she was drifting away from me. She began to harbor a resentment about all the love and obligation that I owed her as her father from my eighteen years of democracy work. She referred to this work every so often in a sarcastic way and rarely called me “Dad.” I feel pangs of pain inside but I didn’t know what I can do. I am flooded by guilt when I think about my family.
After release I was rearrested. Just a few months ago, on July 4, 2014, during visiting hours at the Tianhe Detention Center, my lawyer Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠) told me that my daughter had drawn my portrait. He said it looks a lot like me. In the picture, I am surrounded by mountains, and the caption, a Chinese proverb, reads: “Someone lofty to look up to.” This portrait was on display in a noteworthy building, as part of a campaign to rescue me. While I know I am far from deserving such a description, I do read a deeper meaning in what he told me. The revelation leaves me bright-eyed, as if I can see through the thick brick walls and sail through the open sky between us: My dearest child, I have once again won your love, and you have acknowledged it.
When I left prison in 2011, seeing how robust and widespread the struggle for freedom was, I felt unspeakably excited. My choice—there was no other—was to be part of this ferment. I worked alongside my peers; we took concerted action and nothing turned us back.
We experimented with the opportunity to support the anti-censorship efforts at the reformist newspaper, Southern Weekend (《南方週末》), and, proceeding with caution and peaceful discipline, to break through the limits on freedom of assembly. We also organized a signature campaign to demand that the National People’s Congress ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We coordinated small-scale street protests in eight cities in support of ICCPR and the government’s anti-corruption policy. Both actions were part of our strategy to promote the drafting of sound laws and the abolition of harmful ones. This activity was a significant step forward in pressing against government red lines and in addressing universal values in civic action—not just protesting individual grievances. We made waves, and many others followed.
It is no surprise that the government construed these two political experiments as my crime of “disturbing the public order.” An ancient proverb laughs at the folly of “bargaining with a tiger for its skin,” but that is precisely the task we have to undertake. We need to force a totalitarian government to shed its tiger’s skin, resume its humanity, and return to us the rights that belong to us.
The sentencing that I will now be facing will be consistent with the government’s entrenched habits of persecution. I am very honored to have landed in jail for my work. I hope that more citizens will come forward to join the fight for freedom when they see the dozens of us who are in jail. For me personally, another stint in prison may help to cleanse and mend me in small ways. Regardless of how long my sentence is this time, the first thing I will do when they let me out will be to go out and support constitutional democracy through direct action.
For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators. It is unacceptable that they should slaughter the innocent and enslave others. The chief and greatest punishment for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity. We believe that future generations will always make the same choices on the same principles. Outnumbered as we are, and Sisyphus though we may be (or the hero Kuafu who died chasing the sun), the prevailing meaning of our opposition movement persists in our refusal to give up or give in.
Another reason why action is imperative is that we need to show to others real-life examples of resistance that can encourage them to act on their own. During a transition we will need to prevent plutocratic groups from continuing the enslavement of the Chinese people by monopolizing political power for themselves. As civilization evolves, the culture of dictatorship and violence sometimes absorbs new resources and takes on new forms. Even after the dissolution of dictatorship, China could still face a tug-of-war between constitutional democracy with checks and balances on the one hand and Singapore or Russian-style “birdcage rule” on the other.
If Chinese democrats wish to avoid the strong-man or bird-cage scenario, whose legacy will be continued stagnation and unrest, we must be committed to working together and have the wisdom to build an independent and strong civil society that can balance the political power of the state. The end goal is a tripartite system where power is evenly distributed and transferred through institutionalized elections. Such a system best serves the sovereignty and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. Chinese civil society has reached the view that an opposition party is essential for bringing such a result about. Such an opposition party must act decisively, transparently and without guile, seeking round-table consensus, whether through a revision of the laws and institutions or by winning the sympathy and direct participation of the people. And its members must be prepared to bear the costs that might be inflicted upon them.
As an aging veteran whose life has been given to democracy, when I look back over the last thirty years, I truly feel that our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front line of the movement for freedom, tortuous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man, whose feet are planted on the ground and over whose head the heavens arch, as conceived by our ancestors long ago and writ large in the Chinese character for “human.”
Yang Maodong (aka Guo Feixiong)
Lawyers Describe Trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng, November 28, 2014.
Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by human rights lawyer Xiao Guozhen
Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, a profile by Xiao Shu
By Xiao Guozhen, published: July 28, 2014
Before Li Huaping (李化平) became known by his real name, he was known among Chinese netizens as “Norwegian Wood” (挪威森林) after the Beatles’ song. His blogs by the same name, before they were deleted by government censors, bore the tagline: “Uphold common sense and restore truth in the face of terror and lies. I reject totalitarianism; I do not accept tyranny; I am a child of freedom.”
This child of freedom lost his freedom when he was arrested on August 10, 2013, in Changsha, Hunan province. At that time, Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Zhao Changqing (赵常青), Li Wei (李蔚), Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) and several others were arrested for unfurling banners on Beijing streets calling for Chinese officials to disclose their assets. And elsewhere, scores of New Citizens Movement activists also were arrested. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was detained in mid-July and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) on August 8 in Guangzhou. The authorities were tracking down Li Huaping. I was his attorney then. He was in touch with me every day letting me know his whereabouts. They got him a few days after I left China.
“Are you ready?” He asked himself in an article (Chinese) posted on July 27. “I am ready,” he answered himself calmly. “Face the disappearance that could come upon me any time with ease; with even more ease face the trial of conscience that surely awaits. What do I fear? The trial of conscience turns these crimes into laurels.”
Doing the bidding of the Communist Party in a country where rule of law is less than nominal, prosecutors in Hefei, Anhui province, indicted Li Huaping on May 5th this year on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” According to the Indictment, his offense was to demonstrate and demand that the young daughter of a dissident be allowed to go back to the elementary school from which she had been booted as a reprisal against her father. Reading
this contrived indictment, readers will be hard pressed to find criminality in what Li Huaping and his friends did because they committed no crime. Instead, the arrest and the trial of Li Huaping is part of the more than one-year-long crackdown on the New Citizens Movement to put an end to citizen activities on the rise across China.
Unlike some of the other activists of the New Citizens Movement who have been tried and sentenced, Li Huaping is not a rights lawyer or veteran dissident, nor does he have a decade of rights defense experience behind him. In a blog post titled “Myself” (Chinese) he wrote, “at the beginning, I was just a quiet person like everyone else. Then I was merely a critic who observed what was going on and expressed my views publicly, hoping that the system would reform itself slowly. But insolent as they are, they do not even tolerate such moderate voices, threatening ordinary people for reposting only a picture or a poem. Enraged by such intimidation, I overcame my fear gradually, and I came to the realization that the system is the problem and it must be changed completely.” He went on recounting his own transformation and it had a precise date. “For fellow compatriots, the night of December 9, 2008, was nothing special, but for me it was the game changer. ….Mr. Liu Xiaobo was disappeared again, I came to understand that, my own wellbeing as well as China’s wellbeing would not fall from the sky naturally. My mind has expanded since that night: it cannot go on like this anymore, whether for myself or this country. Returning home [after an evening Majong game] I made up my mind: I will devote the rest of my life to restoring truth and disseminating common sense.”
On the Road for 17 Months
Li Huaping and I were both from the central area of Hunan province and went to the same high school – the First High School of Lianyuan – except he was several classes ahead of me. He went to college in Chengdu studying geology in the mid-1980s and graduated in 1987. In the early 1990s he went to Shenzhen to start a business. After 2000, he settled in Shanghai to be with his wife where he owned a computer company and a few other businesses. What he liked most though was reading and making friends. Joining the New Citizens Movement gave him a sense of purpose and direction.
Soon after I got to know him in the spring of 2012, he told me that he had traveled for months on end, and the Shanghai authorities warned him not to go back to Shanghai, or they would harass him, even arrest him. Before he left Shanghai to travel in June 2011, he wrote (Chinese), “the security police have raided my home and interrogated me N times, and I have been summoned for tea NN times during which I was warned and threatened.”
For the next 17 months, Li Huaping traveled all over China from cities, to towns, to the remote countryside, sightseeing, making friends, networking with like-minded citizens, and making observations on a wide range of events.
His first stop was Hunan, our home province, but not his hometown. “It’s not that I don’t want to go home or I don’t love my hometown; I just don’t want to have to explain things every day. So for the time being, I am wandering in the high mountains, homesick and remorseful.” (“Memories of the Ethnic Miao Country: Mother Called on Duanwu Festival,” Chinese).
From October to December, 2011, he spent two and a half months in Tibet. In an international youth hostel in Lhasa, he, an ethnic Han, was allowed to stay but not the young Tibetan couple whom he had met on the road. He described the machine guns on the roofs, and the fortress-like police stations built in every Tibetan township. He invited his Han compatriots to listen to the “sizzling sound of life burning itself” in protest and despair. He noted that for the month or so in Lhasa and the Tibetan countryside, once a place teeming with dark-skinned Indians and white foreigners from Europe and America, he seldom saw visitors from other countries.
On the New Year of 2012, he returned home to his dying father (Chinese), a boat tracker and then factory worker who sweated for every dime he earned but left some of the most tender memories to his son.
In February, Li Huaping was in Wukan in Guangdong to witness an election never seen in the 63-year rule of the Communist Party in China, thanks to the villagers’ hard-fought battle against local corruption and the incredible attention from the world media. He marveled at the villagers’ meticulous attention to electoral procedures and their pride in taking part, and he argued (Chinese) against the wide-spread belief that the Chinese population is not ready for one-person-one-vote democracy because of its “low quality.”
In April, he was in Chongqing where just about everyone he talked to sang the praise of Bo Xilai. He could see why: crime was down, government was more efficient, and life improved. “But the biggest issue with Bo Xilai’s Chongqing was that it still relied on the rule of one man to solve social problems,” he reflected (Chinese). “Doing so with total disregard for procedural justice would further damage whatever rule of law remains and inflict more pain on the people in the long run.”
In Sichuan, he also met with friends as well as the wives of Liu Xianbin and Chen Wei, two prominent dissidents serving prison terms currently.
During the Chinese New Year he visited Li Wangyang (李旺阳) in Shaoyang, Hunan, then returned in June after the labor leader who had been imprisoned for over 20 years was found “hanged” in a hospital ward. Li Huaping wrote an open letter to the Minister of Public Security and China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate demanding an investigation of Li Wangyang’s death. In Shaoyang, the security police confiscated his documents and threatened him.
At the end of June, he was in Beijing attending one citizen dinner gathering after another, meeting scores of New Citizens Movement members. That was when I first met him after having worked with him on the Li Wangyang case.
In early July, he was in Tianjin Ji county (天津蓟县) to investigate the fire that raged on June 30 in a bustling, five-story shopping center. He observed (Chinese) the general fear and hush-up in the city and broadcast his findings online which were corroborated by other citizen reports: the death toll was in the hundreds, not the official number of ten, and everyone was ordered to keep their mouths shut about the fire. The taxi driver quizzed him to decide whether he was a plainclothes or a visitor as he claimed to be.
Days later in Taishan (山东泰山), police visited him four times one night to check his ID, and his iPad was stolen, but not his wallet nor his cellphone. And contact information in Tianjin and his documents about the fire were all stored in the laptop.
At the end of July and early August, Li Huaping was in Qidong (江苏启东), the coastal town where, on July 28, tens of thousands of residents demonstrated and “raided” the city government demanding that a plan to build a sewage pipe from Nantong to the sea via Qitong be scraped. The government announced the permanent cancellation of the plan in the face of public outrage. Talking to residents, Li Huaping concluded (Chinese), it was a contestation “between the desire for local autonomy and the top-down dictatorial system, between law-biding people and the arrogant rulers who are above the law.” “The key to the contestation,” he wrote, “is that you have power to show and you let the other side see your power. Isn’t that what ‘shiwei’ is all about?” [“示威”literally mean “display power.”]
From Xitang, Zhejiang (浙江西塘) where he stayed for 35 days, he posted in late August an essay about young workers at a Foxconn factory. What interested him most was why the employee turnover was so high at the factory where less than 70% of the new employees would stay past one month, and less than half three months. Among the reasons he explored was the internal policing force and other inhumane treatment that debased human beings to less than a machine status. “A world-class manufacturer with nearly $250 billion in annual output value and a highly developed management system,” he wrote (Chinese), “can integrate so seamlessly with the communist methods.”
In September, he was in Lanzhou visiting Chen Pingfu (陈平福), the street violinist and blogger charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” He wrote in the essay “Subvert Common Sense vs. Subvert the State Power: A Visit to Chen Pingfu” (Chinese), “in China, the reality is such that there are no traffic lights, no pedestrian crossings, the drivers (rulers) drive however they want, make turns at will, without regard to the pedestrians (the people). Each one of us is approaching danger without knowing it.”
From Lanzhou, he went to Urumqi, Xinjiang.
On the road he wrote, “Any ideology, system, or organization that is against human nature is bound to crumble, and that is our optimism. We help bring it down not because we are great and noble, but because it generates from our concern for others’ fate and for our own prospects. We shall persevere without giving up.”
As a Christian, he brought only one book, the Bible. “Lying down by the gurgling water, I feel blissful and satisfied.”
Back to Shanghai
On October 24, 2012, after more than 400 days on the road, he returned to his home in Shanghai. The Shanghai police kept their word: the very day after he arrived, eight police officers came and took him to the police station to “be investigated for disrupting social order.” His communications were under 24/7 surveillance.
In “Security Police Officer Zhang Lei vs. Citizen Li Huaping” published in April, 2013, he said in less than six months since his return he had been summoned nearly 50 times for “obstructing performance of public duties,” “spreading rumors,” or “inciting street demonstrations.” In addition, the security police took his wife’s laptop, in which he stored thousands of photos from his travels, without providing a search warrant or list of confiscated objects, and did so by breaking into his home when he was away. Then they confiscated his nephew’s laptop, his own desktop, and a hard drive belonging to his wife, a history professor at Tongji University. “It stored years of my wife’s work, and it’s priceless,” he said.
I was the one who sent news of so many of his “summons” or short detentions in the name of “summon” online. During the latter, he would refuse to eat or drink.
In Shanghai, the citizen dinner gatherings were monitored, harassed and often prevented with participants receiving personal threats and intimidation.
The security police threatened him saying, if he continued to participate in citizen activities, he would endanger his family. They also tried to get him to leave the country. Because of him, his wife, who taught for 20 years at Tongji University, was dismissed by the university and forced to live in exile in the U.S. with their daughter.
On December 10, 2012, World Human Rights Day, Li Huaping wrote an open letter (English) to Xi Jinping. “It is a matter of fact that you are the wielder of the highest power in mainland China, and it doesn’t matter whether I disagree with how the supreme leader of 1.3 billion mainland Chinese is determined,” he wrote.
Sir, you are a busy man who has ten thousand things to take care of every day, and I won’t splash too much ink here. In this letter, I only want to talk about one issue: When dealing with dissidents, you and the government of the People’s Republic of China should, and must, observe procedural justice according to the law.
As a Doctor of Law, Mr. Xi Jinping of course understands that “Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.” While “to be done” addresses the outcome of justice, “seen to be done” stresses the necessity for such justice being done in a visible manner. And both are equally important, and neither should be denied. Without appropriate procedure, there would be no procedural justice to speak of. “Justice” achieved through inappropriate, unlawful procedure is like the flower of a pernicious plant, and must be cast away no matter how pretty it looks.
I admit that I am a “dissident”, but I didn’t set out to be one. Even if I devote all my time to this cause one day, it will not be a career, but an attitude of existence: To live my life honestly and truthfully.
On July 30th, Li Huaping will be tried for the Hefei demonstration. If the indictment is any indication, we are unlikely to see the procedural justice he so eloquently demanded be served.
From Ideas to Actions
Between 2010 and the spring of 2013, he had had 14 blogs and all but one were deleted by censors. His last blog was shut down after the CCP’s 18th Congress in November 2012. It existed for only a little over one year and has 4,350,000 page views. Shortly before his arrest, some of his articles were uploaded to Boxun blog.
“What makes me cringe in China is not the evil of the state apparatus but the majority of the population telling you: this is how this country is; you can’t change it, you just have to get used to it. They can be your schoolmates, colleagues, friends, relatives, and loved ones. As long as they are not hurt themselves, they will keep their eyes shut about anyone else being hurt,” he wrote (Chinese) in 2010.
“Through quiet exposition and independent thinking, we have to first of all understand what common sense is: Constitutionalism is the most important of all! Constitutionalism brings four ideas together: liberalism, democracy, republicanism, and rule of law. Of the four, liberalism is the objective, democracy is the foundation, republicanism is the structure, and rule of law is the restraint and form. It is more important for us to devote our efforts to disseminate this common sense. When constitutionalism becomes society’s mainstream discourse, its common sense and agreed values, then fairness and justice will come as water runs down its course” (2010, Chinese).
The CCP authorities must have come to the same conclusion. To make sure constitutionalism does not become the consensus of Chinese society, the party issued the notorious Document No. 9 to ban any discussions of it in schools and media.
In the New Citizens Movement, Li Huaping found his calling. He wrote about a citizen’s awareness and responsibilities, about how to build citizen circles in Chinese cities; how the more people practice their political rights, the less sensitive it becomes, and the more difficult it is for the government to crack down. He believed that serving the public interest is essential for citizen circles to connect with the people, to spread love, and to develop itself.
He wrote “Guidelines to Same-city Citizen Dinner Gathering” (Chinese) in December 2012 laying out the specifics of organizing and growing citizen circles and the tasks of key members.
When the arrests of New Citizens Movement members started in the spring of 2013, he initiated the Citizen Watch Initiative (公民守望工程) to provide aid to those in prison, material, spiritual and in terms of public opinion. His idea was to provide sustained support to families of imprisoned citizens to ensure their normal living standards. Before he himself was arrested, some prisoners of conscience were already receiving help from the initiative.
His last post titled “The New Citizens Movement: the Current Situation and Our Tasks” (Chinese) was published a day before his arrest. “You can wait for the CCP dictatorship to collapse and it will, but civil society will not grow on its own. It has to be built bit by bit,” his first sentence reads. He believed that it is a good choice to unite the opposition movement on the citizen platform, and that the growing number of citizen teams across the country will change China.”
His lawyer Zhang Xuezhong (张雪忠) recently reported that the authorities said to Li Huaping that they will free him if he agrees to acknowledge his wrongdoings. He he rejected it, for he was already bound. “Yesterday when we were setting up to camp, a rainbow fell on me. I said to myself: Free China. This is a covenant between the God and me.”
Xiao Guozhen (肖国珍), born in 1972, is a Beijing-based lawyer from Hunan. She is a graduate of the University of International Business and Economics School of Law in Beijing. Because of her rights defense-related work, she has been subjected to police surveillance, threats, and unlawful restriction of personal freedom. She is currently a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
A Chinese Dissident Makes Demands of Xi Jinping, by Li Huaping
(Translated by China Change from a version rewritten for this site with updates. All photos are taken from Li Huaping’s blogs or online.)