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Liao Yiwu, December 10, 2018, International Human Rights Day, Berlin
I’ve so often said that my courage and everything about me comes from prison. This is how I differ from other Chinese writers. In prison, I was tortured ‘til I could no longer bear it, and tried to kill myself twice. But I learned to write secretly; and I learned to play the xiao (ancient flute) from an over-80-year-old monk. From the sound of his xiao, I realized that freedom comes from the soul.
A man of inner freedom is the natural enemy of a dictatorship. His political views come in a pale, second place.
The key is that, only after experiencing the horror, sadness, and pity of losing freedom and being trampled upon, does one fight for the freedom of others with all one’s heart, and moreover turns the fight for freedom into a kind of personal faith.
Most of the time, outside of writing, I’m a failure. For example, my friend Liu Xiaobo, four times jailed, was murdered in a cage on July 13, 2017. We did our best to rescue him, but it was all a failure. Although his wife, Liu Xia, was eventually released and allowed to come to Germany, the price was too painful and too great. And soon it will all be forgotten.
China is still the world’s largest capitalist market, and with the US-led trade war against China and the constant thrashings-about in the news, already the memory of Liu Xiaobo and his wife is being diluted and lost. It’s a vulgar and cruel world that no longer needs a martyr like Liu Xiaobo to strive and be jailed for the cause of democracy. I understand all this. I know that though the records already are numerous, I must continue to write. It’s just as, over 2,000 years ago, when Plato recorded the philosophical debates in Socrates’ cell before his death; without those words Plato left behind, Socrates would have been erased by time, and his death left a vague mystery. His words would no longer stir us so deeply.
Yes, I wrote “June 4: My Testimony” and “Bullets and Opium,” both of which are part of a single whole describing the victims of the Tiananmen massacre nearly 30 years ago, many of whom died, many of whom were destroyed by prison. (Although, even when released from prison, they went on to die in a larger prison without walls.) The idea that “the internet will destroy autocracy and open markets will lead to democracy ” has been a popular notion for American politicians, and coincided with the administration of then-US President Bill Clinton. It’s this phrase that lubricated China’s entry to the WTO, and helped grant it most-favored nation status over 20 years ago.
But it’s clearly not the case that “the internet undermines dictatorship.” Instead, it’s the authoritarian regimes that have made extensive use of Western network technology to comprehensively monitor the entire Chinese populace. No matter where you are, as long you’re a dissident, you’ll be tapped and tracked; all your trips to the bank and online speech will be recorded, and in a moment’s notice, all will become evidence of your intent to harm the state. At hotels, train stations, and airports, your face will be automatically identified by the police using their mobile phones and computers — technology invented by Westerners and augmented by the internet and open markets, all of which has given a tremendous boost to the dictatorship.
What follows naturally is that the dictatorship will challenge Western democracy. For instance, China has the Great Fire Wall, and if you circumvent it and visit foreign websites, this is called “illegal” and perhaps you’ll be arrested. Western countries have no firewall, and almost all overseas Chinese, and many foreigners interested in China, are free to use WeChat, Weibo, and Huawei cell phones — but then they’re silently monitored and tracked too. And if you say ‘extremist’, suspicious, sarcastic, or subversive remarks about China, WeChat administrators will issue a warning that your account may be cancelled — or simply cancel it without a word. Or maybe you’ll temporarily go “missing”, and your family and friends in the country may also find themselves under a cloud of trouble. Dictators not only borrow the propaganda of “counter-terrorism” to carry out concentration camp-style forced brainwashing of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang, but also use the internet to prevent those in the free world from actually being free.
Many dissidents around me also use WeChat and accept the regime’s control and surveillance without really thinking it over. So today, I, a writer among dissidents, not only refuse to use Chinese-made smartphones, but I refuse to install any software from China, and I only publish my work in democratic Taiwan and the free West.
More importantly, I don’t flinch, I don’t succumb to silence, I continue to fight for the freedom of others, and in this oft-failed struggle, I’m drawing from a passionate need to make a record of this era.
Coming up next, I shall prepare another book; I shall get ready to turn defeat into victory in the history that will soon be upon us.
“1984” itself makes one hopeless — but the act of writing “1984” is already a flickering of hope from the depths of despair.
Also by Liao Yiwo:
‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom To Liu Xia, May 2, 2018.
Acceptance Speech for the 2018 Annual Disturbing the Peace Literary Prize for a Courageous Writer at Risk, Liao Yiwu, September 27, 2018, New York City
Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’
Yaxue Cao, November 11, 2018
Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:
It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.
I clicked his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.
Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”
In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself in to the local public security authorities, and was charged with intentional homicide.
The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.
The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.
Wu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”
A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao, and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.
The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguan (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan travelled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.
Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.
Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》), “Guide to Drinking Tea” (《喝茶宝典》), and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes” (《访民杀猪宝典》). In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.
In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.
In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”
Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative user of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese government’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.
Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.
At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.
Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case [involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].
Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.
As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”
In June that year he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.
One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”
As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.
This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.
What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.
The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.
For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.
Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.
The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.
Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database (http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.
Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.
Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.
China Change, April 15, 2018
A WeChat group dedicated to raising money for Chinese prisoners of conscience and their families has recently been shut down by Chinese police, and its administrators targeted. One of the administrators of the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’ (全国旅游群), Guo Qingjun (郭庆军), was arrested by domestic security police in Changchun, Jilin Province, at his workplace on April 11. Guo’s wife, Zhang Yuying (张宇英), sent out a message that the couple’s house had been raided and Guo’s computer confiscated. At least seven other individuals associated with the group from around China have also been targeted, including Bao Luo (保罗), Lu Bi (卢比), Liu Chunlin (刘春林), Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), Sun Wenke (孙文科), Li Xiaohong (李小红), and an individual known as Meizi Qingxuan (梅子轻旋).
Guo’s family is aware that though he was arrested in Changchun, it is in fact police from his hometown in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, that are handling his case. On April 12 Guo’s wife received the official notification of criminal detention, which stated that he was suspected of “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
An individual familiar with the circumstances of the case said that apart from the eight people arrested, over 100 members of the chat group have been summoned and questioned by domestic security police. Guo, under pressure from the authorities, had already announced the disbanding of the National Tourism Chat Group several days prior to his arrest.
According to Radio Free Asia, citing an individual familiar with the case, the chatgroup was focused on prisoners of conscience, petitioners, and rights defenders in difficult circumstances. Guo’s National Tourism Chat Group kept books on donations, and sent money to individuals that donors wanted to help. This is known as ‘food delivery.’ The Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website explained that, for instance, the National Tourism Chat Group sent money to cover basic living expenses for the families of political prisoners Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), Yuan Bing (袁兵), Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) and others, to enable them to get through trying periods.
The locations at which the other seven targeted individuals are being detained is as yet unknown.
In China, providing relief to prisoners of conscience and their families is an act fraught with peril. As a way of not tipping off the authorities to the purpose of the group, and thus have it immediately shut down, the group managers took the name of ‘National Tourism,’ so they’d be able to help the families over the long term.
An activist who did not reveal his identity for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia that Guo Qingjun was one of the founders of the recently targeted ‘Rose chatgroups,’ as well as an important member of China Human Rights Observer (中国人权观察).
Guo lives in Changchun with his family; his day job is at a foreign-invested enterprise, and for years he has been involved in rights defense and citizen activism. He has largely tried to keep a low profile, though has been repeatedly warned to stop his activism by Chinese secret police.
Below is the limited information currently available on the individuals targeted:
Dai Xiangnan (phone number 13410097523) was a graduate of Peking University. In recent years he has been involved in NGO work in Shenzhen. In late 2015 when Guangdong-based labor NGOs were rolled up in a crackdown, he signed an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, and the State Council, demanding that the authorities rationally and legally respond to the efforts of workers to collectively defend their rights, as well as labor rights NGOs.
Lu Bi (phone number 13316556166) is an activist in Shenzhen. He was taken away from his residence on April 11.
Liu Chunlin (phone number 13725526191) is an architect.
One of the detained is a civil servant in Shenzhen. The identity of the others has not yet been verified.
A member of the chatgroup, Zhou Xiaolin (周筱霖), the owner of the Guyang Teahouse (古养茶馆) in Shenzhen, was summoned by police for questioning on April 13.
The Ganzhou public security bureau refused to answer a reporter’s questions about the case.
The ‘food delivery’ charity work that these individuals were engaged in is one of the many forms of activism that human rights defenders in China have developed to help the families of individuals who have been arrested and punished for political reasons. Yet, as the authorities suppression of rights defenders intensifies, even this modest act has come under the purview of the official crackdown. In 2013 the authorities forcibly disbanded a ‘Food Delivery Party’ (送饭党) led by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) in Beijing. Guo was later himself arrested, tortured, and had his Transition Institute (传知行研究所) dismembered and banned.
The crackdown against the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’, as well as the attack on the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ is ongoing, and it’s likely that more members of these loose online networks will be summoned, interrogated, and in some cases formally arrested and charged with crimes.
Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups, China Change, April 4, 2018.
Buffett-Style Dinner Bids Woo Chinese for Just Society, Bloomberg News, August 20, 2013.
Yaxue Cao, December 13, 2017
Humanitarian China celebrated its 10th anniversary in Los Angeles last Sunday, December 10, on International Human Rights Day. I was there with more than 200 others, one of the largest recent gatherings of overseas Chinese who support democracy and human rights in China. Gone is the time when, in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre, several thousand Chinese students and visiting scholars gathered in Chicago in 1989 to form the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars and give their support in words and actions to the cause of democracy in China.
“Where are all the Chinese?” Someone asked me once, referring to the puniness of a June 4th Massacre commemoration one year. I asked back: “Where are all the political leaders of the Western democracies?”
In 2017, it’s not a popular thing to be a Chinese democracy activist. So I was mightily heartened by the 200 plus human beings, and the din that filled the evening, in a Chinese restaurant in downtown LA.
I’m deeply proud of Humanitarian China. It’s just a bunch of regular guys living in California. They all have jobs to go to and families to raise. They hustle every day on the 12-lane freeways in the Bay Area. For 10 years, they have worked on providing humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families in their greatest hours of need.
In the first few years, the founders and the board of directors were the main donors. Only over the last few years have more contributions come from other sources.
Humanitarian China is not the only organization that provides such assistance to political prisoners. In fact it’s small by any standard.
But it’s unique like no other. It’s self-motivated, self-organized, and it’s grassroots. In other words, it’s not institutionalized human rights work. This 19-minute film tells Humanitarian China’s humble beginning and inspiring story.
There is a sad irony about this that shouldn’t be lost, as a friend of mine plainly pointed out to me. “It’s amazing that, given the scale of China and its role in the world, and the number of overseas Chinese people, and the amount of capital being moved outside of China, that this is the most established program of its kind. It speaks to the incredible ‘success’ of the CCP’s repression from another perspective.”
Clarity about conflicts of interest is one of the two most cherished principles of Humanitarian China (the other being volunteerism). To honor it, I hereby disclaim: I’ve been one of the eight directors of Humanitarian China since 2014 , and I produced the film I’m asking you to watch.
In this holiday season, I also ask you to consider making a charitable contribution to Humanitarian China.
Among other methods of donating, you can also use AmazonSmile to support us.
Tang Jingling, August 28, 2016
Chinese was published on May 20, 2016
“I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today.” – Tang Jingling
“Other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights condition in China and it is the Chinese people who are in the best situation, in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.” – Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, June 2, 2016.
Recalling his nearly 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela wrote in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” Having now spent 22 months in Chinese Communist prisons, I’d say that, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, the Chinese Communist Party treats prisoners who don’t enjoy special privileges even worse than animals. And those who are imprisoned for seeking their political rights or defending freedom of religion and other human rights are repressed with particular brutality.
Based on my observations, my impression is that the different levels and standards of prisoner treatment reflect the bureaucratic hierarchy of the country. People who have risen to higher levels of the bureaucracy will be held in a better detention facility or cell or will otherwise receive better treatment. Then there’s the principle that originated with the Empress Dowager Cixi: “Better it go to the foreigners than to my slaves.” Generally speaking, in other words, foreigners are less likely to be compelled to engage in forced labor, and their religious beliefs are granted a certain degree of respect.
And then there’s a large group of prisoners who try to curry favor and build “connections” with people inside the prison in order to enjoy all sorts of special treatment and largess. This leads to an abundance of unfathomable corruption and shady deals. The subjective arbitrariness of prison regulations, the excessive deprivation of prisoners’ rights, and the lack of transparency and external oversight have all contributed to this sort of abnormal economy of cash and power within China’s notorious system of detention.
Of course, these different classes of treatment are relative among prisoners themselves. On the whole, all prisoners are living under inhumane conditions. It’s like one detainee said after being transferred from Guangdong Provincial Detention Center (which mainly holds high-ranked officials) to Baiyun District Detention Center (BDDC): “The moment I stepped foot into the Provincial Detention Center, it was like I’d fallen from high up in the heavens into the depths of hell. I never imagined until I got here that there was an even deeper level of hell!”
The ugliness that exists outside detention facilities is often hidden behind various veils. But inside the wall of the detention center, that ugliness reveals itself unadorned, 24 hours a day. In conditions unfit even for animals, a person must be extremely disciplined to avoid being overcome by hatred and maintain his humanity to avoid being swallowed up by wild beasts. It truly is a very difficult challenge. When it’s impossible for us to eliminate evils directly, we must not condone these evils with our silence. Even though I now find myself behind bars because of my efforts on behalf of human rights and democracy, I too am unable to remain silent. For me, this report is my attempt to bear witness to injustice and evil so that I can avoid taking any part in such evils myself.
Below, I will describe seven different aspects of the evil in China’s detention centers.
I. Inhumane and degrading treatment, including rampant beatings and torture
On the day I arrived at BDDC, I was kicked by one of the center’s auxiliary police officers for refusing to squat down when he ordered me to do so. Within the jail’s heavily guarded walls, detainees still wear manacles and shackles around the ankles. When guards escort a detainee from place to place, they often order him to squat as a completely unnecessary way of degrading him. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, I saw this kind of thing much less frequently, but there were still quite a few prisoners who were treated this way.
I have never seen guards beat any detainees at Guangzhou No. 1, but beatings were not at all uncommon at BDDC. As the guards patrolled the cell block, they would call a detainee to come out of his cell into the passageway. (According to veteran detainees, there weren’t enough security cameras to monitor the passageway fully.) First, he would be subjected to a stream of verbal abuse. That was followed by the sound of blows raining down on his body before the injured detainee was returned to his cell. I saw this kind of thing with my own eyes.
At Guangzhou No. 1, I’ve seen only one detainee—a Uyghur—beaten up like this, and it seemed like that was a common occurrence for Uyghurs like him. Even though the beatings were being carried out by investigators, rather than detention center guards, authorities at the jail and the procuratorial official stationed at the center never made any factual record of those detainees’ injuries, let alone file any reports or hold anyone accountable. Han Chinese detainees were no different: the detention center allowed investigators to interrogate detainees for 24 hours straight, with no breaks, until they were finally able to force out the confessions they were looking for.
There was one detainee who entered Guangzhou No. 1 the same month as I did who was interrogated continuously like this for nearly a month and only allowed back in his cell for a short time every day around nightfall. This is a technique commonly used by Communist Party discipline inspectors, and many “official detainees” experience this kind of thing as well. It’s just that for them it happens in the illegal private jails set up by the Party’s committees for disciplinary inspection. After those “official detainees” offer up their forced confessions there, they get sent to the detention center.
In the cells, each of the cement slabs on which we sleep is fitted with two fixed iron rings. These “fixed shackles” are used by the detention center as a means of disciplinary punishment. A person forced to wear ordinary shackles is still able to move about on his own and take care of many of his daily needs. But once fettered to these fixed shackles, routine daily tasks like eating, getting dressed, or using the toilet all mean that the detainee has to rely on others for everything, making it a terribly agonizing experience.
There’s an even more “advanced” and perverse technique, which is to shackle a detainee’s hands to the fixed iron rings as well. In this way, even sleep requires one to curl up like some poor shrimp. This type of punishment generally lasts anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. In 2014, I saw this in action in Cell 1309. There was a young man clearly suffering from psychological illness and intellectual impairment. The Communist judicial authorities diagnosed him with anti-social personality disorder and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Because he couldn’t control his actions, he was shackled for around a week.
Anyone sentenced to death, regardless of whether or not there’s any cause for disciplinary punishment, will also be given the fixed shackles up until the time when he is sent to be executed. One Pakistani man entered the detention center in 2009 and has been subjected to fixed shackling since 2014. Under this long period of suffering, he was forced to write several letters to the Guangdong High Court and the Supreme People’s Court begging either to be unshackled or put to death. Wang Qingying (王清营), who was detained along with me, was given the fixed shackles a number of times and suffered even more serious tortures as well.
I don’t know how much longer this kind of inhumane torture will be allowed to continue. Scenes like this serve as a metaphor for the lives of our enslaved people. So much of our agonizing struggles are attempts to break free of these shackles of our bondage. Despite all of their efforts, our people continue to suffer deprivations because those efforts are focused on digging themselves out of the pit associated with their enslavement. Does our generation plan to sit still and remain as slaves, destined to be forgotten by history while the dictatorship flourishes? Or will we make a place for ourselves in history by parting the Red Sea and walking that path out of the desert and into the land of freedom?
An even more common form of inhumane treatment is the overcrowded and confined nature of the cells. Out in the real world, even pigs raised for slaughter aren’t treated like this because everyone knows that this will cause serious harm to the pigs. But for months, even years at a time, prisoners are locked up together in these dark, damp, and cramped spaces with no sunlight or fresh air. This in itself causes suffering and is the root of many human rights and humanitarian problems in the detention centers.
For example, it’s normal at BDDC to lock up 20 or even 30 people in a space of 20–30 m2. The detention center often has a large number of empty cells, so I don’t understand why they need to fill cells beyond their capacity like this. Much of the work burden for guards is already being handled by detainee labor and hired security guards, so adding more cells shouldn’t be all that difficult.
At BDDC, detainees are typically forced to sleep lying packed together, with one person’s feet next to another person’s head and vice versa. It’s common to be awoken from a deep sleep with a kick in the face from the person next to you or even find your cellmate’s toes rubbing up against your mouth. At Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, we have to sleep all the way from the cell entrance to right in front of the toilet. The irony is that one of the lines of the detention center rules we were forced to recite every day went like this: “It’s forbidden for two people to share a quilt.” These days, the authorities make detainees sleep crowded together far more tightly than two people sharing a quilt.
I had another experience that was even more revolting. When I arrived at BDDC they weren’t issuing toothbrushes or cups and didn’t allow detainees to bring or buy their own. Instead, they forced detainees to use old, discarded toothbrushes and cups and share these among several individuals at once, without any consideration of the fact that many detainees suffered from infectious diseases. Veteran detainees told me that this was not the first time something like this had happened. Fortunately, a clever cellmate of mine fashioned a cup for me out of an old chrysanthemum tea container, which I used until I left that facility. At BDDC, meal trays and spoons were also shared. Guangzhou No. 1 is a bit better in this respect, as each detainee is issued a set of personal items to use upon arrival.
A detainee who had once been jailed in the Tianhe Detention Center told me that detainees there were forced to sit and “meditate” for long periods at a time. I don’t know what the situation is like there now, but BDDC had a rule that detainees were required to “meditate” while the guards were patrolling the cell blocks, about a half-hour each morning and each afternoon. The situation is basically the same at Guangzhou No. 1.
II. Forced labor
My labor assignment here consists of keeping watch on the night shift and some manual piece work. Two inmates in each cell are made to keep watch at night. (Sometimes, even more are assigned to this work—especially when conditions are so crowded that there’s not enough room to sleep. In Guangdong Provincial Detention Center and other jails where there are fewer prisoners, they don’t have this kind of work assignment.) Each shift is made up of two people, who take turns keeping watch for periods of 90 minutes to two hours. Detainees enjoying special treatment don’t have to keep watch or do piece work; instead, they get lighter assignments. In some prisons, they have a small number of inmates who are permanently assigned to the night watch, instead of forcing the majority of detainees to be awakened from deep sleep like they do in the detention centers. I think this is a completely unreasonable measure they use to make detainees’ lives miserable.
As for manual piece work, there’s assembling “red envelopes” and auspicious decorations for Chinese New Year; folding and packing Christmas cards under the brand names “Giftmaker” and “Sue Ryder” (a charity registered in the UK); packing disposable food-service gloves and plastic medical gowns; and affixing advertising stickers for Uni-President Food brands (a Taiwanese company). From what I can see, these jobs are pretty steady, so the detention center must have long-term commercial contracts. Rarely has the piece work that I’ve had to carry out lasted longer than three hours at a time. At BDDC, there wasn’t ever any piece work assigned to my cell. But there are cartloads of stuff coming and going in the passageways outside all the time. At Guangzhou No. 1 I have a cellmate from Chongqing who was arrested together with his wife. When they were able to see each other at trial, she told him that the women’s cell block had been given very heavy labor assignments and were even forced to work overtime every day late into the evening.
From what I’ve seen and experienced first-hand, it seems that labor assignments at detention centers have been decreasing but that not much has changed inside the prisons. Outside the VIP cells holding high officials and foreigners, other prisoners still have to work pretty hard. They generally are engaged in rather intensive industrial labor. In this respect, the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice are actually operating China’s biggest sweatshop factories. The millions of detainees they have under their jurisdiction far outnumber the employees of any company in the world.
III. Correspondence, Visits, Meetings, Money, and Goods
In the two years I’ve been detained, the only time I’ve been allowed to write a letter was an order form for two books that I sent my wife in March of this year. My lawyer told me that people concerned about me on the outside had been sending me letters and cards, but detention center authorities have been quietly confiscating them all and I haven’t seen the slightest trace of any mail. They use these despicable methods against political prisoners in particular. When Mandela was in prison, he was still able to receive letters after they’d first been inspected and censored by the prison authorities. I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today. The Chinese authorities inspect all mail and guards can restrict access to letters almost at will, without any rational or predictable rules.
According to the provisions of the Prison Law, convicted prisoners may regularly receive visits from family members.* The overwhelming majority of those held in detention centers have not yet been convicted, but without exception they have been deprived of the right to visit with family or friends. Even telephone calls are forbidden! Since many cases drag on for some time without decision, these detainees are completely cut off from their friends and family. The cruelty of this is hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to comprehend. Another side-effect of this inhumane treatment is that it prevents any information from inside the detention center from reaching the outside world, giving the green light to all sorts of corrupt misdeeds and cruel abuse. Ordinary prisoners may keep up with how their family is doing through letters and photographs, but even this is denied political prisoners.
Moreover, the facilities that detention centers make available for meetings with lawyers are often seriously inadequate, and those for visits with family are even worse. Meetings with lawyers are carried out under the eyes and ears of detention center guards, something that people in normal countries with rule of law would probably find unbelievable. Not long after I and other political prisoners arrived at Guangzhou No. 1, the authorities there made a point of “re-arranging” the lawyer meeting room by moving the fixed round-backed chair on which we detainees sit further away from the the dividing screen, which prevents lawyers from showing clients the prosecution files or verifying evidence.
For those detainees who’ve used their “connections,” deliveries of money and “care packages” become a kind of paradise. They have many opportunities to eat food that’s been sent in by their families, something that ordinary detainees can only look at with envy. Some of the kinder of these privileged detainees will share their food with their cellmates. These are without doubt the easiest moments to remember in the hellish environment.
*Editors’ note: Tang’s wife recently filed a complaint about being deprived of the right to visit her husband.
IV. Indifference to or outright deprivation of religious freedom
The authorities prohibit religious books that are important to me as a Christian, like the Bible, from being sent into the detention center. Quite a few foreign detainees who are Muslim or Christian can receive copies of the Quran, the Bible, or other religious books in their own languages. But I haven’t seen any Uyghur detainees with their own copies of the Quran.
Uyghur detainees are routinely deprived of their religious rights, and though Falun Gong practitioners are deliberately being kept away from where I’m being held, I can’t imagine that their situation is any better than mine. Even when their cases aren’t connected in any way, political prisoners are deliberately kept apart from each other. Perhaps the Communist authorities learned some lessons from the way that the apartheid government in South Africa imprisoned all of its political prisoners together in one place.
Cultural and educational rights aren’t protected either. Not only does the detention center not have a library or reading room, they also prevent detainees from receiving books or subscribing to newspapers or magazines. Political prisoners always want to do some studying on their own, but they’re placed under tighter restrictions than ordinary prisoners. It was over a year after I was jailed that I was first allowed to receive a few books sent by my family, but only books related to law were permitted. I had a young Uyghur man in my section of the detention center teach me the Uyghur alphabet and asked my family to send me a Uyghur-Chinese dictionary to help me study the language further. But those plans never got anywhere because of meddling by the authorities.
For the last several months I’ve again been inexplicably prevented from receiving books. It was only last March that I was finally able to receive two books. And last month was the first time I was able to send out a letter to my family. I’ve heard that many political prisoners, like Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) or Xu Zhiyong (许志永), have had to go on hunger strike in order to fight for their right to read.
The ridiculous thing is that every day the detention center authorities force detainees to recite from memory the center regulations, which are mainly about rules of behavior and rights and obligations. They make you recite these every day, and each person has to pass muster. The more rational thing would be to have the detention center employees be the ones who had to memorize and recite these rules. Once you memorize the regulations, then they make you recite a bunch of old moral education rhymes like Di Zi Gui (《弟子规》, Rules for Being a Good Student) and San Zi Jing (《三字经》, Three Character Classic). Everything depends on how good or bad the detention center officials or guards are, but they don’t take into consideration the real needs of detainees at all.
Even if there is some benefit in reciting these texts, the way they’re forced on people leads them to become hated. These are just the same old habits of forced brainwashing that the Chinese Communists have always used. Human nature is as easily twisted as the plum blossoms in Gong Zizhen’s famous essay, “The Pavilion for Sick Plum Trees.” In order to accommodate these ridiculous regulations, many detainees who haven’t even been convicted yet already begin proactively copying and memorizing the prison regulations while they’re still in the detention center. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!
V. Food and drink, sanitation and medical treatment, and buying things
During the month I was at BDDC, I lost 5 kg because the food was terrible, the portions were small, and I wasn’t allowed to purchase any food to supplement. I’m not a fat person to begin with, so a weight loss of 5 kg is no small thing. They only served two meals at BDDC, one at 11 am and the other at 4 pm. Later, after I revealed through my lawyer that they weren’t serving us any breakfast, they again started serving breakfast twice a week—a plain steamed bun one day and the other day a bowl of gruel so thin it should technically be called water. I have no idea whether they continued serving that pitiful breakfast after I left. A veteran detainee at BDDC told me that they’d always served breakfast in the past, and he didn’t know why they’d recently become so stingy.
For our main daily meal, they’d serve a few pieces of leafy vegetable (but because leafy vegetables were more expensive, they only served them a few times). Typically we’d get some bean sprouts of inferior quality or one or two slices of winter melon, pumpkin, or carrot with a slice or two of fatty pork or the kind of thin ham sausage that’s wrapped in plastic. The rice was yellowish and often smelled of mildew. That was pretty much the entire menu. During afternoon calisthenics, I would often feel dizzy because of poor nutrition.
At Guangzhou No. 1, we basically got double what they served at BDDC and the rice was an ordinary white color. They served breakfast of two cold buns or pineapple buns. Both places served winter melon, pumpkin, and white radish with the skin and roots still intact, and they never picked out the yellowed leaves or tough roots of leafy vegetables. At Guangzhou No. 1 for quite a while they gave us frozen duck wings with down still on them that sometimes emitted a terrible odor. According to a jailmate who had worked in the frozen food industry, these likely had been frozen for quite a long time. They were finally removed from the menu only after causing a widespread bout of diarrhea.
Owing to the crowded and confined conditions of detention, sanitation is quite inhumane. Each cell only has a squat toilet, and the water faucet for flushing the toilet is the same one used to get water needed for other daily uses. So when you need to wash bowls and eating utensils, you have to do it right above the toilet. Before they collect the trays after our meals, we have to rinse them very quickly above the toilet before handing them in. Heaven only knows whether or not they wash them again or disinfect them back in the kitchen!
At BDDC, they forced detainees to eat each meal in 3–5 minutes. At Guangzhou No. 1, you get about 10 minutes. According to a detainee who’d been held at the Guangdong Provincial Detention Center, there they have a dedicated washbasin and faucet, separate from the toilet. That proves beyond a doubt that those who operate and manage detention facilities are in fact cognizant of ordinary human needs.
How to dry clothing is also a major problem. There is a row of plastic hooks on the wall of the enclosed courtyard space that’s attached to each cell. This is where we’re supposed to hang our clothes to dry. The door to this courtyard is only opened once in the morning and once in the afternoon, for less than an hour each time. Sometimes it’s even less, not even half an hour. If the weather is rainy, it can take several days for clothes to dry and you have no other clothing to change into. You have no choice but to wear clothes that have grown mildewed from the damp and humidity.
Under these conditions, it’s obviously impossible to air out bedding. When one detainee leaves, the bedding he leaves behind will get assigned to a new arrival. Many quilts never lose their musty and mildewed odor. I’ve heard of some detention facilities where they only close the door to the outside courtyard at night, which is a slightly more humane way of doing things. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1, for some unknown reason the officer who admitted me made a point of giving me the filthiest and most ratty quilt available. Later, I got a newer one from a detainee who was on his way out, and I’m still using that today.
At Guangzhou No. 1, twice a day (excluding holidays) a nurse will distribute medication to detainees who are sick or who suffer from chronic illnesses. Each year, BDDC holds more than 5,000 detainees—several times more than Guangzhou No. 1. During the month I was at BDDC, I never saw any medical care like we have here.
When I got to the detention center, I increased my physical exercise and I could clearly feel my health improving a bit. But I catch colds far more frequently here than I did on the outside. I think that’s obviously a result of the terrible sanitary conditions and nutrition here. We have to bathe with cold water, even in the fall and winter, which is another reason many people get sick.
Generally, the 500 yuan each person can spend each month to purchase items goes to the purchase of daily items (underwear and a limited selection of supplementary foods). This is based on a provision in the Detention Center Regulations that was set many years ago (in 1990). If the food provided by the detention centers didn’t leave detainees feeling hungry, this monthly amount would be sufficient even with today’s prices. Goods are typically bought in group purchases twice a month, with detainees using an order form provided by the detention center to mark down what they want and the desired quantities. I’ve also heard of detention centers where they offer detainees a variety of meals, turning the jail into a kind of restaurant and general store.
Luckily, I’ve never been sick enough to require being hospitalized. Based on what I’ve heard from others who have, the detainee wing at the Guangzhou People’s Armed Police (PAP) Hospital has earned the nickname “Police Beatings Hospital.” What sick people need is treatment and care, but most people’s memory of that place is that it’s even worse than jail itself. Patients are assigned only one set of clothes, and if they want to launder them they have go around naked in the meantime. Patients wear leg shackles the whole time, and quite often some will get shackled to their beds because of some trivial matter and left lying in their own excrement while no one bothers with them.
Security guards beat patients for no reason, and the food is no better than in the detention centers. In the case of Guangzhou No. 1, the food is probably even worse and they don’t allow patients to buy extra food while in the hospital. The medical staff is very curt and brutish. One cellmate I had spent nearly a year in the hospital, off and on, and witnessed many cases of gauze being left in patients’ bodies after an operation. It got to the point where he finally became afraid to admit that he was sick for fear of being sent to the PAP Hospital. It’s said that ill detainees from detention centers all over the province get sent there and that there are more than 500 people being held in the detainee wing.
VI. Disciplinary measures, relief procedures, and sham oversight provisions
Even though the prison uses fixed shackling and other brutal disciplinary measures to punish detainees, I’ve never seen the detention facility carry out any legal procedure in connection with this.
When the officers take such measures, detainees have no chance to defend themselves. What the officers are acting out here is a real-life legal farce. On the surface, the resident procuratorate office is supposed to carry out oversight of the detention centers, but in the two years I’ve been in detention I’ve only seen a single detainee have a meeting with a resident procuratorate official on official business. I’ve never seen anything in writing about how to contact the procuratorate. How can he carry out his duties of oversight of the legal system and protection of human rights?
VII. Detainees with special privileges
In February of this year, as I was being transferred from Cell Unit 5 to Cell Unit 3, I discovered that a single person was being held all by himself in Cell No. 1301. That man (who people said was a former vice governor of Hainan Province) was clearly living in a newly renovated cell that was just like a hotel. He enjoyed quite a few different kinds of special treatment. His cell was kept open for long periods at a time to prevent him from feeling as if he were being held in a confined space. (It was precisely for this reason that we were able to see a bit of the conditions under which he was being held.) They say he receives the same meals that the guards do.
Cell No. 1302, right next door, is also a special-treatment cell where a dozen or so men are held under much lower security. According to other detainees with good sources of information, those detainees also enjoy much better food than ordinary prisoners—each of them might get a raw cucumber or an extra egg each day. Privileged detainees like these are able to enjoy a standard of living far superior to that offered to ordinary prisoners. This is a microcosm of the same distribution gap that exists between ordinary people and the privileged Communist Party elite outside prison.
Many detainees rely on cultivating “connections” to improve their treatment. They’ll get new bedding and clothing. They’ll be given drier and more airy places to sleep. They won’t have to take overnight shifts or do manual piece work. Instead they’ll get light tasks to do or oversee the piece work done by other detainees. Some are even given the job of assigning daily chores among the other detainees, or what is known as being the “jail boss.”
It’s the detention center officers who hand out these assignments. I once heard of a person who spent several thousand yuan each month in an unsuccessful attempt to bribe the guards to give him the position of “jail boss.” Whether ordinary prisoners are treated with basic humanity depends entirely on personal favors from a few detention center guards. As long as the authorities continue to closely monitor and restrict detainees from meeting or corresponding with relatives and lawyers, then it’s wishful thinking for them to harbor any hopes of wiping out this kind of corruption.
I haven’t yet been transferred to prison, where individuals who’ve already been convicted are incarcerated. So, I don’t have much to say here about conditions in China’s prisons. But based on the many cases about which I’ve seen and heard, there are many similarities between prisons and detention centers.
Some might think that what I’ve reported here is based solely on my own personal experience and decide that it’s not a representative enough sample. What I’ve discussed here is mainly based on my personal experience, but for the past two years I’ve been lived 24 hours a day with a total of over 200 other detainees of all types. Many among them have spent time in other detention centers and prisons at different times and in different places. Of what they’ve told me, I’ve only included details that I have been able to corroborate.
I don’t expect the Communist authorities to undertake any reform as a result of this report, but I hope that I myself won’t become numb to these re-occurring atrocities and sink into a kind of degradation. For me, then, this is a way to seek my own salvation.
All men and women of the world who are willing to speak out for justice and humanity: Please listen to what I’ve said here and speak up on behalf of those of us who have already lost our ability to speak for ourselves. I pray that you will be blessed by God’s righteousness!
April 26, 2016
Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) is a Guangzhou-based lawyer and human rights defender. He was disbarred in 2005 as retaliation for his labor rights work and, in particular, for his role in attempting to remove corrupt officials in Taishi Village, Guangdong. Since 2006 he has been a proponent of a form of non-violent civil disobedience that encourages ordinary citizens to fight for their civil and political rights. He was detained in May 2014, and on January 29, 2016, sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” More writing and translations can be found on the Human Rights in China website.
To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, September, 2015.