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Liao Yiwu, translated by Michael Martin Day, March 4, 2019
On December 9th, 2018, on the eve of International Human Rights Day, in my hometown of Chengdu, Sichuan, the most influential house church in China today, the Early Rain Covenant Church, was raided by the police and banned, and more than 100 believers were taken away. The chapel, seminary, and other church property funded by the congregants were seized and the property was immediately and illegally occupied, becoming the government office hall of the Double Eyes Well Community. The founders of the church, the husband-and-wife pair of Wang Yi (王怡) and Jiang Rong (蒋蓉), were both accused of “inciting subversion of state power”, arrested and have gone missing until this day, leaving their ten-year-old son, Wang Shuya (王书亚), to be looked after by Wang Yi’s parents. A few days ago, burning with worry, Wang Yi’s father sought out a lawyer for his son. Unexpectedly, just after the two parties had finished their interview, police officers who had been surveilling them rushed up and arrested the lawyer, interrogated him in the police station for six hours, confiscated all related legal documents, and announced that he had been stripped of his right to provide counsel.
Wang Yi and I have known each other for 20 years. We are both dissident poets and writers and have both been directors of the Independent Chinese Pen Association. Together, we also published four underground books that have been banned. As I had visa applications to leave the country rejected 16 times, Wang also acted as my human rights lawyer. In 2005, Jiang Rong and Wang Yi were baptized and returned to the Lord. A half year later, Wang Yi, Yu Jie (余杰), Li Boguang (李柏光) and other Chinese Christians were received by President Bush in the White House. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Wang Yi and his wife founded the Early Rain Covenant Church in their home. Since then, they have been repeatedly harassed by the police and have been interrogated over 20 times. Later, Wang Yi became the chief pastor of the Early Rain Covenant Church and the most controversial “political pastor” among the more than 10 million congregants of China’s underground churches.
Every year on the anniversary of the June 4th Massacre, he has held a prayer meeting for the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre, for which he has been repeatedly censured. He has responded: “Many people ask us why we pray for June 4th as it is politics. I say I didn’t see politics, I saw people being killed, an injustice, people being oppressed and suffering. In a politicized society, just maintaining freedom of conscience is already considered political.”
On October 28, 2018, he preached: “This country is launching a war against the soul, although the ranking of this war is not the most advanced, it is the most important war. In Xinjiang, in Tibet, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Chengdu, the rulers of this country are launching this war, but they have established for themselves an enemy that can never be detained, can never be destroyed, will never capitulate nor be conquered: the soul of man…so they are destined to lose this war and are doomed to fail…”
He went on to mention the spiritual life, stating that life without spirituality is consequently undignified. He stressed: “Just as the spiritual life is the essence of human life, just as Christian faith is so precious, the one thing we cannot bear to lose, and is even the one treasure we sinners possess [is our spiritual life]; just so, when this country comes to take this sole treasure away, we beseech the Lord to fill us with the Holy Spirit, Amen. We beseech the Lord to let us not only do this, but to also let us use our persecution to convey a gospel of persecution to the society of China. Let them torture themselves in questioning the value their own souls, interrogating their own pitiable, despicable lives; where is dignity, honor and freedom under such a dictatorship of money and absolute power? It is either in Jesus Christ, or there is no dignity at all…”
And, so, Wang Yi was accused of “inciting subversion of state power”, and the sentence awaiting him will be no less than that of Liu Xiaobo, who was convicted of the same crime. And as he follows in the glorious path of a martyr, I predict that it can be no less than the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
In this “brainwashing war,” or call it a “war of souls,” like those of authoritarian tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, etc., God’s servants Wang Yi and Jiang Rong have become captives of “this country;” just as a decade ago, Liu Xiaobo became a prisoner of “this country” for drafting Charter 08. Wang Yi has stated: “If you tame the rulers in heaven, you cannot tame the dictators on the ground.” This young “egg”, who is 18 years younger than Liu Xiaobo, is at the turning point of this darkest chapter of Chinese history, similar to the martyred saint Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the Nazi period in Germany, when he openly confronted the “boulder” coming to crush him. At an evangelistic meeting on September 11, 2018, Wang shouted: “We have a duty to tell Xi Jinping that he is a sinner. The government he leads has greatly offended God because it has persecuted the church of our Lord Jesus Christ; if it does not repent, it must perish. We must proclaim that an evil person like him still has a way out. And the only way out is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…we say this as it is of true benefit to him and China’s rulers: we don’t want to see them sinking into hell, being cursed by God.”
In a sermon on the evening of September 21, 2018, he told the more than 500 Christians present: “In the persecution of the Henan House Church, not only was the cross dismantled, but the church was looted, and even the bibles and psalm books were burned. In China’s history of the twentieth century to the present, this is the fourth burning of the Bible. In 1900, the Boxers burned the Bible and killed Western missionaries, but the Lord at that time prepared a group of local evangelists for the future revival of his church. The second time was the heathen movement of 1922-1927, when the government burned bibles in large numbers; but it was followed by a ten-year renaissance of the Church from 1927 to 1937. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 was the third time China’s rulers burned the Bible and demolished churches; but since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Church of our Lord has had a revival of forty years in length. So, a few days ago someone asked: ‘Pastor Wang, don’t you worry that you will go to jail?’ I replied, I don’t worry, I just want to know one thing: Is the Lord using this burning and persecution in 2018 to somehow raise up a group of preachers for the Church in China? And are some of them congregants of the Early Rain Covenant Church…”
In the early spring of 2011, on the eve of my escape across the Sino-Vietnamese border, Wang Yi sent an e-mail to his friends that accurately predicted his own, later calamity. “Going to prison is like going to Africa,” he wrote, “God has given me three brocade purses: the ability to move my house at any time, to go to jail at any time, and to return to my heavenly home at any time.”
Seven years later, he finds himself in a cage. A common friend of ours, from our hometown thousands of miles away, mailed me Wang’s four underground poetry collections. Once, I deliberately did not read his writings. I am not a Christian, although I wrote God is Red, a book pirated and praised by Wang Yi as “exalting the Lord”. However, I never subconsciously felt any form of mission or desire to offer praise. Although I will diligently write everything down [that I am told], I am but a tape recorder of an era.
But the “recorder” also bursts into tears, just as I do now as I read Wang’s poems, mulling over “going to prison is like going to Africa” – so far away! So far away!! Can he return? Can I still see him in this life? In this world?
The prison cells of the Communist Party are getting darker and darker. Both Liu Xiaobo and Yang Tianshui have died within them. They were only in their 60s. They were both non-violent dissident writers. As soon as their sentences were almost served, they were suddenly diagnosed to have terminal illnesses…and Wang Yi has chronic gout that is extremely painful whenever it strikes. Will the police who took him “to Africa” let him carry painkillers with him? The next surprise interrogation he is subjected to, an attack of gout can be expected, and as he writhes in pain on the floor, will they send him to the hospital?
Our teacher in this profession, Solzhenitsyn, compared the labor camps all over the Soviet Union to a “gulag archipelago.” He described how when a person had not yet entered, the archipelago is like a constellation in the sky, so far away, unfathomable, no one knows how to reach it. Until one day the catastrophe befalls them, and they then realize the only way to get there is through formal arrest. Coming back, or never coming back, no one can tell….
Yes, when I left the birthplace of my nightmares, the gout patient Wang Yi continued to move onward and desperately resisted for seven more years before finally being formally arrested instead of being “asked to tea”, “subpoenaed”, “placed under house arrest”, “repatriated”, “sent on vacation”, “gone missing” or “black-hooded”. I have a foreboding feeling he will not return! Everyone knows that country and its cities known as Chengdu, Lhasa, Urumqi or Beijing, are secretly filled with political prisoners serving their time. For those who for the time being have yet to enter, they are as remote as the archipelago or Africa.
I am here with an appeal for the poet, writer and pastor Wang Yi and his wife, Jiang Rong. I hope that all Western politicians and poets, writers, scholars, human rights activists and ordinary citizens will pay attention to this confrontation with brainwashing, this resistance in the war of hijacking the souls of China’s people; I hope that German Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Maas will make use of their influence with China to prompt the Xi Jinping regime to release Wang Yi and Jiang Rong; I also hope President Trump and the U.S. government will link their unprecedented trade wars with human rights and rescue Wang Yi and his wife. I say this because the President put his hand on the Bible when he was sworn in, and Wang Yi was arrested and imprisoned in protest against the burning of the same Bible.
Of course, I also hope that the Pope and the Vatican, who signed a shameful agreement with the Chinese government not long ago, will repent and publicly propose the release of God’s children, Wang Yi and Jiang Rong.
Dear friends, whether we know each other or not, thank you for reading and passing this on. I also hope that you will express what you feel and your conscience in any way you find appropriate, and support this appeal.
Liao Yiwu, exiled writer, on Chinese New Year’s Eve, 2019, Berlin.
Three Poems by Wang Yi
Liao Yiwu is a Chinese writer living in Berlin. Michael Martin Day teaches at National University in La Jolla, California.
The Crackdown on Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church: A Backgrounder, China Change, December 21, 2018.
Pastor Wang Yi, December 24, 2018
In line with the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the leaders that God placed in power over China, because the coming and going of kings and leaders is all His hands. In this vein, I shall obey the arrangements God has made for Chinese history and its government.
As a pastor of the Christian church, my starting point is the Bible, and I have my own understanding and views on society, politics, and law, as well as on the proper definitions of justice and benevolent governance. I abhor the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the church, how it deprives people of their right to free faith. However, it is not my calling to bring about changes in politics or society, and neither is this the meaning of the Good News that God brings to his people.
All the ugliness of reality, with its political injustices and arbitrary application of the law, show that the cross of Jesus Christ is the Chinese people’s sole hope for salvation. It also shows that true hope and perfect human society cannot come about through any change in secular politics or culture—only through the forgiveness of human sin by Jesus Christ can man gain eternal life in Heaven.
As a pastor, my faith in the gospel and my teachings for the masses, as well as my condemnation of all sins, come from Christ’s command in the gospel, out of His unmeasurable love. Human life is so short. God is eager to command the church to lead and allows anyone to repent so long as they are willing. Christ is willing, and so urgently waiting, to forgive all those who turn from sin. This is the mission of all the work that the church is doing in China. It is to, before this world, bear witness to Christ, to bear witness to the kingdom of heaven before the Chinese, and to bear witness to the eternal life of heaven before the short life of the earth. This is my calling as a pastor.
For this reason, I accept and respect the CCP’s political power as a temporary state allowed by God. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, a tyrant comes as God’s punishment for the wicked, with the purpose being to urge the people of God to repent. For this, I am willing to physically obey the rules of their law enforcement as a form of discipline and ordeal from the Lord.
At the same time, I must make it clear that the Communist regime’s persecution of the church is a heinous crime. As a pastor of the Christian church, I must resolutely and publicly condemn these sins. My calling also requires me to transgress all human laws, albeit nonviolently, that violate the Bible and God’s commandments. Christ, my Savior, also asks me to joyfully bear all the consequences that come with the transgression of these evil laws.
This, however, does not mean that my personal and clerical disobedience is a political act in the sense of rights defense or civil disobedience, for I have no intention to change any of China’s institutions or its laws. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is disobedience commanded by faith, a resistance that can bring a jolt to mortal sinners and serve as a testimony of the Christian cross.
As a pastor, my resistance is part of the Gospel mission. The great mission of Christ requires our great resistance in the face of worldly adversity. The purpose of resistance is not to change this world, but to bear witness to another world.
The mission of the church is simply to function as a church; it is not to be part of any secular institution. Speaking in a passive sense, the church must separate itself from the world and avoid letting itself be institutionalized by worldly influence. At the same time, all actions of the church are but efforts to prove to this world the reality of another world. The Bible teaches us that we can only obey God, not people, in matters concerning the gospel and human conscience. Therefore, disobedience out of faith and the resulting physical endurance are the ways we witness another, eternal world and the glory of its sovereign.
This is why I have no interest in changing any political and legal institutions in China. When or whether the CCP’s policies of persecution against the church will change is of no concern to me. No matter the regime, whether today or tomorrow, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church and violate the human conscience, which belongs to God alone, I will continue my resistance as one of the faithful. Because all the missions that God has given me are manifested through the sum of my actions: I act so that more Chinese may understand that the hope of mankind and society lies only in Christian redemption of Christ, in the supernatural grace of God.
If God decides, by way of the CCP regime’s persecution of the church, to lead more Chinese people to a state of despair, make them experience the disillusionment of faith, so that they will come to know Jesus, overcome hardships, and build their own church, then I am very happy to obey God’s arrangements, because His are always loving and perfect.
It is precisely because in all my words and deeds I neither seek nor expect any changes in society or politics, I am no longer afraid of the powers that govern them. For the Bible teaches that God’s authority, by which governments are established, is something to be feared by those do evil, not good. Those who believe in Jesus do not do evil, and they should not fear the power of darkness. Although I am often weak, I believe that this is the promise of the gospel. It is the good news for which I have expended my every effort to spread throughout Chinese society.
I also understand that precisely for this reason, the Chinese Communist regime is full of fear for a church that no longer fears it.
Be the sentence long or short, if I am to be detained so that those in power may relax their fear of my faith and my Savior, I am happy to help them in this way. But I know that I can truly help the souls of those in power and law enforcement only when I say no to all the sinful persecution of the church, and take up peaceful means of resistance. I long for God to use me to tell those who rob me of my personal freedom that there exists an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot detain. That is the teaching of Jesus Christ, who died and was resurrected.
No matter what kind of crime this regime charges me with, no matter what kind of filth is thrown on me, as long as this crime is made to assault my beliefs, writing, speech, and missionary behavior, it is nothing but the devil’s lies and temptations. I will deny it all: I shall serve the sentence without serving the law, and refuse to admit guilt even if I accept the ruling of the law.
And I must point out that the most evil and terrible sin of Chinese society is the persecution of the Lord’s Church and of all Chinese who believe in Jesus Christ. This is not only a crime against Christians, but also a crime against all non-Christians. For through the government’s violence and cruelty, they have been prevented from coming to Jesus, and there is no greater sin than this.
If one day this regime is overthrown by God Himself, it will be for no other reason than His punishment and vengeance for the commission of this sin. On earth, there is a thousand-year-old church, but no regime can last a thousand years. There is only eternal faith, but no eternal power.
Those who hold me will be detained by angels. He who interrogates me will eventually be interrogated by Christ. With this in mind, the Lord has filled me with sympathy and sadness for those who detain and try me. I beg the Lord to use me, to give me the strength and wisdom to bring the gospel to them.
Tear me from my family, my reputation, and my well-being, there is nothing that those in power cannot do. However, no earthly force can compel me to give up my faith, to change my life, or raise me from the dead.
Thus, distinguished officials, I beseech you to stop doing evil, not for my sake, but for the sake of you and your children. I beg you to stop: there is no reason for you to pay the price of eternal damnation in hell for so humble a sinner as myself.
Jesus is Christ, the Son of the Living God. He died for sinners and was resurrected for us. Yesterday, today, and for all time, he is my sovereign and Lord of all the world. I am His servant and for this I am detained. With gentleness I resist all those who resist God, and I will gladly disobey any law that does not obey God.
September 21, 2018 (first draft)
Revised on October 4, released by the church 48 hours after Wang Yi’s detention.
Appendix: What Is the Faith of Disobedience?
It is my firm belief that the Bible does not give any government or branch the authority to manage the church or Christianity. Thusly, the Bible requires me to peacefully resist all administrative and judicial forces that persecute the church and interfere with the Christian faith. It is a nonviolent resistance that I embrace with optimism and joy.
I firmly believe that this is an action rooted in faith. In the contemporary totalitarian state that persecutes the church and rejects the gospel, the faith of disobedience is an inevitable component in spreading the Good News.
I firmly believe the faith of disobedience is an act that signifies the end time. It is a testimony to the eternal city of God in the transient city of sin. The disobedient Christian, following the path and manner of the cross, follows the path of Christ, who was nailed to the crucifix. Peaceful resistance is the way we show our love for this world, but also the way in which we avoid being mixed up in it.
I believe that the Bible requires me to rely on the grace of Christ and the power of His resurrection to follow the two non-negotiable bottom lines in practicing this faith of disobedience.
First is the bottom line of the heart. The goal of the faith of disobedience is love for the soul, not hatred of the flesh. This resistance aims to change the soul, not the environment. Should, at any time, my peace and patience be overtaken by persecution from without, and in my heart arise resentment and bitterness towards those who persecute the church and slander Christians, then the goal of the faith of disobedience cannot be reached,
Second is the bottom line of behavior. The gospel requires that the resistance of faithful must be non-violent. The secret of the gospel lies in the enthusiastic endurance of hardship, a willingness to bear unrighteous punishment rather than resort to physical resistance.
Peaceful resistance is born of love and forgiveness. The cross means being willing to suffer when you don’t have to suffer. Because Christ’s ability to resist is unlimited, he was able to endure any humiliation and pain. Christ’s way of resistance, as he hung nailed to the cross, was to extend a olive branch of peace to the world that crucified him.
I believe that Christ calls upon me to use my whole life to practice the faith of disobedience in the face of this regime that rejects the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the way I preach the gospel, and it is the secret of my evangelism.
Wang Yi, the Lord’s Servant
September 21, 2018 (first draft)
Revised on October 4, released by the church 48 hours after Wang Yi’s detention.
The Crackdown on Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church: A Backgrounder, China Change, December 21, 2018.
September 25, 2018
China Change, partnered with Humanitarian China, has compiled this 19-minute video presentation about the Chinese regime’s ongoing repression of churches, particularly in central China’s Henan Province (河南). Much of the footage is collected from social media, and we conducted a number of interviews with pastors inside and outside China to provide context and analysis. – The Editors
Living Stone: A Portrait of a House Church in China, December 21, 2015.
The Shepherds of Living Stone Church, December 25, 2016.
Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer, died on February 26, aged 49.
Li Baiguang, born on October 1, 1968, was the youngest of seven children in a tiny mountain village household in Jiahe county, Chenzhou, Hunan. His father died when he was seven years old. The family was impoverished. When Li reached school age, his playmates went to school, but he had to stay home another year and help his mother with chores. One day, after he herded the ducks back home, Li went to the school, leant on the window, and saw his friends all studying. He returned home and told his mother through tears: “If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll hack our ducks to death.”
In 1987, the child who used to sleep on the hard loft of a pigpen with his brothers matriculated to Xiangtan University (湘潭大学) majoring in philosophy. “While I was at university, my living expenses were roughly 50 yuan a month. Every cent of it was made by my mother selling bitter melon, squash, rice wine, and our pigs,” Li told an interviewer in 2010. One month in winter, when the family didn’t send money, he had to borrow from another student; by the next month, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. “It hurt me so deeply that I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to jump off a building. However, I was held back by the thought that if I did kill myself, I’d be letting my mom down.”
After graduating from the unremarkable Xiangtan University, Li scored well enough on a test to be admitted to China’s premier institution of higher education, Peking University’s School of Law. This feat by itself indicates his intelligence and grit. Despite that, “my family weren’t impressed that I’d gotten into PKU. When I finished my Masters and went onto a PhD, they were even less pleased. They said: You’re reading so many books, but no one back home benefits in the least. You’d be better off coming back and being a village cadre.”
At PKU, Li studied constitutional and administrative law; his advisor was the renowned Chinese constitutional law scholar Xiao Weiyun (萧蔚云). A series of lectures that he and classmates held about the constitution came in for criticism not only by his advisor (“Why aren’t you addressing the benefits of socialist rule of law, but instead talking about how French supreme court justices understand the constitution?” he jabbed), but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. In 1997 after Li received his PhD, his advisor was concerned that he would be trouble if he stayed, and thus rejected Li’s application for a teaching position at PKU.
At the end of that year, Li went to Hainan University. In the 1990s, Hainan was the largest Special Economic Zone in all of the country, and had attracted people from the rest of China hunting for opportunity. Many had been functionaries in the government until the violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement crushed their political aspirations; others were student activists, at a loss and disillusioned. At Hainan University, a faraway and marginal institution, Li Baiguang continued to hold academic salons with students, taking great joy in their discussions on democracy and the rule of law.
The Year of 1998
In early 1998, a friend from Li Baiguang’s home province introduced him to a small group of democracy activists in Guangzhou. They were part of a campaign to organize an opposition party across cities and provinces.
In the 1990s, there were two major campaigns to organize independent political parties. The first, led by Hu Shigen (胡石根) in Beijing in 1992, involved a few dozen and was quickly met with severe repression. The leaders were given heavy sentences, with Hu Shigen jailed for 20 years. The next was in 1998.
The global context of the 1998 party organization event is worth sketching out. Following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, U.S. Congress turned the annual review of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status into a debate and criticism of human rights conditions in China. For all that, from the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. never once failed to grant China MFN status, including in 1990, after the massacre in Beijing. China’s strategic goals through the 1990s were 1) to normalize trade relations with the U.S., 2) to join the World Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. and China, and China and the world, were engaging in “trade for human rights” deals. They included the following:
- In October 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (though did not ratify it until 2001);
- In November 1997, China’s most well-known political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), was released and went into exile in the U.S.;
- In June 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to abolish the annual review of Most Favored Nation status for China, and to grant China permanent normal trade relations;
- On June 25, 1998, President Clinton arrived in Xi’an, kicking off a tour of China. His hosts had him observe local elections in Xiahe village, on the outskirts of Xi’an. “I understand that soon, like nearly half a million other villages across China, you will be voting to choose your local leaders,” he remarked;
- In September, 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited China;
- In October 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; though 20 years later has yet to ratify it);
- In November 1998, the National People’s Congress passed the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees of the People’s Republic China” (《中华人民共和国村民委员会组织法》) which guaranteed that villages would be able to govern autonomously and carry out grassroots democracy.
The reader can very well imagine, in the context of all of this, how Chinese dissidents were full of hope about the unprecedented possibilities of 1998, and how their imagination was fired. The democracy activists’ plan was to formally and openly register a political party in China. This was, after all, one of the rights stipulated in the ICCPR, and the organizers were no longer interested in secretive and shadowy political opposition.
The 29-year-old law PhD Li Baiguang helped prepare the materials for the registration of the “Democracy Party of China.” He may have even authored the party’s charter. Having done what was entrusted to him, Li went back to Hainan. One afternoon, he received a telephone call telling him that the University’s Party Committee Secretary, as well as the head of the law school, wanted to speak with him. The three met at the law school, and they asked him about his teaching. When he left the meeting and went outside, two burly men were waiting. They strode over and, each grabbing an arm, hauled the five-foot Li into a waiting Toyota. Li asked, “Are you from the Ministry of State Security?” They laughed.
Li was detained for a week. They questioned him about his role in the party registration. All the related documents he had were confiscated during a raid of his apartment. They also demanded that he produce a written statement of guilt and repentance, and that he not leave Hainan. He wrote a confession and agreed to stay in the city. After that, security officials kept him under surveillance, and often demanded he grant them “chats.”
A fortnight later, in March 1998, Li booked an airline ticket from a friend’s house and the next morning quietly took the first flight out of Hainan straight to Beijing.
The day Clinton arrived in China, Wang Youcai (王有才) and his colleagues in Hangzhou traveled to government offices to register the Zhejiang branch of the Democracy Party of China. Their application was denied. In September, Shandong activists traveled to local government offices to register the Shandong branch of the Democracy Party of China, also to no avail. In Wuhan, activists led by Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) went to the Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and lodged the application for the Hubei provincial organizing committee of the Democracy Party of China, and were also rejected. In November, Yu Wenli (徐文立) and other activists in Beijing announced that they were establishing the Beijing and Tianjin headquarters of the party. Democracy Party organizers across the country were then tracked down and arrested, and at the end of 1998 charged with “subversion of state power” and given harsh prison sentences. Wang Youcai of Hangzhou got 11 years; Qin Yongmin of Wuhan got 12 years; Yu Wenli of Beijing, 13 years. Liu Xianbin (刘贤斌) in Sichuan persisted in party organizing and was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1999.
Following this — despite the continued arrest and imprisonment of independent scholars and political dissidents, as well as the brutal suppression of Falun Gong in 1999 — Clinton in October 2000 signed into law permanent normal trade relations with China. The following year, China proceeded to join the WTO. Nearly 20 years later, however, China has not made good on its trade promises, nor does it intend to; instead, China has undermined WTO rules and norms, as a January 2018 report by the United States Trade Representative says. Thus, though China, in bad faith, played the “trade for human rights” deals of the 1990s, it won every hand. This is because the Chinese government well knew that U.S. companies were salivating over the China market, that the U.S. would go along with the pretense that the Chinese authorities were sincere, and that no one would follow-up on the broken promises.
Now in 2018, we can imagine ourselves in a time machine, and take a fresh look at how both laughable and tragic were these “trade for human rights” negotiations in 1998.
Li Baiguang was spared prison in 1998 only because he was an inadvertent beneficiary of the negotiations underway. So as to not ruin their grand trade deal, the Party took a relatively lenient approach against the non-core party organizers.
If it were 2018 in which all this took place, Li would not only have not escaped jail time, but he wouldn’t have even been able to flee Hainan. Whether by plane, boat, or train, his ID card would have thrown out a “person of interest” alert, and facial recognition technologies would have picked up his movements. He’d have had nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide.
When he got to Beijing, Li holed up in a small house near Peking University; he didn’t contact anyone, and stayed off the telephone.
However, he didn’t stay hidden long. That year PKU celebrated its 100th anniversary of founding, and the houses of local residents around the campus were being razed for construction, sparking conflicts. Li and friends got involved in helping the residents resist the illegal demolition. One day, after he left a bookstore near the Southern Gate of PKU, he found that the bicycle he’d left by the door had been badly mangled. He knew it was a warning. As he explained in a later interview: “After that I holed up in the house again and dared not go out.”
Many of Li Baiguang’s friends and acquaintances in Beijing were young liberal intellectuals and political dissidents that had been tracked and tagged by the Ministry of State Security. Security agents were thus quickly able to identify his whereabouts. One evening in August of 1998, as Li was riding past the Eastern Gate of Peking University, he was knocked off his bicycle by a Volkswagen Santana. Two large men climbed out, shoved him in the car, hooded him, squashed him between them in the back seat, and rammed his head towards his crotch. After driving 40 to 50 minutes, he was dragged into a basement and interrogated by people who identified themselves as agents of the Beijing Bureau of State Security (北京市国家安全局), as well as agents who had come from Hainan. They wanted to know what he’d done since he left Hainan, and why he left without permission.
They released him that evening. The Beijing agents made him write a ‘guarantee letter’ promising that he would not flee again, and that he’d submit ‘thought reports’ regularly. Before long he began to find this unbearable and told the police that he would not write the reports anymore. His home was again raided, and they found that Li had cursed them and sworn revenge in his diary. He never kept a diary after that.
A friend remembers the deep impression left on Li by the harassment and monitoring of 1998: “They infiltrate your blood,” he said.
After his return to Beijing, Li relied on translating, proofreading, and writing to make a living. This was the kind of work that Li enjoyed and felt at home with. In graduate school at PKU, he had translated Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The book had already been translated before, but his version, titled in Chinese “The Way of the Ruler,” introduced it to a popular audience. In the summer of 1998 when he was proofreading “The New Asian Way,” he encountered the work Victorian author Samuel Smiles, in particular the classic “Self Help.”
He borrowed Smiles’ book from the PKU library and found it “deeply moving and inspiring.” Li wrote in a 2005 essay: “Samuel Smiles’ works, through moving stories that compel tears, gives amply convincing witness to the fact that nobleness of character and spirit is the salvation of every individual, country, and people — and that this is our sole path to freedom and happiness.”
Through the 1990s, numerous ‘shadow’ publication houses cropped up in Beijing doing a lively business in the book trade. In China, only books with an official publication number are allowed to be printed, and these publication numbers were only allocated to government-registered, state-run presses. Private publishers would buy publication numbers from the state presses to publish books. Most of the proprietors were intellectuals who couldn’t stand the oppressive restrictions of the official system; some were idealists who hoped to awaken the public through books and the spread of new ways of thinking. Many of these businesses were composed of just a few people, and most of what they published were translations.
Li Baiguang decided to translate and publish Samuel Smiles’ works (the copyright on which had already expired), and he became a publisher.
In January of 1999, Li published the Smiles classic “Self-Help” through the little-known Beijing-based Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社). In July, September, October, 1999, then in July and October in 2010, Li published a series of Smiles’ books under the Beijing Library Press, respectively “Character,” “Duty,” “Thrift,” “The Huguenots in France,” and “Life and Labour.” He marketed the series as the “Conscience Collection” (良知丛书). Li took on planning and editorial tasks for the series, while also performing some of the translation. He farmed out distribution and sales to contractors already established in the industry. Li’s obsession and dedication to the work is clear from the compressed timeline.
In November of 1999, The Commercial Press, a major Beijing publishing house, published Li Baiguang’s translation of American professor Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy,” a book of instruction on the history and fundamental tenets of democracy.
Among the works Li had first published was the 19th century French judge Louis Proal’s “Political Crime.” The Chinese version, based on the 1898 English-language translation, was published by Reform Press in April 1999. It immediately attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. As put by one of the translators and Li’s friend Wang Tiancheng (王天成), “The title of this book was just too outlandish for the authorities.” Indeed, the “political crimes” discussed in the book were not principally in reference to crimes against the government, such as treason and revolt, but instead crimes committed by governments and politicians, including assassinations, hatred, hypocrisy, political spoliation, electoral corruption, and so on.
State security agents came and confiscated everything off the desk of the typist. Li Baiguang went into hiding once more. “Political Crime” had its commercial life stunted.
The Conscience Collection, on the other hand, sold exceptionally well, in particular “Self-Help.” This put a little money in Li’s pocket.
Around strangers and new acquaintances, Li Baiguang was quiet and taciturn. But when he was with old friends, he wouldn’t quit talking. During gatherings at his apartment, once he got going on a topic, he rarely stopped, not caring whether his audience had lost interest or not. He also had a peculiar hand-gesture, well known to friends who tried to interrupt him: he pushed his palm down and said “Listen to me!” Those who know him, without exception, were left with a deep sense of his passion, energy, focus, and learning.
“He is a rather pure man,” one friend said.
After accumulating a small amount of capital with the Smiles venture, Li was in a position to buy up copyrights to translate and publish contemporary foreign books. This was not always successful, as his sales of American author and speaker John C. Maxwell’s series on leadership demonstrated. To make matters worse, not long after this one of Li’s distributors absconded with some of his money. Between 2002 and 2003, Li got out of the publishing business.
‘Stomp You to Death’
In around the year 2000, while he was still in the book business, the Ministry of State Security apparently decided that he wasn’t such a serious threat to national security after all, and assigned him to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for supervision.
On March 13, 2001, MSS agents in Beijing and Tianjin secretly arrested eight young people, six of whom were recent graduates, and two current graduate students, at universities in Beijing. They met each other through intercollegiate student clubs. In August of 2001, in the rented flat of a friend, the group signed their names, impressed their fingerprints, stacked their hands together and vowed to form an “organization.” The name they gave themselves was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会), a nod to the “New Youth” journal established by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu (陈独秀). Indeed, four of the young men were themselves CCP members; their guiding principles were “freedom, democracy, justice, equality.” Over the next few months they gathered now and then on campus, in a dorm, or outside, often speaking for hours at a stretch about official corruption, layoffs, or the burdens of farmers, among other emerging social problems in China. They also invited liberal scholars to come and give lectures. They were rarely unanimous in their ideas, but all agreed that Chinese society was becoming increasingly unequal by the day, and that the government was suppressing healthy discourse. They were united in the belief that China had to undergo democratic reforms.
The case of the “New Youth Study Group” was the most significant political incident to emerge in 21st century China. One of the two of the undergrads, it turned out, had long been an MSS asset; the other, the only female in the group, leveled accusations against four other members after numerous interrogation sessions. Statements given to the police by these two were used by prosecutors as the basis of charges of “subversion of state power” against the other four, who were sentenced to between 8 and 10 years of imprisonment.
On the evening of March 21, 2001, police came knocking on Li Baiguang’s door. He was taken to the Haidian district police station and interrogated; police wanted to know about his relationship with Yang Zili (杨子立). Yang, 28, was the oldest member of the New Youth Study Group; two years prior he had finished graduate studies at the Department of Mechanics at PKU, and was working as a software engineer. He and Li knew one another at PKU between 1995 to 1997, and Li introduced Yang, among other students, to thinkers like Hayek, Orwell, Mill, Montesquieu, and von Mises. Li also delivered lectures to Yang Zili and his friends on constitutional law, for which Li and Yang were summoned and questioned by state security.
Since returning Beijing in 1998, Li Baiguang had lived close to Yang and a few like-minded friends in Beijing. They would gather and converse, and Li sometimes delivered lectures to the “New Youth Study Group.”
The interrogation went for three hours that night. When police let Li go, they cautioned him: “We’re not through with you. We’ll see you again.” They told him to stay in town.
The police came again on March 24, three nights later. This time Li was taken to a secret interrogation facility at the foot of the mountains in Xiangshan, western Beijing. For the next seven days, as he recounted in a 2010 interview, he was put to extremely detailed questioning: they wanted to know where he grew up and what his family was like, his time studying in Beijing, his involvement in the Democracy Party of China in 1998, what he’s been doing in Beijing since, and other questions.
The secret interrogation likely touched on other things he was involved in — for instance, his submissions to VIP Reference (《大参考》), one of the largest pro-democracy email newsletters dispatched daily from the United States, which focused on news and analyses censored by the authorities. The newsletter’s influence was enormous from about 2000 to 2004, when it was said to have around one million recipients in China. Zhao Yan (赵岩), who worked with Li Baiguang over those years, told me that part of he and Li’s ‘underground work’ was submitting articles about rights defense incidents and internal Party struggles to VIP Reference. The only reason Li wasn’t caught by the MSS, Zhao Yan said, was because he wiped his computer daily. Li Hongkuan (李洪宽), the founder and operator of VIP Reference, said in a February 28 YouTube video: “In the process of founding VIP Reference…and over these years, Li Baiguang and I had always stayed in close touch.”
Secret police in the state security apparatus knew very well that Li Baiguang harbored a deep abhorrence toward the Chinese system of dictatorship, which he felt was unchanged for 5,000 years; they knew he castigated the Chinese, as a people, who have lost the sense of right and wrong and instead enjoyed the regressive tendencies and culture of mutual deception. These were the thoughts he often revealed to friends — but the fact that the secret police knew it all so clearly shocked him deeply. For a while after he was released, he wouldn’t dare to speak his mind as freely as he used to among friends.
After those seven days of interrogation in the secret MSS facility at Xiangshan, close friends of Li’s described him as being “panicked” and “shaken to the core.”
“They said they’re going to ‘stomp me to death,’” Li said in a phone call to his friend Wang Tiancheng. He told another friend that he was stomped on while in custody.
In the next two years he was visited continually and harassed by the neighborhood committee and local police. Police demanded that he listen to their orders and make himself available on demand. If he didn’t listen, they said, “we can run you out of town anytime we like. You don’t have a Beijing household registration. You’re just a temporary.”
Sacking Officials in Two Provinces and Five Places
Li Baiguang was introduced to Zhao Yan by Yu Meisun (俞梅荪) in 1997. Yu, an active liberal intellectual in Beijing, researched economic regulations at the State Council in the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were general secretary and premier. Zhao Yan is an independent, and maverick, freelance writer. In November 1998, a few months after the passage of the Organic Law of Villagers Committees, Zhao helped villagers in Harbin successfully dismiss corrupt officials through a vote. This was the first instance in which the new law was used to remove a village official; it attracted widespread attention from grassroots democracy activists at home and caused China observers to harbor illusions of a path to democracy.
Li was full of interest in Zhao’s work, and the two often chatted over tea. One day in late 2002, Zhao Yan said to Li: “Stop hanging about the house all day — what’s the point of digging into theory? Come out with me and take a look at the real world.” Zhao was a few years older than Li; at the time he had become the news director of the rural section of the “China Reform” (《中国改革》) magazine. The role meant that he was frequently approached by peasants from around the country complaining of local injustice. Zhao would head to the scene, conduct an investigation, then expose the the abuses in the magazine.
One of the first cases Li got involved in after teaming up with Zhao Yan was that of farmers in Fu’an (福安), Fujian Province, who’d had their land expropriated. The origins of the case stretched back 28 years, when a township government requisitioned land to build a reservoir; for 28 years, the farmers had not been compensated. They had petitioned for 20 years to no effect. Zhao and Li traveled to Fu’an, visited rural households, spoke with representatives of the aggrieved, and considered the options. The farmers said that trying to go the government route was a dead end, because the court refused to register their case. As Li said in a 2010 interview: “I was discussing it with Zhao Yan… through studying the law, I found there was a legal channel we could use. The reason these problems had been around so long was basically because the municipal Party Secretary, the mayor, the county Party Secretary, and the county governor had all simply been derelict in their duties. The ordinary folks pay the taxes for their government, so the government’s got a responsibility and a duty to resolve their problems. We could help the farmers initiate proceedings to strip these officials of their qualifications as people’s representatives in order to spur them into action and deal with this issue. Although these officials, whether mayors or Party secretaries, weren’t elected, according to the law their power comes from the people, so the people have a lawful right to dismiss them.” So Li and Zhao decided to help the villages by submitting a proposal to the local People’s Congress to dismiss the relevant officials. Li Baiguang acted as legal representative for the villagers.
The recall motion enumerated instances of government malfeasance, including the theft of farmland, embezzlement of land compensation and public infrastructure construction funds, misappropriation of relief funds for the poor, river pollution, and the receipt of bribes. It implicated numerous townships and villages in the Fu’an municipality. One day in early April 2003, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang assembled the village and township representatives, handed them pre-designed and typed forms, and looked on as they went door-to-door collecting signatures. The deputies wended their way through the mountains, working through the night, because they knew that they’d be blocked if the government found out. At noon the next day, the deputies brought in cardboard boxes and large bags with the signatures and wax thumb-prints of over 10,000 villagers. On April 8, Zhao and Li, as well as peasant deputy Miao Mengkang (缪孟康), submitted to the Fujian provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee and the Ningde municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee (one step up the chain of command from Fu’an) the motion for the recall of the mayor of Fu‘an as well as the ledger of 10,000 signatures in support of it.
This was the first instance in China where citizens had petitioned for the dismissal of a mayor. Li Baiguang, using the nom de guerre ‘Liu Baijiang’ (刘柏江), penned an article in the July issue of Modern Civilisation Pictorial (《现代文明画报》) with the headline “Can Citizens Dismiss a Mayor? A record of the first time in the New China that citizens demanded the dismissal of a city mayor.” What happened next was a textbook case of political governance with Chinese characteristics, which is true then and true today: first, the government mobilized police to prevent more people from signing the motion; second, they made threats to those who signed; third, they went to the offices of China Reform and pulled strings to stop further reporting and smeared Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang; fourth, they threatened and scared away journalists from other media; fifth, they told villagers that the dismissal proceedings had no legal basis, and thus were useless; sixth, they began exacting revenge against village deputies, including arrests; seventh, the provincial investigation team set up to look into the case came up with no results; eighth, they portrayed the incident as antagonistic toward the Party and the government; ninth, the mayor that villagers had petitioned to be dismissed, Lan Ruchun (蓝如春), was not only not dismissed, but promoted to deputy mayor of Ningde.
In January of 2004, Zhao and Li, working with local village deputies, again submitted a recall motion against Lan Ruchun. This time, under enormous public pressure, Lan was forced to resign, and the Fu’an municipal government gave villagers compensation of 1.5 million yuan ($237,000) for the expropriated land. This sum was less than a tenth of that owed.
In another case in Fujian Province, the government and investors had in the 1990s set out to develop a “Southeast Motor City” on the outskirts of Fuzhou (福州), the capital city. In doing so, they requisitioned a large amount of rural land — but after the fact, the peasants received neither the promised jobs in the factories in “Motor City,” nor any share of the benefits that accrued to the government from the development. Their share of the compensation was siphoned off by layer after layer of government, leaving them with next to nothing. In April 2004, Zhao and Li set about helping 20,000 villagers within Fuzhou municipality prepare a recall motion against the mayor of Fuzhou. Li Baiguang again was their legal representative.
In the same year in Tangshan (唐山) and Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), Hebei Province, Li Baiguang, working with Yu Meisun and Zhao Yan, represented tens of thousands of villagers in recall proceedings against corrupt officials.
In a 2004 essay about the recall motions he represented in five cities and two provinces, Li wrote with passion about how so many villagers “took the path of using the constitution as a weapon to defend their rights because under the current legal structures of China today, every other method they tried ended in failure: for years they went to local and central government offices to petition, constantly, to no effect; they lodged complaints in court, but the court refused to accept their case… the cold, selfish, greedy and colluding local government bureaucrat-mafias strangled the villagers out of even their most basic rights to subsistence.” Using the constitution to dismiss officials became their final remedy.
“This is a massive exercise in constitutional implementation,” Li told China Youth Daily in 2004. “Its value is not in whether it succeeds, but that through the process of studying and utilizing the constitution and the law, the seed of rule-of-law consciousness will begin to bud in the minds of Chinese villagers.” He added: “Understanding the proper relationship between the government and the people is their greatest gain.”
In a 2010 interview, Li said: “Back then we did it with such energy — standing up to these officials with the law, appealing to dismiss them every chance we could, taking them to court, and for the first time putting the fear into these insufferably arrogant men, it was really a delight.”
On another occasion though, he noted the failure of these motions and court cases to dismiss officials, a supposed constitutional right: “Rights without procedural guarantee are not real rights.” Indeed, no Chinese law provides such procedures.
Zhao Yan is the epitome of a certain Northeastern type; he has a robust physique, a gutsy attitude, and a forceful style of speech. Li Baiguang, meanwhile, is short, quiet, and restrained — but he executes with rigor and firmness. Between 2003 and 2004, the two of them traveled to seven or eight provinces, Zhao Yan as the investigative reporter, Li Baiguang as legal representative, getting themselves involved in countless land theft and compensation cases and cases of village governance and corruption. Wherever they went they handed out volumes of legal statutes they’d brought from Beijing, including the PRC Constitution, the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees , the Law on Land Administration (《土地管理法》), the Law on Deputies to the National People’s Congress and Deputies to the People’s Congresses (《人大代表法》), the State Compensation Law (《国际赔偿法》), the Administrative Procedure Law (《行政诉讼法》), and others, all to assist those whose rights had been infringed to file an administrative review or a complaint.
The villagers were often skeptical of such efforts. “We might use the law to solve problems, but government workers and police don’t, so what are we supposed to do?” they asked Li. His response: “Then you must insist on using the law! Even though in the process you may pay a price in blood and sweat, and perhaps even lose your personal freedom for a while, you have to keep going.” He firmly believed that persistence would lead to change. He told them a few stories that exemplified the power of using the law, including cases he was personally involved in. In one instance, the family farm of his client, Ms. Liu Jie (刘杰) in Heilongjiang, was expropriated, and she persisted in using legal rights defense (Li Baiguang also wrote an open letter to state premier Wen Jiabao, inviting him to appear him court to meet charges); another story he told was of Yao Lifa (姚立法) in Hubei successfully becoming a People’s Deputy; and another of blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) fighting for the rights of the disabled.
“The infringement of one’s rights is in fact a perfect opportunity for the awakening of civil rights consciousness,” Li said. “Before their rights are violated, they don’t grasp the natural conflict between power and rights. When rights are harmed, the fierce battle between power and rights begins. What we citizens can do is use the power of the law to repel those with unfettered power. The process is arduous, but there is simply no alternative.”
During his doctoral studies, Li Baiguang wrote a pamphlet titled “A Common Sense Reader for Chinese Citizens” (《中国公民常识读本》), using a question-and-answer format to address basic questions about human rights, government, autocracy, democracy, the constitution, economy, public opinion, education and faith, and military affairs, among other issues related to democratic constitutionalism. After the real world experiences of 2003 and 2004 however, he wanted to instead use actual cases to illustrate the basic principles associated with power and rights, burn them onto CD-ROM, and distribute them in every village. He saw the work as basic civics education for the Chinese people.
 Two weeks after the 1989 massacre, President Bush Sr. dispatched the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to Beijing to reassure Deng Xiaoping that the anger at, and criticism, of the Chinese government were merely temporary, would soon pass, and would not impact U.S.-China relations. Details of the visit and the reassurances made can be found in the memoirs of Brent Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
The story of Li Baiguang, including his transition to a lawyer, his new approach to rights defense, his meeting with President Bush, and his defense of house churches around the country, will conclude tomorrow…
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》