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February 19, 2018
On July 9, 2015, in the mass arrest of Chinese human rights lawyers and defenders known as the “709 Crackdown,” the security authorities used “residential surveillance at a designated place” (指定居所监视居住), a disguised form of secret detention, to detain lawyers. They denied family the ability to hire their own counsel, conducted secret trials, and violated the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” by forcing prisoners to plead guilt in video recordings for state media before trial. This campaign-style (运动式) suppression has engendered panic and backlash domestically, and led to widespread censure from the international community.
The lessons of the 709 mass arrests are deep. The rising prominence of human rights lawyers was, in the first place, a wonderful opportunity for the government to reflect on the value of lawyers for the rule of law and their role in improving social governance. But now, lawyers are arrested or disbarred on the slightest pretext, and their rights to practice and have a job are increasingly infringed upon.
On January 15, 2018, Yu Wensheng (余文生), defense counsel for 709 lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), was disbarred from practicing law by the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau. On the morning of January 19, Yu, while taking his child to school, was criminally detained by public security agents from Shijingshan district, Beijing, on charges of “obstructing an officer in discharge of duties.” On January 27, Yu Wensheng was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” by the Xuzhou municipal public security bureau in Jiangsu province, on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.”
On January 22, 2018, 709 crackdown target Sui Muqing (隋牧青) received an “Advance Notice of Administrative Punishment” (《行政处罚预先告知书》) from Guangdong provincial judicial authorities, informing him that he was going to lose his law license. After he lodged the appropriate application, Sui was granted a hearing with the provincial judicial bureau on February 3. After the hearing, his license was indeed rescinded.
On the heels of Sui Muqing’s disbarment, the news arrived that Beijing’s judicial bureau had rescinded the registration of Beijing Wu Tian Law Firm (北京悟天律师事务所), a boutique law firm run by lawyer Cheng Hai (程海).
A series of similar disbarments has taken place recently, including:
- In December 2017, Wang Liqian (王理乾) and Wang Longde (王龙德) in Yunnan having their law licenses revoked.
- Also in December 2017, Zhejiang lawyer Wu Youshui (吴有水) being suspended from legal practice for nine months based on public statements he made that the authorities didn’t like.
- In October 2017, 709 defense lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) being charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and detained in the Shenyang detention center.
- In September 2017 Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武), the lawyer defending Wang Jiangfeng (王江峰), who was charged with making political statements on Weibo, had his law license revoked.
- Also during 2017, the Shanghai lawyer Peng Yonghe (彭永和) resigned from the Shanghai Municipal Lawyer’s Association, because the Association refused to defend the rights of lawyers. Currently Peng faces the revocation of his own legal license.
Lawyers are an important component of the rule of law in China. Punishing lawyers for defending human rights is punishing the rule of law, rights, and order. The construction of an orderly, rational, and stable modern state requires the proactive involvement of lawyers. A society that sees lawyers as its enemy will inevitably fall into chaos and social unrest. Tragedies like the Cultural Revolution could easily recur.
For these reasons, we strongly call upon the judicial organs to be civilized and reasonable — immediately release the detained lawyers, respect and protect the professional rights of lawyers and the basic rights of other citizens, re-examine the recent spate of disbarments of lawyers and law firm licenses, and resolve in a proper manner the new problems that have arisen in social management. Don’t deliberately create conflict and opposition; instead, cooperate in advancing and nurturing the rule of law in China.
Contact address: email@example.com
- Liu Wei (刘巍), Beijing
- Wu Kuiming (吴魁明), Guangdong
- Liu Shihui (刘士辉), Guangdong
- Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Beijing
- Chang Boyang (常伯阳), Henan
- Wang Qiushi (王秋实), Heilongjiang
- Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), Beijing
- Wang Qingpeng (王清鹏), Hebei
- Wang Lei (王磊)
- Liu Shuqing (刘书庆), Shandong
- Shu Xiangxin (舒向新), Shandong
- Lu Fangzhi (吕方芝), Hunan
- Qin Chenshou (覃臣寿), Guangxi
- Chen Jinxue (陈进学), Guangdong
- Huang Hanzhong (黄汉中), Beijing
- Wen Donghai (文东海), Hunan
- Li Weida (李威达), Hebei
- Zhong Jinhua (钟锦化), Shanghai
- Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), Beijing
- Qu Yuan (瞿远), Sichuan
- He Wei (何伟), Chongqing
- Li Fangping (李方平), Beijing
- Tong Zhaoping (童朝平), Beijing
- Chen Yixuan (陈以轩), Hunan
- Yu Quan (于全), Sichuan
- Li Yongheng (李永恒), Shandong
- Ma Lianshun (马连顺), Henan
- Zhang Chongshi (张重实), Hunan
- Zou Lihui (邹丽惠), Fujian
- Lu Tinge (卢廷阁), Hebei
- Chen Jinhua (陈金华), Hunan
- Ren Quanniu (任全牛), Henan
- Luo Qian (罗茜), Hunan
- Li Jinxing (李金星), Shandong
- Wang Yu (王宇), Beijing
- Zeng Yi (曾义), Yunnan
- Meng Meng (孟猛), Henan
- Xu Hongwei (徐红卫), Shandong
- Ji Zhongjiu (纪中久), Zhejiang
- Liu Zhengqing (刘正清), Guangdong
- Ge Wenxiu (葛文秀), Guangdong
- Tan Yongpei (覃永沛), Guangxi
- Wang Zhenjiang (王振江), Shandong
- Wen Haibo (温海波), Beijing
- Teng Biao (滕彪), Beijing
- Jin Guanghong (金光鸿), Beijing
- Jiang Yuanmin (蒋援民), Guangdong
- Bao Longjun (包龙军), Beijing
- Xu Guijuan (许桂娟), Shandong
- Zheng Enchong (郑恩宠), Shanghai
- Chen Jiahong (陈家鸿), Guangxi
- Xiao Guozhen (肖国珍), Beijing
- Peng Yongfeng (彭永锋), Hebei
- Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武), Shandong
- Cheng Hai (程海), Beijing
- Cheng Weishan (程为善), Jiangsu
- Lu Siwei (卢思位), Sichuan
- Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强), Zhejiang
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January, 2018.
Wang Quanzhang: The 709 Lawyer Not Heard From Since July 2015, January 15, 2018.
61-Year Old Human Rights Lawyer Criminally Detained in Shenyang, China Change, October 31, 2017.
Little-Known Chinese Lawyer Disbarred for Defending Freedom of Speech, October 3, 2017.
Huang Yu, January 5, 2017
Zhen Jianghua has been placed under secrect detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated place,” his lawyer Ren Quanniu was told over the phone on December 13, 2017. Zhen continues to be denied access to his lawyers. — The Editors
Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) hadn’t yet gone to bed at midnight on September 1, 2017, when police burst into his apartment and put him in handcuffs. As he was being led out, he was unperturbed, and simply told his roommate: “Make sure you tell Xiao Li (小丽) to check Taobao and pick up my packages.” Xiao Li is Zhen Jianghua’s ex-wife. The phrase was code to say that she should spread the news of his arrest. Within a day the police had ransacked his house twice and confiscated his computer and all his documents. Not long after, his family received a notice of criminal detention for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power.”
Zhen Jianghua, 32 this year, is the key organizer behind an NGO known as Human Rights Campaign in China Service Center, or HRC China. It was formed in October 2008. Zhen took over it in October 2015, registering it in Hong Kong. His daily work involved aggregating and publishing updated news about human rights events in China, engaging with foreign media, and coordinating aid efforts — and sometimes protests — for human rights defenders who had been sent to prison.
The number of people in mainland China engaged in human rights relief work is vanishingly small — but even among this tight-knit group, Zhen Jianghua was one of an even smaller number who insisted on using his real name in the work. Openly engaging in these activities inside China brought Zhen an extraordinary array of difficulties in getting through daily life, and ended with the tragedy of prison.
He knew what was to come and made preparations for it. For several years, he only wore black: two sets of black t-shirts, two pairs of black shoes. Every night before bed, he did 50 push-ups, 50 squats, and 50 chin-ups. He ate vegetarian, or sometimes subsisted on meal replacement powder. He lived as plainly as possible. He also signed multiple blank copies of Power of Attorney, and gave them to friends. His Google account was set to automatically purge everything if he didn’t log in for two days. And he had a strict schedule for periodically wiping all data from his computer and phone.
From the moment he made the choice to engage in this work, he cut himself off from nearly all his friends, gradually becoming an island unto himself. “There’s nowhere safe in China,” he said. “You never know who’ll sell you out.” For both his own safety and that of others, he also rarely interacted with anyone in the same, small, rights defense community in China. Thus, if he was ever brought in and interrogated, he could indeed simply say: “I don’t know.”
“We can each see what the other’s doing,” he’d often say. “There’s no need to be in contact.”
The name he gave himself online was “Zhen Jianghua, you big fool.” His Facebook signature was: “In my own way, helping those who’ve already paid so great a price for their dreams — those who really need help.” After he was arrested, friends set up a Facebook page called “Southern Fool Concern Group” to post information about him.
This ‘southern fool’ was born in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province (广东江门). He graduated high-school through the vocational track, specializing in computing. Then he went straight to work. His first job, in 2005, was at an internet data center in Zhuhai (珠海). He worked hard and was eventually promoted to a managerial position. But the simple life of a computer programmer that he had led would be stirred up by the growing emergence of China’s censorship state.
One day at work, an elderly man came with his daughter. The man painted pictures for a living, and had set up his own online bulletin board on the side. He made a few posts about Mao Zedong, with titles like “An Overview of Mao,” and so on. He was using the servers of Zhen Jianghua’s company at the time, and suddenly his BBS had been shut down. Zhen thought at the time: this is very sensitive, we can’t talk about it, and it’s entirely normal that he was shut down. At the same time, he felt sorry for the old fellow and wanted to help him out. Later, when the company bought servers in Hong Kong, Zhen Jianghua moved this and other similar BBSs over, so they’d stay alive for a bit longer. But eventually none would survive the fate of being shut down.
As time went on, the government’s internet censors began calling Zhen’s company more and more, instructing they shut down particular websites. Nanjing University’s vibrant BBS, Little Lily, as well as Tsinghua University’s Shuimu BBS, were both blocked for non-campus access. Those were the changes that made Chinese netizens finally aware of the control and supervision that was taking place. Meanwhile, Zhen Jianghua’s company began engaging in top-down self-censorship, developing a program that examined the content of the servers and automatically shut it down for “bad traffic.” More recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published “Order 43” prohibiting websites and data companies to provide services without registering with the government.
In his spare time, Zhen Jianghua was involved in Wikipedia Chinese, and started joining technical events for Google developers. Through community activities, he made connections with grassroots people and taught them how to use the internet to advocate for their own interests. The world, for the young man, was diverging in two opposite directions.
For a while, he had to travel to Hong Kong frequently for business, and learned about the annual June 4 commemoration in Victoria Park. He admired the “Tiananmen Mothers.” “Those people emit radiance,” he said. He began making the annual trip to the Victoria Park commemoration. One year he brought a friend from China along and they helped hand out fliers. When the friend returned he was questioned by state security police (国保), got in trouble at his job, and was banned from leaving China for five years.
At this point Zhen Jianghua realized that if he was going to resist state power, his life would be changed fundamentally. He also realized that those, like his friend, who paid the price for doing so wouldn’t be remembered.
Yet he wasn’t quite ready for outright resistance. Instead, he tried his hand at a number of safe endeavors after his job as a programmer. For instance, he became a full time social worker for the Zhuhai Municipal Red Cross, where he primarily called in on the “hard-pressed masses,” delivering rice, oil, noodles, and later washing detergent to poor families. As a government affiliated social worker, his job was to maintain contact with the targets of the services and “keep their emotions stable.” He wasn’t able to keep this position for very long, because after adding his signature to an online call of support for Ai Weiwei in 2011, he was taken away by police for an inquiry, in front of his colleagues at work. Zhen quit of his own accord “to protect the Red Cross from any negative impact.” He was also the head social worker at Nanqingcun (南青村), where he dealt with female victims of domestic violence. The most he could do was advise that they file for divorce.
His brief period as a social worker inside the official system made him fed up. “Being a social worker in China is a debilitating job,” he said. “You have to sing the praises of the Communist Party morning to night, put on events, studiously avoid sensitive topics — such as why villagers are poor in the first place, and you can’t teach them their rights and how to empower themselves.” Zhen knew that delivering rice and cooking oil wasn’t addressing the fundamental issues, and that working inside the system made it impossible to think about the structural problems.
Zhen thought that if social work was forced to avoid sensitive issues and sensitive social groups, then it was not what he wanted. He quit and was on his own. He began participating in activities to help prisoners of conscience, in a personal capacity. He helped collect signatures and spread information about tainted milk formula with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father in Beijing whose son had been poisoned by melamine-tainted milk; he paid the phone bill for feminist activist Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) — neither of whom he had met. Later, when he met rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) for the first time, Zhen said by way of introduction that “My online name is ‘guest Zhen,’” to which Jiang replied that he remembered him as “the one who sent all those messages encouraging us years ago.” (Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years imprisonment on November 21, 2017, for “subversion of state power.”)
In late 2010 after Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) won the Nobel Peace Prize, a group of likeminded Chinese internet users wanted to get together and celebrate. Everyone was supposed to communicate via Twitter, but one activist who was often monitored by the authorities made the mistake of calling Zhen Jianghua and inviting him to the gathering. For the authorities, this was the first time that the online “guest” persona and the real life Zhen Jianghua were connected. After that, the police began calling in on him regularly, and whenever a politically sensitive date or activity arrived, they would take him on forced “travel.” He could also no longer attend the June 4th commemoration at the Victoria Park in Hong Kong.
But once his real identity was exposed, rather than backing off, he went all in.
Zhen began to launch projects on his own, mostly having to do with recording events or providing technical support. For instance, he launched a project called “Big Brother” to keep tabs on citizens who had been monitored by the state; he maintained a website called “Drink Tea Net” (喝茶网) which collected ordinary citizens’ testimonies of being questioned by police for their activism under the euphemism of “drinking tea.” He also established the site “Climb the Wall Net” (翻墙网) which provided technical assistance to netizens on how to circumvent Beijing’s Great Fire Wall.
In 2013 a student group at the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (北京理工大学珠海学院) invited him to give a talk about circumventing Beijing’s internet blockade. The students put up posters around campus for an event that taught “how to use Internet scientifically.” The event was shut down and the Party leadership at the university called the students in for questioning. “Do you have any idea what kind of person this Zhen Jianghua is?” they asked the students.
Zhen wasn’t too concerned with the state security police coming to harass him, nor did he mind being told to stay off campus. But when the security division at the university threatened to deny the graduation of students who’d invited him, Zhen Jianghua was furious. He tracked down the state security officers in charge of the case and said: “I can leave the area if that’s what’s required; if there’s an issue, come to me, don’t bother the students. They’re about to graduate, and if that’s denied it will have a huge impact on their lives.” The state security officers acquiesced to his proposal, and ordered him not to step foot on campus again.
“But actually, later I went to the school quite a lot. After all, a lot of people at the Beijing Institute of Technology are into internet technologies,” Zhen said. He felt that he had a way to negotiate with the state security police: he can always quit what he’s doing to let them save face.
Meanwhile, he was still involved in providing assistance to prisoners of conscience. “They’re the ones who’ve come out in the open and borne the brunt. The least we can do is offer them support.”
From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines
Beginning in 2010, Zhen Jianghua was constantly being kicked out of his rental apartments in Zhuhai. Every time he moved, not long after he’d settled in, state security officers would call the landlord, and the fearful landlord would ask him to move away.
Being jolted around with him was Zhen’s wife at the time, Xiao Li. Xiao Li and Zhen Jianghua met due to their shared joy in taking in stray dogs and cats. Their life together was never stable but for a while very romantic: every year on December 31 they’d travel to the seaside and watch the sun go down atop of a lighthouse; after passing the night there, they’d watch the sun come up on January 1. On Christmas day they’d walk around handing out candy and encouraging people to donate blood. They themselves had donated blood over 100 times. They’d also taken in over 20 stray cats; and because they couldn’t afford a vet, they learned to do sterilization surgery themselves.
The harassment they were suffering in Zhuhai eventually led the couple to move to Macau and work at the non-profit Fu Hong Society (扶康會), where they served people with autism. This precious, temporary peace lasted until July 9, 2015.
On that day and in the following days, over 300 human rights lawyers and activists in 23 provinces and cities across China were detained, summoned, or disappeared. This is known as the “709 Crackdown.” On January 12, 2016, after six months of secret detention, director of the Fengrui Law Firm Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), legal intern Li Shuyun (李姝云), legal assistant Zhao Wei (赵威), were formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
In early June 2016, Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭) and Li Wenzu (李文足), the wives of disappeared rights lawyers Li Heping (李和平) and Wang Quanzhang respectively, were taken into custody and brought to the Guajiasi police station in Tianjin. Before they were brought in, Wang Qiaoling sent out a message saying that she had been detained; soon thereafter, Zhen Jianghua’s HRC China verified the news and published it. At the police station, an officer pulled out his phone, turned on his VPN, clicked on the HRC China website, and held it up to Wang Qiaoling: “Look. You’ve been here for less than an hour, and the news is everywhere.”
Such is the extreme efficiency of Zhen Jianghua’s operation. From the beginning of the 709 arrests, he sprang into action and didn’t stop, doing three things simultaneously:
- Responding rapidly to instances of human rights abuse. As a social worker, he got in touch with and visited family members, and in every case tried to ensure that a support network was established for everyone who had been taken into custody;
- Educating family members and others that people who are arrested for political reasons are not guilty of anything;
- Based on previous experience, he would publicize news about arrests, mobilize social media, and contact foreign human rights officials so they would exert pressure on the Chinese authorities.
This sort of work was nothing like helping people scale the Great Fire Wall or organizing events. The pressure and stress Zhen was under rose dramatically, and it didn’t come with the earlier sense of satisfaction, when there was still the hope for an actual civil society in China. A friend described how he worked: every day he’d follow two or three cases, verify what had been initially reported, write a report, publish it, and then contact people about it. He sat down and powered through the work without rest, “like his life depended on it.”
He often worked through the night. He wouldn’t get much sleep during the daytime, either. If someone was suddenly arrested and the family needed support, he’d buy a train ticket right away and go. For their own safety he couldn’t tell his friends and family where he was going or what he was doing. His wife Xiao Li eventually got used to it, and they began to see less and less of each other. The year before last, on Zhen Jianghua’s birthday, Xiao Li baked him a cake. Zhen came over, quickly blew out the candles, ate a few mouthfuls, and got back to work.
Initially he gave himself a deadline of two years to set up HRC China, and once it was up and running, his plan was to hand the daily operations off to someone else. “I can’t get rid of it right now; no one is willing to take it on,” he joked to a friend in August of this year.
Xiao Li grew more and more uncomfortable with his work. She described Zhen’s work as walking a tightrope. There’s no way out. He must press forward — yet the further he goes, the narrower and thinner the rope becomes.
It’s from about this period that Zhen began preparing for prison. Friends asked him whether living like he did was worth it. He responded: “There are things that someone just has to do.”
Li Xuewen (黎学文), a Chinese writer who often comments on public affairs, says that what Zhen Jianghua has been through over the last decade is typical of the trajectory of Chinese human rights activists, where they go from doing behind-the-scenes work to ending up on the front lines themselves. When Zhen started, he was quietly involved in support work and broadcasting what was going on; but later, as the repression increased and the environment for human rights quickly deteriorated, he ended up stepping forward. He began arriving on the scene at rights defense protests, first holding placards, then spending time with the families of prisoners of conscience to help them through. Now he faces jail time himself. This transformation reflects the broader change in the human rights environment in China: After all the frontline activists were arrested, it’s the turn of those behind the scenes. Li Xuewen remarked: “Zhen Jianghua’s arrest is his coronation by the authorities for the years he has put into tenacious and courageous human rights work.”
The Chinese government has been tightening the net around NGOs since 2013, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the founder of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), was arrested and sentenced to prison; following this, Transition Institute (传知行) founded by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) was shut down. The repression culminated in the 709 Crackdown in 2015.
Zhen Jianghua didn’t spend the 2017 Chinese New Year with Xiao Li, but instead went to Beijing alone to spend it with families of 709 families. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu described Zhen as a lonely person as he departed on the third day of the new year.
A Stepping Stone
A month before Zhen Jianghua was arrested, NGO worker Xiao Ming asked him to film an interview with a daughter whose father died of occupational disease. As the interviewee became upset and unable to express herself, Zhen Jianghua picked up a pen and paper and began taking notes, kneeling next to and comforting her. Xiao Ming was surprised. “His professionalism, kindness, attention to detail, and empathy left me with a deep impression,” Xiao Ming said.
Zhen’s patience in going about his work was legendary. Over a few year period, he submitted over 100 requests for government data under freedom of information laws, and also submitted a number of enquiries about administrative conduct that violated the rights of individual citizens. In July of 2016 the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered Sina, Sohu, NetEase, Phoenix, and other commercial web portals to cease their columns of original news content. Zhen Jianghua mailed seven requests for open government information about the details of its demand on these web portals. After repeated follow-ups, three months later he finally got an answer from the Cyberspace Administration, which provided a detailed explanation. In response to his question about how much content had been deleted, they responded that the agency “did not preserve any record of it.” Zhen published the full text of the correspondence online.
He knew the sort of danger his activities would bring. He also knew that he probably couldn’t really change anything. But he thought he could at least show people that civil society in China still has a little room to breathe. He once wrote: “We are like a signpost. People will walk by. They will see the pits we’ve fallen into, a pit with corpses stacked up in it. If I am just that, maybe that’s not too bad.”
An Island Unto Himself
In early September 2016, Zhen Jianghua traveled to Wukan to interview villagers. He was arrested. His wife Xiao Li broadcast the news, and it began to circulate among friends in the rights defense community. After his release, he and Xiao Li began divorce proceedings. A seven year marriage had reached its end.
Despite the fact that they had drifted apart, Xiao Li didn’t want to divorce at first.
But Zhen didn’t like to further complicate life for Xiao Li. What did he have to offer her? All his energy was thrown into his work. He had no time to think about house chores they used to share. He would forget to put the dirty clothes in the laundry as he had been told to. He would often be gone for days without telling her where he was and what he was doing. This, after a long while, began to wear on his wife. “What’s the big deal if you tell me? I can also keep a secret!” she once said.
Xiao Li suffered depression. At its worst, she’d walk the seven kilometers home from work rather than take the bus, because she didn’t want to end up at sitting at home all alone. So she took her time ambling along the route, leaving work at 8:00 p.m. and getting to the door at around 11:00 p.m.
Both Li and Zhen’s relatives had been harassed by state security agents. They hadn’t lived in the same place for more than two years. Every time they moved, they ended up with fewer and fewer suitcases, to the point when they could put everything into a single suitcase. Zhen became more and more dejected in spirits: months after he began running HRC CHina full time, Xiao Li found that he was suffering insomnia, depression, and constant fatigue. Nor did exercise help. Zhen didn’t want to visit a counsellor, or let out to people around him.
Zhen had a progressive outlook toward gender relations. He often said that in a patriarchal society like China, marriage is an imposition on the woman; because of him, Xiao Li’s life had been turned upside down — he said that she should be able to discover her own self.
The last time they were in touch was August, 2017. Zhen called and asked whether she had time to look after his cats; she declined. In fact, she’d deleted Zhen’s contact information, because not long after their divorce, Zhen had called and told her that he’d already begun dating a female friend.
Late in the night on September 29, nearly a month after Zhen had been taken away, Xiao Li found herself outside the walls of the Zhuhai No. 1 Detention Center in a daze. She wrote in her diary: “We were separated by a mere wall. I thought I had mentally prepared myself well enough, but the reality crushed me all the same.”
Zhen had become estranged not only from his wife, but his parents too. Every time he went back to his hometown, state security police weren’t far behind. They’d sit his parents down and ask them to tell their son to abandon his activism and “turn over a new leaf.” As the time wore on, Zhen couldn’t stand the harassment and simply stopped going back home. Due to security concerns, he also drifted apart from others in the human rights defense community.
He who put so much effort into supporting others so they wouldn’t be cut off from the world, became an island unto himself.
Among those he had helped are the Feminist Five, the Yirenping Center’s Guo Bin (郭彬) and Yang Zhanqing (杨占青), families of the 709 crackdown, labor rights defender Meng Han (孟晗), and participants in a seaside memorial for Liu Xiaobo. He was also involved in assisting countless political prisoners who were given both heavy and light sentences. He believed that “We need to step out to do it in order to mobilize more people to join us.”
Yet as the crackdown has grown harsher, the number of his fellow travellers has grown steadily fewer.
After Zhen was arrested, the authorities told his parents that if they insist on using the lawyers that he had previously commissioned, he would be given a life sentence. If they used a lawyer provided by the government, however, he might get off with a light verdict.
His sister wrote about her fond memories of growing up with him. Her article was quickly deleted from the internet, and state security police went to her house to threaten her.
Xiao Li regrets the fact that now she’s simply an “ex wife.” Otherwise, she would be able to do so many things: write articles, mobilize support, meet with attorneys, remonstrate with officials, and speak to the media. But so what? “Before, posts and photos survived online for about two days; now it’s less than two hours.” Activist A Bai (阿白) says that in the age of Big Data, the surveillance system has grown so strong and smart that activists have no room to act.
In the 12 years Zhen Jianghua lived in Zhuhai, his favorite spot was the lighthouse. To get there, you had to jump a railing at the harbor, then scramble across the rocks — positioned high and low, at sharp, obtrusive angles — for about a kilometer.
The lighthouse seems to lead a solitary existence, but it knows there are others like it out there. Zhen Jianghua too lived like a lighthouse, persisting in his human rights work, in the dark, seemingly all alone.
The last time I saw him I asked: If you’re arrested, what should I do? He responded: “Don’t worry about me. Whether you mobilize people on the outside or not, it won’t make any difference. Just tell my parents and everyone else that I’ve been arrested. That’ll do.”
I still remember our parting words:
“So, what is the meaning of the work you’ve been doing?”
“Simply that, in China, there are still people who are doing it.”
(The names of certain individuals in the article have been changed for their security.)
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Components of a He Cha Session, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Transated from Chinese by China Change: 端傳媒《「南方傻瓜」甄江華：黑暗中行走的抗爭者》
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China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee, December 10, 2017
Introducing Li Wenzu
Li Wenzu (李文足) was born in Badong, Hubei, on April 5, 1985. She is the wife of Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), a human rights lawyer who was arrested during the 709 crackdown. She worked as a tour guide and did business. After losing contact with her husband in July, 2015, she became a housewife, taking care of her son and working to rescue Wang as well as other lawyers and activists arrested in the 709 Incident.
During the two years since Wang’s disappearance, Li and other 709 families have stood by each other in the face of harassment, threats, detentions, and even physical violence. They persevered even as their children were forced out of school and their relatives pressured to return to their hometowns. They have spared no efforts, be it appeal, protest, or legal action, to rescue the victims of the 709 crackdown.
In the wake of the 709 incident, Li Wenzu stood up to represent all those affected. She did not retreat in the face of her husband’s arrest, but demonstrated the courage to defend his legal rights. In addition to actively networking with other relatives of those affected by the 709 incident, she proactively connected with the broader civil society.
There is a kind of love that yearns for joy and happiness, yet is tempered by suffering and adversity. It is validated by tears and bitterness. This is a love that comes from genuine humanity and is strengthened by freedom and justice. This kind of love manifests courage, dignity, and nobleness.
There is a woman who had a normal married life taking care of her child, parents, and husband. She could go out and spend time with her girlfriends. But when confronted with her husband’s sudden arrest and disappearance, she wiped her tears and went out in search of him. For the sake of love, she stood up to harassment, threats, detention, and even beating.
She did all this to pursue love, freedom and justice — in her words: “We hope to reunite, yet even more we hope to see justice being honored in this country. Only when justice is upheld are our nation and our citizens blessed. Until justice is done, our reunion will not be complete.”
She was not only defending the rights to which she and her husband are entitled. She was defending the rule of law that her husband, a human rights lawyer, and the other 709 lawyers have defended. She has fought for everyone’s freedom and justice.
In her husband’s time of need, she stood by him. When others came at her with various reasons to pressure her out of supporting him, she said: “I will be there with my husband to the end, even if it means giving up my life.” “When our son grows up, he will see that for whatever hardship his father suffered, his mother also bore a share—this is the best explanation we could give him.” For her, love is not just a honeymoon, it is the unconditional willingness to stay in the same boat, rain or shine.
Today, we are here to respectfully present the “Outstanding Citizenship Award” to Ms. Li Wenzu. We wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to her for taking the courage to stand out as an upright and dignified citizen, demonstrating to all the true value of love, freedom, and justice. Her every word and deed has admirably displayed the true meaning of “citizenship.”
We believe that love will bless and envelop Ms. Li Wenzu and her husband Wang Quanzhang. Freedom is waiting for them, and the glory of justice is theirs. We hereby wish her peace and joy, and hope she can reunite with her husband in the near future.
China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee
December 10, 2017
Teng Biao, December 7, 2017
This is the Foreword to The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, a newly published book about China’s “Residential Surveillance at a designated location.”
Those holding unchecked power often seek to hide their cruelty behind euphemisms. In China, classic examples range from “land reform” to the “Cultural Revolution.” You can’t easily see the cruelty from the surface of such words. Expressions like “the three year natural disaster,” used by the Communist Party to describe the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961 in which tens of millions died, or the “6/4 counterrevolutionary riot,” the description of the Tiananmen Democracy movement, are shameless acts of misrepresenting history and reversing right and wrong. Do “Legal Education Centers” really have anything to do with law or education? No. They are Black Jails for arbitrarily detaining and tormenting politically sensitive groups around the country.
“Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL) is the latest euphemism.
Tyranny is not only reflected in murder, evil laws, and crackdowns; it is reflected even more in the minor details. This book is a collection of details, vividly reflecting China’s cruelty.
Much remains unknown about RSDL, and for that reason this book is an invaluable look into the rarely exposed systematic tyranny behind the euphemism of “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.”
Looking into its legislative history, RSDL was first envisioned in the 1997 Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), which dictated a special form of Residential Surveillance to be applied to those suspects without a fixed residence. However, with police having near unlimited powers, it is little wonder that the regulation has been used for repression.
The most famous democracy advocate in China, the deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was placed under Residential Surveillance after he was taken in December 2008. His crime had been signing “Charter 08,” a petition calling for democracy and political liberalization in China. Obviously, Liu Xiaobo did not belong to the category of “suspects without fixed residence” and should have been allowed to serve his Residential Surveillance with his family at his home. His lawyer should have been allowed to visit him anytime. Instead, Liu was effectively disappeared during his seven months of Residential Surveillance, before being sentenced in a mockery of a trial to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of state power. On 13 July 2017, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer, likely treatable had he not been a prisoner of the state. His wife, Liu Xia, has also been disappeared at times, denied contact with the outside world with no legal basis or justification.
During the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution,”[i] the authorities kidnapped and secretly detained human rights defenders on a large scale, in a gangland act of criminality under the banner of “National Security.” Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui (Chapter 2) reflected on his secret detention. “I was beaten so badly that I needed stitches. My ribs were in extreme pain, which continued to interrupt my sleep for days. I wished that I would be transferred to a detention center.”[ii]
Similarly, [activist] Tang Jingling was not allowed to sleep for upwards of ten days. In the end, he felt “trembling, numbness of hands, and a bad feeling in his heart, that his life was in great danger, and only then did the police just allow him to sleep one or two hours a day.”[iii]
Writer Ye Du was held in a Guangzhou Police Training Center for 96 days, like lawyer Sui Muqing (Chapter 10). Ye recalled, “[I] didn’t see sunlight for over a month. I was subjected to 22 hours of interrogation every day. I was given one hour for eating, one hour for sleeping, until the 7th day when my stomach had massive bleeding.”[iv]
Hua Ze’s book, In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, published in 2013, records the experiences of 47 activists caught up during the Jasmine Revolution. I was one of them.
After I was kidnapped, I was detained in secret for 70 days. I was told that I was being placed under Residential Surveillance. No one ever told me their name, department, or position. Nobody ever showed me a work permit, search warrant, or any legal documents. I suffered. During this time, I was beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to maintain stress positions, forced to wear handcuffs for 24 hours a day for 36 days, threatened, abused, forced to write a confession, and otherwise ill-treated. Even now, years later, it is hard to put it into words.
RSDL is classified as a non-custodial coercive measure, but in reality it has not only became a system for prolonged, pre-trial detention outside a formal, legal location, but has also become a more severe, more terrible, coercive measure than normal criminal detention. RSDL is not limited by detention center regulations, nor any real supervision at all. The chances of torture are greatly increased; in fact, torture has become rampant under RSDL.
The authorities must find RSDL to be a very convenient and effective way for dealing with rights defenders, judging by its indiscriminate use since the CPL was revised in 2012.
Article 73 of the CPL, stipulates that, “Residential Surveillance shall be enforced in the residence of the suspect or defendant. For those without a fixed residence, it may be enforced in a designated location. When… enforcement in the residence might impede the investigation, it may also be enforced in a designated location upon the approval of the People’s Procuratorate or Public Security organ at the level above.”
The police can decide for themselves if someone is to be placed in RSDL, which means the police decide who is to be disappeared.
It is little wonder that this was one of the most controversial articles during legislative reform, leading many commentators, myself included, to call it the “Jasmine Article.” This is because it appeared to legalize enforced disappearances, which had become more common during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown.
The CPL stipulates that RSDL “must not be enforced in a detention center or special case-handling area;” but in reality, all RSDL is enforced at special case-handling areas run by the Public or State Security Bureaus, or it is carried out at euphemistically named “training centers,” “prevention bases,” “anti-corruption education bases,” or sometimes even hotels that have been specially converted into secret detention facilities known as Black Jails.
The law permits for exceptions where family members don’t even need to be informed, and allows the state to deny access to a lawyer. These exceptions, which have now become the norm, have turned RSDL into a de facto enforced disappearance, exactly what the RSDL system seeks to achieve.
During suppression of the “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011 and the “709 Crackdown” starting in 2015,[v] terrifying enforced disappearances became common experiences within the human rights community. The most serious example is lawyer Wang Quanzhang. While I am writing this, Wang’s fate and whereabouts have remained uncertain for over two years. The cruelty and brutality of RSDL is clearly visible for the world to see.
In 2010, the Chinese government refused to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This was an irresponsible act but far from surprising. Enforced disappearances are nothing new in China. High-profile examples include the 17 May 1995 disappearance of the then six-year-old Panchen Lama, who had been confirmed by the Dalai Lama, and the widespread disappearance of Uyghurs following the July 2009 Urumqi riots. Still, the legalization of enforced disappearances in the CPL is shameful.
According to the original intention of the law, Residential Surveillance should only be a monitoring location. It is not to be used for interrogation or custodial purposes. However, the facilities used for RSDL have not only become specialized interrogation facilities, they have become even harsher than prisons and detention centers.
These custom-built prisons, spread across China, which are not allowed to be called prisons, have become terrifying torture centers where all manner of abuse is common: long periods of sleep deprivation, beatings, electrocution, forcibly handcuffed and shackled, confined to tiger stools and dangling chairs for long and painful periods, subjected to fumigation of the eyes by smoke, subjected to stress positions, denial of food and water, denied hygiene, extensive and continuous interrogation sessions, threats of violence, or threats to family. Everyone placed in RSDL is kept in solitary confinement.
Torture during many disappearances is well documented in a number of high profile cases. The accounts have sometimes been too much for people to bear reading about. Many rights defenders related to the 709 Crackdown, such as Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Li Shuyun, and Gou Hongguo, have explained how they were forcibly fed unidentified medicine, leading to different painful symptoms.
Families of some of the 709 lawyers published an open letter in which they wrote, “Lawyer Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, and Li Heping were all tortured to such a degree that they became different people from who they were before they were taken, some only 40 years old but looking more than 60.”[vi]
Until now, most of what we know about RSDL has come from scattered reports or open letters from family members. This book is the first to present a fuller picture of the suffering imposed under RSDL.
Jiang Xiaoyu, an IT worker, writes in Chapter 8 of being told:
I can make you disappear for years. Even your wife and daughter won’t know where you are.
Another victim, lawyer Chen Zhixiu, details in Chapter 4:
It wasn’t until the third day that they gave me two small steamed buns and a few green vegetables. The size of the two buns together was still smaller than the palm of my hand. I felt that I was going to lose consciousness. I felt dizzy all the time because of lack of food and sleep, but I was still expected to submit to being interrogated. If I started to wobble in the chair they would make horrifying sounds to snap me awake.
I myself had experiences such as these during my detention. I tried to distract myself with memories, talked to myself, outlined literature and found other ways to keep from going crazy, since I was deprived of all forms of communication. Once I accidently saw a Party newspaper. I was very excited. Finally, I could read some text! When they played a propaganda film to brainwash me, I was happy just to hear the background music.
It doesn’t matter if it is physical or mental torture. Both are hard to describe and express in words. However, the most painful thing is not the torture itself. For prisoners of conscience held in secret, I have found, there are two things that lead to even greater suffering:
One is being subjected to forced confession. Several individuals in this book describe with previously undisclosed details the experiences of delivering a forced confession. Those who have stepped onto the road of human rights defense face enormous pressure, living with threats to their family and heavy prison sentences. Many have been forced to confess. The authorities have used these confession videos to broadcast propaganda on state television, to confuse public opinion, to crack down on the will of resistance and dehumanize those who resist, and to turn rights defender against rights defender. It is used to split supporters. This may be the hardest part for China’s many political prisoners.
The authorities don’t always achieve their purpose but they more or less always have an impact. Many people have suffered the pain of misunderstanding and have grown distant from others. Many have quit rights defense because they were ashamed of themselves.
Secondly, those detained in secret have almost all experienced the indescribable suffering of having their families threatened or persecuted. In general, those who have chosen to become rights defenders under this kind of dictatorship are already aware of the risks and are prepared. When we are “invited for tea” [a euphemism used to describe a police summons], placed under house arrest, detained or tortured, nothing can stop our fighting spirit. But for the authorities to achieve the greatest deterrence, all they need to do is apply the threat of pain to our family members. This has become a common tactic used by the authorities, and used with growing expertise. As with my own experience, the hardest thing for activists fighting for freedom is how to balance conflict between family and social responsibilities.
People compromise, yield, fall silent, or give up after their family has been threatened or attacked. The Chinese Communist Party understands this clearly. I have written about the Party’s assault against the family members of rights defenders before.
RSDL goes far beyond normal detention. Serious human rights violations are widespread. It goes against the rule of law. It should be abolished. But under the One Party Dictatorship, the lack of judicial independence or freedom of expression, the state has instead expanded its suppression of the human rights movement and hurriedly broadened the use of RSDL in the name of “stability maintenance.”
The publication of this book has great importance and meaning: to reveal the truth, record the misery, and provide evidence of guilt. It is an indispensable signpost on the road to justice.
[i] Inspired by the so-called Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and the broader Arab Spring movement, starting 20 February 2011, activists in China began calling for public assemblies in cities across the country to advocate for reform. After initially being met with overwhelming violence and repression, organizers started calling for people to assemble and “take strolls.” Some 35 activists were detained, five of whom were charged with endangering state security. Many human rights defenders detained during this time, including Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, and Liu Shihui, were subjected to lengthy disappearances in which they were tortured. In many ways, the repressive extrajudicial tactics employed during this time can be seen as part of the inspiration for the current RSDL system.
[ii] Wang, Yaqiu. “What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’.” China Change. 2 August 2015. https://chinachange.org/2015/08/02/what-you-need-to-know-about-chinas-residential-surveillance-at-a-designated-place/.
[v] The 709 Crackdown was a nationwide strike against both individual rights defense lawyers and the larger rights defense movement. Also known as the “war on lawyers.” The name, 709, comes from the date when the first lawyer was detained, Wang Yu, on 9 July 2015. As part of the crackdown, over a period of months, some 300 lawyers were targeted, many of whom were placed in Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. Some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, such as rights defender Hu Shigen. In August 2016 he was given more than seven years in prison for subversion of state power; others were released following lengthy periods of incommunicado detention, torture, and forced confessions, such as lawyer Xie Yang. By many accounts, it has been the largest and most brutal crackdown on civil society since the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement ended in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
[vi] “Lǐ Wénzú: Zhōnggòng gōng’ān, huán wǒ zhàngfū Wáng Quánzhāng——Wáng Quánzhāng nǎ’er qùle?” 李文足：中共公安，还我丈夫王全璋——王全璋哪儿去了？
(Li Wenzu: CCP Ministry of Public Security give my husband Wang Quanzhang back—Where is Wang Quanzhang?) China Citizens Movement. 16 May 2017. https://xgmyd.com/archives/29811.
Dr Teng Biao (滕彪) is a human rights lawyer, formerly a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law, and currently a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute, New York University. He co-founded two human rights NGOs in Beijing—the Open Constitution Initiative and China Against the Death Penalty, in 2003 and 2010 respectively. Because of his human rights work, he was abducted and detained by Chinese secret police in 2008 and 2011.
The Nightmare – An Excerpt of Lawyer Wang Yu’s Account of 709 Detention and Torture, Wang Yu, November 13, 2017
A Record of 709, Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
Also by Teng biao:
The Confessions of a Reactionary, Teng Biao, August 27, 2013.
Politics of the Death Penalty in China, Teng Biao, January 16, 2014.
Wang Yu, November 13, 2017
Wang Yu (王宇), born 1971 in Inner Mongolia, was a lawyer with Beijing Fengrui Law Firm when she was abducted in the early morning of July 9, 2015. The date of her detention marks the beginning of, and gives name to, the most notorious human rights event over the last two years – the 709 Crackdown. She was released on bail on August 2016, but until recently Wang Yu, her husband and son have been sequestered in an apartment in Ulan Hot, Inner Mongolia, under severe surveillance. The family returned to their home in Beijing recently. Below is an excerpt of Wang Yu’s account of her first two months in Beijing from July to September, 2015. She is currently writing the second part of her 709 ordeal in Tianjin. Her account is part of the book titled The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances that was just released this week on Amazon. While the book’s focus is on China’s practice of secret detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated location,” China Change adds Wang Yu’s account to that of Xie Yang and Xie Yanyi, expanding our translation about the 709 torture. Section titles are added, minor edits made by China Change for clarity. — The Editors
So often, after picking up my pen, I found myself just putting it down again. I always felt that they were memories hard to look back upon, but that if I didn’t record them in time, eventually they would fade away. So I forced myself to write this time. I became stuck many times in the process and couldn’t continue. I often had to stop and take a few deep breaths; otherwise I would become very depressed. — Wang Yu
The Break-in and the Abduction in the Morning of July 9, 2015
Shortly after 11pm on July 8 2015, I had just said goodbye to my son Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓轩), who was heading to Australia to study, and my husband, who was accompanying him. Initially I had planned to go with them to the airport, but since the flight was at midnight my husband worried about me returning home alone. They drove off in a taxi outside our apartment building without even waiting for me to come down to say goodbye. I called to ask them to phone again after they had passed security check. I couldn’t control my sadness and cried on the phone. Even though I was trying to comfort my 16-year-old son, I was the one choking. My husband couldn’t bear to hear our parting words, so he hung up. After the brief call, I went upstairs to prepare for a trial the following day. Later, after having changed into my pajamas and gotten into bed, I still couldn’t stop thinking about my son. I couldn’t fall asleep.
It was after 1am and I still hadn’t received a call saying that they had passed immigration. I tried reaching them but neither of their phones connected. At first, I thought it was because they didn’t have a signal, but I had called many times, up to and after their scheduled takeoff time, and it was the same. I was growing worried. I sent some messages to friends in WeChat and Telegram groups, hoping they could help with some ideas. I called the airline, but couldn’t get through.
Without warning, the lights in my house went out, along with the internet, and immediately I heard the sound of someone trying to force open the door. Frantically, I sent out a message on social media, and everyone expressed their deep concern. One person replied asking if my lock was strong. I said it was, that Bao Longjun (包龙军) had changed it recently, and selected the strongest available lock, worrying that I wasn’t safe alone at home. Another person replied suggesting that I put an obstacle in front of the door but I thought this wasn’t necessary. If they could get through the door, then any obstacle would be useless. However, thinking back, if I could have put an obstacle between them and me, then it might have delayed them entering the room, and given me more time to spread the information of my abduction on social media, or to contact trusted friends and alert them directly.
I walked to the door, demanding, who is it? The sound of forced entry stopped as suddenly as it had begun. There were no more noises for a while. I sent another message to the groups, telling them that whoever it was must have left. Maybe they had just wanted to scare me. This type of situation had happened to a friend of mine before; they had just come to harass and intimidate him. I told the people in the chat group to just go to sleep. It was already 3am. I was still worried that I hadn’t heard anything from my son and husband, and couldn’t sleep, so I continued trying to reach the airlines, but nobody answered.
An hour later, at around 4am, I was shocked by a piercing noise. It sounded like they were trying to force open the door with an electric drill. I shared this message to the Telegram group immediately, and jumped out of bed. I tried to phone for help, but before anyone could answer, someone had already broken through the door, and was instantly upon me. The light from his headlamp flashed into my face as he spoke, “Don’t move! We’re from Beijing Public Security Bureau.”
It had only taken a few seconds from the moment I heard the drill before they were inside.
“Who are you? How dare you break in? Show me your identification,” I demanded.
I hadn’t even finished speaking before more than a dozen people were inside, pushing me onto the bed, handcuffing me with my hands behind my back. In almost the same movement, someone was forcing a black hood over my head. He had a Tianjin accent.
Since I had already been illegally detained several times in the past by Public Security or court police during certain cases—you can imagine how much risk a lawyer with legal professional ethics faces in China—I wasn’t immediately too scared. I tried to struggle, but it was impossible to make any difference as a woman against such a large number of attackers.
Two women in the group dragged me out. I tried getting the neighbor’s attention, shouting loudly: “Don’t drag me. I can walk by myself!” After they had dragged me into the elevator, I started crying. I asked them to release my handcuffs, saying they hurt my wrists. I knew there was a camera in the elevator, and hoped my lawyer might later be able to get the video record of that day.
They dragged me downstairs and threw me into a van. From what I could see from under the hood, there was a person in the seat in front of me. He looked like a boss. I sat in the back seat, two women on either side of me. Another three or four sat behind us.
Soon, I heard the vehicle in front of us starting to move; we pulled out of the housing unit, and I heard a few more cars following behind.
I cried the whole way, repeating what I had said in the elevator. The handcuffs were too tight. I repeated that they were supposed to show me their identification. A woman behind me, growing irritated, told me to shut up. But as she spoke, I detected a sense of fear in her voice, as if she was even more nervous than I was. I replied that if she were bound in tight handcuffs, then she would also feel pain. She had a bad temper. Suddenly, she reached from behind me, pressed down on my head, and tried putting a gag in my mouth. But I shut my mouth tightly. Maybe because the car was moving and she didn’t have a good enough position to push me from behind, she gave up.
Afterward, I could feel that my hood was even tighter. I shouted: “I am suffocating. Someone give me some air!” A woman beside me adjusted my hood a little, and I could see a sliver of sky out of the side. The sky was just getting light.
Forced to Strip off in Front of Surveillance Cameras
This hidden location was where I would stay for the next month. Besides the roughly 20 girls who took turns monitoring me, and a few interrogators, I never saw another person.
They removed my black hood and handcuffs. I could see that we were in a cell built according to standard detention center layout. There was a long corridor, on the other side, another door, outside of which was the so-called exercise yard. Inside the room, on the right side, there were ten single beds close to each other, with a table beside the first bed. Bed sheets and pillows were stacked on several of the mattresses. There were two small plastic stools by one side. On the floor, a 40x40cm square was painted in red, and beside it another line painted in yellow; squares and lines presumably for controlling movement. A large sheet of glass separated the corridor from the bathroom, with a gap between for coming and going, but everything inside was clearly visible. There was a toilet, a sink, and a pipe with no nozzle for the shower. Three cameras lined the wall, with another camera in the bathroom. Later, I saw the label “207” written on a cup. I assumed that was my room number.
I asked if we were in a detention center and was there anyone else here. The room was so big for just one person, such a waste. They replied that I was the only one.
I was only allowed to sit in the square framed line they had painted on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to make any movement outside the red and yellow lines; otherwise the armed police had the right to take any action against me. Again, I was told I needed to ask for permission before doing anything.
Another girl came in and told me to remove all my clothes. She claimed it was a routine inspection. I pointed out that that morning they had provided the clothes I was now wearing, I had just arrived, and had been surrounded by their people the whole time. “What could you possibly want to check?” Looking at the mounted cameras in the room, I said we should at least go into the bathroom; otherwise it was just intentionally insulting me.
She said no.
I was told to take off all my clothes, stand in the middle of the room for inspection, and to turn my body three times. I objected to this insulting order. But these young girls didn’t care.
They rushed forward, pushed me against the floor, and stripped me. I was crying, and pleading with them at the same time. Why would they insult me like this? Why didn’t they have any compassion? Why were they so violent to a small woman like me?
Perhaps I am a very traditional woman. I think the violent stripping off my clothes was the cruelest torture I endured.
Iron Handcuffs and Shackles
I demanded to speak with their superiors, to address this violent insult. At first, I was ignored completely. Later on, a man came in; he looked brutal and tough. He introduced himself as the team leader in charge of the facility. I told him what I had just gone through, that the action they had taken was illegal, that there were rules about it in detention center regulations, that it clearly violated my rights, and that I wanted to issue a complaint with the procuratorate. As I spoke, he was observably angry. He left without saying anything or letting me finish what I had to say.
Moments later, he returned with an even meaner looking man following behind him. He looked like a monster, with big eyes that shined with a brutal and evil light, a dark face, and crew cut hair. He was holding handcuffs and shackles in his hand.
The team leader gave the order, “Put them on her!” That monster grabbed my hands and feet, and handcuffed and shackled me. The handcuffs were not the normal type, but designed specifically for torture, made of pure pig iron, with tough 1cm thick rings.
My wrists became swollen after wearing them for a day, and even more than one year later my wrists still look a little black.
The shackles were also made from pure pig iron, the two rings even thicker, and in between them was a long chain with more than a dozen flat round links.
After putting me in handcuffs and shackles, the team leader left with these harsh parting words: “Didn’t you want to meet the procuratorate? Don’t you want to follow the law? This is it! If you don’t behave well, we have something worse than this.”
The shackles were very heavy. I almost couldn’t walk as I was thin and small. The two guards appeared shocked. It seemed that they had never seen this kind of situation before. It was hard to accept the reality of my situation. I had acted calmly; reasonably pointing out their illegal behavior, and in exchange, I got this kind of torture.
Besides thinking about the heavy handcuffs and shackles, I was still reflecting on the moment that they had stripped me, and I still hadn’t slept properly. I felt dizzy; my stomach was brewing up a storm. I was going to vomit. I wanted to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t move. The two girls helped me. These two were the most compassionate of the many who took turns guarding me, but unfortunately, I never saw them again after that day, perhaps because they showed their softness.
Sleep Deprivation and Psychological Torment
It went on like that. I was forced to stay inside the small painted square during the day, suffering at the hands of these young girls. If my leg or a foot were out of the square, even by just a tiny bit, they would warn me or slap me. Sometimes they didn’t allow me to drink anything at all, even if there was water in the room. I never had enough water. And after it got dark, the three interrogators would return, and initiate another kind of suffering.
After three days passed like this, the interrogators changed their attitude. They no longer insulted or admonished me; instead they poured me a bottle of warm water as soon as they arrived.
Then, during breakfast and lunch on the fourth day, after having just had a few bites of my food, the two young guards told me that mealtime was over. I tried explaining that I had just started eating. They repeated that mealtime was over. I quietly put down my chopsticks. I am not allowed to eat, I thought. Okay then! I won’t eat. I would see what new tricks they were up to.
I was also considering another problem. Although they were all working together to hurt me, I was too weak to take them all on. I didn’t have enough energy to argue with them about their illegal behavior. This place was totally isolated: any law, report, accusation, procuratorate were all so far away.
That evening, I couldn’t stand it anymore. While they were still trying to persuade me to speak with them, I slowly felt my heart constrict, my breath became short, I felt dizzy. My body couldn’t hold out any more. It was so painful I felt like I was going to die. My consciousness was slowly slipping away. My body fell from the chair. The interrogator dragged me back onto the chair. To prevent me from slipping out again, he restrained my chin and shackled my legs. They called in a woman who looked like a doctor. She opened my eyes, said I was okay, and then walked out.
At that point, Chief Wang [the chief interrogator] said: “If you die here, you will just become another Cao Shunli.”
Indeed, I felt that I was dying. I had entered an empty state; a pain that is hard to describe. I couldn’t breathe. I felt pain in every part of my body. I felt that my soul had already drifted away. That day, I thought, I really was like a dead person. I spent another sleepless night strapped in the chair.
On the fifth night, three interrogators came to speak with me again. They were still trying to persuade me to speak with them. They mentioned my son, but in a way that they were obviously holding back some information. I asked them harshly, “What have you done to my son? He is just a kid. It is too shameless of you to threaten me by using my son!”
“We didn’t do anything to your son. He is good, just under our control. He didn’t make it abroad, but that’s okay. Once you get back, he can still go.” Maybe because I am so close to him, I couldn’t conceal my concern. This divulged a weakness for them to exploit. From that moment on, over the following year, they would often mention my son. When I did finally get back home after a year, I learned he had been under house arrest; that he had been prohibited from studying abroad; and had been monitored by more than a dozen guards every day.
He was so young. At just 16 years old, he had also become a victim of the regime. My heart was devastated. A regime that uses a mother’s son to threaten her is shameless to the extreme.
It was around 4 or 5 in the morning, nearly dawn, when I fell unconsciousness again. There were countless golden sparks flashing in front of my eyes, every time I opened them. I saw the vague outline of three deformed interrogators. I felt that my life was fading away little by little. I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I told them, I would talk, but I needed to have a rest first, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to stay alive.
I would only talk about myself. I would not answer any questions about other people.
At that, they finally left, and allowed me to sleep.
On the morning of the sixth day, the three interrogators came back. They didn’t wait until evening this time. Chief Wang looked very happy and smug. He told me, “I will ask them to undo your handcuffs so that you can have a good shower.”
After that my daily schedule started to improve a little. I was almost permitted enough sleep. But since I hadn’t slept at all for five days and nights, my sunken eyes and dark bags under my eyes never recovered. I still have heart problems now.
Chief Wang went out for a while and then came back with the team leader and the “monster” to remove my handcuffs. The team leader pretended to look very sorry for me, like he was doing me such a big favor.
“Normally, in here, once we put handcuffs and shackles on someone, we keep them on for at least 15 days. Today Chief Wang asked us to remove them for you, so we will remove your handcuffs first, and only keep the shackles on you for two more days.”
They took my handcuffs away. My wrists had become seriously swollen from the friction. If they hadn’t taken them off, my hands would have been ruined.
When they removed my shackles on the seventh or eighth day, all of a sudden I felt my body was much lighter, just like the Chinese idiom, as light as a swallow.
When I reflect back on those days, I think perhaps God was protecting me. Somehow I didn’t get sick. Normally, I easily catch cold and or otherwise get sick, but in the early days of my detention my vitality and resistance were so strong. When I reflect on Chief Wang’s words, “If you die here, you will just become another Cao Shunli,” it really makes me reflect on Cao’s death all over again. [Wang Yu was Cao Shunli’s lawyer]
Over the following 10 days or so, they interrogated me three times a day. The sessions would end only when the meal arrived, but the night interrogation lasted longer and later.
They began by asking about the cases I had represented, six in particular. They asked who had requested me to do the cases; how they had found me; who had introduced me; about the signing of the powers of attorney; and who had paid my lawyer’s fee; etc. I replied that the cases they were asking about were definitely the more important cases I had done but that I had posted all the details on my Weibo and Wechat, and that they could get the information they wanted from those platforms. I explained that because my Weibo had been blocked, they would need special access. I pointed out that there was nothing illegal about those cases because I had already made them public.
They asked about my few trips abroad. They asked who had invited me; how they had contacted me; how I had traveled; who had bought my tickets; how many days I had been away; who had gone with me; and what kind of activities I had done there; etc.
They also asked about the workshops and gatherings I had attended a few times inside China. I told them that normally I was busy with my cases, although I participated a few times in a workshop or rights defense gathering, but not often. I was always busy, so I didn’t have the brain capacity to remember these kinds of things.
Later on, they asked me to talk about my impressions of many people, such as Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Liu Sixin (刘四新), Wu Gan (吴淦), Huang Liqun (黄力群), Xie Yuandong (谢远东), Li Heping (李和平), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), and Hu Guiyun (胡贵云) [mostly 709 lawyers and activists]. I told them I was a very typical feminist and didn’t have much contact with these male lawyers, explaining that I didn’t know them well and so I had no comment. In an attempt to sow discord, they often told me things such as: “Zhou Shifeng already said others use you like a gun. There is someone behind you. Zhou also said that you are stupid and will do any case.”
They sometimes brought notes from Zhou Shifeng to show me, but I was not sure if they were real or not. Each time I told them that he had the freedom to say what he wanted, and that as a lawyer I would not allow others to tell me what to do. No one else has the right to tell me what to do. I take full responsibility for my own actions.
Toward the end of July, they tried persuading me to write a so-called confession letter and to deliver it on television. I refused without a second’s thought. I would not write anything and would never go on their TV to confess.
Transfer to Tianjian
On the morning of August 7, the team leader took me to the so-called “Beijing Tongda Hostel” (北京通达招待所). We could hear the sound of an airplane circling in the sky overhead every day. At first, I thought we were near one of the airports, but afterwards I learned from a base manager that it was the same location as my previous detention facility, on the edge of Beijing, inside a military base, in a small town in Hebei Province.
That day, Chief Wang came to tell me that the crime I was officially now suspected of was “inciting subversion of state power” and so they had changed my coercive measure to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.
I was speechless.
Into September, they almost didn’t come at all any more. Before, there were five teams of guards, with two-hour shifts. Now I had three teams per day, with three hours per shift. Those girls worked constantly. Their faces looked sallow.
On the afternoon of September 8, Chief Wang appeared out of nowhere. He hadn’t come for a long time. The Tianjin interrogator was with him. He said that there was good news. He would not be in charge of my case anymore. The Tianjin interrogator was taking over. He told me to get ready. They would come back to pick me up and take me to Tianjin. I thought, how is this good news?
After I had had dinner, the team leader came in and told me to be ready to go once he came back. He took out his gun and waved it around. I didn’t know what he meant.
They put me in a black hood and two girls took me away from this so-called “Beijing Tongda Hostel” where I had lived for the past month. They handed me over to some Tianjin girls, who took me into a vehicle. We waited in the car for more than an hour. Then I heard many cars leaving one after another. After more than two hours, we arrived at the “Tianjin Jinan Hostel.” What fate awaited me there?
Since being “released on bail,” I have often wanted to write about my experiences. But so often, after picking up my pen, I found myself just putting it down again. I always felt that they were memories hard to look back upon, but that if I didn’t record them in time, eventually they would fade away. So I forced myself to write this time.
I became stuck many times in the process and couldn’t continue. I often had to stop and take a few deep breaths; otherwise I would become depressed. It is a scar that has not healed for my family and I, even until today.
After I finished writing the story above, my spirits almost collapsed. Reliving these episodes was even harder than the moments I was actually there. I don’t know why. While I was experiencing it, I didn’t feel scared. Sometimes I had even adopted a “play” attitude in order to face it. It was almost fun to engage in a “battle of wits” with my captors and interrogators. But when I reflect back on these experiences now, it’s hard, and I can’t imagine how I was able to handle it. Sometimes, if I think about if it were to happen a second time, I ask myself: would I be able to handle it again? Perhaps this is what is meant by “secondary trauma.”
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
A Record of 709, Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017.
Two Years on: An Update on Lawyer Wang Yu, the First 709 Detainee, China Change, July 7, 2017
Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017
Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) is one of the twenty or so 709 detainees during China’s sweeping, still ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. He was held incommunicado from, July 12, 2015 to January 18, 2017, in Tianjin. As a human rights lawyers, Xie Yanyi’s career spans from 2003 to the time when he was detained, representing dozens of cases involving religious freedom, freedom of speech, forced expropriation of land and property, corruption, local elections, political prisoners, and more. Meanwhile, he has been known for passionately advocating democratic transition in China. During the 553 days of disappearance, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, and his mother died without him knowing it. In September he posted a book titled “A Record of 709 Crackdown and 100 Questions about Peaceful Democracy in China” in which he recounted his experience during the six-month secret detention and following year in Tianjin Second Detention Center. He is the second 709 lawyer, after lawyer Xie Yang in Hunan, who has spoken out about torture and other degrading treatments perpetrated on human rights lawyers and activists. On September 6, Xie Yanyi posted an open letter to Xi Jinping, the Communist Party, and fellow Chinese, calling for an end to the one-party dictatorship, releasing all political prisoners, and setting the course to transition China into a constitutional democracy. Predictably, he has been harassed and threatened by police. China Change is pleased to bring you translation of excerpts of Xie Yanyi’s recollections and reflections on 709 atrocities. — The Editors
The Police Are Here
I got home in the middle of the night on July 11, 2015 and fell asleep right away. The next morning, not long after I had gotten up, I heard a knocking at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw Captain Wang’s men from Domestic Security. I tidied up a bit and opened the door. They wanted me to go to the office of the neighborhood committee for a little chat. I went there with them, where Miyun District domestic security personnel had been joined by Beijing domestic security. They asked about the same old things. At a break in the conversation I went to relieve myself and discovered that people from Domestic Security were following me into the bathroom. It was then I realized the gravity of the situation. Our conversation continued until noon, when we had fast food in the office. We had just finished eating when ten or so plainclothes officers burst in. The first one flashed his badge at me. He said he was from the Tianjin Public Security Bureau and asked if I was Xie Yanyi. I said yes. I saw from his badge that he was surnamed Liu. Then he handcuffed me. I protested, but no one paid attention. They swarmed around me as I was led downstairs. We got into an SUV, where I sat in the backseat between two men. There were about two or three cars following behind us . We sped off. Soon we arrived at the Miyun Chengguan police station (密云城关派出所). There was an interrogation room equipped with an iron chair that the suspect could be buckled into. They made me sit there to begin my questioning. This was the first time in my life I had been handcuffed and interrogated. At first I was confused, but once I was sitting I calmed down. I had no idea that it was just the beginning of a long ordeal and contest.
The Black Hood
At nightfall I was taken out of the police station. Not only did they handcuff me again, they also put a black hood over my head. I was escorted to an SUV. It sped off as soon as it hit the highway. I naively wondered if they were just doing this to frighten me. Maybe they’ll just drive in a circle and then bring me home? But the car kept going at top speed, and there was no sign of stopping. I was cramped, wrapped in place by the people on either side of me. And I was nervous. I felt like they had tied the hood too tightly and that it would suffocate me. I asked them politely if they could take it off, promising I wouldn’t act out if they did, but they said it was an order and they had to follow. I then begged them to loosen it a little so I could breathe, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. Then I reasoned with them, trying to win their sympathy, and asked again if they could loosen it a little. The man in the passenger seat shouted, “You won’t suffocate to death!” When those words fell on my ears, I realized that pleading was no use. I should instead stay as calm as possible.
About an hour later the car reached its destination. I couldn’t see anything and had no way of knowing our exact location. They had me get out of the car and squat down. Soon a few people came and did what seemed like a handover procedure. As they talked, I sensed I was being handed over to army troops. They changed my handcuffs but didn’t remove the hood. After we had gotten into another car, I turned to the soldier on my left and mentioned my difficulty breathing. Would he mind loosening the hood a little so that I could breathe through the gap? This soldier pulled the black hood up a little bit. I took the opportunity to thank all of them profusely for their kindness. In response, the soldier on my right pressed a little bit less against me. Not longer after our car entered a compound. We were let in by the gatekeeper, then drove up to a building. After a bit, someone called me out of the car. The men on either side of me took me into the building and told me to watch my step. We went up to the second floor and turned right into a room, where they told me to stand facing the wall. Someone came and took the hood off my head, then told me to strip naked. Then I was asked to squat twice. They searched my body to see if I had hidden anything.
The Special Room
When they were done inspecting me they had me turn to face them, then starting taking photos. They took away my clothes and gave me two sets of soft, casual clothes. One man announced the daily schedule for me and informed me that the next day I was to study the prison rules and regulations posted on the wall. Everyone left except for two soldiers, who stood on either side of me. I asked them if I could rest. They said no, that according to the rules I had to wait until 10:30. So I sat down and read the rules. Then I sized up the room. It was not quite 20 square meters [66 square feet]. To the right of the entrance was a bathroom. A single bed stood against the outer wall of the bathroom. To the right of the bed was open space. Opposite the bed was a padded desk draped with a blue tablecloth. In front of that was a soft high-backed chair. At the far end of the room a heavy curtain was pulled over the window to keep out the light. The walls were completely padded. Even the corners of the desk, the foot of the bed, and the chair were padded and rounded. Around 10 they told me I could get ready for bed and gave me a toothbrush, a towel, and a spoon. Even the handles of the toothbrush and the spoon were rounded and made of rubber. If I wanted to use the bathroom or do anything else, I had to announce my intention and be granted permission before I could proceed. There were always two soldiers guarding me. When I slept at night one would watch me from the head of the bed, the other from the foot. It seemed all these measures were meant to keep me from killing or mutilating myself.
The Interrogation Begins
On the first day, I got into bed as soon as it was time to rest. I couldn’t fall asleep right away, as my mind replayed the events of the day and I considered what fate could be in store for me. Everything felt like half-dream, half-reality. Just as I was about to drift off, someone charged into my room, booming, “Get up and clean up. The special investigation team (专案组) wants to see you!” I had no choice but to get out of bed and get dressed. I moved the toothbrush and other things from the desk to the bed, then sat down and waited for the special investigators. I thought, “The grueling interrogation is about to begin.”
Two men came in. One looked to be over 40 years old, tall and strong. He said his last name was Jiang (姜). The other man was a bit shorter, bespeckled, a little fat, around 30 years old. Later he would call himself Cao Jianguang (曹建光). The first night they questioned me until four or five in the morning. I had just collapsed into bed when the on-duty soldiers woke me up again. After breakfast the interrogators came back. A tall, skinny man wearing glasses had replaced one of the others from before. He said his last name was Wang (王), so I called him Old Wang. (Nearly a year passed before I learned from someone else that Old Wang isn’t surnamed Wang, but Yan [严], so now I call him Lieutenant Yan.) The first two, if I’m right, were from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, while Lieutenant Yan is from the Tianjin PSB. I would see more of him after I was transferred to Tianjin.
They also asked me to confess, but I had nothing to confess. It was unbearable in the beginning. I became aware that I might not get out in the short term, and that I needed a plan, so I thought of writing a letter to my wife. My wife had just told me she was pregnant. We already had two boys and were supporting a large family, but our shared faith doesn’t permit abortion. She had secretly taken out her birth control ring. Then I was taken away, and that was where our conversation ended. I told the special investigators that I wanted to write a letter to my wife. At first they said no, then added that they had to ask for instructions. That evening I started to fast. Besides protesting my illegal detention and demanding the letter, I also hoped to make my psychological crisis a physical one, to divert my attention from the mental pressure through the pain of hunger, and to give myself some happiness when I did eat again. I fasted for over 72 hours, until lunch on the fourth day. They gave me pen and paper. The guard added that if I fasted again they would feed me through a tube.
The interrogations continued as usual every day. Sometimes they would question me three times in one day, morning, afternoon, and night; or else twice in a day.
Transfer to Tianjin
Just before noon on September 8, 2015, I was told to inventory the items they had confiscated from me and sign the list. That night I was informed that due to building renovations I was to be transferred. Right then we left the residential surveillance location in Beijing, and I was secretly transferred to a residential surveillance location in Tianjin. It must have been in a People’s Armed Police building, since I was guarded by armed police officers. (The place in Beijing must also have been a PAP building, too. I think it was in the Xiaotangshan area of Changping, Beijing. I remember when I was there often hearing the sound of fireworks nearby. Perhaps it wasn’t far from a cemetery or a crematorium?)
In Tianjin they took off the white gloves. They did all sorts of things to get me to confess: starving me, forbidding me to move my legs, beating me, intimidating me, forcing me to sleep in a fixed posture, disciplining me. For half a month I was made to sit on a block for 16 hours straight every day.
I was kept in Room 8, facing rooms 11 and 12. I saw these numbers once through the gap in my blinders when I was taken out for my room to be disinfected.
What Happened October 1-10 Above Room 8?
At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations, howling, and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me. That was when I decided that I absolutely had to control myself, find a way to get out as early as possible, and expose this torture.
I guarantee this is not a hallucination. I hope the day will come when people on the outside can see the site of this terrible torture with their own eyes: the room above Room 8 at the 709 residential surveillance location must be a special room. I often heard them moving all kinds of equipment, dragging it here and there. There was the incessant sound of installation and adjustment, lasting for two months straight at least. I don’t know what happened up there. Just before the 709 residential surveillance came to an end—that is, in the last few evenings before the 709 detainees were formally arrested in early or mid-January 2016—from Room 8 I heard people organizing files, stacking papers on top of each other. It often sounded like meetings were being held up there, too.
Devils in White
After I was transferred to Tianjin, it was around October when they suddenly started giving me daily checkups. They would take my blood pressure and check my heart rate. I could tell they were nervous. Every other week or two they would bring in an electrocardiogram and check my heart. With this change I realized some among us must have started having health problems. There was a Director Zhou, and a doctor who I think was named Liu He, who examined me. Every doctor and nurse was expressionless and stony-faced, like robots. They did not interact with me beyond routine business, and I never felt a drop of good will from them. I had no way of knowing their names or identities. This was terrifying. They did whatever the higher-ups told them to do, regardless of how I felt about it. If I made a request of any kind, they either would ask the special investigators for instructions or simply not respond at all. You would think they were angels in white, but the more I saw them, the more they seemed like devils in white.
While in Tianjin, nearly all of the 709 detainees, as I’ve since learned, were forced to take medicine. Every day a physician would bring the medicine, and every time they would shine a flashlight in my throat to make sure I’d swallowed. It was about four white pills each time. They said I had elevated transaminases and that it could be a problem with my liver. But I’m a vegetarian. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I’m in good health and haven’t had any health problems. I’m also not in the habit of taking medicine. I think everyone’s body is unique. Even if a certain indicator is high for someone else, for me that same reading could be just fine. I tried reasoning with them several times and refused to take the medicine. Then the physician, the discipline officer and the warden had to come force feed the pills to me. I had no choice but give in. After about two months the medicine stopped.
Sitting on the Block
At first I had a high-backed chair in my room. Then it was swapped for a block with nothing to lean on when I sat down. I sat there for at least 12 hours a day, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. When you’re sitting on the block you are not allowed to rest your hands in your lap for support, andthe on-duty soldiers carry out orders to the letter. You can all try sitting on a block, or a stool, without resting your hands, so that you only have the strength of your back to support you. An hour is fine. What about ten hours, a hundred hours, a thousand hours? Few of you will be able to imagine it. If you aren’t cooperative during an interrogation, all they have to do is to put you on that block, and you will succumb to their control.
I’ll give an example. Once I asked to revise an interrogation transcript. They beat me and boxed my ears. For more than ten days after they only gave me half rations, nothing more than a few bites of vegetables and one small steamed bun or a few mouthfuls of rice. For 16 hours, from morning to night, I had to sit, and when I slept I had to hold a posture as dictated by the guards. They asked me to sit on the block like a soldier: head up, chest out, back straight, hands on knees. Except for using the bathroom, I was not allowed to move at all from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. In the end I sat so long that my legs tingled and went numb. When I had to relieve myself, I physically couldn’t. They don’t have to beat you and they don’t have to curse at you. All they have to do is make you keep sitting like that. You’ll either die or be crippled.
Day after day the interrogations went on. Starting with my lawsuit against Jiang Zemin (江泽民) for violating the constitution and popular will by staying on as chair of the Central Military Commission in 2003, to the 2005 signature campaign to help lawyer Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), to advocating for direct election of members of the Beijing Lawyers Association in 2008, to signing Charter 08, to the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, to human rights cases I had taken on over the years, to rescuing fellow lawyers, to petitions, to letters of appeal I had written, like the one calling for Tang Jitian (唐吉田) to have his right to practice law reinstated, and the one calling for the release of Chen Yongzhou (陈永洲) and the protection of his rights as a journalist; from raising funds at a seminar in Zhengzhou for the lawyers detained in Jiansanjiang (建三江), to Liu Jiacai’s (刘家财) incitement of subversion case, to Zhang Xiangzhong’s case (张向忠), to Falun Gong cases, to Xu Dong’s case (许东), to the Qing’an shooting (庆安), and on and on, and then to taking the position of legal advisor in Qin Yongmin’s organization Human Rights Observer (秦永敏，人权观察), to helping Qin Yongmin himself; from giving interviews to foreign media, to my participation in academic symposia in Hong Kong, to my compilation of Roads of Faith (《信仰之路》), to the articles on peaceful democratic transition I had posted online, and even to a dinner I had organized in Beijing in early 2015—they asked me about all of these.
When they asked about other people—who was at a particular event, who had participated—my default answer was: I don’t know, I couldn’t quite remember. I insisted on this during the endless interrogations, but as long they didn’t get what they wanted they wouldn’t stop. When they had tried everything, when they had asked me repeatedly and I wouldn’t comply, they brought printouts from the internet, my communication history, online records, to verify with me one by one. They were the ones who brought up theoe names, but in the interrogation transcripts, they made it look as though I had given these names to them. Later, they didn’t even bother to play this trick; instead they would simply type up “transcripts” and have me sign them.
But early on and often I vowed to them that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I insisted that my actions had nothing to do with anyone else, that I’d take full responsibility for all my deeds, that I respect the facts and the law, and that I would not shirk my own problems.
They took great pains with me, because they also had to report to their superiors. If I didn’t sign, that meant I didn’t comply, and that would be their failure. They told me if I made it difficult for them, they wouldn’t let me go. If I had a bad attitude, they had all sorts of ways to torment me. Once you’re in the detention center, if you don’t cooperate, they punish all the inmates in the same cell and don’t let them have daily yard time. In short, they had a thousand different ways to force me to submit, but one thing is certain: during more than a year and a half of interrogations , I didn’t identify a single person, and I didn’t give them a single piece of information that would implicate anyone else.
Their method is to turn everything upside-down inspecting your computer, your phone, your books, your possessions, your contacts, all records of your life. From elementary to high school, your parents, your family, your relatives, your friends, everything about you is in their grasp. It is a boundless war (超限战), meaning there is nothing they won’t do to get what they want. For example, they showed me photos of my newborn daughter, videos of my son in class and playing the horsehead fiddle; and they threatened to detain my wife, Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊). That nearly broke me.
Walking was the only diversion I had. Except for when they forbade me to move at all, every day I asked the two soldiers for permission to walk back and forth the two or three meters between my two minders. By my rough estimate, I must have walked at least a couple of thousand kilometers during my six months of secret detention. At first walking was one of the greatest pleasures, but later on I walked so much I hurt the ligaments in my knees. But still I told myself to keep walking. I was afraid that they would take away this one small freedom from me.
In February or March 2016, Lieutenant Yan and Officer Li came and had me inventory my credit cards, bank cards, ID card, household registration, and personal records, and had me sign a statement about my confiscated possessions. They said as soon as I signed they would send everything back to my wife. I noticed right away they didn’t have a laundry list of the items, yet this document I had to sign stated that “all of the above-mentioned items were on my person [at the time of my detention].” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I objected immediately. It was summer when they detained me and I was only wearing shorts. I had had nothing on me besides my keys and some loose change. In any case, it makes no sense for anyone to carry his or her household registration and personal files. But if I didn’t sign they wouldn’t send anything back. My wife had to care for our three children and she doesn’t work. She needed those documents. I had no choice but to sign. When I got out, however, I saw that hundreds of thousands of yuan had vanished from my bank account. I heard that Chen Guiqiu (陈桂秋), lawyer Xie Yang’s wife (谢阳), also saw all her savings evaporate overnight. To this day, the bank has been evading my inquiries about my account activities during my detention.
All of the 709 detainees wore red vests in the detention center. Ordinary criminals wear blue vests; death row inmates and people convicted in certain corruption cases, like the 2015 Tianjin explosions, wear yellow; and inmates who are ill wear green. Red is for the highest level of inmates, the ones dealt with most strictly. My vest number was 166. I know that Wu Gan’s (吴淦) is 161 and Xing Qingxian’s (幸清贤) is 169. I was in cell C5. One of them was probably in C6, the other in C7. We were all close by, but red vests were forbidden from seeing each other and were questioned separately. I had to ask permission to do anything, including drinking water or using the toilet. The HD cameras set up in the cell monitored our every move. Every day when I had to relieve myself, the on-duty cellmate would go to the intercom by the door and report this to the discipline officer. Once the discipline officer approved, two cellmates would lead me to the bathroom, one in front of me and one behind. I never spent a cent on anything in the detention center, both in protest of the substandard meals and of the unsightly one-upmanship that went on among my fellow inmates. I went on eating my ration of cabbage every day. It was true that, several times, the detention center sent me food and supplies (I suppose they did the same for the other 709 detainees, too), and on those occasions I’d have a share for myself and distribute the rest among my cellmates. And the moldy peanuts my cellmates threw away were my favorite treat.
People have asked me if I gave any oral or written confessions. In those 500 long days, I wrote at least two notes of repentance. For the first one I wrote the bare minimum. I didn’t use words like “confess” or “repent,” and I put the primacy of human rights, peaceful democracy, and the rule of law at the core of my self-criticism. They weren’t satisfied and forced me to write another note. In the second one I admitted that I had incited subversion by advocating for peaceful democracy in my writings. At last, when I had done what they had asked, they didn’t forget to make me title it “Note of Repentance.”
Let me explain my thinking at the time: First, I wanted to make things a bit easier in case I had to stand trial, the sooner to rejoin my family. Second, I told myself that I had to get out and bear witness to the torture we were suffering, to keep the public’s attention on my peers still in prison, to help others avoid this treatment, and to pave the way for this whole injustice to be reversed! Third of all, I was completely cut off from the outside world. They found all kinds of ways to keep me in submission: not letting the cell block out for exercise if I was uncooperative; telling me everyone else had been released except for me; showing me the videos of the trials of Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), and of Wang Yu’s (王宇) televised interview, and showing me their confessions and notes of repentance; playing me videos of my kids; showing me the photo of my newborn daughter; and on and on.
Once they dressed me up and taped me reading a statement they had prepared. They promised me up and down that the video was only for their superiors, not for the public. They made me write things and videotape things. I once told them in no unclear terms that all of this wasn’t about my own needs but about their superiors’. To me, whether I was inside or outside prison I would shoulder my responsibility just the same, and neither was easy.
As I watched Hu Shigen’s trial, I was stunned, and inspired, by the look in his eyes. I also made plans for the worst. In the court, Mr. Hu admitted that he was guilty of subversion of state power, but he also used the opportunity to lay out his political theory, turning CCTV and many other state media outlets into his podium. He expounded on the three factors of peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy and the five proposals. I thought that if the day came for me to stand trial, I would do the same as Mr. Hu and present to the public the concept of peaceful democracy and the policies to implement it. It was just like they say, seek and you shall find, a result befitting my years of devotion to the effort to realize peaceful democracy in China. I imagined the scene in the courtroom. If my family could be there too, I would also tell my children, “Daddy loves you. Daddy can’t go fishing or catch grasshoppers with you anymore. Daddy is doomed to miss your childhood. But Daddy hopes you will remember that conscience has no price.”
The interrogators, I sensed, were not at ease doing what they did. From the highest to the lowest, they were beholden to personal interest, force, and power. They had no moral sense, each ready to jump ship if he had to save himself. The 709 case, I would say, was a hot potato from the very start. I was questioned by people who called themselves Old Jiang and Cao Jianguang (both from Beijing), Old Wang (who turned out to be surnamed Yan), Liu Bo (Lieutenant Liu), Officer Li (Tianjin), and two or three others whose names I don’t know. There was also one from the Ministry of Public Security who might have been surnamed Liu, who recited the Heart Sutra for me. They said that, year in and year out, they dealt with cases involving the big tigers, the highest-level officials. They were clearly not just ordinary public security bureaucrats. The thing is, though these insiders looked and acted strong, they knew full well that they were breaking the law and that this time they were facing extraordinary opponents. I could sense that nearly every one of them wavered at one time or the other, feeling tormented themselves and not knowing what to do. Then there were the armed police who guarded me. Except for the cruelty of the imprisonment itself, I clearly sensed their conscience, their natural goodness, and their disapproval of the atrocities perpetrated against me.
Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place
This coercive practice known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place” is probably rooted in intraparty struggles and corruption investigations. In recent years it has spread and been legalized. In Party parlance this form of custody is known as “double designation” (双规) or “to be isolated and investigated.” It can be perverse or straightforward, lax or strict. It all depends on the demands and preferences of whoever’s in charge. It is essentially domestic discipline—extrajudicial punishment.
When you are under residential surveillance at a designated place, such as I was, there is no outside mechanism to monitor the process, no channel for relief, not even a legal mechanism to protect your health or your sanity. Your family and your lawyers are left in the dark, unable to meet or communicate with you. No one even knows if you’re alive or dead. In the process abuse and torture are inevitable. This is why cases continuously emerge of unusual deaths, mental illness, and bodily harm occurring during the residential surveillance.
I Challenge You
Since I was released I’ve felt conflicted. I wanted to expose these crimes, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone, not even the perpetrators. After much consideration, I still decided to speak what I know, because even exposing the criminals would benefit their children and their grandchildren. I would like here to address the head of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, Zhao Fei (天津市公安局局长赵飞), and his subordinates: I believe that yourselves and the special investigators all have the qualifications, as well as the duty, to stand up and explain the 709 case to your superiors, including the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Central Committee of the CCP, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and the entire nation. What happened? What exactly did these lawyers and citizens do? Is what they have done legal or illegal? Reach into your conscience and tell us: Are their actions and conduct truly harmful to a country, a people, a society? Were they defending the rule of law and human rights, or were they committing crimes? Who exactly is afraid of them? Who ordered you to torture these lawyers and citizens? What were you trying to accomplish? Why did you pick Tianjin to handle the 709 case, as it went against procedural law? Who made that decision?
Director Zhao Fei, I demand that you stand up and tell your fellow countrymen why you let torture happen under your watch. What was going on in the room (the torture chamber) above Room 8 from October 1 to 10? What happened to Hu Shigen? What happened to Wang Quanzhang? What was the plan for 709 crackdown? Who planned the Cultural Revolution-style trials of public opinion and the media smear campaigns? How did you get government-appointed lawyers involved? Whose despicable idea was it to force some of us to confess and to televise the confessions? Who gave you the right to tape the 709 detainees? You didn’t even make exceptions for the young paralegals Zhao Wei (赵威) and Li Shuyun (李姝云). You labelled these 20-somethings subverters of state power. Who decided to turn everyone into an enemy of the state? Who decided to charge us with picking quarrels and provoking troubles first, then switch the charge to inciting subversion of state power, and finally to subversion of state power itself? As a law enforcer, did you give expert legal advice to your superiors? Who ordered the cruel and criminal treatment of the detainees—the secret detentions, the starvation, the sleeping postures, the ban on movement, the 16-hour sessions of sitting like a soldier? Who ordered that we be forced to sign the transcripts of our interrogations, deprived of our right to petition, deprived of our right to defense, forced to take medicine? Who ordered you to appoint lawyers for us against our will and devise all kinds of tactics to intimidate us? Who sent the procurators and special investigators to coax me and try to change my mind? When you confiscated my possessions, why didn’t you inventory my credit cards, my bank card, my ID and all the other items? Why haven’t you returned what you took from me? Who gave you the right to monitor the phones and online communications of citizens?
Calm in the Storm
My time inside was hard to endure. The detention center is a bit better; residential surveillance is much worse. Truth be told, I was eager to leave my imprisonment the first three months, but then I slowly settled down. After I got to the detention center they continued to interrogate me regularly and try to persuade me to do their bidding. They even enlisted my cellmates and the discipline officer to change my mind. I told them that they were the ones who were fretting over gains and losses, and that, for me, it wouldn’t matter if things turned out to be one way or the other. At this age, I told them, I shoulder my responsibility when I’m on the outside, and I do the same when I was sitting in prison. Sitting in prison might even be a bit easier and quieter.
Having reached an equilibrium, I really look down on them: some of their ideas and ways of doing things are so low and so despicable. They aren’t worthy opponents in intelligence or ability. I pity them more and more. They deceive, they bluff and they fret. They put on an act in front of me. As for me, I have learned from experience the power of the Dao: the have-nots conquer the haves, the calm conquer the restless, the weak conquer the strong.
Excerpted and translated from Chinese by China Change.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.