Home » Posts tagged 'Tang Jingling'
Tag Archives: Tang Jingling
Tang Jingling, August 28, 2016
Chinese was published on May 20, 2016
“I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today.” – Tang Jingling
“Other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights condition in China and it is the Chinese people who are in the best situation, in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.” – Wang Yi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, June 2, 2016.
Recalling his nearly 30 years in prison, Nelson Mandela wrote in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones—and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” Having now spent 22 months in Chinese Communist prisons, I’d say that, based on what I’ve witnessed and experienced, the Chinese Communist Party treats prisoners who don’t enjoy special privileges even worse than animals. And those who are imprisoned for seeking their political rights or defending freedom of religion and other human rights are repressed with particular brutality.
Based on my observations, my impression is that the different levels and standards of prisoner treatment reflect the bureaucratic hierarchy of the country. People who have risen to higher levels of the bureaucracy will be held in a better detention facility or cell or will otherwise receive better treatment. Then there’s the principle that originated with the Empress Dowager Cixi: “Better it go to the foreigners than to my slaves.” Generally speaking, in other words, foreigners are less likely to be compelled to engage in forced labor, and their religious beliefs are granted a certain degree of respect.
And then there’s a large group of prisoners who try to curry favor and build “connections” with people inside the prison in order to enjoy all sorts of special treatment and largess. This leads to an abundance of unfathomable corruption and shady deals. The subjective arbitrariness of prison regulations, the excessive deprivation of prisoners’ rights, and the lack of transparency and external oversight have all contributed to this sort of abnormal economy of cash and power within China’s notorious system of detention.
Of course, these different classes of treatment are relative among prisoners themselves. On the whole, all prisoners are living under inhumane conditions. It’s like one detainee said after being transferred from Guangdong Provincial Detention Center (which mainly holds high-ranked officials) to Baiyun District Detention Center (BDDC): “The moment I stepped foot into the Provincial Detention Center, it was like I’d fallen from high up in the heavens into the depths of hell. I never imagined until I got here that there was an even deeper level of hell!”
The ugliness that exists outside detention facilities is often hidden behind various veils. But inside the wall of the detention center, that ugliness reveals itself unadorned, 24 hours a day. In conditions unfit even for animals, a person must be extremely disciplined to avoid being overcome by hatred and maintain his humanity to avoid being swallowed up by wild beasts. It truly is a very difficult challenge. When it’s impossible for us to eliminate evils directly, we must not condone these evils with our silence. Even though I now find myself behind bars because of my efforts on behalf of human rights and democracy, I too am unable to remain silent. For me, this report is my attempt to bear witness to injustice and evil so that I can avoid taking any part in such evils myself.
Below, I will describe seven different aspects of the evil in China’s detention centers.
I. Inhumane and degrading treatment, including rampant beatings and torture
On the day I arrived at BDDC, I was kicked by one of the center’s auxiliary police officers for refusing to squat down when he ordered me to do so. Within the jail’s heavily guarded walls, detainees still wear manacles and shackles around the ankles. When guards escort a detainee from place to place, they often order him to squat as a completely unnecessary way of degrading him. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, I saw this kind of thing much less frequently, but there were still quite a few prisoners who were treated this way.
I have never seen guards beat any detainees at Guangzhou No. 1, but beatings were not at all uncommon at BDDC. As the guards patrolled the cell block, they would call a detainee to come out of his cell into the passageway. (According to veteran detainees, there weren’t enough security cameras to monitor the passageway fully.) First, he would be subjected to a stream of verbal abuse. That was followed by the sound of blows raining down on his body before the injured detainee was returned to his cell. I saw this kind of thing with my own eyes.
At Guangzhou No. 1, I’ve seen only one detainee—a Uyghur—beaten up like this, and it seemed like that was a common occurrence for Uyghurs like him. Even though the beatings were being carried out by investigators, rather than detention center guards, authorities at the jail and the procuratorial official stationed at the center never made any factual record of those detainees’ injuries, let alone file any reports or hold anyone accountable. Han Chinese detainees were no different: the detention center allowed investigators to interrogate detainees for 24 hours straight, with no breaks, until they were finally able to force out the confessions they were looking for.
There was one detainee who entered Guangzhou No. 1 the same month as I did who was interrogated continuously like this for nearly a month and only allowed back in his cell for a short time every day around nightfall. This is a technique commonly used by Communist Party discipline inspectors, and many “official detainees” experience this kind of thing as well. It’s just that for them it happens in the illegal private jails set up by the Party’s committees for disciplinary inspection. After those “official detainees” offer up their forced confessions there, they get sent to the detention center.
In the cells, each of the cement slabs on which we sleep is fitted with two fixed iron rings. These “fixed shackles” are used by the detention center as a means of disciplinary punishment. A person forced to wear ordinary shackles is still able to move about on his own and take care of many of his daily needs. But once fettered to these fixed shackles, routine daily tasks like eating, getting dressed, or using the toilet all mean that the detainee has to rely on others for everything, making it a terribly agonizing experience.
There’s an even more “advanced” and perverse technique, which is to shackle a detainee’s hands to the fixed iron rings as well. In this way, even sleep requires one to curl up like some poor shrimp. This type of punishment generally lasts anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. In 2014, I saw this in action in Cell 1309. There was a young man clearly suffering from psychological illness and intellectual impairment. The Communist judicial authorities diagnosed him with anti-social personality disorder and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Because he couldn’t control his actions, he was shackled for around a week.
Anyone sentenced to death, regardless of whether or not there’s any cause for disciplinary punishment, will also be given the fixed shackles up until the time when he is sent to be executed. One Pakistani man entered the detention center in 2009 and has been subjected to fixed shackling since 2014. Under this long period of suffering, he was forced to write several letters to the Guangdong High Court and the Supreme People’s Court begging either to be unshackled or put to death. Wang Qingying (王清营), who was detained along with me, was given the fixed shackles a number of times and suffered even more serious tortures as well.
I don’t know how much longer this kind of inhumane torture will be allowed to continue. Scenes like this serve as a metaphor for the lives of our enslaved people. So much of our agonizing struggles are attempts to break free of these shackles of our bondage. Despite all of their efforts, our people continue to suffer deprivations because those efforts are focused on digging themselves out of the pit associated with their enslavement. Does our generation plan to sit still and remain as slaves, destined to be forgotten by history while the dictatorship flourishes? Or will we make a place for ourselves in history by parting the Red Sea and walking that path out of the desert and into the land of freedom?
An even more common form of inhumane treatment is the overcrowded and confined nature of the cells. Out in the real world, even pigs raised for slaughter aren’t treated like this because everyone knows that this will cause serious harm to the pigs. But for months, even years at a time, prisoners are locked up together in these dark, damp, and cramped spaces with no sunlight or fresh air. This in itself causes suffering and is the root of many human rights and humanitarian problems in the detention centers.
For example, it’s normal at BDDC to lock up 20 or even 30 people in a space of 20–30 m2. The detention center often has a large number of empty cells, so I don’t understand why they need to fill cells beyond their capacity like this. Much of the work burden for guards is already being handled by detainee labor and hired security guards, so adding more cells shouldn’t be all that difficult.
At BDDC, detainees are typically forced to sleep lying packed together, with one person’s feet next to another person’s head and vice versa. It’s common to be awoken from a deep sleep with a kick in the face from the person next to you or even find your cellmate’s toes rubbing up against your mouth. At Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center, we have to sleep all the way from the cell entrance to right in front of the toilet. The irony is that one of the lines of the detention center rules we were forced to recite every day went like this: “It’s forbidden for two people to share a quilt.” These days, the authorities make detainees sleep crowded together far more tightly than two people sharing a quilt.
I had another experience that was even more revolting. When I arrived at BDDC they weren’t issuing toothbrushes or cups and didn’t allow detainees to bring or buy their own. Instead, they forced detainees to use old, discarded toothbrushes and cups and share these among several individuals at once, without any consideration of the fact that many detainees suffered from infectious diseases. Veteran detainees told me that this was not the first time something like this had happened. Fortunately, a clever cellmate of mine fashioned a cup for me out of an old chrysanthemum tea container, which I used until I left that facility. At BDDC, meal trays and spoons were also shared. Guangzhou No. 1 is a bit better in this respect, as each detainee is issued a set of personal items to use upon arrival.
A detainee who had once been jailed in the Tianhe Detention Center told me that detainees there were forced to sit and “meditate” for long periods at a time. I don’t know what the situation is like there now, but BDDC had a rule that detainees were required to “meditate” while the guards were patrolling the cell blocks, about a half-hour each morning and each afternoon. The situation is basically the same at Guangzhou No. 1.
II. Forced labor
My labor assignment here consists of keeping watch on the night shift and some manual piece work. Two inmates in each cell are made to keep watch at night. (Sometimes, even more are assigned to this work—especially when conditions are so crowded that there’s not enough room to sleep. In Guangdong Provincial Detention Center and other jails where there are fewer prisoners, they don’t have this kind of work assignment.) Each shift is made up of two people, who take turns keeping watch for periods of 90 minutes to two hours. Detainees enjoying special treatment don’t have to keep watch or do piece work; instead, they get lighter assignments. In some prisons, they have a small number of inmates who are permanently assigned to the night watch, instead of forcing the majority of detainees to be awakened from deep sleep like they do in the detention centers. I think this is a completely unreasonable measure they use to make detainees’ lives miserable.
As for manual piece work, there’s assembling “red envelopes” and auspicious decorations for Chinese New Year; folding and packing Christmas cards under the brand names “Giftmaker” and “Sue Ryder” (a charity registered in the UK); packing disposable food-service gloves and plastic medical gowns; and affixing advertising stickers for Uni-President Food brands (a Taiwanese company). From what I can see, these jobs are pretty steady, so the detention center must have long-term commercial contracts. Rarely has the piece work that I’ve had to carry out lasted longer than three hours at a time. At BDDC, there wasn’t ever any piece work assigned to my cell. But there are cartloads of stuff coming and going in the passageways outside all the time. At Guangzhou No. 1 I have a cellmate from Chongqing who was arrested together with his wife. When they were able to see each other at trial, she told him that the women’s cell block had been given very heavy labor assignments and were even forced to work overtime every day late into the evening.
From what I’ve seen and experienced first-hand, it seems that labor assignments at detention centers have been decreasing but that not much has changed inside the prisons. Outside the VIP cells holding high officials and foreigners, other prisoners still have to work pretty hard. They generally are engaged in rather intensive industrial labor. In this respect, the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice are actually operating China’s biggest sweatshop factories. The millions of detainees they have under their jurisdiction far outnumber the employees of any company in the world.
III. Correspondence, Visits, Meetings, Money, and Goods
In the two years I’ve been detained, the only time I’ve been allowed to write a letter was an order form for two books that I sent my wife in March of this year. My lawyer told me that people concerned about me on the outside had been sending me letters and cards, but detention center authorities have been quietly confiscating them all and I haven’t seen the slightest trace of any mail. They use these despicable methods against political prisoners in particular. When Mandela was in prison, he was still able to receive letters after they’d first been inspected and censored by the prison authorities. I can’t help but sigh over how much more civilized the South African apartheid regime of 50 years ago was compared to the Chinese Communist regime of today. The Chinese authorities inspect all mail and guards can restrict access to letters almost at will, without any rational or predictable rules.
According to the provisions of the Prison Law, convicted prisoners may regularly receive visits from family members.* The overwhelming majority of those held in detention centers have not yet been convicted, but without exception they have been deprived of the right to visit with family or friends. Even telephone calls are forbidden! Since many cases drag on for some time without decision, these detainees are completely cut off from their friends and family. The cruelty of this is hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to comprehend. Another side-effect of this inhumane treatment is that it prevents any information from inside the detention center from reaching the outside world, giving the green light to all sorts of corrupt misdeeds and cruel abuse. Ordinary prisoners may keep up with how their family is doing through letters and photographs, but even this is denied political prisoners.
Moreover, the facilities that detention centers make available for meetings with lawyers are often seriously inadequate, and those for visits with family are even worse. Meetings with lawyers are carried out under the eyes and ears of detention center guards, something that people in normal countries with rule of law would probably find unbelievable. Not long after I and other political prisoners arrived at Guangzhou No. 1, the authorities there made a point of “re-arranging” the lawyer meeting room by moving the fixed round-backed chair on which we detainees sit further away from the the dividing screen, which prevents lawyers from showing clients the prosecution files or verifying evidence.
For those detainees who’ve used their “connections,” deliveries of money and “care packages” become a kind of paradise. They have many opportunities to eat food that’s been sent in by their families, something that ordinary detainees can only look at with envy. Some of the kinder of these privileged detainees will share their food with their cellmates. These are without doubt the easiest moments to remember in the hellish environment.
*Editors’ note: Tang’s wife recently filed a complaint about being deprived of the right to visit her husband.
IV. Indifference to or outright deprivation of religious freedom
The authorities prohibit religious books that are important to me as a Christian, like the Bible, from being sent into the detention center. Quite a few foreign detainees who are Muslim or Christian can receive copies of the Quran, the Bible, or other religious books in their own languages. But I haven’t seen any Uyghur detainees with their own copies of the Quran.
Uyghur detainees are routinely deprived of their religious rights, and though Falun Gong practitioners are deliberately being kept away from where I’m being held, I can’t imagine that their situation is any better than mine. Even when their cases aren’t connected in any way, political prisoners are deliberately kept apart from each other. Perhaps the Communist authorities learned some lessons from the way that the apartheid government in South Africa imprisoned all of its political prisoners together in one place.
Cultural and educational rights aren’t protected either. Not only does the detention center not have a library or reading room, they also prevent detainees from receiving books or subscribing to newspapers or magazines. Political prisoners always want to do some studying on their own, but they’re placed under tighter restrictions than ordinary prisoners. It was over a year after I was jailed that I was first allowed to receive a few books sent by my family, but only books related to law were permitted. I had a young Uyghur man in my section of the detention center teach me the Uyghur alphabet and asked my family to send me a Uyghur-Chinese dictionary to help me study the language further. But those plans never got anywhere because of meddling by the authorities.
For the last several months I’ve again been inexplicably prevented from receiving books. It was only last March that I was finally able to receive two books. And last month was the first time I was able to send out a letter to my family. I’ve heard that many political prisoners, like Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) or Xu Zhiyong (许志永), have had to go on hunger strike in order to fight for their right to read.
The ridiculous thing is that every day the detention center authorities force detainees to recite from memory the center regulations, which are mainly about rules of behavior and rights and obligations. They make you recite these every day, and each person has to pass muster. The more rational thing would be to have the detention center employees be the ones who had to memorize and recite these rules. Once you memorize the regulations, then they make you recite a bunch of old moral education rhymes like Di Zi Gui (《弟子规》, Rules for Being a Good Student) and San Zi Jing (《三字经》, Three Character Classic). Everything depends on how good or bad the detention center officials or guards are, but they don’t take into consideration the real needs of detainees at all.
Even if there is some benefit in reciting these texts, the way they’re forced on people leads them to become hated. These are just the same old habits of forced brainwashing that the Chinese Communists have always used. Human nature is as easily twisted as the plum blossoms in Gong Zizhen’s famous essay, “The Pavilion for Sick Plum Trees.” In order to accommodate these ridiculous regulations, many detainees who haven’t even been convicted yet already begin proactively copying and memorizing the prison regulations while they’re still in the detention center. I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!
V. Food and drink, sanitation and medical treatment, and buying things
During the month I was at BDDC, I lost 5 kg because the food was terrible, the portions were small, and I wasn’t allowed to purchase any food to supplement. I’m not a fat person to begin with, so a weight loss of 5 kg is no small thing. They only served two meals at BDDC, one at 11 am and the other at 4 pm. Later, after I revealed through my lawyer that they weren’t serving us any breakfast, they again started serving breakfast twice a week—a plain steamed bun one day and the other day a bowl of gruel so thin it should technically be called water. I have no idea whether they continued serving that pitiful breakfast after I left. A veteran detainee at BDDC told me that they’d always served breakfast in the past, and he didn’t know why they’d recently become so stingy.
For our main daily meal, they’d serve a few pieces of leafy vegetable (but because leafy vegetables were more expensive, they only served them a few times). Typically we’d get some bean sprouts of inferior quality or one or two slices of winter melon, pumpkin, or carrot with a slice or two of fatty pork or the kind of thin ham sausage that’s wrapped in plastic. The rice was yellowish and often smelled of mildew. That was pretty much the entire menu. During afternoon calisthenics, I would often feel dizzy because of poor nutrition.
At Guangzhou No. 1, we basically got double what they served at BDDC and the rice was an ordinary white color. They served breakfast of two cold buns or pineapple buns. Both places served winter melon, pumpkin, and white radish with the skin and roots still intact, and they never picked out the yellowed leaves or tough roots of leafy vegetables. At Guangzhou No. 1 for quite a while they gave us frozen duck wings with down still on them that sometimes emitted a terrible odor. According to a jailmate who had worked in the frozen food industry, these likely had been frozen for quite a long time. They were finally removed from the menu only after causing a widespread bout of diarrhea.
Owing to the crowded and confined conditions of detention, sanitation is quite inhumane. Each cell only has a squat toilet, and the water faucet for flushing the toilet is the same one used to get water needed for other daily uses. So when you need to wash bowls and eating utensils, you have to do it right above the toilet. Before they collect the trays after our meals, we have to rinse them very quickly above the toilet before handing them in. Heaven only knows whether or not they wash them again or disinfect them back in the kitchen!
At BDDC, they forced detainees to eat each meal in 3–5 minutes. At Guangzhou No. 1, you get about 10 minutes. According to a detainee who’d been held at the Guangdong Provincial Detention Center, there they have a dedicated washbasin and faucet, separate from the toilet. That proves beyond a doubt that those who operate and manage detention facilities are in fact cognizant of ordinary human needs.
How to dry clothing is also a major problem. There is a row of plastic hooks on the wall of the enclosed courtyard space that’s attached to each cell. This is where we’re supposed to hang our clothes to dry. The door to this courtyard is only opened once in the morning and once in the afternoon, for less than an hour each time. Sometimes it’s even less, not even half an hour. If the weather is rainy, it can take several days for clothes to dry and you have no other clothing to change into. You have no choice but to wear clothes that have grown mildewed from the damp and humidity.
Under these conditions, it’s obviously impossible to air out bedding. When one detainee leaves, the bedding he leaves behind will get assigned to a new arrival. Many quilts never lose their musty and mildewed odor. I’ve heard of some detention facilities where they only close the door to the outside courtyard at night, which is a slightly more humane way of doing things. When I got to Guangzhou No. 1, for some unknown reason the officer who admitted me made a point of giving me the filthiest and most ratty quilt available. Later, I got a newer one from a detainee who was on his way out, and I’m still using that today.
At Guangzhou No. 1, twice a day (excluding holidays) a nurse will distribute medication to detainees who are sick or who suffer from chronic illnesses. Each year, BDDC holds more than 5,000 detainees—several times more than Guangzhou No. 1. During the month I was at BDDC, I never saw any medical care like we have here.
When I got to the detention center, I increased my physical exercise and I could clearly feel my health improving a bit. But I catch colds far more frequently here than I did on the outside. I think that’s obviously a result of the terrible sanitary conditions and nutrition here. We have to bathe with cold water, even in the fall and winter, which is another reason many people get sick.
Generally, the 500 yuan each person can spend each month to purchase items goes to the purchase of daily items (underwear and a limited selection of supplementary foods). This is based on a provision in the Detention Center Regulations that was set many years ago (in 1990). If the food provided by the detention centers didn’t leave detainees feeling hungry, this monthly amount would be sufficient even with today’s prices. Goods are typically bought in group purchases twice a month, with detainees using an order form provided by the detention center to mark down what they want and the desired quantities. I’ve also heard of detention centers where they offer detainees a variety of meals, turning the jail into a kind of restaurant and general store.
Luckily, I’ve never been sick enough to require being hospitalized. Based on what I’ve heard from others who have, the detainee wing at the Guangzhou People’s Armed Police (PAP) Hospital has earned the nickname “Police Beatings Hospital.” What sick people need is treatment and care, but most people’s memory of that place is that it’s even worse than jail itself. Patients are assigned only one set of clothes, and if they want to launder them they have go around naked in the meantime. Patients wear leg shackles the whole time, and quite often some will get shackled to their beds because of some trivial matter and left lying in their own excrement while no one bothers with them.
Security guards beat patients for no reason, and the food is no better than in the detention centers. In the case of Guangzhou No. 1, the food is probably even worse and they don’t allow patients to buy extra food while in the hospital. The medical staff is very curt and brutish. One cellmate I had spent nearly a year in the hospital, off and on, and witnessed many cases of gauze being left in patients’ bodies after an operation. It got to the point where he finally became afraid to admit that he was sick for fear of being sent to the PAP Hospital. It’s said that ill detainees from detention centers all over the province get sent there and that there are more than 500 people being held in the detainee wing.
VI. Disciplinary measures, relief procedures, and sham oversight provisions
Even though the prison uses fixed shackling and other brutal disciplinary measures to punish detainees, I’ve never seen the detention facility carry out any legal procedure in connection with this.
When the officers take such measures, detainees have no chance to defend themselves. What the officers are acting out here is a real-life legal farce. On the surface, the resident procuratorate office is supposed to carry out oversight of the detention centers, but in the two years I’ve been in detention I’ve only seen a single detainee have a meeting with a resident procuratorate official on official business. I’ve never seen anything in writing about how to contact the procuratorate. How can he carry out his duties of oversight of the legal system and protection of human rights?
VII. Detainees with special privileges
In February of this year, as I was being transferred from Cell Unit 5 to Cell Unit 3, I discovered that a single person was being held all by himself in Cell No. 1301. That man (who people said was a former vice governor of Hainan Province) was clearly living in a newly renovated cell that was just like a hotel. He enjoyed quite a few different kinds of special treatment. His cell was kept open for long periods at a time to prevent him from feeling as if he were being held in a confined space. (It was precisely for this reason that we were able to see a bit of the conditions under which he was being held.) They say he receives the same meals that the guards do.
Cell No. 1302, right next door, is also a special-treatment cell where a dozen or so men are held under much lower security. According to other detainees with good sources of information, those detainees also enjoy much better food than ordinary prisoners—each of them might get a raw cucumber or an extra egg each day. Privileged detainees like these are able to enjoy a standard of living far superior to that offered to ordinary prisoners. This is a microcosm of the same distribution gap that exists between ordinary people and the privileged Communist Party elite outside prison.
Many detainees rely on cultivating “connections” to improve their treatment. They’ll get new bedding and clothing. They’ll be given drier and more airy places to sleep. They won’t have to take overnight shifts or do manual piece work. Instead they’ll get light tasks to do or oversee the piece work done by other detainees. Some are even given the job of assigning daily chores among the other detainees, or what is known as being the “jail boss.”
It’s the detention center officers who hand out these assignments. I once heard of a person who spent several thousand yuan each month in an unsuccessful attempt to bribe the guards to give him the position of “jail boss.” Whether ordinary prisoners are treated with basic humanity depends entirely on personal favors from a few detention center guards. As long as the authorities continue to closely monitor and restrict detainees from meeting or corresponding with relatives and lawyers, then it’s wishful thinking for them to harbor any hopes of wiping out this kind of corruption.
I haven’t yet been transferred to prison, where individuals who’ve already been convicted are incarcerated. So, I don’t have much to say here about conditions in China’s prisons. But based on the many cases about which I’ve seen and heard, there are many similarities between prisons and detention centers.
Some might think that what I’ve reported here is based solely on my own personal experience and decide that it’s not a representative enough sample. What I’ve discussed here is mainly based on my personal experience, but for the past two years I’ve been lived 24 hours a day with a total of over 200 other detainees of all types. Many among them have spent time in other detention centers and prisons at different times and in different places. Of what they’ve told me, I’ve only included details that I have been able to corroborate.
I don’t expect the Communist authorities to undertake any reform as a result of this report, but I hope that I myself won’t become numb to these re-occurring atrocities and sink into a kind of degradation. For me, then, this is a way to seek my own salvation.
All men and women of the world who are willing to speak out for justice and humanity: Please listen to what I’ve said here and speak up on behalf of those of us who have already lost our ability to speak for ourselves. I pray that you will be blessed by God’s righteousness!
April 26, 2016
Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) is a Guangzhou-based lawyer and human rights defender. He was disbarred in 2005 as retaliation for his labor rights work and, in particular, for his role in attempting to remove corrupt officials in Taishi Village, Guangdong. Since 2006 he has been a proponent of a form of non-violent civil disobedience that encourages ordinary citizens to fight for their civil and political rights. He was detained in May 2014, and on January 29, 2016, sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” More writing and translations can be found on the Human Rights in China website.
To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, September, 2015.
By Yaxue Cao, published: September 23, 2015
On March 31, when China’s youngest political criminal Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) heard that Xi Jinping was going to visit America, he wrote President Obama a letter. He had just turned 25, and had been held in a police lockup awaiting trial in Chibi, Hubei Province, for one year and ten months (as of this writing, it’s over two years and four months). In his letter, he told his own story and also tried to get Americans to “learn about a different China.” He seemed to truly believe his letter would make it in front of President Obama, and apologized for occupying the president’s precious time. But he reasoned: this could be counted as “a time for international moral responsibility,” and so wasn’t a waste.
The letter has been on my mind for months, because it’s my job to bring the voice of Huang Wenxun and those like him to the world. But his letter was too long, so I decided to transmit the essentials. Then I thought I would also include the accounts of two other “political criminals”: Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄).
I’m under no illusions that President Obama will read this letter, even though I sit just four miles from the White House as I write. “To Obama” is just the title of this essay.
Huang Wenxun grew up on the coast of southernmost China, in the city of Huizhou, Guangdong Province. During senior high school (around 2008) he and his schoolmates wrote down their aspirations in life. Huang’s was grand: “to establish a democratic China.” He launched a student club dedicated to drawing Manga comics that made light of contemporary politics. But soon before graduation he dropped out of school: “I could no longer stand that wretched socialist-communist political education.”
I’ve read his letter several times, and I became conflicted every time I get to this part. One half of me reproached him: why didn’t you go to college? (I’m old enough to be his mother, so my reproval is that of a parent.) The other half of me understands deeply his torment, having been forced to mechanically memorize answers for political class examinations. I scored very high marks on the political portion when I took the national college entrance exam, but failed it badly when I took exams for graduate school—the revulsion I felt was such that swallowing flies would be a more pleasant experience than memorizing the Party’s brain-dead dogma.
In 1990 when Huang Wenxun was born, China was still cloaked in the deathly stillness that followed the bloody massacre of students on the streets of Beijing in 1989. That enforced silence has since clung to the air in China, noticeable to anyone in the least bit sensitive. But having spent a couple of years in Guangzhou, this post-1989 young adult came to the firm belief that street activism was his mission in life. “There need to be people constantly taking to the streets, making more and more Chinese people aware of their rights and civic consciousness. A public that refuses to slumber anymore is the ultimate force for toppling a dictatorship.”
Indeed, a phrase has been circulated for years among China’s opposition circles: “A thousand complaints and cries does less than standing on the street once.”
But this young man gave me a scare. On March 10, 2013, during the Communist Party’s annual ‘Two Sessions’ (两会), Huang Wenxun took to the street in Shenzhen, holding an enormous placard overhead.
Have no fear!
Overthrow the Communist Party!
Topple the dictatorship!
Long live democracy, freedom, constitutionalism, human rights, and equality!
The year prior he and his friends staged a similar event in Guangzhou, though the message that time was considerably milder: “No vote, no future.” Every time he did this he would be detained for a short period. He once also handed out flyers on the street, making extemporaneous speeches about voting rights, democracy, and the disclosure of officials’ private assets. In May 2013 he was in Chibi, Hebei Province with a few friends when he was arrested. He had by then visited ten cities and seen and made many friends.
He said his fear didn’t recede despite doing more activities. But every time the police came to get him, he’d shout what he wanted to say, “enjoying an authentic feeling from the depth of my soul.”
On the day he was arrested and thrown into the detention center in Chibi, he was repeatedly shocked with high-voltage electric batons by police—simply because he kept questioning the legality of their procedures. That night he saw police officers beating a few female prisoners outside the fence, and yelled at them to stop. So the police came in and gave him another round of electrocution.
He told President Obama about life in the detention center: He was moved between two cells, the bigger one of the two is about 6×6 meters; the open space where he gets fresh air is about 4×4 meters. “Inside the four high walls, I could see the sky through metal bars.” Detainees were made to work over 10 hours a day, and in his prison, they make paper money used for worshiping the dead. In other prisons, he reported what he had heard, prisoners made Jack & Jones, Adidas, Metersbonwe, Camel and other name brands. Medicines were sold to sick prisoners at high prices, and if they didn’t have money in their accounts, they wouldn’t get treatment. “I have seen with my own eyes that prisoners with edema due to malnutrition working over ten hours a day without any medication. And those who have connections or money receive ‘humane’ treatment.”
Compared to jails in China, Shawshank looks like Heaven on earth.
Huang Wenxun requested that Obama tell Xi Jinping: “The Chinese people are going to wake up,” and “we hope the Communist Party abandons and ends one-party rule.” He said that he also hoped that the international community will always be vigilant when dealing with dictatorships. “Don’t rely on them,” he cautioned, “and don’t be kidnapped by profit!”
He wasn’t sure whether the letter to Obama would bring him retaliation, or more charges, from the authorities. But, “I’m not scared anymore. The longer I’m locked up, the more darkness I see, the little bit of fear in my heart should die away, especially when they grabbed from me the family letter notifying me of the death of my grandmother two days after the Mid-Autumn Festival. She wanted to see me on the holiday for family reunion.”
He “truly wishes that America will become stronger, and that its leaders, like in the past, adopt a clear and firm stance against dictatorships.” He also believes that “between the two camps of the free, democratic world and the dictatorships, freedom will ultimately prevail.”
At the end of the letter, he becomes elated as though he would fly free of his cage and out of the high walls. “Suddenly I thought of my hometown and my father… my yearning for light and freedom has never been this strong.” He propose that a World Freedom Day be established.
I can’t bear to tell him: there’s already a Human Rights Day, a Democracy Day, an Anti-Torture Day. Adding a Freedom Day won’t change anything. China and the United States hold human rights dialogues every year, but China’s human rights situation has gotten worse and worse. On Friday September 25, President Obama will welcome Xi Jinping to the White House with a 21 gun salute. Even if the American president and people shrug their shoulders at human rights in China, or at the large-scale arrest of human rights lawyers and activists, this is the head of a regime that has hacked the personnel records of millions of federal workers. It’s tantamount to a terrorist attack. I’m also American and I want to know: What is wrong with America?
This isn’t all. There are reports saying that when Xi visits, the White House is going to shut Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House, forcing protesters farther away. Lafayette Square, I heard, is hardly ever shut down for protesters; it’s the very symbol of free speech in the face of power, and it belongs to the people. Is White House enforcing a request from the Chinese government? What’s wrong with Obama?
Now let’s turn to Tang Jingling. In 2014 he was arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and was brought to trial this summer. His sentence hasn’t been announced.
This year Tang turns 44, but he looks much younger, bearing all the traces of “a youth from the plains of the Yangtze River and Han River who was shy and proud.” He used to visit Twitter often, the earliest impression I got of him was from this tweet: “Has there ever been law in the eyes of the communist bandits? In late 1996 when I passed the bar exam and became a lawyer, determined to commit myself to social justice, I went to the Shantou court in Longhu, Guangdong, to attend a court hearing. It was my first time to a court hearing. There was a young man on trial, accused of rape. He painfully described how, in custody, he had his testicles smashed by police to force a confession. The judge interrupted him hastily. This was how I began my career as a lawyer.”
I was new on Twitter when I read that. As a short story writer, I was drawn to his story, imagining the feelings and thoughts passing through the newly licensed young lawyer sitting in the back of the courtroom. I wanted to interview him, and began to prepare. I even made a Tang Jingling folder on my computer where I saved his articles I found online.
But I got busier and busier. I was constantly dealing with more urgent things, and always felt that he wasn’t in imminent danger and the interview could wait. In the end, I never talked to him.
According to his self defense and final statement at trial, he was an early adopter in using electronic bulletin boards, emails, independent websites, online communities, and microblogging platforms to enlighten the public about democracy. He became an active warrior against the Communist Party’s constant campaigns to censor and destroy such information. He believed that the arrival of the Internet, coupled with the unstinting efforts of liberals to express themselves, “have redrawn the map of China’s political ideology, broken the monopoly of the Party’s mouthpiece media on China’s public opinion sphere, and created an opportunity for the next stage of China’s democratic transformation.”
In 2003 during the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case, netizens mobilized a signature campaign to abolish the Custody and Repatriation system (收容遣送制), and he was the legal adviser. In 2004, Tang and lawyer Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) provided defense for two shoe factory workers in Dongguan who led a strike. Both were among the earliest rights lawyers. He was the counsel for villagers in Taishi village, Guangdong, who revolted to impeach corrupt village heads. Soon he was disbarred and his short career as a lawyer ended.
But that was only the beginning of his struggle. Many in opposition circles were beset by despair and saw no viable path and strategy following the bloody crackdown in 1989 and cruel prison terms for those who tried to organize opposition parties in the 1990s. But Tang Jingling believed that “China’s democratization requires a strategy and it is possible.” He found inspiration in Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience. In 2006, he started the “Buy-back My Ballot” campaign: In 2006 and 2007, China held the first county and township-level elections across the country that involved 900 million mostly rural Chinese. The campaign encouraged citizens to openly state that they would not take part in the local vote registration, nor would they vote.
There have been no real elections under the current regime, and citizens have never been given the right to elect their leaders. The campaign reminded people not to give up their rights silently; instead, protest the lack of meaningful elections by making a statement.
In the spring of 2007, he initiated “June Fourth Reflection Day,” hoping to activate the dormant seeds of the 1989 movement. In 2008, he started with friends the “April 29 Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit” in Suzhou. Lin Zhao was a student at Peking University when she was declared a rightist, and on April 29, 1968, she was executed in Shanghai. Lin Zhao’s name in today’s China has become a symbol of opposition, thanks to a wave of scholastic and documentary studies by liberal intellectuals and filmmakers.
The Lin Zhao Cemetery Visit lasted seven years, drawing more and more activists each year. It has become such a standard “pilgrimage” for many that the authorities have installed surveillance cameras over the tomb. When the visitors arrive, the road leading up to the tomb is flanked by black-clad police.
Tang discovered, with joy, Dr. Gene Sharp and his non-violent resistance handbooks. He and friends wore T-shirts with the words “democracy” and “freedom” in Baiyun Hills, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou, to “bring elements of democratic culture into daily life.” It didn’t work in China. Unsurprisingly each one of them was summoned by police and threatened. From 2009, Tang initiated social projects such as “my 583,” “the abolition of household registration apartheid” and the proposal of a “basic retirement plan,” to mobilize ordinary people to demand their basic rights to livelihood.
He was one of the 303 Chinese who first signed Charter 08, and was among those arrested during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown in 2011. The police held him for 6 months and tortured him. They also turned his apartment into a prison for his wife. In 2013, there was another round of sweeping arrests which continued into this year with the disappearance of scores of rights lawyers and activists—Tang Jingling was once again swept up.
In the detention center he was locked up with embezzlers, gangsters, smugglers, gamblers, con artists, murderers, and rapists. “More than 20 people are locked in a closed cell of a little over 20 square meters with one toilet and one cold water tap… Here it’s a luxury to see the sunlight, the clouds, the moon, the stars, or a blade of grass. Such ravages are beyond the imagination of those who have not experienced it first hand.” He continued: “It’s like being tossed into a fire pit, or trampled underfoot.”
Strictly speaking, what he and his colleagues have done is not that much, and the impact they had is also minuscule. He knows this. “My assessment of what I have done is just the first shovel of dirt the foolish old man dug to move the mountain in front of his house, or the first rock Jingwei dropped to fill a sea.” But the charge against him is grand: he is a subverter.
By comparison the careers of Gandhi and Mandela, two great freedom fighters, were luxurious. As lawyers, they were able to practice normally. As political leaders, they were able to organize. As activists, they could demonstrate on the streets. As “criminals” on trial, they could defend themselves eloquently. When I saw a photograph of Mandela doing carpentry in the open, sunny yard of a prison, I thought that compared to what goes on in China, his oppressors were rather merciful.
More than once I’ve heard China watchers dismiss China’s opposition movement. They shake their heads impatiently: “You don’t have to like the Communist Party, but there’s no viable alternative.” Listening to them, you get the sense that the opposition is incompetent and worthless—their reading of China barely conceals their unthinking acceptance and adoration of power.
The 49-year-old Guo Feixiong (A.K.A. Yang Maodong) is a product of the Western liberal thinking that surged through China in the 1980s. The genesis of his political opposition came from the 1986 student movement, which he took part in as a philosophy student in Shanghai, and the 1989 movement when he was a teacher in Hubei Province. He described the exploration of peaceful opposition during the 1990s as “the god of medicine tasting a hundred plants to determine their properties.” In the rights movement that was born and shaped between 2003 to 2005, he saw an expandable path for Chinese political opposition that’s “highly original, deeply rooted, and indelible.”
In the seminal Taishi Village incident (太石村罷免事件) in which villagers revolted to remove corrupt village heads, he became the brain and the nerve center. “We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open and procedurally proper. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and participation from society at large.”
In his own words, he is “one of the earliest definers, makers, and foot soldiers of the rights movement.”
His prison career started almost as soon as his leadership in the rights movement. Since April 2005, he has been incarcerated four times, and the third time he was sentenced to five years in prison for “illegal business operations.” He enjoyed a short-lived, surveilled “freedom” from September 2011 to August 2013, when he was imprisoned again.
Because of his refusal to compromise, “my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling ‘You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is tougher here – you or the Party!’ Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few ‘standard bearers,’ as they put it, to accept parole.”
“For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an ‘illegal business operation.’ I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, wrote about the Mandela trial in the paper’s obituary of him: “His legend grew when, on the first day of that trial, he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.” I don’t know what a Xhosa leopard-skin cape looks like, but I can imagine Mandela walking into the court, wrapped in a leopard-skin cape, noble, tall, and irresistibly charming.
But Guo Feixiong lamented: “In 2007, an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.” In fact, more than stripping dissidents of their freedom, the Communist Party has always used extreme cruelty to strip them of their dignity.
This time around, Guo Feixiong has been incarcerated simply for urging the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and for taking part in the call for press freedom during the Southern Weekend incident in 2013. He has been denied yard time for 776 days, since the Chinese authorities secretly detained him on August 8, 2013. Liu Yuandong (刘远东), who was arrested and tried without a verdict for his participation in the same incident, has not had yard time for 924 days. China’s tyrannical rulers use these methods to destroy the lives of dissenting citizens.
To fellow political prisoners who buckle under torture, Guo Feixiong has only tolerance and understanding. “We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and a dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule,” he wrote.
Guo Feixiong is a doer. “For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators, and that we did not give up the purity we cherish the most… The chief and greatest punishment we have for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity.”
He also saw himself as “Sisyphus who rolls an immense boulder up a hill, Prometheus who steals the fire, the hero Kuafu who dies chasing the sun, or the foolish old man who is determined to move the mountain.”
The court statement he issued on November 29, 2014, following his trial thus concludes, “our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front lines of the movement for freedom, torturous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man.”
Quite frankly, I cannot imagine how he could have written this in his prison cell.
“Why doesn’t China have a Mandela?” Following the passing of Mandela at the end of 2013, I asked Mr. Hu Ping (胡平) whose pamphlet “On Freedom of Speech” enlightened many young students during the 1980s. He said, “One of the greatest ironies of history is that the most famous freedom fighters were famous because, to a great extent, the oppression they revolted against was not tyrannical and cruel in the extreme.”
I also noticed that, on Twitter, many Chinese tweeps pointed out the opponents of Mandela’s struggle. “What formed Mandela’s greatness,” wrote lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, “apart from his belief and perseverance, was more importantly the fact that the rulers respected a bottom line: Mandela was almost never beaten in custody. Just think: having been imprisoned for over 20 years, he was still able to walk out of jail in good health and without having to confess to his ‘crimes.’ This is simply unthinkable in dictatorships.”
In other words, the Communist Party is so savage and despicable that any Mandela in China would be destroyed before they had the chance to become Mandela.
On the day of Mandela’s funeral, I turned on the television for once. President Obama was speaking. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.” All of a sudden, our president looked to me like an actor—saying the most beautiful words on an occasion that demanded no courage or leadership. I jumped up and turned the television off.
Of course, there is another part of Mandela’s funeral I remember: that the sign language interpreter next to President Obama, gesticulating vividly, was in fact an impostor.
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) is the founder and editor of China Change. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
2015 Front Line Defenders Award Presented to Chinese HRD Guo Feixiong, September 11, 2015.
Albert Einstein Institution Statement, June 25, 2015.