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China Change, November 6, 2018
Teng Biao interviewed Prof. Stein Ringen on August 2, 2018 and October 5 via Skype. Stein Ringen is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Oxford and Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. Teng Biao is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University and a Chinese human rights lawyer. – The Editors
Teng Biao (TB): I think your book, The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century, is one of the best books on Chinese politics in recent years. Is this your first book on China? What inspired you to study China?
Stein Ringen (SR): First, I’m interested in governments and states and how they work. This is the biggest and most challenging one. So if you want to understand states you need to understand the Chinese state, and so there’s the challenge. The other reason is that I had already done a study of the South Korean state. And I thought that the developmental states’ experience of Korea might be a relevant background for looking into the Chinese story. I thought it might be rather similar. In fact, it turned out that the Chinese story is very, very different.
TB: Yes, and then you wrote the book The Perfect Dictatorship. Why did you choose this title?
SR: I found that it is a dictatorship that is, from its own point of view, functioning very well. It is a dictatorship that is in full control. So my idea with the title was not to praise the Chinese system but to give a warning that this is a dictatorship that is very hard, and very much in control.
TB: In your book you created some interesting concepts, like “controlocracy.” What do you want to suggest by creating this term?
SR: The idea was, on the one hand, to say that this is a regime that is dictatorial, but in a way that sometimes it doesn’t even look dictatorial. It is obsessed with being in control. It is not obsessed with dictating everyone in their daily lives. It’s not like under Mao that people have to dress in a certain way or like certain forms of entertainment. But, it is in control. So control is the commanding feature of this dictatorship and it is very good at keeping and staying in control. The party-state is everywhere. It sees everything and knows everything, and they are in their very big population in perfect control.
TB: Another thought-provoking term in your book is “sophisticated totalitarianism.” In a piece I wrote recently for ChinaFile, I cited your term and elaborated on it a bit. I wrote: “This totalitarianism is strict and refined without being brittle and dogmatic; it’s cruel and barbaric without being chaotic. China’s booming economy, social stability, and apparent popular support for Xi have fooled both the world and most Chinese citizens.” What’s your view on the difference between this “sophisticated totalitarianism” and Stalin or Mao Zedong-style total control system? Is this system more adaptable, flexible and resilient, than traditional totalitarianism? Is the CCP able to learn from the collapse of other party-state dictatorships and maintain its own monopoly on power for quite a long time, say 40 or 50 years?
SR: It’s not acceptable. It is a very hard dictatorship and is therefore an unacceptable form of government. But they are very clever in making themselves look acceptable. I think both within China, but also in the outside world. As you know, people keep travelling to China and when they come back they are starry-eyed in admiration of the delivery of the system. So they are very much able to control their own narrative both at home and abroad. And, of course, they have learned very much from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which in Beijing was studied very carefully. And they understood the weaknesses in the Soviet Union that they had to prevent at home. These are, for example, to never lose control of the narrative, to always consolidate the alliance between the Party and the military, to maintain surveillance and propaganda and censorship ruthlessly, and to never let go, and also to not allow factions in the Party system. This they learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union and they are determined that there shall not be a similar kind of collapse in the Chinese system.
TB: Former Singapore UN ambassador Kishore Mahbubani once said that every year tens of millions of Chinese people travel internationally and then they voluntarily go back to China. He used this as a strong example to praise the so-called “China Model.” What do you think are the reasons? Do you agree with that?
SR: Many Chinese are traveling. Mainly, I think, because they can afford it; they have enough money to be able to travel internationally. We know that very much in Europe, for example, that there are very many Chinese tourists who travel here. They go back. On the other hand, there are many people in China who leave the country either because they have to, you know something about that, or because they wish to send their children to education outside of China. They try to bring their own money out of China to invest it and secure it outside of China. So many of those who are able, are showing with their behavior that they do not have much confidence in the future of the Chinese regime. The idea that the Chinese regime is better, the Chinese model is better than a democratic model, for example, is a very powerful narrative from the regime’s side. But we need to keep priorities right here. It is not a system that is better just because it delivers development, because it does that at the cost of depriving all Chinese of freedom. We know about authoritarian, totalitarian regimes previously, and that is the main characteristic of this regime. It is to the benefit of some, but it deprives everyone of liberty and freedom.
TB: Relatedly, George Orwell’s 1984 was famously regarded as a perfect dictatorship, do you think China’s “controlocracy” is equal to 1984, or is it even an advanced version of 1984? And I also used the term “technical totalitarianism” to analyze the advanced version of totalitarianism in China, with such examples as networked “stability maintenance,” big data, street cameras, facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, artificial intelligence, DNA collection, strengthening of the secret police, the Great Firewall, etc. Are we exaggerating the ability of the dictators’ use of high-tech? Aren’t high-tech and new tools a double-edged sword that can be utilized by civil society or resisters as well?
SR: Yes, China is very much like Orwell’s warning, including in the control of language, control of history, control of the narrative. But they have moved on because they now have technologies that Orwell could not even imagine at the time. And these technologies, these modern technologies, are being used for control in a very sophisticated way by the Chinese authorities. They are in control of the Internet. It was long thought to be obvious that no dictatorship can control the Internet. But the Chinese dictatorship is in control of it. They are actively using the Internet by engineering the stories that circulate. They are using other technologies, big data systems, facial recognition. All of this in order to control what is happening in their country. I mean this is now very advanced, particularly in Xinjiang, which is a police state of the kind that has never been seen previously. In the last few years, as you well know, the security budgets in that province have doubled year by year. And the control, explicit control there, by old-fashioned means –– police and military forces –– and modern means –– electronic surveillance, is still a kind that has never been seen previously. There has never been control of this kind anywhere in any country before, like the way we see now. We now see it unrolling in China.
TB: You know I was a human rights lawyer for 14 years in mainland China. Harshly speaking, during Hu Jintao’s era, we had some space to develop our human rights movement. And we felt that the Internet-related technology were more in favor of the civil society than the government, even though we knew both the human rights communities and the rulers made use of high tech. Now it seems that we should not be that optimistic.
SR: You know better than I do. The community of human rights lawyers has suffered very badly in China in the last several years. What was at one time, you say, a movement is now really crushed, and it has become very much more difficult for your brave colleagues to continue their work in China. Many have their businesses shut down. Many have been imprisoned, persecuted in other ways, and their ability to stay in touch with each other has been reduced very strongly. So it’s a very sad story what’s happened to that brave community. This is a story you know better than I do, but it is very hard to watch from the outside. There was a vibrant, brave community of lawyers, and they have really been taken down.
TB: Yes. The 709 crackdown on rights lawyers is the worst crackdown on lawyers since the legal system was reconstructed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution.
TB: Most people know that China is one of the most unfree countries, but forget China is also one of the most unequal countries. How does this inequality affect the CCP’s political legitimacy? Or is it a necessity of the one-party rule of the Communist Party?
SR: Well, in my book about China, I looked at both inequality, poverty and public services. And I looked at taxes. I found that the tax burden of the Chinese people is very, very high. What is returned to the people in the form of services is minimal. Inequality has been increasing very rapidly. So now China is one of the most unequal societies in the world. And I think this is part of the reason for the dictatorship, because these are realities that could not be maintained under a democratic system ––the combination of very heavy taxes and very inferior services. It just doesn’t always look like that to observers, but that is the way it is. So the system, the political economy, extracts enormous resources from households and returns to the household sector a system of rising inequality. That is explosive in any society and is part of the reason why this regime needs to maintain such draconian controls as they do.
TB: The ideology of Marxism-Communism-Maoism has gradually declined in China. The CCP, and most Chinese people believe in money and power. How does this shift influence the CCP’s rule? Is this the reason why Xi Jinping tried to resort to a return to ideology and a cult of personality?
SR: Yes, among the innovations of Xi Jinping is the reintroduction of ideology, but now not Marxist ideology, but a strongly nationalistic ideology. His slogan of the “China Dream” and all that is a nationalistic narrative. So here we have a regime that is very strong, very dictatorial that is giving itself guidance by an ideology of nationalism and chauvinism. These are Xi Jinping’s innovations, the heart of his relentless movements of the regime into a heavier and heavier dictatorship.
TB: You mentioned nationalism. You know when the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China, they strongly — and successfully — utilized nationalism. Theoretically, nationalism is in conflict with Marxist theory—i.e., communism and internationalism. So, from the beginning, paradoxically, the CCP employed a mix of Marxism and nationalism, and now maybe they feel they need more nationalism. Do you agree with that?
SR: Yes I do. I think that part of the regime’s efforts to control the narrative is that they need an ideological superstructure. They need a story of purpose for the regime, and for the nation. And that they are now finding not in Marxist internationalism but in Chinese nationalism. And that story of nationalism has been notched up very strongly and very explicitly by Xi Jinping. This is again part of the control system. This is a regime that gives itself the praise that they have the support of the people, but at the same time, it never ever trusts in the support of the people. So they never relax controls even though they say that they are governing in such a way that they have the support of the people. They do not for one moment trust that that support is genuine. So they rely on controls.
TB::Some scholars noticed the similarity between the current Xi Jinping regime and Hitler’s Third Reich. The one-party rule and the total control of society. Ideology, propaganda, brainwashing, nationalism. What happened in Xinjiang is race discrimination, mass detention and cultural elimination, secret police and the cult of personality. So in your opinion, how possible is it that China’s political system goes toward fascism in the future?
SR: Well it’s a system that has very many characteristics of fascism in it now. Important in that statement is the use of ideology. Deng Xiaoping and his followers presented themselves as non-ideological, just pragmatists, engineers of economic progress. That is all gone, and the regime is back to ideology. So it is a dictatorship that is very hard. I now call it a totalitarian system. It is a totalitarian system that is informed by ideology and that ideology is nationalistic. These are characteristics of fascist rule. Now, I think, we should always be aware that the Chinese system is very much of its own kind. It’s very different from anything else, but it is a system that has taken very clear likenesses with the characteristics of fascism under the rule of Xi Jinping.
This regime does not present itself to the world as a bully in the way, for example, Putin’s Russia does. It is a bullying state. Ask democracy activists, who routinely get beaten up. Ask human rights lawyers, who are now pretty much forbidden from practicing. Ask the people of Xinjiang, now a horrific police state, complete with a vast network of concentration camps. Ask international corporations that are forced to humiliate themselves and pay tribute if they want to do business, or governments in smaller countries if they want collaboration. Or ask neighboring countries around the South China Sea. But it is also a state with the clout and skill to disguise its bullying side and make itself look sophisticatedly elegant.
TB: In a recent letter, you were publicly calling for China analysts to describe China as a totalitarian, not an authoritarian state. It aroused interesting debates. In your opinion, what are the academic and non-academic reasons behind the reluctance to categorize China as totalitarian?
SR: I think there are now very few academic reasons for not categorizing the PRC as a totalitarian regime. I go by Hannah Arendt’s pioneering work and I think the PRC under Xi now fits the bill. The final straw has been the imposition of outright terror in Xinjiang.
In the debate following that open letter, there was much support for my position, but also, as you note, reluctance. Some of that reluctance is simple self-censorship. Many China scholars have invested their careers in work that requires being in China, having access to Chinese universities, archives and so on, and they cannot risk this being refused. That is understandable and I do not find it particularly upsetting. Another reason is what I have called “China fascination.” China, with its long history and rich culture, has an uncanny ability to fascinate. I think some academics in the field really wish for the best for China and the Chinese people and are for that reason reluctant to accept so negative a label as “totalitarian.” I think this kind of reluctance is misplaced, but also understandable. Related is a view that China is unique and that it is, therefore, too crude to apply a categorization that puts the Chinese regime in the same class as various other unpalatable regimes.
I should add that when I speak about totalitarianism in China it is of course the regime I am talking about and not the country, the culture or the people.
TB: You had analyzed the Chinese state as “trivial”. How “trivial”–– in your context, it means having no purpose beyond itself ––is the Chinese state? F.A. Hayek emphasized the “purposelessness” of a state. How should we understand the difference between purposelessness and triviality?
SR: I thought that one kind of dictatorship could be called “trivial” in the sense that it is nothing but control for the sake of control. There is no mission, no idea. I do not think that applies to the Chinese system, certainly not now. There is now a mission; there is an ideology, a vision of what this is for, and that vision is for China to regain its position as the Middle Kingdom in the world. This is a very ambitious idea that gives the dictatorship a purpose that makes it–– in my terminology––more than trivial. It makes it an ideological system, a system with a strong purpose of its own definition.
TB: So you mean Deng Xiaoping had no big ideology, and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had less ideology, and Xi Jinping has more ambition to “make China great again?”
SR: I mean that may have been the ambition all along. Deng Xiaoping perhaps understood that it would take time before China had the economic and other powers to really accept the ambition of making itself the central power in the world. Now, they have the economic and other powers. And they are hard at work in making China the dominant power in the world.
TB: Some people argue that Xi Jinping’s personal dictatorship is a collective choice of the Communist Party, when it is facing comprehensive crises –– political, financial, and ideological crises. Do you agree?
SR: There’s always one branch of thinking about the Chinese system that says that it is in crisis. As you know, people have been predicting that it would collapse for a long time, but that hasn’t happened. I think it’s a system with many tensions in it. And I think Xi Jinping made his first mistake from his own point of view, his first mistake, when he had the time limits on the presidency abolished earlier this year. That was a mistake, because it wasn’t necessary. It was a display of power that was demonstrative; it pulled aside the curtain for the rest of the world to see that this is a ruthless dictatorship where the top man can change the constitution by flicking his fingers, and it exposed the inner conflicts in the regime. Of course, there are disagreements and conflicts within that regime. And this step by Xi Jinping was demonstrative towards anyone who is not firmly within his camp, and he gives those others a motivation for organizing factional activity. We see some signs of that now, so I think this was a mistake on the part of Xi Jinping. He undermined, to some degree, his own position. And he let himself become the victim of the hubris of too much power.
So he committed a great mistake, in my opinion, and that mistake has followed through to some tensions within the system. Those tensions are now being stimulated by what is seen as not strong enough economic growth, and so on. So there are now visible signs of tension. That tension has been stimulated by Xi Jinping’s mistake. I think this was really the first mistake he did in his first five years. Otherwise, he has been consolidating power and cohesion within the system. And suddenly he took a step that undermined some of the “achievements” that he had made in his first years. However, I do not think this is a system on its own terms that is in any way in crisis. The control is very, very strong, and the strengthening of control that has happened under Xi Jinping is in anticipation of difficulties with economic growth, for example.
TB: Relatedly, will Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaigns hurt the dynamic or motivation of the CCP cadres? As to the totalitarian dynamic, like interest, ideology, nationalism, brainwashing, violence, or fear, will they be exhausted in China or elsewhere?
SR: The anti-corruption campaign has had two intended results, I think. One is to make the regime look more attractive in the eyes of many Chinese people. There have been improvements in the corruption environment. So most Chinese are now less exposed to arbitrary corruption than they have been previously, or at least, they have seen improvements in that respect. The other result is that it has been a powerful weapon of power, control within the system. When everyone is corrupt, anyone who needs to be taken down can be taken down in the name of corruption. So under the auspices of the corruption campaign, Xi Jinping and the other leaders have been able to eliminate anyone within the system whom they’ve seen as not approving of them, or are seen as in anyway threatening. These “achievements,” dictatorial achievements, have been notable in the anti-corruption campaign. It has worked in both respects. It’s a remarkable system in the way it gives itself credit for liberating the people from the miseries that it, itself, has imposed on them.
TB: Some Chinese people, I think, are unhappy with the anti-corruption campaigns, even though they feel good once some corrupt government officials are arrested or sentenced, or even executed. But first, some privileged families are not affected. Most of the privileged families, those very high-level families, are not affected, like Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng’s families. And second, more and more Chinese people realize that this kind of corruption is embedded in the political system. It exists everywhere and is systematic. So what’s the next step of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? Will the anti-corruption campaign influence Xi Jinping’s political agenda?
SR: As I see it, I think the anti-corruption campaign has done its work. You know, we hear much less about it now than previously. I think there is less ordinary workday corruption. So it’s done its work, cleaning up a bit, in the daily lives of many people. Many potential opponents of the regime have been eliminated, so I think it’s really done its work. As I understand it, it goes on, but now it’s more of a routine. It’s not a big show anymore. I think it’s mainly had its time; it has run its course. And it does not have the prominence in the regime’s self-presentation as it did for a while. I’ve no doubt it will continue, but it is not the central instrument that it once was.
TB: Samuel Huntington distinguished performance legitimacy from procedural legitimacy; and A. John Simmons made an even clearer theoretical distinction between legitimacy and justification, arguing that recognition, through free elections, is the only source of modern legitimacy. In the context of post-Mao Chinese politics, is “performance legitimacy” enough for the regime’s political legitimacy?
SR: Well, not in the opinion of the leaders themselves. They do not trust that they are seen as legitimate, so this is why they never relax controls. They praise themselves for the delivery to the people. They praise themselves for the gratitude that they are getting back from the people. But they never trust that they are seen genuinely to be legitimate, so they always fall back on control — never relaxing controls and always maintaining controls. No genuine trust that there is genuine legitimacy.
TB: Has the world had second thoughts about China after Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limit from the Constitution? Is the image of China changing in light of the facts of the deteriorating human rights situation, failure to abide by WTO rules and UN norms, even the CCP’s abduction of dissidents on foreign soil? You know the Gui Minhai case, a Chinese publisher with a Swedish passport who was kidnapped in Thailand and sent back to China and detained. So can we say that the presumption many people accepted, that is, that a market economy and globalization would lead China to become a democratic, open society, has been proven wrong?
SR: Yes, I think so. It is now very difficult for anyone in the world to escape the recognition that in China there is a hard dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that in many ways is good for business. Many people are fascinated with China and want to see the good in the system. But the development under Xi Jinping clarified to the rest of the world that this is a hard dictatorship. This is not a mild, benevolent autocracy; this is a hard dictatorship. I think the regime has brought upon itself a more difficult evaluation from the outside world.
TB: Have you seen many scholars, Beijing watchers, start to rethink the assumption that the market economy and globalization will guide China to become a liberal democracy?
SR: I mean this was a strong theory for a while. But it is not a theory that anyone subscribes to anymore. In the long run, we do not know. In the immediate future, it’s clear that this is not a system that is on a path towards a more open society. It’s a system that, for the last five or six years under Xi Jinping, has been on a very clear road towards tighter dictatorial controls. In a way, it is moving politically in the opposite direction than was previously assumed because of its economic development. Economic progress, and political regression –– this was not thought to be possible previously. We are seeing in China that this is possible. It’s possible for the country to modernize economically and to regress politically towards an increasingly hard dictatorship.
TB: For the past two decades or so, there has been a return to totalitarianism, the expansion of authoritarian influence, in Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and, of course, China, and some countries in South America. What’s behind this phenomenon?
SR: I think that there are, at least, some very clever dictators out there. Vladmir Putin in Russia is from his own point of view a clever operator. I think also there is a problem on the democratic side that democracies have been functioning quite poorly in many ways in recent years after the global crash. In 2007-2008, the democracies had not really managed to govern in a way that seemed to be beneficial to most people. And to be fair, I think we are seeing a revolt against what is perceived to be inadequate governance in the democratic countries, in particular, in the United States and in Britain. So that is weakening the democratic side. Why the autocratic side is strengthening, for someone like myself, that is a source of great concern and sadness in the world. And, I think, we on the democratic side really need to get our own house in order and to step up and to see that there have been real shortcomings in the way we are managing our affairs. That’s true in much of Europe and the European Union. It’s true in America. We really need to step up and do better than we have been doing.
TB: What’s your view about Francis Fukuyama’s claim (deepening a tradition of Hegel and Kojève) that liberal democracy is the end of history?
SR: Well, the history of democracy is not a very encouraging one; it was invented 2500 years ago but we have had very little democracy since then, so it’s possible that democracy will not survive. And right now, there is, for my tastes, too much admiration of autocratic strength and not enough appreciation of democratic liberty. And what I’m, in modest ways, trying to do is to encourage the understanding of the importance for our way of life of democratic governance. I think again, we need to step up and to do better in the democratic world.
TB: When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government tried to punish Norway with “Salmon politics.” My personal experience is that the American Bar Association rescinded my book proposal for fear of angering the Chinese government, and some universities canceled my scheduled talks to avoid the risk of infuriating Beijing. In Hong Kong, China has torn up the “one country, two systems” commitment and the Sino-British Declaration. Hong Kong’s freedom is in danger and the UK has remained silent to a great extent. From your point of view as a Norwegian scholar living in the UK, is the policy of “buying silence” successful? What should the world do to fight the growing aggressiveness of the CCP?
SR: Yes, the policy of buying silence is successful. This is sad to say, but it’s the case. You see that in my own country, as you mentioned, in Norway, they have normalized relations with China on the condition, in writing on paper, that the Norwegian government shall do nothing to disturb the new normal relations between the two countries–– a commitment to silence. And in Britain, the authorities here want Chinese investments for various purposes. They are silent. So severe human rights abuses that occur in China, they go on without much mention in the rest of the world. What we should do, I think, is to continue to be in contact and collaboration with Chinese people and Chinese authorities. For example, in the academic world where I operate, we should continue to be in contact. But, we, and our governments, should at the same time speak, in clear language, about the Chinese regime’s transgressions against human rights and the regime’s aggression in international politics. This happens to some degree but it does not happen as clearly and straightforwardly as I think it should, given the harshness of the Chinese dictatorship. And I think the democratic countries should collaborate and find some kind of common voice against the excesses in dictatorship and aggression from the Chinese side; we should speak with clear language.
TB: China is playing a more and more active and aggressive role on the international stage, and shapes the international order. How far will China go on the way to influencing the international order? Or how possible is it for the West to give up its appeasement policy toward China, before it is too late?
SR: I’m very pessimistic about all of this. I think that the Chinese regime is, by and large, able to control the narrative, and they are widely regarded to be a positive influence in the world as they present themselves. This is for many reasons; partly it is for reasons of self-censorship. Many of us have interests in China, economic interests, interests in being able to do research, for example, and we exercise self-censorship. So there is no common voice from the democratic side in response to Chinese totalitarianism.
TB: To what extent does the CCP in foreign affairs, represent the interests of China and the Chinese people, and to what extent does it represent only the Party itself, every diplomatic choice is aiming to maintain its one-party rule and the interest of the privileged?
SR: I always start from the basic premise that the PRC is a political project. Policies, domestic and foreign, are always designed to the perpetuation of the party-state. In foreign policy, that includes making this party-state ever more influential and dominant on the world stage. Is it in the interest of the Chinese people that the party-state gains in strength? I would say no, since it is not in the interest of the Chinese people that the dictatorship becomes stronger and more invincible. However, the nationalistic narrative of “national rejuvenation” no doubt has resonance in much of the population. This dictatorship, as many others, finds nationalism a strategically useful card.
TB: So these are my questions, do you have other comments before we wrap up?
SR: I know that many China observers always see signs that things are cracking in the Chinese regime. The economics are not performing well enough. There is disagreement within the regime, and so on. Personally, I think that the right description is to see this as a regime that is in control and that we can expect very little improvement in that respect in the foreseeable future. So I’m deeply pessimistic about any movement on the Chinese side towards a more open society, and a more collaborative profile in international relations. I think, on the contrary, it’s increasing control domestically and increasing its quest for domination internationally.
TB: Thank you very much, Professor Ringen.
Also by Teng Biao on China Change:
Politics of the Death Penalty in China, January 16, 2014.
The Confessions of a Reactionary, August 27, 2013.
Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018
Rights Movement Spread All Over the Country
By 2004, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang were under constant threat. Fuzhou police told the village deputies that Zhao and Li were criminals, and demanded that the deputies expose the two. The Fujian municipal government also dispatched a special investigation team to the hometowns of Li and Zhao to look into their family backgrounds. A public security official in Fu’an said: “Don’t you worry that Zhao and Li are still on the lam — that’s because it’s not time for their date with the devil just yet. Just wait till that day comes: we’ll grab them, put them in pig traps, and toss them into the ocean to feed the sharks!”
On September 17, 2004, Zhao Yan was arrested by over 20 state security agents while at a Pizza Hut in Shanghai. At that point he had already left the China Reform magazine and was working as a research assistant in the Beijing office of The New York Times. He was accused of leaking state secrets, denied a lawyer for several months, and eventually sentenced to three years on charges of fraud.
On December 14, 2004, Li Baiguang and three lawyers, while on their way to Fu’an to handle a rights defense case that was likely a trap, were hemmed in by police vehicles and arrested. Li was accused of illegally providing legal services, because he did not possess a law license. On the evening of December 21, a dozen police officers from Fu’an broke into Li’s apartment in Beijing, pried open his cabinets, and confiscated his hard drives and documents related to dismissing officials.
Thanks to the efforts of his friend Yu Meisun and a host of liberal intellectuals and journalists, Li Baiguang was released on bail after 37 days in custody. December to January are the coldest months of the year in Fujian, and there was no heating. In a cell with dozens of people, Li Baiguang recalled later, “I wore a suit, and it was cold. As a form of punishment, they told the cell boss to make me bathe in freezing seawater every day. I lost a lot of hair, and lost so much weight that my cheekbones protruded. When I came out my nephew hardly recognized me.”
The removal of officials between 2003 and 2004 was one of the key campaigns that initiated the rights defense movement, and one of the largest-scale rights defense activities in China. Around the same time, rights defense initiatives took place. During the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) Incident in March 2003, three Peking University law PhDs, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Yu Jiang (俞江) and Teng Biao (腾彪) wrote a letter to the National People’s Congress, demanding that they conduct a constitutional review of the law “Administrative Measures for Assisting Vagrants and Beggars with No Means of Support in Cities” (《城市流浪乞讨人员收容遣送办法》). He Weifang (贺卫方), Xiao Han (萧瀚), He Haibo (何海波), and two other well-known legal scholars demanded that the NPC conduct an investigation into how the ‘administrative measures,’ commonly known as ‘custody and repatriation,’ were actually being implemented. Gao Zhisheng began defending Falun Gong practitioners in court, demanded that the government respect freedom of belief, and called for the torture against practitioners to cease. Numerous other lawyers and legal scholars also began taking up human rights defense cases, bringing them to public consciousness. Other notable cases of the period included the defence of Hebei private entrepreneur Sun Dawu (孙大午), who was accused of ‘illegal fundraising’; the case of injured investors in the Shanbei oil fields; the case of Christian Cai Zhuohua (蔡卓华) who was arrested for printing the Bible; the Southern Metropolis Daily editor and manager Cheng Yizhong (程益中) and Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) who were punished for reporting on the Sun Zhigang case and broke the news of SARS; the ‘Three Servants’ religious case that involved hundreds of believers; the libel case against the authors of the Survey of Chinese Peasants (《中国农民调查》), and other incidents.
In fall of 2003 Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Zhang Xingshui (张星水) founded the organization Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政) in Beijing, later changing its name to the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟). Gongmeng, as it’s often known per the Chinese title, became a hub — and incubator — for human rights lawyers and legal activists. They held a meeting nearly every week, and Li Baiguang was one of the regular participants.
In the winter of 2003 there was an upsurge in the participation of independent candidates in People’s Representative elections in Beijing, and a number of these candidates were successful.
Many independent NGOs focused on environmental protection, AIDS control and prevention, women’s rights, and disabled rights, had sprung up in Beijing and other cities. They used the law and advocacy to propagate rights awareness.
Entering 2005, the dismissal of officials in Taishi Village (太石村), Guangdong Province, as well as the Linyi Family Planning Case in Shandong (临沂计生案), became public events involving lawyers, public intellectuals, and citizen activists from around the country.
At the end of 2005, Hong Kong’s Asia Weekly magazine highlighted 14 human rights lawyers and legal scholars, including Li Baiguang, as 2005 People of the Year. It said that “these 14 rights defense lawyers aren’t afraid of power; they wield the constitution as a weapon, harness the power of the internet, and work to defend the rights of the 1.3 billion Chinese people granted in their own constitution, while pushing for the establishment of democracy and rule of law in China.” In the ensuing years, with the exception of one or two, these 14 lawyers and scholars would be arrested, tortured, disappeared, disbarred, or forced into exile. Still, the grassroots rights defense movement they helped to kick off would continue to expand, and gain new energy in the age of social media. We shall not elaborate on that here.
‘Turning into an Ant’
In late July 1999, after publishing Samuel Smiles’ “The Huguenots in France” (issued under the Chinese title “The Power of of Faith” 《信仰的力量》) , Li Baiguang went to a church in the Haidian district of Beijing, bought a copy of the Bible, and began to read it. In January 2005 after he was released from prison, he began attending the Ark Church in Beijing (北京方舟教会) to study the Bible and pray. The Ark Church was a meeting place for many dissidents, rights lawyers, Tiananmen massacre victims, and petitioners — and for this reason the house church suffered regular harassment by the police. On July 30, 2005, Li was baptized in a reservoir in Huairou (怀柔), Beijing. He loudly proclaimed his witness, telling of the several times in his life when he brushed shoulders with death. He spoke of the time that an inner voice told him to stop, as he was considering plunging to his death from a building at university. He told of the catastrophes he escaped in 1998, 2001, and then in 2004. He spoke of the cumulative impact that Samuel Smiles’ books had on him, and, finally, he expressed his gratitude to Jesus.
He began to tremble violently as he read, and only after the baptism was complete and he had sat down a while did it subside.
For Li Baiguang, the freedom of the mind and soul and political freedom are simply two sides of the same coin. In 2000, while translating Smiles, Li wrote an essay titled “The Fountainhead of Modern Freedom is the Freedom of Individual Conscience” (《现代自由的源头是个体的良心自由》). He came to believe that only faith can shape and form conscience, and further, that the emergence of individual conscience is the origin and basis of freedom. This also makes it the source of the courage and motivation to fight for freedom and against despotism. He doesn’t believe that the widespread failure of Chinese to distinguish right and wrong, and the country’s moral decay, can be laid entirely at the feet of the Communist Party’s dictatorship.
In April 2006, in a session of “The Middle Forum” (《中道论坛》) with Fan Yafeng, Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), and Qiu Feng (秋风), Li said he was tired of liberal intellectuals’ decades-long discussions of grand themes like constitutional governance, reform, and future China. He described his own turning point of involvement in actual, real life rights defense work. Of the eight years between 1997 and 2005, he said, he too spent the first five focused on all sorts of macro abstractions. “Recently I’ve had a realization: I’m willing to become an ant. I want to take the rights and freedoms in the books and, through case after case, bring them into the real world bit by bit. This is my personal stance. The path to this is legal procedure. In summer, the ant gathers food. Today, I’m also transporting food under the framework of rights defense, and in doing so accumulating experience and results for the arrival of the day of constitutional government.”
“According to the principles of political mechanics, it’s impossible to change minds overnight in such a large system. All you can do is loosen the screws one by one and turn the soil over clump by clump,” he said. Li held high hopes in the future of the nascent rights defense movement, and the gradual dismantling of autocracy from the margins. He thought that the rights defense movement would be crucial to China’s future establishment of a constitutional democracy.
This was the first time he proposed the ‘ant’ idea. In the years afterward, this is how he characterized his work and it became very familiar to his friends.
In May 2005, the Midland, Texas-based NGO China Aid, as well as the Institute on Chinese Law & Religion, invited seven Chinese rights lawyers and legal scholars to join a “China Freedom Summit.” Among those invited, Gao Zhisheng, Fan Yafeng, and Zhang Xingshui were blocked from leaving China; Li Baiguang, Wang Yi, Yu Jie, and Guo Feixiong were able to make it to the United States. Li Baiguang delivered a speech at the Hudson Institute titled “The Legal Dimensions of Religious Freedom: Reality and Prospects in China.” It proposed a systematic approach for defending religious freedom according to the law in China, and included the following actions:
- Submit an application to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for constitutional review of laws, regulations and policies related to freedom of religious belief, and demand the annulment of unconstitutional laws that infringe upon religious freedom;
- Apply for religious services for prisoners in detention centres, prisons, and re-education camps in China who believe in God, or have come to believe while in detention, and send the gospel of Jesus Christ to all of the above detention facilities;
- Provide relief to Christians whose religious freedom has been infringed upon by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who have had their persons or their residences illegally searched by agents of the state;
- Provide restitution to Christians who are being subjected to re-education through forced labor;
- Provide restitution to Christians or Christian organizations who have been punished with large fines;
- Provide restitution for those who have been harmed by the dereliction of duty of state organs.
On May 8, while at the Midland office of China Aid for one week of Bible study, the group learned that they would be granted a meeting with President Bush in the White House. On the morning of May 11, President Bush met with Yu Jie, Wang Yi, Li Baiguang, China Aid director Bob Fu, and Institute on Chinese Law & Religion director Deborah Fikes, in the Yellow Oval Room.
Li Baiguang presented President Bush with a gift — a copy of a proposal to make a documentary titled “American Civilization.” It was exquisitely designed by the artist Meng Huang (孟煌). In 2003, Li and his intellectual friends in Beijing designed together two major documentary projects. One of them was a 30-episode series that would introduce the democratic experience in 30 countries. Another, “American Civilization,” would be a 100-episode documentary series that would provide Chinese people a comprehensive introduction to the establishment of America, including its political life, its judicial system, education system, and religious beliefs. “I want to make it a television special for the education of the public,” Li said. He established the Beijing Qimin Research Center (北京启民研究中心) to push the plans forward, but in the end the two ambitious projects were aborted.
The three Christians from China being received by President Bush was, at the time, a major news story. But for the ten years following, the meeting with the U.S. President was remembered more for a controversy that surrounded it: the so-called “rejecting Guo incident.” This is a reference to the fact that Guo Feixiong was excluded from the meeting, purportedly by Yu Jie and Wang Yi, who argued that the meeting was for Christians only and Guo should not attend because he was not a Christian. Later, Li Baiguang expressed his regret that this had taken place. He told rights defense lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) that if it didn’t occur, along with the enormous acrimony around it, the different groups in Chinese civil society might have been more unified and stronger.
Also during this trip to the U.S., Li was invited by Bob Fu to be China Aid’s legal consultant. When Li returned to China, he said in a 2010 interview, apart from his regular rights defense work, he “traveled across the country to provide legal support to persecuted house churches.” Li partnered with China Aid in this fashion until his death.
During that same period, Li sat the bar, passed, and became a lawyer. In December 2007 he hung his shingle with the Common Trust Law Firm (共信律师事务所) in Weigongcun, near Peking University.
In June 2008, Li and six other Chinese dissidents and rights lawyers were awarded the National Endowment for Democracy’s Democracy Award.
Li Baiguang was among the 303 initial signatories of Charter 08. But after that point he gradually retired from the media and public spotlight. “Although the substance of my rights defense work has not changed,” he said in the 2010 interview, “my methods are more low-key and moderate than before. I no longer write articles attacking and castigating the authorities; all I want to do now is actually see implemented the laws that they themselves wrote, and win for victims the rights and freedoms that they should enjoy.”
Over the following years Li, as a lawyer, left his footprints in every Chinese province except Tibet, acting as defense counsel in several hundred cases of persecuted Christians. The cases he was involved in include: the Shanghai Wanbang Church in 2009 (上海万邦教会), petitioning for Uighur church leader Alimjan Yimiti (阿里木江) in 2009, the 2010 Guangzhou Liangren Church case (广州良人教会), the 2010 Shuozhou Church case in Shanxi (山西朔州), the 2012 Pingdingshan Church case in Henan (河南平顶山) , the 2014 Nanle case (南乐), and the Cao Sanqiang (曹三强) case in 2017, among others.
As for the result of defending house churches, Li Baiguang summed it up in 2010 as follows: “If we look at the outcome of the administrative review of every rights case, the judgment has ruled against the church almost without exception. But later, I found a very strange phenomenon: after the conflict dies down, looking back a year later, we find that the local public security and religious bureaus no longer dare storm and raid these house churches, and congregants can meet freely. Using the law as a weapon to defend religious freedom works. Where we’ve fought cases, churches and religious activities in the area have since been little disrupted.”
During the same period, Li also defended numerous dissidents, rights lawyers, activists, petitioners, and peasants entangled in compensation disputes. These include Guo Feixiong’s appeal in 2009, the Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) case in 2011, the lawsuit filed against the government in 2013 by Wang Xiuying (王秀英) for being sent to re-education through forced labor during the Olympic Games, the defense of lawyers Zhang Kai (张凯) and Liu Peng (刘鹏) in 2015, as well as the defense of 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) in 2015, the mass arrest in Wuxi on April 16, 2016, the commemoration of the June 4 massacre by seven citizens in 2016, the mass arrests in Fuzhou as well as Suzhou during the G20 in 2016, and the defense of lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函) in 2017.
While he was engaged in all this, Li also held rights defense training sessions for house churches around China. According to Bob Fu, director of China Aid, over the last roughly ten years, Li has trained several thousands people; the most recent was in January 2018 in Henan — conducted while he was lying on his back after he injured his leg, as church leaders from the local district gathered around to hear him discuss how they should defend their rights according to the law.
Between 2011 and 2013, Li taught in a number of training sessions for “barefoot lawyers” under the aegis of the “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group” (中国维权紧急援助组). In 2016 he also helped with a workshop for independent candidates for People’s Deputies elections. The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group is an NGO founded by the Swede Peter Dahlins, American Michael Caster, and rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in 2009, offering legal training to rights defense lawyers and funding cases.
Li was extremely dedicated and hardworking, according to Dahlins. He focused on details, followed guidelines, and was always a long term thinker. Dahlins often joked with Michael Caster that Li Baiguang, who had met presidents and prime ministers, dressed and looked like a peasant.
Li also took part, with other human rights lawyers and activists, in trainings on the United Nations’ human rights mechanisms in Geneva under the aegis of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (维权网), an NGO that promotes human rights and rule of law in China.
In around 2009, the 40-year-old Li, who had been single his whole life, married his former college friend Xu Hanmei (徐寒梅). In around 2010 they moved to Jurong (句容), a small city near Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, and settled down in a village called Desadoufu (得撒豆腐村). The name Desa comes from the Hebrew “Tirzah,” a Canaanite town mentioned in the Old Testament; the village, originally known for its stone mills used to grind soybeans for tofu, got its name from a church established by Western missionaries. It’s since become a tourist attraction for its pseudo-classical building complexes meant to recall the past.
Most residents in the town are Christians, Li Baiguang told friends. The community built its own kindergarten and elementary school, vegetable gardens, and sports pitch. “I felt like they built their own little Shangri-La,” Yang Zili said.
The Jianxi Church (涧西教会) that Li was associated with is the largest in the area, with around 200 stable congregants, most of whom were like Li: well-educated, having moved permanently to the village from elsewhere in China. For weekend church service, parishioners and catechumen (gradual converts) came from Zhejiang, Shanghai, Anhui and elsewhere, packing the church to the rafters. For these reasons, the church came to be watched closely by local religious affairs officials.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here’
Li Baiguang was not part of any of the public incidents that have been brought to national attention by activists and netizens since 2008. In the mass arrests during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011, Li was not among them. When the New Citizens Movement became active between 2012 and 2013 and activists held regular dinner events, Li did not get involved. He wasn’t even part of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group (人权律师团), founded in 2013. The 709 mass arrests of human rights lawyers didn’t implicate him, though for a while he signed up for being a defense counsel for 709 detainee lawyer Xie Yanyi. Numerous human rights lawyers have been barred from leaving the country; Li, on the other hand, traveled back and forth to America at will from 2006 to 2018.
Even when he was given trouble by police and state security, he did his best not to go public with it.
Per his own assessment in 2010, the authorities were “tolerating me to a much greater degree.” But his state of hypervigilance tells another story. A friend, Zheng Leguo (郑乐国), said that whenever he was with Li Baiguang in public places, Li would quickly scan his eyes over everyone in the vicinity to detect anything out of order. He was extremely careful about what he ate. When they ate at McDonalds, Li chose a table near the door, that way he could see people coming in and going out, and he could also escape at a moment’s notice if need be.
For Li Baiguang, 2017 was a disturbing year.
In January, he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 15th anniversary of China Aid held at the Library of Congress. It was an invitation only event. During his remarks, Li said that apart from the suppression of civil society and human rights lawyers, attacks against house churches were also getting more severe. “From this point forward, human rights in China will enter its darkest period.” He added that rights defenders in China would use their God-given wisdom and intelligence to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; he also called on the international community and NGOs to do what they could to help. “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here,” he said, citing Romans 13.
Li’s remarks were somehow leaked, according to Bob Fu, and reached the Chinese authorities — when Li returned home was treated “with severity.”
On October 17, 2017, a case Li was defending, involving seafood farmers in Wenling, Zhejiang, suing the government for malfeasance, went to trial. In the evening as Li was returning to his hotel, he was abducted by a dozen unidentified men. They took him to a forest and worked him over. They slammed their fists into his head and ordered him to leave the city by 10:00 a.m. the next morning, or else they would decapitate him and cut off his hands and feet. “When he mentioned that kidnapping,” Bob Fu said, “it was the most frightened I had seen him. The incident shook him badly.”
Another case Li took on in 2017 involved the apparent murder of a certain Pastor Han, of Korean ethnicity, in Jilin, northeastern China. Han was a pastor in the Three-Self Patriotic Movement who provided aid to North Korean refugees, and encouraged them to return to North Korea and spread the Gospel. It appeared that he was assassinated by North Korean operatives.
Towards the end of the year, Li met with the Beijing-based AFP journalist Joanna Chiu. After they met in a Starbucks, Li led her out into a small alley, across the street, and into another coffeeshop in order to avoid surveillance. He told Ms. Chiu how he’d been beaten, and also the suspicious death of the pastor.
In early February 2018, Li was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event dedicated to the discussion of religion in public life, attended by thousands, including the U.S. president, policymakers, and religious and business leaders. Bob Fu, in an interview with VOA after Li’s death, said that when Li was in the U.S. from February 5-11, the pastor of Jianxi Church was questioned about the whereabouts of Li and what he was doing in the United States. After he got back to China, he spoke with Fu twice, explaining that he was being investigated, and that danger felt imminent.
At 3:00 a.m. on February 26, 2018, Li Baiguang died in the Nanjing No. 81 PLA Hospital. In response to the widespread shock and suspicion, his family announced that he had died of late-stage liver cancer.
The death of Li Baiguang, like the death of Liu Xiaobo seven months ago, brings with it a momentous sense of ending. The PRC’s neo-totalitarian state grows more complete by the day; the discourse of political reform represented by Charter 08, and the rule-of-law trajectory sought by the rights defense movement, have hit a wall. Neither have room to expand. One by one, little by little, opportunities for further progress have been sealed and nixed. Truly, a ‘new era’ in China has begun.
The night is long; the worst is yet to come. Li Baiguang has died, like Liu Xiaobo, like Yang Tianshui, like Cao Shunli and all those who have fallen in the dark, but they live on; they are sparks of fire in the journey through night.
 They are Xu Zhiyong, Gao Zhisheng, Teng Biao, Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, Li Baiguang, Zheng Enchong, Guo Feixiong, Li Heping, Fan Yafeng, Zhang Xingshui, Chen Guangcheng, and Zhu Jiuhu (许志永、高智晟、滕彪、浦志强、莫少平、李柏光、郑恩宠、郭飞雄、郭国汀、李和平、范亚峰、张星水、陈光诚以及朱久虎).
 The Institute on Chinese Law & Religion was registered in Washington, DC. It is now inactive.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Read it in Chinese 《蚂蚁的力量：纪念李柏光律师》
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.
Li Heping, Ai Weiwei, August 21, 2016
This is a translation of an Ai Weiwei interview of lawyer Li Heping (李和平) in July 2010 (here, here, here, and here) that was released only recently. Beginning from his first involvement in “sensitive” cases around 2002, Li Heping went through the trajectory of his years as one of China’s earliest rights lawyers, including police brutality against him in 2007. Over the past decade or so, many early rights lawyers have withdrawn from the scene under duress, but Li Heping is one of the few who have persevered. He was arrested in July, 2015, as one of dozens of rights lawyers in what is known as the “709 Crackdown” of human rights lawyers and activists. After a year of secret detention with no access to legal counsel or to family, his case has recently been sent to prosecutors for indictment, but earlier this month, Chinese state media seemed to have already charged him with “using funds from a certain overseas NGO to engage in subversion of state power.” If the spectacle of the four show trials in early August is any indication, the entire 709 crackdown is spurred by unfounded fears and is a mockery of the rule of law. – The Editors
My name is Li Heping (李和平), and I love being a lawyer. I’ve served as counsel in many cases that have met with success, and that feeling of accomplishment makes me really happy.
Starting in 2002 I started getting involved in cases that were deemed sensitive — for example, cases involving Article 105 of the Criminal Law, “subversion of state power.” The first case I took at that time was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会) where the Procuratorate had charged Yang Zili (杨子立) and three others of “subverting state power.” The first time I defended them was when I came to understand issues associated with politics and prisoners of conscience, and I was really shocked. At first, I was really at a loss as to how to defend them. Back then I didn’t know much about politics, democracy, republicanism, constitutionalism — I only knew how to mount a defense from the perspective of criminal law and the criminal process. But I later found that this sort of criminal procedure defense is simply useless.
When the young migrant worker, new college graduate Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) was beaten to death in police custody in 2003, we also paid close attention. Back then Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Yu Jiang (俞江), the three PhDs in Law from Peking University, wrote a citizen petition demanding that the National People’s Congress abolish the draconian “Custody and Repatriation Regulations” (《收容审查条例》). And later, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, who had just assumed office, did abolish these regulations. We were really happy. In 2004 and 2005 it seemed that the internet was so dynamic and active, lots of people and cases would be exploding online, and we’d always be following them. Although, at the time the number of cases I actually participated in was quite few. I heard that there was a Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) who’d written three open letters about Falun Gong cases. He’d written a letter to Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), head of the NPC, demanding that the NPC examine Article 300 of the Criminal Law, about “using a heretical religious organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” He also demanded that they stop this sort of campaign-style persecution against Falun Gong. The impact of these three letters was huge. In 2004 there was also the lawyer Guo Guoting (郭国汀), who was punished by the judicial organs for representing sensitive cases — they threatened him with shutting down his legal practice. I was rather baffled: He’s a lawyer defending a client, and you’re going to shut down his firm? I really didn’t get it back then.
The Yang Zili Case and the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield Case
In 2005 when Yang Zili appealed, his wife Lu Kun (路坤) also asked Gao Zhisheng for help, who then notified me. That’s how I came to know Gao Zhisheng, and we got involved in Yang Zili’s appeal together. While that was underway, I also came across the Northern Shaanxi Oilfield case (陕北油田案), which is where the Shaanxi provincial government attempted to nationalize privately-run oil wells, and the owners of those wells didn’t agree. There was a lawyer, Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), who went and offered legal services to those well owners and was arrested by the local government. At that point myself and Gao Zhisheng, as well as some other lawyers who also got involved, went to represent Zhu Jiuhu. We had all the paperwork in order to visit Zhu, but were denied visitation by the local officials. A lot of interesting things happened — for example right outside the door of the police station, the armed police came and surrounded us. But thankfully six months later they released Zhu.
The ‘Dongyang, Huashui’ Case
Afterwards there were a series of similar cases — for instance, the incident in Huashui township, Dongyang city, Zhejiang (浙江东阳画水). On April 4, 2005, in Huashui the authorities mobilized over 3,000 police in order to expel villagers who had come to petition in defense of their rights. The villagers let off firecrackers, and before long about 30,000 more villagers materialized, completely surrounding the police. The police then began firing canisters of tear gas, but the wind was blowing it right back at them. In the end they simply fled under the blows of the citizens. A lot of police were injured, including a deputy mayor who was seriously hurt. The police later arrested and sentenced nine people, and we defended them.
The Chen Guangcheng Case
AI WEIWEI: Was it you who took on the Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) case?
LI HEPING: At the beginning it was me who represented him.
Let me explain how the Chen Guangcheng case happened. Linyi Township in Shandong Province (山东临沂) is a well-known “old revolutionary base” of the Communist Party, and they were extremely horrible in carrying out the birth control policies. For example if there was one person in a village who had already given birth, hadn’t been sterilized, and got pregnant again with the second child, then the authorities would take away not just the family of the woman’s husband who didn’t submit to sterilization, but even arrest everyone in the entire village — collective punishment (连坐). Only after the woman was handed over would they let everyone else go. And when they arrested villagers, it was not a simple detention — there were beatings, and they also fined them 100 yuan ($15) a day. For peasants, 100 yuan a day is no mean sum. They also beat several people to death.
At this point Chen Guangcheng, a blind man, thought that this was wrong. He looked for a lawyer, and right away found me, and I asked Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富) and a few other lawyers to go and investigate. The investigation found that the problem was indeed extremely severe. Later, Teng Biao and some other people also went, and also there was Guo Yushan (郭玉闪). Everyone wrote articles about it, and then foreign journalists also went, turning it into a big deal. The local government thought that they were just losing too much face, so they shut Chen Guangcheng up in his home, surrounded him with a large number of guards, and made sure he was under watch.
But Chen Guangcheng was really an amazing person. Despite his blindness, he scaled the wall in his courtyard, made his way to Shanghai by himself, and then came to Beijing. In Beijing he hid out in our home for quite a while. The Shandong authorities came to Beijing looking for him, and they figured that he’d have come to Beijing to stay with one of us. They found him hiding out in our compound, and abducted him back to Shandong.
After he was taken back they put him under even stronger guard, and Chen Guangcheng could no longer escape. At one point a lot of friends traveled to see him, and he wanted to go outside. On that occasion, I don’t know exactly what happened, but the police let him leave the house. Right outside was an intercity highway, and when he got to road the police blocked it off. Cars kept coming, and the road was blocked. So the police charged Chen Guangcheng with obstructing traffic and destroying public property. The latter charge was because they said that someone had smashed a police car. So we lawyers also defended that case at the time.
A lot of lawyers have been beaten in an attempt to visit Chen Guangcheng. We were the first batch, and later there was Li Jingsong (李劲松), Li Fangping (李方平), also Zhang Lihui (张立辉) — a group would go and be beaten and repelled before another batch going again. A lot of lawyers went. At that time the Ministry of Justice started exerting pressure on us, saying that if you still try to represent Chen’s case, you might not pass your annual lawyers’ qualification review. I thought that since there were new people getting involved, I’d just recuse myself from the case.
Later Li Jingsong, Li Fangping, Zhang Lihui, and Xu Zhiyong took on the case. The whole case was really interesting — Shandong police ended up complaining about us to authorities in Beijing. In the end when this case went to court, I didn’t go.
The “Three Grades of Servants” Case
There was a similar kind of case up in northeastern China, the “Three Grades of Servants” case. The Ministry of Public Security made this a “top priority” case for 2004, what’s known as a “thunderbolt case.” The police said this house church was a cult and grabbed more than 300 people. Eventually, they convicted 64 people, 22 of them sentenced to death and 10 executed. So it was a really big case. But at the time, the authorities placed extremely tight restrictions on any information about the case. They’d make sure to grab anyone who dared contact a lawyer. No information could get out.
I remember my first interaction with the case was February 9, 2006. They told me the trial would start in just over 20 days and asked me if I could be a defense lawyer. As soon as they found me, I went and found four other lawyers and we headed to the Northeast. When we got to the court, they refused to give us access to the case files. So we sent two formal letters to the court saying that if they weren’t going to let us read the case files we wouldn’t act as defense lawyers. There was nothing else to do. Then they said okay and let us selectively photocopy parts of the files. Before we got involved, no other lawyer had been able to photocopy documents from the files in that case.
We worked on the “Three Grades of Servants” case for all of 2006, representing the top two defendants in the case, Xu Shengguang (徐圣光) and Li Maoxing (李毛兴). Both of them were executed. We all felt that this was a miscarriage of justice and that there was no basis to sentence them to death. We worked the case, but we had huge doubts about so many issues.
AI WEIWEI: Where did this case take place?
LI HEPING: This was a case with national scope. Including Heilongjiang there were probably eight provincial high courts involved, all handing down verdicts. It was quite a big deal!
AI WEIWEI: Why?
LI HEPING: The authorities considered them to be an underground church, very well organized, and the government was scared. On top of that, there were conflicts between this church and the “Eastern Lightning” church, which was always trying to recruit and even kidnap their followers. Occasionally, members of “Eastern Lightning” would infiltrate their church and “Three Grades” people would detain them. One of these detentions led to a person dying, but there’s no proof that church leaders Li Maoxing or Xu Shengguang were responsible for that. There was no evidence, not a shred. But they put bullets in their heads anyway.
AI WEIWEI: So they used this incident to wipe out this church.
LI HEPING: That’s right. And they said that all the funds church members had contributed to the church had been obtained through fraud and confiscated more than 30 million yuan. That itself was also a pretty big deal.
2007 Kidnapping and Beating
In 2006 Gao Zhisheng’s law firm was given a one-year suspension. I was an attorney at that firm at the time and took part in his hearing. That probably upset folks from the judicial administration bureau and the guobao (domestic security police). I wanted to act as Gao’s defense lawyer in 2007, but the police had started following me in 2006 so that whenever I returned to Beijing there would be police at my door. Wherever I went, I’d be surrounded on all sides by eight policemen who never left my side.
I was living in the Lido Employees Apartments on Jiangtai Road in Chaoyang District. When I went to work, they’d sit across from the office and keep watch. It was quite a deployment! They never said anything, only “We just do what the higher-ups tell us to do,” that kind of thing. When they arrested Gao Zhisheng, they were afraid that there’d be a chain reaction so they started following all of Gao’s friends around like that.
It was September 29, 2007, just before the National Day holiday. Just like they now do whenever a “sensitive period” comes around, all of the guobao started taking their posts outside our homes and putting us under 24-hour surveillance. One guobao, two police officers from the local station, and two security guards—five men in all.
AI WEIWEI: Did you know any of their names?
LI HEPING: Sure, I knew their names. That night there was Liang Jiu, a guobao from the Chaoyang Precinct. The two officers from the local station were new, and I didn’t know them. One of the security guards was named Zhang Qing. I don’t recall the other guard’s name.
Ordinarily, the cops from the local station would change shifts around 8 p.m. To make things easier for them, they would change shifts after I got off work. But on that particular day, Liang Jiu sent the local cops away a little after 3 p.m., leaving only himself. I guess they must have sent Liang some sort of notice.
When I got off work, Liang Jiu said I didn’t need to drive and that I should ride with him. At the time, I thought I got along reasonably well with Liang so I got in his car. Outside my office building there was a newsstand. Liang told me to go over there and wait for him to pull up. Then he left and never came back.
Suddenly, another guy ran up to me. He was over six feet tall and had a scar on his face. He grabbed my right hand and asked: “Are you Li Heping?”
I said: “Yes.”
“Come with me. You’re just the scumbag I’m looking for.”
After he grabbed me, he tried to push me out in front of him but I refused to move. So up comes another guy and grabs my other hand, and soon I had what I guess was a cloth hood placed over my head. Then they forced me into a waiting car that I happened to glimpse had no license plates.
They sat on either side of me, and I sensed that there was another guy in the passenger seat up front. When they grabbed me, they searched through my pockets and took away my briefcase and computer. There were probably two cars. I feel like we probably drove for an hour. They had my hands pinned behind my back and forced my head down almost to my crotch so it was difficult to breathe.
It was the evening rush hour. I couldn’t figure out where they were taking me, but I sensed that we were on the highway and went through a toll station. Later, I sensed that we had gone up into the hills or something like that, probably to a site of theirs. They had to sign in at the gate, so we stopped for a bit before entering. After entering, I felt like we were going underground, perhaps to a basement. Inside the basement, I remember there were between 6 and 10 men, who all started taking turns beating me.
AI WEIWEI: What did they say to you in the car? How did you get out of the car? How did you get into the basement? Did they remove the hood?
LI HEPING: They never said anything in the car, only: “Behave yourself. Move and we’ll beat you to death.” They raised my hands up very high, putting pressure on the blood vessels inside. My legs went completely numb. They removed the hood only after I got in the basement. What color it was, I never really noticed.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of room was it?
LI HEPING: It was like a room in a guesthouse, but without a bed. The floor was tiled, and there was a table with a tablecloth and a leather baton and an electric prod. They took turns beating me—first three would take a turn and then the next three. It was like that.
AI WEIWEI: What do you mean by “took turns”? How did they beat you? Were you sitting or standing? What was it like?
LI HEPING: When I got there, they tried to strip off all my clothes, but I wouldn’t let them. Several of them got together to strip off my clothes, leaving me in my underwear. Then they took the electric prod and “ZAP”—they started giving me shocks! The day after I got out, Li Fangping saw a bunch of marks from where they’d zapped me.
AI WEIWEI: How many times? What did it feel like?
LI HEPING: They zapped me many times. For six hours, they mostly hit me with the electric prod. They also hit me in the head with full water bottles and slapped me. One slap to my left ear pierced my eardrum. They also kicked me and stomped on me. I collapsed on the floor and they were surrounding me, kicking and stomping.
AI WEIWEI: You collapsed?
LI HEPING: Yes, I fell to the floor. I was rolling around and they chased after me to beat me some more. They were even laughing, they seemed perversely happy.
AI WEIWEI: Could you tell what sort of people they were?
LI HEPING: They were pros at this sort of thing. They said they were from state security, but I think they were probably guobao.
AI WEIWEI: Why would they say they were state security?
LI HEPING: I have no idea.
AI WEIWEI: Were there any other conversations?
LI HEPING: Yeah. The first thing they did was interrogating me: “What’s your name? Where are you from?” I said they knew who I was already and I wasn’t going to answer. They grabbed me by the head and said: “Are you going to talk or not?” Then—“POW”—they started slapping me.
They said: “You’re in our hands now, so don’t even think about when you’re going to get out. You are lucky if you ever see a courtroom, but there’s no way we’re sending you to prison. We’ll just say you’ve disapppeared without a trace.” That sort of thing.
AI WEIWEI: You said that they kept taking turns beating you in groups of three. How did you keep track of time?
LI HEPING: I know that it was around one in the morning when they let me go.
AI WEIWEI: You were beaten non-stop up to that point?
LI HEPING: Yeah. I’d gotten off work at 5 p.m. Once I got there, they beat me and kicked me without a break.
AI WEIWEI: When they were beating you like that, was there any point when you couldn’t stand it or you fainted? I mean, what did it feel like?
LI HEPING: Let me put it this way. Of course it hurt a lot, and it was humiliating. But I also thought: “You’re already in their hands, and there’s nowhere to run. So there’s no use in being afraid.” That’s all I was thinking at the time. “Even if they beat you to death, what can you do about it? Nothing.” That was what I was thinking, because I figured there was nothing I could do, right? When you’re getting beat up in a place like that, it doesn’t matter what sort of skills you might have—what can you do? You can only put yourself at their mercy.”
AI WEIWEI: Did you ever think to yourself: “I’m a lawyer. I ought to give them a piece of my mind for the way they’re violating the law”?
LI HEPING: Are they interested in talking with you about law at that moment? They’re already acting like the mafia. If you’re going to talk about the law it ought to be in an open setting, where everyone acts according to the law and the facts. Of course that would be great, but at that moment that’s not the way things were going.
I did say to them at the time: “I’ve got no beef with you, so why are you doing this to me?”
They said to me: “It’s you bunch of outsider lawyers that’s giving us no peace in Beijing! Go back and sell your apartment, sell your firm, and get the hell out of Beijing! We say whether you can practice law, and there’s no way you’re going to practice law without our say-so!”
Afterwards, they took away my lawyer’s license and my passport. They also took my portable hard drive and my laptop hard drive. When I got home, I couldn’t turn on my laptop. I thought maybe they’d reformatted my laptop. When I went to the computer mall to get it fixed, the guy said: “Is this your computer? How come it doesn’t have a hard drive?” It’s like they’re trying to burrow into your head to check out what you’re thinking, they’re so afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What could they find out by looking inside your head?
LI HEPING: They couldn’t find out anything. What can a single lawyer do? It’s just that they took my case files and destroyed the fruit of 10 years of work.
AI WEIWEI: I wonder what was going through your mind as they were beating you. When they beat you over and over, did you ever feel despondent? What was going through your mind? Or was there nothing to think in that moment?
LI HEPING: I really wasn’t thinking anything at the time. I recall telling them that I wasn’t going to hate them, no matter what they did to me. “It’s okay,” I said. “After I get out, the next time I see you I’ll treat you to a meal.” Those guys just laughed and said: “You’ll treat us? A pauper like you?!” That’s because at the time I truly had very little cash on me, so they called me a “pauper.”
AI WEIWEI: Were you poor?
LI HEPING: I can’t say one way or the other. In any case, once I began taking on public interest cases my income dropped dramatically. I had to spend my own money in case after case. If you’re going to put your heart and soul into public-interest lawyering in China, it’s pretty much a dead-end road as far as profit is concerned. If you don’t take on a few commercial cases to make up the difference, then you’re definitely done for. I’m a little better off, because I handle a lot of commercial cases and can use that money to fill the gaps. Overall, I’m doing all right. I may not have had a lot of cash in my pocket, but I had money on my bank card.
AI WEIWEI: How did they finally let you go? Did they get tired of beating you?
LI HEPING: I don’t know. In any case, one of them was in charge, a guy in his forties who was wearing a suit. He was the one giving out the orders. When he said “move,” they moved. When he said “stop,” they stopped. When he told someone to beat me, they beat me.
AI WEIWEI: What kind of a person was he?
LI HEPING: He looked like a nice, gentle sort of guy. He wore a linen suit. I don’t remember whether or not he wore glasses. When they had beaten me to a certain point, he said: “Let’s take him out.” I had no idea where they were taking me, but they put the hood over my head again and bundled me into the car. We drove quite a ways. I thought they were taking me to a new location. Then the car stopped somewhere and they told me to get out. Back at the basement, they’d said: “Let’s go. We’re going to search your place.” At the time, I thought: “Even if you kill my entire family, there’s nothing I can do about it, right? What options do you have living in this kind of society? They will do whatever they will do to you.”
Getting out of the car, they said: “Just wait and see what we’ll do to you if you go back and hold a press conference.” They meant that they didn’t want me to reveal that I’d been beaten and wanted me to keep it a secret. They dropped me off in a wooded area—I don’t know where, but it was still quite far from the city. I thought: “I have no clue where I am, so I guess I’ll just walk in the direction of wherever I see the most light.” I saw lights way off in the distance, in the Beijing suburbs. So, I started walking towards the lights of Beijing.
I walked for a few kilometers before I got to a road, where I saw a sign that read “Xiaotangshan” (小汤山). I found a taxi there and took it back to my home. I remember that the fare was more than 80 yuan, something like 89 yuan. I had just enough in my pockets to cover it.
AI WEIWEI: What time did you get home?
LI HEPING: Probably between 1 and 2 in the morning. My wife was already asleep when I got home, and I didn’t wake her.
I looked myself over in the bathroom mirror. I’d lost a lot of hair. I’d been zapped here [points to neck], my face was swollen, and I had marks all over my body from the electric baton. But I didn’t say anything to my wife. The next day, I told Jiang Tianyong and Li Fangping, and they came over to see me.
On September 30, I wrote everything down. I was really nervous when I published my account of what happened. I remember it was October 1 when it got posted online. That day, Jiang Tianyong and several other lawyers accompanied me to the “Ladies Street” Police Station (女人街派出所) next to my office to file a report. When we filed the report, the police officer said: “Eh, you mean this kind of thing can happen in Beijing? Such a vicious and serious case ought to be fully investigated.” But nothing ever came of it.
Another thing happened when we were at the police station. Jiang Tianyong called Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) to tell him what had happened to me. As they were talking, there was a click, and the call was routed somewhere else. Li Xiongbing couldn’t hear anything and Jiang Tianyong could hear someone on the other end laughing and saying that Li Heping got what he deserved. Our mobiles, email, and telephones are all being monitored.
AI WEIWEI: How do you know for sure?
LI HEPING: There’s noise on the mobiles, you can hear it clearly. There are times when we’re unable to send text messages, especially when we’re working on big cases. Sometimes we can’t make calls, our phones are specifically targeted. Then, when the moment has past, they unfreeze the phones.
There are even stranger things. Back when Li Jinsong (李劲松) and Cheng Hai (程海) were in Shandong working on Chen Guangcheng’s case, the police detained Li Jinsong. A few of us lawyers back in Beijing were discussing how we should respond, and the discussion got pretty heated. Suddenly, I got a text message from my wife. It was probably 2006, but the message was one that my wife had sent me in 2004 or 2005—the same exact text! It read: “Dear, you’re always working on these public interest cases! Not only do they pay less, but they bring danger to our family and there are threats to your physical safety. What’s a wife supposed to do? If you won’t think of yourself, think of your wife and child! If something were to happen to you, what will become of the two of us?” My wife rarely uses that tone of voice with me, so I remember this text very clearly. But one year later, the people that monitor us sent it out again with the exact same timestamp. It’s really incredible!
[Ai Weiwei asking about more examples of kidnapping and brutality and Li Heping’s answer are abbreviated.]
Only Institutional Protections Can Prevent Torture
Under the current Chinese system, no citizen can fight back once he falls into their hands. If you resist, you become a target for torture. They have cameras at the Pingfang Police Station in Beijing, but they decide whether or not to save the footage or make it public. The way to prevent use of torture to coerce confessions is the right to have a lawyer present during questioning and the right to remain silent.
Without the right to remain silent, no one can hold out. Take Guo Feixiong, for example. He’s a real tough guy, but faced with electric shocks to his genitals he had no choice but to confess. Gao Zhisheng is another really tough guy, but was forced under torture to write a statement of regret. Then there’s Li Zhuang, a guy with a military background. When he was thrown into that Chongqing jail, he had no choice but to admit to crimes. What can you do? Humans are made of flesh and blood. When you’re being tortured, you don’t want to go on living. There’s no protection for human rights under this system.
After I went public about being beaten, that sort of thing happened much less frequently. For instance, when they kidnapped Teng Biao for three days, they didn’t harm him physically—they just held him for three days. Torture certainly needs to be made public, because publicity is a deterrent. If no one ever went public about what happened to them, then who knows how arrogant with power the authorities would become. So, I think that the film you’re making here is very important.
AI WEIWEI: When we heard what happened, we were very angry and felt it was all so hard to believe. What we can do is give a clear and factual account. Once it’s made public, then it becomes part of history. There’s no other way.
LI HEPING: In some religious cases in the Northeast, they soak you to the bone and then throw you in a freezing cell in the middle of winter. Torture is everywhere in China.
AI WEIWEI: You’re a lawyer working on behalf of justice who has experienced this kind of thing yourself. You still have some compassion and a capacity to act, and you’re willing to do this kind of work as a lawyer. But do you ever feel desperation or fear?
LI HEPING: Speaking of fear, one of the guys who beat me put it very clearly: “I’m going to give you nightmares.” They want to make it impossible for me to sleep, to have nightmares when I think of them. That’s their goal. But fortunately, I’m the kind of person who thinks that you have to sleep, even in hell.
It’s not so easy for them to give me nightmares. But it’s caused much more harm as far as my family is concerned. I can bear it, but how about my family or my wife? They’re under considerable pressure. When I would turn my phone off, my wife would go crazy with worry if she wasn’t able to reach me, searching all over thinking that I’d been taken away by the police. My friends are like this, too, worrying that if they can’t reach me by phone I must’ve been taken away by the guobao. They get really worried!
AI WEIWEI: How many times have you been detained, in all?
LI HEPING: The first time was the time I was beaten up. Later there were a number of temporary “conflicts.” For example, the Pingfang Police Station called me in to give a statement. It lasted four or five hours. They wanted me to stick around, but I refused. So there was trouble. “You have to remain here!” They grabbed my arm and made me stay. Then they put a chair in front of me and said, “Sit there!” I refused to sit. But all of them insist that I sit, so what could I do? Are you going to fight them? For this kind of official business, why do I have to sit there? But if you don’t sit, those guys will lift you up and carry you over there and your arms will get hurt.
So, individual protest isn’t enough: without institutional protections, there’s no way that China will prevent torture.
AI WEIWEI: Why does the system allow them to act this way? What are they trying to achieve? The regime is supposed to be a public good, but they control all of the resources. What are they trying to do?
LI HEPING: These days, many police will say: “We just follow orders. We do what our superiors tell us to do. We’re just trying to put food on our tables.” The time I was beaten up, the leader of the police said something really funny: “Now that you’re in my hands, you just watch how I’m going to torment you and fix you! When you guys take charge in the future, however you want to take your revenge is up to you!”
I said: “What are you talking about, ‘take charge’? Aren’t I just a lawyer?” They have no confidence in their own system, that’s the truth.
[Discussion about how to fight back police’s denial of brutality is abbreviated.]
Citizens’ On-the-Scene Support and Social Media
AI WEIWEI: Is it useful for citizen activists to gather at the scene to voice their support?
LI HEPING: Of course, it’s extremely important. When someone does something wrong, he worries that others will remember. Don’t you see how police hide their badges and serial numbers when they’re doing bad things? They’re afraid.
AI WEIWEI: What do you think of the public discussion taking place on blogs and Twitter? What impact will that have on China?
LI HEPING: I think that instant communication tools like Twitter and Skype are extremely important for China, because China completely lacks any civil society. It’s like a plate of loose sand, without any platforms for formation of any general will. In a certain sense, Twitter helps citizens create a kind of public opinion by gathering and expressing people’s views. When it reaches a certain point, it can lead to action. I think that in the future these will truly change our society.
Only when citizens are able to make contact with and trust one another can they work together to build their own country. Moreover, consensus is ultimately achieved through people’s exchange of ideas, through agreement and compromise with each other. This needs time. Twitter and other Internet tools provide citizens with a convenient platform for communication. But you know what the limitation is? At present, only some elites are on Twitter, but many elites within the system don’t use it. But I think this is only a matter of time.
[Editors’ Note: This was when Sina Weibo, launch in the fall of 2009, was yet to take off.]
I believe the Internet can break down the iron curtain of China’s totalitarian regime, so still have some confidence in China.
AI WEIWEI: What religion are you?
LI HEPING: I’m a Christian.
AI WEIWEI: Are you devout?
LI HEPING: I’m— . . . My wife is extremely devout. I’d like to be a bit more devout, but I’ve still got a ways to go, still have some doubts. I think it would be a lot easier for me if I were a devout Christian.
AI WEIWEI: When did you start being religious?
LI HEPING: I was baptized in 2003. Religion really helps make humanity stronger, braver, and wiser. It gives you a much greater capacity to withstand pressure. Otherwise, you just have the strength of an individual—it’s not enough.
AI WEIWEI: So, on that day when you were rolling on the ground and they were beating you, did you think of Christianity?
LI HEPING: I really did—and I also prayed. It’s like when Teng Biao was detained—he hadn’t even been baptized yet—he prayed: “Lord, hurry up and rescue me.” It’s different when you’re religious. At the time when they were beating me, I even laughed. I truly laughed, I kid you not.
AI WEIWEI: That must have frightened them, no?
LI HEPING: That I don’t know. I suspect it didn’t frighten them—after all, there were a lot of them. I felt that I hadn’t done anything wrong. They can do what they want, I’m still going to be me. What they did was really foolish, but that foolishness has its origins in the system. They committed heinous sins but don’t have to take any responsibility, because they have the Communist Party to protect them. It’s foolish because it’s the reputation of the party and the government that gets damaged.
AI WEIWEI: I’ve said the same thing, too. If you allow a minority to damage the interests and reputation of the state through their unlawful behavior, there’s no way that ordinary people will continue to have any faith in it. You’re just like the mafia, I said to them.
LI HEPING: Yeah, their actions certainly do call into question the legitimacy of their rule. But these days access to information is blocked and many people know nothing about these kinds of incidents. But if you go online or have access to more channels of information, you’ll soon become aware of these things. Especially petitioning. After trying it a few times, everything will become clear. When they hear stories about houses being demolished, many people still think: “There’s no way the government could be this evil, like a bunch of gangsters!” But when it happens to them, they finally realize the government’s brutality.
China Is a Foxcomm Regime
AI WEIWEI: When it comes to certain fundamental questions of principle, the government acts with a kind of primitive brutality and can’t be reasoned with.
LI HEPING: I feel that they currently lack the ability to make necessary distinctions when it comes to these kinds of things. They lump a bunch of things from different areas together without any distinction. If they were to make clearer distinctions, I think they’d have no need to do things this way.
There are some matters where they ought to loosen up. There are some areas where, even loosening up quite a bit wouldn’t cause any problems. But in other areas where there are fears of social problems, it’s understandable to want a bit of control. But I think that they’re unable perform this kind of analysis.
They take some of the most fundamental issues and give the greatest power to the most idiotic people. Think of citizens’ rights to liberty or property—these are big issues. But they give the police control over people’s personal liberty. Police can detain and lock you up however they please and even send you away for a few years. Where else in the world do you see that? If you’re going to punish someone by taking away their freedom, you at least have to bring them before a court! This is a stupid, stupid way of doing things. [The editors can’t help pointing out how ironic this is!]
There’s another way they do things: they put the courts under the control of the party out of a belief that this helps preserve social stability. They never imagine that allowing courts to rule on cases independently would make society seem a bit fairer and that the courts would be able to resolve conflicts when they arise. But because the Communist Party manipulates the courts, by linking the entire system together you push conflict into other areas until it fills the whole system. I think there’s a problem with their way of thinking on this. . . .
AI WEIWEI: So, you’ve arrived at the subject of judicial independence.
LI HEPING: Judicial independence. Now whenever I see them, I make another suggestion: China should adopt a system of citizen juries and let citizens decide as to whether or not a crime has been committed. When you try to control and take charge of everything yourself, can you really have control?
To put it bluntly, China is currently a Foxcomm regime. China is like Foxcomm—it looks awesome from the outside, but too many restrictions are put on people’s freedoms and it’s like living in a prison. It’s unsustainable.
AI WEIWEI: Are you worried for this country?
LI HEPING: I think for sure that no good will come of continuing on like this.
AI WEIWEI: How old are you?
LI HEPING: Forty.
AI WEIWEI: What year were you born? What’s your birthdate?
LI HEPING: October 26, 1970. We Chinese say, “At 40, I had no more doubts.” Since I turned 40, my doubts have only just begun. Everything that you once thought was correct turns out to be mistaken. Now that I’m 40, I’ve slowly come to realize: “Oh, so many things turn out to be false.” I’m only starting to extract my mind out of the pit that my past education’s dug for me. “Oh, see—it turns out that this is the way the world is!” It’s different. The pit they dug for you is so huge, it takes you 40 years to crawl out. So at 40, I’ve just begun to have doubts [laughs]. Slowly but surely!
AI WEIWEI: You’re a real optimist!
LI HEPING: I guess I’m more-or-less optimistic [chuckles]. There’s no way to do this sort of work if you don’t have this kind of personality. The police are always coming to find you. Since 2005, they’ve been following me now for five years. I’d reckon that for more than a year of that time the police were following me around the clock, come rain or shine. When they follow you like that, what can you do?
AI WEIWEI: It’s such a waste of money!
LI HEPING: Yeah. I calculated it for them once. At first there were eight police watching me—how much do eight police make a day? A hundred yuan a day, per person, so at least 800 yuan. Those eight police use three cars, at 300 yuan per day that’s 900. What about meals? To follow me, they have to spend at least 3000 yuan a day.
AI WEIWEI: That means the state spends more than a million to follow you for a year.
LI HEPING: That’s right! And that doesn’t include the cost of monitoring my phone or my Internet! Then there’s all the secret stuff—who knows how they’re doing this stuff?
I consider myself to be this kind of person: no matter what I do, I do it in accordance with the law. There’s no need for all this stuff! It’s like a guobao from the Beijing Public Security Bureau said to me during the Beijing Olympics: “Lawyer Li, the Olympics is very important to us. Security standards during the Olympics are very high, so you mustn’t go out of bounds!”
I said: “Who’s drawing those boundaries, you or me? Why do you need to draw boundaries for me? What gives you the right? How about you observe the boundaries, too? Don’t bother drawing boundaries for me. You respect the law and I respect the law, then there’ll be no problems. Don’t mess around!”
He replied: “It’s like having sand in your shoes. Just put up with it for a while and it’ll be gone. We have orders from above.”
So what can you do? They do these things without any plan. It’s truly unwise to treat lawyers this way. I’ve spoken to people at the judicial administration bureau about this. I tell them I’d like to be able to communicate with you guys, including the police. I’d like to communicate, because we have so many suggestions about how to solve many of society’s problems. We’re on the front lines. We’re not radicals. We can give you solutions for how to solve these kinds of problems. If you follow our suggestions, the problems will be resolved. Isn’t that great? So why must you send security guards, police officers, guobao to watch us? Are guobao necessarily better at solving these problems than lawyers? In what way are guobao better?
[The interview is interrupted by a woman passerby . . . ]
Passerby: Excuse me, what are you filming here?
AI WEIWEI: This is a private film. I’m interviewing him.
Passerby: What do you mean, “private”?
AI WEIWEI: It’s for my personal use.
Passerby: For personal use? Do you have a permit for this activity?
AI WEIWEI: Personal use. Hey, you must be from Beijing TV.
Passerby: Did you contact anyone before doing this?
AI WEIWEI: No, we’re just individuals. We came here for an interview—it’s like having a chat.
Passerby: But this . . . individuals?
AI WEIWEI: Yeah. Don’t you see people carrying cameras all the time and filming each other? We’re interviewing him. He’s my friend.
A translation of a VOA report in Chinese, published: March 11, 2015
Professor Xia Min of CUNY: “Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
A documentary produced by the well-known investigative journalist Chai Jing, formerly with CCTV, Under the Dome, has struck a deep chord in China. At the end of the documentary, Chai mentions that as China’s revised Environmental Protection Law is implemented, civil society environmental groups will have the unprecedented right to bring public interest lawsuits against polluting companies.
However, according to a Beijing News (《新京报》) article , since the law went into effect in January 2015, only three suits have been brought out of more than 700 environmental groups accredited to bring public interest litigation. The newspaper reports that most of these are organizations run by the government, including many trade associations, that are lukewarm at best about such lawsuits. Only a handful of civil society groups are “both able and willing” to try. The vast majority of civil society NGOs often lack both funding and energy for such an undertaking, nor do they have law professionals on board.
The dilemma of public interest litigation Chinese environmental NGOs face is a reflection of what Chinese civil society looks like today. According to available statistics, China has more than half a million NGOs that are registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, a significant number of these are semi- or quasi-official organizations, some of which indeed only parade with an NGO front in order to qualify for government funding. The vast majority of the small number of independent civil society groups work in areas that are not considered politically sensitive, such as charity, environmental protection and the rights of women and children. In addition, China has another 1.5 million civil society groups that are not formally registered. These groups are likely to meet with pressures from the government if they venture into politically sensitive areas such as worker rights, the rule of law, or the rights of HIV patients [infected through government-sanctioned malfeasance].
Deteriorating Conditions for Independent Civil Society Groups
According to the New York Times, China’s independent civil society groups have “…long struggled to survive inside China’s ill-defined, shifting margins of official tolerance.” However, this sliver of margin for NGOs is shrinking further. Within the last several months, the Chinese government has targeted many NGOs.
Chinese human rights lawyer and former member of Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng, 公盟), Teng Biao, said that since Xi Jinping assumed power, the environment for independent NGOs has deteriorated. “Groups that used to be able to do things, such as the Transition Institute (传知行) and Liren rural libraries (立人图书馆) that were not considered too sensitive, have now been shut down. A lot of the people in charge of the groups were arrested and sentenced. The government’s controls on funding sources, as well as its ideological control, are clearly tightening,” he said.
In May 2013, the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee issued, for internal circulation, the “Report on the Current Status in the Area of Ideology,” known as “Seven Don’t” for short, in which Party members are asked to wage a struggle against “dangerous” Western values. “Do not mention civil society” ranks third among the seven forbidden topics.
Xia Ming, a professor of political science at CUNY, said that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping at its center, sees ideas about civil society and “small government, big society,” promoted by the West, as two prominent and gigantic traps Western nations set up for China. “This is why last year we saw enormous destruction visited on some Chinese NGOs, with the most symbolic landmark incident being the arrest of Xu Zhiyong and approximately one hundred other people in his team; he himself got a four-year sentence,” Xia said.
The founder of Open Constitution Initiative (OCI) and constitutional scholar Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to four years in January 2014. Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court ruled that Xu was guilty of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Xu Zhiyong’s imprisonment, as well as the long-term harassment of other civil society groups, throws into relief the Chinese rulers’ zero-tolerance policy toward any societal force that may pose a threat to its power. Teng Biao said: “They are afraid that civil society NGOs, including some human rights defense groups and defenders, are growing in strength, and thereby becoming a challenge to the government. To be blunt, they are afraid that peaceful evolution, Color Revolution, will endanger the party’s rule.”
Limited Space for Civil Society Organizations
Other viewpoints hold, however, that the Chinese government does not take a monolithic stance towards NGOs. According to the Economist, some Party members believe that it is impossible to completely bar the growing middle class from social participation, and carefully limited participation can help the CCP win popular support. By 2014, four types of civil society groups can freely register, and they are trade associations, science and technology groups, charity groups, and groups dedicated to social service. Karla Simon, author of the book Civil Society in China, is confident that as the registration threshold is lowered, Chinese NGOs are likely to double within the next several years.
Tightening Control on Funding Sources of NGOs
Even so, CCP still insists on tightly controlling the funding sources of NGOs. The Economist reports that money for a lot of Chinese NGOs comes directly from local governments. In 2012, Guangdong provincial government gave as much as 466 million RMB to NGOs, while Yunnan province spent 300 million. However, in order to receive funding, civil society groups need sponsorship from entities with government ties, and they are not allowed to solicit funds from the public, even though they have permission to receive corporate and individual funding. This means that, through funding channels, the government can effectively rein in the vast majority of NGOs.
In addition, the Chinese government has recently stepped up monitoring of NGOs that receive foreign donations. In November 2014, Guangzhou government issued “Management Rules of Social Organizations,” putting in place the requirement that, effective January 1, 2015, NGOs that receive foreign funding must submit a written report to registration and relevant authorities 15 days before the receipt of funds at the latest. This requirement in effect blocks the funding conduit for the majority of labor NGOs which rely on foreign funding. According to the New York Times, employees of Transition Institute said that the bulk of the 3-4 million RMB of their organization’s budget is from overseas. Such overseas connections increasingly convince the Chinese government that Transition Institute is a dangerous entity. In its opinion, overseas funding is a tool for subversion.
Sometimes, even when NGO funding is domestic, they are still targeted by the government. Xia Ming of CUNY said, “Even when your money is from within China, the government still targets you quite harshly. One of the more obvious examples is Xu Zhiyong getting money from Wang Gongquan (王功权), a billionaire, who was arrested for a time too. This is the best kind of warning to make sure that Chinese private entrepreneurs would not get mixed up in supporting civil society organizations.” Wang Gongquan is a co-founder of the New Citizens Movement headed by Xu Zhiyong. On September 13, 2013, the Beijing police placed Wang in criminal detention, allegedly for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Wang was paroled in January, 2014.
China is also ramping up controls on foreign NGOs in China. Fu Ying, a spokesperson for the National People’s Congress (NPC), told the media before the Third Session of the 12th NPC began, that China needs to better manage foreign NGOs from the standpoint of national security. She said that legislation will be undertaken so that foreign NGO activities can abide by them. According to Chinese media reports, the Foreign NGO Management Law will require foreign NGOs to register and receive government approval before setting up branches in China.
Anxiety about a Color Revolution in China
Chan Kin-man (陈健民), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Director at the Civil Society Research Centre, believed that even though Chinese NGOs are growing exponentially in number, the space for their activities is shrinking. Xia Min of CUNY said that CCP will not, in all probability, allow independent civil society groups to develop unfettered. “The outcome of deepening civil society development must be the organizing of political parties,” he said. “Therefore, I think Xi’s fear is exactly that the maturing of civil society will organically provide, with the organizing capacity and solidarity within Chinese society, a platform for the building of political parties.”
Judging from the series of steps the government has taken towards NGOs recently, while it may have sensed already the enormous potential of these groups, they are held to be dispensable up against the goal of sustaining CCP rule.
 I was unable to find this article in Beijing News. It might have been censored. – The editor.
National security? China ready to slam door on foreign NGOs, the Christian Science Monitor, March 10, 2015.
In China, Civic Groups’ Freedom, and Followers, Are Vanishing, New York Times, February 26, 2015.
Chinese civil society: Beneath the glacier, The Economist, April, 2014.
(Translated by Louisa Chiang)
By Guo Yushan, Published: August 10, 2013
That government, powerful as it was, didn’t scare me into doing anything unjust.
— Ascribed to Socrates by Plato in The Apology
Congratulations for having been put in jail.
I have been worrying that, if they leave you free after arresting so many of your friends in the New Citizens’ Movement, how viciously they would have put you in an unjust position. Now it looks like the government is helping you out. Along with dozens of other participants in the Movement, you are also wearing the prison vest and paying the price that’s sure to come.
I know you have long prepared for this and are at ease with it, but still, I’m saddened. Ten years ago, we met on the campus of Peking University. We collaborated and we founded “Sunshine Constitutionalism” that later became Gong Meng (the Open Constitution Initiative, 公盟). We rented an apartment together where you had a room and I had a room. During the day, we engaged in activities, and in the evenings we drank bear together and talked about our social ideals. We have aged over the last ten years. I am tired even though my ideals remain. We both are still on the road, but you, tirelessly, have gone much farther.
I am shrewder than you, and you are more valiant than I am. Now that you are in jail, this very thought makes me ashamed of myself. Over beers ten years ago, you talked about how lonely you felt on the campus of Peking University. Before you got there, you had thought it was a place filled with idealists, but once there, you couldn’t find any. You were disappointed. One day it occurred to me, “Hey, why look elsewhere?” You yourself were the idealist. Ten years have gone by, you are persuading people to be new citizens in this Sodom, and your ideals have stirred people far and wide.
People in Sodom are vulgar, greedy and ruthless. You walk among them urging them not to submit to the rulers of the city-state without thinking, not to treat each other cruelly. You encourage them to be open, honest new citizens, to love and to be just, and to uphold the ethical principles in whatever they are doing. You have never been shy in acknowledging it is a political cause, because “citizenship” depends on the political structure of the city-state, and it is impossible to define “new citizens” without a new political structure. Of course, more than a political cause, it is also a social movement, because no fresh fruit will grow out of a venomous tree, and Sodom will forever be Sodom if its people don’t strive to be new citizens.
In Sodom, it is never a question whether the rulers are going to tolerate your ideals. Jehovah wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two city-states of evil, with fire and sulfur, and Abraham pleaded with him to spare Sodom if ten just men could be found. However, ten just men could not be found in Sodom except for Lot, nephew of Abraham, and it was eventually destroyed by Jehovah and sunken to the bottom of the Dead Sea. Now, you are again looking for just men in Sodom, and will you be able to find ten of them to spare Sodom from destruction?
But before Sodom meets its fate, you have been put on trial. This is destiny, the destiny of being a just man in Sodom. The subjects of Sodom will encircle you, humiliate you, curse you, and throw rocks at you. They will even sing and dance to celebrate. Before the destructive fire and sulfur fell from the sky, they are willing to destroy all hopes, believing they can block Jehovah’s wrath through terror and recklessness. According to the Bible, at the last moment when Sodom was about to meet its ruin, the subjects of the city-state, coming from all directions, encircled the home of Lot and demanded that Lot surrender the two angels, who had arrived in Sodom and staying in Lot’s house, for their pleasure.
For you and for us, the idealists, the road is long and arduous.
And Sodom is not the only case. Even in Athens, they put Socrates and his new citizens’ movement on trial and sentenced him to death by drinking hemlock. Unlike Sodom, Athens was a blessed city-state, but even so, the Athenians couldn’t stand Socrates’ ceaseless questioning of their virtues. For centuries, the citizens of Athens had only accepted the epics of Homer and mythology of Hesoid, worshiping heroes and glorifying wars. Then came Socrates who, impoverished, idle, walked through the streets and alleyways of Athens, speaking to politicians, poets and craftsmen, piercing their pride, examining their merits as citizens, telling them that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” that the pursuit of virtue and wisdom should come before the pursuit of anything else, and that one should not soil one’s hands in unjust public life. He went on to say, “You, my friend, a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” (The Apology by Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett)
After 30 years of war with the Peloponnesians, Athens lost to Sparta, and its valued democratic tradition was ruined by the thirty oligarchs, but the citizens of Athens were even more upset by Socrates’ new citizens’ movement. Playwright Aristophanes penned the comedy The Clouds to lampoon Socrates as someone who was fanciful, living in the clouds, and whose house was burned to the ground by his own disciples. Anytus, Meletus and Lycos, three leading supporters of democratic movements in Athens, directly accused Socrates of corrupting the youth and of impiety, and the citizens of the Athens, upon hearing Socrates’ defense, wise as it was, still convicted him of their own accord.
Zhiyong, is that the inevitable end of an idealist facing the city-state?
Of course, Athens and Sodom were different. In Athens, it could be debated whether Socrates and his new citizens’ movement should be tolerated. The debate could go on forever, and the conviction could be regretted. After Socrates was executed, the Athenians indeed repented. Anytus was exiled and then stoned to death. But in Sodom, the destination for those unyielding citizens is dim prison and oblivion by the public. Discussion will be forbidden, for the rulers of Sodom will shut you up, shut me up, and shut everyone up.
By trying Socrates for corrupting the youth, Athens in fact glorified Socrates. Sodom will not give you such glory. They will carefully choose the charges against you. When you stand trial, the part that scares them most will not make an appearance at all, and Sodom’s subjects who watch the trial will cheer: he is the thief; he is the villain “who interfered with public traffic.”
But I know that you will stand trial as proudly as Socrates. In The Apology, Socrates told the court that he was a gift from God to Athens, and if they killed him, they would not easily find a successor, and that the state, a great and noble steed but tardy in its motions, required the stings of a gadfly like himself to stir it into life.
I am God’s gift to you, he told the Athenians. But Athens didn’t understand such pride, let alone Sodom. Therefore, Zhiyong, when you are tried in Sodom, do not defend yourself against the charges they impose on you. Let them charge you, let them torture you. Do as Socrates did, choosing prison and drinking the poison the Athenians handed him, even though Criton bribed off a guard and urged his teacher to run away. They cannot try the pride of an idealist. Socrates said, after being sentenced to death, he would rather be put to death for speaking what he spoke than live by speaking what they spoke. Athenians, in so little time you earned your shame for eternity.
So, standing in the seat of the accused, defend only what we want to defend. Zhiyong, even if you face a roomful of barbarous officials, thugs and schemers whose ears are deaf, whose eyes are copper coins and whose minds are arid desert, defend only what you love – the idea of new citizens and its meaning. Sodom can reject, or fail to understand, the words of a just man, but in the future, it will surely understand the judgment of God and the wrath that roars across the sky and brings their ruin.
You are in prison this moment, on your way to trial, and I too am under house arrest. Sitting vacantly in my living room where twilight is closing in, soon to be engulfed by the night, I feel sad all of a sudden, recalling what my friend Qiao Mu once said, “the road paved by stepping stones leads afar……”
Whether in Sodom or Athens, the fate of idealists will eventually be that of the stepping stones. Though trampled over, I hope our souls, yours and mine, will remain free, unfettered, and peaceful.
July 27, 2013
Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) is the head of the Transition Institute (传知行), an independent think tank in Beijing that advocates political and economic liberalization. It was recently raided and banned after Dr. Xu Zhiyong’s arrest, though it was not in any way associated with Dr. Xu. Mr. Guo is a longtime friend of Dr. Xu, and the two, along with Dr. Teng Biao (滕彪), founded Gong Meng (公盟). Among his many distinctions, Mr. Guo was a key figure in the Free Chen Guangcheng movement during Chen’s house arrest from 2010 to the time he escaped in the spring of 2012. Mr. Guo was the very person who, with a group of friends, took Chen from Shandong after his escape and delivered him, eventually, to the safety of the US Embassy in Beijing.
(Translation by ChinaChange.org)