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Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2018
As of January 15, 2018, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) had been held incommunicado for 920 days. This makes him the only 709 detainee who hasn’t been heard from since the notorious 709 Crackdown began in July 2015.
Last Friday, two lawyers, a former client, and three wives of 709 victims travelled from Beijing to arrive early morning at the First Detention Center in Tianjin, a half hour ride by high-speed train. The sun had risen, and a rich orange hue cloaked everything. A large-character slogan ran the length of the walls of the Detention Center: “Be Loyal to the Party, Serve the People, Enforce the Law with Fairness.” They were the first visitors waiting for the reception room to open. The three women were unable to deposit “meal charges” for Wang after calling a number thirty or so times and arguing with a female officer. The two lawyers, requesting a meeting with their client, were shown a piece of A4 paper that read “lawyers are not allowed to see Wu Gan and Wang Quanzhang.” Over the 30 months since Wang was arrested, his lawyers have made so many trips to Tianjin that they’ve lost count.
In August 2016, two 709 detainees were given heavy sentences and two others were given suspended sentences. By May 2017, more 709 lawyers and activists were released on bail or given suspended sentences after the government succeeded in forcing them to admit guilt in one form or another. By December 26, 2017, three of the last four 709 detainees received sentences or, as in Xie Yang’s case, were exempted from punishment.
The fate of Wang Quanzhang has been weighing on the minds of many, particularly as those who have been released reveal details of horrific torture. These include electric shocks so strong that they knock the victim unconscious on the spot; the “water cage” torture, where at least one detainee was locked in a submerged cage, with only the head above water; force feeding with unknown drugs; extreme sleep deprivation; beatings; and verbal and psychological abuses.
That Wang Quanzhang must have suffered the worst for refusing to yield is the consensus shared by the human rights community. Some fear that he may have been so physically debilitated that the authorities are now hiding him. Some worry that he’s already dead.
The latter fear was lifted last July after Chen Youxi (陈有西), a well-known state-connected lawyer, met with Wang (against the wishes of his wife) and tried to make him sign a Power of Attorney authorizing Chen to represent him. Wang refused. Chen later came under heavy criticism after describing the meeting on social media. “Chen Youxi was sent to help the government frame my husband,” said Wang’s wife Li Wenzu (李文足).
Indeed, in all the 709 trials, the government-assigned lawyers imposed on the detainees were part of the admit-guilt-for-leniency deal, acting as intermediaries between the government and the 709 detainees, and helping the government get what it wanted.
Wang Quanzhang’s Work
Wang Quanzhang, 42, was a lawyer with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm when he was swept up along with scores of other lawyers and activists in July 2015. Wang was born and raised in rural Shandong, and graduated from Shandong University in 2000 with a law degree. He was one of the earliest defenders of Falun Gong: while still in college, he provided legal assistance to practitioners not long after the brutal, nationwide suppression against it began in 1999. As a result, he was threatened and his home raided by police. A judge, it was said, wrote a letter to the university advising them not to issue his diploma. (He still received it).
After college, while working at the provincial library in 2005, Wang took up volunteer work for an NGO that had set up an experimental community school in a village near Jinan, the provincial capital. For the next three years, he gave free lessons about Chinese law to villagers on Saturdays for three years, paying his own travel costs. He taught them cases concerning land rights and other legal issues common in rural areas, and debated with them about whether it was power, or the law, that was supreme. The peasants believed that in China, power rules — not the law.
They were right then, and they’re right now.
In Jinan, Wang was subject to constant threats for his legal aid work. He was chased on the street, and at one time had to hide in the home of his friend, a professor, for days on end as plainclothes agents milled around outside the apartment building. He would later recount these episodes to friends as if they were someone else’s adventures.
In 2008 he moved to Beijing in part to escape the dangers of Jinan. A colleague thus called him “a lawyer on the run.”
In Beijing, Wang worked for an NGO called the “Empowerment and Rights Institute” (仁之泉工作室), one of the many small rights NGOs, like the school for villagers in Shandong, that sprung up in China around that time. He also did a stint at a think tank called the “World and China Institute” (世界与中国研究所). In 2009 he co-founded the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group NGO (China Action, 中国维权紧急援助组) with Peter Dahlin and Michael Caster, young Swedish and American activists respectively whom he had met at the “Empowerment and Rights Institute.” Peter and Michael came to China at a time when the country seemed eager to “integrate” with the world.
Through China Action from 2009 to 2013, Wang worked to expand access to legal assistance for victims, organize more structured trainings for fellow lawyers, and train victims to become citizen lawyers capable of dealing with the judiciary. After 2013, he stopped work at China Action and focused on defending individual cases in court.
In addition to Falun Gong cases, Wang also took on cases of illegal and unfair land expropriation, labor camp victims, prison abuses, and political prisoners such as journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇怀) and New Citizen Movement activists.
In the midst of all of the above, he found time to write articles commenting on current events using the pen name “Gao Feng” (高峰) — though samples of his writings are hard to come by.
The Repeatedly Beaten Lawyer
Lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), who has known Wang Quanzhang since 2010, described him as shy and unknown to his peers. That changed in April 2013, when Wang was given a 10-day “judicial detention” by a court in Jingjiang, Jiangsu (江苏靖江), towards the end of the trial of a Falun Gong case, for supposedly “violating court order.” From the account of his assistant, he defended his client ferociously despite frequent interruptions by the judge, whom he vowed to file a complaint against. His “not guilty” defense made the judge furious — merely practicing Falun Gong is a crime, according to the Party.
No lawyer had ever previously been detained inside the court during proceedings. Scores of human rights lawyers and citizen activists from all over the country descended on Jingjiang and protested in front of the courthouse. Having never witnessed such a scene before, the court relented and released Wang Quanzhang two days later.
In recent years Wang dealt almost exclusively with Falun Gong cases. For that, he took a lot more beatings inside and outside the court, as brutality against Falun Gong defendants, and sometimes their lawyers, occurs frequently. Many human rights lawyers such as Wang Yu (王宇), and more recently lawyer Lu Tingge (卢廷阁), can attest to this travesty unthinkable in a country with the rule of law.
In April 2014, Wang Quanzhang was among a number of lawyers and activists who went to Jiansanjiang (建三江) in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang to rescue four other lawyers who had been detained after they themselves sought to rescue Falun Gong practitioners illegally detained in a black jail called “Legal Education Base.” In the middle of the night he was hauled out of his sleeping bag, he wrote in the Chinese’ edition of The New York Times. “Two men quickly tied me up with ropes, with my arms behind me, pulling a black hood over my head.” He was put on a bus to a police station, where after some wrangling, two policemen hit his head against the wall. More violence was threatened until he agreed to sign a statement promising that he would not to take part in “illegal gatherings in Jiansanjiang.”
In June, 2015, in Liaocheng, Shandong (山东聊城), about a month before the 709 crackdown began, Wang Quanzhang was co-counsel with two other lawyers in the trial of several Falun Gong practitioners. At the end of the trial, which was marked by a fierce defense, the judge, Wang wrote: “Suddenly ordered the bailiffs to remove me from the courtroom for disrupting court order. A dozen or so bailiffs rushed into the courtroom. Some gripped me by the arm, one clenched me by the throat, and they hauled me out. At this point, someone had started fiercely punching me in the head; others were hurling abuse… I was dragged into a room on the first floor of the courthouse, and was ordered by one of the police to kneel. I refused. They started beating me again.”
The Chinese Government’s Fictitious Case Against Wang Quanzhang
Like all other 709 detainees, Wang Quanzhang was placed under “residential surveillance at a designated place” for six months. He was likely held in the same building as other Beijing lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Xie Yanyi, who have since been released and written about their ordeals.
For example, in A Record of 709, 709 lawyer Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) described the sounds emanating from the room above between October 1 and 8 in 2015: “At about 9 a.m. on October 1, I distinctly heard someone above me fall hard onto the floor. There was a soft groan, then no more sound. It seemed like someone had just been given an electric shock. From October 1 to 10, nearly every day I heard interrogations and howling and moaning in the middle of the night in the room above me.” He wondered whether it was Wang Quanzhang or Hu Shigen. “The fact that there has been no information whatsoever about Wang Quanzhang for more than two years is an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
On January 8, 2016, after the six months of secret detention were over, Wang Quanzhang was formally arrested for alleged “subversion of state power.” Over the twelve months that followed, the police used extended custody and a prosecutorial time delay technique, known as “returning case to police for further investigation” (退回补充侦查), to hold Wang without indictment or trial. This is a common practice used against political prisoners.
Into the later part of the 709 crackdown, the government has dispensed with such pretenses altogether, holding Wang Quanzhang indefinitely without any legal basis, real or otherwise.
On January 3, 2016, the Swedish national Peter Dahlin was detained in Beijing. In an interview with China Change, Dahlin said that lawyer Wang Quanzhang was at the center of the police interrogations. “The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.”
Back in his hometown in Shandong, toward the end of April 2016, local police, admitting that they were under orders from Tianjin, visited Wang Quanzhang’s aging parents and siblings. They talked Wang’s father into speaking on camera, advising his son to admit guilt in exchange for leniency. His sister, an average village woman who had never questioned the government until the crash course she went through with the disappearance of her younger brother, asked the police: “What crime has my brother committed?” The police told her that Wang defended Falun Gong practitioners, and doing so is opposing the Communist Party because Falun Gong was an “evil cult.”
In mid-February, 2017, Wang Quanzhang was indicted for “subversion of state power.” But neither his lawyers nor his wife were given a copy of the indictment despite their persistent demands for it. We don’t know how the Communist Party has built its case against him. We do know that they have been eager to have him admit guilt, without success: the hometown police told his family that “Wang Quanzhang has been very uncooperative.”
A human rights lawyer who represented another 709 detainee and made many trips to Tianjin, and who wishes to remain anonymous, shared an interesting observation: he believed that the government didn’t have a plan when it rounded up the lawyers and activists in July 2015. Instead, they devised it as they went along, using torture to subdue them and have them admit guilt. “The government could find no evidence of crimes against them in the existing laws; but they felt they must muzzle the lawyers, and used illegal methods to do so. That is, they arrested the lawyers and activists first, then looked for or fabricated ‘evidence’ against them. The purpose is to terrorize and deter the rights defense community through criminal punishment.”
The propaganda machine has worked in sync to disseminate the Party’s evolving narrative and belittle some of China’s most courageous citizens: when the 709 lawyers and activists were first detained, Party mouthpieces churned out articles and TV segments describing them as “the bad horses that hurt the entire herd.” By the time Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民) and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国) were tried in August, 2016, the activities of human rights lawyers and activists was recast into a conspiratorial “color revolution” with “anti-China foreign forces” behind the scenes. In the more recent TV confessions, lawyers Xie Yang (谢阳) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) were made to say that they were “exploited by Western anti-China forces” and brainwashed by “Western constitutionalism and other erroneous ideas.”
Free Wang Quanzhang
In the two and a half years of his disappearance, Wang Quanzhang’s toddler son has grown bigger. His wife Li Wenzu (李文足), who had never taken much interest in her husband’s professional work, has become his most vocal and effective advocate, enduring unceasing harassment from the police. She was recently awarded the inaugural Outstanding Citizen Award by a network of activists inside China for her courage and perseverance.
No statements from foreign governments, no inquiries from United Nations committees, no amount of media scrutiny, seems sufficient to unseat the Communist Party’s determination to use an iron fist to subdue any citizen it deems “dangerous” in its increasingly paranoid outlook on the world.
By all indications, it seems that Wang Quanzhang is not yielding either. Foreseeing what was to come, Wang left a letter for his parents in July 2015:
No matter how despicable and ridiculous we appear to be in the portrayal by the manipulated media, Mother, Father, please believe your son, and please believe your son’s friends.
I have never abandoned the qualities Father and Mother instilled in me: honesty, kindheartedness, integrity. In all these years, I have used these principles to guide my life. Even though I’ve often been steeped in despair, I have never given up thoughts for a better future.
My taking up the work—and walking down the path—of defending human rights wasn’t just a sudden impulse. Instead, it came from a hidden part of my nature, a calling that has intensified over the years—and has always been slowly reaching up like the ivy.
This kind of path is doomed to be thorny, tortuous, rocky.
But when I think of the difficult road we have gone through together, this path seems commonplace.
Dear Father and Mother, please feel proud of me. Also, no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live, and wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
After Four Detainees of the ‘709 Incident’ Are Indicted, Chinese State Media Name Foreign News Organizations, a US Congressman, & Three Embassies in Beijing as ‘Foreign Anti-China Forces’, China Change, July 15, 2016.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu explains why Chinese government is out to get them, China Change, July 23, 2015.
January 10, 2018
Since 2009 Wu Gan has arguably been the best known, and certainly the most recognizable, activist in China for his bold and innovative tactics. Wu Gan was arrested on May 19, 2015, and looking back, he was in fact the first detainee of what became the 709 Crackdown. As with all other 709 detainees, he was held in secret detention for months, where he was tortured. He was tried behind closed doors on August 15, 2017, without a verdict. On December 26, the court sentenced him to eight years in prison for “subverting state power.” The evidence against him were 12 occasions where he had campaigned, in his colorful style, to correct injustice in one form or another. According to his lawyer, Wu Gan rejected a deal with the authorities which would have given him a suspended sentence if he were to admit guilt. Following Wu Gan’s sentence, his defending counsel filed the following appeal. — The Editors
Appellant: Wu Gan (吴淦). Male. Han ethnicity. DOB: February 14, 1972. Place of birth: Fuqing city, Fujian Province. Citizen ID: 3502061972XXXX2033. Senior high school education. Administrative officer at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所). Currently being held at the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center (天津市第二看守所).
Defending counsel: Ge Yongxi (葛永喜), Guangdong Anguo Law Firm (广东安国律师事务所); Yan Xin (燕薪), Beijing Laishuo Law Firm (北京来硕律师事务所)
The appellant lodges this appeal to overturn the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court’s (2016) Criminal Judgement No. 146
Appeal request: Vacate the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court’s (2016) Criminal Judgement No. 146 and render a judgement of not guilty.
Facts and Grounds:
i. Subjective Factors
Although the appellant “in court acknowledged his thoughts of subverting state power,” and expressed a wish to endeavour toward this end, thought does not constitute criminal conduct. If the verbal expressions of the appellant are sufficient to constitute a crime, it should also be considered that the appellant in court also said: “subverting state power is the legitimate right of the citizen; subversion of state power shouldn’t even be a crime in the first place.” In the mind of the appellant, he is simply exercising his right to subvert state power — and so what crime has he committed?
ii. Objective Factors
When rendering judgement on whether an individual’s conduct is criminal, it is vital to examine the character of their actions. The actions of the appellant — whether speech made via Weibo, WeChat, Twitter, his three “Guides,” interviews given to foreign media, or audio lectures — all fall under the rubric of legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. Similarly, the appellant’s participation in 12 noted cases — which involved ‘stand-and-watch’ protests, appealing in support of a cause, raising funds, or expressing himself via performance art — are also all exercises in freedom of expression, provided for in his civil rights of: the right to criticize and make suggestions; the right to lodge appeals and complaints; the right to report and expose malfeasance, and so on. These rights are innate, and are provided for in the constitution and law of the People’s Republic of China. The exercise of these rights has nothing at all to do with so-called subversion of state power. Even less are the appellant’s actions implicated in any form of attack on the state regime or the national system of government established in the constitution.
iii. The Object of the Crime
The concept of the “state power” is a macro structure, and refers specifically to the actual rule of the central authority. Local political authorities, local judicial organs, and individual administrative or judicial officials, are not identical with the “state power.” Questioning, criticizing, reporting misconduct, and bringing complaints against local political and judicial organs or individual officials does not constitute an attempt to harm the state power.
iv. Considerations of Harm to Society
All speech acts by the appellant, as well as his participation in the 12 cases, did not cause the harm to society that is required in criminal law for the acts to constitute crimes. Not only did the speech acts not cause any harm at all to society, but they inspired a sense of citizenship and rights consciousness in members of the public, as well as effectively exercising supervision over the work of local governmental and judicial organs, thus causing injustices to be righted. What greater contribution to the public welfare could there be?
v. Regarding the Crime of ‘Subverting State Power’ Itself
a. What Is the State Power in Question?
“State power” can be defined in both narrow and broad senses. The broader definition would refer to the manner in which state power is expressed in political sovereignty at the level of a nation with defined geographical boundaries. This encompasses all of the authority of a state, including the tripartite legislative, administrative, and judicial powers. The meaning of “state power” under this definition is simply a concrete manifestation of political sovereignty.
The narrow definition of state power refers to the central or federal administrative branch of government within the framework of a national polity.
b. Who Can Subvert the Sovereignty of the People?
In the current era, nation states are countries under the sovereignty of the people. The second article in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China stipulates: “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people.” This sentence sufficiently demonstrates that state power in China has to be established on the basis of popular sovereignty. Given that sovereignty belongs to the people, then of course the people have the right to subvert the regime. It is simply a matter of the methods used: whether peaceful elections, non-violent revolution, violent revolution, or other means. Looking to political experience and practice around the world, it’s only the dictatorships that grasp onto power for decades on end who in actual fact subvert the sovereignty of the people. This is why no one has heard of ordinary citizens in a civilized country being charged with the crime of subverting state power. If sovereignty does not belong to the people, then the people’s subversion of state power in order to return sovereignty to the people is right and proper.
c. State Power is Not Equal to a Political Party’s Regime
In electoral democracies, state power in its narrow definition is typically held at any one time by one or a few political parties — thus the idea of a ‘ruling party’ or a coalition of parties that govern. The matter of which political party power is to reside in should be determined in competitive and free elections. It ought not be that a particular party seizes power for itself exclusively, not allowing any other person or political party comment on the matter. Even if particular citizens offer dissent to the regime of a particular party, or work in concert with one another to subvert it, these are all rights within the ambit of popular sovereignty and have nothing to do with subverting the power of the state.
d. The Socialist System and State Power
The social system to be adopted is a question of the ideological and political platform of a party. No political party has the right to inextricably bind its own ideology and system and theory of governance to state power writ large, as though it were the unchanging and eternal standard. Whether a political program is accepted and supported by the public ought to be a matter decided by the public at large. Thus, whether one opposes or even attempts to overthrow the socialist system should not be a constitutive element in the determination of subversion of state power. Language referring to the ‘socialist system’ should not appear in the statute addressing this crime.
e. Only Violent Subversion Can Constitute a Crime
Surveying the legal practices of every constitutional democracy in the world today, it is clear that only when an individual resorts to violence in an attempt to subvert the regime or government does the act constitute a crime. The use of peaceful measures — even when intended to subvert a regime or government — are simply not crimes. Even in the basic theories of political science, the people possess the natural and legitimate right to use violence to overthrow a tyrannical dictatorship. Is not the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party’s government itself just such an example from history?
Given all of the above, the appellant believes that — whether on the basis of the natural rights each individual is endowed with, or the common sense of jurisprudence and political science — the Tianjin Intermediate No. 2 Court should revise its decision against the appellant to not guilty. The appellant also suggests that the National People’s Congress revise the Criminal Law to limit the applicable scope of Article 105, relating to subversion of state power — or simply repeal the criminal category in its entirety.
Tianjin Higher People’s Court
Appellant: Wu Gan
Defending counsel: Ge Yongxi, Yan Xin
January 4, 2018
The Twelve ‘Crimes’ of Wu Gan the Butcher, China Change, August 13, 2017.
Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important? Mo Zhixu, August 16, 2017
Wu Gan’s Statement After Being Sentenced to Eight Years in Prison for ‘Subversion,’ China Change, December 26, 2017.
My Pretrial Statement, Wu Gan, August 9, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, July, 2015.
Bill of Indictment Against Rights Activist Wu Gan, January 12, 2017.
Wu Gan’s “three Guides” in Chinese:
Guide to Butchering Pigs (《杀猪宝典》)
Guide to Drinking Tea (《喝茶宝典》)
Huang Yu, January 5, 2017
Zhen Jianghua has been placed under secrect detention known as “residential surveillance at a designated place,” his lawyer Ren Quanniu was told over the phone on December 13, 2017. Zhen continues to be denied access to his lawyers. — The Editors
Zhen Jianghua (甄江华) hadn’t yet gone to bed at midnight on September 1, 2017, when police burst into his apartment and put him in handcuffs. As he was being led out, he was unperturbed, and simply told his roommate: “Make sure you tell Xiao Li (小丽) to check Taobao and pick up my packages.” Xiao Li is Zhen Jianghua’s ex-wife. The phrase was code to say that she should spread the news of his arrest. Within a day the police had ransacked his house twice and confiscated his computer and all his documents. Not long after, his family received a notice of criminal detention for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power.”
Zhen Jianghua, 32 this year, is the key organizer behind an NGO known as Human Rights Campaign in China Service Center, or HRC China. It was formed in October 2008. Zhen took over it in October 2015, registering it in Hong Kong. His daily work involved aggregating and publishing updated news about human rights events in China, engaging with foreign media, and coordinating aid efforts — and sometimes protests — for human rights defenders who had been sent to prison.
The number of people in mainland China engaged in human rights relief work is vanishingly small — but even among this tight-knit group, Zhen Jianghua was one of an even smaller number who insisted on using his real name in the work. Openly engaging in these activities inside China brought Zhen an extraordinary array of difficulties in getting through daily life, and ended with the tragedy of prison.
He knew what was to come and made preparations for it. For several years, he only wore black: two sets of black t-shirts, two pairs of black shoes. Every night before bed, he did 50 push-ups, 50 squats, and 50 chin-ups. He ate vegetarian, or sometimes subsisted on meal replacement powder. He lived as plainly as possible. He also signed multiple blank copies of Power of Attorney, and gave them to friends. His Google account was set to automatically purge everything if he didn’t log in for two days. And he had a strict schedule for periodically wiping all data from his computer and phone.
From the moment he made the choice to engage in this work, he cut himself off from nearly all his friends, gradually becoming an island unto himself. “There’s nowhere safe in China,” he said. “You never know who’ll sell you out.” For both his own safety and that of others, he also rarely interacted with anyone in the same, small, rights defense community in China. Thus, if he was ever brought in and interrogated, he could indeed simply say: “I don’t know.”
“We can each see what the other’s doing,” he’d often say. “There’s no need to be in contact.”
The name he gave himself online was “Zhen Jianghua, you big fool.” His Facebook signature was: “In my own way, helping those who’ve already paid so great a price for their dreams — those who really need help.” After he was arrested, friends set up a Facebook page called “Southern Fool Concern Group” to post information about him.
This ‘southern fool’ was born in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province (广东江门). He graduated high-school through the vocational track, specializing in computing. Then he went straight to work. His first job, in 2005, was at an internet data center in Zhuhai (珠海). He worked hard and was eventually promoted to a managerial position. But the simple life of a computer programmer that he had led would be stirred up by the growing emergence of China’s censorship state.
One day at work, an elderly man came with his daughter. The man painted pictures for a living, and had set up his own online bulletin board on the side. He made a few posts about Mao Zedong, with titles like “An Overview of Mao,” and so on. He was using the servers of Zhen Jianghua’s company at the time, and suddenly his BBS had been shut down. Zhen thought at the time: this is very sensitive, we can’t talk about it, and it’s entirely normal that he was shut down. At the same time, he felt sorry for the old fellow and wanted to help him out. Later, when the company bought servers in Hong Kong, Zhen Jianghua moved this and other similar BBSs over, so they’d stay alive for a bit longer. But eventually none would survive the fate of being shut down.
As time went on, the government’s internet censors began calling Zhen’s company more and more, instructing they shut down particular websites. Nanjing University’s vibrant BBS, Little Lily, as well as Tsinghua University’s Shuimu BBS, were both blocked for non-campus access. Those were the changes that made Chinese netizens finally aware of the control and supervision that was taking place. Meanwhile, Zhen Jianghua’s company began engaging in top-down self-censorship, developing a program that examined the content of the servers and automatically shut it down for “bad traffic.” More recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published “Order 43” prohibiting websites and data companies to provide services without registering with the government.
In his spare time, Zhen Jianghua was involved in Wikipedia Chinese, and started joining technical events for Google developers. Through community activities, he made connections with grassroots people and taught them how to use the internet to advocate for their own interests. The world, for the young man, was diverging in two opposite directions.
For a while, he had to travel to Hong Kong frequently for business, and learned about the annual June 4 commemoration in Victoria Park. He admired the “Tiananmen Mothers.” “Those people emit radiance,” he said. He began making the annual trip to the Victoria Park commemoration. One year he brought a friend from China along and they helped hand out fliers. When the friend returned he was questioned by state security police (国保), got in trouble at his job, and was banned from leaving China for five years.
At this point Zhen Jianghua realized that if he was going to resist state power, his life would be changed fundamentally. He also realized that those, like his friend, who paid the price for doing so wouldn’t be remembered.
Yet he wasn’t quite ready for outright resistance. Instead, he tried his hand at a number of safe endeavors after his job as a programmer. For instance, he became a full time social worker for the Zhuhai Municipal Red Cross, where he primarily called in on the “hard-pressed masses,” delivering rice, oil, noodles, and later washing detergent to poor families. As a government affiliated social worker, his job was to maintain contact with the targets of the services and “keep their emotions stable.” He wasn’t able to keep this position for very long, because after adding his signature to an online call of support for Ai Weiwei in 2011, he was taken away by police for an inquiry, in front of his colleagues at work. Zhen quit of his own accord “to protect the Red Cross from any negative impact.” He was also the head social worker at Nanqingcun (南青村), where he dealt with female victims of domestic violence. The most he could do was advise that they file for divorce.
His brief period as a social worker inside the official system made him fed up. “Being a social worker in China is a debilitating job,” he said. “You have to sing the praises of the Communist Party morning to night, put on events, studiously avoid sensitive topics — such as why villagers are poor in the first place, and you can’t teach them their rights and how to empower themselves.” Zhen knew that delivering rice and cooking oil wasn’t addressing the fundamental issues, and that working inside the system made it impossible to think about the structural problems.
Zhen thought that if social work was forced to avoid sensitive issues and sensitive social groups, then it was not what he wanted. He quit and was on his own. He began participating in activities to help prisoners of conscience, in a personal capacity. He helped collect signatures and spread information about tainted milk formula with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father in Beijing whose son had been poisoned by melamine-tainted milk; he paid the phone bill for feminist activist Ye Haiyan (叶海燕) — neither of whom he had met. Later, when he met rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (江天勇) for the first time, Zhen said by way of introduction that “My online name is ‘guest Zhen,’” to which Jiang replied that he remembered him as “the one who sent all those messages encouraging us years ago.” (Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years imprisonment on November 21, 2017, for “subversion of state power.”)
In late 2010 after Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) won the Nobel Peace Prize, a group of likeminded Chinese internet users wanted to get together and celebrate. Everyone was supposed to communicate via Twitter, but one activist who was often monitored by the authorities made the mistake of calling Zhen Jianghua and inviting him to the gathering. For the authorities, this was the first time that the online “guest” persona and the real life Zhen Jianghua were connected. After that, the police began calling in on him regularly, and whenever a politically sensitive date or activity arrived, they would take him on forced “travel.” He could also no longer attend the June 4th commemoration at the Victoria Park in Hong Kong.
But once his real identity was exposed, rather than backing off, he went all in.
Zhen began to launch projects on his own, mostly having to do with recording events or providing technical support. For instance, he launched a project called “Big Brother” to keep tabs on citizens who had been monitored by the state; he maintained a website called “Drink Tea Net” (喝茶网) which collected ordinary citizens’ testimonies of being questioned by police for their activism under the euphemism of “drinking tea.” He also established the site “Climb the Wall Net” (翻墙网) which provided technical assistance to netizens on how to circumvent Beijing’s Great Fire Wall.
In 2013 a student group at the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (北京理工大学珠海学院) invited him to give a talk about circumventing Beijing’s internet blockade. The students put up posters around campus for an event that taught “how to use Internet scientifically.” The event was shut down and the Party leadership at the university called the students in for questioning. “Do you have any idea what kind of person this Zhen Jianghua is?” they asked the students.
Zhen wasn’t too concerned with the state security police coming to harass him, nor did he mind being told to stay off campus. But when the security division at the university threatened to deny the graduation of students who’d invited him, Zhen Jianghua was furious. He tracked down the state security officers in charge of the case and said: “I can leave the area if that’s what’s required; if there’s an issue, come to me, don’t bother the students. They’re about to graduate, and if that’s denied it will have a huge impact on their lives.” The state security officers acquiesced to his proposal, and ordered him not to step foot on campus again.
“But actually, later I went to the school quite a lot. After all, a lot of people at the Beijing Institute of Technology are into internet technologies,” Zhen said. He felt that he had a way to negotiate with the state security police: he can always quit what he’s doing to let them save face.
Meanwhile, he was still involved in providing assistance to prisoners of conscience. “They’re the ones who’ve come out in the open and borne the brunt. The least we can do is offer them support.”
From Behind the Scenes to the Front Lines
Beginning in 2010, Zhen Jianghua was constantly being kicked out of his rental apartments in Zhuhai. Every time he moved, not long after he’d settled in, state security officers would call the landlord, and the fearful landlord would ask him to move away.
Being jolted around with him was Zhen’s wife at the time, Xiao Li. Xiao Li and Zhen Jianghua met due to their shared joy in taking in stray dogs and cats. Their life together was never stable but for a while very romantic: every year on December 31 they’d travel to the seaside and watch the sun go down atop of a lighthouse; after passing the night there, they’d watch the sun come up on January 1. On Christmas day they’d walk around handing out candy and encouraging people to donate blood. They themselves had donated blood over 100 times. They’d also taken in over 20 stray cats; and because they couldn’t afford a vet, they learned to do sterilization surgery themselves.
The harassment they were suffering in Zhuhai eventually led the couple to move to Macau and work at the non-profit Fu Hong Society (扶康會), where they served people with autism. This precious, temporary peace lasted until July 9, 2015.
On that day and in the following days, over 300 human rights lawyers and activists in 23 provinces and cities across China were detained, summoned, or disappeared. This is known as the “709 Crackdown.” On January 12, 2016, after six months of secret detention, director of the Fengrui Law Firm Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), legal intern Li Shuyun (李姝云), legal assistant Zhao Wei (赵威), were formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
In early June 2016, Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭) and Li Wenzu (李文足), the wives of disappeared rights lawyers Li Heping (李和平) and Wang Quanzhang respectively, were taken into custody and brought to the Guajiasi police station in Tianjin. Before they were brought in, Wang Qiaoling sent out a message saying that she had been detained; soon thereafter, Zhen Jianghua’s HRC China verified the news and published it. At the police station, an officer pulled out his phone, turned on his VPN, clicked on the HRC China website, and held it up to Wang Qiaoling: “Look. You’ve been here for less than an hour, and the news is everywhere.”
Such is the extreme efficiency of Zhen Jianghua’s operation. From the beginning of the 709 arrests, he sprang into action and didn’t stop, doing three things simultaneously:
- Responding rapidly to instances of human rights abuse. As a social worker, he got in touch with and visited family members, and in every case tried to ensure that a support network was established for everyone who had been taken into custody;
- Educating family members and others that people who are arrested for political reasons are not guilty of anything;
- Based on previous experience, he would publicize news about arrests, mobilize social media, and contact foreign human rights officials so they would exert pressure on the Chinese authorities.
This sort of work was nothing like helping people scale the Great Fire Wall or organizing events. The pressure and stress Zhen was under rose dramatically, and it didn’t come with the earlier sense of satisfaction, when there was still the hope for an actual civil society in China. A friend described how he worked: every day he’d follow two or three cases, verify what had been initially reported, write a report, publish it, and then contact people about it. He sat down and powered through the work without rest, “like his life depended on it.”
He often worked through the night. He wouldn’t get much sleep during the daytime, either. If someone was suddenly arrested and the family needed support, he’d buy a train ticket right away and go. For their own safety he couldn’t tell his friends and family where he was going or what he was doing. His wife Xiao Li eventually got used to it, and they began to see less and less of each other. The year before last, on Zhen Jianghua’s birthday, Xiao Li baked him a cake. Zhen came over, quickly blew out the candles, ate a few mouthfuls, and got back to work.
Initially he gave himself a deadline of two years to set up HRC China, and once it was up and running, his plan was to hand the daily operations off to someone else. “I can’t get rid of it right now; no one is willing to take it on,” he joked to a friend in August of this year.
Xiao Li grew more and more uncomfortable with his work. She described Zhen’s work as walking a tightrope. There’s no way out. He must press forward — yet the further he goes, the narrower and thinner the rope becomes.
It’s from about this period that Zhen began preparing for prison. Friends asked him whether living like he did was worth it. He responded: “There are things that someone just has to do.”
Li Xuewen (黎学文), a Chinese writer who often comments on public affairs, says that what Zhen Jianghua has been through over the last decade is typical of the trajectory of Chinese human rights activists, where they go from doing behind-the-scenes work to ending up on the front lines themselves. When Zhen started, he was quietly involved in support work and broadcasting what was going on; but later, as the repression increased and the environment for human rights quickly deteriorated, he ended up stepping forward. He began arriving on the scene at rights defense protests, first holding placards, then spending time with the families of prisoners of conscience to help them through. Now he faces jail time himself. This transformation reflects the broader change in the human rights environment in China: After all the frontline activists were arrested, it’s the turn of those behind the scenes. Li Xuewen remarked: “Zhen Jianghua’s arrest is his coronation by the authorities for the years he has put into tenacious and courageous human rights work.”
The Chinese government has been tightening the net around NGOs since 2013, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永), the founder of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟), was arrested and sentenced to prison; following this, Transition Institute (传知行) founded by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) was shut down. The repression culminated in the 709 Crackdown in 2015.
Zhen Jianghua didn’t spend the 2017 Chinese New Year with Xiao Li, but instead went to Beijing alone to spend it with families of 709 families. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s wife Li Wenzu described Zhen as a lonely person as he departed on the third day of the new year.
A Stepping Stone
A month before Zhen Jianghua was arrested, NGO worker Xiao Ming asked him to film an interview with a daughter whose father died of occupational disease. As the interviewee became upset and unable to express herself, Zhen Jianghua picked up a pen and paper and began taking notes, kneeling next to and comforting her. Xiao Ming was surprised. “His professionalism, kindness, attention to detail, and empathy left me with a deep impression,” Xiao Ming said.
Zhen’s patience in going about his work was legendary. Over a few year period, he submitted over 100 requests for government data under freedom of information laws, and also submitted a number of enquiries about administrative conduct that violated the rights of individual citizens. In July of 2016 the Cyberspace Administration of China ordered Sina, Sohu, NetEase, Phoenix, and other commercial web portals to cease their columns of original news content. Zhen Jianghua mailed seven requests for open government information about the details of its demand on these web portals. After repeated follow-ups, three months later he finally got an answer from the Cyberspace Administration, which provided a detailed explanation. In response to his question about how much content had been deleted, they responded that the agency “did not preserve any record of it.” Zhen published the full text of the correspondence online.
He knew the sort of danger his activities would bring. He also knew that he probably couldn’t really change anything. But he thought he could at least show people that civil society in China still has a little room to breathe. He once wrote: “We are like a signpost. People will walk by. They will see the pits we’ve fallen into, a pit with corpses stacked up in it. If I am just that, maybe that’s not too bad.”
An Island Unto Himself
In early September 2016, Zhen Jianghua traveled to Wukan to interview villagers. He was arrested. His wife Xiao Li broadcast the news, and it began to circulate among friends in the rights defense community. After his release, he and Xiao Li began divorce proceedings. A seven year marriage had reached its end.
Despite the fact that they had drifted apart, Xiao Li didn’t want to divorce at first.
But Zhen didn’t like to further complicate life for Xiao Li. What did he have to offer her? All his energy was thrown into his work. He had no time to think about house chores they used to share. He would forget to put the dirty clothes in the laundry as he had been told to. He would often be gone for days without telling her where he was and what he was doing. This, after a long while, began to wear on his wife. “What’s the big deal if you tell me? I can also keep a secret!” she once said.
Xiao Li suffered depression. At its worst, she’d walk the seven kilometers home from work rather than take the bus, because she didn’t want to end up at sitting at home all alone. So she took her time ambling along the route, leaving work at 8:00 p.m. and getting to the door at around 11:00 p.m.
Both Li and Zhen’s relatives had been harassed by state security agents. They hadn’t lived in the same place for more than two years. Every time they moved, they ended up with fewer and fewer suitcases, to the point when they could put everything into a single suitcase. Zhen became more and more dejected in spirits: months after he began running HRC CHina full time, Xiao Li found that he was suffering insomnia, depression, and constant fatigue. Nor did exercise help. Zhen didn’t want to visit a counsellor, or let out to people around him.
Zhen had a progressive outlook toward gender relations. He often said that in a patriarchal society like China, marriage is an imposition on the woman; because of him, Xiao Li’s life had been turned upside down — he said that she should be able to discover her own self.
The last time they were in touch was August, 2017. Zhen called and asked whether she had time to look after his cats; she declined. In fact, she’d deleted Zhen’s contact information, because not long after their divorce, Zhen had called and told her that he’d already begun dating a female friend.
Late in the night on September 29, nearly a month after Zhen had been taken away, Xiao Li found herself outside the walls of the Zhuhai No. 1 Detention Center in a daze. She wrote in her diary: “We were separated by a mere wall. I thought I had mentally prepared myself well enough, but the reality crushed me all the same.”
Zhen had become estranged not only from his wife, but his parents too. Every time he went back to his hometown, state security police weren’t far behind. They’d sit his parents down and ask them to tell their son to abandon his activism and “turn over a new leaf.” As the time wore on, Zhen couldn’t stand the harassment and simply stopped going back home. Due to security concerns, he also drifted apart from others in the human rights defense community.
He who put so much effort into supporting others so they wouldn’t be cut off from the world, became an island unto himself.
Among those he had helped are the Feminist Five, the Yirenping Center’s Guo Bin (郭彬) and Yang Zhanqing (杨占青), families of the 709 crackdown, labor rights defender Meng Han (孟晗), and participants in a seaside memorial for Liu Xiaobo. He was also involved in assisting countless political prisoners who were given both heavy and light sentences. He believed that “We need to step out to do it in order to mobilize more people to join us.”
Yet as the crackdown has grown harsher, the number of his fellow travellers has grown steadily fewer.
After Zhen was arrested, the authorities told his parents that if they insist on using the lawyers that he had previously commissioned, he would be given a life sentence. If they used a lawyer provided by the government, however, he might get off with a light verdict.
His sister wrote about her fond memories of growing up with him. Her article was quickly deleted from the internet, and state security police went to her house to threaten her.
Xiao Li regrets the fact that now she’s simply an “ex wife.” Otherwise, she would be able to do so many things: write articles, mobilize support, meet with attorneys, remonstrate with officials, and speak to the media. But so what? “Before, posts and photos survived online for about two days; now it’s less than two hours.” Activist A Bai (阿白) says that in the age of Big Data, the surveillance system has grown so strong and smart that activists have no room to act.
In the 12 years Zhen Jianghua lived in Zhuhai, his favorite spot was the lighthouse. To get there, you had to jump a railing at the harbor, then scramble across the rocks — positioned high and low, at sharp, obtrusive angles — for about a kilometer.
The lighthouse seems to lead a solitary existence, but it knows there are others like it out there. Zhen Jianghua too lived like a lighthouse, persisting in his human rights work, in the dark, seemingly all alone.
The last time I saw him I asked: If you’re arrested, what should I do? He responded: “Don’t worry about me. Whether you mobilize people on the outside or not, it won’t make any difference. Just tell my parents and everyone else that I’ve been arrested. That’ll do.”
I still remember our parting words:
“So, what is the meaning of the work you’ve been doing?”
“Simply that, in China, there are still people who are doing it.”
(The names of certain individuals in the article have been changed for their security.)
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Drinking Tea with the State Security Police – Components of a He Cha Session, Yaxue Cao, March 1, 2012.
Transated from Chinese by China Change: 端傳媒《「南方傻瓜」甄江華：黑暗中行走的抗爭者》
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China Change, December 26, 2017
On the morning of December 26 courts in Tianjin and Changsha announced the verdicts respectively of Wu Gan, a seminal activist, and Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer. Xie Yang was found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” while Wu Gan’s refusal to cooperate led him to receive the more severe “subversion of state power.” Both were “convicted,” but Xie Yang was exempt from punishment, while Wu Gan was handed a heavy sentence of eight years.
In a live broadcast, Xie Yang was made to once again deny that he had been tortured, and to thank all parties for a “fair” trial and for “safeguarding” his rights. The first time he was forced to make this false admission was during his trial in May.
On the other hand, Wu Gan’s lawyer reported that he told the court, immediately after the sentence was announced, that “I thank the Communist Party for conferring me this high honor [subversion]. I will not forget my original aspiration, and will roll up my sleeves and work harder.” His remarks were a play on the official words of Xi Jinping; observers found it remarkable that a man who had just received such a harsh sentence would have the sense of humor, and guts, to do so.
It wasn’t until hours later that the authorities released a short clip of Wu Gan in court. Viewers will see why it took time: the authorities doctored the video, using clips of Wu Gan’s secret trial in August to show he was “contrite.” In August, Wu Gan wore a short sleeved T-shirt and read from a sheet of paper that he would not appeal, while yesterday he wore a dark, long-sleeved top.
Wu Gan’s lawyer Ge Yongxi (葛永喜) described on Twitter what the official clips purposefully omitted: Following “I admit that I have harbored thoughts of subverting state power,” Wu Gan added, “but I believe this is a citizen’s right, and my actions do not constitute crimes.”
Lawyer Ge Yongxi challenged the authorities to show the court recording in its entirety.
After Wu Gan’s sentence, his lawyers released a statement on his behalf.
Wu Gan’s Statement About His Sentence
For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who “subverts state power” is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights. Liang Qichao (梁启超, famous reformist at end of Qing dynasty) said that he and dictatorship were two forces inextricably opposed; I say: If I don’t oppose dictatorship, am I still a man?
They have attempted to have me plead guilt and cooperate with them to produce their propaganda in exchange for a light sentence — they even said that as long as I plead guilty, they’ll give me a three-year sentence suspended for three years. I rejected it all. My eight-year sentence doesn’t make me indignant or hopeless. This was what I chose for myself: when you oppose the dictatorship, it means you are already walking on the path to jail.
I’m optimistic despite the harsh sentence. Because of the internet, more and more people are waking up. The ranks of those ready to stand at the funeral of the dictatorship is growing stronger and larger by the day. Those who try to use jail to frighten citizens pursuing freedom and democracy, thus obstructing the progress of human civilization, won’t meet a good end. Their tyranny is based on a lack of self-confidence — a sign of a guilty conscience and fear. It’s a dead end. When the masses wake up, will the dictatorship’s end be far off?
I have been subjected to torture and other forms of inhumane treatment during my detention thus far — and it’s not an isolated occurrence, but a common phenomenon. I appeal to the international community to closely follow the deterioration of human rights in China, follow the Chinese Communist Party’s criminal detention of its own citizens, and especially of dissidents, along with the other abuses they’re subjected to, including: false charges, secret detention, forced confessions to the media, forced appointment of state-controlled defense counsel, torture and abuse in custody, and the stripping of every civil right of Chinese citizens.
I hereby name the individuals involved in persecuting, torturing, and abusing me: An Shaodong (安少东), Chen Tuo (陈拓), Guan Jiantong (管建童), Yao Cheng (姚诚), Yuan Yi (袁溢), Wang Shoujian (王守俭), Xie Jinchun (谢锦春), Gong Ning (宫宁), Sheng Guowen (盛国文), Cao Jiyuan (曹纪元), Liu Yi (刘毅), Cai Shuying (蔡淑英), Lin Kun (林崑).
The Twelve ‘Crimes’ of Wu Gan the Butcher, China Change, August 13, 2017.
Why Is Wu Gan ‘The Butcher’ So Important?, China Change, August 17, 2017.
Wu Gan’s Pretrial Statement, China Change, August 10, 2017.
Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile by Yaqiu Wang, China Change, July 22, 2015.
China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee, December 10, 2017
Introducing Li Wenzu
Li Wenzu (李文足) was born in Badong, Hubei, on April 5, 1985. She is the wife of Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), a human rights lawyer who was arrested during the 709 crackdown. She worked as a tour guide and did business. After losing contact with her husband in July, 2015, she became a housewife, taking care of her son and working to rescue Wang as well as other lawyers and activists arrested in the 709 Incident.
During the two years since Wang’s disappearance, Li and other 709 families have stood by each other in the face of harassment, threats, detentions, and even physical violence. They persevered even as their children were forced out of school and their relatives pressured to return to their hometowns. They have spared no efforts, be it appeal, protest, or legal action, to rescue the victims of the 709 crackdown.
In the wake of the 709 incident, Li Wenzu stood up to represent all those affected. She did not retreat in the face of her husband’s arrest, but demonstrated the courage to defend his legal rights. In addition to actively networking with other relatives of those affected by the 709 incident, she proactively connected with the broader civil society.
There is a kind of love that yearns for joy and happiness, yet is tempered by suffering and adversity. It is validated by tears and bitterness. This is a love that comes from genuine humanity and is strengthened by freedom and justice. This kind of love manifests courage, dignity, and nobleness.
There is a woman who had a normal married life taking care of her child, parents, and husband. She could go out and spend time with her girlfriends. But when confronted with her husband’s sudden arrest and disappearance, she wiped her tears and went out in search of him. For the sake of love, she stood up to harassment, threats, detention, and even beating.
She did all this to pursue love, freedom and justice — in her words: “We hope to reunite, yet even more we hope to see justice being honored in this country. Only when justice is upheld are our nation and our citizens blessed. Until justice is done, our reunion will not be complete.”
She was not only defending the rights to which she and her husband are entitled. She was defending the rule of law that her husband, a human rights lawyer, and the other 709 lawyers have defended. She has fought for everyone’s freedom and justice.
In her husband’s time of need, she stood by him. When others came at her with various reasons to pressure her out of supporting him, she said: “I will be there with my husband to the end, even if it means giving up my life.” “When our son grows up, he will see that for whatever hardship his father suffered, his mother also bore a share—this is the best explanation we could give him.” For her, love is not just a honeymoon, it is the unconditional willingness to stay in the same boat, rain or shine.
Today, we are here to respectfully present the “Outstanding Citizenship Award” to Ms. Li Wenzu. We wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to her for taking the courage to stand out as an upright and dignified citizen, demonstrating to all the true value of love, freedom, and justice. Her every word and deed has admirably displayed the true meaning of “citizenship.”
We believe that love will bless and envelop Ms. Li Wenzu and her husband Wang Quanzhang. Freedom is waiting for them, and the glory of justice is theirs. We hereby wish her peace and joy, and hope she can reunite with her husband in the near future.
China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee
December 10, 2017
Teng Biao, December 7, 2017
This is the Foreword to The People’s Republic of the Disappeared: Stories From Inside China’s System for Enforced Disappearances, a newly published book about China’s “Residential Surveillance at a designated location.”
Those holding unchecked power often seek to hide their cruelty behind euphemisms. In China, classic examples range from “land reform” to the “Cultural Revolution.” You can’t easily see the cruelty from the surface of such words. Expressions like “the three year natural disaster,” used by the Communist Party to describe the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961 in which tens of millions died, or the “6/4 counterrevolutionary riot,” the description of the Tiananmen Democracy movement, are shameless acts of misrepresenting history and reversing right and wrong. Do “Legal Education Centers” really have anything to do with law or education? No. They are Black Jails for arbitrarily detaining and tormenting politically sensitive groups around the country.
“Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL) is the latest euphemism.
Tyranny is not only reflected in murder, evil laws, and crackdowns; it is reflected even more in the minor details. This book is a collection of details, vividly reflecting China’s cruelty.
Much remains unknown about RSDL, and for that reason this book is an invaluable look into the rarely exposed systematic tyranny behind the euphemism of “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location.”
Looking into its legislative history, RSDL was first envisioned in the 1997 Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), which dictated a special form of Residential Surveillance to be applied to those suspects without a fixed residence. However, with police having near unlimited powers, it is little wonder that the regulation has been used for repression.
The most famous democracy advocate in China, the deceased Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, was placed under Residential Surveillance after he was taken in December 2008. His crime had been signing “Charter 08,” a petition calling for democracy and political liberalization in China. Obviously, Liu Xiaobo did not belong to the category of “suspects without fixed residence” and should have been allowed to serve his Residential Surveillance with his family at his home. His lawyer should have been allowed to visit him anytime. Instead, Liu was effectively disappeared during his seven months of Residential Surveillance, before being sentenced in a mockery of a trial to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of state power. On 13 July 2017, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer, likely treatable had he not been a prisoner of the state. His wife, Liu Xia, has also been disappeared at times, denied contact with the outside world with no legal basis or justification.
During the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution,”[i] the authorities kidnapped and secretly detained human rights defenders on a large scale, in a gangland act of criminality under the banner of “National Security.” Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui (Chapter 2) reflected on his secret detention. “I was beaten so badly that I needed stitches. My ribs were in extreme pain, which continued to interrupt my sleep for days. I wished that I would be transferred to a detention center.”[ii]
Similarly, [activist] Tang Jingling was not allowed to sleep for upwards of ten days. In the end, he felt “trembling, numbness of hands, and a bad feeling in his heart, that his life was in great danger, and only then did the police just allow him to sleep one or two hours a day.”[iii]
Writer Ye Du was held in a Guangzhou Police Training Center for 96 days, like lawyer Sui Muqing (Chapter 10). Ye recalled, “[I] didn’t see sunlight for over a month. I was subjected to 22 hours of interrogation every day. I was given one hour for eating, one hour for sleeping, until the 7th day when my stomach had massive bleeding.”[iv]
Hua Ze’s book, In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, published in 2013, records the experiences of 47 activists caught up during the Jasmine Revolution. I was one of them.
After I was kidnapped, I was detained in secret for 70 days. I was told that I was being placed under Residential Surveillance. No one ever told me their name, department, or position. Nobody ever showed me a work permit, search warrant, or any legal documents. I suffered. During this time, I was beaten, deprived of sleep, forced to maintain stress positions, forced to wear handcuffs for 24 hours a day for 36 days, threatened, abused, forced to write a confession, and otherwise ill-treated. Even now, years later, it is hard to put it into words.
RSDL is classified as a non-custodial coercive measure, but in reality it has not only became a system for prolonged, pre-trial detention outside a formal, legal location, but has also become a more severe, more terrible, coercive measure than normal criminal detention. RSDL is not limited by detention center regulations, nor any real supervision at all. The chances of torture are greatly increased; in fact, torture has become rampant under RSDL.
The authorities must find RSDL to be a very convenient and effective way for dealing with rights defenders, judging by its indiscriminate use since the CPL was revised in 2012.
Article 73 of the CPL, stipulates that, “Residential Surveillance shall be enforced in the residence of the suspect or defendant. For those without a fixed residence, it may be enforced in a designated location. When… enforcement in the residence might impede the investigation, it may also be enforced in a designated location upon the approval of the People’s Procuratorate or Public Security organ at the level above.”
The police can decide for themselves if someone is to be placed in RSDL, which means the police decide who is to be disappeared.
It is little wonder that this was one of the most controversial articles during legislative reform, leading many commentators, myself included, to call it the “Jasmine Article.” This is because it appeared to legalize enforced disappearances, which had become more common during the Jasmine Revolution crackdown.
The CPL stipulates that RSDL “must not be enforced in a detention center or special case-handling area;” but in reality, all RSDL is enforced at special case-handling areas run by the Public or State Security Bureaus, or it is carried out at euphemistically named “training centers,” “prevention bases,” “anti-corruption education bases,” or sometimes even hotels that have been specially converted into secret detention facilities known as Black Jails.
The law permits for exceptions where family members don’t even need to be informed, and allows the state to deny access to a lawyer. These exceptions, which have now become the norm, have turned RSDL into a de facto enforced disappearance, exactly what the RSDL system seeks to achieve.
During suppression of the “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011 and the “709 Crackdown” starting in 2015,[v] terrifying enforced disappearances became common experiences within the human rights community. The most serious example is lawyer Wang Quanzhang. While I am writing this, Wang’s fate and whereabouts have remained uncertain for over two years. The cruelty and brutality of RSDL is clearly visible for the world to see.
In 2010, the Chinese government refused to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. This was an irresponsible act but far from surprising. Enforced disappearances are nothing new in China. High-profile examples include the 17 May 1995 disappearance of the then six-year-old Panchen Lama, who had been confirmed by the Dalai Lama, and the widespread disappearance of Uyghurs following the July 2009 Urumqi riots. Still, the legalization of enforced disappearances in the CPL is shameful.
According to the original intention of the law, Residential Surveillance should only be a monitoring location. It is not to be used for interrogation or custodial purposes. However, the facilities used for RSDL have not only become specialized interrogation facilities, they have become even harsher than prisons and detention centers.
These custom-built prisons, spread across China, which are not allowed to be called prisons, have become terrifying torture centers where all manner of abuse is common: long periods of sleep deprivation, beatings, electrocution, forcibly handcuffed and shackled, confined to tiger stools and dangling chairs for long and painful periods, subjected to fumigation of the eyes by smoke, subjected to stress positions, denial of food and water, denied hygiene, extensive and continuous interrogation sessions, threats of violence, or threats to family. Everyone placed in RSDL is kept in solitary confinement.
Torture during many disappearances is well documented in a number of high profile cases. The accounts have sometimes been too much for people to bear reading about. Many rights defenders related to the 709 Crackdown, such as Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Li Shuyun, and Gou Hongguo, have explained how they were forcibly fed unidentified medicine, leading to different painful symptoms.
Families of some of the 709 lawyers published an open letter in which they wrote, “Lawyer Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, and Li Heping were all tortured to such a degree that they became different people from who they were before they were taken, some only 40 years old but looking more than 60.”[vi]
Until now, most of what we know about RSDL has come from scattered reports or open letters from family members. This book is the first to present a fuller picture of the suffering imposed under RSDL.
Jiang Xiaoyu, an IT worker, writes in Chapter 8 of being told:
I can make you disappear for years. Even your wife and daughter won’t know where you are.
Another victim, lawyer Chen Zhixiu, details in Chapter 4:
It wasn’t until the third day that they gave me two small steamed buns and a few green vegetables. The size of the two buns together was still smaller than the palm of my hand. I felt that I was going to lose consciousness. I felt dizzy all the time because of lack of food and sleep, but I was still expected to submit to being interrogated. If I started to wobble in the chair they would make horrifying sounds to snap me awake.
I myself had experiences such as these during my detention. I tried to distract myself with memories, talked to myself, outlined literature and found other ways to keep from going crazy, since I was deprived of all forms of communication. Once I accidently saw a Party newspaper. I was very excited. Finally, I could read some text! When they played a propaganda film to brainwash me, I was happy just to hear the background music.
It doesn’t matter if it is physical or mental torture. Both are hard to describe and express in words. However, the most painful thing is not the torture itself. For prisoners of conscience held in secret, I have found, there are two things that lead to even greater suffering:
One is being subjected to forced confession. Several individuals in this book describe with previously undisclosed details the experiences of delivering a forced confession. Those who have stepped onto the road of human rights defense face enormous pressure, living with threats to their family and heavy prison sentences. Many have been forced to confess. The authorities have used these confession videos to broadcast propaganda on state television, to confuse public opinion, to crack down on the will of resistance and dehumanize those who resist, and to turn rights defender against rights defender. It is used to split supporters. This may be the hardest part for China’s many political prisoners.
The authorities don’t always achieve their purpose but they more or less always have an impact. Many people have suffered the pain of misunderstanding and have grown distant from others. Many have quit rights defense because they were ashamed of themselves.
Secondly, those detained in secret have almost all experienced the indescribable suffering of having their families threatened or persecuted. In general, those who have chosen to become rights defenders under this kind of dictatorship are already aware of the risks and are prepared. When we are “invited for tea” [a euphemism used to describe a police summons], placed under house arrest, detained or tortured, nothing can stop our fighting spirit. But for the authorities to achieve the greatest deterrence, all they need to do is apply the threat of pain to our family members. This has become a common tactic used by the authorities, and used with growing expertise. As with my own experience, the hardest thing for activists fighting for freedom is how to balance conflict between family and social responsibilities.
People compromise, yield, fall silent, or give up after their family has been threatened or attacked. The Chinese Communist Party understands this clearly. I have written about the Party’s assault against the family members of rights defenders before.
RSDL goes far beyond normal detention. Serious human rights violations are widespread. It goes against the rule of law. It should be abolished. But under the One Party Dictatorship, the lack of judicial independence or freedom of expression, the state has instead expanded its suppression of the human rights movement and hurriedly broadened the use of RSDL in the name of “stability maintenance.”
The publication of this book has great importance and meaning: to reveal the truth, record the misery, and provide evidence of guilt. It is an indispensable signpost on the road to justice.
[i] Inspired by the so-called Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and the broader Arab Spring movement, starting 20 February 2011, activists in China began calling for public assemblies in cities across the country to advocate for reform. After initially being met with overwhelming violence and repression, organizers started calling for people to assemble and “take strolls.” Some 35 activists were detained, five of whom were charged with endangering state security. Many human rights defenders detained during this time, including Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, and Liu Shihui, were subjected to lengthy disappearances in which they were tortured. In many ways, the repressive extrajudicial tactics employed during this time can be seen as part of the inspiration for the current RSDL system.
[ii] Wang, Yaqiu. “What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’.” China Change. 2 August 2015. https://chinachange.org/2015/08/02/what-you-need-to-know-about-chinas-residential-surveillance-at-a-designated-place/.
[v] The 709 Crackdown was a nationwide strike against both individual rights defense lawyers and the larger rights defense movement. Also known as the “war on lawyers.” The name, 709, comes from the date when the first lawyer was detained, Wang Yu, on 9 July 2015. As part of the crackdown, over a period of months, some 300 lawyers were targeted, many of whom were placed in Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. Some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, such as rights defender Hu Shigen. In August 2016 he was given more than seven years in prison for subversion of state power; others were released following lengthy periods of incommunicado detention, torture, and forced confessions, such as lawyer Xie Yang. By many accounts, it has been the largest and most brutal crackdown on civil society since the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement ended in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
[vi] “Lǐ Wénzú: Zhōnggòng gōng’ān, huán wǒ zhàngfū Wáng Quánzhāng——Wáng Quánzhāng nǎ’er qùle?” 李文足：中共公安，还我丈夫王全璋——王全璋哪儿去了？
(Li Wenzu: CCP Ministry of Public Security give my husband Wang Quanzhang back—Where is Wang Quanzhang?) China Citizens Movement. 16 May 2017. https://xgmyd.com/archives/29811.
Dr Teng Biao (滕彪) is a human rights lawyer, formerly a lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law, and currently a visiting scholar at the US-Asia Law Institute, New York University. He co-founded two human rights NGOs in Beijing—the Open Constitution Initiative and China Against the Death Penalty, in 2003 and 2010 respectively. Because of his human rights work, he was abducted and detained by Chinese secret police in 2008 and 2011.
The Nightmare – An Excerpt of Lawyer Wang Yu’s Account of 709 Detention and Torture, Wang Yu, November 13, 2017
A Record of 709, Xie Yanyi, October 15, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (1) – Arrest, Questions About Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 19, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (2) – Sleep Deprivation, January 20, 2017.
Transcript of Interviews with Lawyer Xie Yang (3) – Dangling Chair, Beating, Threatening Lives of Loved Ones, and Framing Others, January 21, 2017.
Also by Teng biao:
The Confessions of a Reactionary, Teng Biao, August 27, 2013.
Politics of the Death Penalty in China, Teng Biao, January 16, 2014.