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My Declaration: The Faith of Disobedience

Pastor Wang Yi, December 24, 2018

 

Chengdu, WY, 64, SCMP

Pastor Wang Yi. “June 4th, pray for our country.” Photo: SCMP.

 

In line with the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the leaders that God placed in power over China, because the coming and going of kings and leaders is all His hands. In this vein, I shall obey the arrangements God has made for Chinese history and its government.

As a pastor of the Christian church, my starting point is the Bible, and I have my own understanding and views on society, politics, and law, as well as on the proper definitions of justice and benevolent governance. I abhor the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the church, how it deprives people of their right to free faith. However, it is not my calling to bring about changes in politics or society, and neither is this the meaning of the Good News that God brings to his people.

All the ugliness of reality, with its political injustices and arbitrary application of the law, show that the cross of Jesus Christ is the Chinese people’s sole hope for salvation. It also shows that true hope and perfect human society cannot come about through any change in secular politics or culture—only through the forgiveness of human sin by Jesus Christ can man gain eternal life in Heaven.

As a pastor, my faith in the gospel and my teachings for the masses, as well as my condemnation of all sins, come from Christ’s command in the gospel, out of His unmeasurable love. Human life is so short. God is eager to command the church to lead and allows anyone to repent so long as they are willing. Christ is willing, and so urgently waiting, to forgive all those who turn from sin. This is the mission of all the work that the church is doing in China. It is to, before this world, bear witness to Christ, to bear witness to the kingdom of heaven before the Chinese, and to bear witness to the eternal life of heaven before the short life of the earth. This is my calling as a pastor.

For this reason, I accept and respect the CCP’s political power as a temporary state allowed by God. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, a tyrant comes as God’s punishment for the wicked, with the purpose being to urge the people of God to repent. For this, I am willing to physically obey the rules of their law enforcement as a form of discipline and ordeal from the Lord.

At the same time, I must make it clear that the Communist regime’s persecution of the church is a heinous crime. As a pastor of the Christian church, I must resolutely and publicly condemn these sins. My calling also requires me to transgress all human laws, albeit nonviolently, that violate the Bible and God’s commandments. Christ, my Savior, also asks me to joyfully bear all the consequences that come with the transgression of these evil laws.

This, however, does not mean that my personal and clerical disobedience is a political act in the sense of rights defense or civil disobedience, for I have no intention to change any of China’s institutions or its laws. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is disobedience commanded by faith, a resistance that can bring a jolt to mortal sinners and serve as a testimony of the Christian cross.

As a pastor, my resistance is part of the Gospel mission. The great mission of Christ requires our great resistance in the face of worldly adversity. The purpose of resistance is not to change this world, but to bear witness to another world.

The mission of the church is simply to function as a church; it is not to be part of any secular institution. Speaking in a passive sense, the church must separate itself from the world and avoid letting itself be institutionalized by worldly influence. At the same time, all actions of the church are but efforts to prove to this world the reality of another world. The Bible teaches us that we can only obey God, not people, in matters concerning the gospel and human conscience. Therefore, disobedience out of faith and the resulting physical endurance are the ways we witness another, eternal world and the glory of its sovereign.

This is why I have no interest in changing any political and legal institutions in China. When or whether the CCP’s policies of persecution against the church will change is of no concern to me. No matter the regime, whether today or tomorrow, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church and violate the human conscience, which belongs to God alone, I will continue my resistance as one of the faithful. Because all the missions that God has given me are manifested through the sum of my actions: I act so that more Chinese may understand that the hope of mankind and society lies only in Christian redemption of Christ, in the supernatural grace of God.

If God decides, by way of the CCP regime’s persecution of the church, to lead more Chinese people to a state of despair, make them experience the disillusionment of faith, so that they will come to know Jesus, overcome hardships, and build their own church, then I am very happy to obey God’s arrangements, because His are always loving and perfect.

It is precisely because in all my words and deeds I neither seek nor expect any changes in society or politics, I am no longer afraid of the powers that govern them. For the Bible teaches that God’s authority, by which governments are established, is something to be feared by those do evil, not good. Those who believe in Jesus do not do evil, and they should not fear the power of darkness. Although I am often weak, I believe that this is the promise of the gospel. It is the good news for which I have expended my every effort to spread throughout Chinese society.

I also understand that precisely for this reason, the Chinese Communist regime is full of fear for a church that no longer fears it.

Be the sentence long or short, if I am to be detained so that those in power may relax their fear of my faith and my Savior, I am happy to help them in this way. But I know that I can truly help the souls of those in power and law enforcement only when I say no to all the sinful persecution of the church, and take up peaceful means of resistance. I long for God to use me to tell those who rob me of my personal freedom that there exists an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot detain. That is the teaching of Jesus Christ, who died and was resurrected.

No matter what kind of crime this regime charges me with, no matter what kind of filth is thrown on me, as long as this crime is made to assault my beliefs, writing, speech, and missionary behavior, it is nothing but the devil’s lies and temptations. I will deny it all: I shall serve the sentence without serving the law, and refuse to admit guilt even if I accept the ruling of the law.

And I must point out that the most evil and terrible sin of Chinese society is the persecution of the Lord’s Church and of all Chinese who believe in Jesus Christ. This is not only a crime against Christians, but also a crime against all non-Christians. For through the government’s violence and cruelty, they have been prevented from coming to Jesus, and there is no greater sin than this.

If one day this regime is overthrown by God Himself, it will be for no other reason than His punishment and vengeance for the commission of this sin. On earth, there is a thousand-year-old church, but no regime can last a thousand years. There is only eternal faith, but no eternal power.

Those who hold me will be detained by angels. He who interrogates me will eventually be interrogated by Christ. With this in mind, the Lord has filled me with sympathy and sadness for those who detain and try me. I beg the Lord to use me, to give me the strength and wisdom to bring the gospel to them.

Tear me from my family, my reputation, and my well-being, there is nothing that those in power cannot do. However, no earthly force can compel me to give up my faith, to change my life, or raise me from the dead.

Thus, distinguished officials, I beseech you to stop doing evil, not for my sake, but for the sake of you and your children. I beg you to stop: there is no reason for you to pay the price of eternal damnation in hell for so humble a sinner as myself.

Jesus is Christ, the Son of the Living God. He died for sinners and was resurrected for us. Yesterday, today, and for all time, he is my sovereign and Lord of all the world. I am His servant and for this I am detained. With gentleness I resist all those who resist God, and I will gladly disobey any law that does not obey God.

 

September 21, 2018 (first draft)
Revised on October 4, released by the church 48 hours after Wang Yi’s detention.

 

 

Appendix: What Is the Faith of Disobedience?

It is my firm belief that the Bible does not give any government or branch the authority to manage the church or Christianity. Thusly, the Bible requires me to peacefully resist all administrative and judicial forces that persecute the church and interfere with the Christian faith. It is a nonviolent resistance that I embrace with optimism and joy.

I firmly believe that this is an action rooted in faith. In the contemporary totalitarian state that persecutes the church and rejects the gospel, the faith of disobedience is an inevitable component in spreading the Good News.

I firmly believe the faith of disobedience is an act that signifies the end time. It is a testimony to the eternal city of God in the transient city of sin. The disobedient Christian, following the path and manner of the cross, follows the path of Christ, who was nailed to the crucifix. Peaceful resistance is the way we show our love for this world, but also the way in which we avoid being mixed up in it.

I believe that the Bible requires me to rely on the grace of Christ and the power of His resurrection to follow the two non-negotiable bottom lines in practicing this faith of disobedience.

First is the bottom line of the heart. The goal of the faith of disobedience is love for the soul, not hatred of the flesh. This resistance aims to change the soul, not the environment. Should, at any time, my peace and patience be overtaken by persecution from without, and in my heart arise resentment and bitterness towards those who persecute the church and slander Christians, then the goal of the faith of disobedience cannot be reached,

Second is the bottom line of behavior. The gospel requires that the resistance of faithful must be non-violent. The secret of the gospel lies in the enthusiastic endurance of hardship, a willingness to bear unrighteous punishment rather than resort to physical resistance.

Peaceful resistance is born of love and forgiveness. The cross means being willing to suffer when you don’t have to suffer. Because Christ’s ability to resist is unlimited, he was able to endure any humiliation and pain. Christ’s way of resistance, as he hung nailed to the cross, was to extend a olive branch of peace to the world that crucified him.

I believe that Christ calls upon me to use my whole life to practice the faith of disobedience in the face of this regime that rejects the gospel and persecutes the church. This is the way I preach the gospel, and it is the secret of my evangelism.

 

Wang Yi, the Lord’s Servant
September 21, 2018 (first draft)
Revised on October 4, released by the church 48 hours after Wang Yi’s detention.

 


Related:

The Crackdown on Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church: A Backgrounder, China Change, December 21, 2018.

 

 

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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

The Crackdown on Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church: A Backgrounder

China Change, December 21, 2018

 

Chengdu early rain, 封面

Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church. Photo: online.

 

On Sunday evening, December 9, while worshiping with members, Wang Yi (王怡), the lead pastor of Chengdu Early Rain Covenant Church was seized and taken away by police. The church was raided; books and other items were confiscated. In the same evening, police descended on homes of many members, demanding that they sign a pledge not to participate in “illegal gatherings of the Early Rain church” anymore. Over one hundred were taken away for refusing to sign. The church’s WeChat group was shut down, so were the personal accounts of many churchgoers.

The authorities outlawed the church, the church’s elementary school and its divinity school.

According to the latest report, 25 church members have been detained so far. Of the 15 who have been criminally detained, Pastor Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong (蒋蓉) were arrested for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power;” the other 13 (elders, deacons, or members) were detained for “illegal business operation” or “provoking disturbances.” Seven have been disappeared and 3 given administrative detention.

The Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu is one of the best known house churches in China. Unlike any other Chinese house churches, Pastor Wang Yi and some of the church’s key members have been part of China’s emerging civil society since the early 2000s. Over the past few years, the church has attracted many human rights defenders and dissident intellectuals. In 2011, the church established a fund for families of political prisoners in Sichuan. Each year on June 4th, the church holds a prayer for the country to commemorate the Tiananmen democracy movement.

The church operates schools. “Each family, each church must defend the God-given sovereignty over the education of its children,” said Pastor Wang Yi, “even if we have to go to jail for it.” The church has a divinity school, an elementary school for 1st to 6th graders, a school of humanities, as well as a Sunday school.

The church has a Facebook page,  and their YouTube channel has 130 videos.

 

(Members preaching on the streets of Chengdu.)

 

Pastor Wang Yi, who is 45 years old this year, is a Sichuan native who was born and raised in Santai county, Mianyang city. He graduated from Sichuan University law school in 1996, and taught at the business school of Chengdu University for a number of years. When Internet forums sprang up in China at the turn of the century, Wang Yi distinguished himself in a vibrant forum known as “Guantian Tea House” (关天茶社) where a new generation of intellectuals met, debated and made names for themselves. Wang Yi hosted a constitutional democracy forum that discussed China’s political transition.

In 2004, Wang Yi was selected by Nanfang People Weekly (南方人物周刊) as one of the “Most Influential Public Intellectuals.” Reporter He Sanwei (何三畏) described Wang Yi this way: “This young man is a bright sight to behold. His thoughts are sharp and deliberate, and his expressions well-formed and witty.”

The list included economist Mao Yuxi (茅于轼), lawyer Zhang Sizhi (张思之), political scholars Liu Junning (刘军宁), Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤), Xu Youyu (徐友渔), poet Bei Dao (北岛), rock singer Cui Jian (崔健), founder of Caijing magazine Hu Shuli (胡舒立), legal scholar He Weifang (贺卫方), and so on.

In April 2005, Wang Yi and his wife Jiang Rong started the Early Rain Blessings Fellowship in their home in Chengdu. Three years later in May 2008, the Early Rain Blessings Church was established. The Early Rain Covenant Church Currently has more than 500 members, and it is said that, on some weekends, there could be as many as 2,000 flocking to the church on the 23rd floor of the Jiangxin Building, in downtown Chengdu by the Jinjiang River.

Church elder Li Yingqiang (李英强), also a Sichuan native, is only 39 years old, but he was a prominent figure in China’s now-shattered scene of independent NGOs. He and a few friends founded the Liren Library (立人图书馆) in 2007 that brought books to the countryside. The idea was to “help rural youth grow to be healthy and normal citizens.” Liren Library had attracted many volunteers and donors. Over the seven years of its existence, they established 22 libraries in 12 provinces. But in 2014 at the onset of a sweeping crackdown on independent NGOs in China, Liren Libraries were forced to close down.

 

_孩子们

A Liren library (unclear where). Photo: online.

 

Another illustrious member of the church is Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), a prolific writer and an independent intellectual whose political and historical writings have influenced many readers of the internet age. He was baptized in 2016. He has been a key player in the church’s educational programs, and he is seen to give lectures on Chinese culture and Christianity during regular church gatherings.

Church activities have been for years surveilled and harassed. On May 11 this year, Chengdu authorities deployed over 300 people to prevent the church from holding a prayer for the 10th anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquakes.

The attack on Early Rain Covenant Church is part of the Chinese government’s broad and determined crackdown on house churches, and even some state-sanctioned churches, across the country since 2012. But it’s much more. On September 9, the government outlawed Zion Church, one of the largest house churches in Beijing. While church leaders have been under heavy surveillance, no arrests have been made.

In September 2017, the State Council issued revised Regulations on Religious Affairs (《宗教事务条例》), furthering tightening control of religious activities. The government has stepped up administrative measures to “sinocize” Christianity, and demolition of crosses and church buildings themselves. Churches are forced to display the national flag and sing praise of the Communist Party. China Change collected videos posted by churchgoers around the country and put them into one video to give our readers some visceral sense of the crackdown.

On September 1, 2018, under mounting pressure, 29 pastors in mainland China, led by Pastor Wang Yi, issued “A Statement for the Christian Faith.” As of now, more than 400 church leaders have signed it. The statement makes clear that the churches led by the signatories will only acknowledge, and submit to, the highest authority that is God, and that they will thus teach their members. The church leaders said that they would accept the government’s lawful regulation on civil organizations, but their churches would refuse to be co-opted by state-controlled religious organizations, nor would they register with religious management offices. Outlaw orders and fines levied on the churches, they said, would not be recognized or accepted. “For the sake of the gospel, we are ready to shoulder losses, and if we have to, pay the price of losing freedom and even life.”

On the day when Zion Church was shut down, Pastor Wang Yi delivered a forceful sermon:  “We believe we have the responsibility to tell Xi Jinping that he is a sinner, and that the government he leads has greatly offended God, because he has used force against the church of Lord Jesus Christ. If he does not repent, he must perish. We have to tell evil men like him that they still have a way out, that there is only one way out, that way is the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” (Watch the full sermon here.)

 

 

Pastor Wang Yi was prepared for his arrest. Forty-eight hours after he was detained, his statement titled “My Declaration of Faith-based Disobedience” was posted online (a China Change translation is forthcoming).

He wrote: “The persecution of the church by the CCP regime is an extremely wicked criminal conduct. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must issue a severe and public condemnation of such sins.”

He said that his and the church’s actions of nonviolent disobedience are not in any sense rights defense actions or political acts of civil disobedience.

“As a pastor, the only thing I care about is faithful disobedience, a resistance that can bring a jolt to mortal sinners and serve as a testimony of the Christian cross.”

Just how the Chinese government is treating the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church is laid bare in the subversion charge.

Church elder Li Yingqiang issued a video for church members on December 10 while “on the run.”

Chengdu early rain, LYQ, Amnesty International

Li Yingqiang. Photo: Amnesty International

“What do we do next?” According to their plans, the church will not compromise on its principles and determined path: While Pastor Wang Yi is away, the elders will take up the responsibility to shepherd the church. The church will not subject itself to government or Party control. The church members will stay together and worship together – if they can’t do so in their own church, they will rent a new venue; if they can’t rent a venue, they will worship outdoors. The church members will do everything they can to resist being forced to break up into small groups and to meet in homes of church members. If, in the end, they can’t even worship peacefully at

home, they are “ready to pay high prices.”

“We are not afraid of having two hundred, three hundred, or five hundred of us being arrested,” said Li Yingqiang. “We will let the world know that we are willing to go through such hardship for our faith. Dear brothers and sisters, I’m speaking to you while on the run. I hope you will be joyful because of the Gospel of Christ, that you will look forward to embracing a heavier cross and a more difficult career ahead.”

 

Follow us on Twitter @ChinaChange.org

 


Related:

The Burning Cross, a video compilation of church persecution in China, Sept. 24, 2018.

The Shepherds of Living Stone Church, Yaxue Cao, Dec. 25, 2016.

Interview with a Wenzhou Pastor: The Chinese Government’s Large-Scale Destruction of Crosses in Zhejiang Province, China Change, July 29, 2015.

Second Interview With the Wenzhou Pastor: After the Demolition Comes the ‘Transformations’, China Change, Dec. 15, 2015.

The Ongoing War Against Religion in China, by Zhao Chu, China Change, August 4, 2015.

 

 

Support Our Work

cropped-China-Change-Logo.jpg

At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (2 of 2)

Yaxue Cao, March 21, 2018

Continued from The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (1 of 2)

 

Li Baiguang 2005, 与刘晓波等自由知识分子、维权律师一起

Front row from left: Chen Yongmiao (陈永苗), Li Baiguang (李柏光), Fan Yafeng (范亚峰), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟); back fron from left: Teng Biao (滕彪), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), Wang Yi (王怡), Mo Shaoping (莫少平), Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), Yu Meisun (俞梅荪), and Wang Guangze (王光泽). 2005.

 

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.

 

Li Baiguang, Taishi village

In Taishi village in Guangdong, Guo Feixiong assisted the villagers’ effort to village head for embezzlement of public fund.

 

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.[1] 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.

 

Li Baiguang, 2005, 受洗前宣读《爱的见证》

Li Baiguang read aloud his testimony before being baptised in July 2005.

 

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[2], 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, Bush meetingLi 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.

Law Career

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.”

Li Baiguang, 阅卷

Reading case files with colleagues in Fuzhou, 2017.

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.”

Li Baiguang_Photo_手拿材料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.

 

Li Baiguang, Urgent Action training session

Training barefoot lawyers.

 

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.

Li Baiguang, 得撒豆腐村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 Baiguang_China Aid 15th Anniversary

Li spoke at the 15th anniversary of China Aid in January, 2017.

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.

Coda

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.

 

[1] 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).

[2]  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》

 

 

 

 

‘I Can’t Stay Out of This’ — Two Statements on the Zhang Kai Case

By Li Xiaoming and Wang Yi, translation by China Change, published: March 3, 2016

“As I watched Zhang Kai’s so-called TV confession, my heart ached to no end,” a Chinese Twitter user wrote. He speaks for many of us. Zhang appeared thin and haggard, his dishevelled hair and lusterless eyes all the image of a concentration camp prisoner. He sounded as though he’d been forced to read a script prepared for him by his tormentors. Watching him is like watching our brother being cornered and strong-armed, or our sister raped, as we stand by, helpless. We are pained, but fall silent. What’s more, we begin to think it’s alright to say and do nothing. Then there are those who can no longer “stay out of it.” We are deeply grateful to these voices, few they may be. — The Editors

 

张凯_李晓明的声明

Li Xiaoming’s statement

A Statement by an Ordinary Christian

I, Li Xiaoming, of Mongolian ethnicity, am an intern lawyer in Beijing. I was born in 1989. My identification number is 15042319890806051X. In around 2008 I became attracted to Christianity, but only in early 2015 did I form a conviction to believe in the Lord. On May 10, 2015, I was baptized.

For the last two years the government has been tearing down crosses from churches in Zhejiang and arresting pastors, Christian lawyers, and believers who put up resistance. Recently, they have also hauled Christian lawyer Zhang Kai onto television for a forced confession, blatantly shaming the church of God. As an ordinary citizen, and as an ordinary Christian, I want to express my severe opposition to this behavior, and to demand that the government acts according to the law, honors citizens’ rights to religious freedom granted in the constitution, and immediately ceases its persecution.

张凯_renzuiFrom the perspective of my faith, I see the enormous peril that Chinese churches are in: that they have fallen far short of the glory that God has bestowed upon them is an established fact. Does God allow the removal of crosses to take place in so widespread a manner because the Christian church in China is not worthy of the honor of the cross?

In light of this, I put forward three questions for my brothers and sisters in the church to consider:

1) Has China got any Christian churches that truly practice righteousness, exercise mercy, and follow the example of Jesus? Why have I not yet seen any church, in its own name, make a solemn statement expressing its position against the severe persecution we saw recently?

2) Apart from Wang Yi (王怡), the lead pastor of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (成都秋雨之福教会), I’ve seen no public stance taken by any other church. I’d like to know why, when pastors see one of their limbs tortured, they are content to sit in silence? If they are to face Jesus one day, will they be content in their hearts with what they’ve done?

3) Every Chinese Christian should kneel down and turn toward God, search inside their own hearts, and ask whether they have failed to live up to the glory of Jesus, whether they have been cruel and unscrupulous, whether they have forgotten the favor bestowed upon them, and whether they have treated reading the gospel as no more than having fun. If we’re reproached by the Holy Spirit, then what should we do under the current circumstances? Continue along calmly, or burn brightly for the Lord? All, please read Revelations 3—this is a question that no Christian can avoid.  

I’m a weak, unworthy, useless criminal; before Jesus I’m a lamb. But I know that there is no way I can stay out of this—my conscience doesn’t allow me stay silent any longer. My statement is my own, and does not represent any organization, or my church. It represents myself alone.

Lord, if my statement does not conform to your will, please reproach me: I am willing to repent. Lord, with your spirit of holy benevolence, please lead us to the Way of the Cross.

Lord, I know that once this statement is published I will face danger, but no matter what, nothing can separate me from your love, and I know you love me.

“I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” (Psalm 39:9) I believe that you’re in charge of everything—I just pray that you’ll be with me.  

 

Li Xiaoming (李晓明)

February 28, 2016 (the Sabbath), at 4 a.m., at West Zone 3, Tian Tong Yuan, Changping district, Beijing.
———–

 

王怡

Pastor Wang Yi

Wang Yi: A Personal Statement on the Zhang Kai Case

Lawyer Zhang Kai is, with me, a brother of the church—and he’s also my most respected friend.

For years, a lot of people have been sincerely asking a false question: will the Cultural Revolution return? Many seriously ponder what is an absurd proposition—how can we prevent the tragedy from repeating itself? But the truth is that a new round of cultural revolution has already been underway for years. Or perhaps even decades? In reality, is there a day when we have really stepped outside of the Cultural Revolution’s framework? The real question is how we can break free from this warped and irrational age. Tonight, my Lord, allow me to howl the pain felt by Zhang Kai as he is whipped, and to be healed by the scourging you have suffered.

What physical and spiritual torment can annihilate the will of a man who believes in God? What Brother Zhang Kai was eventually unable to bear, I don’t imagine I’d be able to bear half of. Aside from faith in Grace, what else can I believe in? Christianity came to China over 1,000 years ago, and the gospel has been taught for over 200 years. But the cultural revolution targeting the beliefs of Christians in China have never ceased, and the Boxers have never been disbanded. Lord, your servant has been crushed so—help me to rise!

Among the believers I know, Zhang Kai is a man of steel. And in recent years, of those who have been forced onto television to confess crimes they did not commit, who were made to affix their signature to a letter of repentance, who of them were also not firm and unyielding? Isn’t it precisely the horror of the sinful world that drives us to seek shelter in the grace of the Lord? No matter who is saved for their resilience, I praise God for also saving those of us who are weak.

As a pastor, there is something else that hurts me: it’s that in facing down the pressure of crosses being demolished, Zhang Kai did many things that should have been done directly by church leaders. It would have been perfectly sufficient if he had simply done the technical, legal work. The absence of the church leadership led a believer who ought to have been nourished and cared for to stand on the frontlines of the church’s spiritual battle. It was almost like the Muslim siege of Constantinople, when the invaders charged upon horses into the church throwing pikes, a bishop dodged to the side, and a spear killed a believer at the Communion.

Lord: I ask that you reproach the church, reproach your servants, and I ask that you watch closely over Brother Zhang Kai, safeguard his conscience, immerse him in your precious blood. Just as you asked Peter three times: Do you love me? My Lord: I wish that you ask Zhang Kai the same, loudly in his heart, 30 times, so he may be built anew by you, and so that us lowly servants will be ashamed.

张凯_2

Zhang Kai

Of the many “crimes” mentioned in the “big character poster”* condemning Zhang Kai, one is that he had planned to meet a foreign official and expose the destruction of crosses in Wenzhou. This official was the ambassador of U.S. religious freedom who came to visit China in August of last year. I myself also met this American ambassador of religious freedom, and have also discussed with “foreign figures” the matter of religious freedom in China. According to this logic, I share the same crime as Zhang Kai.

Another “crime” of Zhang Kai is that he often attended conferences held abroad, discussing strategies for Christian house churches to defend their rights. I attended these conferences with him on multiple occasions, and participated in the same discussions.

Also on the official “big character poster” was the chief crime levelled against Zhang Kai: that he called the government campaign to tear down crosses as “illegal constructions” persecution of the church.

This compels me to make this solemn statement: my view on the matter is entirely identical to that of Zhang Kai. All along, whether in public or in private, I have called the forced removal of crosses by the government (under the guise of removing “illegal constructions”) as a clear case of persecution of the church, and a shameful trampling of freedom of belief.

As such, I should obviously be prosecuted for having committed the same crimes as Zhang Kai did. I am thus reporting myself to the authorities; I promise to testify, and to respond to all questions by the Wenzhou Public Security Bureau.

My official identification number is 510722197306018819.                                             

 

The year of our Lord 2016, February 26

 

*Translator’s note: Big character posters (大字報) are a form of propaganda from the Cultural Revolution, in which the supposed crimes (usually of a political character) of class enemies are written in large font and posted in a public place. The reference here is meant metaphorically.

 

Wang Yi (王怡) is the lead pastor of the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu (成都秋雨之福教会).

 

Update on March 3, 2016: Thirty-six clergies and Christians across China issued a statement condemning the forced televised “confession” of lawyer Zhang Kai and declaring that he is a devoted Christian and has for years helped churches to defend their rights.

———-

Related:

 

 

First Human Rights Test Comes in Form of Dark Drama

The news came last night (Beijing Time) that @Stariver , a regular Twitter user based in Miyun, Beijing (北京密云)  was detained on November 7th, possibly for tweeting this tweet midnight, November 5th:

#SpoilerTweet  #Enter-at-your-own-peril  “Final Destination 6” has arrived. In which the Great Hall of the People collapses all of a sudden. All 2,000+ people meeting there died except for 7 of them. But afterwards, the seven die one after another in bizarre ways. Is it a game of God, or the wrath of Death? How will 18, the mysterious number, unlock the gate of Hell? Premieres globally on November the 8th to bring you an earthshaking experience!

Two Beijing women who visited his home in Miyun reported last night that @Stariver was taken away by police in the morning of the 7th, giving the reason that a tweet of his was “involved in spreading false and terrible information”,  and he is currently held in the detention center of Miyun County. His family has not been able to see him since the 7th.

Over the last few days, people close to @Stariver (who may not know him personally) have been asking about his whereabouts and calling for his return. There were suspicions that something had happened to him, but then someone said he was visiting his ailing grandfather in countryside.

I myself even tweeted once about him too: “What’s going on? Has the crackdown expanded to the realm of sorcerers and demons?” (Some on Twitter call him the “old sorcerer”.)

In Twitter’s Chinese community, @Stariver is known for his cool and biting comments about current events in China that cut the froth and burst false “hopes”. He is also known for the depth of his knowledge in classics.

Being detained, sentenced to re-education-through-labor, or even given a prison term for a tweet is not new. In 2010, activist Wang Yi (王译) was given one year in re-education-through-labor for a 5-character tweet that said “Go, angry youth!” to mock nationalistic youth. Just recently, a young man named Ren Jianyu (任建宇) challenged the Chongqing government for sentencing him to re-education-through-labor based on his Weibo posts and reposts that were deemed “negative.”

An online petition has been promptly set up to call for @Stariver ’s release, and as you can imagine, Twitter’s Chinese community is again roiled by this ironic, darkish episode.

This would be the first case of a Chinese citizen being penalized for making a joke about the Party’s skittish Congress, a weird test of China’s new leaders who have just shown up, smiled nicely to the world, and scarcely walked off the stage.

P.S. Since last night, I have learned about the identity of @Stariver . His real name is Zhai Xiaobin (翟小兵), born in 1976, studied ancient Chinese literature in the Chinese Department of Peking University, was once a journalist but now works in financial sector. And he’s also an amateur martial art coach.  One of the two women who went to Miyun to look for him tweeted that, “I’ve only met Star River once. He’s tall, polite with smile on his face… He has a happy family. A caring father, he does homework with his daughter every day.” Another Twitter user described him as a “gentleman” who, over a dinner party, offered food to ladies and poured tea for them.

A Month or so in the House of Twitter

By Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012

 

I registered a Twitter account two months ago, but didn’t start actively using it until my Sina Weibo was blocked in mid-December. Since then, I have made 600 plus tweets (including a lot of retweets and some replies) and been following over 200 people as of now. Every so often, I feel like sitting in a bustling tea house, the southern kind where all windows are flung open and a steady stream of people come in and out of the door, alone at a corner table, occasionally joined by one or the other of the two friends I have, listening to conversations twirling around me and, over time, getting to “know” some of the frequenters as well as the drop-bys.

Twitter is a very different tool if you are tweeting in Chinese. With 140 alphabets you can only make two—no more than two–quick chirps; but with 140 characters, you can chat, debate, argue, fight, narrate, contemplate, complain, cry for help, or, if you feel like, rhapsodize.

The estimate is that there are close to 100,000 Chinese Twitter users, and I assume the number is for users who tweet in Chinese, regardless where they are. I tried to find how many Chinese from inside China are using Twitter but to no avail. Because Twitter, along with Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites, are blocked in China, it is no surprise that those who take the trouble to climb the GFW are those who feel the need to do so to access information and to congregate.

Just the other day, I came across a tweet that exclaimed, “Wow, so many ‘revolutionary-looking people’ out here on Twitter!” You know, he was right: Twitter is where the dissidents and the activists gather. Some of them also tweet in Weibo to reach a large audience, but others can’t hold an account on Weibo without being repeatedly deleted.

It is in this community tea house that I have sat.

Among my very first impressions are the many IDs with 8964 suffix. A lot of them are former students who participated in the Tian’anmen Square protest in 1989. Having seen tanks and machine guns up close when they were young and now, in their mid-life, having lived long enough in the society, they are a group who has very little illusion about the nature of the regime. And more than once, I was impressed by the clarity of their thinking and yearned to hear more.

And you also hear their personal stories. Over the last couple of weeks or so, Ma Shaofang (@mashaofang), a former student leader, recounted, in a series of still on-going tweets, his capture and prison time after that summer. For the first time it came to my realization that so many students were expelled from college, others served prison time, and a lot of them have had a hard time to hold steady jobs for years to come because of harassment on the part of the government. Those who escaped from China in the aftermath have not been able to return to China to visit family for the last 23 years, unless they write up a confession of their “crime” and guarantee that they will not do anything “against” the party anymore. Some did and returned, but many chose to say no and continue to live in exile. When one of them (@wurenhua) tweeted about his recent conversation with his 80-year-old mother over the phone and why the mother and son had avoided video chatting (so that they can hide sadness from each other), you get a glimpse of what this exile entails.

On Twitter Chinese, you get a steady flow of tweets that cry for help: A has not answered his cell phone for the last two days (who would resurface later tweeting that the police took him away to answer questions); B was summoned by police to “have tea”; and C was not allowed to leave her home. In media we get to know about the big stories of China’s human rights travesties—the sentences, the illegal house arrests, the torture and whatnot, but we don’t hear much about the constant harassment a lot of the activists sustained from the police. To pressure the landlords and drive them out of their rental is one, to prevent them from meeting friends is another. Still more egregious, the police would pressure employers to fire them. In the recent issue of Heard on Weibo, I reported how the state security police forced a couple to separate.

Just two weeks ago, police raided the home of Hu Jia (@hu_jia), a prominent activist- whose story I am only beginning to learn and whose courage and moral clarity impressed me immensely- confiscated his computer, and threatened re-imprisonment. The last tweet of Hu Jia remains at January 10th, but to my relief, his wife (@zengjinyan) is still tweeting, nothing but cute things their toddler daughter does and says, a signal that the family is fine. For now anyway.

On certain days, such as around Christmas when Chen Wei (陈卫), and then Chen Xi (陈西), were sentenced to heavy prison time for articles they had written, there was a sense of desperation that chilled the screens.

Apart from responding to what is in the news day in and day out, people tweeted about everything in their lives: books and readings, thoughts and reflections, meals and liquor, soccer games and parties, friends and family, jokes and desires. One of the two friends I have (@gexun), who maintains the Free Chen Guangcheng site, tweets “It’s eight AM Beijing time and have a great day” every day, while the other, an artist in Beijing emerging only infrequently, mostly retweets others with terse add-ons that remind me of Jimmy Fallon slow jamming news.

No doubt Twitter is a free place.

But that nobody deletes your message doesn’t mean nobody is watching over what you say. Somewhere over a dim table, state security police are scanning every word. In November 2010, Wang Yi (@wangyi09), a well-known rights activist, was sentenced to one-year “reeducation through labor” for jokingly challenging angry “patriots” demonstrating against Japan to storm the Japanese Hall of the Shanghai Expo. She was the first person punished for a tweet, a tweet that consisted of 5 characters.

Even I, a newcomer and an outsider to this community, am beginning to have inklings. For example, who is that ID that signed on to follow me the day before yesterday that has a dozen or so tweets in a language I can’t identify but follows a hundred or so Chinese dissidents and intellectuals? How come those a couple of IDs, very vocal and widely known, always have “inside news” that happens to help deescalate pressure for the government? Who are they really?

Now and then, a verbal fight breaks out. From my little corner, I couldn’t see it clearly to begin with, let alone to take sides. If I am irritated enough, I hit the “unfollow” button, but mostly I choose to watch just to, well, get to know people.

Finally, Ai Weiwei. You can’t write about Twitter Chinese without talking about Ai Weiwei. Needless to say, he was among the first people I followed. But within 24 hours I unfollowed him, because when I came back on Twitter the next day, OMG, all I saw was @aiww, nothing but @aiww, screen after screen. I figured that I will hear news about him and interesting things he said anyway from retweets.

He tweets very short tweets, mostly 2 or 3 characters replying to friends, followers, and “debtors.” Lots of “嗯呢” (yes, humm). When he comments on things, often no more than one sentence, he is direct and sharp. For a man of his fame, he seems surprisingly approachable and sometimes “childish.” I am only beginning to learn how much he has done to look into and speak the truth over the years. Over the last few months, he managed to turn charges against him into “performance art”, first the debtor revelry, and then the Ai Naked (艾裸裸) campaign, that befuddled the authorities. On Twitter Chinese, screen after screen, the Ai Weiwei crowd is fun, smart and irreverent.

Soon enough, I re-followed him, this time feeling the need for a figure like him: he brings to Twitter Chinese warmth, a sense of confidence (although not certainty), street smartness, and he makes you feel a tad stronger, even though he is under surveillance of 9 cameras and multiple police cars permanently parked outside his gate.

The good news is he is not hanging online all the time. Hardly.

Tweeting from my dining room over these weeks, it is hard not to pause every now and then to think about the forsythia outside my window that is due to bloom in six weeks, the sunlight, the grass, and the thing we call freedom.