Liang Xiaojun | China Change
This article was first published on chinachange.org on July 25, 2016
Xie Yanyi is a human rights lawyer, and one of the 709 detainees. – The Editors
It was probably somewhere around the end of 2008 that I started receiving occasional group emails from someone writing under the name Liang Buzheng —“Crooked Beam.” Sometimes the emails would contain this person’s views on politics, while other times they would describe the actions he was taking in the legal sphere. In those days much of my time was spent handling commercial cases in order to make a living, so I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to public interest law or human rights issues. As a result, I would often simply skip over those emails from “Crooked Beam” without really reading them. But I did take note of the author’s rather unusual name.
It was probably around that same time that I began to hear the name “Xie Yanyi” mentioned by different people in different circumstances. It was only then that I drew the link between that name and the “Crooked Beam” of the emails I had been getting. I’d heard that this Xie Yanyi had filed suit against former leader Jiang Zemin for violating the constitution by refusing to resign as chairman of the Central Military Commission in 2003, and I became interested to find out what sort of a person this “Crooked Beam” was.
I asked the head of Xie’s law firm at the time about him. He was in a terrible fix in those days, since Xie’s employment there was preventing his firm from passing its annual review. He told me that Xie was “just like Li Kui” (李逵), the tough and temperamental character from the classic novel, Outlaws of the Marsh. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that, but I took the image I had of Li Kui from the novel and its television adaptions and pictured Xie Yanyi as a big, strong fellow with a full beard.
Then, in May 2009, I attended a meeting of lawyers gathered to condemn police in Chongqing for beating lawyers Li Chunfu (李春富) and Zhang Kai (张凯)* over their investigation into the death of a Falun Gong practitioner in a labor camp. At the meeting, I was approached by a fellow with deep-seated eyes, delicate features, and a well-proportioned physique who asked me if I was a reporter. When I told him I wasn’t, he turned and walked away. I asked the person next to me who he was, and he told me: “That’s Xie Yanyi.” That was the first time I’d ever set eyes on Xie Yanyi.
From the end of that year, I gradually started getting involved in more public interest and human rights cases. Those of us working on these cases would often meet up for dinner, but since Xie Yanyi lived way out in Miyun County he was often unable to join us or else would only have a few bites and say a few words before rushing off. Our paths didn’t cross much back then, and we never had a chance to talk in any depth.
Later on, though, we would come to work together on a few cases. I would listen in great admiration to his flowing defense arguments, which were always strong, reasoned, and well documented, knowing that my own arguments were never as theoretically strong. These days, whenever my colleague Dong Qianyong (董前勇) takes on a case involving religious belief, I will give him a photocopy of one of Xie’s defense arguments for his reference. But in my own mind, I can’t shake the image of Xie Yanyi as a “barefoot lawyer,” wearing sandals, dressed in everyday attire, and toting a huge backpack.
It was probably around 2012 that he began telling me about his belief that China’s future transition to democracy could only come through the peaceful development of a democratic culture. Those days I was terribly busy with my work, running here and there to handle one case after another. I simply had neither time nor energy to think about the direction or path of China’s future development. I had no idea how to respond to his ideas, and he didn’t seem interested in trying to convince me. So we usually ended up simply laughing off those discussions.
Later, he gave me a copy of his self-published book entitled Roads of Faith, which was a collection of articles and essays he’d written over the previous few years. The epigraph read: “The power of peace and reason is unstoppable! This is the age when citizens will demonstrate their will.” I’m not much for reading books and I’d already read some of his articles before, so I merely paged through the book before placing it on my bookshelf, where it would remain untouched.
When the “709” crackdown on lawyers was launched last year, my friends and I were all living in fear, not knowing whose turn it would be to be arrested next. When I heard that Xie Yanyi had been arrested, I wasn’t at all surprised.
Through our previous work together, I’d come to know Xie’s mother, a remarkably spry old woman who was also a lawyer down in Gaobeidian in Hebei. I tried to contact her a number of times to find out what plans there were for Xie Yanyi’s legal defense, but no one ever answered and later her mobile just shut off, so I had to drop it. Besides Xie’s mother, I didn’t know any of his other relatives and didn’t know how else to help.
Late last year, a friend took me out to Xie Yanyi’s home in Miyun County, where I met Xie’s wife, Yuan Shanshan. She was six or seven months pregnant at the time, but she still took her electric bicycle out to buy groceries so she could cook for her two sons. There were two plaques hanging on the wall of their home, one reading “Peace and Democracy” and the other reading “The World Belongs to Everyone.” I knew that these were things that Xie Yanyi truly believed in.
On January 8, when Xie Yanyi was formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion,” Yuan Shanshan appointed me to be his defense attorney. Given the blatant illegality of what the police have done, I don’t know how much I can really accomplish, but I’m grateful for the confidence that Yuan Shanshan and Xie’s older brother have shown in me.
It’s through our conversations that I’ve come to have a better understanding of who Xie Yanyi is. He had all sorts of advantages growing up, and could have been set for life if he’d simply relied on his parents. But he had much more respect for those who made their own way in the world. He gave up a chance to study overseas in Singapore and returned home to Gaobeidian, where he lived alone and devoted himself to studying to pass the bar exam.
After becoming a lawyer in Beijing, he encountered so many miscarriages of justice and observed so much of society’s darker side that his thinking changed and he began to think in terms of problems with the way the system was set up. After he filed his “first suit on behalf of constitutionalism” against Jiang Zemin in 2003, he became the object of heavy police surveillance but never gave up his aspiration to use his efforts to secure a peaceful, democratic future for future generations.
Xie made a point of getting to know people from all walks of life during his trips to handle cases or through his social encounters and would talk with them about his own beliefs and ways of thinking in an effort to persuade them. After the police shooting of a man in the Qing’an railway station in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, he paid his own way to go up to Heilongjiang and provide legal assistance to the man’s family and seek the truth about the case.
After Wang Yu and her husband and son were taken into custody on July 9 of last year, Xie Yanyi was one of the first to go online and call for assistance. Even though he was also taken in by the police for questioning in the middle of the night, he refused to compromise. Instead, he stated: Even though he was put under tremendous pressure, he insisted on speaking up for Wang Yu and the Fengrui Law Firm. Soon his house was raided and he himself was “disappeared.” In August 2015, Xie’s mother passed away; in March 2016, his daughter was born . . .
Because I’m handling Xie Yanyi’s case and have come to have a much deeper understanding of his past, I’ve thought a lot and had countless discussions with friends about the choices we make in life as well as life’s meaning and value. I was paging through the copy of Roads of Faith that Xie gave me in an attempt to understand the trajectory of his thinking when I happened to notice the date of his inscription to me—July 11, 2012. Three years and one day later, he would be taken away from his home by police in the early morning hours and “disappeared” until this very day. Several hundred copies of Roads of Faith were confiscated from his home, perhaps becoming evidence for the authorities’ charge that he had engaged in “inciting subversion.”
While most of us might anticipate that China’s transition to democracy will come about as a result of elite power struggles, economic recession, or popular protest, people like Xie Yanyi long ago started to think and put into practice ways to make this transition possible. In this day and age, when there is so much cynicism and resignation in the face of tyranny, people like Xie Yanyi are really valuable. He represents the conscience, the courage, and the future of our nation’s people. Though we may have all faced the same kinds of difficulties as Xie Yanyi in the past, we have shrunk back from them whereas he stood firm. This willingness to stand firm makes his yearlong enforced disappearance a distillation of all the joys and sorrows others have experienced for over a decade. Through his loss of freedom, Xie Yanyi bears witness to the absurdity of claims to “govern the state in accordance with the law.”
It’s his family and children who have paid the most for these ideals, but the realization of those ideals will be a precious gift that he will bestow upon them.
Of all my interactions with Xie Yanyi, one scene is as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday: One summer day, we are standing on the sandy banks of the Tuo River in Luzhou, Sichuan, watching the sun set to west as the river flowed eastward toward the Yangtze. I sigh to think of the passage of time, the vastness of the universe, and how insignificant we humans ultimately are . . .