Yaxue Cao | China Change
This article was first publshed in China Change website on March 20, 2018
Li Baiguang (李柏光), a human rights lawyer, died on February 26, aged 49.
Li Baiguang, born on October 1, 1968, was the youngest of seven children in a tiny mountain village household in Jiahe county, Chenzhou, Hunan. His father died when he was seven years old. The family was impoverished. When Li reached school age, his playmates went to school, but he had to stay home another year and help his mother with chores. One day, after he herded the ducks back home, Li went to the school, leant on the window, and saw his friends all studying. He returned home and told his mother through tears: “If you don’t let me go to school, I’ll hack our ducks to death.”
In 1987, the child who used to sleep on the hard loft of a pigpen with his brothers matriculated to Xiangtan University majoring in philosophy. “While I was at university, my living expenses were roughly 50 yuan a month. Every cent of it was made by my mother selling bitter melon, squash, rice wine, and our pigs,” Li told an interviewer in 2010. One month in winter, when the family didn’t send money, he had to borrow from another student; by the next month, he couldn’t afford to pay it back. “It hurt me so deeply that I didn’t want to live anymore; I wanted to jump off a building. However, I was held back by the thought that if I did kill myself, I’d be letting my mom down.”
After graduating from the unremarkable Xiangtan University, Li scored well enough on a test to be admitted to China’s premier institution of higher education, Peking University’s School of Law. This feat by itself indicates his intelligence and grit. Despite that, “my family weren’t impressed that I’d gotten into PKU. When I finished my Masters and went onto a PhD, they were even less pleased. They said: You’re reading so many books, but no one back home benefits in the least. You’d be better off coming back and being a village cadre.”
At PKU, Li studied constitutional and administrative law; his advisor was the renowned Chinese constitutional law scholar Xiao Weiyun (萧蔚云). A series of lectures that he and classmates held about the constitution came in for criticism not only by his advisor (“Why aren’t you addressing the benefits of socialist rule of law, but instead talking about how French supreme court justices understand the constitution?” he jabbed), but also attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. In 1997 after Li received his PhD, his advisor was concerned that he would be trouble if he stayed, and thus rejected Li’s application for a teaching position at PKU.
At the end of that year, Li went to Hainan University. In the 1990s, Hainan was the largest Special Economic Zone in all of the country, and had attracted people from the rest of China hunting for opportunity. Many had been functionaries in the government until the violent suppression of the 1989 democracy movement crushed their political aspirations; others were student activists, at a loss and disillusioned. At Hainan University, a faraway and marginal institution, Li Baiguang continued to hold academic salons with students, taking great joy in their discussions on democracy and the rule of law.
The Year of 1998
In early 1998, a friend from Li Baiguang’s home province introduced him to a small group of democracy activists in Guangzhou. They were part of a campaign to organize an opposition party across cities and provinces.
In the 1990s, there were two major campaigns to organize independent political parties. The first, led by Hu Shigen (胡石根) in Beijing in 1992, involved a few dozen and was quickly met with severe repression. The leaders were given heavy sentences, with Hu Shigen jailed for 20 years. The next was in 1998.
The global context of the 1998 party organization event is worth sketching out. Following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, U.S. Congress turned the annual review of China’s Most Favored Nation trade status into a debate and criticism of human rights conditions in China. For all that, from the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. never once failed to grant China MFN status, including in 1990, after the massacre in Beijing. China’s strategic goals through the 1990s were 1) to normalize trade relations with the U.S., 2) to join the World Trade Organization. Thus, the U.S. and China, and China and the world, were engaging in “trade for human rights” deals. They included the following:
- In October 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (though did not ratify it until 2001);
- In November 1997, China’s most well-known political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng (魏京生), was released and went into exile in the U.S.;
- In June 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to abolish the annual review of Most Favored Nation status for China, and to grant China permanent normal trade relations;
- On June 25, 1998, President Clinton arrived in Xi’an, kicking off a tour of China. His hosts had him observe local elections in Xiahe village, on the outskirts of Xi’an. “I understand that soon, like nearly half a million other villages across China, you will be voting to choose your local leaders,” he remarked;
- In September, 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited China;
- In October 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR; though 20 years later has yet to ratify it);
- In November 1998, the National People’s Congress passed the “Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees of the People’s Republic China” (《中华人民共和国村民委员会组织法》) which guaranteed that villages would be able to govern autonomously and carry out grassroots democracy.
The reader can very well imagine, in the context of all of this, how Chinese dissidents were full of hope about the unprecedented possibilities of 1998, and how their imagination was fired. The democracy activists’ plan was to formally and openly register a political party in China. This was, after all, one of the rights stipulated in the ICCPR, and the organizers were no longer interested in secretive and shadowy political opposition.
The 29-year-old law PhD Li Baiguang helped prepare the materials for the registration of the “Democracy Party of China.” He may have even authored the party’s charter. Having done what was entrusted to him, Li went back to Hainan. One afternoon, he received a telephone call telling him that the University’s Party Committee Secretary, as well as the head of the law school, wanted to speak with him. The three met at the law school, and they asked him about his teaching. When he left the meeting and went outside, two burly men were waiting. They strode over and, each grabbing an arm, hauled the five-foot Li into a waiting Toyota. Li asked, “Are you from the Ministry of State Security?” They laughed.
Li was detained for a week. They questioned him about his role in the party registration. All the related documents he had were confiscated during a raid of his apartment. They also demanded that he produce a written statement of guilt and repentance, and that he not leave Hainan. He wrote a confession and agreed to stay in the city. After that, security officials kept him under surveillance, and often demanded he grant them “chats.”
A fortnight later, in March 1998, Li booked an airline ticket from a friend’s house and the next morning quietly took the first flight out of Hainan straight to Beijing.
After his return to Beijing, Li relied on translating, proofreading, and writing to make a living. This was the kind of work that Li enjoyed and felt at home with. In graduate school at PKU, he had translated Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The book had already been translated before, but his version, titled in Chinese “The Way of the Ruler,” introduced it to a popular audience. In the summer of 1998 when he was proofreading “The New Asian Way,” he encountered the work Victorian author Samuel Smiles, in particular the classic “Self Help.”
He borrowed Smiles’ book from the PKU library and found it “deeply moving and inspiring.” Li wrote in a 2005 essay: “Samuel Smiles’ works, through moving stories that compel tears, gives amply convincing witness to the fact that nobleness of character and spirit is the salvation of every individual, country, and people — and that this is our sole path to freedom and happiness.”
Through the 1990s, numerous ‘shadow’ publication houses cropped up in Beijing doing a lively business in the book trade. In China, only books with an official publication number are allowed to be printed, and these publication numbers were only allocated to government-registered, state-run presses. Private publishers would buy publication numbers from the state presses to publish books. Most of the proprietors were intellectuals who couldn’t stand the oppressive restrictions of the official system; some were idealists who hoped to awaken the public through books and the spread of new ways of thinking. Many of these businesses were composed of just a few people, and most of what they published were translations.
Li Baiguang decided to translate and publish Samuel Smiles’ works (the copyright on which had already expired), and he became a publisher.
In January of 1999, Li published the Smiles classic “Self-Help” through the little-known Beijing-based Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社). In July, September, October, 1999, then in July and October in 2010, Li published a series of Smiles’ books under the Beijing Library Press, respectively “Character,” “Duty,” “Thrift,” “The Huguenots in France,” and “Life and Labour.” He marketed the series as the “Conscience Collection” (良知丛书). Li took on planning and editorial tasks for the series, while also performing some of the translation. He farmed out distribution and sales to contractors already established in the industry. Li’s obsession and dedication to the work is clear from the compressed timeline.
In November of 1999, The Commercial Press, a major Beijing publishing house, published Li Baiguang’s translation of American professor Robert Dahl’s “On Democracy,” a book of instruction on the history and fundamental tenets of democracy.
Among the works Li had first published was the 19th century French judge Louis Proal’s “Political Crime.” The Chinese version, based on the 1898 English-language translation, was published by Reform Press in April 1999. It immediately attracted the attention of the Ministry of State Security. As put by one of the translators and Li’s friend Wang Tiancheng (王天成), “The title of this book was just too outlandish for the authorities.” Indeed, the “political crimes” discussed in the book were not principally in reference to crimes against the government, such as treason and revolt, but instead crimes committed by governments and politicians, including assassinations, hatred, hypocrisy, political spoliation, electoral corruption, and so on.
State security agents came and confiscated everything off the desk of the typist. Li Baiguang went into hiding once more. “Political Crime” had its commercial life stunted.
The Conscience Collection, on the other hand, sold exceptionally well, in particular “Self-Help.” This put a little money in Li’s pocket.
Around strangers and new acquaintances, Li Baiguang was quiet and taciturn. But when he was with old friends, he wouldn’t quit talking. During gatherings at his apartment, once he got going on a topic, he rarely stopped, not caring whether his audience had lost interest or not. He also had a peculiar hand-gesture, well known to friends who tried to interrupt him: he pushed his palm down and said “Listen to me!” Those who know him, without exception, were left with a deep sense of his passion, energy, focus, and learning.
“He is a rather pure man,” one friend said.
After accumulating a small amount of capital with the Smiles venture, Li was in a position to buy up copyrights to translate and publish contemporary foreign books. This was not always successful, as his sales of American author and speaker John C. Maxwell’s series on leadership demonstrated. To make matters worse, not long after this one of Li’s distributors absconded with some of his money. Between 2002 and 2003, Li got out of the publishing business.
‘Stomp You to Death’
In around the year 2000, while he was still in the book business, the Ministry of State Security apparently decided that he wasn’t such a serious threat to national security after all, and assigned him to the Beijing Public Security Bureau for supervision.
On March 13, 2001, MSS agents in Beijing and Tianjin secretly arrested eight young people, six of whom were recent graduates, and two current graduate students, at universities in Beijing. They met each other through intercollegiate student clubs. In August of 2001, in the rented flat of a friend, the group signed their names, impressed their fingerprints, stacked their hands together and vowed to form an “organization.” The name they gave themselves was the “New Youth Study Group” (新青年学会), a nod to the “New Youth” journal established by one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party Chen Duxiu (陈独秀). Indeed, four of the young men were themselves CCP members; their guiding principles were “freedom, democracy, justice, equality.” Over the next few months they gathered now and then on campus, in a dorm, or outside, often speaking for hours at a stretch about official corruption, layoffs, or the burdens of farmers, among other emerging social problems in China. They also invited liberal scholars to come and give lectures. They were rarely unanimous in their ideas, but all agreed that Chinese society was becoming increasingly unequal by the day, and that the government was suppressing healthy discourse. They were united in the belief that China had to undergo democratic reforms.
The case of the “New Youth Study Group” was the most significant political incident to emerge in 21st century China. One of the two of the undergrads, it turned out, had long been an MSS asset; the other, the only female in the group, leveled accusations against four other members after numerous interrogation sessions. Statements given to the police by these two were used by prosecutors as the basis of charges of “subversion of state power” against the other four, who were sentenced to between 8 and 10 years of imprisonment.
On the evening of March 21, 2001, police came knocking on Li Baiguang’s door. He was taken to the Haidian district police station and interrogated; police wanted to know about his relationship with Yang Zili (杨子立). Yang, 28, was the oldest member of the New Youth Study Group; two years prior he had finished graduate studies at the Department of Mechanics at PKU, and was working as a software engineer. He and Li knew one another at PKU between 1995 to 1997, and Li introduced Yang, among other students, to thinkers like Hayek, Orwell, Mill, Montesquieu, and von Mises. Li also delivered lectures to Yang Zili and his friends on constitutional law, for which Li and Yang were summoned and questioned by state security.
Since returning Beijing in 1998, Li Baiguang had lived close to Yang and a few like-minded friends in Beijing. They would gather and converse, and Li sometimes delivered lectures to the “New Youth Study Group.”
The interrogation went for three hours that night. When police let Li go, they cautioned him: “We’re not through with you. We’ll see you again.” They told him to stay in town.
The police came again on March 24, three nights later. This time Li was taken to a secret interrogation facility at the foot of the mountains in Xiangshan, western Beijing. For the next seven days, as he recounted in a 2010 interview, he was put to extremely detailed questioning: they wanted to know where he grew up and what his family was like, his time studying in Beijing, his involvement in the Democracy Party of China in 1998, what he’s been doing in Beijing since, and other questions.
The secret interrogation likely touched on other things he was involved in — for instance, his submissions to VIP Reference (《大参考》), one of the largest pro-democracy email newsletters dispatched daily from the United States, which focused on news and analyses censored by the authorities. The newsletter’s influence was enormous from about 2000 to 2004, when it was said to have around one million recipients in China. Zhao Yan (赵岩), who worked with Li Baiguang over those years, told me that part of he and Li’s ‘underground work’ was submitting articles about rights defense incidents and internal Party struggles to VIP Reference. The only reason Li wasn’t caught by the MSS, Zhao Yan said, was because he wiped his computer daily. Li Hongkuan (李洪宽), the founder and operator of VIP Reference, said in a February 28 YouTube video: “In the process of founding VIP Reference…and over these years, Li Baiguang and I had always stayed in close touch.”
Secret police in the state security apparatus knew very well that Li Baiguang harbored a deep abhorrence toward the Chinese system of dictatorship, which he felt was unchanged for 5,000 years; they knew he castigated the Chinese, as a people, who have lost the sense of right and wrong and instead enjoyed the regressive tendencies and culture of mutual deception. These were the thoughts he often revealed to friends — but the fact that the secret police knew it all so clearly shocked him deeply. For a while after he was released, he wouldn’t dare to speak his mind as freely as he used to among friends.
After those seven days of interrogation in the secret MSS facility at Xiangshan, close friends of Li’s described him as being “panicked” and “shaken to the core.”
“They said they’re going to ‘stomp me to death,’” Li said in a phone call to his friend Wang Tiancheng. He told another friend that he was stomped on while in custody.
In the next two years he was visited continually and harassed by the neighborhood committee and local police. Police demanded that he listen to their orders and make himself available on demand. If he didn’t listen, they said, “we can run you out of town anytime we like. You don’t have a Beijing household registration. You’re just a temporary.”
Sacking Officials in Two Provinces and Five Places
Li Baiguang was introduced to Zhao Yan by Yu Meisun (俞梅荪) in 1997. Yu, an active liberal intellectual in Beijing, researched economic regulations at the State Council in the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were general secretary and premier. Zhao Yan is an independent, and maverick, freelance writer. In November 1998, a few months after the passage of the Organic Law of Villagers Committees, Zhao helped villagers in Harbin successfully dismiss corrupt officials through a vote. This was the first instance in which the new law was used to remove a village official; it attracted widespread attention from grassroots democracy activists at home and caused China observers to harbor illusions of a path to democracy.
Li was full of interest in Zhao’s work, and the two often chatted over tea. One day in late 2002, Zhao Yan said to Li: “Stop hanging about the house all day — what’s the point of digging into theory? Come out with me and take a look at the real world.” Zhao was a few years older than Li; at the time he had become the news director of the rural section of the “China Reform” (《中国改革》) magazine. The role meant that he was frequently approached by peasants from around the country complaining of local injustice. Zhao would head to the scene, conduct an investigation, then expose the the abuses in the magazine.
One of the first cases Li got involved in after teaming up with Zhao Yan was that of farmers in Fu’an (福安), Fujian Province, who’d had their land expropriated. The origins of the case stretched back 28 years, when a township government requisitioned land to build a reservoir; for 28 years, the farmers had not been compensated. They had petitioned for 20 years to no effect. Zhao and Li traveled to Fu’an, visited rural households, spoke with representatives of the aggrieved, and considered the options. The farmers said that trying to go the government route was a dead end, because the court refused to register their case. As Li said in a 2010 interview: “I was discussing it with Zhao Yan… through studying the law, I found there was a legal channel we could use. The reason these problems had been around so long was basically because the municipal Party Secretary, the mayor, the county Party Secretary, and the county governor had all simply been derelict in their duties. The ordinary folks pay the taxes for their government, so the government’s got a responsibility and a duty to resolve their problems. We could help the farmers initiate proceedings to strip these officials of their qualifications as people’s representatives in order to spur them into action and deal with this issue. Although these officials, whether mayors or Party secretaries, weren’t elected, according to the law their power comes from the people, so the people have a lawful right to dismiss them.” So Li and Zhao decided to help the villages by submitting a proposal to the local People’s Congress to dismiss the relevant officials. Li Baiguang acted as legal representative for the villagers.
The recall motion enumerated instances of government malfeasance, including the theft of farmland, embezzlement of land compensation and public infrastructure construction funds, misappropriation of relief funds for the poor, river pollution, and the receipt of bribes. It implicated numerous townships and villages in the Fu’an municipality. One day in early April 2003, Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang assembled the village and township representatives, handed them pre-designed and typed forms, and looked on as they went door-to-door collecting signatures. The deputies wended their way through the mountains, working through the night, because they knew that they’d be blocked if the government found out. At noon the next day, the deputies brought in cardboard boxes and large bags with the signatures and wax thumb-prints of over 10,000 villagers. On April 8, Zhao and Li, as well as peasant deputy Miao Mengkang (缪孟康), submitted to the Fujian provincial People’s Congress Standing Committee and the Ningde municipal People’s Congress Standing Committee (one step up the chain of command from Fu’an) the motion for the recall of the mayor of Fu‘an as well as the ledger of 10,000 signatures in support of it.
This was the first instance in China where citizens had petitioned for the dismissal of a mayor. Li Baiguang, using the nom de guerre ‘Liu Baijiang’ (刘柏江), penned an article in the July issue of Modern Civilisation Pictorial (《现代文明画报》) with the headline “Can Citizens Dismiss a Mayor? A record of the first time in the New China that citizens demanded the dismissal of a city mayor.” What happened next was a textbook case of political governance with Chinese characteristics, which is true then and true today: first, the government mobilized police to prevent more people from signing the motion; second, they made threats to those who signed; third, they went to the offices of China Reform and pulled strings to stop further reporting and smeared Zhao Yan and Li Baiguang; fourth, they threatened and scared away journalists from other media; fifth, they told villagers that the dismissal proceedings had no legal basis, and thus were useless; sixth, they began exacting revenge against village deputies, including arrests; seventh, the provincial investigation team set up to look into the case came up with no results; eighth, they portrayed the incident as antagonistic toward the Party and the government; ninth, the mayor that villagers had petitioned to be dismissed, Lan Ruchun (蓝如春), was not only not dismissed, but promoted to deputy mayor of Ningde.
In January of 2004, Zhao and Li, working with local village deputies, again submitted a recall motion against Lan Ruchun. This time, under enormous public pressure, Lan was forced to resign, and the Fu’an municipal government gave villagers compensation of 1.5 million yuan ($237,000) for the expropriated land. This sum was less than a tenth of that owed.
In another case in Fujian Province, the government and investors had in the 1990s set out to develop a “Southeast Motor City” on the outskirts of Fuzhou (福州), the capital city. In doing so, they requisitioned a large amount of rural land — but after the fact, the peasants received neither the promised jobs in the factories in “Motor City,” nor any share of the benefits that accrued to the government from the development. Their share of the compensation was siphoned off by layer after layer of government, leaving them with next to nothing. In April 2004, Zhao and Li set about helping 20,000 villagers within Fuzhou municipality prepare a recall motion against the mayor of Fuzhou. Li Baiguang again was their legal representative.
In the same year in Tangshan (唐山) and Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), Hebei Province, Li Baiguang, working with Yu Meisun and Zhao Yan, represented tens of thousands of villagers in recall proceedings against corrupt officials.
In a 2004 essay about the recall motions he represented in five cities and two provinces, Li wrote with passion about how so many villagers “took the path of using the constitution as a weapon to defend their rights because under the current legal structures of China today, every other method they tried ended in failure: for years they went to local and central government offices to petition, constantly, to no effect; they lodged complaints in court, but the court refused to accept their case… the cold, selfish, greedy and colluding local government bureaucrat-mafias strangled the villagers out of even their most basic rights to subsistence.” Using the constitution to dismiss officials became their final remedy.
“This is a massive exercise in constitutional implementation,” Li told China Youth Daily in 2004. “Its value is not in whether it succeeds, but that through the process of studying and utilizing the constitution and the law, the seed of rule-of-law consciousness will begin to bud in the minds of Chinese villagers.” He added: “Understanding the proper relationship between the government and the people is their greatest gain.”
In a 2010 interview, Li said: “Back then we did it with such energy — standing up to these officials with the law, appealing to dismiss them every chance we could, taking them to court, and for the first time putting the fear into these insufferably arrogant men, it was really a delight.”
On another occasion though, he noted the failure of these motions and court cases to dismiss officials, a supposed constitutional right: “Rights without procedural guarantee are not real rights.” Indeed, no Chinese law provides such procedures.
Zhao Yan is the epitome of a certain Northeastern type; he has a robust physique, a gutsy attitude, and a forceful style of speech. Li Baiguang, meanwhile, is short, quiet, and restrained — but he executes with rigor and firmness. Between 2003 and 2004, the two of them traveled to seven or eight provinces, Zhao Yan as the investigative reporter, Li Baiguang as legal representative, getting themselves involved in countless land theft and compensation cases and cases of village governance and corruption. Wherever they went they handed out volumes of legal statutes they’d brought from Beijing, including the PRC Constitution, the Organic Law of the Villagers’ Committees , the Law on Land Administration (《土地管理法》), the Law on Deputies to the National People’s Congress and Deputies to the People’s Congresses (《人大代表法》), the State Compensation Law (《国际赔偿法》), the Administrative Procedure Law (《行政诉讼法》), and others, all to assist those whose rights had been infringed to file an administrative review or a complaint.
The villagers were often skeptical of such efforts. “We might use the law to solve problems, but government workers and police don’t, so what are we supposed to do?” they asked Li. His response: “Then you must insist on using the law! Even though in the process you may pay a price in blood and sweat, and perhaps even lose your personal freedom for a while, you have to keep going.” He firmly believed that persistence would lead to change. He told them a few stories that exemplified the power of using the law, including cases he was personally involved in. In one instance, the family farm of his client, Ms. Liu Jie (刘杰) in Heilongjiang, was expropriated, and she persisted in using legal rights defense (Li Baiguang also wrote an open letter to state premier Wen Jiabao, inviting him to appear him court to meet charges); another story he told was of Yao Lifa (姚立法) in Hubei successfully becoming a People’s Deputy; and another of blind Shandong lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) fighting for the rights of the disabled.
“The infringement of one’s rights is in fact a perfect opportunity for the awakening of civil rights consciousness,” Li said. “Before their rights are violated, they don’t grasp the natural conflict between power and rights. When rights are harmed, the fierce battle between power and rights begins. What we citizens can do is use the power of the law to repel those with unfettered power. The process is arduous, but there is simply no alternative.”
During his doctoral studies, Li Baiguang wrote a pamphlet titled “A Common Sense Reader for Chinese Citizens” (《中国公民常识读本》), using a question-and-answer format to address basic questions about human rights, government, autocracy, democracy, the constitution, economy, public opinion, education and faith, and military affairs, among other issues related to democratic constitutionalism. After the real world experiences of 2003 and 2004 however, he wanted to instead use actual cases to illustrate the basic principles associated with power and rights, burn them onto CD-ROM, and distribute them in every village. He saw the work as basic civics education for the Chinese people.