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The Aftermath of a Gathering in China: Arrest, Flight, Hiding, and Family Separation

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Yaxue Cao | China Change

This article was first published in China Change website on January 27, 2020

Last month, on December 7 and 8, around 20 Chinese men and women from around the country gathered in the southeastern city of Xiamen. Among them were lawyers and those of other professions. They met in a private home, discussing current events and policy, public affairs, and China’s political trajectory. They shared their experiences about their involvement with citizens’ activities. In a normal country, these activities are ordinary. Yet in the eyes of the Communist Party, they amount to subversive conspiracy. 

It’s said that in China, the police are unable to find women or children who have been abducted, but they know exactly and in real-time where democracy activists eat, with whom they talk, and what they say on the internet. In addition to summons and detention, the authorities can apply pressure to their employers and landlords to have them fired or get them evicted, or order schools to expel their children. 

Because of this, the Xiamen gathering was held in secret. 

On December 26, Pastor Wang Yi of the Autumn Rain Church in Chengdu was sentenced to 9 years in prison after being found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power.” Just as people were reacting to the verdict with shock and anger, there was more bad news: Lawyer Ding Jiaxi, and three others were arrested.  “What happened?” Everyone was scrambling for an answer.   

In the days that followed, details about the “Xiamen gathering” began to surface.  Three or four of those at the meeting left China in a hurry, while those who stayed either went into hiding or ended up being summoned by the police. The police search went on. On January 12, Shaanxi lawyer Chang Weiping was apprehended after two weeks in hiding. The police then promptly announced to his lawyer that  Chang had been placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location”. This round of detention easily calls into mind the mass arrest of human rights lawyers that took place in July 2015. 

It appears that the four individuals who were arrested on December 26 in connection with the Xiamen gathering have been moved from their home provinces of Beijing and Fujian to the city of Yantai, Shandong Province. This includes Zhang Zhongshun, who himself lives in Yantai. The police used the term “December 13 special case” to describe the first arrests. While it’s unclear what significance the date December 13 holds, those familiar with Chinese politics understand that “special case” refers to something of particular concern to the authorities, and a case that involves multiple provinces like this one is surely ordered and carried out by the central government. 

The wives of the detained have not received any legal documents pertaining to their husbands’ situations, only spoken notification that they are held and placed under designated residential surveillance on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” When the family members engage lawyers to meet with the accused, permission is declined out of all kinds of excuses: the officers in question haven’t heard about such a case, they don’t know which divisions are responsible, they don’t know where the person is being held, in any case, no meeting is possible. For Ding Jiaxi’s wife, the only written notification she has seen is a notice issued to Ding’s lawyer by the Yantai police denying permission for meeting with Ding Jiaxi. 

‘RSLD’ means torture

“Residential surveillance at a designated location” is the same as secret detention.  The detainees are typically held at a special facility for this purpose. According to past revelations, it can be in an internal-use guesthouse, or at a compound of the Armed Police. In recent years, there have been many Chinese among the victims who have offered first-hand testimonies to the workings of this secret detention system, including human rights lawyers and activists, NGO workers, Christians, Falun Gong adherents, artists, businessmen, officials and their family members accused of corruption, etc. 

Without exception, those placed under RSDL have been made to endure some combination of beating, humiliation, forced confession, round-the-clock monitoring, threats made to their family members and children, sleep deprivation, extended interrogation, being forced to remain in excruciating positions motionlessly for hours, or injections of unknown drugs — tortures that leave indelible scars, both physical and mental. Whilst in secret detention, they are denied the right to see a lawyer, and their family members are denied all information pertaining to their loved ones. 

Who were those detained on December 26, 2019?

Ding Jiaxi was born in 1969 and grew up in a village of Yichang City in central China’s Hubei Province. In 1986 he was admitted to the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, where he studied aviation engines. In 1989 he joined the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Beijing calling for reform and democracy. Later he gave up his research work and became a lawyer, founding the Beijing Dehong Law Firm in 2003. By 2013, his firm boasted 20 some full-time attorneys and had an annual income of 25 million yuan (around $3.5 million). In 2011, Ding received an award for being one of the top ten Beijing lawyers specializing in intellectual property rights.

Yet it was that same year that he decided to change the course of his life. The law firm voted for his successor, and he retired from the firm to join activists such as Xu Zhiyong a pioneer of the rights defense movement starting in the early 2000s, and Wang Gongquan, a real estate tycoon, in their New Citizens Movement. Every month cities across China held citizens discussion dinners to meet up and to discuss any number of topics; they encouraged and trained the like-minded to become independent candidates in local People’s Congress elections,  

Their thinking was to have the Chinese people learn to take seriously the rights guaranteed in the national constitution and become true citizens, helping prepare China for the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. In Beijing, they started an advocacy movement to campaign for equal education rights that would help the children of migrant workers who lived and worked in Beijing, yet, because they did not have residential status there, were not allowed to access public education or take college entrance exams in the capital. More than 100,000 parents and other supporters joined the campaign. After a few years, the movement saw partial success: though the municipal governments in Beijing, Shanghai, and other large cities continued to bar children without local residency from taking local college entrance exams, most urban areas around the country did away with the restrictions — a reform that benefited hundreds of millions of families. 

But here is the paradox: even as the Chinese Communist Party to make limited concessions in response to the movement, the regime was wary of, and took measures against, the growth of grass-roots civil rights awareness and self-organization. In spring 2013, Ding Jiaxi and other activists of the New Citizens Movement were arrested after they had held banners calling upon public officials to disclose their assets in Beijing’s Xidan shopping area, Chaoyang Park, Zhongguancun, the Huangzhuang subway station, Tsinghua University’s west gate, and other parts of the capital. Ding was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Among the crimes listed in the verdict were that Ding had, via the public assembly, “gathered a crowd to disrupt social order,” and that he had “taken advantage of an issue of public concern for the organization, plotting, and incitement of other individuals to a gathering in front of the Beijing Municipal Education Commission’s [office] entrance.” 

The term “other individuals” refers to the parents fighting for their children’s right to access education in Beijing, as well as other supporters of the movement. 

This would have been a preposterous verdict handed down in a normal country inhabited by normal people. But in the Chinese judicial system, this kind of farce is common to the point that to citizens, it is simply a fact of life. 

The vast majority of Chinese are neither aware of nor support Ding Jiaxi’s activism. Why should they? Their standard of living has risen and times are good; what’s the point of getting tangled up in politics? One of these Chinese is Ding’s older brother. But who other than Ding Jiaxi is in a better position to live out this kind of sea change? The region where he comes from, the Hubei countryside, was the setting for the epic historical events of the Three Kingdoms period. In the time of his growing up, the region still used Three Kingdoms-era watermills to irrigate the fields. Now, the people of Yichang ride high-speed trains and the villagers have computers and internet access. 

“But the biggest problem is that in the course of these transformations, the Chinese people’s political rights have not changed: they have zero political rights,” Ding wrote to his brother from jail. “If you don’t understand what I mean, just be patient and keep your eyes open. You needn’t express any opinion.” 

In the fall of 2016, after Ding Jiaxi was released from prison, the Guobao, (Domestic Security Division) police told him contemptuously: “You just want to involve yourself with that citizens’ circle thing, right?” He responded. “Yes, I will continue to do it, there’s nothing secret about it.” In 2017, when he visited his wife in the United States, many thought he would not return, but two months later, he went back to China. But in 2018, when he tried to go to America to attend his daughter’s college graduation ceremony, he was barred from leaving China.

In Alfred, upstate New York, where Ding Jiaxi’s wife Luo Shengchun (Sophie Luo) lives, members of the community are speaking out for Ding Jiaxi and sending messages to the Chinese government. 

Dai Zhenya is an accountant at a private company in Xiamen. “I just want to be an honorary resident of Xiamen, and erect a statue for lawyer Li Baiguang there,” he told lawyer Liang Xiaojun, “because Li Baiguang died while representing Xiamen people who had brought cases seeking justice for the forced demolition of their homes.”

As for Li Yingjun, we’ve heard that his family refused to have anything to do with activists who tried to help and is unwilling to reveal any information about him. It’s hard to tell if they are like this out of fear or anger. 

Zhang Zhongshun, who is 52 this year, was a lecturer at Yantai University. According to his bio on Twitter: “In August 2007, because I used a clip from a video about the 1989 June Fourth Massacre in class, I was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime of using an evil cult organization to undermine the implementation of the law.” 

Zhang seems to be a successful businessman. Five days before the police arrested him and searched his apartment and his stately white villa that had been rented out to a small media production business five days before his detention, an unoccupied apartment of his in Weihai, and as well as the office of his plant nursery company (he styles himself a “garden expert”). Surprisingly, during the search of his villa on January 2, the police found 245 bullets stored in a basement storage room that the family uses. His wife said that the ammunition could not have belonged to their family, and even the box they were stored in was foreign to her. 

Signs of Framing Zhang Zhongshun

This made me think about the arrest of Zhang Baocheng, a participant in the New Citizens Movement. On his search warrant, it said that he was under suspicion for illegal possession of firearms. A few days earlier, Zhang was charged with “evidence” that he had spread “images, and fake information that damaged the national image and harmed state interests” online. He wasn’t accused of possessing firearms, and neither did he have firearms. It’s widely believed that Zhang was actually arrested as punishment for the help and protection he provided for the octogenarian mother of jailed dissident Huang Qi while she was in Beijing in late 2018. 

This is a concerning sign. The CCP seems to employ these framing techniques in order to cut activists off from timely coverage from the media and support from the public. In the case of Zhang Zhongshun, the authorities somehow dug up real ammunition. If true, his illegally possessing bullets should be a simple thing to deal with. On the one hand, the criminal procedure gives them cause to make an arrest and investigate the origin of the contraband. Yet criminal procedure also stipulates that the accused must be allowed to see a lawyer. 

However, the authorities withheld this right from Zhang, and the police tried to get his wife to record a video persuading him to admit guilt. This shows that the authorities don’t have a case; instead, they are still building a case out of thin air. Zhang’s wife rejected their demands. 

A Juxtaposition of China and Taiwan

In early January, I made a trip to Taiwan to observe the presidential election for the first time. I am an American citizen, but compared to the U.S. campaign trail, witnessing the Taiwanese election was more of a thrill. On the day of the election, I gave an interview with Voice of America’s Chinese service. The reporter asked me what made the deepest impression on me. 

I said that what impressed me the most was that on the evening of the 7th, I was drinking tea in the Wisteria Cottage Tea House while proofreading an unpublished interview made with Ding Jiaxi two years ago. Someone had mentioned in passing that the tea house is a “democracy shrine” in Taiwan, being the place where, in the 1970s and 1980s, young lawyers and writers gathered to discuss political resistance to the authoritarian Kuomintang regime. The tea house is elegant and peaceful. A glass pot boiled on a small iron stove. 

Taiwan is a likewise peaceful and comfortable place. Many mainland Chinese who visited Taiwan have the same feelings about it. As a Chinese who grew up under the dictatorship of the Communist Party, I know that this kind of peace, this kind of comfort, grows out of freedom. A third of the way through the manuscript, I stopped for a break and a moment of contemplation: over the last 30 years, Taiwan’s democracy has grown quite mature. In a few days, people would go to the polls to vote for their own president and their own legislators. It will be as natural and as smooth a process as eating and sleeping. On the other side of the strait, Ding Jiaxi and his friends are at this very moment being tortured and humiliated at a secret location, just because of their presence at a gathering to discuss civil activism and political change.

At that moment, the spatial juxtaposition suddenly felt unbearable.

On January 11, the election concluded with a landslide victory for President Tsai Ing-wen. This was the Taiwanese people’s affirmation of their future. 

Our group activities, however, lasted until the 13th. During the week from pre-election to post-election, we visited the candidates’ campaign offices and talked to university researchers studying the election. We visited the Legislative Yuan and met with legislators from different parties. A man running a sports tour business in Kaohsiung told us his voting history in great animation. On the day after the election, we went to an interactive theater, where we heard a roomful of people, mostly young, speak about their choices. In this election, many young peoples’ voting patterns differed from those of their parents. 

During our visit to the Human Rights Museum, the director told us that, because Taiwan is excluded from the international conventions, it has adopted into law of the various international human rights agreements so as to protect human rights in accordance with international standards. I was deeply moved: The Taiwanese, cut off from the international community after years of bullying by the CCP, have been quietly perfecting their country. 

In Kaohsiung, a young member of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party told us about their party-building ideas. In this election, this small party won its first seat in the legislature. I noticed that there were many female legislators in Taiwan. It turns out that there is a law according to which a certain percentage of women must be guaranteed among political parties’ nominations for non-constituent based legislators. In an elegantly designed teahouse in the old city of Taipei, a former legislator told us about his work of redeveloping the community on Dihua Street and incubating startups. 

The night before I left, I had a dumpling dinner with a married lesbian couple.

Everyone we met struck me as young, dedicated, and vibrant. 

At the same time, I was receiving via my smartphone a continuous feed of news concerning those who were at the gathering in Xiamen: 

Attorney Chang Weiping, 35, was detained after evading for two weeks, and immediately placed under “surveillance in a designated residence.” The very next day, the local Justice Bureau announced the revocation of his license. His father, a veteran party member who had been a party secretary in rural Shaanxi for many years, wrote: “Today I heard that my son was arrested by the police in Baoji on the charge of ‘subversion of state power.’ There is no way I can believe this. That son of mine who has worked on some public interest cases, helped a few people, and represented a few so-called sensitive cases, who is not the sort that plays rough, is now guilty of ‘subversion of state power’ simply for a gathering with friends. I, 70 years old, refuse to believe it.”

(Attorney Chang Weiping was released on “probation” on January 22, after 10 days’ detention.)

To evade the police sweep, lawyer Wen Donghai hurriedly sent his wife and two young children to Japan on December 29 for refuge while he himself has gone hiding since. On the 17th, his wife sent a message to her husband on Twitter: “Today is the 18th day that we’ve been in Japan. I don’t know where you are or if you’re safe. If you can feel that we are thinking of you, please find a way to let me know you are safe.  I installed Telegram, Twitter, and Signal. Or, please ask a friend to pass on a message to me. I will be at ease only if you are safe!”

On the same day, Liu Jiacai from Yichang in the now-quarantined Hubei Province recorded a video of himself in hiding: “I just want to be a citizen, to walk freely in my own country, eat and chat with my friends, and be able to care about our homeland. It’s a shame that you feel so scared as though surrounded by enemies, that you must make wonton arrests and spread this terror just because we had a gathering in Xiamen. I’m forced to wander about in my own country… You have taken enough from the people. Giving them a little bit of freedom, a little bit of liberty to talk and dine won’t cause the end of the world. Do you have to be so cruel as to force us to separate from our loved ones and shatter our families to pieces just for a gathering?”

Dai Zhenya’s wife, who newly registered her Twitter account, wrote on the 18th: “Today is the 24th day of the last lunar month. It’s been 24 days since Dai Zhenya was taken away. We have not received any legal documents regarding his arrest. The police told us to engage a lawyer; however, the lawyer was barred from meeting him and we were not allowed knowledge about the circumstances of the case…. As the turn of the year approaches, the old father in his eighties waits for his son to return home to celebrate the New Year. The whole family looks forward to seeing Zhenya again.”

Whether in Yantai or in Baoji, the questions and requests raised by lawyers receive the same responses: “we don’t know” or “approval denied.”

Xu Zhiyong is also in hiding. He was imprisoned for four years from 2013-2017 for the New Citizens Movement activities and maybe the “main culprit” in this round of arrests. Police searched his home and took his girlfriend and niece, detaining and interrogating them for 24 hours. Police also went to Xu’s sister’s house in Henan to “check his hukou” (residential registration) and placed his 80-year-old mother under surveillance.

In an article written in exile, “This Is My Motherland,” Xu wrote: 

“In the decade of 2003–2013, we were reformists who promoted social progress through individual case assistance, investigation reports, and participation in high profile social events. I came late as a revolutionary around 2016. I had always maintained the greatest kindness towards the regime and hoped to see active change on their end. But I can no longer harbor that hope.” 

“The revolution I speak of is not to establish a new regime and continue the succession of imperial reincarnation. We are citizens, pursuing modern civilization, democracy, and freedom, and a beautiful China. Revolution does not mean chaos. We promote democracy and freedom in a constructive way, build a civil society so that there will be a healthy force leading the country to a bright future when authoritarianism collapses under its own weight.”


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