Category: Human Rights

China’s Upcoming Universal Periodic Review: A Guest Blog Post from Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center

By , November 4, 2018

This coming Tuesday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council will conduct China’s third periodic review.  Given the increasing authoritarianism of the Xi Jinping regime, many countries and NGO’s have filed critical submissions to the UN and have listed questions that the Human Rights Council should ask the Chinese delegation in regards to the country’s current human rights violations.  Expect the Chinese government’s illegal internment of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region to be a central issue. 

Today, Caitlin Hickey, Joey Lee, Reece Pelley and Elisabeth Wickeri, advocates from Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice offer their insightful assessment of China’s major human rights violation: the continued – and increased – use of non-judicial, and at times illegal, arbitrary detention of people the Chinese government just doesn’t like.  While arbitrary detention will certainly arise in the context of the Xinjiang internment camps, the authors, in their guest blog post below, remind us that it is a far more prevalent practice, impacting other vulnerable populations, and that the U.N. should not forget to question the Chinese delegation about the government’s treatment of these vulnerable populations.

Left Behind on the Road Towards “Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics”:
China’s Universal Periodic Review and the Arbitrary Detention of Stigmatized Communities

Caitlin Hickey, Joey Lee, Reece Pelley, Elisabeth Wickeri*

As China prepares to present its human rights record before the full membership of the United Nations (UN) this Tuesday, we hear the beginnings of a familiar story. Leading up to its third appearance at the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”)—a UN Human Rights Council mechanism through which each of the UN’s 193 Member States undergoes a human rights evaluation based on recommendations offered by fellow Member States—the Chinese government’s opening UPR statement invokes specialized national conditions, the unique needs of its people and its constant lodestar: “always following the road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics.” “This is a road that takes the people as the center,” China explains, and “the road of human rights development always takes the well-being and interests of the people as the starting point and end result.”

But haven’t we been down this road before? Advocates for some of China’s most stigmatized communities certainly think so. These advocates have highlighted that these communities are far from the “center” and their “well-being and interests” are rarely considered. Since the UPR process began for all UN Member States in 2008—and arguably in most of China’s UN human rights interactions—certain vulnerable populations have been rendered effectively invisible. Of course, China’s most recent UPR statement proclaims that “it upholds the principle of the people’s primacy” while “promoting the comprehensive development and common prosperity of the people as a whole.” But who exactly is included in China’s definition of “the people”? And who gets left behind on China’s chosen “road” to human rights accountability?

A crackdown on some of China’s sex workers. Photo courtesy of Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

One group to pay particular attention to is China’s sex workers. Communities of sex workers and people who use drugs inhabit every corner of the world. In China, they are men and women, young and old, of all ethnicities, and of all sexual orientations and gender identities, living in rural and urban areas in every province, city, and village of the country. And they are among the most vulnerable in Chinese society as result of profound social stigma. In China, these communities face all manner of discrimination, including enormous barriers blocking equal access to health and employment, as well as violent physical and emotional abuse—not only from state law enforcement actors, but often from within their own families. These are precisely the kinds of marginalized populations who need their government to intervene and protect their fundamental rights, and yet they are often among the first to be left behind on China’s “road” toward “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”

A close look at China’s UPR statement makes clear how stigmatized communities like these sex workers have been at best forgotten and at worst purposefully excluded from government human rights efforts. This is especially apparent in China’s continued use of various forms of arbitrary detention. Since China’s second UPR cycle in 2013, China has rightly been praised by the international community for taking steps to eliminate one of the most long-lasting and widely condemned systems of arbitrary detention—the Reeducation Through Labor (“RTL”) system; in fact, China consistently showcases its efforts at abolishing RTL in its UPR statements. Yet, in eliminating the RTL system, China unfortunately has not committed itself to eliminating other forms of administrative detention that look and feel remarkably similar to RTL but specifically target stigmatized and marginalized groups. In the UPR report it prepared for Tuesday’s session, China affirms that it “continues to improve the conditions of custody and supervision to ensure that the personal security of detainees and prisoners is not violated.” However, for sex workers and people who use drugs who are held in China’s administrative detention systems, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Drug offenders exercise at a detention center in Shenyang in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. Photo courtesy of China OUT/AFP/Getty Images

The persistent arbitrary detention of sex workers and people who use drugs in China’s Custody and Education (“C&E”) [收容教育] and Compulsory Isolated Treatment (“CIT”) [强制隔离戒毒], administrative detention systems that have flourished even with RTL’s demise, are compelling examples of the invisibility of stigmatized populations in China’s UPR review; in fact nowhere in China’s 2018 UPR statement is there a focus on the rights of these groups. Sex workers and people who use drugs can be detained in C&E centers and under the CIT system respectively without judicial oversight or due process and without recourse to detainee protections otherwise guaranteed under Chinese law, all stemming from regulations that are overly broad in scope with vague definitions subject to politicized application.

 

Administrative detention under the C&E and CIT systems bear remarkable similarities to the system of RTL that China proudly announced to have abolished in 2013. In all these systems, individuals are exposed to risks of torture and other ill treatment—with documented detainee reports of inadequate healthcare, non-consensual medical testing, forced labor, and physical and mental abuse. Among many other troubling features, C&E centers subject detainees to long hours of forced, uncompensated labor, as well as compulsory and non-consensual physical examinations and medical testing. While in CIT, detainees rarely receive adequate healthcare or treatment and are subjected to forced labor and physical violence perpetrated by supervising employees. Additionally, while being weaned off drugs, CIT detainees are also subject to strenuous physical activity, denied critical medication or pain relief, and rarely offered counseling. Of course, ongoing systems of arbitrary detention are not limited to C&E and CIT. The detention camps in Xinjiang that subject Muslims to political indoctrination and substantial rights abuses bear the hallmarks of arbitrary detention in the context of China’s administrative detention framework. While RTL has been officially abolished, these systems persist, largely because of the invisibility of the populations who are detained within them – sex workers, people who use drug, China’s Muslims. On China’s “road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics”—“a road that takes the people as the center”—it appears that certain populations just aren’t valued enough to be considered “people.”

Leitner team – (from L to R) – Joey Lee, Caitlin Hickey, Reece Pelley & Elisabeth Wickeri in Geneva last month.

Fortunately, despite this sense of déjà vu embarking on China’s well-worn path of UN human rights engagement, China’s upcoming third UPR offers the possibility for something different. The UPR is a mechanism through which each and every country undergoes a human rights review based on recommendations offered by UN Member States. China’s widely publicized and praised commitment during its second UPR in 2013 to abolish RTL came alongside a number of clear and direct recommendations from several UN Member States to do just that—eliminate RTL detention and commit to reforming China’s administrative detention system. These governments included France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As the UN Member States gear up for China’s latest UPR on November 6, they must insist that China honor its commitment to “the people”—meaning all people, including stigmatized and vulnerable communities at the margins of Chinese society, including sex workers and people who use drugs in C&E and CIT detention. Perhaps for these groups, China’s third time at the UPR will be the charm, and the international community can bear witness to their lives, which have for so long been invisible in China’s human rights engagement at the UN.

*Joey Lee and Elisabeth Wickeri are lawyers with the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School; Caitlin Hickey and Reece Pelley are law student advocates. The Leitner Center works to strengthen rule of law and human rights protections for vulnerable populations worldwide. In particular, in cooperation with in-country partners, the Leitner Center works extensively with civil society organizations to support and empower vulnerable populations in the People’s Republic of China (“China”). Drawing upon the expertise and documentation of China-based partners as the basis for analysis and recommendations, the Leitner Center submitted a Stakeholder Submission in advance of China’s upcoming UPR, and participated in advocacy in the lead-up to its November 6 review.

CECC Issues 2018 Annual Report

By , October 21, 2018

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s (“CECC”) 2018 Annual Report (“the Report”), released on October 10, 2018, comes at a crucial point in world affairs.  The United States is on the retreat from the global stage, withdrawing from key international agreements and organizations, and China appears intent to replace it.  But as the CECC’s 2018 Annual Report makes clear, with President Xi Jinping’s complete consolidation of power this year and the re-entrenchment of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP” or “the Party”) within the state, China’s rise will likely alter the current world order and challenge U.S. values and interests.  If anything, China’s recent behavior – the public disappearance of Meng Hongwei, the former Interpol chief and the issuance of more discriminatory regulations directed at Uighurs –  only substantiates CECC’s predictions that China’s rise will not be inline with the values that have dominated the world order since the end of World War II.

Former Interpol Chief, Meng Hongwei, now in NSC confinement.

The CECC was created in 2000 to monitor China’s human rights commitments, review its progress in developing a rule of law, and maintain a database of Chinese political prisoners.  With a staff of China experts, the CECC has become a leading voice on China’s progress in regards to international human rights standards and the development of rule of law in more sensitive areas such as freedom of expression, criminal justice and access to justice.  As with its previous reports, the 2018 Annual Report is extremely well researched and extensively documented, providing an important snapshot to what is really happening in China, making it an essential read.

 

While prior annual reports highlighted China’s progress in trying to meet international human rights standards or deepen its commitment to rule of law, the 2018 Annual Report is devoid of any positive developments.  And rightfully so.  As the Report makes clear, three alarming developments in the past year reflect a country intent on disregarding international human rights norms and turning its back to a rule of law.

A police state in the Uighur province of Xinjiang in China’s far West. (Photo courtesy of The Week (UK)).

Perhaps the Report’s most urgent issue is the Chinese government’s mass detention of what is estimated to be 1 million Uighurs in internment camps. Without any trial or criminal charges, these internment camps reflect the Chinese government’s stated goal to “sinicize” religion, including that of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority population in Xinjiang province.  And the mass detentions show no signs of stopping. As the CECC documents, the Chinese government’s own procurement data shows its plan to build more camps.

A second worrying development is the re-entrenchment of the Party within the State.  During much of Chairman Mao’s time, the Party and the State were essentially one, but since then, the Chinese government has sought to separate the Party from the government bureaucracy.  Until now.  In March 2018, the Party Central Committee issued a restructuring plan to again embed the Party in government work, with the Party taking a leadership role.  Perhaps the most notable example of the infiltration of the Party into everyday life is the creation of the National Supervisory Commission (“NSC”), an anti-corruption commission that has the power to “confine” – in other words, extra-judicially detain – any Party member or state employee suspected of corruption for three months without access to an attorney.  Employees of state-owned enterprises, staff of public hospitals and public educators all fall under the NSC’s purview. Even non-Party members and non-state employees could be subject to “confinement” by the NSC if they too are suspected of involvement in official misconduct.  Outside of the judiciary, the NSC is anything but due process.

China’s ubiquitous security cameras. (Photo Courtesy of the Huffington Post).

Finally, the 2018 Annual Report highlights the Chinese government’s continued use of technology as a tool of repression. The Chinese government is seeking to create a biometric database as well as a “social credit system” which, if realized, could have lasting effects on certain individuals.

The 2018 Annual Report concludes by offering some key recommendations, notably addressing abuses in Xinjiang publicly – and with key allies – before the United Nations, raising the issue of human rights in all bilateral relations, not just during the Department of State’s human rights dialogues with China, and condition law enforcement cooperation, such as cooperation on extradition, on a signed agreement from the Chinese government that it will respect due process in all situations.  But one wonders if these recommendations fall on deaf ears.  The CECC is supposed to be a joint commission between Congress and the Executive.  But as reflected in the masthead for this year’s Report, the Executive positions on the CECC remain empty.  While the Trump Administration is not shy in lambasting China on a variety of issues, and in early September word was leaked that it was considering economic sanctions against China for its internment of Uighurs, the fact that key Executive positions on the CECC remain empty over a year and a half into the Trump Administration, belies any meaningful commitment by the Administration to human rights and rule of law in China.  An unfortunate development given the severe situation documented in the CECC’s 2018 Annual Report and the danger it poses to the United States and the post-World War II world order.

The Tiananmen Square Sanctions – Needed Now More than Ever

The Protests on Tiananmen Square, Spring 1989

Twenty-nine years ago today, on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government ordered the unprovoked and brutal assault by the People’s Liberation Army on tens of thousands of unarmed civilians surrounding Tiananmen Square.  The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.

In the immediate aftermath, other countries had to figure out how to respond to a government that would massacre its own people.  In the United States, that response came from President George H.W. Bush who granted asylum to Chinese dissidents and ordered a plethora of sanctions against China, including suspension of U.S. foreign aid, arm sales, high-level government exchanges, export licenses for certain products and the linking of Most Favored Nation status to human rights. (see Congressional Research Services, China: Economic Sanctions (Aug. 22, 2016), pp. 1-3)  In the months that followed, Congress codified many of those sanctions including the suspension of export licenses for crime control and detection equipment. (see Public Law (“P.L.”) 101-246, § 902(a)(4))  Congress’ reasons for codifying these sanctions: the random arrest and detention of those suspected of participating in the Tiananmen Square protests (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(3)-(4)), continued surveillance on activists (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(5)), blocking foreign journalists from covering the events (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(7)), and continued and unlawful repression of human rights activists and activities (P.L. 101-246, § 901(a)(8)).

But as time progressed and the events of June 4, 1989 became a distant memory, many of the U.S.’ Tiananmen Square sanctions were waived or rendered obsolete. (China: Economic Sanctions, p. 3)  But one sanction that still remains in effect today is the suspension of export licenses to any U.S. company seeking to sell any equipment or instruments related to crime control and detection. (Id., pp. 3, 8; see also Office of the Chief Counsel, Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Dep’t of Commerce, Legal Authority: Export Administration Regulations (Jan. 4, 2017) (“BIS Legal Authority”), Part III.7 (p. 106)).  Although the President can terminate the sanctions, he can only do so if he issues a report to Congress that provides one of two reasons – either that the Chinese government no longer perpetuates human rights violations or it is in the best interest of the United States to terminate the sanctions.  It does not appear that a U.S. president has ever issued such a report in regards to crime control sales, leaving the Tiananmen Square sanctions against of such equipment by U.S. companies to China very much in effect.

Chinese police with facial recognition sunglasses

As China uses technology more and more to suppress any form of spontaneous dissent and to constantly surveil its citizenry, the Tiananmen Square sanctions against the sale of crime control equipment to China seem particularly prescient.  But, unfortunately, the sanctions have rarely been enforced and U.S. companies skirt the sanctions with impunity.  In 2011, Cisco sold over 500,000 cameras to the city of Chongqing specifically to watch its citizens. Every year, U.S. technology and security companies enthusiastically market their goods at the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment, an annual trade show sponsored by the Ministry of Public Security.

And now it turns out that U.S. companies are actively participating in what can only be termed the most profound police state in human history: the mass surveillance, detention and abuse of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group in China’s western province of Xinjiang.  Cameras on every street are equipped with facial recognition; Uighurs are constantly stopped by police to check their social media accounts on their phones; over 500,000 Uighurs have been forced into detention without any trial, under the guise of “Political Education Centers;” iris scans and blood tests, in order to collect DNA, are randomly performed on Uighurs; the Han Chinese in Xinjiang are exempt from these abuses.

Unfortunately, U.S. company Thermo Fisher Scientific is one of the entities selling DNA technology to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and various Public Security bureaus across China, including those in Xinjiang, according to a Human Rights Watch report.  Last month, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) issued a letter to Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce, calling on him to investigate Thermo Fisher’s sales to China’s public security organs in light of the export sanctions and to report what other export licenses are being granted in violation of the law.  It does not appear that Secretary Ross has responded to the CECC’s inquiry, and if the history of the enforcement of the Tiananmen Square sanctions is any guide, he will not.

Chinese police in Xinjiang city of Kashgar

Many of the reasons for the passage of the Tiananmen Square sanctions almost 29 years ago – the repression of dissent, surveillance of peaceful protesters, the concealment of information, the violation of human rights – are very much alive and well in today’s China.  It is true that given China’s current status in the world, it will be much harder now to influence China’s domestic behavior than it was in 1989.  But that doesn’t mean that the United States should abandon its own laws, or the policies underlying those laws.  The government should not permit U.S companies to profit from the Chinese government’s creation of a Jim Crow society in Xinjiang.   To do so would be a disrespect to the many innocent lives lost 29 years ago today and to the valiant efforts of the U.S. government in the wake of the massacre to ensure that the U.S. does not play a role in human rights violations in China.

China’s Peaceful Rise? The Fate of Lawyer Liu Yao

By , March 4, 2018

Since 2004, it has been illegal to build golf courses in China.  Not only do they suck up a tremendous amount of water, but all too often local officials unlawfully appropriate farmers’ land for these golf courses.  In 2015, President Xi Jinping focused his anti-corruption campaign on the sport, forbidding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials from playing the game.  But even with these prohibitions, golf still reins.  Since 2004, over 400 new golf courses have been illegally built.

Thus, one would think that the Chinese government would welcome a local tip that an official was appropriating village land to sell to a developer to build a golf course.  But that is not how the Chinese government responded when, in August 2015, Guangdong attorney Liu Yao reported precisely that.  Instead, Liu Yao now sits in a jail cell, serving a 20 year sentence on what most believe are trumped-up charges in retaliation for his whistle-blowing.

Like many Chinese human rights lawyers, Liu Yao is not a stranger to the inside of a Chinese prison.  In 2008, Liu was given a four year sentence for leading a demonstration of farmers who had not been properly compensated when government officials took their land. His sentence was decreased to 18 months after the Shenzhen Lawyers Association began a campaign to expose the sham that was his conviction.

But as in every society, land has value and the powerful will seek to unlawfully strip the poor of their land rights, enriching themselves in the process. For China, that struggle is happening in the rural villages. And that is what makes Liu, an effective advocate for these rural poor, a danger to the powerful.

Liu Yao awaiting his verdict

But Liu is more than just an advocate.  He is one also of them, deepening his clients’ faith and trust in him.  As Tom Mitchell reported back in 2009, Liu himself is the son of farmers, teaching himself the law after witnessing injustices against his family and feeling powerless to do anything about it.  He knows the value of land to farmers and since passing the bar exam in 2003, has successfully helped farmers in his home province of Guangdong to fight to keep their land or, at the very least, for the market value of what they are forced to give up.

So when He Zhongyou, the Party Secretary of Heyuan City in rural Guangdong, appropriated thousands of farming fields to sell to a company to build an “ecotourist site”, Liu, whose 2008 conviction resulted in his disbarment, did what he could: he filed a complaint about He Zhongyou to the CCP’s Commission for Discipline Inspection in Guangdong.  Make no mistake, He Zhongyou’s ecotourism development was not a secret to the central government; the local state-run media had already celebrated He Zhongyou’s development.  But what Liu highlighted was the fact that the ecotourist site was to also include an illegal golf course, something not reported by the press.  And Liu did not just submit the complaint.  A few days later, on August 22, 2015, he also published it on his blog for all to read.

On December 26, 2015, while meeting with a colleague, Liu Yao was grabbed by a number of men, thrown into an unmarked minivan and taken away according to an article that appeared in the Southern Metropolis Daily.

For over six months, Liu was held incommunicado, under the now infamous and well-abused legal procedure of “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL).  Under Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is permitted when the individual is being investigated for national security crimes; national security also permits the police to deny access to lawyers and family members (CPL, Art. 37; see also RSDL Monitor for more on the abuse of RSDL on human rights defenders).  The “evidence” the police used to claim that it was investigating Liu Yao for national security crimes, was a picture of Liu with two well-known Western China law experts, Professors Jerome Cohen and Eva Pils.  Because of that picture, the police claimed that they were investigating Liu for “providing state secrets to foreigners.”

Liu Yao and his wife, Lai Wei’E

Ultimately, the police’s national security investigation went nowhere except for the very useful fact that it provided a fig leaf of legality to deny Liu access to his own lawyer.  On June 23, 2016, Liu was officially charged with extortion (Art. 274 of the Criminal Law (CL)), fraud (CL, Art.192,) , and trafficking in children (CL, Art. 240).  The extortion and fraud claims related to Liu’s work in achieving beneficial settlements from some of the local industries for their illegal appropriation of his clients’ land.  The trafficking charge was a result of his and his wife’s adoption of a baby from an unwed mother who already had three other children.  But in addition to Liu, four local farmers were also charged as well as Liu’s own son.  Liu’s wife, Lai Wei’E was also held for a year, allegedly while the police were investigating the legality of the adoption.

With a closed door trial, lack of access to a lawyer, and the fact that Liu was exposing the local government’s most important revenue-generating strategy – illegal land grabs – a judgment of guilty on all charges was all but certain.  And on April 24, 2017, the Heyuan City Intermediate People’s Court found Liu Yao guilty, sentencing him to 20 years and a fine of 1.4 million RMB ($221,000).  Liu’s son was given four years and three months for helping his father post materials online with the three farmers receiving sentences ranging from four years to nine and half years.

He Zhongyou

Even with the Chinese government crackdown on human rights lawyers that began in earnest in July 2015, Liu’s 20 year sentence is harsh.  It is almost triple that which was given to the “ringleaders” of China’s human rights lawyers.  Such a harsh sentence likely shows the continued importance to the Chinese government of being able to take farmers’ land without proper compensation.  Even representing Falun Gong participants, petitioners, other rights activists is not as threatening to the government as representing those who challenge an important revenue source to local officials.

And what happened to He Zhongyou after Liu Yao exposed his land grab to build a golf course?  He has had a series of promotions.  In January 2016, as Liu languished in detention, He Zhongyou became the vice-governor of Guangdong Province, an influential position in one of China’s wealthiest provinces.  In May 2017, after Liu Yao received his 20 year sentence, He Zhongyou was again promoted to the powerful position of Secretary of the CPP’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission for Guangdong.

From the website for the resort that shows the golf course

And the illegal golf course? It’s been built along with a resort of luxury RVs, personal saunas and a Disney-like castle to serve as the golf club.  For this playground of the wealthy, Liu Yao got 20 years, pretty much a life sentence for this 56-year-old.

Since taking over the leadership in 2012, Xi Jinping has attempted to reassure foreign powers that China’s rise is peaceful.  But all evidence points otherwise.  In the summer, it was the unnecessary death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while he was serving an 11 year prison sentence; last week it was the mysterious death of human rights lawyer Li Baiguang after being admitted to a state-run hospital for stomach pains; a few days ago it was Xi’s moves to eliminate term limits; and then there is Liu Yao’s 20 year sentence for exposing the corruption and injustice that Xi’s government has publicly stated it wants to eradicate.  Increasingly, China’s rise – or more apt, Xi’s consolidation of power – has not been peaceful.  It is time foreign government recognize that what is happening to China’s human rights defenders is not an outlier but is instead a reflection of the governing philosophy of Xi’s regime, both domestically and internationally.  And it’s time they start to care and raise these issues publicly.

Two More Civil Rights Activists to Be Sentenced on Tuesday; Lawyer Wang Quanzhang still MIA

By , December 25, 2017

UPDATE – Dec. 26 @ 10:00 AM, EST – As expected, Wu Gan was found guilty of subverting state power.  He was given one of the harshest sentences yet – 8 years (with about 2 and a half already served).  His release date is May 18, 2023.  Xie Yang escaped any prison time, with his court noting that he plead guilty to the charge of inciting subversion and his actions did not cause severe damage to national security.  Xie also again publicly withdrew his claims of torture while in custody.

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group announcement about the upcoming court appearances in Wu Gan’s (R) case and Xie Yang’s (L) case

As the sun sets on Christmas 2017, China will awake on Tuesday to two more civil rights activists being convicted for seeking to end injustice in their country.  According to lawyer Liang Xiaojun, the courts will finally issue verdicts – and possibly sentences – in the cases against advocate Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yang, two civil rights activists arrested and charged in the wake of the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 250 civil rights lawyers and activists (“the 709 Crackdown”).  Although both had their trials months ago – Wu Gan on August 17, 2017 at a closed-door trial at the Tianjin Intermediate Court and Xie Yang on May 8, 2017 at the Changsha Intermediate Court – verdicts, and in the case of Xie Yang, a possible re-trial, will be announced tomorrow morning at each of the respective courts.  Wu’s verdict will be handed down at 8:30 AM local time and Xie’s court will deal with his case an hour later.

While both have undergone severe treatment in custody, with allegations of torture, expect a much harsher sentence for Wu Gan.  First, Wu Gan has been charged with the more severe crime of “subversion of state power,” a charge that, if he is determined to be a ringleader, carries a sentence of no less than 10 years under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law.  If he is considered a mere participant, the law still requires a sentence of no less than five years.  Xie Yang has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”  It’s the verb of inciting that will inevitably lead to a lesser sentence under Article 105 of five years or less (unless of course he is considered a “ringleader; then five years minimum).  Further, since his trial, Xie Yang has been out on bail.  Although constantly surveilled  by police, it provides a touch more freedom than being trapped in a Chinese detention facility.

A female character who stabs to death a government official after he assumes she is a prostitute and tries to rape her in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.

Second, Wu Gan – who often uses the online pen name of Super Vulgar Butcher – is the activist that defies the Chinese government’s current narrative – a narrative that believes that middle class, intellectual lawyers have become entrapped by “foreign forces,” forces like George Soros and the U.S. government that funds Chinese civil rights non-profits.  But that is not Wu Gan.  Instead, for the first 35 years of his life, Wu Gan was just an average Chinese citizen.  A former soldier, Wu Gan was a security guard at the Xiamen Gaoji International Airport until he resigned in 2008 to work full-time on his online activism, wanting to expose the everyday injustices that frustrated him.  In 2009, Wu Gan brought societal attention to the case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed to death a government official who attempted to rape her.  While her story would eventually appear in Jia Zhangke’s internationally-acclaimed film, A Touch of Sin, it was Wu Gan who brought the injustice of her case to light.  His activism around the case sparked an online debate about rampant government corruption, the flagrant abuse of prostitutes by government officials as well as the right of women to defend themselves.  It was also successful, resulting in Deng Yujiao being convicted of the much lesser crime of “causing injury with intent” as opposed to the original murder charge.

Photo of Wu Gan at his May 2015 protest outside the courthouse. Photo courtesy of Change China

Further, Wu Gan’s strategies just get under the skin more.  Wu’s advocacy includes using online humor, satire, crowdfunding and street performances to draw attention to the Chinese government’s abuse of people’s rights.  In 2011, Wu published a series of online “How To” pamphlets: Guide to Butchering Pigs (strategies on how to conduct a campaign to protect human rights); Guide to Drinking Tea (how to deal with the police during interrogations); and Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolitions (instruction manual on how individuals can fight to protect their home from force demolition).  Each are widely popular in China and not just for their fun titles but because they are effective teaching tools.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Wu Gan’s May 2015 street protest to overturn the death sentence of four criminal defendants who had been convicted of capital murder even though each was tortured while in custody.  Wu stood outside the courthouse with two handmade signs – one with a picture of the chief judge with a Hitler moustache and one with the tombstone of the chief judge with an engraving highlighting his lack of integrity and ignorance of justice.  Situated between the signs was Wu, with his middle fingers up on each hand.  While that kind of protest elicits chuckles in the West, in China it is not tolerated.  Wu Gan was detained and has been in custody since.  Regardless of the fact that the four criminal defendants were exonerated in 2016, Wu Gan will still likely see a prison sentence as a result of his advocacy for justice.

Xie Yang in happier times with his daughter. Xie’s wife and two daughters were able to flee China earlier this year and now are in the United States.

But make no mistake, lawyer Xie Yang’s detention has been no walk in the park.  While being held incommunicado, Xie was physically tortured according to his lawyers who eventually got access to him.  And like Wu Gan, Xie’s crime has been his advocacy on behalf of others.  Xie Yang has long represented China’s most vulnerable: Christians; members of China’s Democratic Party; petitioners whose land was unlawfully seized by the government; and other activists.  In May 2015, Xie had been retained by the family of Xu Chunhe after the police officer who killed him was found not guilty of any crime.  Although Xu Chunhe, unarmed, was with his three young children and his 81 year-old mother in a crowded train station, the officer still shot and killed Xu Chunhe.  According to the officer, his act was one of self-defense; but for for most Chinese people, Xu Chunhe’s case was yet another example of police acting with impunity.  Thus, Xie Yang’s advocacy in bringing a wrongful death case on behalf of the family would go to the heart of the Chinese government’s police state.  And for that, he is now facing the charge of inciting subversion of state power.

But while Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s cases will finally be dealt with tomorrow, there is still one activist that has disappeared completely, lawyer Wang Quanzhang.  Another victim of the 709 Crackdown, Wang has not been heard from since August 4, 2015, when he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power.”  Neither his wife, family, nor the lawyers hired by his family have been able to meet with him and no trial has been set for Wang even though it has been more than two years since he was first taken into custody.  While Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s fates will be known tomorrow, it is the unknown of what is happening to Wang Quanzhang – and why – that is most alarming.  Denied access to lawyers, unable to meet with family, no speedy trial, how is this a country with a rule of law?

The Sentencing of Jiang Tianyong: What it Means for China & the World

By , December 3, 2017

Civil rights activist, Jiang Tianyong, sitting in the courtroom awaiting his sentence on Nov. 21, 2017

Last month, and three months after civil rights activist Jiang Tianyong pled guilty to “inciting subversion of state power,” the Changsha Intermediate Court finally issued its sentence: two years in prison (much of it already served) and the deprivation of Jiang’s political rights for three years.

As far as the crime of subverting state power goes, a crime the Chinese government has increasingly used to silence its civil rights activists, things could have been worse.  Jiang is seen as a leader in China’s civil rights circles, a lawyer who has daringly taken on some of China’s most politically sensitive cases, such as representing Falun Gong practitioners as well as ethnic Tibetans in the aftermath of the 2008 Tibetan riots.  As a result of his zealous advocacy in these cases, in 2009, the Chinese government denied the renewal of his law license.  But lack of a law license did not stopped Jiang from continuing his work.  Ironically, much of his advocacy began to focus on a new vulnerable group: China’s civil rights lawyers.  In 2011, Jiang played an active role in ensuring that blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s cruel house arrest remained in the public eye.  More recently, Jiang was important in supporting many of his colleagues who were caught up in the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 200 civil rights lawyers and activists (“709 Crackdown”). Through blog posts, tweets, calls for protests and interviews with foreign media as well as with Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Jiang effectively kept the 709 Crackdown visible.  It is this type of ardent support for his colleagues that has made him the him the soul of the movement.

Civil rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng at his sentencing. August 4, 2016

And in a legal system where the Chinese government essentially determines the crime and sentence of any activist regardless of evidence, such a leadership role would result in a charge that could lead to a substantial prison term.  But Jiang was only charged with – and pled guilty to – the lowest level of subversion under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law: inciting subversion of state power; a crime that carries a prison term of three years maximum.  Some of Jiang’s colleagues – those caught up in the 709 Crackdown – received harsher sentences for actually subverting state power under Article 105, not just inciting it: Zhou Shifeng received seven years, Hu Shigen seven and a half years.  And more recently, two other activists, Lee Ming-che and Peng Yuhua, both arrested after the 709 Crackdown but still part of the Chinese government’s attack on free speech, were each charged with – and pled guilty – to Article 105’s subversion of state power and were sentenced to five years and seven years, respectively.

Jiang Tianyong, second from left, and proudly standing with other activists outside of a detention center.

But make no mistake, Jiang has suffered just as much as these other activists while in detention.  According to the China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group, Jiang was repeatedly denied access to his own lawyers and allegations of torture have emerged.    He was demonized in the state-run press and social media outlets, and, although his own lawyers could never gain access to Jiang, the state-run CCTV was able to interview him in which he “admitted” to fabricating allegations of torture of his colleague Xie Yang.  After being held incommunicado for over nine months and under who knows what kinds of conditions, on August 22, 2017, Jiang pled guilty to the crime of inciting subversion.  In his televised, in-court confession, Jiang called upon his fellow rights defenders and rights lawyers to learn from his experiences.  A shockingly far cry from Jiang’s Twitter description“A lawyer who was born at just the right time; a lawyer who’s willing to take any case; a lawyer hated by a small political clique; a lawyer who wants to win the respect of regular folk; a lawyer who kept going even after being stripped of his law license.” (translation courtesy of China Change) – causing many, including his wife, to strongly believe that his confession was forced.

Cultural Revolution Poster: “Imperialists and reactionaries are all paper tigers”

Although much of Jiang’s ordeal calls into question the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law, respect for human rights and why it must continue to abuse its own people, another deeply troubling trend has emerged: the Chinese government’s anti-foreign rhetoric.  In reporting on the Jiang’s sentencing last month, the state-run Legal Daily blamed the “foreign, anti-China” forces influencing Jiang for much of his behavior.  It is that paranoia of anything foreign that is the most dangerous to the current world order.  With the U.S. retreating from its position of global, moral leader, China is seeking to rise and promote its type of leadership.  From the trial of Jiang Tianyong, that moral leadership model seeks to create societies that are not just unresponsive to its own people, but shut off from connections with the rest of the world.  But it is those connections between cultures and people that have long been a driving force of the post-WWII model and have helped to maintain the peace in much of the world these last 75 years.

But in blaming these elusive, foreign, anti-China forces, the Chinese government ignores the real reason why these civil rights activists exist: the injustices in Chinese society.  It is Jiang’s own life that is a testament as to why the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress these civil rights activists will ultimately fail.  For a long time Jiang was just an ordinary guy; after graduating from college, Jiang was a teacher for almost 10 years. But in 2004, wanting to pursue greater justice for others, he gave up teaching to become a civil rights lawyer, passing the bar exam in 2005.  People like Jiang are not motivated by foreign forces or other entities; they are motivated to correct the injustices and sufferings of others to make their society better.  The Chinese government cannot stop people from feeling that way and the real question is – why would they want to.

How Many Times Can the World Turn its Head…..The Case for Wang Quanzhang

By , August 30, 2017

To call China’s human rights lawyers “battered” is an understatement.  These lawyers are victims of the Chinese government’s deliberate and brutal pursuit to render them extinct.  And that is why the nomination of Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang for the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip award is so significant and why readers should vote for him (public voting is open here until September 6, 2017).

Wang is perhaps the quintessential human rights lawyer.  Even before graduating from Shandong University Law School in 2000, he was already representing some of Chinese society’s most vulnerable: members of the banned spiritual sect of Falun Gong.  From there, he extended his practice to assist farmers whose land was being confiscated, criminal defendants and other civil rights activist.  Throughout, he received constant pressure from the Chinese government to discontinue his practice and in 2013 was taken into custody by Chinese police merely for defending his client in court.  But instead of ending his advocacy, the Chinese government’s pressure only emboldened him. Wang criticized the Chinese government in a series of blog posts under the pen name Gao Feng and in 2014, traveled to Heilongjiang to protest the illegal detention of other human rights lawyers.  But for Wang, practicing law was not enough.  He also sought to elevate the legal profession in China and joined forces with a small foreign NGO in Beijing – Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (“China Action”) – to teach and support other human rights lawyers throughout China on how to effectively advocate in a one-party dictatorship.

Photo courtesy of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, July 4, 2016

While the rest of the world might celebrate Wang’s commitment to justice, in China, Wang is considered a villain – at least according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  It is his work that the CCP fears as a threat to its one-party rule and is intent on destroying.  On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government launched a national offensive against its human rights lawyers, simultaneously detaining over 300 lawyers and activist across the country (known colloquially as the “709 Crackdown”).  Wang was caught up in the persecution and on August 4, 2015 was detained for suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting subversion of state power.”  Since then – for over two years – he has been held incommunicado, with his lawyers and his wife denied any access to him.  Ironically, the rights that Wang has long sought for his own clients – the right to meet with an attorney, the right to a fair trial, the right to a speedy trial in accordance with Chinese law – is being denied to him as he remains isolated in prison.

For sure, China’s human rights lawyers have been under assault for close to a decade now.  But as Professor Eva Pils notes in a recent article, the 709 Crackdown is much more severe, with new and frightening measures taken by the Chinese government.  From the inception of the Crackdown, the Chinese government has vilified these lawyers by name in the press (including naming Wang as a ringleader) and refer to them as a “criminal syndicate.” It has also changed its rhetoric – no longer are human rights lawyers a threat to social stability; instead, because of the influence of “foreign forces,” specifically the use of foreign NGO funds, the Chinese government presents these lawyers as a national security risk. And more recently, Pils notes that there appears to be at least six detained human rights lawyers who have been forced to take medication while in detention.  But not for any current medical condition.  Instead, it appears to Pils that the Chinese government’s use of forced medication has had a physiological impact on the detainees and is being used more to alter the personalities of the human rights defenders with the hope that they do not continue to practice once they are released.

Wang Quanzhang’s wife and son. Neither has seen Wang for the last two years,. Photo courtesy of RFA

And this is another reason why Wang Quanzhuang should be awarded the Human Rights Tulip.  China – the world’s second largest economy – offers another way by which to order society.  A world where human rights take a back seat to economics and alleged national security issues.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world appears to be largely playing along.  As Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo laid unnecessarily dying in a Chinese prison hospital, imprisoned for his speech, not a single world leader made a public peep about it at the G20 Summit that was happening at the same time.  As Beijing dismantles Hong Kong’s democracy, Western democracies largely remain quiet.  In May 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignorantly stated that promoting human rights “really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”   In June 2017, Greece – which has been able to economically recover largely through the support of China – vetoed the European Union’s condemnation of China’s human rights record.  And this has only been the last four months.  With the nomination of Wang Quanzhuang for the Human Rights Tulip, the question arises – how many times can the world turn its head and pretend that it just doesn’t see?   Is this who we really are?  If the answer is no, then please vote for Wang Quanzhuang here.  From the top three, the Minster of Foreign Affairs of the Dutch Government will choose a winner.

Without A Tomb To Sweep: The Death of Liu Xiaobo

By , July 16, 2017

2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo

This past Saturday, China Law & Policy marked the 8th anniversary of its founding.  But a commemorative birthday piece seemed inappropriate with the news that a few days earlier China’s only Noble Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, died in police custody.

Since the founding of this blog, Liu Xiaobo has been in jail. His crime?  His speech.  And in examining the Chinese government’s cruel response to Liu’s death, it is this speech that this aspiring superpower continues to fear.  Liu Xiaobo was not a murderer, a terrorist, and or even a revolutionary.  He was merely a Chinese activist, academic and public intellectual that for close to 30 years, used his pen to call upon the Chinese government to live up to its commitment to human rights; a commitment that China has agreed to by signing on to certain international treaties; a commitment that was written into the amended Chinese Constitution in 2004.

Liu’s most recent prison sentence wasn’t his first.  In 1989, Liu, who came back to China from a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University to support the students in Tiananmen Square, was sentenced to almost two years in jail for partaking in the movement.  When he was released, Liu lost his university position and his writings were

Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) at the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square. Later, Liu would be credited with brokering a peace with the troops to allow the couple of hundred of students left on the Square on June 4 to leave without bloodshed.

banned in China.  In 1996 Liu was  imprisoned for three years, this time in a Re-Education Through Labor camp, for a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  Then, in late 2008, Liu co-drafted a document known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  Nothing terribly revolutionary. But for that, Liu was arrested, tried for inciting subversion of state power and, on Christmas Day 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  When he died last Thursday, Liu had only had about two years left on his sentence.  He hadn’t been heard from since his 2009 conviction.

But the silencing of Liu Xiaobo for the past eight years was not enough for the current regime.  When he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government vehemently criticized the choice and placed his wife, Liu Xia, under unlawful house arrest, house arrest that continues to today.  The Chinese internet was censored for any mention of Liu and the state-controlled media was not allowed to report on his prize.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times.

And even though, according to his wife, Liu was diagnosed by prison doctors with hepatitis B as early as 2010, his hepatitis was allowed to fester into liver cancer.  It appears that that Liu was only given proper medical treatment when it was too late – when the antiviral drugs that slows down hepatitis B from becoming liver cancer would no longer work, when embolization of the tumor would no longer be effective and when surgery could no longer be used to save a life.  It was only when the cancer became truly incurable that the Chinese government permitted Liu Xiaobo to go to a hospital – under constant guard – and die with his wife by his side. But even in his dying days, he was still denied dignity; the state-controlled media released pictures of Liu in the hospital, maintaining that the state had only given him the best care.  They would not let him go abroad as he requested, likely fearing that he would use his final breaths to criticize the Chinese government.

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the empty chair where Liu Xiaobo was to sit.

With his death on Thursday, the Chinese regime rushed to hold a funeral so that Liu’s friends and admirers could not make it.  By Saturday morning, Liu Xiaobo’s wife buried his ashes at sea, likely at the demand of the Chinese government so that it could ensure that a tombstone would not be erected and potentially serve as a pilgrimage site. Liu’s brother was paraded on state-run TV stating that the quick sea burial was the family’s wishes. Even in his death, Liu was used as a propaganda tool, with pictures of his shell-shocked wife standing by the coffin and mechanically lowering his ashes into the ocean.  Since Thursday, 1.4 billion Chinese people have experienced a news blackout on anything related to Liu Xiaobo. International news channels were pulled from the air, the state-run media has been ordered not to report on Liu’s passing and Chinese censors have been in overdrive, taking down posts with RIP and candle emojis as the Chinese people attempt to publicly show their respect to their countryman.

Thousands of mourners in Hong Kong hold a march in honor of Liu Xiaobo. (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)

China is the second largest economy in the world and most believe that it will soon supplant the United States as the Asia regional superpower.  But yet this is how it responds to the death of one critique in its midst.  A man whose only weapons were words and thoughts.  If China still wonders why it can’t successfully project soft power internationally, this is it.  While the Chinese government protests that it treated Liu with utmost care in prison, provided as much medical care as possible at the end, and permitted his family to hold a funeral, it still can’t ignore the fact that it imprisoned – and essentially killed – a man for his thoughts.  The last Noble Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was Carl von Ossietky, the 1935 winner who, in 1938, died in a Nazi concentration camp.  It’s never a good thing to be compared to the Nazi regime.

But even more troubling is that the Chinese regime’s suppression of Liu Xiaobo’s speech – both in life and in death – reflects a government that does not trust its own people.  Is Liu’s words going to cause revolution in the streets?  Probably not.  But yet they cannot be heard.  And in recent years, that distrust has only worsened.  Two years ago, the Chinese government conducted a nationwide crackdown on China’s civil rights lawyers, lawyers who use the legal system to protect people’s legal rights; nothing particularly revolutionary about that tactic.  And any civil society organization that becomes too successful, is shut down.  The Chinese people are left with no outlet to shape their own society and demand that their government live up to its ideals. Instead, the Chinese government distrusts anyone who it believes dissents.  But as Liu Xiaobo noted in the speech that was read at his Noble Prize ceremony, that enemy mentality will be a setback to progress:

Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.

Impromptu memorial for Liu Xiaobo in Flushing, Queens, NYC (Courtesy of Facebook)

And Liu’s words and thoughts are not just ripe for the Chinese government right now but for all of us.  Especially as the current United States Administration focuses less on human rights.  On Thursday, President Trump issued a pathetic statement on Liu’s death through his press secretary. And only after he gushed about the greatness of China’s president Xi Jinping a mere hours after Liu’s passing.  It wasn’t just China who lost a hero on Thursday, but the world.  And the world needs the ideals of Liu Xiaobo now more than ever.  May you rest in peace Liu Xiaobo and may we find the courage to continue your struggle both in China and in the world at large.

As the Sun Rises on Tiananmen

Bird’s eye view of Tiananmen Square

On Sunday, the sun will rise once again on Tiananmen Square, much like it did on the same Sunday 28 years ago.  But unlike that Sunday – June 4, 1989 – Beijing will not awaken to its city occupied by the Chinese military nor the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square littered with the dead bodies of unarmed civilians.

Instead, life will go on in China with no official acknowledgement of the anniversary of that fateful day 28 years ago when the Chinese government ordered its military to open fire on its own people. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.

Hundreds of thousands gather on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)

Contrary to the CCP’s interpretation of events, the protests in Beijing were not counter-revolutionary attempts to undermine the CCP. And contrary to the Western media’s perceptions at the time, it was not an effort to bring Western democracy to China.  Instead, the protests were deeply rooted in China’s own history and tradition, a tradition of students conducting patriotic demonstrations in an effort to strengthen their country.

In 1989, those efforts were directed at the nepotism and corruption that was beginning to plague the CCP, the economic turmoil brought on by inflation, the lack of personal freedoms and government censorship.  While students started the protests, eventually, much of the populace joined in, with workers going on strike to support the movement.  By mid-May, the protests would draw over a million people on a daily basis. Neither the May 19 declaration of martial law nor the pleading by sympathetic leaders for protesters to clear the square stopped the protests.  And on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the army to fire on the civilians.

Tanks roll onto Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989

For a brief time after the crackdown, the CCP did acknowledge the event. Not to celebrate the brave men and women who gave their lives to better their country, but to condemn them. Slowly, however, the CCP’s policy changed and instead of trying to change the narrative of that night, the CCP chose to forget it.  Today, the Tiananmen massacre is largely scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is not allowed to be discussed openly and many of the children born after 1989 do not know of the truth of that night.

But every year, there are still those in China willing to risk their freedom to commemorate the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square.  A few years ago it was Chinese netizens reposting the image of the Tank Man – the Chinese citizen stopping a line of tanks, a banned picture on the Chinese internet – standing in front of a line of large, yellow rubber ducks.  The picture spread on the Chinese internet until the Chinese authorities got wind, and censored “yellow rubber duck.”  This year, it is four men who produced a Chinese rice wine with a label that references “6*4”, a shorthand for the June 4 crackdown, and calls on people to “never forget.”  While the bottle has been smuggled out of China by a sympathetic Chinese official, those four men are currently facing charges of inciting subversion of state power.

As much as the CCP may try, China will not forget the brave men and women who lost their lives on June 4, 1989.  For there are still enough Chinese people who are willing to put their safety on the line to ensure that that does not happen.

Who Is the Hooligan? A Review of Wang Nanfu’s New Documentary

By , June 19, 2016

Director Wang Nanfu did not intend to make the movie that became Hooligan Sparrow, the opening feature at this year’s Human Rights Watch film festival.  But it’s hard to avoid creating such a tour de force when you become enmeshed in the absurdity that is the life of a Chinese rights activist.

In spring 2013, Wang Nanfu (pronounced Wong Nan-foo) returned to her homeland of China to make a documentary about women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan, also known by her online name “Hooligan Sparrow.”  Since 2006, Sparrow has worked with China’s sex workers, providing educational materials on safe sex and advocating on their behalf, particularly for those who work in low-cost brothels that charge only a few U.S. dollars.  To bring greater exposure to sex workers’ plights, in 2012, Sparrow engaged in a bold campaign: working for a day in one of these low-cost brothels and providing sex for free.  Her campaign worked and soon she was on TV talk shows, explaining to Chinese society the discrimination that these sex workers face.  This is what Wang Nanfu intended to cover.  But when she arrived in China, Sparrow was on to a new justice campaign: ensuring that the pimping of schoolgirls to government officials on Hainan Island would be prosecuted.

In early May 2013, the principal of a local school on Hainan Island took six of his female students – ages 11 to 14 – to hotels where they were forced into sex with him as well as with a government official.  Although the story sparked outrage online, the local police initially claimed that the two men did not have sex with the girls, even though the parents uploaded pictures to the web which provided ample evidence that the two men did.

Sparrow with her sign: Principal: Get a room with me, leave the schoolchildren alone!

Sparrow and a group of other activists, including noted human rights lawyer, Wang Yu, leapt into action, immediately traveling to Hainan to protest outside of the girls’ school and demand the arrest of the principal and the government official on charges of rape.  Realizing that a trial in the media – especially the social media – is increasingly the only way to achieve justice in China, Wang captures Sparrow’s genius as Sparrow comes up with a slogan that she knows will go viral: “Principal, get a room with me, spare the schoolchildren!”  Almost immediately the picture of Sparrow holding that sign gets picked up by hundreds of netizens, and in a show of solidarity, many post selfies holding signs with the same slogan.  By the end of May, Sparrow’s campaign finds success and the two men are charged with “sex with underage prostitutes,” a charge though that is less severe than the crime of rape. For Sparrow, that charge is not enough, and she and Wang Yu continue their fight to eradicate the lesser crime of “sex with underage prostitutes,” arguing what people in China and the rest of the world know to be true: that any sex with a minor – be it paid or not paid – is not consensual and is rape.

This intense incident, with plainclothes police physically jostling the protesters, is only the start of what becomes an increasingly powerful condemnation of the current Chinese Communist regime.  Although Sparrow was successful in her protest – with the legal system prosecuting the principal and the government officials – the Chinese government, as Wang Nanfu skillfully documents, views Sparrow as anything but a success.  Instead, the full power of the regime comes down on Sparrow, and hard.  But, as Wang Nanfu beautifully captures, Sparrow is more than an activist.  She is also a single mother to a 12 year old daughter.  It is watching Sparrow’s relationship with her daughter – and the concern any mother would have for her child – that makes Hooligan Sparrow into more than a documentary about a rights activist and her movement.  It captures the human toll that such advocacy has on both the activist and her family. When Sparrow is unlawfully detained on trumped up charges in what appears to be a way to punish her for her Hainan protests, her daughter is largely left to fend for herself.  Once freed, government-hired thugs hold a protest outside of Sparrow’s home, calling her a prostitute and demanding that such a loose woman move from their neighborhood.  Sparrow’s daughter hears all of this.

Sparrow’s daughter, trying to get homework done while her mother gets arrested.

But slander against her mother is not the end.  Sparrow is eventually evicted from her apartment, a tactic that Chinese authorities increasingly use against human rights activist.  Why detain activists in violation of the law when you can put pressure on landlords to evict them and make their life one on the run?

What Wang Nanfu documents next is Sparrow and her daughter’s constant movement, looking for a place to live.  In one city, Sparrow is able to rent an apartment but the local school will not accept her daughter because of Sparrow’s activism.  Yet again, Sparrow is forced to move.  With each move their possessions become less and less until all they have is one backpack each.

The next city Sparrow moves to, the authorities already know she is coming, and in one of the movie’s most harrowing scenes, the film goes dark and only confused sound is heard as Wang Nanfu and Sparrow’s daughter run up the stairs to try to get into the apartment before their pursuers  can capture them.  In the black background, you hear Sparrow yelling at the authorities, unclear if there has already been a physical altercation but knowing if there was one, Sparrow was not going to win.

Sparrow can never win and that is one of the absurdities about the current regime that Hooligan Sparrow captures perfectly.  In any other society, Sparrow’s successful advocacy would be celebrated.  But in China, even when the regime adopts the exact measures advocated for, the rights advocate must still be persecuted.  In other words, if your cause is successful, it is that success that will be your downfall.  Which makes one wonder, how will Chinese society ever become more just if this is the catch-22 that rights advocates constantly find themselves in?  The Chinese Communist Party’s mantra is largely maintaining the status quo; reform that brings greater justice to society’s vulnerable is hardly a priority.  Even President Xi Jinping’s campaign against official corruption did not capture the corrupt government officials having sex with minors, a much more common occurrence than just an isolated incident in Hainan.

Director Wang Nanfu

But it is Hooligan Sparrow‘s poignant portrayal of the unnecessary suffering of Sparrow’s brave daughter that resonates the most.  How can a government do this to an innocent child?  To be on the run, to be rejected from schools, to be a social outcast at the age of 12?  It isn’t Sparrow that is the hooligan in all of this.  That title clearly belongs to the current regime.

To understand China today, Hooligan Sparrow is a must see.  Wang Nanfu has created a master documentary, one that rejects the staid interviews of the past and instead gets in the center of the action.  It is through her own brave film making that we can begin to understand the trauma of being a rights activists in China.  But it is also through Wang’s artful storytelling that one can also see their humanity, providing hope that Sparrow – and all the activists like her – will continue to go on.

Rating: ★★★★★

Next Showing: Washington, D.C. – June 23 & 26, 2016 at the AFI Docs Film Festival; showing in New York again in July and to be shown on PBS’ POV on  October 17, 2016.  Coming to a theater near you before then?  Check the film’s website here.

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: