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Video: China’s lawyer crackdown 3 years on – ‘The most painful part of it all was the squandering of life’

Chinese human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi was summoned by police for questioning in July 2015 but never returned. He was detained for around 18 months, though his family did not know his whereabouts until six months after his arrest. He was among hundreds of legal staff and activists detained during a widespread crackdown in 2015. A letter and video from Xie has been published on the ChinaChange website.


My name is Xie Yanyi. I’ve been a lawyer for 17 years. In 2003 I was the first person to bring a lawsuit against Jiang Zemin for violating the constitution by continuing as the chairman of the state Central Military Commission. From that point forward, I attracted the attention of the authorities.

In June and July 2015 — around then — due to the Qing’an case and a number of other rights defense cases, numerous rights lawyers and citizens were called in and interrogated by the authorities, some were arrested and paraded on state media.

The Qing’an incident was the fuse that lit the 709 crackdown.

In the early morning of July 12, 2015, I heard a knock at the door. I looked through the peephole and saw three men. Two of them were Domestic Security agents that had long been watching me. The other one, as I later learned, was a Domestic Security agent in Beijing. They came to my door in the morning and said they wanted to have a chat. So I went with them to the local neighborhood committee office.

Come around midday, all of a sudden over a dozen unidentified men charged in. The leader came right up to me and flashed his ID badge. They handcuffed me, and then escorted me downstairs. They then shoved me in a vehicle, and we sped off in three or four vehicles to the Chengguan police station.

As they were interrogating me, I worked out that they were also raiding my home, and they had asked me for my wife’s cell phone number. By nightfall, when their raid was done, they hooded me, cuffed me again, and put me in their car — this time an SUV. There were three of us in the back, with me in the middle. There was an officer on either side of me. And there were two in front. At that point we were leaving Miyun, Beijing. I had the hood on, so I didn’t know where we were headed.

They drove for an hour and a half, or maybe two hours, and I felt that we’d entered a kind of compound. They told me to get out, and two people came over and pulled me out of the car. We went into a room on the second floor.

They took the hood off, and I surveyed my new surroundings. The cell was about a dozen square meters. The walls were padded. There was a desk in front of me, and a bed to my left. There was a window on the far wall, but it was completely closed, covered with thick curtains. The room seemed air-tight. It was in this cell that my detention began.

See also: China’s lawyer crackdown 3 years on – ‘We don’t accept the Communist Party’s attempt to instil terror’

Life in captivity was like this: there were a dozen or so armed police, guarding me every day, spread across five shifts. Each shift was two hours, with two police per shift. They stood to the immediate left and right of me. Even when I was asleep, one was at the head of the bed, the other at the foot, watching me 24/7.

Xie Yanyi

Xie Yanyi. Photo: ChinaChange screenshot.

The detention location was in Beijing, likely at an armed police base.

I was taken away on July 12; on the 13th I began a hunger strike. My wife was pregnant at the time, and I was really preoccupied about her. I demanded that the special investigating team handling my case give me pen and paper so I could write a letter home. In the end I was able to achieve this goal — they gave me pen and paper, and I wrote a letter to my wife. Although, after I was released I discovered that my wife never did receive this letter.

It seems that around September 8 we were transferred to another military base in Tianjin. I was again put into a roughly 10 square meter detention cell. Again, the walls were padded, and the window was completely sealed.

During the detention, I was put through some gruelling interrogations. That is, they wouldn’t let me sleep. Also, they starved me — giving me a tiny little bit of food. This went on for about one to two months. They put me through a form of punishment: they made me sit on a block with nothing to lean on. You sat straight like a military man  every day for 15 or 16 hours. This went on for a month. They don’t let you move a muscle. When you sit that long at a stretch, your lower body loses all feeling.

At the same time they submit you to all kind of psychological and emotional pressure. They once threatened me that they would detain my wife too, and they also menaced me, saying that they might harm my child in some fashion.

By January 2016 I was formally arrested on charges of ‘inciting subversion of state power,’ and was transferred to the Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center. When I got to Tianjin No. 2, they wouldn’t use my own name. They gave me an alias — Xie Zhendong.

yuan shanshan xie yanyi

Yuan Shanshan and her husband Xie Yanyi. Photo: Yuan Shanshan.

In the detention center they continued to punish me. The prisoners in this detention center were all serious criminals. In the cell, the person to my left had been given a life sentence; on the right was someone with a suspended death sentence. There was a death row inmate. All of them were recidivist, hardened criminals. They were ordered to surround me – in front of and behind me, to my left and right. These four were assigned to sandwich me and exercise control over me. Every move I made, every individual freedom and right I had, had been stripped of me. Even going to the toilet or drinking water required permission.

I was released on bail ‘pending trial’ in January 2017. On January 5. Even while I was supposedly on bail, they detained me in a hotel room. Only on January 18 did they let me go home and reunite with my family.

The third day after I got out, I exposed to the world the torture I had suffered — in particular [I wanted to expose] the abuse of my brothers along with me. Especially the torture that lawyer Wang Quanzhang and Hu Shigen may have been subjected to. I was in cell no. 8 in this location in Tianjin where we had been put under “residential surveillance” in the detention center. Between October 1 and October 8, 2015, in the depths of the night in my cell I very clearly heard the sound of someone falling down on the floor above me, along with the sounds of anguished wailing, groans, and electric baton shocks. In my judgement that was either Wang Quanzhang or Hu Shigen being tortured.

During this period, not long after I was detained, my mother passed away. When I first heard the news, I didn’t feel that much. I didn’t cry, nor did I feel loss. A bit over a month after I came out, I went to offer sacrifices for her, and as I held her urn of ashes, this ice-cold box of ashes, I ran my fingers along it. It was like I was making contact with my mom. It was at that point only that I really for the first time, at that point the emotions truly came out.

Over this 18 month period of forced residential surveillance, and arrest and detention, the most painful part of it all was the squandering of life. That is, they completely stripped me of every freedom. They didn’t let me engage in any form of communication. And I had no access to any information. Just like this, days become months, months become years. This kind of life wastage, after it goes on long enough, makes you crazy. During that period of residential surveillance, I even started to contemplate suicide.

National People's Congress npc beijing great hall

The Great Hall. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

So the question is how to overcome this dread, this total desperation? I silently told myself stories in my head. I recounted history, contemplated my beliefs, human nature, historical anecdotes. When I got to the detention center, in order to overcome the mental and physical imprisonment, I started to meditate. I sat cross-legged in meditation every morning and every afternoon, for two hours, every single day. This is how I got through it.

[When I got out] I rested up for two or three months. I then spent another three or so months writing “A Record of the 709 Crackdown and 100 Questions about Peaceful Democracy in China.” And then after I published this “Record of 709,” I also published an open letter to Xi Jinping. I told him to release all political prisoners, love your enemies, and start China on the path to peaceful democracy.

This January, 2018, is just when they formally ended my period of bail pending trial. But the authorities are still engaged in illegal infringements and investigations of my right to practice law.

They have committed political persecution against me; they have illegally held hearings on me to disbar me; and they have illegally deprived me of my political rights and a series of due process rights.

The 709 incident has really catalyzed the awakening of the Chinese public. So, we feel more and more that the collapse and crumbling of the totalitarian system could happen at any point. We now need to think through what happens in the post-dictatorship era. What should we do? I think that making peaceful democracy the consensus of the entire Chinese people — that this is extremely important.

Thank you, everyone.

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Video: China’s lawyer crackdown 3 years on - 'The most painful part of it all was the squandering of life'