It has become a grim holiday ritual of sorts. More often than not over the past decade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used the Christmas holiday to hand down harsh verdicts against top dissidents. Beijing knows that many Western diplomats, journalists, and NGO activists are away on holiday in the days immediately before and just after December 25, which makes the holiday the perfect time to hand down harsh sentences against activists and lawyers who have crossed the line. The Western world is distracted, and less able to respond.
Christmas 2017 was no exception to the ugly pattern: on December 26, 2017, a court in Tianjin sentenced the activist and blogger Wu Gan, also known as “Super Vulgar Butcher,” to eight years in prison on subversion charges. The same day, rights lawyer Xie Yang was declared guilty of inciting subversion by a court in Changsha, Hunan. Citing Xie’s admission of guilt and his expression of regret for his crimes, the court absolved Xie from any further punishment.
Xie’s Yang’s story is a remarkable – and remarkably sad – one. A leading rights lawyer in Hunan province who had participated in a number of key rights cases over the past several years, Xie, 45, was detained, along with hundreds of other lawyers across China, in July 2015. His detention was part of the 709 crackdown, so called because the wave of detentions began on July 9. While in detention, Xie was brutally tortured by his captors: he was beaten, made to sit for hours on end in stress positions, and subjected to extensive sleep deprivation. His interrogators also threatened his family, intimating to Xie that his wife and children could meet an untimely end if he refused to cooperate.
When he was finally able to meet with his lawyers after six months of incommunicado detention, Xie told them about the abuses he had endured. They, in turn, told the world: journalists from newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal, used the published transcript of the conversation as the basis for stories on Xie’s horrific ordeal. In the wake of the global headlines, eleven nations – including Canada, Germany, Australia, and Japan – sent a joint letter to Guo Shengkun, the minister of public security, asking him to launch an investigation of Xie’s claims, and to respect all political detainees’ legal due process rights.
The publication of Xie’s account of his first six months in prison should have been a turning point. It should have led to his immediate release, along with a full investigation of his allegations of torture. Instead, Xie’s torture memo turned into a turning point of a decidedly different sort: by the time he appeared in court in May 2017, Xie had changed his tune. He denied his own prior torture claims, and pled guilty to all of the charges against him. “I feel ashamed and deeply remorseful for my past actions,” Xie told the court.
Why did Xie renounce his own prior testimony, along with his years of frontline activist work? It seems likely that his captors’ response to his public allegations of torture was in fact more of the same brutal treatment, and in strong enough doses to convince him to toe the Party line.
As coincidence would have it, Xie’s guilty verdict was announced in the same month that his story was told in an important new book, The People’s Republic of the Disappeared. The book, published in December 2017, is a collection of 11 (mostly) first-person accounts of enforced disappearances by Chinese rights activists and lawyers. (Xie’s chapter is the only one that is not written by Xie himself: instead, it was cobbled together by colleagues using his own testimony and that of his wife, Chen Guiqiu, who fled China for the United States in May 2017.) The book shows that Xie’s experience, while perhaps different in degree, is by no means different in kind: several activists report being tortured in detention. Virtually all were subjected to sleep deprivation, and a number were denied access to adequate food and water. All were denied prompt and regular access to an attorney, just as they were uniformly denied any family visitation rights. The one foreigner who contributed to the volume, rights activist Peter Dahlin, was initially denied access to consular officials from his home country of Sweden. (The Diplomat has a separate interview with the book’s editor, Michael Caster, here).
For me, one of the saddest aspects of China’s state security apparatus is its truly massive size. China is not yet a developed country, and yet it spends uncountable billions of yuan on maintaining one of the largest state security systems in the world. Several activists I have interviewed were taken into custody by more than a dozen officers. Others spoke about being followed for weeks or months at a time, and watching their minders mill around outside their home day after day, night after night. Manpower may be the system’s biggest asset, but it is by no means its only one: the state security apparatus also has an endless stream of cars and ersatz detention facilities at its disposal. Its officials fly all over China in pursuit of their activist prey; more senior officers fly business class.
State security officials are well aware that they are well-funded. One even boasted to Xie Yang that “we have plenty of resources. If you don’t cooperate with us, we can investigate your friends, one by one, and put them through the wringer. We’ve got the resources and we have our methods.”
What is the return for the Chinese state on this massive investment? One thing that it clearly isn’t getting is any information about legitimate threats to state security. Virtually all of the contributors to The People’s Republic of the Disappeared were subjected to endless interrogation sessions. They were asked over and over again about their contacts with other activists, and especially about their contacts with foreign actors. As far as I could tell, the endless interrogations seemed to serve no genuine investigatory purpose: no sinister plots were uncovered, no foreign agents unmasked. Instead, the authorities discovered that activists are engaged in activism: writing court briefs, penning essays on political reform for overseas websites, and commiserating with fellow activists at local restaurants. Hardly the sort of cloak and dagger stuff that would justify all of the attention they receive from state security agents, or all the money that Beijing spends on weiwen, or stability maintenance.
From a political perspective, however, such interrogations make perfect sense. The goal is not to discover some sort of secret spy ring – impossible, after all, when no such network exists. Rather, the goal is to construct a politically useful fiction, one of malicious foreign threats meant to bring down the Chinese regime. It is no coincidence that Xie Yang, in his May 2017 trial, was forced to say that he was “brainwashed” by overseas human rights groups, who fed him “ideas like overturning the present system and realizing Western constitutional government in China.”
In my own conversations with Chinese rights activists over the years, I’ve often found myself wondering: what do the police, the guards, and the interrogators charged with dealing with these brave activists think about their work, and about themselves? Can they possibly believe that the men and women they illegally detain are in fact dangerous spies, whose work constitutes a legitimate threat to the Chinese government?
Some of them just might. After all, if you believe that you are facing off against true enemies of the state, backed by powerful and malevolent foreign forces bent on bringing down the Chinese government, then you are a true patriot. You are helping to secure the nation’s security and stability. If, on the other hand, you are involved in the arbitrary detention and torture of men and women whose only crime is that they are brave enough to stand up and fight against injustice, then, well, you’re no patriot. You’re just a small cog in a large and shabby machine built to repress rights activists fighting for a more just China. You’re no patriot. You’re just a torturer, a paid thug on the wrong side of history.
On December 27, 2017, just a day after separate courts issued guilty verdicts against Wu Gan and Xie Yang, the U.S. and German Embassies in Beijing issued a joint statement criticizing the moves, and calling for Wu’s immediate release. Both governments also urged Beijing to “view lawyers and rights defenders as partners in strengthening Chinese society through development of the rule of law.” The fast timing of the statement suggested that key members of the international community have picked up on Beijing’s Christmas ritual, and are taking steps to respond. Other governments should take note of the joint statement: it’s clear that more such Christmas presents will be on order in December 2018, and for several years to come.
Thomas E. Kellogg is the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.