Campaign to Smother Tiananmen Anniversary Continues

Rights lawyers Tang Jingling and Liu Shihui are among the latest to be detained as the government seeks to suppress commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown’s 25th anniversary next month. From AP’s Didi Tang:

Police took Tang Jingling, 43, away from his home in the southern city of Guangzhou and said he was suspected of starting quarrels and provoking trouble, according to his wife, Wang Yanfang. Tang has represented clients complaining of corruption, land seizures and other grievances.

[…] Tang’s wife said state security officers had warned him earlier not to do anything to commemorate the 1989 crackdown. Police seized two personal computers, three cellphones, an address book, greeting cards from friends and books on human rights, she said.

[…] In another case, lawyer Liu Shihui has been detained in Shanghai, according to his girlfriend, Le Senping. She said Friday that she had yet to find out the charge against him.

Liu was recently forced to relocate from Guangzhou to his hometown in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region, which was seen as a punishment for his legal activism. [Source]

Following the detentions in Hangzhou of activists Xu Guang and Lu Gengsong, AP reported that a dinner gathering called in response to the recent wave of detentions was itself broken up in the city on Tuesday night:

Activist and blogger Wang Wusi said he and another 10 people were released after spending about two hours in police custody. He said police held Wen Kejian until Wednesday morning, when he was released although without his cellphone or computer. Wen is a signatory of Charter 08, a document calling for democracy and the end of one-party rule in China.

[…] “Recently, inside the country people have been getting nervous because they’ve been detaining people,” Wang said. “We just wanted to get together and discuss this because we all feel the pressure growing.” [Source]

Amnesty International and Human Rights In China are maintaining lists of those, already numbering more than 30, who have suffered detention, disappearance or other restrictions during the pre-anniversary period. These include journalist Gao Yu and prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. Amnesty’s list is sorted according to status, while HRIC’s is arranged chronologically. Particularly ominous among the more recent detentions are those connected with Pu: his lawyer (who is also his niece), a news assistant, and a former journalist for the South China Morning Post. Police appeared to delay taking Pu and several others into custody until within 30 days of the anniversary, allowing them to hold them without charge or trial until it had passed. The detentions of Pu’s associates, though, suggest that they may be preparing to try him instead. From South China Morning Post:

The detention of Qu Zhenhong and two other associates close to Pu has stoked fears that police are collecting further evidence to prosecute the prominent lawyer well known for his defence of sensitive cases.

The lawyer, Zhang Sizhi, said he did not know the reason for the detention. It is also unclear when Qu was taken into custody, although several activists have posted messages on Twitter suggesting she was detained on Tuesday for “illegally obtaining personal information”.

Police this week detained a Chinese employee of Japan’s Nihon Keizai financial newspaper, and a Beijing-based NGO worker and former journalist, both of whom are close to Pu. [Source]

At The New York Review of Books, Renee Xia and Perry Link pointed out an even graver potential danger than prosecution:

[… P]hilosophy professor Xu Youyu, sixty-six, has high blood pressure and diabetes; human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, forty-nine, suffers both these conditions plus high cholesterol. Both take daily medications, but officials confiscated their medicines when they arrived at the detention facility, saying that detention-center staff are in charge of all medications. The next day both men were offered pills that they did not recognize. Xu was afraid of ingesting them and declined. Pu reluctantly accepted them.

While the detention of activists by the Chinese government is well known, there is relatively little discussion about medical treatment in detention facilities. But to anyone who thinks the concerns of Xu and Pu about their medications might be excessive, it is crucial to understand what happened to Cao Shunli, a legal rights activist who had a chronic medical condition. She died on March 14, at age fifty-one, as a result of medical complications that became life-threatening during five months of criminal detention. […]

[…] Cao’s experience, horrific in itself, is all the more disturbing because it follows a pattern that has emerged in a number of other cases. […]

[…] Pu Zhiqiang and Cao Shunli have both been galling to the Chinese government not just as inveterate defenders of underdogs but because they have done so by standing up for China’s own laws and strictly following the rules the government itself claims to uphold. This leaves no legitimate grounds for silencing them. In the end, though, both may have underestimated how far the regime will go to protect its vital interests. The fate of Pu Zhiqiang, whose given name in Chinese means “strongly determined,” remains uncertain; Cao’s no longer is. Her given name, Shunli, means “all goes smoothly,” but life had a different script for her. [Source]

Even so, as Alexa Olesen noted in a report on China’s ‘Die Hard’ lawyers, Pu’s detention seems to have galvanized many others, quite the opposite of the deterrent effect likely intended.

The Chinese government is clearly worried about the so-called diehards’ impact, and is moving to trim it. Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, told Foreign Policy that the government is responding with an “increasingly repressive policy” that is trying to rein in the legal profession. Pu’s detention, Cohen said, is part of that movement. Although Pu is also considered part of the weiquan or “rights defense” school of lawyering and has represented dissidents like the activist artist Ai Weiwei, Pu straddles factions. And the repression isn’t faction-specific.

Cohen said Chinese authorities are clamping down because they “want lawyers to behave like dentists.” In other words, the government thinks attorneys should be “good technicians and not involve themselves in cases of political-legal injustice.” But Cohen added that the crackdowns like that which ensnared Pu are only growing the ranks of “angry lawyers” in China, causing more to take up rights-related cases.

The outpouring of support for Pu on social media, from words of support to photos of him, does suggest that instead of weakening lawyers of his type, it is emboldening them. Another practitioner, Xu Tianming, wrote on Weibo that the “wanton arrest” of Pu would not work. The government should “not think that saying it diligently serves the people over and over” is enough. “In the Internet age,” Xu concluded, “the people are their own masters.” [Source]

Meanwhile, efforts to deter or distract foreign journalists from sensitive topics are underway:

Neither seems to have been particularly effective. Aside from widespread coverage of the detentions, many journalists have been looking back to 1989. The New York Times’ Chris Buckley, for example, has chronicled events leading to the crackdown in a series of posts at Sinosphere. Also at the Times on Saturday, Nicholas Kristof recounted his own experiences as Beijing bureau chief at the time:

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the rickshaw driver, tears streaming down his cheeks, rushing a gravely injured student to hospital — and away from the soldiers who had just gunned him down.

That rickshaw driver was a brave man, a better man than I, and he taught me an indelible lesson.

[…] He saw me, the foreigner, and swerved to drive slowly by me so that I could bear witness to what the government had done. It was a terrifying night, and I can’t remember just what his words were, but it was something to the effect that I should tell the world what was happening.

[…] That rickshaw driver may not have the vote, but his children may well attend university. The progress is unarguable. Yet human dignity demands not just rice, but also rights. [Source]

The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore described this weekend how the protests inadvertently “played into the hands of hardliners” in government, and how one Hong Kong gang member helped 133 participants escape from the mainland after June 4th:

“It was a strange alliance, between the political activists and the underworld, but it worked,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, which supported the Tiananmen protesters, and now the leader of Hong Kong’s Labour party.

[…] The students and intellectuals they smuggled to safety remember travelling to one of the safe houses on the mainland and then boarding the boats under the cover of darkness, sometimes stopping at islands on the way to wait for a clear run into Hong Kong. “We lay under the deck and other boats secured the perimeter for us as we sped to Hong Kong,” said Yan Jiaqi, 72, now a writer in Maryland in the United States.

“We were told that the next time someone showed us an HSBC key ring with a bull’s head on it, we should follow them,” said Xiang Xiaoji, 57, now a lawyer in Boston. [Source]

Also notably undeterred is NPR’s Louisa Lim, author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, which was published last month. At The Washington Post, Lim described the extreme secrecy in which she wrote it, as well as the broader silence surrounding memories of the crackdown:

As a friend of [artist Cheng Guang, who took part in the crackdown as a teenaged soldier, and has been detained since May 7th] told the New York Times, “People want to remember what happened on June 4, but they can’t do it in public spaces. Now apparently you can’t even remember in private.”

Under such strictures, forgetting is the easy option, perhaps even the default choice. As the artist Ai Weiwei wrote on the 20th anniversary of the crackdown, “Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.”

After all, to remember what happened is to remember the scope of the protests. There weren’t just thousands of students protesting in Tiananmen Square, but hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every conceivable occupation paralyzing dozens of cities around China. In the course of my research, I unearthed new details about the violent suppression of protests in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where government accounts admitted that eight people died and 1,800 were injured in three days of chaotic fighting in the streets. Witnesses believe that the death toll was much higher. Remembering those untold stories is dangerous, because how many other untold stories exist in a country of 1.3 billion people? [Source]

Discussing the book on CBC’s Q, Lim suggested that “in a way we’ve kind of underestimated the Chinese government’s success in re-writing its own history.” Whether such a feat is in even the Party’s real interests is open to question. When scholars including CDT founder Xiao Qiang protested recent detentions in an open letter to President Xi Jinping last week, they noted that “as you have often reminded your Japanese counterparts, to be strong, a nation must confront its past.”

In any case, the memory of Tiananmen has never been completely buried. After 1989, NPR’s Anthony Kuhn commented on Thursday, “the struggle for human rights and democracy shattered long ago into millions of personal struggles for social justice,” many pursued by or with help from figures like Pu Zhiqiang or China’s other rights lawyers. But reviewing Lim’s book alongside Rowena Xiaoqing He’s Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, Ian Johnson wrote at The New York Review of Books that many of these individual struggles still have roots in the events of 1989:

[… A]lmost exactly a decade after Tiananmen, ten thousand protesters quietly surrounded the Communist Party’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, asking that their spiritual practice, Falun Gong, be legalized. Had they missed the government’s brutal message, or were they on some subconscious level emboldened by a rising consciousness among ordinary people—a sense that they had rights too?

The Falun Gong protesters met with intense repression, including torture, and most people are now more circumspect in pushing for change. But in talking to intellectuals, activists, teachers, pastors, preachers, and environmentalists over the past years, I’ve found that almost all say that Tiananmen was a defining point in their lives, a moment when they woke up and realized that society should be improved. It can’t be a coincidence, for example, that many major Protestant leaders in China talk of Tiananmen in these terms, or that thousands of former students—not the famous leaders in exile or in prison, but the ones who filled the squares and streets of Chinese cities twenty-five years ago—are quietly working for legal rights and advocating environmental causes. [Source]