Activist Supporter Geng Xiaonan’s Detention Showcases Authorities’ Siege Tactics

Beijing-based publisher and film producer Geng Xiaonan was detained along with her husband and business partner Qin Chen on September 9 for suspected “illegal business operations.” Geng had been an outspoken advocate of Xu Zhangrun, the law professor fired by Tsinghua University after a brief detention in July following his earlier suspension over scathing written critiques of Xi Jinping. She denounced the accusation that Xu had solicited prostitutes (on a trip she had arranged) as “just the kind of vile slander that they use against someone they want to silence,” and gave an extended interview to RFA’s Bei Ming—translated by Geremie Barmé at China Heritage—to praise Xu’s work and defend his innocence. Geng was known as an energetic supporter of more prominent : rather than seeing herself on the front lines, she told Bei Ming, she had embraced a secondary role as “a stable hand taking care of the horses of the heroic figures who fight for justice, someone who provides practical succor to prisoners of conscience and a person who cares for the corpses of the valiant souls who die in the wilderness [….] If I could not be a hero at least I could offer garlands to the heroic few and cheer on their endeavours. I could help them on their way or perhaps even take a bullet for them.”

Geng’s case is less prominent than those of Xu himself or of other high-profile critics of Xi such as retired Central Party School professor Cai Xia, who was expelled from the CCP and stripped of her pension in August, or property tycoon and Party insider Ren Zhiqiang, who was sentenced last month to 18 years in prison for alleged corruption. Nevertheless, Geng’s and the events that followed it demonstrate many of the different approaches being used to target not only critics, but also their supporters; and not only to punish and deter, but discredit and isolate them, cutting them off from effective legal appeal, financial resources, international attention, and escape.

Radio Free Asia’s Qiao Long and Luisetta Mudie reported late last month on the obstruction of the lawyers Geng had retained in anticipation of official reprisals:

Geng’s lawyer met with her at the Haidian District Detention Center in Beijing on Thursday, reporting that she looked tired and under considerable strain following repeated interrogations.

“She has been through more than a dozen interrogations,” Shang said. “She has been interrogated nearly every day since she went in.”

[…] He said police are using the couple’s publication of around 8,000 nutrition and cookery books to claim their Ruiya Books house had been operating illegally from the start.

[… H]e said the authorities were using coronavirus restrictions to make life far harder for attorneys seeking meetings with their detained clients.

“Now, because of the pandemic, lawyers have to get there first thing in the morning to get a meeting,” Shang told RFA, adding that there is a limited online ticketing system in place, operating a first come, first served policy. [Source]

In both mainland China and Hong Kong, disease control measures appear to have provided convenient cover for restrictions on political targets. In Hong Kong, planned demonstrations have been denied authorization on grounds of social distancing rules. On the mainland, some figures like citizen journalist Chen Qiushi—another recipient of Geng Xiaonan’s support—have disappeared into “quarantine,” while in other cases like rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s, quarantine has provided a pretext for the enforcement of “non-release ‘release’” following the end of formal imprisonment. ( was also kept isolated on these grounds for two weeks after his release from detention on July 12.) In her conversation with RFA’s Bei Ming before her detention, Geng voiced her own concerns that the pandemic has been used to tighten the net of surveillance on politically sensitive individuals. From Geremie Barmé’s translation of the exchange at China Heritage:

Geng Xiaonan: Sister, lately whenever I go out I know that I’m being followed, either by car or on foot. I’m in no doubt whatsoever that they definitely have me in their sights. And they know just what they are doing. For example, no one follows me if I’m only going to do some shopping at the supermarket; or, if my husband and I go out for a meal they’ll leave us alone. But if I’m going to meet with members of the international media — just look out: there’ll definitely be a vehicle tailing me. Or, say I have arranged to meet with Professor Xu Zhangrun, the second I step out the door they’re right my tail. That’s why I say their technique is impressive.

[…] In Beijing at the moment under the cover of responding to the coronavirus epidemic the authorities have been successful, and I would say holistically instituted what Mr Xu has described as ‘Big Data Totalitarianism’ [see Xu Zhangrun, ‘Viral Alarm — When Fury Overcomes Fear’, ChinaFile, 10 February 2020]. So, that means we are faced with a situation in which whenever we leave the house, whether it be to a café, a restaurant, a teahouse, any retail outlet at all, or an office, in fact anywhere in public at all, we need to register our movements using a ‘digital health tracer’. [Source]

Barmé paired this translation with another from Tsinghua sociology professor Guo Yuhua, a vocal supporter of both Xu and Geng. While defending Geng’s innocence, Guo accused the authorities of breaking the law themselves:

To the government agencies concerned:

  • By detaining Geng Xiaonan and her husband, you have broken the law!
  • By willfully neglecting to notify family members, by condemning elderly parents to seek out news about what has happened to their loved ones, you have broken the law!
  • By refusing to the recognise the power of attorney those detained signed with their lawyer, you have broken the law!
  • By resorting to spurious excuses to prevent those detained from meeting with their legal counsel, you have broken the law!
  • By denying legal counsel the right to meet those detained at a time that yourself had appointed on the sudden excuse that the detained were ‘being interrogated’, you have broken the law!
  • By blocking legal counsel the right to wait until the questioning had been concluded so they could meet with the detained, you have broken the law!

Are you only there to violate the law?! [Source]

New York University’s Jerome Cohen had his own questions about the decisions behind the targeting, timing, and type of detention in this and similar cases. He included 22 of these questions in a September 15 article at The Diplomat, citing also the case of the 12 Hong Kong activists captured at sea in late August and similarly denied meetings with their own lawyers as they face likely trial in mainland courts. “There is so much that we and even most Chinese still don’t know,” Cohen wrote, “because the Party will not allow us to know.”

[…] Geng is reportedly destined for “very heavy” punishment, not the 15 day maximum in an unpleasant detention cell usually imposed for minor offenses not deemed sufficiently grave to constitute a “crime.” The initial “illegal activity” charge against her is vague enough to cover either her publishing business alone or her open support for Xu or, very likely, both. How long her husband, detained with her, will be held will depend on how important his interrogation seems to her case.

The ongoing repression of mainland Chinese protesters against injustice continues to raise many questions about the Communist Party’s punishment systems. Who gets detained? When? After what kinds of warnings and preliminary “education”? What type of detention is chosen and why? When, for example, does the Party select, for up to six months, the widely-feared incommunicado detention by a government “supervisory commission,” initially preempting not only the formal criminal process but the entire justice system?

[…] For all types of detention, there are, of course, the usual concerns about the conditions of either solitary or group confinement, oppressive interrogation, mental and physical torture, and coerced confessions. And what about the consequences of all this for one’s spouse, children, other family and close associates?

[… A]s China’s criminal justice again takes center stage, universal condemnation of China’s unfair punishment systems may be the only credible defense available to Geng, Xu, the hapless “Hong Kong 12,” and millions of others, including those detained in China’s Xinjiang, Tibetan, and Mongolian regions. [Source]

Xu Zhangrun has repeatedly spoken up in Geng’s defense, first in an open letter to the national leadership immediately after her detention, which, he wrote, “sends a numbing winter chill through the hearts of all Chinese people of conscience and decency.” In a later posting translated at China Heritage, Xu addressed his fellow legal professionals on the abuse of “portmanteau” or “pocket crimes” in politically motivated prosecutions. In the case of publishers, he argues, the government’s control of industry regulation and operation makes “illegal business practices” easy to find when desired:

As a result of these controls, among the smaller players in the industry the system generates a feeling of incessant trepidation. Not only are they at the mercy of a publishing regime that closely moderates the trade in book numbers, the question of book distribution is even more fraught. Added to that is an unreasonable regime of taxation that forces non-state actors in the industry to skirt dizzyingly on the border of legality merely to survive. It isn’t that publishers want to break the law, but the legal framework in which they are obliged to operate is purposefully unclear, so much so that they constantly feel imperiled. Furthermore, the minute anyone involved in publishing causes offense to the power holders by saying something ‘out of line’, they can be hauled in and penalised without warning.

[… T]his daring, independent woman [Geng Xiaonan] has been cast into jail. This has been done as a warning to others. It is a classic example of someone being accused of a concocted crime in punishment for her having had the temerity to speak out. No one is in any doubt as to the motivation behind this. They are employing economic penalties to silence political opposition, to use criminal procedures to silence an outspoken person, and by so doing to warn the multitude to submit and obey. [Source]

A previous example of “illegal business operations” in the publishing industry is the 2017 imprisonment of Guangxi Normal University Press social media editor Dai Xuelin and his business partner Zhang Xiaoxiong for unauthorized distribution of critical history books published in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Another, anonymous essay, once again translated at China Heritage, linked Geng Xiaonan, Xu Zhangrun, and Ren Zhiqiang as exemplars of both a noble tradition of dissent and the ongoing abuse of the legal system to combat it. “What really counts,” the author observes, “is not whether people ‘abide by the law’, but if they have a compliant political attitude and ideological position vis-à-vis the Party.”

The purge of and Geng Xiaonan in the wake of the repression of Xu Zhangrun shows that the authorities are determined to rid themselves of the small number of stand-out figures. It is part of a strategy to intimidate the masses into further submission. All three have connections inside the Communist Party establishment and, to-date, they had enjoyed a measure of personal influence. They dared confront the New Authoritarian openly and, by so doing, they have had a not-inconsiderable impact on society and public opinion. These are exactly the kinds of people the Party authorities were talking about when they said: ‘We will not allow people who have been nurtured on the milk of the Party’s kindness, and who have benefited from the system, to turn around and criticise the Party itself.’

[…] This time, however, the authorities haven’t dragged out their old playbook and accused these people of conscience of the usual miscellaneous crimes such as ‘inciting the subversion of state power’, ‘spreading rumours and engaging in libelous speech’, or even ‘gathering a crowd to incite a pubic incident’. They are worried that the outside world might accuse them of human rights abuses and that they are merely punishing people for what they have said and written. Now they are covering themselves by arresting people for having engaged in ‘illegal business activities’ where in fact what they really want to do is crush free speech.

[…] The situation in China is rapidly deteriorating. Everyone, whether they be in- or outside the party-state system, and regardless of their social status or wealth, is living in a highly repressive political environment. Many choose to swallow their anger in response, but a small number of men and women feel compelled by a sense of decency to speak their minds regardless. They reject the status quo. Although some of them have been imprisoned on the pretext of this or that ‘crime’ and, despite the detention of Geng Xiaonan, a Cultural Woman Warrior, and the sentencing of Ren Zhiqiang, their advocacy for freedom and the rule of law will continue to inspire more and more people to brave the foul weather that besets us as we press on. [Source]

Despite this confidence, and the “storm of public outrage” over Geng’s treatment mentioned by Xu above, others have expressed disgust at widespread failure to speak out on Geng’s behalf. Barmé has translated two poetic expressions of this dismay, one from filmmaker and activist Ai Xiaoming, and another by Wuhan calligrapher Li Xueyuan, who laments: “You enjoyed her generous support, but now she is battered by the tempest/Yet you, Fine Gentlemen — you hold back in obnoxious cowardice.” In his introduction to the latter, Barmé notes:

Over the years, and in particular since the irresistible rise of and the quelling of intellectual, media and social activism, support for those who would speak out, like Xu Zhiyong and Xu Zhangrun, to name but two prominent figures, has dwindled.

The reasons for such reticence are understandable, but here our poet takes issue with the cowardice of what in China are known as ‘wine-and-meat buddies’ 酒肉朋友, that is those who repeatedly enjoyed her largesse in the past, in other words fair-weather friends. One of their number, when pressed to show some support for the detained publishers, offered gnomically: 吉人自有天相, ‘I’ll leave it up to Fate’. It’s a statement somewhat akin to saying: ‘Let them jail whomsoever they want; God will work it out.’ This is a recasting of the famous declaration made during the Albigensian Crusade in 1209: ‘Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius’ (Kill them all. The Lord knows those who are his own). [Source]

This erosion of solidarity is the product of a concerted campaign of deterrence designed to isolate political dissenters. One key source of support has been detainees’ immediate families, particularly spouses, often working together. These relatives have suffered often harsh reprisals for speaking out, including harassment, house arrest, evictions, and exclusion of children from schools. The detention of Geng Xiaonan’s husband exemplifies an apparent escalation of this trend, Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang noted last month, with family members increasingly detained or prosecuted along with the targets themselves. Wang highlighted the partners of artist and activist Wang Zang, rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, anti-discrimination activist Cheng Yuan, and pastor Wang Yi:

There is a joke among human rights activists in China: the primary qualification is “single, parents dead.” Given how often Chinese authorities treat family members of people opposing government rights abuses as “guilty by association,” it’s better not to have any family.

[…] Many activists in China have told me that they can themselves endure official retribution, but can’t bear their loved ones suffering for their activities. The Chinese government knows that well and exploits it to silence them. Nothing undermines Beijing’s claims to respect the rule of law more than this undisguised cruelty. [Source]

Other supporters are also coming under mounting pressure. Xu Zhangrun’s initial public attack on Geng’s detention, Barmé noted, “resulted in him being detained yet again and questioned at length. He was warned not to write or say anything else about the Geng Xiaonan case.” When he violated this demand with his open letter to China’s lawyers, he was again interrogated. and Shang Baojun, the two lawyers Xu had chosen to pursue an appeal against his treatment, were also visited by state security agents and warned “to limit their interactions with international media outlets so as to prevent the ‘highly sensitive’ case of Xu Zhangrun falling victim to a ‘media beat-up’.”

When pressure like this fails, targets’ communications can be interfered with more directly. Wang Quanzhang, for example, was initially allowed only limited phone access after his “non-release ‘release’,” undermining the official claim that continued restrictions on him were a routine matter of COVID prevention. Xu and several others who spoke out for him have had their WeChat accounts suspended, including former classmate Lu Nan and Tsinghua’s Guo Yuhua, who had posted a picture of the cover of Xu’s new book.

As the threat of a U.S. ban on the app has highlighted, ’s ubiquity makes its removal a serious barrier to communication. This is only the start of the impact of an account suspension on those living inside the country, however, given the breadth of the app’s presence in Chinese life. The service has now become a vital payment channel, for example. Phone-based payments, dominated by WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, are now so essential that Geng Xiaonan noted in her comments on location tracking: “Of course, you’re free to leave your mobile phone at home, but then all you can do is wander the streets, because you won’t be able to perform any everyday commercial or consumer activity.” While China’s unparalleled integration between digital services and everyday life brings great convenience to many, various commentators have noted the ecosystem’s downsides for those left outside it. Weaponizing this digital divide has become part of the authorities’ array of siege tactics for use against political targets.

Xu is reportedly subject to a “Four Ban Order,” barring him from leaving Beijing, leaving China, accepting media interviews, and receiving financial support. “Deprived of an income and of his pension,” Geremie Barmé has noted, “Xu’s living situation is stretched and, without access to online shopping or WeChat transactions (his WeChat account was suspended in July), he cannot make purchases nor, since his name is interdicted on the Internet, can friends make any on his behalf.” (Although is now in the United States, her pension was also cut off in order, she tweeted in August, “to plunge me into poverty [… and sentence] me to a ‘slow death.’“) RFA reported that Geng had discovered the block on Xu’s name for herself while trying to send him groceries via Alibaba’s Taobao, TMall, and Hema services in late August. Others have also faced repercussions for attempting to provide material support to Xu. In early September, Barmé highlighted crowdfunding efforts by Tsinghua alumni Sun Nutao and Yan Huai to help Xu earn money from his writing. From an appeal by Sun:

If, upon reading the attached essay (see below) [Xu’s letter to Harvard University] you are so moved, please feel free to show your appreciation. I would hasten to add that this is a simple commercial transaction abiding by market laws that in no way contravenes relevant regulations. I am undertaking this appeal and openly and in a manner that is entirely above board.

During these chill days of wintry darkness people of conscience should not stand by idly as a man like this endures such deprivation. [Source]

“The troublesome septuagenarians,” Barmé wrote, “were called in for questioning by the Beijing security authorities, reprimanded and issued a formal warning. Yan was placed under a regime of ’24/7 residential surveillance’.”

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