In the name of stability, you need to take a vacation

by Tienchi Martin-Liao    /  July 18, 2012  / No comments

China’s government pays to get activists out of the way

He Depu and his fellow activists last October. Photo: He Depu.


One day my friend He Depu, a former political prisoner, and now a human rights defender in Beijing, disappeared. All search efforts were in vain. Five days later, he emerged and dropped me a line to say that he was all right. “Where have you been?” I asked.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

“I was forced to take vacation at Nandaihe,” he said.

At the end of June, the Communist Party held its 11th Congress in Beijing. Because so many foreign reporters were present, the authority decided that certain people needed to be removed from town during the congress. He Depu was one of the chosen ones. In the name of stability, he had to take a vacation. Thus, He and his partner in the rights movement, Mrs. Ye Jinghuan, were taken away by a couple of plain clothes officers and transported to Nandaihe, a seaside resort. They spent four days at the resort, where they swam and enjoyed board and lodging in a nice hotel. The state paid the bill. The accompanying policemen were in the best mood and talkative. “See, it’s better and more economical,” they told my friend He. It’s true. If He and Ye had stayed in Beijing, the security police would have to send four guards to watch each of them in eight hour shifts; that means twenty-four officers per day, and although the hourly wage is not high, the accumulated total would be significant.

It is a funny phenomenon that many of these “dangerous elements” like He, who cost the state or the city enormous amounts money to “maintain stability,” do not have a regular income, while their watchers get paid. The one who goes to jail loses all social contacts and his job. After he serves the sentence and comes out years later, he is deserted and isolated from old friends and past surroundings, and there is seldom a chance for him to find a new job. He Depu, for example, is dependent on his wife’s moderate salary as an employee at the tax department. He used to be an editor and founded the magazine Beijing Youth before becoming a member of the Democratic Party in 1998. Later He spent almost 9 years in prison for his political activities and writing before his release in 2011.

However, the mistreatment in jail did not destroy his health; instead it strengthened his will to fight for the rights of prisoners and common people. After his release, He Depu once again became the core of a group of human rights defenders, most of whom were also victims of arbitrary justice. But no formal organization exists—only a group of people who can gather quickly and is equipped with cell phones and cameras and, most importantly, basic legal knowledge and a clear mind.

He and the other volunteers have three main goals: To improve the food and medical treatment in prison, to support people with basic legal knowledge, and to get involved in the local election.

To raise attention about the bad food and corruption in the No. 2 Prison He and his people have contacted the prison’s administration several times. Their effort has proven to have some positive effects on the situation.

As for their legal mission, confrontations with the police and the government are still business as usual, but the group follows the law with every step it takes so that they can not be attacked or accused. Should this happen, they make audio and visual records of it. In the process of protecting their own rights, they have built up a social network, and some of their records have been posted on websites overseas.

Another touchstone for He’s work was the local election in Beijing. From last October to December his group supported some of its members’ bids to become candidates for the People’s Congress. They started the election campaign to inform and ask people to reject the official candidates from the CCP and support candidates from the people. They did not succeed, but it set up a learning process for themselves and for the citizens in Beijing.

All things considered, it doesn’t look like China will be dealing with a Spring revolution this year. On the contrary, after the power switch in October, we may witness a turbulent autumn. On one hand, He Depu and his group are a new type of civil movement in China, quite different from the daily street protests. He’s actions are reasonable, peaceful, and legal. Therefore, his group has been treated respectfully; they are invited to tea and on forced vacations. Sometimes the leading figures experience home raids, kidnapping, and jail. On the other hand, the mass movements on the street are spontaneous; they burst out like a volcano because of the unendurable injustice that ignites people’s emotions and rage into wild fire. To keep the street action under control, police, tear gas, truncheons, and guns are used. Such measures often cost human lives and end with arrests and sentences.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

View all articles by Tienchi Martin-Liao

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