Making people vanish

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2011, 12:00am

The 'disappearance' of outspoken individuals has become a regular event in China in recent years.

But the disappearance of dozens of high-profile lawyers, bloggers and rights activists linked to calls for a 'jasmine revolution' in China in February is even more troubling than usual, because of the silence many of them have maintained since their 'reappearance'.

In recent weeks, however, some have begun to speak up again. Artist Ai Weiwei said 'hello' on Twitter on August 6 and then called attention to the trial of rights activist Wang Lihong, while lawyers Teng Biao and Tang Jitian have also resumed commenting on current affairs. Snippets of information about their treatment during their disappearances have also emerged online.

Beijing lawyer Jiang Tianyong, 40, was thrown into a car and taken away by the authorities in front of his family on February 19. He was released on April 19, but neither he nor his family ever received formal notice of his detention or arrest. For 60 days no one knew where he was, or if he was alive or dead.

Jiang spoke to the South China Morning Post recently in his first in-depth interview since his release, explaining what happened to him during those two months, why he kept silent after his release and why he is speaking up again.

'Fear, that's what they want us to feel,' Jiang said in his Beijing office at the end of last month, calmly recounting his experience even though he choked on his words several times. He even joked that all his 'slimming efforts' during detention - the loss of 9kg - had now worn off.

'If we don't speak up, that's like admitting that the fear worked.' A former junior high-school teacher from Henan, Jiang started working as a lawyer in 2005 and soon took on rights cases, representing sensitive clients like blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, jailed activist Hu Jia, and Aids patients and Falun Gong practitioners.

Being invited to 'tea' with national-security officers became a regular part of his life, but he said it had never 'lasted this long' before.

It all started on the afternoon of February 16, when Jiang, Teng and other rights lawyers met to discuss ways to help Chen, who was under house arrest at his Shandong home. Anonymous online calls had said the first jasmine revolution rally in China was set for February 20 and the lawyers' meeting made the authorities very nervous, Jiang said.

After the meeting he was taken to a police station and roughed up by a national-security officer, who warned him to act carefully in the coming days. For the next two days Jiang went about his business under police surveillance, before being abducted from his brother's home on the afternoon of February 19.

At midnight Jiang's head was covered with a black hood and he was taken to another room where three men interrogated him.

They beat Jiang's head and body with an almost full bottle of water, pinched his face and hurled incessant insults and threats at him.

'Do you know the jasmine flower?' they asked, finally making their point. 'Do you still claim you don't know what you have done?'

While he was only subject to serious beatings on the first two nights, he endured verbal abuse throughout the two months, and other forms of physical abuse.

At noon on February 22, a security officer laid down the ground rules: get up at 6am every day, shout 'report to sir, I'm up, I love my country passionately, and I will accept the education of the government', then recite the lyrics of three patriotic songs. If he got any of the words wrong, he had to start again.

Three meals and his high-blood-pressure pills were served regularly every day, but apart from those times, Jiang had to 'reflect'.

By 'reflect', the officer meant Jiang had to sit upright, hands on knees, on a chair facing the wall. Slouching or any slight adjustments would result in him being berated by the guards sitting at the door.

Jiang was supposed to be allowed to sleep at midnight, but as one officer said: 'If you are being 'educated' during your rest time, blame your luck.'

For at least five days, Jiang did not get to sleep because he was interrogated between midnight and 6am.

'It's like the law of China. The law is completely in their hands,' Jiang said.

The physical pain was nothing, though, compared to the mental torture he was put through.

'Rescue education', as it was called, took place every few days, for hours on end. Jiang had to sit in his 'reflecting' position during the process - a combination of pedantic questioning on the same points, sometimes for hours on the use of one term, and of humiliating words and threats.

'You know your life is in our hands? So is your wife's and your child's,' they said. 'If you co-operate, perhaps the government will be more understanding.

'Don't even dream about being transferred to a detention centre, or getting tried in a court. If we beat you to death and bury you, all it means is dirtying a piece of land.'

The interrogations focused on a few points, some related to the jasmine rallies and some not. He was drilled on what happened at the February 16 meeting, his relationship with some overseas dissidents and other rights lawyers, his Twitter postings in relation to the jasmine rallies, and his rights cases. He was also questioned on his activities abroad and contacts with foreigners, his online chat with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lamai, his contacts with the media, and why he switched from being a teacher to a lawyer.

Before his detention, Jiang had discussed the uprising and calls for democracy in Egypt on Twitter, and had forwarded messages about the first rally posted by other users, as well as saying he 'looks forward to the blossoming of the flower'.

But Jiang said that was the extent of his involvement.

'My whole mind was occupied by Chen Guangcheng and other cases. I really didn't pay much attention to the whole jasmine revolution movement,' Jiang said. 'But they wanted to establish whether I was one of the organisers within China, under overseas instigation.'

Jiang was also repeatedly reminded that 'all foreign organisations have ulterior motives'.

The interrogators discussed each point with Jiang at length. Each answer of 'I don't know' would result in 'reflection' until he remembered. Jiang would then have to write down his reflections at the end of each session, to be reviewed by the interrogators' supervisors. If they were not satisfied with the answer, Jiang would face further 'education' on that point.

Jiang said he wrote more than 200 pages of such thoughts, a process designed to brainwash him and make him say 'black is white'.

'But the worst thing is, it was not enough for me to just say that 'black is white',' he said. 'I had to also provide the logic of why 'black is white'.

'This was more painful than beating me.'

During those two months he never once saw natural light, and no one was allowed to talk to him, or even talk in his presence, unless during interrogation. Jiang said he thought that isolation had contributed to his bad memory since his release.

'I used to have an excellent memory,' he said. 'But after I was released, I even forgot how our bedroom at home was laid out, and my password to Skype, which I had used for years.'

Jiang said prayers and keeping a count of the passing days helped him stay sane during the ordeal, but it was not easy. From expecting to be released after 24 hours, then three days, seven days and 37 days - all legal time limits for different stages of processing a criminal - Jiang slowly lost hope.

On the night of March 21, Jiang was woken up by the arrival of a car at the building where he was locked up, then sounds of struggling and someone being beaten and locked up in the room next door. Then he heard the wailing of a woman and thought it was his wife.

Days later Jiang found out that this was not the case, but he could no longer sleep properly at night, despite his extreme exhaustion.

'I realised I wanted to get out. I wanted to see my family,' Jiang said. 'There was no point resisting. It was not worth losing my life in there.'

Jiang also began to see that the longer he remained there, the more he would be made to say against his will, which might implicate others.

'I'd been trying to give no more than what I thought the interrogators already knew, but it was very difficult,' Jiang said.

Finally, he wrote and signed eight pledges. He promised not to work on his rights-advocacy cases, to cut off ties with his original circle of friends, not to accept media interviews - especially those of 'reactionary' media ('People's Daily is all right', they said) - not to meet with foreigners and foreign organisations, not to access illegal or 'reactionary' websites, not to make any comments online that might 'affect the image of the party or the government', not to tell others what happened during his detention, and to communicate regularly with his minders on his whereabouts and provide information as requested.

Jiang still has to meet with his national-security minder once a week, but says the control is a lot more relaxed than when he was first released. The minder no longer reprimands him for saying 'inappropriate' things on his microblog.

Speaking out again is a process of repeatedly testing the waters. First just forwarding other people's messages, then slowly starting to comment, first on microblogs, then on Twitter. Looking at what everyone else is doing, then trying to push for more.

'Since I came out, I have never wavered about whether or not to resist their orders, only about how to resist,' Jiang said. 'These pledges are preventing me from breathing. How could I possibly comply?'

Jiang tried to tweet the day after he was let out, but was immediately asked to delete his postings. Then Jiang started microblogging on Sina and Tencent in June, and those messages appeared to be tolerated. Then, finally, on August 12, Jiang tried posting a message on Twitter again, in response to a posting by Ai regarding his detention, and this time the minder did not raise any objection.

'What I need to do, as a lawyer, as a citizen, I'll still do. I can't make myself give up,' Jiang said, when asked whether he was worried about 'disappearing' again. But he also admits that those two months of detention have changed him, especially when he thinks of his family.

'In the past I was very direct. If the authorities told me not to do something, I would refuse, or push them to show me where the law forbade me to do that,' he said. 'However, now I'll think more about how I can achieve what I want to do. I will think about alternatives, and I will think about whether I must do it now, or whether I can wait a bit.'