12 May 2009

Accounting for 20 Years of Pain: Li Hai's List

In late April, as part of the effort to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chinese pro-democracy movement and the bloody suppression in Beijing that brought it to an end, the indispensable Chinese-language news and opinion website Boxun published valuable historical documents that, as far as I know, have never been previously published in their original form. A series of painstakingly hand-copied records lists the details of more than 100 men imprisoned in Beijing Number Two Prison after being given long prison sentences for criminal acts allegedly committed during the riots that broke out in Beijing after troops descended on the center of the city.

These were not the students, intellectuals, and labor activists who had occupied Tiananmen Square for much of the spring of 1989, nor were they "political prisoners" in the usual sense of the term. These were mostly young men from the same working-class backgrounds as those who made up the bulk of those felled by military gunfire that night, men who tried to use whatever means necessary to block the advance of military and police vehicles and who vented their anguish over Chinese soldiers firing their weapons on unarmed civilians by setting fires, attacking troop convoys, and seizing rifles and ammunition.

Of the thousands of Chinese from across the country who were arrested following the crackdown in June 1989, these "ruffians" or "hooligans," as they came to be known, are the only ones who remain imprisoned 20 years on. They were given life sentences or suspended death sentences subsequently commuted to life imprisonment for crimes like arson, robbery, theft of weapons, or "hooliganism." It's important to remember that the protests were national in scope: besides Beijing, violent demonstrations took place in other Chinese cities in the spring of 1989, with large numbers of arrests in Shanghai, several different cities in Hunan Province, Xi'an, and Chengdu.

Despite being given heavy sentences, over the years it seems that most of those convicted of violent criminal activity were granted sentence reductions or paroled. The Dui Hua Foundation, which in recent years has made a special effort to use its resources to track these cases and come to some understanding of how many individuals might still be imprisoned from that period, has just released a new estimate putting the number between 25 and 35 and called on the Chinese government to show them clemency in an effort to achieve some measure of reconciliation with this painful period of history.

That we know anything at all about these all-but-forgotten prisoners is mostly thanks to the efforts of a few individuals who have taken it upon themselves to rescue their names from obscurity. One who mustn't be forgotten is Li Hai—the man who 15 years ago compiled the Beijing Number Two list that was recently published. Li, who was active during the 1989 demonstrations and subsequent political activity in the early 1990s, such as the "Peace Charter" movement, paid a heavy price for compiling this and other prisoner lists that eventually wound up in the hands of overseas human rights organizations. He spent nine years in a Beijing prison, much of it reportedly in solitary confinement. Since his release from prison in 2005, Li has remained politically active and was a signatory of the latest in a long series of expressions of Chinese aspirations for fundamental political reform, a document in which he identified his occupation as "human rights defender."

(I wrote this primarily to pay tribute to Li Hai, but also to see whether writing about this subject will kill access to my blog in China. I truly hope not, but if it happens, well there's not much I can do about it. I didn't start writing this blog to subject myself to some regime of censorship. I realize that all of the links probably won't be reachable to Chinese readers without access to the unfiltered Internet, and for this I apologize.)

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