11 January 2011

Trying to Visit Chen Guangcheng

Late last night, word went out on Twitter that a young woman named He Peirong (known online as @pearlher) had gone missing. She was last known to be just outside of a village in Shandong's Yi'nan County, where she had gone in hopes of finding Chen Guangcheng. Chen, a well-known rights activist, and his entire family are reportedly being held under tight security by unknown authority ever since his release from prison in September. His whereabouts and safety have been a cause of international concern, especially in light of the violent, thuggish treatment given to lawyers, reporters, diplomats, and others who have tried to visit in the past.

As of this writing, Ms He's whereabouts are still unclear, although local police claim that she is safe. Her fate has spurred me to finish translating an account of another attempt to meet with Chen Guangcheng, written by a Chengdu activist named Chen Yunfei (no relation). I don't have time to comment further or annotate completely, and I offer the translation "as is." It at least gives some sense of what kind of place is Chen Guangcheng's "home turf."

(Bonus: Here's Prof. Jerome Cohen speaking about Chen Guangcheng recently:)

Chen Yunfei's Visit to Shandong to See Chen Guangcheng

On November 30, 2010, I incautiously wandered into Chen Guangcheng’s “home” in Yinan, Shandong.

I’d heard that this was the site of the [1947] Battle of Menglianggu [between Nationalist and Communist troops], a place frequently haunted by jackals and wolves with ghosts everywhere. I was trembling with fear even before I entered the “village.”

Just past 4:30 in the afternoon, I reached the entrance of the Yi’nan County Public Security Bureau. After asking someone to take my photo as was a memento, I went up to the guard.

I said: “Officer, I’ve come from far away and would like to have a word with your bureau's domestic security police.”

The guard stared at me blankly and asked me what was domestic security police? (This strange phrase “domestic security” is probably something known only by veteran public security officers, counterrevolutionaries, and the domestic security police themselves.) He said: “I’m new here and don’t know.” Pointing to the office building inside, he said: “Go inside and have a look.”

I went into the building and was told I could find the domestic security office on the fourth floor. I knocked at the office for a while, but there was no answer. So I went back downstairs to the bureau office.

Luckily, an armed policeman and a female plainclothes officer were on duty. I gave them basic information about myself (omitting, of course, my frequent illegal feasting activities) and asked them to contact the domestic security police because I wanted to discuss Chen Guangcheng with them. As soon as they heard the name Chen Guangcheng, they looked as if they were allergic. They looked at me and said: “We aren’t in charge. The boss just went out but she’ll be back soon. Wait and ask Section Chief Gao.”

Sure enough, Section Chief Gao soon returned to the office. I repeated my request and she sternly asked me my name and address. She told me to have some tea and wait a moment and then left the office.

Not long afterward, she came back and said: “The domestic security police have gone out on a case. They’ll be back soon.”

So, I sipped my tea and chatted with them about the local weather, urban development, the population . . . . I couldn’t help mentioning the foul atmosphere in Chengdu. Every once in a while someone would come to the door and have a look in, but I paid them no mind.

About a half hour later, a fair-skinned man wearing street clothes came in and said: “Are you Chen Yunfei? You’re looking for us domestic security police?”

I answered: “Yes, I’m Criminal Chen. I’d like to discuss Chen Guangcheng with you.”

He said: “Then come with me.” I followed him up to his office on the fourth floor, carrying the two plastic bags I’d brought with me.

He poured me a cup of hot water and the two of us chatted idly for a while. When I asked this guy (who I’ll call Officer A for short) his name, I couldn't for the life of me make out his reply—even though he repeated himself three times—but I pretended to understand him anyway. (I couldn’t bring shame to the great, glorious, and correct Party and government by letting them know they’d brought up a student who couldn’t even understand the language.)

He asked me again about my particulars, including my occupation, and I told him: “My main occupation is landscaping, but I tame animals on the side.”

When I told him I’d been divorced for several years, he seemed to get excited and asked me, mockingly: “If you can’t manage your own marriage and family, who are you to stick your nose in important national matters?”

I told him: “I’m not interested in any important national matters, but I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of communism.” After a sip of water, I continued: “Do you know about the marriages of Chairman Mao and Liu Shaoqi? Do you know about the Indian premier who’s been a bachelor all his life? Do you know about the female American governor who’s over 45 and has still not married?”

He again mocked me, asking: “Are you comparing yourself to Chairman Mao?”

I answered: “I cannot compare to him. When [Mao's first wife] Yang Kaihui was in prison, Mao and [second wife] He Zizhen established a deep revolutionary friendship. When He Zizhen went abroad to “make revolution,” Mao and [third wife] Comrade Jiang Qing fought side by side.” I thought about telling him the reason I’d left my former wife was because her [political] consciousness was too low—she wasn’t a League or Party member—and was holding back my own consciousness. Or that my current criteria for selecting a spouse was to aim first for Party members, then League members; Young Pioneers were a possibility after some training. But he shifted the subject to why I’d never taken the lawyer’s exam if I wanted to do rights-defense work.

I asked: “Do you know Teng Biao?”

He said: “Sure!”

I said: “Teng Biao is a lecturer at China University of Politics and Law. You probably know his lawyer’s permit was suspended?”

I didn’t wait for his response and said: “I couldn’t pass the exam, but that doesn’t prevent me from defending rights as a citizen. I defend rights to express the rights we should have, a way of telling more people who are the creditors and who are the debtors.”

As we were chatting a skinny plainclothes officer of average height (who I’ll call Officer B) came in with a pen and some paper to begin the main event of the day.

Officer B asked me for my name and native place, so I voluntarily took out my identification card and gave it to him. As he began to write, I asked: “Does this count as an interrogation record?”

Officer B quickly answered: “It’s just some notes.”

Officer A added: “Why don’t you tell us why you've come to us!”

I said: “First, I’d like to tell you how I see the current social contradictions and problems. I’m not in favor of avoiding, covering up, or exacerbating [problems]. I support positive dialogue between officials and the public and not opposition. I support democracy and rule of law and oppose dictatorship and class struggle. We’re all black-eyed, black-haired, yellow-skinned compatriots. The blood and tears of many decades of class struggle have taught an important lesson, I think.”

Officer A was quick to praise me, saying: “Your coming here first instead of taking radical steps shows trust in the government, and that's a positive thing.”

I continued: “The reason I've come is to discuss Chen Guangcheng with you. There are all sorts of rumors on and off the Internet, saying he's confined to a restricted area—one that's heavily guarded, impenetrable, an impregnable fortress—and that his entire family's movement is restricted and they depend on his elderly mother in her 80s for their livelihood.”

Officer A: “Have you been in touch with Chen Guangcheng in the past? How do you know him?”

I answered: “I've never met Mr Chen Guangcheng before, so I've of course never been in touch with him. I just said I learned about this online. Outside the “Great Firewall,” it's all over the place; inside the Firewall, too, despite the tenacious struggle of online commentators fulfilling their duties . . . .”

Officer A: “Do you believe all this is true?”

I answered: “I've come here to seek confirmation. If it's false, it's a slander on the image of the Party and the government. We can't give these anti-China hostile foreign forces any excuse for spreading propaganda. At the same time, after I learn the truth I can go around and refute these rumors.”

I took a sip of water and continued: “If what's being said on the Internet is the truth, I want to do two things. First, I'd like to see Mr Chen Guangcheng and carry out ideological work on him to understand why he's being so obstinate, refusing to change, and opposing the Party and the government so stubbornly. I want to tell him about the excellent situation outside under the leadership of the Party and the government, as well as the unprecedented 'harmonious' stability and prosperity. And I want to encourage him to mend his ways as soon as possible, re-enter society, and stop this bad influence. Second, no matter how incorrigible Chen Guangcheng may be, his child is innocent. I want to visit his child, personally give her some spending money, buy her things like a book bag, school supplies, and toys.”

Officer A: “You don't need to meet Chen Guangcheng. Our local people there have surrounded the place nice and tight, so you couldn't see him even if you wanted to. Also, the people there won't be polite with you, and we won't take any responsibility for what might happen. Even we domestic security police don't go there. I've never seen the guy, and I don't want to.”

Officer A's next words filled me with anxiety: “He's not like you. He's a traitor! He sold out national interests to the foreigners.”

Amazed, I said: “Wow, what national interests did he sell out?”

Officer A: “You don't need to know about this, it's a secret.” Then he said: “He had lots of contacts overseas. Exactly how many contacts, we're still in the process of finding out. You'd best not get mixed up in his affair. Hurry on home.”

Hearing this, I broke out in a cold sweat, thinking: “'Traitor'? The Battle of Menglianggu ended so many years ago, what 'traitors'? What's wrong with having contacts with foreigners? Wasn't Marx a foreigner? Lots of state leaders, including General Secretary Hu Jintao, often embrace foreigners—does this mean they've sold out to the foreigners?

I said, timidly: “Then I'll go to the town to meet with village cadres, members of the public, and the child.”

Officer A said: “That's no good!”

My repeated efforts to negotiate were all firmly rejected. Officer A became agitated, saying: “Who do you think you are? Do you represent the province? The central government? You think you can see whomever you want?” Then he continued to chew me out, his voice becoming sharper and sharper and more nagging, like he was running me out of town.

I finally gave up and said: “Then let me give the child's spending money to you or a village cadre to give to her. Just leave your name or the cadre's name. How's that?”

Officer A said: “The family is doing just fine, and the child doesn't need any money. Yi'nan is a poor county, and we welcome donations. Do you want to donate a million in cash or by check?”

I wanted to top him by saying, “I'm a poor farmer's assistant.” But I'm an “animal” trainer, even if only in my spare time, and I've studied [Liu Zongyuan's] “The Donkey of Guizhou” [in which a donkey is eventually eaten by a tiger after exhausting his abilities to scare the tiger away]. So I quickly said: “If you're not going to let me see him, then you're not going to let me see him. Sorry to waste your time!”

Outside the window I could see the evening glow. As I was about to shake their hands and depart, Officer A said: “You can't go yet. We need to find a car to escort you back to Linyi.”

I said: “There's such comfortable weather and beautiful scenery in Yi'nan, and the evening scenery is especially lovely. I want to spend the night here, someplace near the public security bureau, perhaps the bureau guest house.”

Officer A said firmly: “No way. You must leave now.”

I said: “I'll leave after I eat.”

“No.” He then told Officer B to hurry up and arrange a car.

I knew all along that Chen Guangcheng's home was closer to Linyi than it was to Yi'nan, so I could leave from Linyi tomorrow and go to his house. So, I went downstairs with Officer B and left the public security bureau gate. Officer B pushed me aside and said a few words in the local dialect to the taxi driver. At the end, I vaguely heard Officer B say: “Take him to Linyi and find him a guesthouse, one not-too expensive.” Then we got in the car.

As we were driving, I asked several times to stop and take photos to remember the beautiful night scenery, but Driver Liu tactfully refused, saying time was short and he had to pick someone up. (Later, I realized that the domestic security police had already instructed him not to allow me to stop along the route and get out of the car, in case I should run away.)

We sped the whole way and arrived in Linyi around 8:30 p.m. I asked the driver to take me to a guesthouse near the long-distance bus station. He waited while I got the invoice and registered, then he said goodbye and departed. After he’d gone, I claimed I needed to find a cash machine because I didn’t have enough cash and hurriedly left the guesthouse and checked into a cheaper private hostel. I had a bowl of noodles and then fell soundly asleep.

At around two in the morning, I awoke and suddenly remembered that petitioners had gone [to visit Chen]. Could I get any firsthand information from them or find a guide in Linyi? After much effort, I finally got hold of the contact number for Liu Guoyan, a petitioner who had gone to seen Guangcheng and been bloodied.

I met with Liu Guoyan after 9 a.m. on December 1. She recounted in detail her terrifying experience of going to visit Chen Guangcheng and warned me not to go because I’d be in danger with my non-local accent. In the end, I promised her I would first go to Shuanghou Town, near where Chen Guangcheng lived, and consider my options. Then she contacted another petitioner to discuss with us. I worried that they’d come to harm after I left, so I gently refused their offer to act as my guide.

After 10 a.m., I caught a bus passing through Shuanghou. Since I didn’t know the route and didn’t understand the local dialect, I kept asking the ticket collector to let me know when we got there. We arrived at Shuanghou Town around 11:30 a.m.

The town was small, and I, keeping up my courage, quickly located the town government office. I wanted to have a photo taken, but there wasn’t a person to be found near the entrance. After a while, a middle-aged woman came out of the town government office with two children. I rushed over and asked her to help, but she looked me over cautiously and told me she couldn’t help. A little while later, a minibus with tinted glass all over drove up and parked about 50 meters to the left of the government office. (Only later, when it was taking me to the police station, did I realize it was a mobile surveillance vehicle.)

A bit later still, a man in his 30s got out of the minibus and started walking toward the government office. As he approached the entrance, I called to him to stop and help me take a photo. As he went inside, he snarled at me: “What are you taking a photo for? You can’t take photos here—get out of here!” I knew I was exposed and hurried off to photograph the government office entrance from a distance, pretending to prepare to slip away.

I had just turned the corner when I saw seven or eight men come out of the government office and head straight for me. I quickened my pace. When I reached an intersection, a crowd of people arrived, some in cars, some running. Some were tall, some short; some were heavy, others thin. Nearly all were wearing black. I was trapped. They were looking at me fiercely, as a ferocious wolf would look at its prey.

If I hadn’t been in this situation before, I would’ve pissed my pants. I coolly asked them: “What are you doing? What do you want from me?”

The man who told me not to take photographs said: “What are you doing? What the hell are you running for?”

I didn’t have to answer him, but in an attempt to avoid exacerbating the situation I said: “I’ve been looking unsuccessfully for a university classmate. I thought while I was here I’d buy a gingko tree to take back with me for landscaping.”

I then asked them if they knew where I could find a gingko tree. One of them had bought the act and said his relative had one. I asked him to contact his relative and tell him I wanted to have a look. He gave me a card and told me to contact him myself.

So I tried negotiating with the leader of the pack. I insisted I wanted to find a telephone to do my gingko-tree-purchasing business. The guy who had prevented me from taking the photo (a man of high consciousness and strong principle—good traits for a domestic security policeman) said: “First wait a minute, then make your call.” I tried several more times without success.

Another vehicle came by a bit later to take me to the police station. I thought I might as well go, since a police station was a very familiar place to me. I got in without arguing.

When we arrived at the police station there were already a lot of police officers and auxiliary police there to gloat. They had me wait in the duty office for a while, then an officer took me to another room.

Entering, I had a look around and saw a “tiger bench” used in questioning. This was the kind of interrogation room you hear stories about!

They poured me some water. I inspected the identification of the officer questioning me and made a note of his name. He was the first official I’d encountered in my effort to visit Chen Guangcheng whose name I knew.

Then we started talking. I gave him the same speech I’d given at the public security bureau.

He said he understood that the rights-defense movement was aimed at establishing rule of law quickly and was out of concern for the nation and the people. He also believed that the mighty tide of democracy could not be turned back. Along the path to democracy, the distance between the government’s efforts and our reform ideals would gradually decrease.

Because of the fact that he’d told me he had studied humanities, his friendly face, and the calm way he’d let me inspect his police identification, I decided right away that he was all right. I gave him my name card and wrote down my QQ account, telling him this was my personal account and that I hoped we’d keep in touch in the future. A curious police officer tried to get a look at the card, and when I asked him to keep it private he hurriedly put it away.

Then, he told me with great seriousness that he had spoken with Chen Guangcheng. He said [Chen] was in good spirits. I asked after his daughter, and he told me that she was attending school. I warned that they shouldn’t discriminate against her and let this bad blood spread even further. They should take special care of her.

He promised they wouldn’t [discriminate against her].

Then, he inspected my mobile phone and, according to their rules, deleted the only two photos I’d taken as mementos in Yi’nan.

Finally, he simply asked me how I’d come to Shuanghou and noted down what I said. He went to report on what I had said to his superior, then came back and said: “We don’t want to keep you, or else it will delay your return trip. I just want to make three suggestions on behalf of the police. First, don’t stick around; hurry on home. Second, don’t worry about Chen Guangcheng. Worrying won’t do you any good. We’ll resolve this soon. Third, we hope that after you leave you won’t reveal any of what you’ve seen and heard here.”

I replied: “No problem on the first point. Second, my concern for Chen Guangcheng is sensible, rational, and lawful. There doesn’t need to be any benefit to me. If you resolve his situation soon, I definitely won’t concern myself. As for the third thing, if you become friends with me on QQ and promise that you’ll solve the problem of Chen Guangcheng’s freedom as soon as possible, I can promise to refrain from publicizing.”

It was almost 1 p.m., and I asked if I could have a meal in the town before leaving. They politely refused. They arranged for a police car and, under watch of three police, took me back to the main intersection in town. Twenty minutes later, they flagged down a bus and escorted me aboard. The police had a few words with the driver. (When I got off in Linyi, I asked the driver: “Did the police tell you to watch to make sure I didn’t get off someplace along the way?” He answered affirmatively.)

It’s been more than 20 days since I returned home, and Chen Guangcheng’s situation hasn’t changed and we still don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I’ve written this out of worry and shout with anger: Yi’nan government, you can't keep using “family” law against Chen Guangcheng! Please stop your barbarous illegal detention of citizens immediately! Your millions in “stability maintenance” expenditures and secret political calculations have seriously crossed the line in terms of law, morality, and humanity. Serious legal punishment and the judgment of history will be brought against you and those behind the scenes who are directing you to carry out these criminal activities!