编者按：本文由端传媒与NGOCN声音计划联合出品，首发于端传媒。 Editor’s Note: Initium Media co-published the article with NGOCN. The article first appeared in Initium Media.
When Chinese lawyer Chang Weiping was released on bail for 10 months，he published 216 videos documenting his daily life. He says he treasures every day that he can be seen and heard, and hopes that he can find a way to live his life so that it still has value.
Chang is 37 years old this year. On January 12, 2020, he was placed under residential surveillance at a designated location for 10 days for endangering national security. Afterwards, he was released on bail pending a trial for inciting subversion of state power, and was under house arrest for 10 months in his hometown of Fengxiang County, Shaanxi Province.
“Of course, I am innocent. Recording everything, this is my approach.” In his videos and during his life, he has stressed this many times. He believes he has the duty to provide real information to investigate the state of survival of lawyers, the rule of law and the human rights situation in China. In the October 16, 2020 video, in a rare move, he made public a summary and statement revealing the torture he experienced during his time under residential surveillance: he was strapped to a tiger chair for 10 days, and prohibited from sleeping which led to his right thumb and index finger being numb even to this day. Every day, he was only allowed to eat a bowl of noodles and a steamed bun the size of an egg. He was interrogated even when he felt fatigue and did around 16 transcripts.
The video diaries came to an abrupt end on October 21, 2020. On the second day, he was placed under residential surveillance once again for “suspicion of inciting subversion of state power”. On April 7, he was arrested and detained at the Feng County Detention Center in Baoji City.
“What I’ve done is a lawyer’s duty and a citizen’s social obligation. Even if I don’t receive a prize, I still should not be treated in such a way.” Chang said in his summary video. He felt most guilty that he hadn’t done enough and that he had affected his family and friends.
A male lawyer supporting #MeToo
Helpless, angry, ashamed. Chen Zijuan in one breath spoke about her feelings regarding her dealings with the Shaanxi Province Justice Bureau in the past six months.
Chen is Chang’s wife. On October 22, 2020, after her husband was detained again, she registered an account on Twitter and Weibo under the name “Lawyer Chang Weiping’s wife”, calling for the release of her husband and also recording the obstacles she faced with rights defense.
“Departments that have ‘people’ written in their names are incredibly grand and magnificent, yet ordinary people can’t even get through the door.” Chen and her lawyers have repeatedly gone to Shaanxi’s Public Security Bureau, the Procuratorate, the Supervisory Commission and other related departments to legally complain about the torture that Chang suffered when he was under residential surveillance previously. Yet they were ignored and driven away.
In the process, Chen began to understand her husband more. In the rights defense lawyers’ group even though Chang is not the most moderate one of them in terms of his views, he is still quite moderate. He believes he can try to advance the rule of law in a gradual and orderly manner through rights defense on a case-by-case basis.
He is not a resister. Chang has made his position clear many times. Even though he presents himself as a human rights lawyer, he not only focuses on politically sensitive cases. He also puts a lot of effort into public interest cases which have received less attention in the human rights space such as gender discrimination and employment discrimination.
In 2017, Liu Yuan was refused employment at Kweichou Moutai Co. Ltd. because he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Chang, as his lawyer, was able to mobilize support through the media. In April of the same year, he sent a letter with signatures from 51 lawyers, to China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the National Health Commission, suggesting to delete regulations regarding HIV/AIDS employment discrimination in the “General Standards for Civil Service Recruitment Examination”. He also urged them to ensure equal employment rights for those with HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B.
Chang was able to win Liu Yuan his job and also 50,000 RMB in emotional compensation. The case also became the first equal employment case in China since the addition of the “equal employment rights disputes” to the “Cause of Action of Civil Cases” in 2018.
Anti-discrimination cases can defend an individual’s rights and can also push the government to gradually improve its policies. Chang discovered that these anti-discrimination cases can also promote people’s rights awareness. He then became more active in cases related to AIDS discrimination, hepatitis B discrimination, gender discrimination, sexual harassment among others.
In 2018, the #MeToo movement that began in the US also took off in China. According to Initium Media, from January 1, 2018 until October 2018, the media exposed 36 cases related to #MeToo. Chang and several feminists established an anti-sexual violence assistance group to provide legal aid to victims. He became one of the few male lawyers among rights defense lawyers that publicly came out in support of #MeToo.
Afterwards, several individuals in this small group lost their freedom to varying degrees. When Chang was released, he rejoined the group and joked that “This group is just helping people, yet the crime rate is so high. Around 2/3rds of us have committed crimes.”
Among the human rights lawyers who were predominantly male, Chang’s gender awareness was particularly good which is considered rare. His lawyer friend Xiao Ming remembers that they were in the same lawyer group and whenever there were topics related to gender, there would be someone who would always tag Chang and say: “What does Lawyer Chang think about this question?” There were some that directly warned others that: “Chang is engaged in #MeToo, let’s stay away from him.”
Chang didn’t care, and laughs at himself as a “pseudo-feminist that lacks confidence”. He has taken up many cases related to employment discrimination and understands the injustices and harms brought to females by gender discrimination and sexual harassment.
In 2017, chef Gao Xiao was rejected during recruitment at a restaurant in Guangzhou for the reason that they only recruit men and not women. Chang pointed out that most Chinese families have women who do most of the cooking, so why is it that in restaurants they say women aren’t able to? This is employment discrimination. It also happened that Gao Xiao is a feminist that enjoys cooking, can take hardships and also hates sexual harassment. The two of them hit it off immediately, and they firstly sued the restaurant and later sued the Guangzhou Human Resources and Social Security for their inaction. During the process, Chang got to know a group of feminists wearing “Feminists look like this” cultural shirts and began to understand more about their activist philosophy.
On March 7, 2018, “Feminist Voices” was censored. The editor, Xiong Jing reached out to Chang who then sued Sina Weibo and Tencent, and afterwards regularly consulted and discussed sexual harassment cases with Chang. She saw how patient Chang was with victims, and through Chang’s “One Woman Series” articles, she discovered that Chang is “one of the rare human rights lawyers who actually listens to the voices of women with care”.
In July 2018, independent journalist Huang Xueqin was blackmailed by Zhang Peng who had sexually harassed her. Zhang was an anthropology professor at Sun Yat-Sen University and he had threatened to sue her for defamation. Chang was the first to send Huang Xueqin a message saying: “If he sues you, I’ll help you fight this case for free.”
When Chang was detained again, on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021, feminists named Chang a “male lawyer in #MeToo”. China’s national security who were handling the case told Chen many times: “Chang is regularly at other people’s homes”, “Chang has a close relationship with feminism.” In hindsight, Chen laughed and said, “They want to try and divide us as a couple, but I have known Chang since high school and know him too well; he doesn’t aspire to be such a person.”
Chang acknowledged that he changed from a human rights lawyer to a moderate public interest lawyer for several reasons. Firstly, the legal space has been shrinking, and human rights lawyers have been experiencing crackdowns and it was no longer feasible to use the same ways they did to defend human rights. Secondly, he has seen that certain words and actions within the human rights circles did not meet the requirements of human rights defenders, and the phenomenon of sexual harassment, discrimination and domestic violence within the circle made him reflect on the culture. Thirdly, he admitted that he was terrified and was not ready to be put in jail. He hopes that by maintaining his principles at the same time, he can endure the setbacks and that as long as he lives, he has hope.
The Peaks and Valleys of Human Rights Lawyers
Previously, Chang had no concept of “weakness” or “fear”. In a sharing session, he confessed that he was not afraid even when several hundred human rights lawyers were questioned and detained during the 709 Crackdown in 2015. At that time, he realized he was not on the list to be arrested. Chang felt at a loss, as it seems as though his work all along had not been acknowledged by the Party or the state.”
The young are fearless. His fellow friend Leng Lin said that Chang was one of the few who became human rights lawyers as soon as they entered the legal field.
In 2011, Chang passed the national judicial examination. In 2013, he received his lawyer license. In the same year, jurist and constitutional scholar Xu Zhiyong and businessman Wang Gonquan launched the New Citizens’ Movement with the main themes being “freedom, justice and love”. They initiated a series of actions such as equal rights in education and the disclosure of the assets of officials. The movement was strictly monitored and suppressed by Chinese officials as soon as it was launched. In that year, Xu Zhiyong and Wang Gongquan were both detained and tried.
In order to support the New Citizens’ Movement and to provide open and coordinated legal services to arrested citizens, in September 2013, prominent lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong and Wang Cheng suggested to establish the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Service Group. They started to energetically participate in rights defense cases. Leng Lin and Chang also participated and were the first group of rights defense lawyers. The group received a lot of attention, and became a symbol of human rights, courage, and struggle. At its peak, there were more than 300 lawyers in the group.
Leng Lin remembered that at the start of 2014, he and Chang participated in lawyer Chen Jiangang’s child’s celebration. There were six tables of human rights lawyers, 10 to a table, with the most active and well-known rights lawyers at the time attending. Everyone raised a glass to celebrate the growth of the lawyers’ group and to the promotion of social progress. “At that time, we were high-spirited; we weren’t afraid at all, and didn’t have the concept of fear. We established the group with a lot of enthusiasm and did things openly, collaborated with many parties and represented sensitive cases, issued statements, held discussion sessions, signed joint letters and everything looked full of hope.” Leng Lin said.
As one of several young lawyers born in the post-80’s, Leng Lin and Chang were moved by what they saw, particularly for Chang who was optimistic and had never been crushed by harsh realities. At the start of 2013, Beijing resident Li Wei was detained for “unlawful assembly” after he and lawyer Ding Jiaxi had participated in the campaign regarding “disclosure of officials’ assets”. They had actively organized citizen dinners, rescued petitioners from black jails, gave interviews to foreign media and organized the application for demonstrations. Chang represented Li Wei in the case. Since then, Chang has been involved in a dozen cases related to residents and petitioners where they were accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
“At that time, citizens could still apply for demonstrations and request officials to disclose their assets. But now?” Leng Lin sighed. “Chang experienced a period of openness but also a period where the space for human rights lawyers to work in was shrinking.”
In addition to representing citizens, in 2016, Chang sued the Xi’An Municipal Government in Shaanxi Province seven times for not fulfilling its statutory duty. He also sued Shaanxi’s Department of Agriculture, Public Security Bureau, Development Zone, Detention Center, Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, Price Bureau and other departments. He mocked himself for being “notorious for suing the government”.
In the first couple of years, Chang enjoyed being a lawyer. He read records and files to find evidence and argued strongly in court. He also discussed with his peers offline and posted articles online. He also used the media for public attention. For some of the cases, the fees are only 2000 RMB, which doesn’t even cover his return trips, but he didn’t mind. In 2014, when he represented Jin Zhehong’s case regarding miscarriage of justice in 2014, the prison required two lawyers to meet with Jin at the time. Chang paid out of his own pocket to hire another lawyer to meet with Jin together.
He has also sued Jin Longyu, a grain and oil brand owned by Fortune 500 company Wilmar International and China Resources Vanguard. He sued the company because on their posters, the words “genetically modified soybeans” were not large enough for consumers to see. This infringed upon consumers’ right to information and their choice. He also sued Civil Aviation Shaanxi Airport Public Security Bureau because the airport charged 40 RMB for a temporary identification certificate when this service was free at the train station. Even though the case was dismissed, Shaanxi Airport later cancelled this fee.
Utilizing the law is Chang’s way of making a living, but it is also his value in life. In Hong Kong veteran journalist Jiang Qiongzhu’s book China’s Rights Lawyers and Their Partners, there was a segment which mentions that in 2010, when Chang was preparing for the judicial exam in Beijing, a resident from the same village as him visited and asked him what he would do after obtaining his lawyer’s certificate. Chang said he would be a lawyer for the petitioners at Tiananmen Square.
The weather rages, everything seems so enthusiastic, but also so painful. In 2014, Chang participated in “Xiao He’s second anniversary of miscarriage of justice” seminar, where 70 or so lawyers clashed with police at the scene. He represented the petitioner Zhang Xiaoyu who allegedly killed a police officer. Because he refused to provide the police with his phone records with Zhang Xiaoyu, Chang was first detained by police for questioning and then summoned for 23 hours on “suspicion of intentional homicide”. Jin Zhehong was found guilty of rape and murder in 1994, and jailed for more than 20 years and had been appealing his case. Chang took up the case and had tried his best to find evidence, yet he was forcibly discharged, and afterwards continued to promote the development of the case. He understands and feels deeply about the plight of Chinese criminal defense lawyers.
What was even more painful for Chang was that he found that the law often failed and the judicial system was unable to provide remedies for citizens and instead, had created a large number of cases where there was a miscarriage of justice. There were also many petitioners. Many of the cases had confessions that had been extracted by torture and what’s behind these petitioners is widespread anger and injustice. Lawyers, who are supposed to play the role of guardians of the rule of law, are often treated as enemies.
Deep down, he is more optimistic than we are
In October 2018, Baoji City’s Justice Bureau suspended his lawyer license for three months. On November 22 of the same year, Shaanxi Ligang Law Firm, where Chang was employed, was closed. According to China’s “Administrative Measures for the Practice of Law”, if the law firm you work for is closed, then you must find another law firm within six months, otherwise your law license will be cancelled.
During those 6 months, over 10 law firms extended an olive branch to Chang. However, each time he went to the Ministry of Justice to apply for a transfer, he encountered setbacks. Either the firm called and said it was under pressure not to hire him, or there were issues with the transfer procedure.
Two lawyers practicing in Shaanxi who wish to remain anonymous, said they had heard a staff member at the Shaanxi Provincial Justice Bureau said at a dinner or a small meeting of the Justice Bureau, that he was keeping an eye on Baoji city’s Justice Bureau, punishing Chang and closing the Ligang law firm.
Chang of course would not sit by idly, and he continued to reach out to new law firms while at the same time, complaining to the Shaanxi Bar Association. He also collected evidence to sue the Shaanxi Justice Bureau for abuse of power and trampling on a lawyers’ right to practice. His biggest act of resistance was on June 4, 2019. Chang went on a hunger strike and sit-in in front of the Shaanxi Justice Bureau for one night, protesting that they had deliberately made it difficult for him to transfer law firms. He was also commemorating the 30th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre.
Lawyer Xiao Ming finds it absurd since Chang didn’t take on politically sensitive cases. Most of the cases are public interest cases such as gender discrimination and employment discrimination. He doesn’t belong to the category of “people who must be dealt with”. Why did Chang become a target of the Justice Bureau? In the end, he was even given the charge of being suspected of “subversion of state power”. She sighed, “I can only say that an evil wind has come, and Chang has been swept up and has no choice.”
very serious and adhered to procedural justice, “When he handles cases, he is sure to go through every legal process to the end and insists on doing the impossible. I’d guess he has offended many people.”
Leng Lin remembers that he requested to see the police handling the cases and was denied. They were also driven out of the court room and were almost beaten by police. The mild-mannered Chang showed his fierce side, threw his glasses and folder to the ground, pointed to the police officer and shouted, “Come on, come and hit me, you haven’t beaten me to death.”
In another case they collaborated on, Chang was rational and speaking tirelessly in the courtroom. The judge suddenly left the courtroom without any warning. The people in the courtroom were all surprised and Chang was calm and he stopped and said: “Let’s continue after he gets back.” After half an hour, the judge returned and Chang started to argue and debate on strong grounds. The judge could no longer look on and directly said to him: “What era are we in, you are so disobedient and what kind of defense is this?” Leng Lin’s interpretation was that after the 709 arrests, the atmosphere of the courtroom had changed and the defense lawyers often encounter interruptions and unreasonable accusations from judges. Strong defenses were rare, and all parties are generally aware that court hearings are just perfunctory. But Chang still tried his best to provide a strong defense, which led the judge to think he was stupid.
Leng Lin said that China’s criminal and civil cases are two legs. If the front leg is broken, then the back leg drags the body along with difficulty. Cases are separated based on whether they affect the interests of the ruling class. If they don’t, then cases will go by the logic of the law; if they do, then it is impossible to fight these cases.
In recent years, Leng Lin has seen many in the same field who have lost their law license, been arrested and released, and then rearrested. Defenders of the system have become opponents, “Perhaps lawyers need to start thinking about changing their position. At the moment, there is no space to improve the system, we need to be prepared and really become opponents.”
Leng Lin feels more despair, the longer he becomes a rights defense lawyer. Chang also says that he is feeling more despair, but it is more a false sense of despair. He still believes in the rule of law and that the law is really being put into practice. Even though he is being imprisoned in his own hometown, he is still trying to transfer to another law firm, and provide assistance as a legal consultant. Deep down, he is a bit more optimistic than us all.
The world once opened another door in front of him
Chen Zijuan did not know about these experiences that Chang had. She is a young scientist, devoted to research and recently has been carrying out some sort of tumor research. Chang supports women in their career pursuits. The couple are busy in their own way, and respect and enjoy their independent space.
The two are childhood sweethearts. In the first year of high school, Chang began chasing Chen. At that time, Chen had her mind elsewhere as she only wanted to study. But Chang was different. In everyone’s eyes, he was a “talented student”, and the type who read Jin Yong novels during class and after class would sit at the desk of the girl who he had a crush on to chat. He played basketball at school and after school would hang out and muck around with his friends. During exams though, his results easily placed him in first or second place in class.
Chang wrote Chen a letter once a month. The letterhead was meticulously chosen and artistic. From freshman to senior year, Chang wrote close to 100 letters. Chen remembers that each letter was lengthy and was several pages. When filing out the college aspiration form, Chang offered advice to Chen’s family, telling them how good Chongqing Southwest University was – it turned out he had applied for Chongqing University. At that time, Chen’s father said, “This kid has patience, but he also has his intentions.”
Afterwards, Chen enrolled in Chongqing’s Southwest Normal University. Before university started, Chang went to Chongqing earlier, and he dropped off his luggage at Chongqing University before going to walk around Southwest Normal University. After Chen arrived, he became her tour guide. Chang went to see Chen every week. She had class on Saturday, so he went early to the classroom and waited. Four years of persistence touched Chen, and the two became a couple. Chen laughed, “One of Chang’s most outstanding characteristics is his perseverance with people and things he likes.”
During his college life, Chang joined the editorial team of his school’s newspaper. He enjoyed reading Southern Weekly and Economic Observer, and also wrote articles, learned photography and editing. When he met Chen, other than just being in love, he talked about current affairs and politics. Those were the days he was full of youthful exuberance.
He also had the style of a condescending, young left-wing revolutionary. When a teacher came late for class, he would question them for half an hour. Chen said that Chang with his character will definitely become a lawyer, the pursuit of social justice is second nature to him.
“But if you knew him during college or before he was a lawyer, you’d be amazed by the type of person he was. He was positive and was singing as he walked, with a spring in his step.” Cheng Zijuan said that Chang was usually wearing large headphones, and was either listening to English language news or Jay Chou songs and hummed aloud as if no one was watching.” “His happiness was clearly visible.”
Leng Lin, a good friend of Chang, describes Chang in 2012 when he’d just entered the legal field. He was a young man who had never been crushed by life. He was energetic and high-spirited, and had expectations for a better future like many young people. “He had reformist thinking and believed that through his efforts, he’d be able to push for social progress. These should be the expectations and future that young people have.”
After graduating from university, Chen headed north for graduate school, and Chang went south to Hainan to work as an engineer. After two years of work, he resigned and went north for more opportunities. It was in 2009 around the time of the Beijing Olympics, that there was a degree of openness and tolerance, and civil society flourished and there was more freedom of expression within academia. In the words of Chang, “I was like Grandma Liu visiting the Grand View Gardens”, and he started to follow various famous artists and experts.
He went to grab a seat when the economist Ma Guangyuan gave a lecture; when the entrepreneur Ren Zhiqiang gave a speech, he went to buy tickets; when author Li Chengpeng released a new book, he went to join in the fun; he enrolled in an English course by intellect Luo Yonghao; when the artist Ai Weiwei started fundraising to pay off his fine, Chang donated a couple of hundred dollars and he even received a carving of two sunflower seeds as a thank you gift and a loan note; when Han Han, the writer and rally driver, had a race, he went to take a photo with him. Everything was so lively and interesting that the world opened another door in front of Chang.
He was a fund manager by day, and at night he went to Tsinghua University and Peking University for law classes or even studied on his own. He was extremely committed. Chen said that, “He worked while chasing ‘stars’ and learning law himself. I never thought that he would be able to pass the judicial examination.”
Chen still remembers the night that Chang received the results of his bar examination. They went to celebrate at a small restaurant next to Beijing Normal University. Chang told Chen that he was going to be a lawyer.
The imperfect husband and father
Being a lawyer was a watershed moment in Chang’s life. Chen said that before Chang was a lawyer, he was more relaxed and there was a spring in his step. He always had a wry smile in his face. “After becoming a lawyer, he had clearly become more worried. He stopped listening to music and didn’t follow Jay Chou’s concerts anymore.”
At first, Chang told her about the injustices he was seeing. Chen watched him age rapidly, and occasionally told him to take it easy. Now she thinks that Chang is very empathetic, “The more he sees suffering, the more he feels the pain himself.”
Chang said to her that there was no judicial independence and no monitoring mechanisms, and rights violations were happening almost every day. As the regime become more and more bold in intervening in the judiciary, manipulating the law and cracking down on lawyers, he began discussing cases to his family less and less. After the 709 Crackdown, the families of the lawyers were also affected. He deliberately stopped discussing cases with his wife.
Out of concern and for the protection of his family, he intentionally showed detachment from them. He wrote a blog online and would write about his love for his child. But after he knew that national security was collecting personal information from lawyers to use against them, he stopped talking about his family on all platforms. As a husband, he did not enjoy doing chores. As a father, he was on work travel long term, and did not take on much responsibility in educating his child. However, his son loved him more and more. After his 7-year-old found Chang had been detained, even though he didn’t understand what it meant, he wrote a big character poster which reads “Release Chang”. He didn’t know how to write one of the characters, so just wrote it in pinyin (“shi”).
What Chen feels most annoyed about was that the second time Chang was detained for a few days; she became frustrated at him and blocked him in a moment of anger. At that time, Chang was at his hometown in Fengxiang, yet he rarely sent her messages on WeChat or called her. Afterwards, when she was advocating for Chang’s release, her WeChat and phone were being monitored and that’s when she understood that individuals who are under surveillance can easily lose the desire to speak.
Moreover, after being imprisoned and placed under house arrest, Chang had some unresolved traumas that he still has to face. Chang has spoken to friends who have also experienced state violence, that he suffers from political depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and sometimes loses the ability to communicate with others.
Traces of State Violence Crushed
In 2020, after being released from residential surveillance, Chang began to be frightened of the two coffins in his parent’s house. His grandparents had prepared their own coffins when they were 60 years old, and after they passed away, his parents followed suit and prepared theirs as well. Chang saw the coffins growing up and originally didn’t think much about it. But now, he is unable to be alone in the room for too long, at most two or three hours. Even if it is day time, coming in and out, he always had to close the doors to the garden, the living room and bedroom. There were many late nights where he’d drive around town, even if there was no one on the streets, he’d watch the city lights and feel warm inside. He’d also feel less lonely.
His family became frightened easily as well. When he doesn’t pick up after two phone calls, they become afraid and call around to find out where he is. His two sisters were especially worried that he had become so thin, and they were basically competing when it came to cooking him noodles and steamed buns. When his father returned from Shenzhen to Fengxiang, their hometown, he would call at 10pm to ask where he was and what time he would be back. Chang laughed bitterly, “When my dad comes back, it is like the national security law being forcefully enacted in Hong Kong, in the future there won’t be any good days for me or Hong Kong.”
He occasionally vented his anger. One day in mid-May in 2020, a storm was coming and it was very windy. When there was thunder and lightning, Chang ran outside to feel the power of nature and shouted to the sky, “I want to fight heaven and earth.”
After imprisonment, he began cherishing daily life more. When he was invited out by a friend to chat, go hiking, watch a movie, drink, play football, he’d agree to each and every one of them. He felt that, “Human life is finite, you don’t know when is the last time you’ll see, eat together and have fun with your friends.” He choked on his voice and tears welled in his eyes, yet he still began to sing a song, “Love each other as though it is your last day on this earth, every minute and every second is so beautiful that tears will begin to stream down your eyes.”
He tries to connect with those around him. On his 36th birthday, he ate cake with two little girls he met on the basketball court, who then invited their two young boyfriends. It was a lot of fun for him. He greets the residents in his village, and sometimes also participates in farm work. He grew up hating farm work and once yelled to his father, “I wasn’t born to do farm work!” Chang cherished this normal lifestyle of creating real and genuine relationships.
To manage his temper and pass the boredom, he began to do some gardening. In the garden, he planted bamboo, pruned roses and built frames for grapevines, cut the branches of orange trees, dewormed hydrangeas and saved dying succulents. All with great interest.
His classmate Dr. Zhou Shaobo was a bright spot in his life during the time he was depressed. In the video, Dr. Zhou was by his side every time there was laughter. Every holiday, Dr. Zhou would reach out to him, and it happened so often that Chang laughed and reassured Mrs. Zhou, “I’m not Dr Zhou’s mistress.”
The two best friends also made movies together. They registered a media company called Baoji Mimi Mao Film Co., filed records and received a development license. They publicly recruited female leads, held a film presentation and even began getting ads and sponsors.
“A lawyer and a doctor entering show business at around 30 years of age. But we don’t feel inferior, and had deep feelings when we shoot. You will see our sincerity.” Up and coming director and screenwriter Chang spoke frankly at the movie presentation. His partner Dr. Zhou saw energy and light in Chang again.
Zhou Shaobo also remembered that on January 23, 2020 when Chang was released on bail, he went with Chang’s father to pick him up. As soon as Chang saw them, he immediately went in for a hug, and was smiling from ear to ear. He then turned around and shook the hands of each police officer that was by the door, “His mental state seemed better than when he went into the bridal chamber. As I said, this guy is amazing.”
常玮平不是一个悲情的人。他看美国的律政剧《Boston Legal》，相比大多人喜欢的主角Alan Shore，他更喜欢Danny Crane 这个古怪、幽默又有趣的传奇人物。他用Danny Crane的名字在YouTube上发表的“趣宝日记”，其实指的是“取保日记。”
Chang is not someone who is sad. He watched the American legal drama Boston Legal and even though many people like the main character Alan Shore, he prefers Danny Crane who he thought was a quirky, humorous and interesting legend. He uses Danny Crane’s name for his YouTube account to publish his Diary of an Interesting Jewel, yet he was actually referring to Diary after Being Released on Bail. (The characters for “interesting jewel and “released on bail” sound similar in Chinese)
When Chang was a lawyer, as the pride of his family and village, his father Chang Shuanming wanted to write about Chang and his sister together in the village history. At that time, he advised his father, “You write about me like I’m so amazing, but in the future you will regret it a lot.” After being released on bail and returning home, he said to his father, “Look, I was able to foresee the future.”
It was only on a few occasions that he turned to his friends and asked sadly, “How is being a lawyer, fighting some cases, holding a meeting, gathering for a meal, eating food and just talking about random stuff, subverting state power?”
Low profile like dirt
Chang’s life after being released on bail consisted of continued harassment, threats and questioning. He humorously refers to the regular visitors from national security as “customer service”.
Being released on bail to a certain degree is a coercive measure but to a lesser extent. It only places restrictions on suspects or defendants, but does not deprive them of their freedom. Moreover, after Chang was released, he had to report his movement every morning and was questioned almost every day. Even when he went to the city to see the dentist, two national security officers had to go with him. He wasn’t able to leave his hometown in Fengxiang, even though his wife, son and parents live in Shenzhen.
It isn’t that he hadn’t thought about using legal means to defend his rights. But up until now, since he was placed under residential surveillance and released on bail, he has no legal documents. This means that even if he files a lawsuit, he doesn’t have any relevant documents proving he was disappeared and tortured for 10 days and that he is currently under illegal house arrest.
Before being arrested again, Chang spoke to a journalist about his 10 days under residential surveillance. The reason for his detention was that he had participated in the December 2019 gathering in Xiamen. At that time, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi and over a dozen journalists and citizens had participated in the gathering. They discussed topics related to politics, China’s future, the plight of lawyers and the way forward for civil society. On December 26, more than a dozen of those who attended including Ding Jiaxi, Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun were arrested. Later, Chang, Xu Zhiyong and Li Qiaochu who was Xu Zhiyong’s girlfriend and hadn’t participated in the gathering, were all detained. This was known as the “12.26 Citizen Case”.
No one could have thought that Chang and Li Qiaochu who were both released on bail would be re-arrested. In the 12.26 case, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi and Chang are not accused of subverting state power. Li Qiaochu has been accused of inciting subversion of state power. The others have been released.
During the 10 days he was under residential surveillance, Chang did 16 transcripts. He said what he needed to say in terms of his thoughts and ideas. He even reflected that, from the perspective of the authorities who are maintaining social stability, the network of rights defenders that was led by human rights lawyers after 2013, and included vulnerable groups, religious figures, internet celebrities and dissidents were indeed a threat to the party state.
But this compromise did not bring freedom. He was still put under illegal house arrest. He ridiculed with friends that he was an influential person in Baoji City and that whatever he does he needs to report to national security. “They only want you to live, and breathe and not do anything else.” He said he had to be as low key and be nothing more than just dirt, and to stop disputing everything, and to stop everything immediately when facing suppression. Where there’s life, there’s hope.
National security wants him to write his own thoughts every week and report it. To prove that his thoughts were not toxic, he wrote that China’s fight against the pandemic was inspiring; he sung praises and also commended national security for consoling those at the grassroots level. He recorded all of this in a video and laughed at himself, “I am definitely a good actor.”
National security said that he had to make “significant changes”, and to “make a difference”. Chang laughed and jokingly said, “I also want to make a huge difference and turn to a better way of life, but I don’t have talent.”
It isn’t that Chang hasn’t challenged them. In June 2020, he shut his cellphone and threw it to the side and drove with a friend to the suburbs of Qianyang country, which is next to Fengxiang. Later, national security called him to ask where he was, he answered with a straight face, “I’m in the suburbs, there’s no signal.”
Chang’s friends felt that his life was incredible and bitter, but when he narrates it, there is always a hint of sarcasm and humour. It allows others to find joy in the sorrows and to laugh with tears.
He was unable to ignore the bigger injustices that he saw. In the video, he talks about his sadness as the situation in Hong Kong deteriorated. He felt helpless seeing Wang Quanzhang, the human rights lawyer, was placed under house arrest despite being released from jail. He was worried about independent journalist Jiang Xue being questioned after she released articles commemorating the pandemic. He was afraid citizen journalists who wrote about the pandemic in Wuhan would be severely punished. Every case of injustice affected his mood and put him in a state of unease as he “didn’t know who would be taken the next day.”
Many of his friends advised him to leave China. His wife, Chen also suggested that, and as a young scientist she had many opportunities to study and work abroad. More than once, Chang replied that it was meaningless to leave. If he stays here, at least he can use the law to do something for his country and the people. Even though he doesn’t know how much he can actually do. After saying this, he laughed at himself as usual, “Maybe the people in the lowest rungs of society don’t think they are suffering!”
He knows very well that because of his own personality and values, he is unable to leave this country. He even laughed at himself, that when there comes a day and he realizes this, “Perhaps it is too late.”
Epilogue: Chen’s despair
Chen knows it is too late now. She is worried about Chang being arrested again, and whether he’d be tortured, force fed drugs and what to do if he was abused to the point where he was mentally unstable or became disabled. She fought back tears as she said this.
She is no longer just absorbed in her research. After her husband was detained again, she has had to take on this new role: a woman who fights for her husband’s rights.
She worked and studied for her certification, taking care of her child and suing various departments. Days likes these remind her of Chang around 2010. He was working, studying law on his own, chasing famous writers and being enlightened by citizen ideology.
She is slowly becoming enlightened. After helping to appeal Chang’s case, writing solidarity articles and requesting information disclosure, she has met setbacks everywhere. But she has also become braver, “I don’t have time to be sad and in despair, there are too many judicial authorities to sue.”
Chen has heard the story of the 709 wives. She knows they have been forcibly evicted, followed and placed under house arrest. Some of them have even been beaten and detained. But she cannot let this go, “As a person, I can’t accept that my loved ones are being treated so unjustly and tortured in such a way.”
Before she had begun solidarity actions for Chang, Shaanxi Province and Baoji City public security officials went to her house and workplace in Shenzhen nine times to question her. At first, they tried to appease her and told her to trust the state, and afterwards they threatened her that she’d lose her job. Chen at first was losing her mind as she was extremely scared, but after she listened to national securities’ exhortations, she discovered that their logic and actions were unable to convince her. She began to fight against this harassment.
Deputy Director of the Baoji City Gaoxin District, Xiang Xianhong is in charge of Chang’s case, and said they would act in accordance with the law. He gave Chen his cellphone and office number and said he hoped they can establish a good communication relationship. When Chen has time, she sends him messages: How is Chang’s health and mental state? Is your bureau investigating the officers who tortured Chang? What cases has he worked on that have endangered the state? Why have you placed Chang’s father and brother-in-law under residential surveillance? Why are you not responding?
She sent many questions regularly, and Xiang would use the excuse that he was in a meeting to avoid her or he would just ignore her and not answer. There was once he even blocked Chen. She then called the public security bureau to complain: Previously, you said that you wanted to establish a good communication relationship, but you’re not even picking up phone calls or replying my messages. How is this establishing a relationship? Xiang had to continue listening to her questions regularly.
“They can’t cajole me, or scare me. If I lose my job, then I’ll just switch to defending Chang’s rights full-time.” Chen said, in the face of adversity, perhaps she can still use her voice to speak out about these injustices.
She regularly has dreams where Chang would smile at her and says, “I’m back.” More often than not though, he is just sitting there and not talking to or looking at her. When she goes closer, she sees he is sitting in a tiger chair with several police officers standing next to him.
Chen began watching Chang’s video diaries one by one to ease her mind. She has an even more important goal; she needs to find the names of the police officers who tortured Chang and sue each and every one of them.
When she went to Shaanxi for rights defense at the end of March, 2021, she specifically went to the Baotian Hotel where Chang was tortured to stay for a night. She felt the fear up close. When she was living in the hotel, Chen was in tears, “Who could have thought that in this bright and bustling city, he would be locked up in a basement with no windows and with padded walls for 10 days.”
The fear made her fall apart and that night she was too scared to shut the lights. She was half awake the entire night. She doesn’t know how her husband was able to survive without seeing daylight and having to live in fear every minute, every second. She also doesn’t know how he was able to endure the torture during the second time he was detained.
But she trusts Chang more and more. Everything he does is based on his conscience, love and his profession. If even such a person is not tolerated by the state, then it is the state that is in the wrong.
按受访者要求，冷林、小茗为化名。 Leng Lin and Xiao Ming are pseudonyms.