By rights lawyer Xie Yanyi 

On this 5th anniversary of China’s crackdown on lawyers and rights activists, while reflecting on the precarious changes in the world since then, I still believe that justice and the human spirit are irrepressible. 

On July 9, 2015, more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists were subjected to police “chats” (read: interrogations), detention, forced TV confessions, unlawful trials and international travel restrictions. Looking back today, I have no doubt that what has come to be known as the “709” crackdown was a brutal and reactionary violation of the rule of law, human rights and civility. I am acutely aware that totalitarian rule and the rule of law intrinsically contradict each other- and that is what inevitably led to the crackdown.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

I’m one of the Chinese human rights lawyers and activists detained during the “709 crackdown” and who went through what UN human rights conventions define as torture. What I am concerned about is that the methods of torture we were subjected to were worse than those previously used by authorities. We were subjected to solitary confinement while at least 10 guards closely monitored us 24-hours a day. Our every move or utterance was recorded and filmed; our every psychological and human weakness exploited. Every aspect of our daily lives, including meals, sleep, and medication was subjected to special control. We were subjected to physical and mental torture without bounds, which was intended to completely break us down and destroy our beliefs. 

We faced suffering every day, every hour, every moment. Guards made us stand or walk until we were exhausted. They forced us to sit on short stools and sleep in one fixed position. They used hunger to punish us by giving us very little food. If we didn’t cooperate, we were made to sit up straight for 16 hours a day, for a month. If we didn’t answer the interrogators’ questions, they beat and verbally abused us. They also terrorised us by threatening our families, saying, “you shouldn’t be selfish. Think about the safety and future of your wife and children.” 

File photo: Alexandre Lazaro via Flickr.

How did I cope? At the beginning, it was very difficult; it seemed like my life or death was in the hands of those guarding me. As time passed, however, I put away my worries, as if I had accepted my fate. I began to believe that a transcendental higher being would determine what would happen and would make things right; that my fate was not in the hands of my interrogators. I started to face the torture and mistreatment as tests of my will. I no longer cared about gains or losses. I still believe that the wrong doers will eventually face justice.  

Torture is a crime against humanity and normally takes place in societies under totalitarian rule. This is because dictators must control everything; there are no constraints on their power, so they have no sense of humanity. They are terrified of losing control. Thus, they must attempt to expand and prolong their powers indefinitely. This includes extending control over your thoughts, your genes, and your body to every corner of the world. They prioritize control and spare no expenses in order to maintain power.

Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Totalitarian rulers spend all of their resources on social control rather than spend a penny improving the lives of their citizens. It doesn’t matter if the people they rule suffer from pervasive injustice, or from floods, plagues, hunger, or any other humanitarian disaster, totalitarian rulers ignore their suffering. Meanwhile, they tirelessly invest in advanced technology to upgrade and perfect their system of control or “stability maintenance.” No one can ignore the potential of informatization, artificial intelligence, big data, and bio-genetic technology. These are new tools for dictators to shape society and change the world. Every mean is enlisted to strengthen totalitarian control.  

The will and the drive of totalitarian leaders to control everything has not been fully grasped by the free world. This is clear from their inadequate responses to China’s totalitarian regime,  which has been either too conservative or oblivious.

As an individual living under such a totalitarian system, how do I oppose such powerful and pervasive control? An individual, when he or she is banned from organizing, can still have tremendous strength, if the individual is a person with strong conviction. A violent dictatorship cannot defeat such a person. If enough individuals in our society can keep to their strong convictions, they can change our country.   


Xie Yanyi is a human rights lawyer and a “709” crackdown torture survivor. He lives in Beijing.

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