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Introduction: China’s Conscience

November 16, 2011

On October 8, 2010, the day the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo was announced, rights defender Wang Lihong was taken into custody as police broke up a celebratory dinner in Beijing that she and others were attending. Wang was detained for eight days and then put under “soft” detention for three months—police were stationed in front of her apartment building to monitor and restrict her movement. As a condition for ending the soft detention, the police asked her, as they do others in a similar situation, to sign a “letter of guarantee” promising to stop speaking out and engaging in rights defense activities. Wang refused. Instead, she wrote “a letter of non-guarantee”:

. . . [F]rom a legal point of view, making a citizen write a guarantee letter pledging to not do things that are not illegal in order to have freedom of movement is illegal and a mockery of the law. . . . I am a person with conscience and I cannot guarantee that I will remain silent in the face of suffering. . . . If I remain silent when confronted with suffering and wickedness, then I will be the next person beaten down by evil. . . .

This issue of the China Rights Forum presents writings by and about six imprisoned individuals who have, in their own ways through writings or actions, sent their own “letters of non-guarantee” to the Chinese authorities. They did so to defend the basic rights of citizens, fight injustices, expose corruption, protect the environment, and push for a more open society. The refusal to remain silent in the face of suffering has cost them their freedom: they are serving prison terms that range from twelve years to nine months, on charges ranging from “subversion of state power” to “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” These individuals are: Liu Xianbin, democracy activist; Tan Zuoren, environmental activist; Qi Chonghuai, journalist; Wang Lihong, rights defender; Yang Chunlin, land rights activist; Guo Quan, opposition party organizer. While they may not be well-known to the international community, they are representative of numerous others in China who have chosen to follow their conscience. We have selected writings that illustrate the thoughts and ideals, as well as humanity, of these individuals.

Liu Xianbin: serving ten years for “inciting subversion of state power.”
In his trial statement, Liu told the court that he was standing trial not because he committed a heinous crime, but because he possessed “honesty, integrity, and courage, and have acted accordingly.” In her essay, Liu’s wife, Cheng Mingxian, portrays a life with a husband who is serving the third of three prison terms that will have totaled 21 years and ten months on his projected release date of June 27, 2020.

Tan Zuoren: serving five years for “inciting subversion of state power.”
In a 2007 essay, cited in his trial verdict as a “fact” of his crime, Tan gives a searing account of his experiences in Beijing during the 1989 Democracy Movement. For Tan it was a time when “[t]he ugliness of mankind and the beauty of human nature were intertwined, fully demonstrated, and let loose to the utmost.”

Qi Chonghuai: serving 12 years for “extortion and blackmail” and “embezzlement.”
Li Xiongbing, one of the Qi’s lawyers, delineates his client’s case. He describes how a journalist, who resisted bribery and exposed corruption, was criminalized by the same officials who had attempted to bribe him. In two vignettes from his prison writings, Qi describes the brutal conditions for prison inmates and an assassination attempt on him.

Wang Lihong: serving nine months for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”
Rights activist Ai Xiaoming paints a portrait of a woman who chose rights defense activities over comfortable retirement, and believes in the possibility of action, however small, to change one’s fate.

Yang Chunlin: serving five years for “inciting subversion of state power.”
In his 2007 article, Yang, a laid-off worker and organizer of the “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics” campaign, compares the clarity of thought and vision of Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer (imprisoned 2006-2009), with the “anti-liberal potion” of the educated elite.

Guo Quan: serving ten years for “subversion of state power.”
In an essay that compares the Chinese leaders with the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, Guo discusses the systemic costs of “China’s despotic dictatorship.”

It is our hope that in presenting the stories and writings of these individuals, their voices will continue to be heard despite official attempts to silence them. The price they have been forced to pay calls out for effective action by the international community.

—The Editors