A human rights lawyer pays the painful price of standing up to Xi’s China

After years aside from his household, a Chinese language lawyer put apart his high-stakes work and flew to America for a reunion together with his spouse and two daughters.

Ding Jiaxi, previously a profitable company legal professional, was now practising a deadly vocation: human rights regulation in China. It was the autumn of 2017. A 12 months earlier, Ding had been launched after serving three and a half years in jail for his rights activism. He had solely now managed to affix his household, who’d taken refuge in Alfred, a leafy city of clapboard properties in western New York, the place some locals don’t trouble to lock their doorways.

His spouse, engineer Sophie Luo Shengchun, begged him to remain. However he went again to China after two months. “I knew it was no use,” Luo stated in an interview on the verandah of her small home.

Ding discovered his calling irresistible. As a lead member of a band of authorized activists, he was waging a longshot battle for justice in Chinese language courts, all the time below police surveillance, hardly ever staying lengthy at anyone place. “In China, you must be on the bottom,” Luo stated Ding instructed her. “You want individuals to know that you can be there to undergo difficulties with them.”

Two years later, he was again behind bars – the place, Luo says, he was tortured and denied entry to a lawyer for greater than a 12 months.

Ding’s ordeal is described in a submission to a courtroom in Shandong Province by his lawyer. Jailers bombarded Ding with the soundtrack of a propaganda movie about Chinese language President Xi Jinping’s rule, blared at most quantity, 24 hours a day, for 10 days. Interrogators later strapped Ding to a “tiger bench” for seven days straight. On this rack-like type of torture, the tightly sure prisoner sits bolt upright with legs stretched out horizontally, joints and muscle tissues straining in agony.

After greater than two years in custody, Ding, 55, went on trial in Shandong’s Linshu County on June 24 on costs of subverting state energy, in accordance with a replica of the indictment. The trial lasted at some point and was held behind closed doorways. The decision has but to be introduced; Ding’s fellow rights defenders anticipate a heavy sentence.

Ding is among the highest-profile targets of the ruling Communist Occasion’s sprawling, multiyear clampdown on rights legal professionals and authorized students. That marketing campaign has intensified since Xi took energy a decade in the past and started crushing rivals in and outdoors the Occasion. It escalated in 2015 with what’s identified in China because the “709” crackdown, a reference to July 9 of that 12 months, when safety forces started arresting and harassing rights legal professionals throughout the nation.

Family members of these detained in what is called the “709” crackdown protest in entrance of the Supreme Folks’s Procuratorate in Beijing, China July 7, 2017. (REUTERS/FILE)

As Xi maneuvers to safe a 3rd time period as chief at a Occasion congress subsequent month, the marketing campaign grinds on. Tons of of legal professionals, authorized lecturers and activists have been swept up. Some have been tortured and given prolonged jail sentences, whereas others have been disbarred and topic to secret detention, in accordance with Chinese language legal professionals and human rights teams.

Amongst these arrested is Xu Zhiyong, a detailed buddy of Ding. Xu was additionally tried on subversion costs, two days earlier than Ding. That verdict too is unknown. The 2 legal professionals have been instrumental in founding the New Residents’ Motion, a free assortment of civil rights teams and people that got here collectively in 2011 and 2012 in a bid to finish authoritarian rule in China.

Ding and Xu are in detention and couldn’t be interviewed. This account of Ding’s battle relies on interviews together with his spouse, six fellow human rights activists, legal professionals and authorized students, in addition to courtroom paperwork associated to his two trials.

China’s Justice Ministry and Ministry of Public Safety didn’t reply to questions from Reuters for this report. Beijing rejects criticism that it violates primary rights of its residents, saying China is a rustic of legal guidelines and that particular person rights are revered.

The Occasion’s huge inside safety equipment dwarfs this motion of idealistic authorized activists – however sees it as an actual risk regardless. From 18th century France to the democratizing Asian tigers of South Korea and Taiwan, legal professionals have been instrumental in pressuring authoritarian regimes to determine primary however probably revolutionary authorized protections, political freedoms and property rights.

“In nation after nation, legal professionals have been within the vanguard of these transitions,” stated Terence Halliday, a professor on the American Bar Basis who has labored carefully with Chinese language rights defenders. “We see it time and time once more, and the Chinese language Communist Occasion has arrived on the similar conclusion.”

Chinese language and overseas authorized students say using the authorized code to stifle dissent delivers the looks of legitimacy in an period when Xi is asking for the Occasion to rule China by “law-based governance.” China has expanded its authorized career in recent times, however rights attorneys discover the deck stacked in opposition to them.

They account for a tiny fraction – about 300 – of the nation’s greater than 500,000 registered legal professionals. They’re up in opposition to the so-called “iron triangle,” the prosecutors, judges and police who cement the Occasion’s absolute management over the justice system. For suspects in politically delicate instances, verdicts are often decided upfront, and the rights of defendants are routinely violated throughout investigations and pre-trial procedures, some Chinese language legal professionals and human rights teams say.

Like Ding, rights legal professionals face harassment and intimidation on lonely journeys to assist purchasers in far-flung courts, prisons and police stations. Strange residents stand little likelihood in opposition to the state. Conviction charges in Chinese language trial courts have reached nearly 100%, in accordance with a report this 12 months by the Madrid-based rights group Safeguard Defenders. Of the 1.715 million judgments delivered final 12 months, simply 511 weren’t responsible. The conviction charge of 99.97% was the best since information was first recorded in 1980, the group stated.


Past a quest for justice, probably the most outspoken legal professionals admit they’ve a much bigger purpose: to chip away on the energy of the Communist Occasion, one case at a time. Every trial is a chance to make use of the regulation to restrain authorities, they are saying. They dream of a China the place the rights and freedoms enshrined within the nation’s structure turn out to be a actuality.

Ding expressed this hope in a press release to the courtroom in his first trial, in April 2014. “I wish to be a citizen who has an opinion and a voice,” he stated. “I wish to be a butterfly. The incessant fluttering of the wings of butterflies will definitely fan the wind of social transformation.” In tomorrow’s China, he stated, residents will “get pleasure from freedom of expression, meeting, and affiliation. Justice belongs to us!”

Nonetheless, earlier than Ding left his spouse in Alfred, he was below no phantasm victory was close to. “Look ahead to me for 10 years,” Luo remembers him saying. “If after 10 years I don’t achieve my thought for China, to convey civil society to China, I’m going to return again and reunite with you, any approach I can.”

The crackdown on legal professionals has unfold to Hong Kong, the place the Communist Occasion has clamped down on opposition after anti-government protests paralyzed the town in 2019. The imposition of a draconian Nationwide Safety Regulation in 2020 is paving the way in which for the Occasion to tighten management over the town’s historically impartial, British-style system of justice.

Below the regulation, the town’s chief government will get to nominate a panel of judges who preside over safety instances. Senior officers in Hong Kong now overtly dispute that there’s a separation of powers between the judicial and government branches, lengthy seen as a cornerstone of the town’s political system. In line with a July report by the U.S. Congressional-Govt Fee on China, Hong Kong prosecutors performed a key position in finishing up political prosecutions within the metropolis.

A few of the metropolis’s main pro-democracy legal professionals have been arrested and prosecuted within the crackdown. Others have fled overseas or renounced pro-democracy actions.

In response to questions from Reuters concerning the crackdown, a Hong Kong authorities spokesman stated all defendants “will endure a good trial by an impartial judiciary” and that judges “administer justice with out concern or favor and with out bias, primarily based solely on the regulation.” The spokesman added: “Circumstances won’t ever be dealt with any otherwise owing to the career, political opinions or background of the individuals concerned.”


A local of central China’s Hubei Province, Ding initially skilled as a jet-engine engineer at Beihang College, an elite science and expertise faculty in Beijing. He joined the coed demonstrators in the course of the 1989 Tiananmen Sq. upheaval, however wasn’t there when the army crushed the protest, he stated in a 2017 interview with Cao Yaxue, a Washington-based researcher who chronicles the authorized human rights motion on the web site China Change.

After working in an plane engineering institute, Ding returned to Beihang for post-graduate research. Luo was a fellow post-grad there when the couple met in 1992.

“I’ll all the time bear in mind the primary time I noticed him,” stated Luo. “He had such a vibrant smile and large enamel. I felt my coronary heart fall in love with him immediately. From that second, my life modified.” Simply over a 12 months later they married.

Whereas at Beihang, Ding grew within the regulation, studied in his spare time and handed the bar examination. From 1996, he labored at a succession of regulation companies, ultimately specializing in mental property, the place his technical background gave him an edge.

Whereas Ding was establishing his apply, Luo went to the US to check supplies science at Alfred College, leaving their three-year-old daughter with him in Beijing. They’d a second baby after Ding visited Alfred, and Luo later rejoined her husband and their two women in China. By 2003, Ding and colleagues had arrange the Dehong Regulation Agency in Beijing.

Below Ding’s administration, the agency thrived. By 2013, when he was first arrested, it employed 20 legal professionals and had an annual earnings of 25 million yuan (about $3.5 million), Ding instructed Cao within the 2017 interview. He lived massive: He spent a minimum of 100,000 yuan a 12 months on golf, stayed in five-star lodges and ate delicacies similar to chook’s nest soup and abalone day-after-day. Luo remembers that Ding threw himself into his work, leaving dwelling for the workplace earlier than the household awoke and returning late at evening after socializing with purchasers. At occasions she felt they lived separate lives.

In 2011, Ding went to Fordham College in the US as a visiting scholar on the regulation faculty. The high-flying business lawyer had begun to see China in a special mild. His new entry to the web exterior China’s Nice Firewall opened his eyes to a neighborhood of rights legal professionals and activists working for change, Luo stated. Whereas Ding was at Fordham, Chinese language police started rounding up activists and legal professionals who had taken half in pro-democracy protests in February 2011, impressed by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

“It was positively a vital turning level,” Luo stated. “He received a variety of data he couldn’t see earlier than. He fully modified. Now, every thing in China was not okay.”

When Ding returned dwelling late that 12 months, he renewed contact with an activist he’d met within the early 2000s. Xu Zhiyong, a high-profile lawyer and scholar, was a pioneer of the Weiquan (Rights) Motion. Not like Ding, Xu had been an activist since his pupil days, with a imaginative and prescient of a free, democratic China.

Xu and two shut pals, Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, have been learning for regulation doctorates at Beijing College in 2003 when a sensational story broke. A younger school graduate named Solar Zhigang was crushed to demise whereas in police custody within the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. Solar had been arrested as a result of he lacked the required residence paperwork to stay and work away from his dwelling in Hubei Province.

The scandal erupted as some Chinese language media retailers have been making the most of a quick interval of relative freedom, now lengthy extinguished. Studies of the killing sparked an uproar and compelled authorities to punish the offenders. One was executed.

Xu and his two colleagues filed an enchantment to China’s parliament to scrap the custody-and-repatriation coverage used to regulate the place individuals stay and work. The coverage “was clearly unconstitutional,” stated Teng, who left China to keep away from arrest in 2014 and now lives in the US. “Legal professionals and students performed a major position in that case.” Months later, the federal government abolished the coverage.

The “three docs,” because the regulation college students have been nicknamed, grew to become well-known. “That was thought-about the start of the Weiquan Motion,” stated Cao.

Xu, Teng and others later established a motion identified in English because the Open Structure Initiative. Its legal professionals took on purchasers together with dissidents, victims of meals contamination and persecuted Christians. Below police strain, the Initiative closed in 2009, Teng stated, however the legal professionals carried on.

As soon as again in China, Ding started working carefully with Xu, Teng and others, holding discussions and seminars on China’s structure and regulation reform. As Xi Jinping was taking energy, the New Residents’ Motion was changing into energetic in politics. In a provocative 2012 essay printed on-line, Xu described it as a “political motion through which this historical nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism.” Xu’s essay was a direct problem to the Occasion, and it was swiftly censored.

Xu and Ding grew to become shut pals, Teng stated. “It’s a type of excellent mixture,” he stated. “Xu has clear concepts and a view of the large image. Ding Jiaxi is an efficient organizer.”

Xu, 49, is overtly confrontational, having printed essays and letters on-line that decision for the top of Occasion rule. Some colleagues say he has private political ambitions, desirous to at some point play a job in a democratic China. In 2020, whereas on the run from police, Xu wrote a searing open letter to Xi, accusing him of missing mind and braveness and calling on him to step down.

“The place do you suppose you’re taking China?” Xu wrote within the letter, which was translated by China scholar Geremie Barmé. “Do you may have any clue your self? You speak concerning the reform and opening up coverage on the similar time you are attempting to resuscitate the corpse of Marxism-Leninism.”

Ding is extra reserved and avoids consideration, colleagues say. He has stated he has no plans to be a participant in politics apart from to see the system change, they are saying.

However each males are satisfied they may at some point beat the world’s largest political get together. Ding has instructed his spouse and colleagues democratic change will are available his lifetime, although it might take many years. Xu posted a New 12 months message on-line in 2020 through which he expressed certainty China could be freed from Occasion rule. “When the day comes that the Occasion vanishes like mist and smoke,” he wrote, “will China wish to be buried alive with it?”

Their colleague Teng Biao doesn’t share their confidence.

“I believe their calculations aren’t right,” stated Teng. A few of these legal professionals and activists primarily communicate with one another, creating one thing of an “echo chamber,” Teng defined. In actuality, most individuals in China “are simply not conscious” of the battle the rights motion is waging. And the Occasion is utilizing high-tech instruments similar to facial recognition to tighten management, he added.


Ding threw himself into working for political change as intensely as he’d pursued his company authorized profession, Luo stated. He traveled extensively in 2011, establishing conferences to construct a community for the New Residents’ Motion. It grew rapidly, with scores of individuals attending occasions across the nation.

On the 18th Occasion Congress in November 2012, Xi grew to become Occasion chief. Delegates additionally chosen a 205-member Central Committee. One of many first strikes of the New Residents organizers was to launch a marketing campaign demanding these officers disclose their belongings, Teng stated.

With official corruption rampant in China, this was a direct problem to the Occasion. Ding and his fellow activists started organizing demonstrations in Beijing and different cities, calling for officers to declare their wealth.

The authorities stepped up strain. Luo started noticing plainclothes cops close to their Beijing dwelling and requested Ding why they have been there. They have been the Guobao, he stated – the scary inside safety brokers of China’s police power, the Public Safety Bureau. “He instructed me he was in peril, however he stated he wasn’t frightened,” Luo stated.

Quickly, police took Ding away for twenty-four hours of questioning, she stated. She determined it will be safer for the youngsters if she took them to the US. She started making use of for visas.

On April 13, 2013, the household was at dwelling and Ding was watching the night information when half a dozen Guobao brokers walked in. They rifled by books, papers, images and compact discs, and searched below the beds, in cupboards and on computer systems, stated Luo.

Furious, she berated them. The brokers warned Ding to calm her down. Then they took Ding to his regulation workplace. Luo adopted, however Ding requested her to go dwelling.

“They took him away and he didn’t come again dwelling,” Luo stated. “They wouldn’t let me meet him. I immediately felt it was like he had died. My coronary heart was aching.”

Ding was allowed to see a lawyer whereas in custody, and the legal professional relayed Luo a message: “Do nothing. Get your visa and go to the US.” She and the women packed to depart.

Different New Residents activists, together with Xu, have been rounded up across the similar time. Ding was held for a 12 months; in April 2014, he was discovered responsible of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and sentenced to a few and a half years. In his indictment, prosecutors referred to the group’s efforts to compel asset disclosures. Months earlier, Xu had been jailed for 4 years for related offenses.

Colleagues of the jailed activists famous an irony: The convictions got here concerning the time Xi launched a corruption purge that has seen a whole lot of prime political and army leaders, and 1000’s of lower-level officers arrested and punished for graft. It continues immediately.

Whereas Ding and Xu have been in custody, authorities launched the 709 crackdown. That nationwide sweep focused greater than 300 human rights legal professionals, rights activists and authorized professionals.

Whereas Ding was in detention forward of his trial, his legal professionals despatched tapes of their conversations with Ding to Luo. She was now in Alfred with their daughters. “In that 12 months, I survived on his voice,” Luo stated.

Luo transcribed a few of these talks and printed them on the web sites Human Rights in China and China Change. “They’re petrified of what we did,” Ding says in a single. “They wish to strive us so as to warn others.” He provides: “In essence, that is anti-anti-corruption.”


About six months into Ding’s sentence, Luo started receiving letters from him. They have been “non secular meals,” she stated, sustaining her by the loneliness and fear of separation.

On a cool, early summer time day at her home in Alfred, Luo sorted by a batch of the letters unfold out on a desk in the lounge. She picked up one, dated August 24, 2014, and started studying aloud, translating into English from Ding’s neat Chinese language handwriting.

Ding tells her with a hint of irony concerning the significance of sustaining good well being. “The accomplishment I’ve in jail is getting thinner,” she stated, studying from the letter. “Proper now my weight is 60 kilograms,” or 132 kilos, “precisely the identical as after we received to know one another.”

She continued studying, pensive and subdued: “I consider after the age of fifty I’ve one other 50 years filled with vitality. I hope you’ll be able to preserve wholesome, preserve comfortable so we will spend the 50 years collectively after I get out of jail.”

Ding acknowledged that his single-minded dedication to profession and politics precipitated hardship for his spouse.

“From the primary day I met you till now, I haven’t been pretty much as good as I ought to be to you,” Luo learn from the letter. “I believe you’ll be able to perceive my stubbornness, my ego. Let’s hope collectively our future life shall be completely completely different. I’ll accompany you to purchase lovely garments. I’ll accompany you to journey all over the world. I’ll benefit from the lovely life with you…Today just isn’t so far-off.”

Ding additionally wrote letters to the couple’s elder daughter, Katherine, now a doctoral pupil in physics at Stanford College. Indignant and damage at Ding’s choice to place politics forward of his household, Katherine refused to learn them, Luo stated. “She hates her father, nonetheless.”

Ding was launched in October 2016. It took nearly a 12 months for him to get a visa to rejoin his household in Alfred. Ding cooked and cleaned whereas Luo was at work and youthful daughter Caroline was in school. The household went to artwork reveals, museums and church. They invited Luo’s shut pals in Alfred to events at dwelling. However Katherine was nonetheless bitter, Luo recalled. “She stated: ‘After I wanted him he wasn’t there. Now I don’t want him, he comes again.’”

Katherine and Caroline Ding declined to be interviewed.

It was clear that Ding had no intention of staying in Alfred, stated Cao, the founding father of the China Change web site, which is funded partly by the U.S. Nationwide Endowment for Democracy. Cao met Ding at a café in Washington. Even earlier than he sat down, Cao recalled, “he stated: ‘America is simply too snug, I’ve to return or I’ll lose the need to return and proceed my work.’”

There was a strong purpose to return. Dissidents exiled from China nearly all the time turn out to be much less related to the battle at dwelling, the place the Occasion imposes tight management on data from overseas.

Ding additionally visited fellow activist Teng at Teng’s new dwelling in New Jersey. “I strongly suggested him to remain within the U.S., a minimum of for a couple of years,” Teng stated. “The political environment had turn out to be alarming and super-dangerous for him.”

Ding returned. Xu, too, had been launched and resumed assembly with fellow activists. Ding knew he was getting right into a cat-and-mouse recreation with the authorities. “He was attempting to keep away from the Guobao,” Luo stated. She saved in contact by way of common video calls as he traveled China.

“He saved shifting each 5 to seven days,” Luo stated. “They adopted him in every single place.”

On December 7 and eight, 2019, Ding, Xu and about 20 different legal professionals and activists held two days of conferences within the port metropolis of Xiamen in southern China. They mentioned human rights, the U.S.-China commerce struggle and the pro-democracy protests then roiling Hong Kong, say individuals aware of the agenda.

On December 26, Ding and three fellow attendees have been arrested. Others fled China. Some, together with Xu, went into hiding. Most have been tracked down. Xu was caught in Guangzhou in February 2020.

Within the indictment of Ding, prosecutors accused him of “subversion of state energy” and planning the “overthrow of the socialist system” at Xiamen.

On this second interval of custody, the jailers dealt harshly with Ding. His time there may be described in courtroom paperwork submitted by his lawyer, Peng Jian, and in accounts from Peng that Luo shared with Reuters.

Ding was held for 176 days in so-called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location – a type of detention extensively used whereas an investigation is underway. He was saved in a room with vibrant lights switched on 24 hours a day all through these months and disadvantaged of heat clothes within the winter. He was made to put on a black hood every time he left the room and didn’t see daylight for the complete interval, in accordance with a submission lawyer Peng made to the courtroom.

Ding was additionally subjected to the rack-like “tiger bench.” The belt round his waist was so tight he might barely breathe, Ding instructed his legal professional. In intense ache, he was questioned by 4 groups of eight interrogators every in shifts, for 21 hours straight, seven days in a row, he stated. He was launched from the bench between 6 am and 9 am to make use of the bathroom and stroll round his cell however wasn’t allowed to sleep.

“My ankles have been swollen like buns and the ache was insufferable,” Peng stated Ding instructed him, in accordance with a report of their dialog.

On the morning of his seventh day on the tiger bench, in accordance with Peng’s account, Ding instructed his interrogators he would make some admissions in the event that they agreed to a number of circumstances. He would speak solely concerning the Xiamen assembly, he wouldn’t confess to crimes, he would refuse illustration by government-appointed legal professionals, and he could be allowed to sleep.

In his submitting to the courtroom, Peng requested that Ding’s admissions to interrogators be excluded on the grounds they have been extracted by torture. Reuters was unable to acquire a replica of those admissions.

Luo is now campaigning for the discharge of Ding and different activists, writing letters to the United Nations, the U.S. authorities and Chinese language authorities, and talking at seminars and conferences with rights teams.

She can also be dealing with a battle of her personal. Her physician tells her she is struggling the early signs of Parkinson’s illness. She now says she needs her husband to surrender and are available again to her.

“At this time I wish to be blunt with you, Jiaxi,” Luo wrote in a Might 8 letter, through which she revealed her prognosis. “You might have devoted your life to China’s democracy and freedom, however this authorities doesn’t recognize it in any respect…In return on your patriotism, they torture you and lock you up. Are you able to think about leaving China, and selecting one other life?”

Rights legal professionals and activists say it’s unlikely authorities will present leniency to Ding, particularly given his lengthy refusal to bend.

Peng, the lawyer, held a video name with Ding on August 10 and skim him Luo’s letter. In a Twitter put up afterwards, Peng described Ding’s response to the information of his spouse’s sickness.

“He thought I had been trying down on the letter with out him,” Peng wrote. “In reality, I observed. He bent over, head near the small tabletop, and with a hand restricted by shackles, wiped the corners of his eyes.”

Nonetheless, after studying of Luo’s battle with Parkinson’s, Ding was adamant: He should proceed his work.

“I’m preventing the illnesses of society,” Ding instructed his lawyer, in accordance with a report of the dialog. “I consider god has all of this in hand. Sooner or later, we will certainly be reunited to stay a peaceable life, though not now.”

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