One day in September 2008, while China’s leaders were congratulating themselves on their successful hosting of the Olympic Games, Yang Chunguang found himself in a government office in Qianjiang city, Hubei, making what must have been the most painful decision of his life. In front of him sat Zhu Fangping, the director the local Public Health Bureau. But the meeting was not about Yang’s health. After years of petitioning over a pension payment dispute, Yang’s wife Liao Meizhi, had been locked up in a nearby “black jail.” For over a month, she had been beaten on a regular basis by her captors. And now the bureau director had told Yang to sign a decree he had drafted stating that Liao was mentally ill, opening the door to her incarceration in a psychiatric hospital. Yang knew his wife was perfectly sound of mind, and that this whole episode was an extrajudicial ploy to neutralize a persistent protester who could not be silenced any other way. But Liao was nearly 60 years-old, and her injuries in detention were so severe that Yang feared his wife might die if she remained there. Despite knowing its contents were untrue, Yang signed the document.
That same day, Liao was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Yang quickly managed to get her released after petitioning the local authorities. But early this year, as Liao was again protesting her treatment outside a city government building, she was bundled into a car and once again forcibly placed in psychiatric care. She has still not been released.
In May 2010, Yang Chunguang talked to CLB Director, Han Dongfang, about his family’s long struggle with the local Public Health Bureau, which began as a dispute over unpaid pension arrears after his father’s death in 2001, and the failure to arrange reemployment for his son after his retirement from the military, but which eventually focused on the abuse and mistreatment of his wife.
Yang believed that his father’s pension had been embezzled by the deputy director of the health centre his father had been employed at for many years. When he retired, his father had taken a part-time job at a medical materials supplier in Jianli county to earn a little more cash. However, the health centre withheld his pension money on the grounds that “he had gone to work elsewhere.” Yang believes his father was owed 70,000 yuan, and that the money had simply been pocketed by the deputy director, who claimed it as his own.
The issue of their son’s reemployment dated back to 1993, when he left the army. However, the family did not take action until 2001, after they had researched the relevant laws and gathered the necessary documentation.
After we got the evidence together, we initiated court proceedings. We went to the local court, and filed several lawsuits. In light of the Labour Law, the court officials all said that we had justice on our side, but they were reluctant to get involved or help us, and urged us to reach a settlement outside the court.
The family did manage to file a formal lawsuit, but the court ruling did not clarify who owed the money or the amount to be paid. Yang then approached the Municipal Communist Party Committee Secretary, Zhang Siyi, and Mayor Liu Xuerong. Mayor Liu said he supported the couple’s claims, but did nothing more concrete than refer them to the local petitioning office. So the Yangs embarked on nine years of bureaucratic lobbying.
Between 2001 and 2009, they were bounced between municipal, provincial and national-level petitioning offices. Although they attracted some sympathy, they were blocked, Yang believes, by certain city-level officials. Finally, the Qianjiang Municipal Party secretary, Zhang Siyi, squared things for them with the local Judicial Bureau. This resulted in an eight-month investigation and mediation process. In the end, after an investigation linked the embezzlement of pension funds with corruption following the sell-off of the organization that the health centre was a part of, the Yang family was awarded 28,000 yuan, Later, in April 2010, the authorities finally allocated a new job to their son, 17 years after his retirement from the army. He now works at a Qianjiang dental hospital, where he is employed as a statistician.
Locked up for 46 days
Although the family had achieved some measure of success, the pension payment was still less than half the 70,000 yuan that Yang reckoned they were owed. “It was compensation (赔偿), not full restitution (补偿),” he said. The payment was later increased to 40,000 yuan, on condition that the family refrained from any further petitioning. With this, the matter was officially closed. Yang had effectively waived the right to pursue the remaining 30,000 yuan. Since the settlement had come through the good offices of the Judicial Bureau, which had no responsibilities in the affair, he was also unable to hold the health authorities accountable. “I could not express my true feelings,” he said. “What they did was not fair. They stopped us from petitioning, and did not really solve our problem.”
Not only were they short-changed, but the costs incurred by the couple over their long campaign amounted to between 100,000 yuan and 200,000 yuan, by Yang’s estimate, including the loss of working days, and the travel, food and accommodation expenses of petitioning in the provincial capital, Wuhan, and Beijing. Moreover, throughout their protests, the family endured repeated physical intimidation and violence. For example, in 2005, when the family began petitioning over their son’s reemployment, his wife and son were attacked by a Public Health Bureau driver. They demanded 27,000 yuan in compensation but only received 6,500 yuan, which covered only a fraction of their medical expenses, Yang said.
But it was in 2008, just before the Olympics, that the family’s ordeal began in earnest. Impatient with official foot-dragging and obstructionism, the couple took their petition to Beijing. Like many other petitioners from all over China, they chose the politically sensitive period of the Olympics to attract media attention and maximize the pressure they could exert on their authorities. This proved an unwise tactic.
My wife and I are both over 60 years-old. We always took care to petition in an orderly way, mindful of our own reputation and that of our city and for the benefit of our son. We queued up like everybody else, and petitioned in an orderly way. We did not create any trouble.
Very soon after their arrival in the capital, officials from the Qianjiang Public Health Bureau appeared and persuaded them, without coercion, to go back to Qianjiang. After their return, Yang’s wife was seized and locked up for 46 days in a “black jail” near a riverside pumping station outside the city.
Liao was kept under guard in a small room and not allowed to leave:
During her detention, she was repeatedly beaten… They grabbed her hair, and hit her on the head. After the beatings, she was forced to write that nobody had attacked her, on pain of a further beating… They did not even let in fresh air for one hour, and her injuries were festering all over her body.
Then I got a phone call from the director of the Public Health Bureau, Zhu Fangping, calling me to his office to talk things over. He told me that my wife was mentally ill. I denied it. He said she had a psychiatric condition, so he wanted to move her out of detention. She has no history of mental illness… I said that she is a workers’ representative at her health centre. If she had a mental condition, how could she have become a workers’ representative? She also got one of the highest scores in her nursing examinations.
Regardless, Zhu drafted a statement that she was “mentally ill” and told Yang to make a copy and sign it. In return, he promised to help resolve the family’s pension and reemployment issues.
I did not reproduce his exact wording, but I signed. It was done under duress, but if I had not signed, they would not have released her. I believe she could have died in that detention centre.
Liao was released the same day Yang gave his signature, and was immediately sent to a psychiatric hospital.
They put her away just for two nights. On the third day, after we petitioned, she was released and moved to the Qianjiang People’s Hospital to receive treatment for the injuries she had sustained while locked up — she had some kind of blockage in her head and some her hair had been pulled out at the root. Her psychological condition was also bad, and her hands and feet were cold.
She remained in hospital for around ten days, Yang said. The Public Health Bureau initially promised to pay the hospital bills, but no money was forthcoming and it was Yang who footed the bill in the end.
Campaign of intimidation
After getting out of hospital, Liao continued her petitioning, focusing as much on her appalling treatment during the petitioning process as their original grievances. When the family returned to Beijing in April 2009, they were intercepted by five health bureau officials, including a certain Su Leming, who was apparently the deputy director of a psychiatric hospital. They were beaten and warned that they could not possibly win. Su gave Yang a written pledge guarantying safe passage back to Qianjiang, but then changed his mind and demanded that Yang give the document back to him. Yang initially refused, but later complied, which meant he no longer had any evidence as to who their assailants were.
Su Leming then drove us out to this prison farm in the middle of nowhere. They dumped us there and drove off ... We called the police when we got back to Qianjiang that day, after five o’clock. The police said we needed proof of the identity of our assailants, and said they could not do anything. On the second day, I went to the petitioning office and asked the director what was going on ... The petitioning bureau said the guys were sent by the Public Health Bureau; I asked the health bureau, and they said that the petitioning bureau did it. I realized that both units were hand in glove on this.
A few days later, Yang’s pharmacy was trashed by vandals.
My daughter-in law was at the counter. I was sweeping outside. My wife was sitting at the door. My granddaughter, only four or five years old, was in the room, so there were four of us. Just past five o’clock, they arrived, armed with poles, and smashed my glass counter display and my television. They did not say a word, just smashed things and ran away.
The final act came in February 2010. Liao was outside the Qianjiang government building when a dozen men came out, including Zheng Jie, secretary of the Disciplinary Inspection Committee of the Public Health Bureau, and took her away. The bureau’s pretext for this abduction was Liao’s “failure to abide by persuasive tactics and desist from petitioning (不听劝阻，继续上访).”
We resisted, but we could not stop them. There were two of them for every one of us. I am over 60 and my daughter-in-law had to face two of them. They dragged my wife into a vehicle.
And that was the last that Yang saw of Liao. He has been refused permission to visit her six times, and the hospital he did visit denied she was there. His only source of information was a fellow patient who came to his home after being discharged, and told Yang he had become friends with Liao in the hospital. When Yang approached the local police, he was told that the matter was “beyond their authority.”
The police have been given specific instructions on how to act such cases. The police just ‘fear the strong and exploit the weak.’ The municipal Party committee and the officials, they are all covering each others' backs. They have done nothing and no investigation has been launched.
CLB has offered to help Yang but thus far we have been unable to find a local lawyer able or willing to take on the family’s case.
Han Dongfang’s interview with Yang Chunguang was first broadcast in seven episodes in May 2010.