An Interview with Labour Rights Lawyer Xu Jian

The following is an interview with Xu Jian, a labour rights lawyer from Baotou City in the province of Inner Mongolia. Between 1999 and 2003, Xu Jian was jailed by Chinese authorities on a series of trumped-up charges (including "incitement to subvert state power"). The following is a translation of an interview with Xu Jian conducted on November 30th, 2004 by China Labour Bulletin and Human Rights in China.


Q: Let's start with the basic facts of your imprisonment. What did the authorities charge you with, and when and how did you arrive at Chifeng Prison?

XJ: In 1998 and 1999, I worked as a labour lawyer, and during this time, a lot of economic changes were taking place in Inner Mongolia. Many workers were being laid off due to factory restructuring, and many others were left in dire straits by employer bankruptcies. Some workers, feeling that their rights were being violated, sought my legal counsel. My job, given to me by the government, was to provide such legal counsel and advise workers as to what protections and rights were guaranteed them by Chinese labour law.

One day a group of workers from the No. 2 Machinery Factory came to me with complaints about long overdue wages, and I advised them that the withholding of wages was clearly in violation of Chinese labour law. They went to the factory management and demanded their back wages. Management came back to me and angrily demanded to know why I had dispensed legal advise to their workers, warning me against any further dispensing of legal advice.

Eventually my boss at the law firm told me I had to stop talking to workers about their rights. I was later approached by the chief of the justice bureau, a man who would later become a National People's Congress (NPC) delegate for a district in Baotou. He, too, asked me to stop telling workers about their legal rights. I don't begrudge the man. I think his orders came from the mayor, the deputy mayor, and other related authorities who wanted me warned against spreading the idea that workers actually had legal rights. The mayor even ordered to write a self-criticism, apologizing for discussing the rights and responsibilities of workers with the workers themselves. When I refused to do so, he advised me that my rights to work as a lawyer could be rescinded. Reluctantly, I did write a self-criticism, the first copy of which was rejected on the grounds that I didn't sound "serious enough". In the end, I had to write another. After my second apology was accepted I assumed the incident was over.

Later, towards the end of 1998, I began receiving requests for legal representation from the families of imprisoned political dissidents. First I received a request from the wife of Wang Youcai [dissident and founding member of the China Democracy Party, sentenced to 11 years imprisonment in 1998; currently living in exile]. About that time I also received a letter from Xu Wenli [another founder of the China Democracy Party]. It is often difficult for such clients to get proper legal representation, and I approached my law firm for a seal of approval [required by Chinese law in criminal cases] to work on Wang's case. My firm, however, withheld the seal without explanation. This was rather surprising, both to myself and the other lawyers in my firm, as it was my job to defend such clients. I later learned that my telephone conversations had been monitored, and that my firm had been told by the State Security Bureau to withhold approval.

So I asked a friend who worked in another law firm, to help me to get the proper approval stamp, offering to handle the case jointly with him. Neither of us realized that my telephone was bugged. During the weekend we went to his office to pick up the approval stamp and found that the lock to the door had been damaged and the door wouldn't open. We eventually got the door open and got the document approving our representation, then headed to Hangzhou City to handle the case. However, the incident badly intimidated my friend, and he decided to drop the case. I later found out that the Chief of the Justice Bureau paid my friend a visit and warned him to stay away from me. The same chief also paid me a visit on my return to Baotou, telling me to "stop making trouble" and to simply "be a lawyer!" I told him I didn't know what he meant by making trouble and I thought I was only fulfilling my obligations as a lawyer by representing my clients. Later, when I went to renew my license [in China, lawyers are required to renew their licenses each year], the registrar advised me against renewing the license, saying it would only get me in trouble. I insisted on renewing it, and in the end they gave in, but again warned me that I was heading for trouble.


XJ: In December of 1999 I headed to Guangzhou because a local law firm was offering me a good work contract. On the evening of 30 December, at around 10.30 pm, officials from the State Security Bureau of Guangdong Province came to my hotel room and ordered me to go to another hotel with them. There they questioned me about my reasons for coming to Guangzhou.

Q: Were these Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials?

XJ: No, they were from the State Security Bureau. I told them I was pursuing a legitimate employment opportunity in Guangzhou, and showed them my contract to prove it. They remained suspicious, demanding again and again to know "what I was really up to in Guangzhou."

Unfortunately, they searched my bag and found I was carrying 60,000 Hong Kong Dollars [about 7000 USD]. When I told them that the money was indeed my own, and that I was under no legal duress to explain the source of my finances to them, they switched tacks and demanded to know why I was carrying Hong Kong currency. Of course, they knew well enough that in Guangdong Province, Hong Kong currency is commonplace, even exchangeable at most hotels. Further, I explained that as a private citizen I was clearly beyond suspicion of somehow embezzling state funds, and was not obliged to answer questions as to the origin of my funds. I then asked for evidence of any wrongdoing, and though they provided none they still brought me to a detention center of the State Security Bureau of Guangdong Province.

Q: Was this detention center in Guangzhou City?

XJ: I think it was in Guangzhou; it might have been Huadu City in Guangdong Province, I'm not sure. During my time there I was interrogated daily. On the first or second day of January 2000, I was visited by the chief of the State Security Bureau of Inner Mongolia, Shi Zhongsheng. He and the chief of State Security Bureau for Baotou City came all the way to Guangdong just to question me. They asked me again about the source of my money, and I again refused to answer. I protested my illegal detention and requested legal representation. They ignored me, so I continued to refuse to answer their questions. For six days they kept at it. For the first three days I was allowed to sit, but for the subsequent three I was made to stand. Our daily sessions lasted from five to nine hours. It was very tiring to stand that long.

Q: Did your interrogators question you together?

XJ: No, They took turns.


XJ: It was snowing and cold on the day they sent me back to Baotou (9 January 2000), maybe twenty below [Celsius]. Again, I was interrogated every day, and again I said nothing. Each day I got two small buns, about 150 grams each, and a clear vegetable broth. Mealtimes were at 09.00 and 16.00.

Q: Was that the regular ration per detainee?

XJ: Yes. I was so hungry that I figured that starving to death quickly was preferable to doing so slowly and on January 15th I began a hunger strike. I neither ate nor drank for five days. Eventually I could do little more than lie in bed. The hunger strike did result in something positive.

Q: What was that?

XJ: Beginning on the 20th of January, I got an extra bun per day, so I began eating again. The detention centre guards later told me that the bun came from them and not the government. And the questioning continued. Every day I was asked about my relationship with the Democratic Party and my reasons for representing Wang Youcai. My answer was very simple: Wang was my client, and representing him was my job. Still, the questioning continued. Sometime around the 22nd of February, for reasons unknown, I was transferred to Jiuyuan District Detention Center. I asked a fellow detainee about to be released to inform my family of my whereabouts [Xu's family had never officially been informed of his detention] as he was about to be released. I also gave him an item of my clothing to present as proof of identify. I guess the State Security Bureau didn't want my family coming to the detention centre to look for me, so they transferred me to another one. Unfortunately the detainee who helped me was discovered "leaking the secret of my whereabouts" to my family. Sadly, I would later meet him again behind bars.

The new detention centre was even worse. The food was like horse food – corn and cabbage cooked without salt, day in, day out. I could barely swallow it. Beginning on the 21st of March they switched my interrogation schedule from daytime to nighttime, questioning me from 22.00 until sunrise.

Q: Could you sleep during the day?

XJ: No. Sleeping was not allowed. I was forced to sit up straight and face the wall during the day. At this time, the nature of their questions changed. They were now asking me to admit to having been instructed by a foreign power to subvert the state under the guise of providing legal assistance to workers, and to being in the employ of hostile elements. Their charges were baseless, and of course I refused to admit to such ridiculous charges. They promised me improved treatment if I'd only confess, but how could I possibly cooperate? Again and again I explained that it was the Communist Party that had allowed me to become a lawyer in the first place, and that my responsibility was to provide legal consultation, and that nobody, hostile element or otherwise, had ever induced me to do anything.

On March 22nd I was told by Liu Mingdong, chief of State Security Bureau that my refusal to cooperate would lead to even stricter measures. His words struck me as quite funny. "If you continue to behave like this," he said, "we aren't going to keep being so nice to you." I wondered how they could possibly be less nice to me, and the next day I found out. That was the day that other detainees were brought in and ordered to attack me. I was badly beaten up by these other detainees, suffering serious abdominal injury and the loss of a tooth.

Q: How many people were involved in the attack?

XJ: About seven or eight, but to be fair, my attackers were coerced. Their leader told them that they would be in trouble if they failed to beat me. Following the beatings, the guards accused me of "making trouble for my fellow prisoners." They handcuffed me and put me in chains. The chains weighed about 20 kilos, and were placed on my naked skin. I was forced to exercise in the chains, and the friction badly wounded my feet and legs. After four days of wearing handcuffs and chains I began another hunger strike, and five days later they were removed.

In April I requested that I be allowed to write my family. One day at 04.00 following an interrogation session they allowed me to do so. I wrote a very brief letter, telling my mum not to worry about me. It was the fourth month of my detention and the first letter I had been allowed to write.

In May, I was transferred to Guchengwan Detention Center, a filthy ramshackle place where I was incarcerated alongside condemned prisoners awaiting execution.

Q: As a political prisoner, were you treated differently from the other inmates?

XJ: Not as such. I was in bad shape by then, and my physical and psychological state was quite weak. My gums were infected and swollen and I ran a fever for a long time. Our cell, 15 meters square, held 20 people. This tiny cell, with one small window, was where we all ate, slept and defecated. We couldn’t sleep all at the same time because of the limited space, so we slept in shifts of 4-5 hours. In the summer, temperatures ran as high as 40 degrees Celsius, and a guy next to me had a heart attack. I suppose he died of suffocation. They just took him away. Had I died there, they would have removed me without a trace. Such occurrences are very common there.


XJ: I myself came close to dying at one stage. My fever lasted more than a dozen days, and my body temperature got up to 42 degrees Celsius, putting me in a coma. The prison doctor was so sure I would die that they took me to No. 291 Beijing Military Hospital in Baotou City, where I was put on oxygen. My family was told to send money to pay for my hospitalization. My mother, wife and brothers were able to collect 8,000 Yuan, which they brought to me. When my family arrived, I was on an intravenous drip. At first they didn't recognize me because I'd lost so much weight. Once they confirmed that it was indeed me, they handed over the money but were not permitted to touch or embrace me.

I stayed in the hospital for a week and still had a fever when I was taken back to the detention centre. They told me that some senior officials thought I shouldn't have been admitted to hospital in the first place and should simply have been left to die.


XJ: On 1 July 2000, I was given a closed-door trial; my family was not allowed to attend, on the grounds that "state secrets" might be revealed, and no lawyers were present. The only people at my trial were the judges, the prosecutor, a cameraman, and myself. The accusations against me included: organizing a strike of kindergarten teachers to demand their overdue wages, distributing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and writing open letters advocating a "worker's overthrow of the government". Attempts to defend myself were futile. When I opened my mouth, I was told repeatedly to "shut up and behave". I was sentenced to four years imprisonment and returned to the detention center.

That September, the guards at the detention center said they were taking me somewhere else to recuperate. Still being quite ill, I was happy to hear this. I slipped some food and money my family had send me for the Mid-Autumn Festival into my luggage and left with three guards for the train. As the train passed through Hohhot [the capital of Inner Mongolia] and we didn't get off, I wondered where we were going. The guards didn't tell me, exactly, just said that I was heading someplace where I could recuperate. Later, they confiscated my cigarettes and money – more than 1,000 Yuan – saying the money would pay for my train fare and meals. They also seized my leather shoes and belt, both my Sunday best. At last I was brought to Chifeng Prison, a "Reform-through-Labour" Camp. Once there, prison officials took away the remaining items I had left, including my radio, cash and medicine. I was then assigned to a work team.

Q: Can you tell us about this work team, and what kind of work was done?

XJ: Each team had around 900 prisoners, and each was split into smaller groups doing different tasks. One group made bricks to be sold for construction, another (the group I belonged to) knitted carpets while yet another would clean and prepare them for sale. Old, sick and disabled prisoners did various odd jobs. Some of them were very sick, with ailments such as severe liver and lung disease. They packed chopsticks, made footballs and basketballs for sale – jobs like that.

Q: Can you describe your prison cell?

XJ: Several times I was kept in what's known as a "Xiaohao" – the punishment and isolation cell. I'm 1.73 meter tall and I couldn't stretch or lie down straight in it. Also, on several occasions I was punished with a treatment that the prison authorities called "hugging the gate." Basically, this consisted of being strapped face-forwards against an iron gate with both hands and feet shackled to it. My feet became all swollen after a two-day session of this treatment, and I was so weak afterwards that I collapsed.

Q: What did you eat while you were in prison?

XJ: In the punishment cell I received a small bowl of congee [gruel soup] each day – perhaps 100 gm of food in all.

Q: Why were you put in the punishment cell?

XJ: At first, though imprisoned, I refused to admit to having done anything wrong. In the punishment cell I was forced to write self-critiques each day. I wanted to live to see my family again, so I finally admitted to the crime of disturbing social order and subverting state power, promising to reform. The authorities had me read my confession to the other prisoners, and I was made to vow never again to take actions that might harm the nation.

Q: Was this some kind of official punishment, or just something the prison authorities forced you to do?

XJ: To my knowledge it was the latter. Basically, prison authorities have all the power. If a prisoner fails to submit, they pay a heavy price. Assault of inmates was common there.

Q: Were ordinary criminals kept together with political prisoners? And were Mongolians and Hans segregated?

XJ: Everyone was kept together, but speaking the Mongolian language was strictly prohibited. There were some Mongolian prisoners from remote areas doing time for stealing animals and other such crimes. They quickly learned to speak only Mandarin. To be heard speaking Mongolian did not bode well for a prisoner.

Q: And the political prisoners?

XJ: We were treated strictly, not even allowed to speak to each other. Other prisoners were told that I was a political criminal and told to stay away from me or risk punishment.

Q: Besides the ban on talking to other inmates, what other restrictions were political prisoners subject to?

XJ: Visits and letters were highly restricted. All prisoner correspondences are checked, but for political prisoners this "checking" could take ages. My wife was allowed to see me only twice, once in 2001 and again the next year. Our entire meeting was conducted by phone in a small room with a window separating us, and with officials closely monitoring our every movement. We weren't permitted to engage in meaningful conversation, only the most superficial chitchat.

Q: In December of 2003 you were released. What have you done since?

XJ: I immediately began looking for work, but nobody wanted to employ me once they learned of my background. There were some job offers but the wages were not enough to make ends meet, like street-cleaning work. After insurance, I got less than 200 Yuan a month. To make matters worse I was followed around by the PSB. They visited me regularly, and it was clear that I would be punished for the slightest infraction. I felt miserable and lost, the future looked bleak.


Q: Earlier this month [Nov 2004], retired workers staged a road blockade in Baotou to claim their pensions. Can you elaborate on the situation currently faced by workers in Baotou, or elsewhere in China?

XJ: Workers are still underpaid, forced to work unpaid overtime, and subject to undeserved termination. Many companies simply don't pay their workers at all. In one instance, a group of workers at a company called North Heavy Industries Group were asked to sign a blank sheet of paper. The next day they were laid off, and presented with their own signatures on contracts indicating that they'd agreed to the layoff. This is the same company who had accused me of wrongdoing after I'd advised their workers of their rights before my detention.

Q: China Labour Bulletin has received numerous calls from workers from this company claiming to have been forced to take non-paid leave, and then laid off afterwards on the grounds that they'd refused to work.

XJ: Typical. And even workers who have paying jobs might only make 300- 400 Yuan per month. Can you imagine having to support a family on that? And what happens if just one family member gets laid off? It's really tragic.

Q: We hear daily news of protests taking place in the industrial cities of northern China. Looking ahead, what do you see happening?

XJ: Big things, events which may impact the entire country. But it's difficult, as currently workers' rights are being suppressed. Each protest brings a wave of detentions and nobody wants to become a workers’ representative. Answering yes to the question "do you represent these workers" is tantamount to asking for detention.

Q: Can workers look to the legal system for help?

XJ: Laws to protect workers are rarely enforced, especially in the state owned enterprises. Management knows it can do as it pleases, and even if a worker sues they won't win.

Q: Is the formation of free trade unions a long-term goal?

XJ: Absolutely, but this will take a long time. I believe that it's an historical inevitability.

Q: What do you think organizations like China Labour Bulletin can do?

XJ: CLB is doing a great job in giving workers a voice. Workers in China have been kept silent for a long time; by giving them a voice, the issues important to them can begin to be discussed openly. Then, perhaps, wrongs can be redressed.

Q: Besides helping to broadcast their stories, what more can be done to help workers?

XJ: We need to help workers become more aware of their rights. Currently, Chinese workers have little knowledge of or faith in the law. But I believe that in the long term, the legal system should be able to help and CLB should work in this direction.

Q: Finally, do you have any regrets?

XJ: None. I did nothing wrong. As I wrote in a letter to my wife, in the future my innocence will be proven. That is how history works.

In November 2004, Xu Jian managed to leave China with his family, and he is currently living in London on an academic fellowship and continuing his China labour rights work.

4 June 2005

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