China's Broken Olympic Promises

The detained activist whose case cast a shadow on the Beijing Olympics.

August 4, 2009 — -- When the Beijing attorney Liu receives a telephone call, his answering machine plays a loud electronic version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He quickly picks up the phone, shouts into the receiver, laughs loudly and makes the stuttering sound of an engine running. In China, all of this is code for: Okay, I understand, everything is fine. Sometimes Liu gets up while he is talking, stands at a window, his body rocking back and forth, and looks out at the commotion surrounding Beijing's western train station -- a chaotic scene that mirrors his own hectic life. When he travels, which he does frequently, he joins the tens of thousands of travelers milling about the train station. Anyone who, like Liu, grapples with the Chinese legal system spends much of his time taking long, arduous journeys.

It is early July, and Liu is on his way to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, a coastal city 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) south of Beijing, where four of his clients -- men and women who were arrested without explanation in the middle of the night -- are currently in custody. The trouble probably stems from the fact that three of the four detainees signed Charter 08, an inflammatory appeal for a new constitution, a new political system and a new China.

Liu, 45, a small man, has been a member of the Communist Party for 19 years -- an apparent but not necessarily inevitable contradiction to his commitment to civil rights. He feels a deep bond with people who are treated unjustly, he says, and he advocates on their behalf on the Internet, in police stations and in courtrooms, for which he has earned a reputation with the powers that be. When German broadcaster Deutsche Welle awarded him a prize the government refused to grant him an exit visa, thus preventing him from traveling to Germany to accept it in person. The incident was yet another episode in the cat-and-mouse game with the government that shapes his daily life.

Since February he has been handling a particularly complicated case. It revolves around his fifth, and most prominent, client in Fujian, the man who disappeared during the Olympic Games in Beijing almost a year ago, all because he had applied for a permit to protest in one of the "protest parks" the government had designated for that purpose. It was the man whose case overshadowed the daily press conferences given by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the man whose story was reported by the world news media, partly because he had shattered the IOC's and Chinese government's grand promises when it came to democracy in China.

That man is Ji Sizun, whose disappearance SPIEGEL reported a year ago and whose fate was long unknown. Today, he is still in detention, but at least his whereabouts are known. He is being held at the Wuyishan prison, a seven-hour train journey northwest of Fuzhou, in Section 6, Cell 207. The prison is located in the midst of a wild, magnificent landscape declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but visiting him there is out of the question. "You can try submitting an application," says Liu. He laughs, but his laugh sounds more combative than bitter.

IOC Hoodwinked by Beijing

What has Ji been charged with? For wanting to protest? For being a regime critic? For seeking to harm China's national image at a time -- the Beijing Olympics -- when preserving its image was paramount? In fact, none of these charges was leveled against him. Ji owes his imprisonment to an entirely different and unexpected charge. He has been sentenced to three years in prison for "the intentional forgery of national documents and sovereign seals." That was the charge, and to comprehend it is to gain a deeper understanding of how China's state security apparatus is structured. It also exposes how naïve and deceitful it was for the IOC to have claimed that China would open itself up for the Olympic Games, and that the games would open up China.

In retrospect, it seems almost laughable that the IOC, particularly its president, Jacques Rogge, allowed itself to be hoodwinked by China on the subject of Olympic ideals. In fact, it is so laughable that one could almost presume that the IOC was in league with the government and party leadership in Beijing from the start and consistently kept both eyes tightly shut when Tibetans were persecuted or Uighurs were branded as terrorists.

When confronted with the results of SPIEGEL's research, the IOC countered with a cool, standard response, arguing that it is a sports organization that lacks the means to look into possible human rights violations. There was no mention of the name Ji Sizun in the IOC's letter.

His story begins with a photograph taken by Danish photographer Mads Nissen on Aug. 11, 2008, on the fourth day of the impressive Beijing Games. The photo depicts Ji, who was 58 at the time, still dressed in the white, short-sleeved shirt and worn trousers he had been wearing that morning when he submitted his application. He is accompanied by two men dressed in civilian clothes, who are seen forcing him into a minivan. Shortly afterwards Ji was reached once, briefly, on his mobile phone before his service was disconnected. After Aug. 11, not even his family could reach him. He had simply disappeared without a trace.

In China, the bloggers and citizen reporters, the tough and half-baked democrats alike that now exist throughout the country assumed the worst at the time. They expected that Ji would soon end up in a labor camp and later in a reeducation camp, and they did not rule out the possibility that he would be killed in an alleged accident. But, as it now appears, he was initially taken to the National Petition Office, so that he could present his case once more behind closed doors.

Delegates from his home province, Fujian, were already waiting for him. This is a unique characteristic of Chinese political life. The country's provinces, as well as its major cities, maintain liaison offices and guesthouses in Beijing, and they remain responsible for their own people whenever they happen to be in the capital or elsewhere.

Legal Services for Ordinary Citizens

After presenting his case to the disinterested officials at the petition office, he was taken to the guesthouse of Zhangzhou, a city in Fujian where he had lived for many years. The next day, he was put on a train for the 19-hour journey to Fuzhou, the provincial capital. From there, he was taken by car to Zhangzhou, a 300-kilometer journey, where he was detained at the "Hotel of Agriculture" and kept under house arrest. Searching for him, in China, would have been an impossible undertaking at the time. The Chinese authorities operate in secrecy, politicians have no interest in transparency, the police are world unto themselves, and the judiciary is an anonymous machine in which cases are only heard in public when they are likely to serve the propaganda interests of the party and government. The more sensitive issues, including those with relevance to the system, are handled behind closed doors. At first the authorities faced a hurdle in Ji's case: They had no case. No crime had been committed, not even a minor offence.

In 2002 Ji Sizun, a delicate man, unmarried and living alone, undoubtedly somewhat eccentric, moved from Zhangzhou, where he had grown up and spent much of his life, to Fuzhou, a port city surrounded by rolling mountains with tea plantations on their slopes. Fuzhou is a comfortable city by Chinese standards, with fig, palm and mimosa trees lining its streets and, in its downtown area, a large, snow-white statue of Mao Zedong, which is brightly lit at night. The weather is humid and oppressively hot in the summer. Ji lived in the Taijian district, in a neighborhood called Cangxia, at Zhuangyuan Lane 9.

The entrance to his short, narrow street is flanked by a snack bar that smells of old fish and a colorful general store. A neighbor wearing a ribbed undershirt is standing in front of the door to Ji's former house, which resembles a garage door, and when is he asked about Mr. Ji, he says: "Mr. Ji? But he moved away from here about a year ago."

In the years leading up to his arrest, Ji had provided legal services to ordinary citizens. It was his passion. After the Cultural Revolution, Ji worked in a mine and was later assigned an office job. He read up on the law and became a self-educated, amateur legal expert, representing people who couldn't afford a real lawyer. In some cases, he waived his fee if his clients, who he believed to be in the right, were unable to pay.

A Case, an Indictment and a Confession

He helped migrant workers defend themselves against police abuse, and he went to court with elderly women who had been expropriated without compensation in connection with hydroelectric dam projects. He helped teachers secure their pension payments, and he negotiated damage payments for people who had been the victims of work accidents. But in the summer of 2008, he paid dearly for his determination to take action against abuses committed by the police, the party and government officials. The police in Fuzhou, against whom he had successfully prosecuted cases again and again, began to harass him, looking for an opportunity to get rid of this notorious troublemaker, a man who, in 2005, had managed to expose a ring of corrupt local politicians, party members and police officers and take them to court. Seventeen people were indicted in the case and were collectively sentenced to 113 years in prison. If there was anyone who had enemies in Fuzhou, it was Ji Sizun.

While he was being held in the "Hotel of Agriculture," the police uncovered material it believed to be incriminating. In a stack of papers removed from Ji's apartment, they found three nondescript, stamped forms that his clients had to fill out so that he could serve as their legal representative. The forms are harmless, containing standard information such as a client's name, age, address and marital status, and they were all stamped to indicate that they had been received by the judicial authority. The innocuous words on the red, oval stamp read: "Justice Center -- Confirmation of Legal Representation." The police, and later the district attorney, claimed that these forms were forged, and that the forger was Ji Sizun.

They now had a case and an indictment and it was enough to enable them to remove Ji from his house arrest on Sept. 18. He had already been detained for a period that exceeded the legal time limit for house arrest under Chinese law. Ji was taken to the Fuzhou Number 2 detention facility in the southern part of the city, near the main highway to Xiamen, where the city gives way to fields and factories, and where the ditches are filled with rank tropical vegetation. The only external feature identifying the facility as a prison is its tall gate, flanked by stone lions and surveillance cameras in every corner.

Accusing the authorities of torture without hearing their side of the story is a risky proposition. But the police in China have no press office worthy of the name and the Interior Ministry is not receptive to questions of this nature. For this reason, it is only possible to relate the story Ji told his attorneys, which is that the police tortured him with sleep deprivation while he was in pretrial detention. According to his account, he was once interrogated for hours and forced to stay awake for 16 hours. On a separate occasion, he was kept awake for 25 to 30 hours, a practice so abusive that even the prison warden objected.

When Ji still refused to confess to his alleged crimes, they threatened to place him in a cell with the corrupt officials he had helped put behind bars. That was when Ji told them what they wanted to hear: That he copied the forms himself and forged the red, oval stamp.

A Grotesque Photo

The authorities had their confession, and on Jan. 7, 2009, they had a conviction. Even though Ji recanted his confession during a hearing, saying that he had made it under duress, the judge, in a hearing closed to the public, sentenced him to a three-year prison term. Despite the secret proceedings, the news traveled quickly, spread by friends, attorneys, the Internet, text messages and word of mouth. That was why Jan. 7, 2009 represented the first time that there was any word of Ji after he had disappeared without a trace for a full 148 days. At least his supporters now knew that he was alive, and that he would file an appeal.

There is a grotesque photo that speaks volumes about the Chinese culture of formal politeness and saving face. The photo depicts Ji, together with a woman and man, standing behind a large banner. The picture was taken shortly after he had secured the release of 46 migrant workers who were imprisoned after the police refused to recognize their valid and properly stamped work permits. The 2000 case ended in an embarrassment for the security apparatus and the judiciary, and it was reported in the newspapers. The photo shows Ji with two migrant workers and the banner, which the group presented to the court, reads: "In appreciation to the court, for the wisdom of its decisions." The words are not meant to be sarcastic. They are the Chinese way. China is not easy to understand, as Ji's attorney in Fuzhou keeps repeating. His name is Lin Hongnan, and his office is at the end of a dark corridor in a house across the street from the glittering tower of the Shangri La Hotel. Lin is a dark, disheveled-looking man with puffy eyelids that make his eyes seem almost closed. His office is littered with mementoes, pictures and calligraphy scrolls. He has a benevolent face, and when Lin, 70, is asked simple questions about the weaknesses of the Chinese judicial system, he says: "It will probably take some time before we have liberated ourselves from thousands of years of tradition."

The experienced Lin was happy to take on Ji's case, together with Liu, the attorney from Beijing, and the two men devised a strategy for the appeal. Everything about the case, including the evidence and the court's conclusions, seemed odd to them. The judge's verdict was easy to contest, particularly the claim, which served as grounds for the harsh sentence, that Ji had forged "national documents" and "sovereign seals."

China, like any other country, has laws, and there are regulations and ordinances that can be consulted. In Ji's case, it takes little effort to realize that the trivial form in question was clearly not one of the 13 "national documents" defined by law, and it is not even clear if it should have been in circulation under the current administration of justice. And as far as the "sovereign seals" and "national stamps" are concerned, the first sentence of the applicable regulation states unequivocally that they are always round and not, as they were on Ji's documents, oval.

Ji was not even summoned to appear at his appeal hearing. After being sentenced by the trial court, he was imprisoned at the Wuyishan prison, and yet he was optimistic. Liu had found cases that also clearly called the three-year length of the sentence into question. For instance, he had uncovered a case against a fellow attorney in Jiangsu Province. In order to trick a client into believing that his trial had been decided in his favor, the man had forged an entire verdict, including authentically round national stamps. But the crooked attorney was only ordered to serve an 18-month sentence, and he never saw the inside of a prison, because the sentence was suspended.

When Liu describes his method, he says that he is always careful not to insult anyone or make any false accusations, and that he never goes beyond the framework of the law. In the case of Ji, however, the Beijing lawyer is beginning to lose his self-control, and he has even been tempted to rail against his opponents and to leave the framework of the law.

Liu is so disconcerted because, on April 21, the court upheld the trial court's ruling on all counts, seemingly ignoring the facts of the case. It upheld the three-year prison sentence, and it confirmed the charge that Ji committed forgery of "national documents" and "sovereign seals." The situation is straight out of Kafka. The evidence on which court based its decision was in fact evidence of the condemned man's innocence. Any child can see that the stamp on the documents, be it forged or authentic, is oval, not round.

'He Should Not Have Gone to Beijing'

According to the attorneys, the judge presiding over the appeal hearing never asked a single question and was silent throughout the hearing. This could only mean that he knew from the start what his ruling would be. And this is where it becomes apparent that two worlds intersected -- that of international politics in the days of the dazzling Beijing Olympics and that of the provincial corruption in Fuzhou and the surrounding region. "He should not have gone to Beijing," says the elderly attorney Lin, as he sits in front of a calligraphy scroll of a poem by Li Bai about the beauty of the three rivers. "The government was very nervous at the time, and that wasn't good," says Lin.

Ji, a lone champion of the law, committed a decisive error in August 2008. It was as if his enemies, of which there were many, had only been waiting for him to slip up. He had traveled to the capital as the representative of his clients, hoping to argue their cases to the best of his ability, to bring them to the attention of the powers that be. Perhaps he went to Beijing believing in the impossible, believing that a nobody could find his way to the emperor's throne and make himself heard.

In the end, on the day of his arrest, Ji was not standing in front of that throne. Instead, he was standing on the street, surrounded by dilapidated modern buildings, tightly holding on to his red notebook that contained all of the documentation on the 11 unresolved cases that had become stuck in the bureaucracy at home in Fujian. One of the cases dealt with a man whose house had been destroyed for no apparent reason, and another was about a man who had died in prison and whose family was never compensated. The documents told the stories of people whose land had been confiscated arbitrarily, of people who had been injured at work and were never compensated, and of those whose cases were never even heard.

Ji was their advocate. And he must have believed the promises of his government and the Olympic family, the promises that the time had finally come when he could speak his mind freely, for all the world to hear, and with no fear of repercussions. On the morning of his arrest, on Aug. 11, 2008, he said: "There are great powers that oppose me. But I am not alone. We are many." He was sweating, even though it was early in the morning and still cool outside, and his thinning hair bristled as if it were electrically charged. An hour later, he was gone.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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