China's Broken Olympic Promises

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

ByABC News
August 4, 2009, 7:59 AM

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.