Editor’s Note: Dear Reader, if you could share this interview on social media, by email, etc., it might be helpful in securing Ding Jiaxi’s release.
by Emrys Westacott
After several weeks of sheltering in place, being holed up in quarantine, or just experiencing a dramatically restricted mode of living due to the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic, it is quite natural to start feeling a little sorry for oneself. A wholesome remedy for such feelings is to think about other people who are also shut up, sometimes extremely isolated, and suffering much more serious kinds of deprivation. They do not have at their fingertips, thanks to the internet, an abundance of literature, music, film, drama, science, social science, news, sport, or funny cat videos. Nor are they casualties of fortune, shipwrecked and marooned by bad luck or the vicissitudes of market economies. Rather, they are the victims of deliberate and unjust oppression by authoritarian governments.
One such person is Ding Jiaxi.
By any standards, Ding is a remarkable individual. Born in 1967 in a remote village in the mountains of Hubei province in central China, he won admission to Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, one of the top institutions for engineering research in the country. After graduation he conducted research in aircraft engineering, and while doing this simultaneously studied law and passed the bar exam. In 1997 he decided to switch careers and began working as a lawyer. In 2003, with a few partners he started a law firm that under his direction became highly successful over the next ten years, eventually bringing in an annual income of 25 million RMB.
By 2011 Ding had earned a reputation as one of the best intellectual property lawyers in Beijing. He could have continued with his firm, enjoying the fruits of professional success. Instead, after a short stint as a visiting scholar at Fordham University in New York, he became a social and civil rights activist, intent on using his legal expertise and experience to advance various causes. Among other things, he has
- campaigned to make it easier for the children of migrant workers to sit college entrance exams
- demanded that top Chinese government officials be required to disclose their personal finances
- sought to protect the rights of property owners against unlawful government action
- participated in what was known as the “New Citizens’ Movement” which seeks to promote political and legal reforms by peaceful means.
For this activism he has paid a price. In April 2013 Ding was tried and convicted on a charge of assembling a crowd to disturb order in a public place. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Released in 2016, he courageously resumed his social activism, helping and encouraging people who share his ideals to connect up with each other, form communities, exchange information, discuss their ideas, and press for democratic reforms and respect for civil rights.
On December 26, 2019, shortly after getting together informally with like-minded activists, Ding was detained in Beijing by Shandong police officers. (Other campaigners for human rights, notably Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, and Li Yingjun, were also taken into custody at the same time.) Since then he has been held by the authorities in a form of detention known as Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location (RSDL). His lawyer has been told that Ding faces a charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” but he has not been allowed to meet with Ding.
Ding’s wife, Shengchun (Sophie) Luo, is a Chinese citizen who lives in the United States where she works as a project manager at Alstom, the train manufacturer, in Western New York.
Since his detention she has been campaigning tirelessly to call attention to his situation and to demand that the authorities in China respect his rights under both Chinese and international law. What follows is an interview with Shengchun that we conducted by e-mail and phone.
EW: What do you know about where your husband is right now? What conditions is he being kept in? What is he allowed to do?
SL: I have no idea exactly where Jiaxi is right now, I only know that he is in a location designated by the Yantai Public Security Bureau but unknown to anyone except the authorities. Only people from the authorities are allowed to see him. He is not allowed to communicate with anyone else, not even his family or the lawyer who is representing him. I have no idea what he is allowed to do; probably nothing except undergo the daily interrogation.
EW: Is Jiaxi in danger of being tortured while in detention?
Yes, Jiaxi is absolutely in great danger of being tortured, because he is in secret detention and no one is able to see him. So there is no check on what his interrogators may do. They can do anything they like in order to force him to confess to whatever crimes they accuse him of committing. After they were released, many others who have been held in RSDL have reported being badly tortured.
EW: Exactly what is Jiaxi accused of?
SL: At this stage, we don’t know what Jiaxi is going to be accused of by the authorities. We were only told that he is suspected of inciting the subversion of state power.
EW: Is his arrest and imprisonment legal under Chinese law?
SL: There are some Chinese laws that the authorities can use to detain him. These are the kind of laws that they can actually use to detain anyone they want to.
EW: Have the Chinese authorities broken Chinese law in their treatment of Jiaxi?
SL: They broke the law in at least three ways.
First, according to Chinese law, the family of the detainee shall receive written notice within twenty-four hours of the detention to tell them why he was detained, where he has been sent, and what crime he is suspected of having committed. But so far, after over four months, none of his family have been told anything.
Second, according to Chinese Law, Jiaxi has the right to meet with his lawyer and to communicate with his lawyer and his family, at least by letter. But his lawyer’s request to meet with him was denied. My letters to Jiaxi, which I asked the officer at Yantai police station to deliver, were not forwarded to him; the police station did not even acknowledge receipt of these letters. And as of today I haven’t received any letters from Jiaxi, even though I have asked the officer many times for any letters that Jiaxi may have written.
Third, according to Chinese law, the authorities are supposed to inform Jiaxi’s lawyer about any evidence they have that he committed the crime of which he is suspected. But so far they have refused to give the lawyer any such information.
EW: There are lots of things that people can criticize their government for. What are the specific issues that Ding wishes to call attention to in China?
Jiaxi wants to call attention to the fact that people in China lack the basic human rights that citizens in a healthy society should enjoy. These include: the right to know the truth; the right to speak the truth without fear of persecution; the right to openly criticize injustice and wrongful acts by the authorities; the right to assemble freely without being under surveillance; and the right of ordinary people to support and help one another without being accused of criminal conspiracy.
Another very important basic right is the right of professionals to do their job free from government surveillance or persecution. For instance, professors should be free to teach what they consider to be academically necessary; lawyers should be able to represent any person from any background; members of NGOs should be able to work for social justice. These are basic rights that are taken for granted in countries like the US. And it is only if one enjoys such rights that one can participate fully in one’ society as a responsible citizen.
EW: What can people do to advance the causes that Jiaxi is campaigning for?
Everyone can help these causes in a general way by acting with integrity and as responsible citizens in their own daily lives. First and foremost this means always doing what you know is right and refusing to cooperate with anything you know to be evil or wrong. If you are a government official, never go along with corruption. If you a police officer, deal with people fairly. If you are a journalist, report the facts and don’t hide the truth. If you are an engineer, base your work on scientific principles and ignore pressure from political authorities. If you are a teacher, treat all your students equally and without discrimination.
Second, care about your neighbors, your friends, and your community. Help those in need. And speak up whenever possible on behalf of those who are being ill-treated and in support of social justice.
Third, think for yourself. Reject propaganda that aims at brainwashing people, and commit yourself to seeking, respecting and acting on the truth.
Fourth, be brave in the face of power that is evil, and be willing to make sacrifices if necessary.
EW: How can anyone reading this interview help Jiaxi and others like him? That is, what can one do to increase his chances of being freed?
SL: The most important thing we can do to help Jiaxi is to publicize his case as much as possible. The same goes for the others who in a similar situation. We must use every kind of media available to let the world know that the Chinese authorities are persecuting innocent citizens, that they are holding them illegally in secret detention and possibly subjecting them to torture.
People can express support for Jiaxi publicly using all forms of social media. Even better would be writing open letters to the Chinese government. Such letters should especially emphasize that the Chinese authorities are breaking both Chinese law and the international human rights agreements that China has signed. Amnesty International has taken up Jiaxi’s case as well as that of the others detained last December, and they provide a good template for such letters. The Chinese government is sensitive to this sort of publicity. Experience shows that pressure from the outside world and the international community can be effective in helping to improve the situation of detainees like Jiaxi, and can increase their chances of being freed.
In his 2011 work, The Honor Code, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that a key factor responsible for ending the traditional but ghastly practice of foot-binding in China was the shame felt by the ruling class as they became aware that the rest of the civilized world viewed this custom with contempt. The strategy of giving maximum publicity to prisoners of conscience like Jiaxi Ding also seeks to use shame as a lever to promote change. Cynics may say that those who govern China have no sense of shame; but that is not true. The very fact that they feel the need to clothe some of what they do in secrecy, and their sensitivity to international criticism over their human rights record, indicates a degree of moral anxiety. And for heroic individuals like Jiaxi Ding who languish in dungeons, publicity is sunlight–it warms, it reveals, it disinfects.
Readers of this interview are thus urged to do whatever they can to ensure that it reaches the widest audience possible.
 For Ding’s account of conditions during his imprisonment, and of his career as an engineer, a lawyer, and an social justice activist, see the 2017 interview with him published in China Change.
 For further details on these detentions, see the Feb 26, 2020 Communiqué Alleging Arbitrary Detention of Ding Jiaxi, Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya put out by Chinese Human Rights Defenders.