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March 23, 2020

‘I Feel Like I Am Committing Crimes’

A Q&A with Legal Rights Advocate Yang Zhanqing

On July 22 last year, three activists from the public interest NGO Changsha Funeng were detained and later formally arrested for “subversion of state power.” Cheng Yuan, Liu Dazhi, and Wu Gejianxiong, known as the “Changsha Three,” have been detained for about seven months. Established in 2016, Changsha Funeng mainly focused on disability rights and also the rights of disadvantaged groups. To understand more about the arrests, public interest work in China, and the challenges activists face working in this area, I interviewed Yang Zhanqing, co-founder of Changsha Funeng.

Your colleagues from Changsha Funeng were arrested last year on charges of subversion of state power, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Why do you think they have been arrested on such serious charges?

I think there are two main reasons. First, most of the local NGOs have been swept up by recent government crackdowns. Changsha Funeng was still operating, and hence became a key target, and the organization was subject to even more severe punishment. Second, Changsha Funeng receives foreign funding. The Hong Kong protests have led to the Chinese government retaliating against anyone funded by overseas organizations. Changsha Funeng is one of few Chinese NGOs that receive foreign funding and advocate for rights publicly. Online trolls recruited by the Chinese government posted articles on Facebook, Twitter, and other online forums, saying Cheng Yuan deserved to be detained, suggesting the government is detaining [him and the other Changsha Funeng employees] because they received funding from foreign foundations, which are said to be starting a color revolution in China.

You were also detained previously in 2015. What were the reasons for the detention and what was your experience?

In June 2015, I was detained by Zhengzhou and Beijing police for “illegal business activity.” I was detained at a Zhengzhou detention center for a month. The police from Beijing who interrogated me were the same individuals who detained Yirenping’s “Feminist Five.” They detained me because I was editing and printing the “Anti-Discrimination Bulletin” and a manual on rights defense against employment discrimination. Because these materials did not have an issue number, they were classified as illegal.

My lawyer took several days to find the detention center where I was being held, since the police refused to disclose my location. During my detention, I was subject to repeated interrogations and there was one time I was questioned until around 6:00 a.m. without sleeping the entire night. The questions were mainly about why I was editing and printing these materials and how many I had printed. However, the police mentioned several times that higher-ups requested my detention. They said my organization dared to take funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and was helping the United States launch a color revolution. A few days before I was released on bail, the police mentioned they had detained me as a warning to not continue this work. If I was released, I should not take up this work again because next time the charges would be more severe.

What inspired you to become an activist?

After graduating from college in 2000 with a computer science degree, I started working for an Internet company in Zhengzhou. While working there, in 2003, I started teaching myself an undergraduate course in law. I was learning by putting the law into practice, and undertaking rights defense activities to fight for my own legal rights.

In 2006, I applied for an identification card and there was a considerable delay receiving it. I sued the Public Security Bureau and police located in the area where my household was registered. Afterwards, I received an apology and my identification card was issued to me. I posted my experience on an online forum and got to know many netizens who closely followed my rights defense activities. One of them was Lu Jun, a founder of the Beijing public interest organization Yirenping.

After getting to know Lu Jun, I began to learn more about rights defense work. In 2007, I participated in a legal training session on employment discrimination held by Yirenping. I realized that my rights defense activities up until then had been a success, but that I was the only beneficiary. On the other hand, the work of Yirenping benefits a group of individuals by promoting the rights of citizens through a bottom-up approach to policy advocacy. I regularly participated in Yirenping’s activities as a volunteer. Later, I resigned from my job and began to work full-time there.

Why did you establish Changsha Funeng and what were you trying to accomplish with the organization?

In 2015, after I was detained for a month because of my work at Yirenping, the organization’s office was closed and the case was still being investigated. I was unable to carry out work on behalf of Yirenping. At that time, Cheng Yuan expressed interest in work on information disclosure applications and focusing on disability rights, and I had a lot of experience in this area.

At the start of 2016, Cheng Yuan and I established Changsha Funeng, a public interest NGO. We were hoping that Changsha Funeng could gradually build up its organizational capacity in the central regions of China and help vulnerable groups through legal actions. This would build communities and also influence the surrounding regions. When the political climate improves in China, we could then think about opening new offices in other locations across the country, to help even more people.

Can you describe the work of Changsha Funeng? Which disadvantaged groups do you represent?

At Changsha Funeng, we mainly push for government information transparency. Many documents from the Chinese government are not disclosed to the public, and information disclosure applications can promote transparency. Additionally, we hope to drive changes in government legislation by applying for regulatory policy documents to be reviewed.

We mainly focus on disability rights, and we also promote the rights of individuals with hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS, as well as women’s rights. For example, we submitted an application for information disclosure about the 2016 vaccine scandal in Shandong Province, which included asking for the vaccination batch, refrigeration records, etc. This information should be public, but was purposely concealed. This led to victims finding it difficult to know what was wrong with the vaccinations. During the 2016 tainted milk scandal, the media reported that the government seized batches of fake milk powder. But the government did not mention the potential health hazards or the individuals who had consumed the milk powder, or whether or not the government had followed up on the health status of victims. So, we applied for information disclosure from the Ministry of Public Security and the Medical Products Administration.

What sort of legal cases does Changsha Funeng take on? Any landmark cases?

A town in the Shunde district of Foshan, in Guangdong province, issued a document stipulating that women who are married into a family outside of the town would no longer enjoy the benefits from the village and from land ownership. One woman refused to accept the regulation and came to our organization for assistance. We believed the statement was illegal, and helped write an application for the Shunde district legal affairs department to review regulatory policy documents, since there is no legal basis for gender discrimination. Men who are married are still able to enjoy the benefits of land contracts and also benefits from the village, and the statement was clearly discriminating against women. The statement also violates the “Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women.” Although the county government did not expressly rescind the statement, they offered the individual a settlement of around 100,000 renminbi in compensation, which was equivalent to around six to seven years of benefits. Out of fear, the individual decided to accept the settlement, so we did not follow up.

The Xinzheng city government in Henan province issued a regulation stating that individuals with at least a Bachelor’s degree would be the main beneficiaries of public housing as they wanted to attract talent to the area. This was different from the central government’s regulations for public housing, and leads to low-income families being deprived of these benefits. We applied for a review of the regulatory policy document and after the government received the application, they decided to modify the regulation and guarantee public housing for low-income families.

Yirenping is China’s most well known anti-discrimination organization. Can you talk a bit about the work of Yirenping? What strategies did the organization use?

Yirenping mainly focused on anti-discrimination. At the start, the organization was targeting employment and education discrimination on the basis of hepatitis B and HIV/AIDs status, and also household registration status. Later, we expanded our work into disability and gender discrimination. In terms of anti-discrimination work, Yirenping’s biggest success was directly promoting the institutional elimination of hepatitis B discrimination. The organization’s work on other areas of discrimination also had some of the biggest successes in the country. There was one year where the media mentioned our work around 1,000 times. Some of the first employment discrimination cases on hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, gender, disability, depression, and appearance were initiated and supported by Yirenping.

The organization’s main strategy was to use publicity stunts to mobilize the community to undertake rights defense and participate in policy advocacy. We also filed lawsuits and applied for information disclosure to protect individual rights and interests, in addition to using extensive media coverage to influence more people. We sorted through cases and collated them into investigation reports, highlighting the severity of the issue to the public and garnering support from the public and legal professionals. We then formed legal recommendations and had community representatives send these to members of the People’s Congress or legal departments, requesting modifications in legislation to effect changes from the bottom-up.

With the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdowns on public interest work, human rights activists, and civil society, do you have hope you will be able to continue this work? Where do you see this work heading in the future?

Following government suppression over the past few years, the number of NGOs focusing on anti-discrimination work has gradually decreased. Since 2011, when discrimination against hepatitis B victims was institutionally eliminated, there have been basically no changes in other aspects of discrimination.

Currently, there is still some space for work. But it is impossible to conduct work publicly. I am often banned from accessing my WeChat account, my Weibo account is blocked, and most of my work can only be communicated via foreign communication apps. The risk of communicating with partners is much higher. Many of our local volunteers have been impacted by the Changsha Funeng case and are worried they could be detained, so they are afraid to continue this work.

I feel it will be even more challenging to do public interest work in the future. The Chinese government has ramped up repression of public interest and rights defense work. A lot of the communication apps and software are more strictly monitored, and there has been increased censorship of media and public opinion. It has become difficult to promote these issues to the public, and therefore policy advocacy has been much less effective.

Do you face any personal risks yourself at the moment?

I am currently in the U.S. and do not have any direct risks. But according to the experience of others, Chinese surveillance in the U.S. is pervasive, which has made me constantly on edge about my own safety. Other than to those I trust, I rarely speak about my family’s situation and my own situation in the U.S., especially to individuals who will return to the mainland. I have installed security cameras in my apartment and car. I am afraid the Chinese government will arrange for someone in the U.S. to retaliate against me for my work.

My e-mail has two-step verification activated in case my account is hacked. I do not use Chinese apps for any of my work, as I am afraid of being surveilled. I only use encrypted messaging apps to communicate about work. I also change my cell phone number every six months since it might be hacked if I use the same number for too long. Because of the work I do, I feel like I am committing crimes, and I don’t live the life of a normal person. Sometimes I think I may be paranoid, but I have to take these precautions.

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Elaine Lu is a Program Officer at China Labor Watch, a New-York based NGO advocating for workers’ rights in China. Her interests include human rights and civil society in China.