Preparing for Fair Trial in China—an Interview With Human Rights Lawyer Tang Jitian

Preparing for Fair Trial in China—an Interview With Human Rights Lawyer Tang Jitian
Chinese human rights lawyer Tang Jitian in Beijing on April 29, 2010. (Olli Geibel/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, Beijing-based human rights lawyer Tang Jitian defended casualties of the Chinese Communist Party's repression—victims of forced land acquisition and building demolition, practitioners of Falun Gong, and other Chinese petitioners.

In time, the Party came for Tang, a native of Dunhua in the northeastern province of Jilin.

His law license was rescinded without explanation in April 2010. The following month, he learned that he couldn't travel overseas.

One evening in February 2011, police barged into Tang's home, bundled him away, and beat him. He had earlier met with other lawyers and activists to devise ways to help Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer then under house arrest. Tang was released from custody in March, but was confined to his home.

Between 2011 and 2014, Tang Jitian was arrested and detained several more times while defending China's disenfranchised and prisoners of conscience.

Last year, an account of abuse that Tang faced in March 2014 was made an Amnesty International report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture: Security forces in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang arrested Tang and three other human rights lawyers for investigating an illegal detention center. In custody, Tang was "strapped to an iron chair, slapped in the face, kicked in the legs, and hit so hard over the head with a plastic bottle filled with water" that he lost consciousness.

Despite being repeatedly persecuted, Tang, 46, persists in "weiquan" work, or the defending of people's rights by attempting to have China's authorities follow their own laws.

Epoch Times spoke to Tang Jitian this Spring; below is an abridged translation of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.

Epoch Times (ET): In college, you read politics with a focus on Marxism-Leninism. Later, you taught Marxism-Leninism for five years. What made you break away from the current political system?

Tang Jitian: Even though much of what I learned is erroneous, the learning process helped shape the way I think. I'm more inclined to get to the essence of issues.

I was taught that the law is a tool for the ruling class. After studying jurisprudence and the constitution, however, I abandoned that view. I believe that the law fundamentally exists to protect everyone's rights, and not just the rights of a wealthy few. Otherwise, that's no rule of law, but an abuse of the law to subdue the people.

In actuality, the Chinese regime implemented the law to protect the interests of the privileged class, and stifle the regular people to prevent them from resisting. This legal system keeps the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.

During my interactions with Chinese petitioners, I found that many have strong faith in the law and the Chinese authorities. But despite having exhausted all options—some petitioners even tried to intercept Chinese officials in their cars—they realize that the chances of their problems being resolved are very slim. Thus, petitioners feel very miserable and helpless.

When working with the communist regime's laws, I base my arguments on their legal clauses, but never put faith in them to avoid disappointment. I can only be of help to my clients by stepping outside the legal framework.

Of course, I follow the law and legal procedures for indictments and filing legal complaints, and I interact with staff that handle legal cases. But I realized that it doesn't matter how rational my legal arguments are. The forces of malice and the inertia in the political system still induce officials to issue rulings or do things that violate legal values.

I used to be very concerned with legal procedure, but now I reckon that we shouldn't go along with it. Legal procedure is important, but we need to influence the process.

Take the abolition of the labor camp system. Has there been any improvement in the system? No. In fact, the situation has deteriorated in the last two or three years. If we keep working within the legal framework, and gain a little technical correction here and there, the forces committing evil feel no pressure.

ET: You worked at a provincial protectorate for seven years, and handled over a hundred important public complaints. Seeing as you were an outstanding public prosecutor, what made you decide to leave that system?

Tang: Right, I worked very diligently back then, and tried to score well in various examinations. I felt that my occupation was sacred, and gave my utmost to avoid disgracing the profession. Because I had been poisoned by the Chinese regime, I felt a sense of achievement in contributing to the regime's oppression—bringing people to court, handing out the death sentence, and authorizing executions.

I used to be a bookworm. I'd rather go to the library, or discuss scholarship and current affairs, and naturally spent a lot less time chatting with ordinary people. After working for some time, however, I discovered a huge discrepancy in the legal treatment of those who call on officials at the procuratorate and those who don't, as well as those from good backgrounds and those who aren't. My scholarly inclinations gradually felt out of sync with my worldly experiences.

Over time, I incurred the displeasure of my superiors when I handled cases in accordance with the law instead of taking their proposals into consideration. My superiors were also unhappy that I was giving truthful inspection appraisals instead of exaggerating. An old colleague once told me: Your being conscious of the commoners and sympathizing with them is very disadvantageous in this system.

The colleague turned out to be right, and I quit my job.

While in the system, I saw some things that shook me greatly. Once, I had to supervise and verify an execution order from a court in Yanbian, northeastern China. The prisoner was arrested during a fierce crackdown on crime in 1983, and was found guilty of a fair number of crimes, including robbery and rape. As everyone was dispersing after the prisoner was shot in the head, I suddenly noticed that the prisoner was still crawling about. I informed the chief bailiff, and the forensic investigator inserted a glass rod into the prisoner's head, gave it a stir … and the prisoner was dead.

In another execution, the family of a condemned man and woman refused to collect their corpses, most likely out of shame and pressure. The corpses were loaded onto a truck belonging to a medical school, and were driven away. Seated in a police vehicle behind the truck, I saw that the bodies had been unceremoniously dumped into the truck like dead dogs… People haven't been treated with a shred of dignity.

These few years, I've experienced a range of torture—sleep deprivation, being made to stand, kneel, or sit as punishment, being handcuffed, being beaten while tied up and suspended, and being placed under very bright light. I've also been threatened with being fed to dogs, being buried alive, being run down by a car, and being forced to commit suicide.

When I was in the system, I was very careless about dealing with the torture of suspects. Systemic inertia let me to believe that the criminal suspects I had encountered were lying to avoid being punished. I've seen cases where criminal suspects get smashed in the head and neck with the thick paper transcript or a heavy rolled up dossier… all of it.

What I'm doing now isn't only for my clients. I'm also redeeming myself, and assuaging my conscience. I guess that's what everyone is doing to some extent. It's not purely a matter of settling accounts with the Party, but us making amends for having been a part of and upholding the system.

Practitioners of Falun Gong told me that the Chinese Communist Party is an evil cult. Then, I thought that the Party was definitely bad, but the label wasn't warranted. Now I feel that the label is the clinching point, since it gets to the root of the matter. Being long poisoned by the Party's brainwashing, we've not really rid ourselves of its discourse. Our brains, stuffed with Party discourse, need some cleansing.

ET: Do you have any suggestions for lawyers handling Falun Gong cases?

Tang: When lawyers are involved, the regime will find it difficult to cover up its illegal activities. Now, we shouldn't limit ourselves to pleading not guilty for Falun Gong practitioners at bogus court sessions. The defense should begin right from the start of the case, and continue at each round of the legal proceedings.

For instance, the arrest of practitioners have in some cases been approved before a mandatory two-month inquiry has been conducted. Public security officers should dismiss the case at the inquiry stage. And the procuratorate is obligated to ensure that public security officers call off the arrest because practitioners are not guilty and no case should be filed.

Right now we have to educate those in the judiciary and public security to think in legal terms and not mechanically follow orders: What do their actions mean now, and what are the future implications of their actions?

Public security and judicial staff must know that not a single one of their leaders are willing to sign off on the illegal activities they are verbally instructed to execute. Take documents from the 610 Office for example. Initially, the 610 Office issued documents for its orders, but later the organization only gave verbal instructions out of fear that they would be exposed. If written instructions are issued, they are gathered back immediately after perusal and destroyed. After all, these instructions are all illegal.

We need to dismantle all aspects of this persecution, and fundamentally repudiate it. We need to expose all persecution.

Apart from exposing the persecution and its perpetrators, lawyers can also pressure the authorities by forcing them to disclose their public expenditure and other details. For instance, if the Domestic Security Bureau in Beijing's Shunyi district makes an arrest, I can get the Shunyi district authorities to present legal justification for setting up a Domestic Security unit and define its roles, and request that the Shunyi district's financial authorities divulge the funding source of the security unit. If the local financial authorities refuse to make public the above information, we can bring a lawsuit against them.

We can also demand that the Shunyi authorities make public the legal basis for setting up its 610 Office, as well as the local 610 Office's legal functions and funding. If the Shunyi authorities don't go public with this information, we have the right to sue them. Illegal organizations like the 610 Office should be dragged out into the open from their dark corners; let's bring them out into the open for everyone to see!

What we're doing now is breaking open the black box that is the 610 Office. It would be fantastic if the black box is destroyed, but it's a step-by-step process. In every Falun Gong case we have to chisel a hole in the black box to allow light to shine in. Only then will the 610 Office lose its arrogance and cut back on its frenzied behavior.

ET: Many Chinese lawyers have said: "We only talk about the law and not politics." Because Falun Gong is known as a political issue, these lawyers shy away from representing practitioners. What are your thoughts about this?

Tang: As lawyers, we're most concerned about people's rights. We might have different views on specific issues, but this shouldn't affect our human rights demands or securing these rights for people.

So the view that lawyers should only concern themselves with the law and not politics is practically meaningless. Modern society understands politics as a form of public governance, and hence politics touches everyone. Even if you don't talk about politics, you can't step away from it.

Over time, however, modern society came to understand the neutral term "politics" as something negative. Those who talk "politics" are thought to be nasty characters with poor morals. But in fact, all of us have political rights that we need to strive for and safeguard.

So those lawyers in upscale office towers have to serve those in society who most need the protection of the law. If lawyers can't serve these people, then the legal profession exists in name only. That's because the legal profession was originally created to provide checks and balances to the government's ever-expanding power, as well as safeguard the rights of the individual. I would say that lawyers who choose to ignore or remain apathetic to the government's abuse of individuals aren't genuine lawyers.

Someone once said that between a rock and an egg, we are fundamentally obliged to take the side of the egg. There are an inexhaustible number of ways for a rock to harm an egg, but the chances of an egg threatening a rock are very slim.

ET: Does your family understand the challenges you've faced all these years as a human rights lawyer?

Tang: I read the article Gao Zhisheng wrote to his mother, and felt incredibly moved. I'm also from a mountain region. I call my mother frequently so she won't worry. She doesn't say much, but when we both feel more at ease after hearing each other's voice.

These days my mother isn't too bothered when I don't go home to celebrate the lunar new year—train tickets are hard to come by, or there might be special official reasons. But when I first left public office and didn't spend one new year at home, my mother became concerned. Whenever the old folks in the village mentioned me, she would start crying.

On another occasion, my mother was so furious that I wasn't back that she developed an intense toothache. I felt really terrible after learning about this. In all, my mother is vaguely aware of what I do, and tells me to walk an upright and righteous path.

In 2011, I was detained for 20 days. Because my weight had dropped from 154 pounds to 115 pounds upon release, my child remarked to my ex-wife that I must've emerged from a cremation furnace. I ought to put on some weight before visiting my parents, I thought then.

My mother worries all the time, and her health isn't good. Over the years she has suffered much over my father's family issues and my being arrested in recent years. If I had paid her a visit looking gaunt, she wouldn't be able to take it.

My father experienced many political movements and understands the Party's principles. When the Party is pushed to the brink, he said, it will become frantic and act without restraint. He told me to take care of myself and try to avoid being detained so that they wouldn't have to worry for me.

I've truly fallen short in caring for my parents, my younger brother, my younger sister, my child, and my wife. But while the authorities have harmed me and my family by detaining and abusing me, I realized that I've built up tolerance for certain things. My family has also come to accept what I do, even though they remained concerned for my safety.

Society needs me. Sure, if there's a more capable person, I can take a break. But I'd only rest voluntarily, and not because I'm being forced to rest. I've found the value and meaning of life through doing human rights work.

ET: What is the most important thing on your agenda now?

Tang: Government censorship is too strict, and far too many people have difficulty knowing the truth. So spreading the truth is critically important.

We need to spread technology that allows people to circumvent the Great Firewall of China. Once past the firewall, people can sign up for Twitter and Facebook, and start communicating with others. People may be brainwashed for decades, but I dare say that after spending 10 days, a month, or even a year learning about what's going on in the outside world, people will come to realize that they don't really understand anything at all.

We also have to start preparing material now for a time when fair trial is possible. Of course we still have to get results in the interim because people need to be encouraged bit by bit to build up confidence.

But our efforts don't simply lie in getting those pseudo courts to stop convicting our clients, or reduce the number of convictions. Every time these judges or their backroom manipulators convict a Falun Gong practitioner, or a political prisoner, or a civil rights activist, and write detailed verdicts, they are in fact preparing documentation for their future conviction.

In the meantime, we have to prepare the ground for an environment where fair trial is possible.

Translated by Frank Fang, edited by Larry Ong.