NEW YORK—Sitting in the Ralph Bunche Park outside the United Nations Headquarters, in front of a 50-foot grey obelisk on May 20, Zhong Jinhua began his hunger strike.
Zhong is a former judge, and then lawyer, in China, who now lives in exile due to his activism. The step around the obelisk had been filled with placards saying “Save Guo Feixiong,” “Hunger Strike Relay,” and “Chinese authorities: release all human rights lawyers.”
Guo Feixiong is a storied and veteran human rights activist in China, for years a thorn in the side of the authorities as he engaged in bold activism aimed at exposing and stopping human rights abuses by communist authorities. Now, he’s wasting away in prison.
Guo has himself been on hunger strike since May 9, in protest against the humiliation and abuse he has been subjected to by prison guards.
Zhong Jinhua is one of a couple of hundred other activists who are staging their own hunger strike to show their support, raise attention around Guo’s plight, and, hopefully, put some pressure on the Chinese regime to have Guo released on medical grounds.
Guo Feixiong (his real name is Yang Maodong) was sentenced to six years jail in November 2015 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” an extremely vague provision in Chinese criminal law that gives the authorities carte blanche to punish citizens whose otherwise legal activism is deemed a political problem.
“He’s been on a hunger strike in jail for many days, putting his life in danger,” Zhong Jinhua said, in an interview outside the UN. “His work has been so righteous, and yet the treatment he’s received has been so inhumane.” Zhong said that he was most concerned that Guo would die in custody because of his health problems, exacerbated by the protest.
What appears to have triggered Guo’s recent hunger strike protest was a recent bout of humiliating abuse he suffered in custody on the same day. On May 9, prison officials recorded a video, against his wishes, of nurses giving him a rectal examination, and then taunted him that they would post the video online. On the same day, they also shaved his head.
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Guo’s sister, Yang Maoping, wrote in a letter to Party leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang that Guo be given proper medical attention. Most recently he had blood in his stool, she wrote.
Speaking about his own hunger strike, Zhong said: “I think it’s important that we use this approach to experience his pain and suffering, and through this raise awareness in the international community. Meanwhile, this is also a form of protest that Guo proposed and advocated.”
A number of others in Chinese human rights circles stopped by to express support, exchanging words or stopping for photographs while protesting. These include Chen Shisheng, a member of Independent Chinese PEN Center who now lives in forced exile, Lü Jinghua, a June 4 activist, a petitioner from Shanghai, and Chen Chuangchuang, a scholar in New York City.
Human Rights in China, a New York-based NGO, says there are nearly 200 others have also engaged in hunger strikes in China and overseas, as of May 19.
This form of hunger striking, pioneered in China by lawyer Gao Zhisheng in 2006, is not done in a manner that endangers the lives of the participants. It is typically done in the form of a relay, which each demonstrator taking the baton for a day or two. Zhong says that there are already seven or eight other rights lawyers who have signed up after him, and that the protest will likely extend until June 4, the anniversary of the Communist Party’s brutal 1989 crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square.