Dozens of activists and rights lawyers from around China traveled through the bitter cold of northern China to converge on a police detention facility on March 25, staging a hunger strike to demand that Chinese authorities release four lawyers who were recently detained.
The lawyers, in turn, had originally traveled to a nearby detention center demanding the release of practitioners of Falun Gong who were locked up there, and likely subject to attempted ideological transformation, or brainwashing in common parlance.
Such a turn of events has not taken place before in China. Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese spiritual practice, has for many years been one of the most severely persecuted groups in the country, and publicly offering legal or other support to adherents is met often with harsh and brutal penalties.
The four human rights lawyers—Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng, and Zhang Junjie—were arrested after 20 policemen raided their hotel rooms in Jiansanjiang City, Heilongjiang Province in the far north of China, on March 21.
It was the day after they visited the Qinglongshan Legal Education Center, attempting to secure the release of Falun Gong practitioners that had been detained there for their beliefs. Seven clients of the lawyers, who were family members of the practitioners, were also arrested.
The Legal Education Center in Heilongjiang is unofficially known as a “brainwashing center” in Chinese, due to its specific purpose of forcing people to renounce their religious beliefs, often through forcible indoctrination and physical and mental torture. An unknown number of Falun Gong practitioners have died in custody in detention centers, as security agents or police torture or beat them to death.
Following their arrests, the four lawyers were each given a 15-day administrative detention for “using cult activities to harm society,” issued by the Jiansanjiang Public Security Bureau.
It was this sentence, based on what their colleagues see as a bald legal fiction, that drove the dozens of activists to swarm on the Qixing Detention Center in Jiansanjiang City where the lawyers are detained, and demand their release.
When the detention center refused the request, two lawyers, Li Jinxing and Zhang Lei, started a hunger strike, refusing to leave the area until they were allowed to visit the other lawyers, according to Human Rights Defenders. Four other lawyers and dozens of supporters also stayed, as supporters from elsewhere traveled to join them.
A Chinese activist who goes by the Twitter handle @Citizen Xiaobiao published pictures of the lawyers holding candles and wearing heavy coats to keep warm, waiting outside of the detention center in freezing temperatures at midnight.
“A staff came out and asked under what conditions the lawyers would be willing to leave? Lawyer Li Jinxing gave them three scenarios: 1) Let us to meet the four rights lawyers according to the law; 2) Let us faint from hunger striking and be sent to hospital; 3) Arrest us all.”
Security officials did not budge.
Li Jinxing posted to Weibo that instead, a man nearby shouted out that they’d hire criminal gangs to kill the lawyers if they didn’t leave.
Later, security authorities also appeared to set up cellphone interfering or blocking devices, to prevent the lawyers from continuing to send out information from the scene.
Over 50 lawyers with the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group published an announcement on the Internet, condemning the authorities for the detentions.
They also called for the investigation and abolishment of so-called Legal Education Centers and “black jails,” which restrict citizens’ personal freedom in violation of the law, and are used to retaliate against lawyers who attempt to use the Chinese law to defend human rights.
“Lawyers are forced to use hunger strike to defend rights,” wrote Jiang Yongji, another lawyer who was incensed by the regime’s actions. “They trampled on the law, and don’t follow any rule at all, not even mafia rules!”
He added: “Who should be ashamed?”