Overcoming China-Style Thought Reform: An Interview With Human Rights Lawyer Liu Lianhe

October 13, 2016 Updated: September 30, 2017

Liu Lianhe, a 52-year-old Chinese lawyer, Buddhist, and native of the eastern city of Tianjin, first got involved in human rights cases in 2013. Authorities in Wenzhou, a coastal city in the southern province of Zhejiang, were removing crosses from churches. Liu felt that the authorities were abusing their power, and decided to step in.

The following year, he joined other rights lawyers in representing practitioners of Falun Gong detained at the infamous Jiansanjiang brainwashing center in Heilongjiang, a northeastern Chinese province.

Over the last year, as a crackdown on human rights lawyers has gathered ferocity in China, Liu continues to put his personal safety at risk by taking on politically sensitive cases and defending the rights of citizens. Epoch Times interviewed Liu about his experiences being a human rights lawyer in China, and why he persists.

The translation has been edited for clarity.


Epoch Times (ET): Please introduce yourself and describe something of your background, Mr. Liu.

Liu Lianhe (Liu): My grandparents were all farmers, and I went to the village school when I was little. My mother had received some education, and she encouraged me to study because I’d otherwise be stuck in the countryside my whole life. But I didn’t have much ambition then, and wasn’t motivated to study.

After Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up,” I was admitted to Tianjin Normal University. Upon graduating, I was posted to China’s public prosecutor in Baodi District, an “iron rice bowl” job [Chinese idiom for a stable post guaranteed for life]. I still lacked ambition then, and idled away my time.

At the end of 2005, I quit my job, and left Tianjin for Shanghai. There, I served as a legal assistant while gaining the qualifications to become a lawyer. After securing legal credentials, I returned to Tianjin, and devoted my energies to making money. I didn’t have many other thoughts.  

I began my work as a human rights lawyer in 2013.    

ET: In your posts on WeChat [a Chinese messaging service] you mention being indoctrinated . How did you come to that sense?  

Liu: The textbooks I had as a kid said that the Chinese Communist Party was great, and long live Chairman Mao,  etc. My thinking became very simplistic: The Party was really great, landlords are terrible, capitalists exploit workers, and so on.

My grandfather was a landlord. While he wasn’t publicly denounced during the Cultural Revolution, my grandfather and father were forced to shovel snow in the winter. I never once heard my grandfather, who lived till 90, complain about his treatment. Neither did my father, although he was forbidden from attending school because of his class status.

My father believed the Chinese regime’s propaganda, and thought that whatever they said was right. He often said: “If something has already been broadcast on television, how can it be untrue?”

Back then, the regime carried out indoctrination very successfully. People truly believed that “without the Party there would no New China,” and that the “Soviet Union and America are impoverished.”

When I was in high school, I revered Marxism, dialectical materialism, historical materialism. I believed all that theory wholeheartedly and with absolute certainty.

In college, I bought into atheism, and thought that gods and Buddhas are all illusory. There’s no way Hell exists, I reasoned, because there’s only magma underground. I only wanted to excel in my studies without knowing why I sought excellence. I didn’t want my classmates to leave me behind, so I joined the Party when they became Party members. [Communist Party members in China have traditionally been accorded better job and promotion opportunities.] I never questioned what the Party really is.

During the June 4 incident in 1989, the Procuratorate I worked at reported that the students had violently attacked the People’s Liberation Army. I was incredulous: The soldiers had guns, so how could the students harm them? But still I believed the official propaganda, and backed in writing the Communist Party Central Committee’s suppression of the riot.

I only started hearing different views on the massacre in recent years.

A person in my village who studied at a college in Beijing back then recounted to me what he witnessed on Tiananmen Square. The soldiers first set off warning flares, but after the students refused to budge, the soldiers started evicting them with batons and gunfire. A female student in high heels was trampled to death because she couldn’t get out of the way of the stampeding crowd. My fellow villager also said that the People’s Liberation Army soldiers were made to watch videos of people getting killed before they were sent out to clear Tiananmen, because the authorities feared that the soldiers wouldn’t dare to open fire.

A friend of mine visited Hong Kong for a business trip on June 4, and saw local residents demonstrating the next day. My friend was aghast at the scenes of Tiananmen Square that were being aired on Hong Kong television. He made video recordings of the broadcast, but his tapes were confiscated at customs. His story made me realize that the Chinese authorities had been hiding the truth of the incident.

When I got on Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo [Chinese microblogging services], I realized that some netizens praised Mao Zedong daily, and brag about how great our country is. I wondered: Are things really as great as they say? My family was considered to be relatively well-off, but still we had to borrow grains and trade crops to have enough to eat each year. Every year, we went without meat or oil; that was reality.

I marshalled my evidence and started debating with the braggarts on Weibo. Through debating, however, I realized that I had been brainwashed from a young age. The authorities wanted to mould people’s brains into computers, then input programs they designed to reformat our minds to their way of thinking. No other ways of thinking are allowed—or you become an outcast.

ET: What made you want to become a human rights lawyer?

Liu: It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand the country and the Chinese regime on a fundamental level.

My first human rights case was the defense of Christians in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. At the time, the Wenzhou authorities mobilized many men to take down crosses from churches. Christian devotees who tried to protect their crosses were assaulted, injured, and locked up in detention centers.

I recognized what was going on in Wenzhou as an abuse of state power. Ordinary citizens have no rights, even though the law was meant to protect them. Chinese officials, however, could do whatever they desire, and they appear to be operating outside the law. If things continue this way, China has no future.

In 2014, I took on the Jiansanjiang case with lawyers Wang Quanzhang and Wang Yu, and came into contact with Falun Gong practitioners for the first time.  

Jiansanjiang, a supposed legal education center, is really an extralegal institution. The center has no right to detain and brainwash Falun Gong practitioners. My client had sought only to negotiate the release of practitioners in Jiansanjiang, and didn’t commit any crime.

When the judge charged my client with “using a heretical religious organization to undermine the implementation of the law,” I was incredulous—this was an incredibly loose and vague interpretation of the law. Even the charge that Falun Gong practitioners had “manufactured or distributed propaganda” clearly violates acceptable legal interpretation; downloading material from the internet and handing it out is a personal act, and has nothing to do with any organization.

From this case, I saw that the prosecution of Falun Gong practitioners goes against judicial principles, and the legal article leveled against them is flawed and simply ridiculous.

After Jiansanjiang, I took on many other Falun Gong cases.

ET: Do you get pressured by the authorities for defending Falun Gong practitioners?

Liu: My law office director said that if we defend Falun Gong practitioners, the case needs to be filed with the Bureau of Justice. My law office has an internal directive that forbids us from making not guilty pleas for Falun Gong, or defending the practice on grounds that it isn’t a “heretical organization.”

The local Bureau of Justice contacted me before the Jiansanjiang court session, and forbade me from making a defense. But I went ahead anyway. Recently, however, I dropped out of the Jiansanjiang case after my law office put me under a lot of pressure. My office felt that they risked being shuttered if I stayed on. Another lawyer has since taken my place.

But I think that on the whole, the environment is more relaxed now. It’s partly due to the efforts of Gao Zhisheng, as well as Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian, and other lawyers. Also, my clients continue to put up resistance, and the internet allows information to be transmitted quickly, to sway public opinion. All this has changed the environment, and I feel much less pressure now.

Besides, my wife is now retired; if she was still working in the public system, I might have had to reconsider representing practitioners. That’s because the authorities would put pressure on my wife, and turn her and our child against me the moment they fear that I would be jailed. Normally, I don’t discuss my work with my wife and child.

My kid once read the sensitive things I posted on Weibo, and got pretty scared. So in 2013, he changed my password, and I can’t log on anymore. The old posts also can’t be viewed.

ET: Many Chinese lawyers don’t take up Falun Gong cases. What’s stopping them?

Liu: It’s fear, and fear is contagious. They see others getting arrested, like Wang Yu and other lawyers during the “7.09 Incident” [where over 250 lawyers and rights activists were targeted in a crackdown that started on July 9, 2015]. But Chinese lawyers know that Falun Gong practitioners are innocent.

Many lawyers who defended Falun Gong practitioners lost their law license for doing so, and cannot practice law anymore. My wife once asked me, “if you get arrested, what will become of me and our daughter?”

But I feel that if we calmly explain our views, we won’t be greatly endangered; personally, I’m not too concerned about being arrested. I have full confidence that Falun Gong is innocent.

Most people aren’t concerned about the suppression of people of faith. A commonly expressed attitude is this: You shouldn’t have practiced, and since you practiced you’re asking for it. But really people are just afraid of getting into trouble for not adhering to official policy.

There’s no freedom of speech in China. For example, I can’t use sensitive terms like “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” while posting on WeChat or Weibo. Some of my content gets censored the moment it’s uploaded. All I did was express my opinion on hot social topics or the Communist Party.

ET: As a Communist Party member, do you pay the monthly membership fees?

Liu: I never announce my Party membership. I leave my Party affiliations in the streets of my home village. The Bureau of Justice wants to shift my Party affiliations to the city, but I never moved it.

I feel that most people who join the Party today don’t sign up for “serving the people” or “realizing socialism” as touted by propaganda messaging. No one would join the Communist Party if not for job promotion.

Faith is the biggest issue facing our country today. Most people don’t have faith, and they don’t know what they’re living for, or how to live meaningfully. So most Chinese live only for power, money, and lust.

Officials abuse their power for personal gain. They engage in corrupt dealings with businessmen, buy their way into office, and use their authority to get wealthy.

The common folk have no power and no way to survive. Some resort to dishonest practices like theft, robbery, fraud; they also recycle oil that has been dumped in the sewers, build flimsy constructions, and sell poisonous food. People only care about what’s in front of them, and see the pursuit of power and money as the final goal. Everyday, they wake up early in the morning and rush to work to make a living. No one dares to slow down, otherwise they won’t have money to buy a home, foot their medical bills, and pay for their children’s schooling.  

China publicly talks about freedom of belief; people can take up Buddhism, for instance. But then the Chinese regime places images of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in the temples, and instructs the people to love the country first. This is abnormal, and there needs to be a separation of church and state.

The Chinese regime also places religious leaders in political roles to control religion. That’s because they fundamentally believe that religion is superstition, and that Marxism-Leninism and atheism is the real truth.

ET: How do you think the Chinese people will awaken to what’s going on?

Liu: Recently there was a “patriotic” movement to boycott products made in Japan and America. I think that movement is rather silly because people naturally buy better products. If we can make better products, of course we would buy our own stuff. The Chinese didn’t invent cellphones, the electric bulb, or the telephone. If we really want to insist on the movement, then we won’t have cars or electrical lights because they’re all foreign goods.

To be really patriotic, it’s more practical to stop being corrupt, not reuse gutter oil, and halt the pollution of the environment… now that’s “loving the country.” People have not awakened and instead think with rigid mindsets and warped logic because they’ve been brainwashed by the Chinese government.

I’ve learned from debating with Mao fanatics that they often change the topic or make illogical arguments to advance their point. For instance, they claim that the Party is their mother. But the Party is an organization, and one’s mother is a person. It’s a non-comparison, but the Communist Party insists on being your mother!

Another argument goes: “Without the motherland, you are nothing.” But if there’s no people, there wouldn’t be a country.

This is also a popular saying: “Rich country, strong people.” But the people have to be well-off first before country can get wealthy, and the people are always more important than the country.

It would be great to spread basic common sense logic through some simple stories on the internet. When the the people get wise and everybody awakens… at the very least they won’t help the Communist Party attack those who seek to uphold justice.

ET: So you want people to participate in politics?

Liu: That’s correct. I think that being concerned about politics is a type of benevolence.

Politics is the rule of people. Being actively involved in politics, raising concerns about unsatisfactory policies, pooling our collective wisdom, offering advice and policies… doing all this results in a better system that benefits most people. That’s not class struggle.

In the past, I used to whine, grumble, and vent my dissatisfaction. But after I took up Buddhism, my heart became calm, and nowadays, I don’t easily get into disputes with people. When people chastise me for my opinions on WeChat, I no longer refute. I would ask myself whether I’m right or not, because sometimes my views really aren’t correct.

ET: What legal case are you working on now?

Liu: A case involving Beijing Falun Gong practitioners Qin Wei, Li Lanqiang, Yuan Wen, Qin Shourong, Li Junfeng, and others.   

Qin Wei was arrested for handing out books and DVDs of the “Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party.” Distributing those material doesn’t undermine the implementation of the law, and of course isn’t criminal.

Yuan Wen was accused of hanging banners with the words, “Heaven Will Destroy the CCP,” “Falun Dafa is Good,” “Truthfulness, Compassion, Tolerance is Good,” and other slogans. I think that’s just broadcasting ideas. Disseminating such material doesn’t harm society, isn’t a crime, and doesn’t fulfil the charge of “using a heretical organization to undermine the implementation of the law.”   

ET: Is there any one particular case that left you with a particularly deep impression?

Liu: Last year, I defended Zhang Hongru, a Falun Gong practitioner from Beijing.

When the court session opened, someone advised him: Look, you’re in your 30s, and have already served 11 years in prison. You’re still unmarried, and your 70-year-old mother needs you to care for her. If you stop practicing, you can care for your mother.

Zhang replied: “A person must have spiritual faith. I really admire what Fan Zhongyan [a minister in the Northern Song Dynasty] said—affairs of the state are of the first concern, while pleasure comes later. I don’t regret keeping my spiritual faith.”

After hearing Zhang’s response, I was flabbergasted. When it was time for me to make my defense, I choked up, and couldn’t speak. I had to take a few moments to compose myself before continuing with my defense.

At the beginning, my understanding of Falun Dafa practitioners was very shallow. I thought that practitioners only wanted better health, strong bodies, and salvation. I didn’t realize that they possessed such a high realm of thought.

Zhang Hongru had made his case very calmly, and without a trace of anger or resentment in his voice. I was deeply touched.  

Other Falun Gong practitioners also have very admirable spirit. All they needed to do was sign a confession, and they would be released from prison. But many practitioners didn’t compromise, and instead persevered.

If everyone has this spirit of perseverance, this society might transform very quickly. But if everyone protects their own interests, change in society will come at a much slower pace.