“They’re kicking and punching me, my legs, my back, my arms…” In this episode, Warren Rothman, a Yale graduate and previously a lawyer at an elite law firm, shares his harrowing experience of being secretly jailed and beaten in China.
Rothman, an American citizen, says he was hauled from one black jail to the next and forcibly given shots and pills of unknown substances—all for reasons unknown to him. He is the author of “Kafka in China: The People’s Republic of Corruption.”
Jan Jekielek: Warren Rothman, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Warren Rothman: Thank you, Jan, for asking me on your show.
Mr. Jekielek: Warren, in 2008, you had what can only be described as a horrific experience in communist China. Before we go there, I want to give our audience a bit of a sense of how you got to China, what you were thinking about China as you entered as a corporate lawyer, and so forth. And eventually how we got to this 2008 moment.
Mr. Rothman: I was a lawyer in China. I had worked for a major law firm, a New York law firm in Beijing. In Shanghai, I worked for a European law firm, and then I went on my own. But I had been studying China and its history since college days. My first teachers were fabulous. They just inspired a great love of the subject in me, and they brought me into studying Chinese as a language when there were two people in the language class.
No one was studying Chinese in the 1960s. But I loved it, and I couldn’t get enough of it. And so when opportunities opened up to work in China, and a major Wall Street law firm called upon me to be part of their Beijing office, I was delighted and of course, I accepted.
I had kept up my Chinese and I worked on it very hard. And so it was pretty fluent by the time I moved to Beijing in 2000. Work there was interesting. It seemed to be part of an environment that was rapidly changing for the better. In the early 2000s, I think there was some hope that China was going to be approaching some notion of a rule-based system, the concept of abiding by rules.
I was under no illusion that China was anything like a rule of law society. And that would be a tremendously long haul before China would ever become anything like a rule of law society. Some people had starry eyes about China; I did not. I was absolutely shocked when China was given WTO membership, with making practically no concessions. It was just a gift from the U.S. government, you could say, very bad gift.
There was a sense, though, that the regime wanted to have an international face and genuinely wanted to have international cooperation. And to grow this enormous country’s economy, which is so backward. It was clear that they needed everything they could get. And they got it via WTO, via all the investment that was poured into China.
As far as my living in China, I absolutely loved it. I had many Chinese friends. I had foreign friends, but I had more Chinese friends, and I had 10 foreigners. I loved getting together with them, getting to know their families. And the thing about China in the 2000s was unlike the 1980s or 1990s, when you would go there and beg to get into a ministry and wait outside in the cold in a booth before they even let you go in. This is a much more open in terms of access to officials even on a social basis.
You could go to people’s homes, which was inconceivable in the past. People had telephones; they were starting to get internet. This seemed like a society that had a potential for a positive change.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, we’re in a situation right now where, ostensibly in retaliation to the arrest of the Huawei CFO, two Canadians have been incarcerated in some kind of Chinese Communist Party prison over three years. Let’s talk about your personal story here. Give us a picture of what happened in 2008.
Mr. Rothman: In 2008, May 2008, I was sitting across the table in a restaurant from a Chinese colleague of mine, a gentleman whom I had hired for moonlighting for me when I was working on my own. He’s worked for a Western law firm, very, very smart, terrific paralegal, absolutely magnificent at translating documents. I thought it’s a really tremendous future for this guy.
We’re sitting at this restaurant, and all of a sudden he says: hey, Warren, guess what? I got my deal through. We got through. We paid a bribe. We paid a bribe. This guy who was a very talented paralegal blurts out that he has arranged a $3 million bribe to get a deal through for an American company.
I was shocked to hear that from this guy, because I thought this guy really was a stand up guy, I thought he was really the kind of person that could lead China to a better future, someone who was aware of Western culture and aware of Chinese culture and aware of all the issues between the two—someone extraordinarily talented.
So it was a tremendous disappointment to me to hear this. I felt I had contributed to a career of his, in a way, by hiring him. I berated him for at least an hour. And I told him it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard. I told him, disgusting. This is not the way China should develop. It won’t develop this way. You can’t live on bribes. You can’t do this. This is not the right thing. This is not the way Western law firms practice. This is a disgrace to the practice of law. Well, I went on and on and on, and he’s shuffling around trying not to look at me. We leave.
I had been scheduled to leave next day or so for the U.S. So I leave. And I don’t come back until October because of the Beijing Olympics. I wanted to avoid all the turmoil of people going to and from Beijing and traveling around China. So I returned in October.
But it turned out that was in the middle of the financial crisis, the great financial crisis of 2008, absolutely dead center in it. Everything was tanking, right down to the bottom. It is an unbelievable situation. People never imagine this could happen to our markets.
There I go. I say to myself, well, I haven’t been there for five months, I really miss being in China. I really loved being in China. I felt a lack, a sense of personal, some sort of something missing in my life if I didn’t, well, I hadn’t been in China recently.
So I went back knowing there was really very little work to do. Everything had frozen, solid, nothing. No business was being done; practically no banking was being done. I was there just to check out things, live a kind of casual time, see if there might be any business opportunities, but mostly there just to be there for a month.
I come back from an early walk in a park, dawn walk in the park, 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. My apartment is completely trashed, completely wrecked, from top to bottom—papers all over the place, files thrown all over the place, books thrown all over the place, CDs, DVDs. I mean, the place was really terrible. I sit there for a while trying to figure out what’s going on here. Why did this happen?
Suddenly my housekeeper comes back. I see her around a corner spying around things. And she’s noticed this bag I had packed, ready to flee, actually. She inspects all that and sees what’s in there. Snooping around all over, she doesn’t look a bit surprised at the state of affairs that she was supposedly keeping house for.
Mr. Jekielek: So let me backup just a second. So why did you pack a bag so quickly?
Mr. Rothman: Because I really felt terror, a sense of an instant terror.
Mr. Jekielek: And why would you?
Mr. Rothman: Just because I wanted to get out of there. I didn’t know what had happened. I’d never seen such a sight. And I knew immediately something terrible was going on. You’re living an environment where no matter how you do things, no matter how things may be progressing positively, you know that the basic environment is one operated by terror. You know that terrible things are done to people. So when I saw this, I was really very, very frightened.
Mr. Jekielek: You were still happy to work there respective?
Mr. Rothman: Well, I thought things might be improving. For example, the issue of what was happening to members of Falun Gong was not well known. We knew about the prayer meeting outside of Zhongnanhai. We knew that the regime had reacted violently to that. But I don’t think anyone in my position had a sense of the scope of Falun Gong, or the horrific things that actually were being carried out on Falun Gong.
I mean, the Chinese have put in an industrial scale operation of so called organ harvesting, which I call organ pillaging, ripping up organs out of life people to sell them on the market. I mean, Dr. Mengele never dreamed of such a thing. And yet here it is in China, communist China, always communist China. An industrial scale, but we did not know that then. I didn’t certainly not.
Mr. Jekielek: I see.
Mr. Rothman: With that idea, I don’t know if I could have stayed a day. I don’t actually know if I could have stayed there.
Mr. Jekielek: At this point, you sought out, basically, friends or some people that you could count on at this point. So tell me how that went and who you found.
Mr. Rothman: Okay. I didn’t have many close friends in Shanghai, and all the friends I had were just gone there. No one was there during the financial crisis, none of the foreign lawyers that I knew. But I had a lot of Chinese friends in Beijing. And as the situation started to gather terror—indeed, after the first attack, the same evening in that apartment, a group of 12 thugs showed up at my door—I decided to call some friends in Beijing and see what they could advise me to do.
I called my best friend there, a Chinese entrepreneur whom I respect greatly. He was a wonderful guy. And he immediately volunteered to come to Beijing, but he was headed off in an elaborate pattern by Mr. Q.
Mr. Jekielek: And this was the gentleman that you had basically told off earlier about this bribe. But this isn’t what you were thinking about, you were looking for a helping hand?
Mr. Rothman: Well, indeed, I wasn’t asking Q for that help. I was asking someone in Beijing, someone who I refer to as Lin. So at one point, I’m talking to Lin, and Q actually grabs the phone right out of my hand, because he can hear. He has fluent English; he can absolutely hear what I’m saying to Lin about what’s happening.
And he grabbed the phone out of my hand and races out to the terrace and talks to him. And I gather that what he’s saying to him is that really everything’s okay. And maybe Warren had a fit of some kind, threw his own apartment around. I don’t know what he told him. But at any rate, Lin did not come. The long and the short of it is that, there I am with Q coming out of my apartment, and I’m waiting in my mind to see what the next shoe is to drop—whether I really better get out of there.
I’m going back and forth all the time in my mind as to whether I really have to go. But the problem with leaving is that if I left there, I leave this trashed apartment. And who’s going to explain that? That’s only to my detriment, obviously. So I felt I’d leave my whole reputation along with my whole career behind. It’s very hard to think of leaving, but my first instinct was indeed to flee.
Mr. Jekielek: At this point, this gentleman Q wants to help you?
Mr. Rothman: Well, he’s appearing in the guise of someone who’s being sympathetic and helpful, and even an intermediary with the IE whom he hadn’t met, because he did some of his work at my apartment when he worked for me.
So he knew the IE and he was saying, giving me stories about the IE being very upset about the way I yelled at her, when I found her snooping around my apartment in the trash and all that. So he’s kind of defending her and also at the same time, providing things that she would ordinarily provide such as food. Sort of keeping me in place in a way.
That night, the second night of this ordeal, a gang of nearly 15 thugs showed up, a bigger gang, a nastier gang, yelling ferocious insults at me in Chinese, which I answered in good Chinese as well—Mandarin, not Shanghainese. And anyway, that was not like me at all. That behavior was not at all typical of me.
I’m not one to confront a gang of really ugly thugs. But some sort of instinct, some desire for evidence prompted me. I saw these caps on the heads of these men, and three of them had these caps with a gold eagle insignia, and I thought that really doesn’t look good. So I grabbed two of the caps and skirt back into my apartment and slammed the door. These thugs are just absolutely furious. They practically burst the door down.
I held on to the caps. And just incidentally, it turned out that these indeed were indications that these people were part of some kind of black gang, some real awful type of organized thugs. So after the second thug attack, I really decided to leave, and by the next morning, I was just about out the door. I had really decided that I can’t stay here any longer. It’s just too dangerous.
And I was really racing to get out of my apartment, grabbing up the last things, throwing them closing my suitcase when Q breaks in with four thugs, wrestles me back into the apartment. Q starts ordering these thugs to get everything ready, to prepare, to finish packing whatever I had packed, to leave aside whatever couldn’t fit in.
Then these four thugs dragged me, physically out of the apartment. And then I’m taken downstairs in the elevator, put into an unmarked white van. Well, I’m driven around for hours, and finally, it’s nighttime. I’m taken to what I decided to call a four star black jail. This is the first of four black jails which I was privileged enough to see.
This was a normal hotel room with people operating normally, with a huge staff that you would expect in a four star hotel, people delivering stuff moving back and forth. But I’m forced to stay in this one room. I just get a glimpse of it, but it’s a normal place. It’s a four star hotel, absolutely normal. But it’s made into a black jail for this purpose.
Black jails are literally everywhere in China, literally everywhere. They can be in any shape or form. They can be in a basement. They can be behind a real jail. They can be in a real hotel like this. They can be in a disgusting little hotel, another type of black jail that I saw. They could be anywhere, but they are everywhere.
Mr. Jekielek: Just very briefly, for the benefit of our audience, what’s a black jail?
Mr. Rothman: A black jail is an unofficial jail. It’s an off-the-books type of place where people who are, it could be Falun Gong members, it could be other religious types, it could be Tibetans, it could be Uyghurs, it could be me—me, Warren Rothman, an American citizen.
Mr. Jekielek: So you keep being shuffled from one of these black jails to another for some indiscernible reason, and then finally, you end up in this place where they actually assault you and strap you to a rack of some sort.
Mr. Rothman: The fourth black jail was the place where I was tortured very, very badly. I was tied up to a lattice work that was in the shape of a cross. And my arms were extended completely to each side. I was seated, the cross was pushed behind the chair and my arms were yanked incredibly hard to the side, and this one thug came up and jammed dirt into my mouth so I could barely breathe.
I really thought at this point, that was the end of my life right there. I was not accepting it, but I thought that was it. I heard the guards joking about me, how I’m coughing and spitting out this dirt. And then they’re talking about how it’s just gonna take four hours. He’ll be here just four hours, and then he’s finished. He’ll be finished in four hours.
I’m sure it was much longer than that because by the time this phase of the ordeal ended, it was nighttime. It was at least seven or eight hours total that I was tied up to this thing. I still thought: no, I’m not gonna die. I’m not going to die. I just won’t. I’m not going to let these people kill me.
Mr. Jekielek: In the process, they beat you up.
Mr. Rothman: Yes, very badly. They’re kicking and punching me, my legs, my back my arms. I’m resisting being dragged to this latticework cross. It’s a terrifying sight. And I’m like a tree rooted to the ground. I just won’t let them move me. Finally they pick me up and drag me to this chair, really strapped me into this cross. At the end of seven or so hours of being tied up to this thing, I’m dragged off to what turns out to be the hospital part of this establishment where I’ve been tortured.
This is a mental hospital actually. I’ve seen doctors and nurses go in and out of doors passing me by, not even looking at me. It’s a real hospital. And there I am being tortured in a real hospital, and doctors and nurses are paying no attention to it.
People are paying no attention to it except for one really brave woman who pushed her way through the guards who are surrounding me and said: what are you doing to this man? How can this be? Is this a country of laws or? This is a woman who really understood the best path for China. Well, they pushed her out of the way, and they said get out of here. Several of the guards had to be used to take her away; she was very strong.
At the end of all of this, I’m taken to the so called hospital part of this place. After a brief interlude, I wake up with my arms tied to a hospital bed. And I’m being injected with some substance by a woman in a nurse’s uniform. She starts to come back at me with a second shot, and I rip, with every strength I can, I rip my left arm free and cover my right arm to protect it from this shot.
And another nurse comes in and says: wait a minute, what actually happened? I want to hear what happened. So I tell her a brief version of the story. And she says also, you were not the aggressor? I say of course not. That’s not what I do. I’m here with someone who’s been beaten and tortured. And she looked really quite sympathetic.
I thought, maybe I have someone who’s going to help me here. Well, it didn’t help, and the nurse starts to try to give me the second shots. So another third nurse comes in and said, okay, well give it to him at 4:00 am.
And I’m just left there in the dark, except, out of the corner of my eye, I see in the corner of this room, very dark room, a little man get out of a bed and come toward me. Suddenly, he ties up the arm that I had wrenched, free, clucking his tongue at me. And going back to his corner. So the night passes this way. The forearm shot does not materialize.
But the next morning, I’m forced to swallow a handful of pills. I had no idea what they were. I’m untied after, let’s say the second day, and still being forced to take pills. I have endless meetings with the staff of this hospital, like six or seven or eight doctors and nurses all inquiring about what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling and what has gone on with me and what caused all of this.
At the end of ten days, I was finally allowed to leave. But I had no idea until the day I left that I was actually going to leave.
Mr. Jekielek: And all along, as you’re describing this, you really had no idea what instigated this.
Mr. Rothman: No, nothing.
Mr. Jekielek: What actually was going on, hence [the title of your memoir] “Kafka in China.”
Mr. Rothman: It was deep, definitely Kafka-esque, which prompted the title and there are so many aspects of Kafka. This is kind of amazing, really, but fundamentally, we’re talking about a society that operates under this penumbra of terror. And that’s a very Kafka-esque kind of thing.
But there it is real. There, it is real. In real life, it’s a society that’s built on terror. China is really one giant black jail. It is one huge jail. You go, even a foreigner with a passport and a visa goes in there and may not get out. He really has only a conditional permit to get out.
We know from the cases of the two Canadians, we know from two Americans who just returned to the United States that you don’t necessarily get out if you go in. And that doesn’t mean that you did anything bad at all. They just have an ulterior reason for keeping you there, whether it’s to swap you in a hostage taking deal for someone that they think is kept illegally in somewhere else or it just there’s no limit to it.
Mr. Jekielek: Upon reflection, you believe that this was this revelation of the bribe and you indicating that this wasn’t something you supported that probably was the cause of all this.
Mr. Rothman: Well, you know, I didn’t have any direct proof. All I had was what happened to me. And the only thing that could have been the cause of this was the bribe. I had worried about small things. Maybe it was my former landlady who hated me that set all this up. I didn’t have any other enemies in Shanghai, but I tried and tried to find some reason for this.
It never occurred to me that it was the bribe because I never thought the bribe was a threat. The revelation of a bribe was not a threat, in my mind, because if you go to the FBI and say: I heard about a bribe, such and such company paid a bribe. “Okay, thanks. If you have some proof, come back.”
In China, it’s very different. All you need to do is set the rumor that somebody has engaged in some behavior that somebody else won’t like. And that potentially sets in motion a very dangerous path for that person. Someone like you may have been tortured, may have been thrown into jail. I have no idea.
Mr. Jekielek: The obvious question, of course, is what about the U.S. consulate? Did you contact them when all this was beginning?
Mr. Rothman: Yes, I called the consulate in the afternoon, the day I got back to the trashed apartment. I got the answer: sorry, can’t help. That was that. I got a name. Here’s my name. Call me, but we really can’t do anything. So the consulate was no help.
And in fact, as I was leaving the hospital, my partner Fred was given a huge batch of documents, which turned out to include two letters that purported at least to be from the consulate. On their face, they claimed they said they were from the consulate, they’re U.S. consulate letterhead.
The first letter said, Warren Rothman, a US citizen passport XXX, is in serious need of mental health treatment. And his friend Q is in a position to help him. The second letter was a statement by the consulate that although they do not provide financial assistance, for example, the fees of this hospital, they are working with family members to come up with this money.
So the point of these two letters, whether they’re forged or genuine, I’ve been unable to find out. I’ve met with a stone wall in the State Department, with my own senior senator who praises China in the middle of a COVID crisis, as the most respectable, as a respectable nation that has visited this plague on the world.
It’s a terrible thing to think about that we have so many of our elite completely captured by the Chinese. So much of our elite is subject to elite capture. The leaders of our country are telling us: invest in China, invest in China, relate with China, engage with China, but not asking China to do a thing to change its ways. You can only wonder why these people are able to be bought out like this.
Mr. Jekielek: Our team reached out to the U.S. State Department. A Department official told us, “The safety and welfare of U.S. citizens overseas is the top priority for the State Department. Consular officers provide all appropriate consular assistance when an American is detained overseas.” But the official declined to verify the authenticity of the letters citing privacy considerations. So why did you write this book?
Mr. Rothman: Above all, I want to warn people. I want people to read this book and understand the reality of China from the standpoint of someone who’s gone through some of the worst China conditions.
I want people to look beyond the encouraging words of Wall Street capitalists who tout this great society that’s making so much money, and even one super prominent capitalist, announcing that he wished just a week ago, that some of the Chinese communist system would be imported here.
I mean, this is a staggering thing for someone and a leading capitalist to say, because [China] is a country that is built not on laws, it’s built on fiat and capricious fiat. Fiat that can come from nowhere. Orders from the Party, basically, is what I’m talking about. That’s what runs the country.
I want people to understand that there’s a real risk of going there. There’s a tremendous risk that you don’t necessarily get out if you want to. But above all, that you’re going to be involved in a society which is a tremendously lethal adversary to the United States.
We should not be helping the society. As it has turned out in the last eight, nine years. We should not be involved in building that society, in profiting off that society. We should be closing it off as much as we can.
I want people to know what they’re doing if they go to China, if they buy Chinese goods. And you know, when I say China, I mean communist China, always. I wanna make it clear that I truly love China.
But I love the China represented by Taiwan. Taiwan is a country that pulled itself out of an autocratic system and created a democracy from ground up, a vibrant, brilliant democracy. I have the utmost admiration for these people. We owe the greatest duty of defense to Taiwan. If Taiwan goes, we can forget about the Pacific. But we can also forget about ever engaging with a free China.
Mr. Jekielek: Clearly, your experience hasn’t made you very positive towards communist China. Do you see any hope for the future at this point?
Mr. Rothman: It’s a dark picture overall, I think. Communist China has developed immense wealth, immense military power, which it is using aggressively just about all over the world. It’s a dark picture. We have a system where we’ve allowed our elites to be bribed. Our elites, basically, are captured by Chinese. We’re being told time and again, that China’s a great country to invest in, a great partner, a huge future for America economically.
But all of that’s a mirage actually. Very few people benefit from China, from business with China. Very few people make money in China. Some of the great corporations do. and they buy out the Chinese and the Chinese buy out them.
Now the main hope I have is that the U.S. government will finally yield to the demands of the American people to hold the Chinese communists accountable for the plague that they have caused and loosed on the world deliberately. If the United States is able to take them on, if the United States citizens could sue communist China—indeed, we could still sue the Communist Party. It doesn’t enjoy sovereign immunity.
If the United States were to take an aggressive action toward China, especially on this issue of COVID, to use COVID as a point of departure to point out the criminality of this regime and seek redress for what they’ve done, there’s some hope there. But I don’t see it actually happening.
We have polls that saying that two thirds of the American people think that China should be held accountable. But why aren’t they being held accountable? One has to ask why. And the only thing that occurs to me is that so many of our elite have chosen to be captured by China, to sing the Chinese communist song, the siren song of wealth, come and get rich.
Mr. Jekielek: You clearly being someone who would fit into the category of the elites in China, right?
Mr. Rothman: Certainly, I was part of this elite, and I enjoyed all the benefits of it up to a certain point. But now that we know so many truths have come about China. I mean, just the fact that they’ve loosed this plague on the world. How can you avoid the fact that China has to be confronted?
So is there any hope for this situation? It’s a dark picture overall, China’s immensely powerful and immensely wealthy now. And all thanks to our elite helping them get there. There is some hope, though. I think that a huge percentage of the American people want to take China on about this COVID disaster. I think that the only thing that’s blocking it are the elites who have been captured by China.
But if the demand can break through and force our government to provide appropriate redress to our citizens and to our country, then the world can see in the same in graphic black and white what China is all about.
There was a tribunal a year or so ago in London about the horrific practices the Chinese are using on Falun Gong members, organ pillaging. That tribunal should have gotten far greater obviously. But thanks to the elite capture of our mainstream media, it did not.
However, if the United States takes the position that we are going to confront China, there’s not gonna be any mistaking that message. But it’s going to take a huge upswell of real, real anger in the American population and demand for change in this population, policy, demand that these elites stop giving China everything that China asks for.
There is some hope, I think, the consciousness of the evil of what’s been what the Chinese communists are doing is finally seeping through all of the blocks that mainstream media have put on, but I’m worried about this because we still get these mixed messages.
The bad message that China’s a place that we are to admire and invest in, is coming from these elites who are making tremendous amounts of money there. They don’t believe in what they’re saying. But they love it because they’re making money. But this demand is welling up.
I do believe that there’s a power in the American people to right things. I believe our system ultimately may right things. But we don’t have a lot of time. We really don’t. We’re seeing a Chinese military of unprecedented proportions being built up. And they are not planning to use that peacefully.
If we are going to confront China ever, we have got to confront them on COVID. If we don’t confront them on COVID, what else do we allow them to get away with? But the hope is there. The hope is there.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Warren Rothman, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Rothman: Thank you so much, Jan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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