My Life Under House Arrest

One of China's best-known dissidents writes about life as a prisoner of conscience in Beijing.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

For the last decade, when I have not been in prison, I have lived in BOBO Freedom City, a housing complex in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. It’s quite nice. Situated near an ancient canal, it is surrounded by bridges and ecological gardens. My experience is a bit different from those of the other residents who live in the compound, however. I am under constant surveillance from the Defenders of Domestic Security, better known as Country Defenders, or Guobao. Guobao prevent my friends, foreign diplomats, journalists from international media outlets, and other dissidents or human rights supporters from visiting me.

Just over three years ago, I was released from prison, where I had spent 1,277 days for "inciting subversion of state power." Now, I mostly live under a form of house arrest known as "soft detention." Why am I in soft detention? Guobao once told my neighbors that they were cutting off my normal social networks so that I wouldn’t be able to lead any "organized activities of citizens in the streets."

I’m not alone. All Chinese dissidents are in prison. Some are in official prisons, guarded by police who stand behind high walls and electric wires. Others are in societal prisons, buttressed by "stability maintenance," the name of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) system of controlling what it sees as unstable elements. And some, like me, move back and forth between the two.

Like all communist parties arising from the former Soviet Union, the CCP possesses in its DNA the gene of dictatorship and violence. Since Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CCP has always suppressed and isolated dissidents.

But let’s just look at what has happened since 2004, when Beijing amended the Chinese Constitution to add the phrase, "The Chinese government respects and protects human rights." 2004 was the fifth anniversary of the suppression of practitioners of the spiritual movement Falun Gong and the 15th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in the center of Beijing. That year, in the days leading up to the Tiananmen anniversary, I went to the square to present bouquets of flowers in memory of the victims. But police detained me. I told Yang Shun, a local officer in charge of Guobao, that my behavior was lawful and in accordance with the Constitution. He scoffed. "That was written to show the foreigners," he told me.

Emboldened by the constitutional amendment, in 2004 human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng wrote an open letter to then-President Hu Jintao, asking him to stop the merciless persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. Again in 2005, Gao wrote an open letter to Hu. Not long after that, Guobao put Gao under surveillance. In August 2006, he was secretly detained, and that December he was sentenced to prison — in his case, a continual nightmare of mistreatment and torture. On Aug. 7 of this year, after several years imprisonment, the CCP released him to the city of Urumqi, in far western China. He remains under the watchful eye of Guobao.

As for me, I was detained in December 2007, in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. After the October 2007 17th National Congress, a meeting of top CCP leaders, some members of the Politburo Standing Committee held a meeting and confirmed that they would arrest me, people involved in the case told me. Their plan of arresting me was to "attack one, educate a whole section, and awe the entire side," according to those people. In other words, to scare others by my example. My wife, Zeng Jinyan, and my 45-day-old daughter were also illegally detained and denied contact with the outside world. My daughter was not even allowed to go downstairs and be out in the sun.

In 2011, as revolutions swept through the Arab world, the CCP and its loyal Guobao arrested many dissidents including the lawyers Teng Biao and Tang Jitian, and the artist Ai Weiwei. Although they were not detained for long, the ordeals caused them psychological trauma.

In February 2013, many citizens and I launched a campaign against high-level corruption in the CCP, demanding that 205 high-ranking party members disclose their financial information. In response, the government arrested dozens of dissidents. Also, in 2014, dozens of people, including petitioner Zhao Changqing, human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, and human rights activist Liu Ping, were sentenced to between three and a half years and six and a half years in prison. There are many examples: blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, writer Liu Xiaobo, and many others. There are so many names.

In some cases, people were arrested because of me. I have heard of at least 10 examples over the last year or so. In June of this year, a young man from Chongqing was detained for 10 days because I spoke to him on the phone. That same month, Guobao took into custody a young woman from Beijing International Studies University because she responded to my proposal on Twitter for remembering June 4.

Will things get better? Some say they will improve because Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (CPLC) and the official responsible for "security maintenance," is now out of the picture. And many people praise Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown on Zhou and his allies.

But the National Security Commission that Xi established in November 2013 is really just a super CPLC. All this is a power struggle within the CCP — what the common people refer to as "dog bites dog." After Xi eliminates his enemies in the CCP, he will be able to use all the resources at his disposal to move against dissidents. I believe that eventually, China will move in the direction of democracy. But in the meantime, the coldest winter for Chinese dissidents has not yet arrived.

Isaac Stone Fish translated this article from Chinese.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola