Since the Chinese government began its crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in March 2013, dozens of citizens who have actively promoted or participated in the movement have been arrested. To remember these activists who are behind bars for their common pursuit of democracy and freedom in China, the author has written portraits of a number of them, in a series titled "If I lose my freedom."
Zhao Changqing was arrested in April 2013 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” in connection with his promotion of asset transparency as part of the New Citizens Movement. Zhao’s trial took place on January 23 but was adjourned after he dismissed his lawyers in protest of procedural problems.
Zhao Changqing, April 13, 2013. Photo credit: Xiao Guozhen
This first time I saw Changqing was at a small gathering. Changqing was sitting just to my right. He was full of passion and looked radiant. It was hard for me to imagine he had already been imprisoned three times, for a total of eight years.
Later, I realized that our aspirations and philosophies are exactly the same. We were thrilled about how astonishingly similar our hatred for authoritarian dictatorship and our yearning for human rights and freedom were. Since then, we had communicated almost every day, discussing current affairs and collaborating on cases. And we shared our joys and sorrows about certain things and certain people.
How many times, due to sabotage by the authorities, did we walk or ride the train together looking for the new location of citizen dinner gatherings?
How many times have we gathered our friends to hold events?
How many times have we heatedly debated an issue until we were red in the face?
How many times was Changqing the first reader of my essays and the one to help me issue them promptly?
I got to know Changqing better as my contact with him increased. The little stories he told me made a deep impression on me.
In June 1989, while in prison due to his participation in the student movement, he was suddenly pulled aside to be photographed. He and his fellow prisoners thought, mistakenly, they were to be executed by firing squad and made this arrangement: before being executed, they must yell this slogan: “Long live democracy! Long live freedom!” A 22-year-old Changqing had already set his life goals.
In prison, because he refused to “repent,” he was put in solitary confinement four times, for as long as ten months. Subjected to the inhumane punishment of hunger, he chanted: “Oppose starvation! Oppose abuse! I want adequate food! I want to be healthy!” His struggle forced the prison to solve his food problem. Changqing, always caring, would not eat until the prison agreed to give enough food to all the inmates. He also fought, on behalf of the other inmates, for the right to borrow books for free from the prison library; prior to that, prisoners had to pay to borrow books.
One time while in the Beijing subway distributing leaflets calling for officials to publicly disclose their financial assets, he met Ma Xinli who was also giving out leaflets. They were two like-minded comrades-in-arms who until that time did not know each other. The boyish Changqing pretended to be a police officer in plain clothes and immediately “interrogated” Ma Xinli.
“How did Ma Xinli respond?” I asked curiously.
“Ma Xinli was extremely calm and responded appropriately,” Changqing happily answered. “When the questioning was almost over, I revealed my real identity, that I was Zhao Changqing and that I also came to distribute fliers. It made both of us laugh hysterically.” (On March 31, 2013, Ma was arrested for urging officials to publicly disclose their assets.)
During his third time in prison, he traded a precious cigarette for a Bible that a fellow inmate, who was there on a drug-related offense, received from his mother but did not read. Changqing read the Bible hungrily and wrote in his notebook: “I must awaken from this haze of prison hardships and return to my Lord’s embrace”; “I pray that God will again illuminate the lighthouse in my soul”; “After passing through the darkness of night, wake up and walk forward with strength; walk toward a place filled with brilliance and love.” He told me that, during a hunger strike and on the brink of death, he prayed to God. As he was praying, his whole body was suddenly filled with strength. He also often prays to God to guide China on the road to democracy.
Changqing is not only a self-taught Christian, but his baptism was also unique. China’s prisons, of course, don’t have chaplains. One Christmas Eve in prison, Changqing washed in a cold bath, which he called a “self-baptism in the name of God.” After he got out of prison, everybody laughingly said that that didn’t count. Changqing eventually received a baptism by a pastor.
Changqing recited a passage from the Bible to me for encouragement many times. It is something that Jesus told his disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) He is innately kind-hearted, with a pure character. He hoped that he could become shrewder.
Because his pursuit of democracy got him repeatedly persecuted by the authorities, Changqing’s studies were delayed; his relationships were cut short; he was in prison for more than eight years; he was dismissed from work; and his household registration was reverted to his birthplace—his ancestral home in a peasant village in Shaanxi. Because of this, I often jokingly called him—this gifted student filled with scholarly inclinations—a “peasant.” Changqing told me he once had a weakness: hatred; but that after he became a Christian, his hatred melted away like snow and love overflowed his heart, despite the fact that China’s authoritarian ruling party never stopped persecuting him.
He was compassionate to others for their sufferings, and finds it difficult to conceal his moral indignation at injustice. Once, when he found out that Hu Jia [a human rights activist] had been beaten by a Domestic Security officer, he expressed his sadness and concern in a speech. Deeply worried, he said to me: “With his state of health, how can Hu Jia withstand a beating!”
When others need help, he is always there. A brother of the Church told me that Changqing gets along with people really well. Changqing warms others like sunshine on a winter day. At one house church meeting, a sister suddenly fainted. Another brother rushed to find a car. By the time the car got there, Changqing, impatient, had already picked up this sister in his arms and carried her from the third floor downstairs, awaiting the car’s arrival.
He told me that a Domestic Security officer once admitted to him that they looked through all of his bank accounts and realized that other than some limited earnings from his writings, he has no other income. Although his income is meager and his finances are tight, when eating out with friends, he always fights over the check. He laughingly says: “God will provide.”
Changqing is a theorist with great depths, and has published many thought-provoking articles on current political affairs. In “Who is the judge of all things?,” he wrote: “When we think the oppression by Genghis Khan and the like was wrong, we should not think that the oppression by Zhu Yuanzhang and the like was correct. At the same time, when we use iron and blood to resist the invasion and enslavement by the Japanese devils, we should also bravely say ‘No’ to the ‘rule of might’ of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong!”
He said: “We must establish democracy, freedom, human rights, and rule of law as the core values of our political framework. . . . Mainland China . . . is still enveloped in the authoritarian system of the Communist Party. And changing this type of traditional authoritarian system into a modern democratic, liberal system is the historical mission incumbent upon contemporary Chinese intellectuals!”
He is also an enthusiastic social activist, and a builder of civil society. He uses his actions to put into practice, and to serve as witness to, his convictions.
One can always find his bustling silhouette in various rights defense activities. He organized seminars to explore current affairs; arranged discussion contents and published them online to edify citizens; participated in the citizens’ movement, and devoted himself unstintingly to matters, however big or small.
He is always so breathlessly busy and works so late into the night almost every day—we often chat online while working late—that I’ve been worried about his health. This was true until April of this year, when he and his various friends, including lawyer Ding Jiaxi, were taken into custody because of their demands that officials reveal their financial assets to the public.
Changqing is skilled at poetry. His writing is so outstanding that he can be regarded as one of this generation’s most gifted talents. At my request, he once sent me copies of some of his unpublished works for my enjoyment. His novels, with complicated plots, are fascinating. His poetry is graceful and subdued, as well as bold and unfettered. The tender and gentle verse tends to be about moods and emotions. The bold verse is often about helping the world and people and grand aspirations.
In spite of all this, he’s extremely humble. He often says he enjoys reading my essays and even asks me sometimes to help him “polish” his work. But when have I ever been able to alter even a single word of his?
The June Fourth massacre caused him to set the goal of his life struggle—achieve democracy in China. He told me many times: “Democracy is my life.” Despite being repeatedly arrested and sentenced for this, his passion was unchanging and his pledge constant.
The authorities once tried to “turn” Changqing, telling him about the great gains awaiting him if he collaborated with them. Lawyer Ding Jiaxi and I once had a great laugh at the authorities’ ignorance, caused by their shamelessness: that they would even dare try to “turn” Changqing—someone so firm in his ideals, so devoted in heart and mind, so spiritually clear, and who would never tolerate the moral schism of exchanging his soul for worldly riches.
Ding Jiaxi often said: “Changqing is a saint.” It’s true, the emotion in his eyes, his face, his words, his conduct—they all exude the radiance of freedom.
He often told me: “Although I have not broken the law, I know I can go in [to prison] at any time.” In order to prepare for this, Changqing wrote a power of attorney document on October 1, 2012, which he gave me: “From this day forward, if I become a suspect or defendant in any criminal case, l will retain lawyer Xiao Guozhen as my representative or defense counsel to provide legal assistance to me.” He knew he might be picked up at any time for his honest words and righteous actions, and yet he still maintained his independent thinking, sincere opinions, and courageous actions. He did not think anything of prison.
On April 13, 2013, we had a small gathering. Circumstances at that time were already dangerous. I told friends that in case we get taken away and to avoid having no individual photos to release to the public, let me take pictures of all of you. I took photos of Changqing—in his left hand he held a pen, sitting at a table with a gleaming smile. Afterwards I said to Changqing: “I took the most satisfying photo of you.” However, even before I had a chance to send him the photo, I heard the alarming news that he had been picked up!
On April 17 at 8 p.m., I received Changqing’s email. “If I lose my freedom” was the first line. He had a premonition that he would be picked up imminently, so he rushed to entrust his nine-month-old son, Xiao Xiang, to several of his friends to take care of. Before this, he had repeatedly made this request to me: If anything were to happen to him, he hoped that his friends and I would help take care of his son. I was deliberately relaxed about it and agreed with a smile. But I had a secret—almost superstitious—worry: that if I said yes, he would be taken in for sure.
Now, he has gone in. When I go online, I often see his picture. Not knowing when his picture will answer me, I feel as if my heart is being cut into pieces.
One time when Wang Debang and I were talking about Changqing, he comforted me by saying: “This is not Changqing’s first time in prison; he can handle it.”
I suddenly lost control of my emotions and burst out wailing.
“Why HIM? Why is it always HIM?!”
 From the New International Version of the Bible, available at: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+10
 Translator’s note: Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) was the founder and first emperor (1368-1398) of the Ming Dynasty, after he overthrew the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, which was established by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan.
Xiao Guozhen (肖国珍), born in 1972, is a Beijing-based lawyer from Hunan. She is a graduate of the University of International Business and Economics School of Law in Beijing. Because of her rights defense-related work, she has been subjected to police surveillance, threats, and unlawful restriction of personal freedom. She was named one of the 25 Notable Rights Defenders in Mainland China in 2012 by Boxun.com, a Chinese-language news website based overseas. She is a member of the China Democratic League and the PEN International Independent Chinese Centre.