Saturday, July 24, 2010

Between the lines

A long time ago, I wrote affectionately about an artist I know here who used to carve traditional Chinese signature seals - 'chops' - for me. This is someone I've known since fairly shortly after I arrived in Beijing: I went to his wedding; I held his daughter in my arms when she was two days old; I enjoyed one of my pleasantest Christmases with his family.

I have followed his career over these past several years, and have always tried to support the openings of his shows. Just last October, I wrote this brief appreciation of one of his typically quirky pieces.

Like most artists, he's passionate and idealistic, occasionally a little over-excitable and outspoken - that's why we love him. In the past, though, any 'subversiveness' tended to be more social or aesthetic rather than directly political, and was informed by a schoolboyish sense of mischief rather than a determination to lock horns with the authorities. (I particularly liked his piece a few years back, 'Monkey King In The Crystal Palace', a reference to an incident in the classic Chinese tale Journey To the West, where the infamously irresponsible simian 'hero' causes havoc in a glass mansion under the sea. He constructed a rather realistic-looking 'bomb' out of pieces of scrap metal, and then wheeled it into the city on a donkey-cart, leading to rubber-necking and traffic jams on the 3rd Ringroad, and much perplexity on the part of the police as to how they should respond. The building management at the Jianwai SOHO mall complex, where it was to have been displayed in a garden, decided that it was too 'disruptive of public order' and locked it away in a basement. The discomfiture of the authorities was more the point of the exercise than the sculpture itself, I think; discomfiture, but nothing more.)

In recent years, though, he's become increasingly politicized in his outlook - largely through the art community's frequent unhappy collisions with rent-gouging landlords and avaricious property developers (who, in turn, are invariably hand-in-glove with corrupt government officials). This recent profile by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker suggests that some of his contemporaries had started to compare him, in a modest way, to Ai WeiWei, the Chinese art world's 'superstar activist'.

This February, he led a protest march down Chang'an Dajie in the centre of Beijing, calling attention to the violent intimidation that was being used to try and force him and other artists to vacate an 'art village' in the Changdian suburb. I noted at the time that this had given us all some cause for anxiety. This might seem like a very routine and trivial assertion of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association to those of us from the West, where these rights are somewhat taken for granted. In China, this kind of thing just does not happen - certainly not in the heart of the capital, less than a mile from the official residences of the Party leaders in Zhongnanhai. At first, things seemed to have passed off well enough: there were no arrests during the demonstration, and a few weeks later there was news of what seemed to be a small 'victory' - the artists were still being evicted, but had at least received a promise of some compensation. But still we worried that there might be repercussions against the leaders of the protest.

Seven weeks ago, my friend disappeared.

Eventually, it came to light that he was being held in custody by the police. His family had not been officially notified of this (as Chinese law theoretically requires - but who's to enforce such 'rules'?). He was allowed only very token access to a lawyer during his first month in detention. He's only been allowed a couple of very brief visits from his wife. Apparently, Chinese law has no custody time limits as such, and does not even require that a formal arrest be made until someone has been held for 5 weeks. It seems there are no clear guidelines, much less 'requirements', with regard to making a charge or scheduling a trial date either - although it appears that things are now moving forward at last, and the situation should become clearer during the next few months.

Peter Foster, the China correspondent for the UK's Daily Telegraph newspaper, was one of the first foreign journalists to pick up on the story, on his blog (in this further update he included an English translation of the official witness statement of a friend who was with the artist when he was taken into custody). It's also been covered in the Toronto Star and the New York Times.

I'm not sure if my friend's arrest really has much if anything to do with his 'political' activities, if it is some kind of payback for having ruffled the feathers of some of the denizens of Zhongnanhai (or the more lowly local Party officials in Chaoyang District whose lucrative redevelopment plans have been delayed and embarrassed by his resistance); it might be that he's just the unlucky victim of some random vindictiveness by the police. Unfortunately, there's nothing all that uncommon about his case: he is representative of tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens who are rode roughshod over by the authorities every year, abused and beaten by the police, thrown into jail for long - sometimes indefinite - terms.... for no good reason at all.... and with no semblance of an effective criminal justice system to protect them.

People sometimes try to tell me that 'the rule of law' is an abstruse and relatively unimportant concept; that the Chinese people are happy enough to get by without it, fearing that its introduction might hamper the meteoric rise of their economy. No - 'the rule of law' is the foundation of everything else, it is essential to a civilised society; there can be no true or lasting 'prosperity' without it.

This is something we should all be ANGRY about - not about the fate of one man, but about a legal system that can swallow people like a black hole..... and about a government that feels it needs such medieval mechanisms of oppression to hold on to its power. We shouldn't need to wait until it happens to someone we know to feel this ANGER. This affects us all, every single one of us who lives in China, Chinese and foreign alike: something like this could happen to any one of us at any time. It is happening to dozens, hundreds of people every day. And it is always someone you know: your neighbour, your uncle, your classmate, your fruit-seller.... someone like you.... you.

[There's not really anything that can be done to help this situation. The Chinese authorities tend to react very negatively to external pressure, and I am rather nervous that too much foreign press interest in the case might prove counter-productive. I'm wary even of talking about it too openly here on the blog.

However, my friend's wife and daughter are both Canadian citizens; and it is highly likely that he will become one himself as soon as this nightmare is over. The Canadian government has made some expressions of support, and claims to be 'monitoring' the case. Therefore, if you are Canadian, it might be helpful to keep up the pressure on your government to involve itself as effectively as possible by writing a letter to your elected representative, or direct to the office of the Prime Minister, saying that you are aware of this case and concerned about its outcome.]


stuart said...

Jeremiah from Granite Studio tweeted this link yesterday after I did the same a couple of days earlier.

As you know several notables have already thrown their hats into the ring. This morning, Richard from Peking Duck tweeted up this article from Mark Mackinnon:

"For jailed artist’s family, Chinese justice is little more than revenge"

Gary said...

Jeez, Froog, I am very, very sorry to hear this.

I hope your friend will be released as soon as possible.

Is publicity within China able to achieve anything? Is the art community lobbying for him?

Hoping for a happy ending here. Keep us posted.

Jo said...

Froog, excellent post. It's frustrating that nothing can be done to make those is power see reason. D has so many people behind him pushing for this to be resolved, but what about the hundreds or more other people in his situation who don't have such a high profile? This happens everyday in China and it makes me so angry that they can get away with treating people like this.

Stuart, you can follow @KPinchina, @wentommy and @aiwwenglish to get updates on the situation from those closest to it.

Gary, unfortunately worldwide publicity means nothing in China. I'm sure you're aware nothing bad ever happened in Tiananmen Square?

Froog said...

Thanks for that latest article, Stuart.

I'm not a Twitterer myself, but a simple search on GoogleNews seems to throw up a new article on the case every few days.

Thanks for those Twitter links, Ruby.

Gary, Ai Weiwei is being very supportive, but I think the family and friends are thinking more in terms of lobbying police and government officials. Publicity may add some leverage to that, but rather limited, I fear.

A lot of people in the art community are incensed about the case, but I haven't yet heard of any wider 'grass roots' discussion about it on the Chinese Internet. I have in the past heard of a couple of cases where a mass outcry online actually had some impact on the criminal justice process. That may be something we need to look into more.

Froog said...

Further to that, Gary, I was modestly encouraged that English-language state newspaper The Global Times has carried a couple of stories on this (mildly sympathetic ones, too, or at least reassuringly neutral). I don't think the more right-on China Daily has yet. And I think it's extremely unlikely that any of the Chinese-language media have dared to mention it.

Froog said...

Rage with nowhere to go becomes depression.

The World Cup was a useful displacement activity for a while, but I have been very down about this for the past 7 or 8 weeks.

I've never been good at accepting injustice, or at accepting my own impotence to do anything about it. The current situation has been recalling to mind episodes in my past when I was involved in pro bono legal work, particularly a summer back in the '90s when I was helping out at a voluntary capital appeals centre in the US. I was just passing through, visiting friends there for a couple of weeks - not doing much apart from filing documents and collecting sandwiches. One night, one of their guys went to the chair. I wasn't able to stay with them: partly because it felt like intruding on a very private grief (I hadn't been involved in his case at all), but partly because I just couldn't contain my emotions about it. The rage was enormous; and, having nowhere to go, it became a very dark, all-consuming despair.

I had a very vivid flashback to that one evening a couple of weeks ago, and had to go straight home. When depression bites me that hard, I can't be with anyone.

Froog said...

Here's the text of his wife's release to the press:

RE: Wu Yuren’s Police Beating, Unlawful Detention and Arrest

On May 31st, 2010, at about 4 pm in the afternoon, my husband accompanied Yang Licai, the owner of the Sugar Jar CD Music shop in 798, to the Jiuxianqiao Police Station. Mr. Yang was going to the police to make a complaint about certain actions by the 798 Management and my husband was accompanying him as a friend. Wu and Yang did not return home that afternoon and no notice of their detention was given to their family, friends or colleagues. On June 1st, 2010, Wu and Yang were both transferred to the Chaoyang District Detention Center. Wu was placed in the criminal section of the center, while Yang was placed in the civil section. On June 11th, 2010, Yang was released from the detention center after serving 10 days. For reasons we still do not know, the time allotment on Wu’s form was left blank and he is still in criminal detention.

We have strong evidence to support the fact that Wu Yuren was beaten by police officers on the night of May 31st, 2010, as follows: 1) when I came to the police station on June 1st, I saw Wu through an open window as I was parking my car. He was holding his arm and said, “I have been beaten”; 2) when Yang Licai came from the detention center on June 11th, I met with him and he gave his account of hearing painful screams from Wu on the night of May 31st, after Wu was dragged by police officers to another room in the police station; 3) Wu’s lawyer visited Wu in the detention center on the morning of July 5th, and on July 26th, where Wu told the lawyer how he was dragged to a room, shirt pulled over his head and beaten by 4-5 police officers, and also received many major bumps to his skull, and a scar purposely carved above eye by a policeman’s long finger nail; 4) when Wu arrived at the detention center on June 1st, he requested and was given an x-ray of his arm, but was never shown the results.

On Tuesday July 6th, I went to the Jiuxianqiao Police Station to pick up Wu’s personal belongings, which consisted of clothes, shoes, his Nokia cell phone, an x-ray receipt, a letter from Wu to me, his electric bike key, and the original piece of paper that I had left at the police station counter on the afternoon of June 1st, with my name and number in Chinese, requesting them to contact me with any information. Officer Liu Dawei and Officer Zhang Yue, both on duty the night of May 31st, refused to answer any of my questions about the events of May 31st, 2010. Holding up his hand while walking quickly away from me, Liu repeatedly said, “I am avoiding this case, I am no longer involved.”

I have never been informed by telephone or formal written notice about the detention of Wu on May 31st, 2010. It is as if he just disappeared. I had to drive to two different police stations on June 1st to try and locate him because he never came home and did not answer his phone or respond to text messages. This detention is a clear violation of Chinese law, which states that after a Chinese citizen is detained, the police must contact the spouse/family in person, and supply a formal written document informing about the detainment.

My husband is a peaceful and law-abiding man, and I find it difficult to believe that he would have assaulted an officer of the law, even if he himself were attacked. His friends and family also believe steadfastly in his innocence, I have been told that Wu has been detained for “Obstructing Public Service”. I understand that these are serious charges. However, how is it that a law-abiding citizen goes into a police station to report on a crime and ends up being beaten and unlawfully detained and arrested?

We are interested in raising the awareness of this situation. Please let us know if there is anything you can do to assist us.

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

Karen Patterson
(86) 1381 150 3992
Beijing, China
July 28, 2010

Froog said...

Further to the above:

"Wu Yuren is one of those cases where some stupid police at a very low level made a very stupid mistake, and now they're going to sentence Wu Yuren just to justify this decision"
Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist/activist/designer
(quoted in Globe and Mail, Mark Mackinnon, July 26th, 2010)

Other relevant information:

Wu Yuren’s Chinese id: 320422197110025812

DOB: 1971/10/02

Detention Center: Chaoyang District Detention Center (Criminal Section)
Address: #29 Chaoyang North Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing

Police Beating of Wu: evening of May 31st, 2010

Date of Detention: June 1st, 2010

Date of Official Arrest: July 2nd, 2010

Pending Charge: Obstructing Public Service (Max sentence 3 years)

Occupation: Freelance Artist

Bail: Applied for on July 9th, denied on July 16th for the reason that Wu had already been arrested

Trial date: could be as early as end of October, 2010

Citizenship of wife and child: Canadian