Chinese lawyer Jiang Tianyong may have been freed from prison on February 28, but he is not really free. He remains virtually under house arrest at his parents’ place in eastern Henan province.
When Efe contacted him, Jiang - who was sentenced to two years in jail back in November 2017 for “inciting state subversion” - asked for correspondence to take place over an app that encrypts and destroys messages shortly after they have been sent. The app is censored in China.
For Amnesty International, Jiang’s case is typical of the fate suffered by hundreds of lawyers who defend collectives in cases the Chinese government deem “sensitive”.
Jiang, born in Loushan on 19 May 1971, recounted his experience in an interview over the course of several days.
Question: How are you after years of confinement?
Answer: On March 2 they brought me to my parents house and some 20 agents keep me under surveillance night and day. When I go out onto the street they follow me. When I want to leave the district, they stop me.
I haven’t known what my medical situation is for over two years and I would like to have a full medical exam, but they always follow me and limit my freedom, I haven’t been able to do it. On July 13 I told the guards I needed to go to Beijing to have my legs checked out (after they began to swell in April) but they wouldn’t let me go.
After getting out of prison, I thought I had freedom, and they told me so, but when I go out they stop me.Q: Why did you dedicate yourself to human rights cases?
A: At the start, I believed in the law. And the law says I can offer my services to everyone and I took on all cases without making distinctions.But afterwards I started getting sensitive cases and the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of State Security warned me they were cases that I could not take on.
Working on them, I realized that the accused had not committed any crime: they were not criminals. They had acted within the law, but the Communist Party of China did not allow it.
For example, members of Falun Gong (sect), they only want to practice (their religion) but the party would not let them and had them detained and would not let us defend them.
Q: How did the government start to take an interest in you?
A: In May 2005, the lawyer Chen Guangcheng got in touch with me to help on a case linked to the one-child policy: the government made a pregnant woman abort her second child and made her relatives and neighbors go to informative sessions about the topic.
At that time the government did not put you under so much pressure. Since 2013 (the year that welcomed the presidency of Xi Jinping), the situation has worsened. Before, sometimes we disappeared and they hit us, but they didn’t lock us up.
Q: Why do you think the regime fears people like you?
A: The Communist Party is very powerful and it has all the resources at its disposal. But they’re scared because we know the truth and they’re tricking the people using their media and intimidating groups of lawyers with pistols. The Party paints everything perfectly on the face of it but hides the negativity.
They use torture in prison so that we admit our “crimes” and “illegal” actions. If the lawyers told the truth in court and the judges heard it, they’d be embarrassed and the Community Party fears we’ll tell the public the truth.
Q. Did they torture you so you would plead guilty?
A: Yes. The first thing they did when they put me in jail was beat me continuously. They wanted to break my mental defenses, my self esteem, to accept what they wanted.
And then the brainwashing began. They asked me the same thing everyday, nonstop, until I couldn’t take it anymore and declared myself guilty. They also tortured me and even threatened consequences for my family or more jail time. They beat me, didn’t let me sleep, go to the bathroom, drink water, made me stay sitting down.
Altogether I was in prison for two and a half years. But they’ve detained and tortured me on other occasions.Q. How did you manage to resist?
A: I’m Christian and this helped because I prayed. I endured a day and thought if I could endure one day after another, in the end you can resist all of them. But I also felt I could go mad at any time.Q. Did you have suicidal thoughts?
A: No, never. But yes about injuring myself. Or using all of my strength to attack the guards, because at any moment I could go crazy.
Q: What effects do you think your time in prison has had?
A: My health has been affected a lot. My memory has been damaged. Inside I couldn’t talk or read, this also affected me psychologically.
As they had me in solitary confinement, I never saw sunlight. Once a ray of sunlight shone into my cell and it was a moment of happiness. The darkness I had in my heart dissipated for a brief moment.
Also now my back has been damaged irreversibly. I can no longer sit up straight and I have to keep changing my posture because while they interrogated me, they made me sit up straight on a special seat, with a small hard stone base.
Q: How did you manage to pass the time?
A: I thought about my family, about my daughter and my wife, about how my life would be when I got out of jail. And also how to put an end to the Communist Party.
Q: What’s your day-to-day life like now?
A: I get up between 6-7 am, have breakfast and stay at home for a while. Sometimes I watch TV with my family, then have lunch, take a nap, and on afternoons I have a look around online.
Sometimes I listen to pop music and watch movies, but only foreign ones. Chinese films and series always revolve around revenge or jealousy, but in the ones from abroad you find democracy, freedom and respect.
The neighbors treat us well. It’s not like during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). If it were then, the neighbors wouldn’t talk to us at all. I’ve got a dog and agents always follow me closely when I go out to walk him. He’s called “Ten Yuan” and he's 16 years old. He’s black with a silver nose, and people always tell me he’s handsome and think I must have paid a lot for him. The truth is he only cost 10 Yuan ($1.42).
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: I’d like to go to the United States, where my wife and daughter live. I haven’t seen them since 2013, but they also sentenced me to three years loss of political rights, which means I have to wait three years (until the end of 2020) before I can travel abroad.
My ideal scenario would be having the freedom to go to the USA and return to China when I wanted so I can keep working as a lawyer here. It’s going to be hard but this situation isn’t going to last forever.
I’m optimistic and don’t think the Communist Party has much time left. EFE-EPA