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“If I Lose My Freedom”—Ding Jiaxi in My Memory

January 15, 2014

When I heard the news about Jiaxi being arrested, it was as if I had been struck by lightning. I learned about it on the evening of April 17, when I opened my email inbox. Suddenly, several frightening words leapt out at me: “If I lose my freedom...”

The email was from Zhao Changqing, a long-time activist and a friend of mine. As a man who anticipated danger, and who had been detained by the police several times before he was taken away, Changqing had hastily composed a few words and asked several friends to take care of his nine-month-old infant son.

I immediately picked up the phone to call Changqing. There was no answer. I instinctively dialed Ding Jiaxi’s number, but no one answered there either. I called him once more, but again no answer. I later learned from Jiaxi’s wife that mine was the last call he “received” on his phone before he was taken away. At the time when I called them, the police were searching his apartment. He wanted to answer the phone, but was prevented by the police, who canceled the call.

Jiaxi and Changqing were detained at the same time. The next day, they were arrested on criminal charges. Their “crime” was “unlawful assembly.”

I was almost in shock as soon as I heard that they were arrested. Astonishment, anger, sadness, and despair weighed heavily on me, and I had trouble breathing. Each time that I thought of the scene of them being taken away, it was like a knife was being twisted into my heart. It was impossible for me to calm down, and there was no way for me to remain silent. What was different from the past was that, although I usually write quickly, I suddenly could not write a single word, and this circumstance lasted for a very long time.

Gradually, I began to realize the reason—it was going to take some time to heal the pain that I felt. I had been friends with Jiaxi and Changqing for many years and we were even closer than brothers and sisters. We had a tacit understanding among us that was in complete harmony. Our lives have been entwined like flesh and blood, indistinguishable from one another. We were too close and I needed to stand back a bit in order to write more completely about them.

The first time I met Jiaxi was at a small-scale citizen dinner. I remember that at the time Changqing, rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, and other friends were also at the dinner. After the meal, I got on the subway with Zhiyong and Jiaxi, and we talked all the way until we got off the train and went our separate ways. Jiaxi gave me the following impression: he was gentle, rational, clear-headed, and he was steadfast in his ideals. We felt like old friends at first sight.

Afterward, I got to know him better. He is very caring toward others, and being together with him was like being in spring air. He is also an ardent activist who takes action and doesn’t just sit there doing nothing. And he was always effective in the things he did.

Jiaxi did a great deal of civil society building. He actively disseminated the concept of constitutional government and promoted the use of citizen symbols, which won the recognition of citizens from all over the country. Citizen symbols included online avatars, citizen badges, and citizen umbrellas. As a result, citizens gained a sense of shared identity. For a while, the citizen avatars spread around the Internet. When people were offline, they wore citizen badges. The blue citizens’ umbrellas, carrying the words “freedom, justice, love,” blossomed everywhere like flowers.

We often took part in citizen dinners. From the small-scope meals with friends at the beginning, this tradition spontaneously developed into dinner gatherings among citizens in some 30 cities around China.

Jiaxi did his utmost to protect the rights of those people who suffered injustices. Last year, at my suggestion, he and Peng Jian, a lawyer, traveled more than 1,000 miles  to Qinghai to provide legal assistance to Liu Benqi, a prisoner of conscience with whom he had never met. His concern for Benqi never wavered a bit right up until the time he lost his freedom. I can't count the number of people whom Jiaxi has shown concern for and helped.

Last year, Jiaxi began to ask public officials to disclose their assets. According to the figures we have, more than 8,000 signatures had been collected by the time he was arrested; one after another, citizens took to the streets holding banners and shouting slogans. As a result of this, some were arrested, which in turn attracted domestic and international attention.

Jiaxi was then questioned, and his personal freedoms were regularly violated. Sometimes, the police were right behind him, even when he worked, ate, played ball, or took strolls in the park.

Once when I took part in a lunch with Bao Tong, Kang Guoxiong, Du Guang, and other veteran democracy activists, I met Jiaxi. He said to me, "The Domestic Security have already given me a call, and I anticipate I'll soon be controlled, and won’t be able to attend the dinner tonight." I told Jiaxi that, "If I'm not detained as well, I'll host the meal, you don't have to worry about it."

Jiaxi left before I did, and soon afterward I received the following text message from him, "Just as I expected, I have to trouble you." Later, he told me that he’d been abducted as soon as he walked out the door.

From what I—both as an individual and a lawyer—know about Jiaxi, he works for the betterment of China and society, and he has never said or done anything that is against the law. He has a great sense of humor, and he often told us to be cheerful citizens, although we were often under great pressure and faced extreme danger. Once, he sent an email to several friends, the gist of which was that he'd recently been put under the “protection” of four Domestic Security agents for 24 hours a day, facetiously asking us to work even harder so we could win VIP treatment just like he did.

The Domestic Security agents reminded him that his lawyer’s license would not get its annual approval. He said, laughing, “No problem! Even if I have to sweep the streets, I'll do a good job, and I'll do it happily."

Domestic Security threatened him saying they would cancel the lease for his law firm's office, preventing the members of his firm from having a place to work. (Jiaxi was the legal representative of his law firm; even people with a scant understanding of the situation in China know that Domestic Security has this power, though illegal.) Jiaxi replied, "Fine, just shut it down—I was just thinking that the rent is too high anyway."

The Domestic Security agents confiscated his computer and other equipment on several occasions, and afterwards he would say to us, "No problem, we can let them look at all of the files, it's a good opportunity to let them have an understanding of civil society.”

Jiaxi said that on one occasion, a Domestic Security agent discreetly asked him, "When will the CPC collapse?" When he told me this story, Jiaxi laughed loudly. Humor creates a relaxed atmosphere, mitigates and eliminates people's fears and nervousness. Almost every time I spoke with him, whether on the telephone or face-to-face, I couldn’t help smiling at what he said.

Jiaxi was always willing to help others, and so when friends ran into difficulties and needed help, they would always first think of going to him. He was always generous in aiding the needy. Whenever he met a friend in need, he would pull money out of his pocket to provide assistance, always without hesitation.

Once, when I had some urgent business to take care of, he agreed without much thought to take care of my daughter, and he agreed readily. Every time I rode in his car, he would insist on driving me home, even though I pleaded with him to let me off along the way, and allow me to get home on my own. He was determined to deliver me to my destination, always saying, "It's on my way." Inconsiderate me, I never invited him to come upstairs for a drink of water.

The last time I saw Jiaxi was in mid-April.

On April 13, Ding Jiaxi, Zhao Changqing, Sun Hanhui, Wang Yonghong, Yang Zili, myself, and several other people got together for a chat. We discussed a variety of things, such as how the Chinese media, in the traditional sense, had gone bankrupt. As citizens, we wanted to launch a citizen journalism movement that would not just serve a small stratum of privileged people, but all the masses.

We planned to advance citizen journalism, and promote grassroots media. Other issues that we discussed that day included The Four Citizens Xidan Incident, about a demonstration in Beijing, the case of missing Li Wei, the case of missing Qi Yueying, the Masanjia Reeducation-Through-Labor camp, and the case of Zhang Anni, a young girl who’d been refused entry to primary school because of her father’s dissident activities.

In the beginning of the gathering, I took a photo of each person attending, one after the other, so that in case someone was detained we would be able to upload a photo of that person to the Internet. The photos of Yonghong, Hanhui, Changqing, and Jiaxi that were later posted on the Internet were ones I took at the gathering that day. How unfortunate it was that, soon afterward, all four of them lost their freedom, one after the other. And how fortunate it was that I took photos of them at that final moment. Jiaxi touched his chin, wearing a smile.

Ding Jiaxi, April 13, 2013. Photo credit: Xiao Guozhen.

At the time, he certainly did not realize the danger that was lying just around the corner. Nor did I realize that my comment regarding the photographs would turn out to be so prophetic.

I heard afterwards that in the detention center Jiaxi went on talking and laughing as if nothing had happened, enlightening the police on the finer details of the law. Shortly after that, I saw another photo of Jiaxi, but this one was of him in the detention center. He was dressed in prison garb, his hands were handcuffed, and there was a barred window in front of him. He was smiling cheerfully, as before. My tears fell like rain and I could not control myself.

One veteran rights lawyer said that he will never forget something that Jiaxi had told him: “If there are no lawyers who are able to provide legal assistance for a case that does not pay or can’t even cover travel and other expenses, then let me do it. I don’t care about having an official career. In the future when there are elections, there will be plenty of other people willing to run for office. There will be many who will take to the podium who speak with eloquence and who excel in delivering speeches. Meanwhile, I'll remain a free and footloose foolish old man. We can't adopt the thinking of those who are contesting for power to rule the country. This is where we differ from the despots. What we're doing now is creating an opportunity for people to compete fairly, and we're seeking a just environment for future generations."

I often recall a chat I had last year with Jiaxi. He said to me: "I have great faith in the future. Several years ago, where were you? Have you stepped forward since? One year ago, where was I? Am I not also standing up now? There will be more and more people stepping forward, Lawyer Xiao. A civil society will certainly grow."

I also often recall something that Jiaxi's wife said to me. "He wants to awaken others, but the result was that he was shut away as a heretic. If Jiaxi is guilty, then everyone is guilty,” she said. “Every day Jiaxi was questioned by the police, I want to turn the tables around and ask them a question, "Excuse me. What do you think Jiaxi has done? What's your reason for arresting Jiaxi?"

She’s right. I also want to ask that question. What’s your reason for arresting Jiaxi?

English translation by Paul Mooney.

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.

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