My Life Under House Arrest

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

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.

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


How Egypt Prolonged the Gaza War

As Israel and the Palestinians struggle to reach yet another cease-fire, the mediators in Cairo are making the conflict worse -- and empowering radicals in the process.​

As negotiations on a lasting cease-fire in Gaza grind on in Cairo, it's not only the animosity between Israel and Hamas that is complicating the talks -- it's also Egypt's role as mediator. Egypt's internal politics -- far more fraught and violent than they were during Hosni Mubarak's era -- have intruded on the attempts to reach an agreement, as the military-dominated government in Cairo attempts to use the talks as part of its war against the Muslim Brotherhood.

This subtle shift -- from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates -- has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas -- and particularly the population of Gaza -- the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.

Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza -- even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood's ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.

But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt's policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood -- an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the first phase of Egyptian diplomacy during this recent Gaza war, Egyptian mediators played their hand transparently -- and ruthlessly. They attempted to corner Hamas by publicly announcing a cease-fire proposal on July 15 that had only been coordinated with Israel; when Hamas balked, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly announced that the rejection provided "international legitimacy" for an expanded Israeli operation. Thus what was touted as a proposal to end the conflict actually enabled a ground incursion, which resulted in a more thorough elimination of Hamas tunnels and rockets than Israeli missiles alone would have been able to accomplish.

The ground invasion also led to at least 1,600 more Palestinian deaths. Previous Egyptian presidents would have blanched at complicity in such violence.

As the conflict continued, however, Sisi found that he could no longer completely exclude Hamas if he also wanted to preserve Egypt's role as mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. And indeed, for all the ways in which the diplomatic efforts to manage the Gaza war have worked against Hamas, one of the most striking aspects of the current Egyptian-led effort has been how it has shattered the fiction that Israel and Hamas will not negotiate.

The two parties have conducted diplomacy before, of course -- but it was also carried out with levels of deniability, indirectness, and distaste. Each round of fighting chipped away at the principle that Israel and Hamas do not deal with each other diplomatically. Now the only dimension missing is direct contact: Diplomacy takes place in Cairo, with delegations arriving in daylight and exchanging positions (and threats) not merely in public, but through Egyptian mediators.

This process has also shattered another myth -- that the primary game in town is about how to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the PLO. Today, two-state diplomacy seems to be at best in hibernation. The talks in Cairo, on the other hand, are substantial. They cover violence, security, reconstruction, living conditions in Gaza, movement and access to the territory, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, and internal Palestinian governance.

In that sense, Cairo is presiding over a process that follows the priorities of Hamas, which has always rejected the diplomatic process that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords. The current state of negotiations reflects Hamas's position that only talks about interim arrangements and truces are acceptable; conflict-ending diplomacy is not. The Israeli right can also feel vindicated, as the talks suggest that the conflict might be managed, but that it will not be resolved anytime soon.

The Palestinian Islamist camp and the Israeli right, however, should take little joy in this accomplishment. The diplomatic efforts led by Egypt will likely give Hamas little, and the new Egypt-Israel alliance is based on a short-term coincidence of interests rather than any strategic consideration. Israeli and Palestinian societies, meanwhile, are already paying a high price for the continuing failure to reach a lasting peace accord.

There is one more troubling aspect of Cairo's diplomacy that has largely escaped notice. While Egyptian mediators were forced in the end to deal directly with Hamas's leadership in order to reach a cease-fire, they have tried to mitigate this unpleasant reality in two ways. They have not only been seeking to enhance the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- something Mubarak always did in his day -- but may also be flirting with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group far more committed to violence against Israel than Hamas. PIJ leaders such as Khaled al-Batsh have been quoted in the Egyptian government-owned media recently insisting that no other state can take Egypt's place as mediator.

Egypt's military-dominated regime, then, has proved that it is not against forging alliances with violent Islamists; its only feud is with those allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. The apparent Egypt-PIJ flirtation highlights how the country's highly polarized politics might cause Cairo's military-dominated leadership to cultivate clients that are hardly in the interests of the United States or Israel. An Egypt that looks and acts more and more like Pakistan is not something to celebrate.

Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images