In the late summer and fall of 2015, hundreds of lawyers were detained by the police. Many were sent to prison. Several were tortured. They had been defending the wrong clients. Some had said the wrong things. Most were outspoken advocates for free speech, constitutional rights, and democracy. The Chinese government considered their work seditious.
The American journalist Alex Palmer was able to speak with several of these human rights lawyers and their families – you should read his article about their plight. The most heartbreaking passage describes a meeting with two of the imprisoned lawyers’ wives:
I met Wang and Li in a wood-paneled coffee shop on a blistering summer afternoon, a little more than a week before the first anniversary of the crackdown. The worst part of their husbands’ sudden disappearance, they agreed, was trying to explain the situation to their young children. Li, whose son was 2½ when his father disappeared, tried at first to maintain a veneer of normalcy, telling her son that his father was on a business trip. But over the course of the year, as the family visited detention centers, police stations and lawyers, the boy came to realize that his father had been taken to prison. He asked his mother why.
‘‘I explained that he is a lawyer,’’ Li told me. ‘‘He has to help others. Because he helps others, he has been taken away by monsters.’’ Wang put her hand on Li’s back as she continued.
‘‘ ‘Why doesn’t he come back?’ my son asked. ‘Are there too many monsters?’ I said to him, ‘If you be good and grow strong, you can help your father fight the monsters.’ ’’
She paused and took a sip of tea. Li’s husband often came to Liang’s office to work, and the books he had left behind still cluttered Liang’s shelves — and as she spoke, Liang [the lawyer struggling to free Li’s lawyer husband] kept his eyes down, fiddling with a pen.
‘‘He asked if others are also helping fight the monsters,’’ Li said. ‘‘I told him, ‘Yes, many people.’ ’’
There are approximately 300,000 lawyers in China. Of these, a few hundred were willing to take human rights cases. A tenth of a percent of all lawyers. A vanishingly small percentage of the 1.4 billion people living in the country.
It’s not clear how many monster hunters we will need.
This summer, Liu Xiaobo, a devoted monster hunter, passed away. Liu was an outspoken advocate for democracy and justice – and therefore spent much of his life in prison. He won the Nobel Prize – an empty chair addressed the world in his stead. He was a poet – every year on June 4th, in honor of the students who were murdered in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he wrote another elegy.
His poetry is banned in China.
Liu’s elegies and other poems have been translated into English by Jeffrey Yang, which you can find here. When we read his poems in jail, the men loved “Greed’s Prisoner” – they loved it, but it hurt. From the poem:
He controls your pen
makes you write endless letters
makes you desperate to find hope
One man in our class hung his head in shame and said, “I’ve done it. I’ve seen all of us done it. We call the old lady, where’s my lawyer, what’d you write him, where’s my commissary, we’ve got to get it done. We … we forget that they’ve got their world out there, too.”
the moment he sees himself brimming with righteousness
you already possess nothing
We, in the United States, briefly, distractedly celebrated Liu. He stood up for his convictions! He fought for truth and justice no matter the cost!
This is easiest to applaud when we do not know the costs. But Liu knew. His choices did not lead only to his own suffering – when the government imprisoned him, they were torturing his wife too. She could be tortured without their needing to touch her.
Liu offers his love alongside repentance.
in this dust-weary world of
so much depravity
why do you
choose me alone to endure
Liu Xiaobo’s ordeal is over. Liu Xia’s is not. And the monster hunters are a long, long way from winning. Instead of justice, China prizes growth. More wealth. More power. Longer lives for the lucky wealthy. Flashier technologies to occupy our minds. Forests cleared for more farms, more high-rises, more roads to drive new cars across. Wetlands drained. All other animal life pushed toward extinction.
Which should not surprise us. In the United States, we prize … growth. More wealth, more power, longer lives, fancy toys. Our countries will get along fine. Speaking of the current president of China, 45 said “He is a good man. He is a very good man.”
He wants what we want.
To be good and grow strong enough to fight the monsters, we have to want something else. We must choose less money, less consumption. But that is okay. We can choose less money and still have more happiness.
So, please, take a moment to slow down. Perhaps you’ll have time to read a poem.