Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po accuses democratic legislators and organizers of Occupy Central, including Joshua Wong, of making complaints overseas about internal affairs of China and Hong Kong. Photo credit: Wen Wei Po
China celebrates National Youth Day every year on May 4th, a holiday commemorating the patriotic May Fourth Movement in 1919. On this day exactly a century ago, thousands of university students assembled at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, urging the Chinese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference not to sign the Versailles Treaty because the Allied Powers had conceded to Japan’s demand to take over the German concessions in Shandong. The procession proceeded to foreign embassies in the Legation Quarter to demand nullification of special foreign privileges, such as extraterritoriality. This was a privilege by which China was forced to yield control of sovereign powers, one of many losses as part of a series of “unequal treaties” in force since the First Opium War. Student protesters hoped that the United States would side with China over the “Shandong question,” because the U.S. was a key proponent of national self-determination and the U.S. embassy was the only foreign embassy willing to meet with their representatives and accept their petition.
A century later, the patriotic act of petitioning westerners known as gaoyangzhuang (告洋状) carries a negative connotation. Petitioning refers to the administrative system for receiving complaints from people with grievances, mostly concerning corrupt officials. While China guarantees the right to complain so long as petitioners do not bypass local authorities, the government does not tolerate the act of complaining to foreigners, in part due to the traditional notion of “not exposing family scandals.” Recent usage of gaoyangzhuang is often associated with Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, when she speaks to foreign diplomats and journalists about her rejection of Xi’s offer of the “one country, two systems” framework for reunification with the mainland. Li Jing-yu, wife of imprisoned Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che (李明哲), has also been accused of gaoyangzhuang for criticizing China from overseas because she was prevented from visiting her husband, who is serving a five-year sentence in Hunan for subversion. The term is no less frequently used against Hong Kong democratic legislators, supporters and localists if they tell foreigners about Beijing’s tightening control over the former British colony.
In Taiwan and Hong Kong, complaining about the Chinese government does not land individuals in legal trouble because both regions are independent jurisdictions. By contrast, critics on the mainland face imminent threat of loss of personal liberty. In August 2013, Global Times stated that petitioners, alongside exiled democracy activists and “splittist forces overseas” headed by the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, were the major users of gaoyangzhuang. Petitioners were accused of taking part in a number of “illegal behaviours” such as wearing clothing traditionally associated with petitioning. These included, for example, signs hanging both down the petitioner’s front and back, waving banners, and chanting slogans at Beijing-based international organizations, such as offices of the United Nations and foreign embassies, with the intention to “create international influence” (zaocheng guoji yingxiang 造成 国际 影响). Unlike those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, petitioners on the mainland with assorted grievances, from forced demolitions to land disputes, are most likely to face reprisals for complaining to foreigners.
It is unclear when the term of gaoyangzhuang entered the official lexicon. An article originally published by Phoenix Weekly in January 2009 stated that the term began to come into vogue during the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao administration. China’s effort to improve its global image prior to the Beijing 2008 Olympics incentivized provincial governments to track gaoyangzhuang petitioners in Beijing. In 2005, a total of 37 people from Hubei were reported to have travelled to Beijing to make complaints to foreigners, compared to 77 people from Liaoning, which was ranked as the top fourth province nationwide. In the 19 months since July 2004, over 540 people in 50 different groups had filed complaints to the Beijing offices of UNHCR and UN Development Programme, according to statistics from the Sanlitun police station. A Liaoning official was quoted as saying that gaoyangzhuang “seriously damages the country’s reputation and external image” and “creates pressure on the capital’s social security and stability.” Another Shanghai official called gaoyangzhuang “despicable,” an act tantamount to “blackmailing the Chinese people.”
A Hebei government directive in 2007 states that gaoyangzhuang petitioners adversely affect Beijing’s social stability and vilify the national image. Underlining added by Dui Hua Foundation. Photo credit: Boxun
Public censure achieved little to deter petitioners from complaining about local governments to foreigners. In view of this, provincial public security, procuratorial offices, and courts started to jointly push for punitive measures. Anhui was among the first to release an opinion in 2006, listing foreign embassies and international organizations as “key areas” for stability maintenance alongside the central organs of the Chinese Communist Party, and subjecting anyone who disturbed social order to punishment in accordance to the Public Security Administration Punishments Law.
Government officials are keen to suppress gaoyangzhuang because they use low rates of gaoyangzhuang as an indicator of good governance. A performance appraisal document in Shihu Township, Jiangsu, in 2011 categorized the prevention of gaoyangzhuang under the section appraising “critical stability control” (zhongdien weiwen 重点维稳) during “sensitive days" (such as certain national holidays and anniversaries of events that are likely to inspire protests and other forms of public political expression); the section carries two evaluation points. Each occurrence of gaoyangzhuang leads to a deduction of half a point. Similar assessment mechanisms likely existed before 2011, since the 2009 Phoenix Weekly article mentions that local public security bureaus in Henan, Shanghai and Liaoning had publicized cases of petitioners apprehended or detained for gaoyangzhuang.
In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, both official usage of the term gaoyangzhuang and punitive measures proliferated. In June 2007, an official in Heilongjiang’s Datong District called for “detaining or giving re-education through labor (RTL)” to gaoyangzhuang petitioners before resolving their problems. Petitioners would have to pay for all expenses the government incurred for handling their petitions if deemed “unreasonable.” In January 2008, an opinion from Hebei called gaoyangzhuang an “irregular form of petitioning to Beijing” (feizhengchang jinjing shangfang非正常进京上访) and a “serious breach” of the petition regulations. The opinion recommended that public security directly detain or give RTL to gaoyangzhuang petitioners without the need to give prior admonishment or warning. In March, Liaoning followed suit and issued a similar opinion to crack down on gaoyangzhuang petitioners.
Nor did the crackdown on gaoyangzhuang relax in the wake of the Beijing Olympics. A local government directive issued in 2009 continued to blame gaoyangzhuang petitioners for “complicating simple issues, internationalizing and politicizing domestic problems” by means of “creating international influence.” Throughout the year, a total of 2,862 gaoyangzhuang petitioners were caught in Chaoyang District, Beijing, and, of these petitioners, 1,118 were detained. In February of that year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China. Zhao Chunhong (赵春红) led a group of petitioners to put up a banner welcoming Clinton and called on Nancy Pelosi (scheduled for a separate visit in May of 2009) to put pressure on China over its human rights records. Zhang was subsequently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”
About half a year before Xi’s rise to power in 2012, blind activist Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) made a daring escape from house arrest to the U.S. embassy. In May, Chen and his family left China for New York. Some mainland observers opined that the episode had emboldened petitioners to make complaints to foreigners in the belief that the Chinese government would ultimately address their problems. On May 8, 2012, elderly petitioner Nie Muni (聂木妮) and his wife attempted to “barge into” the U.S. embassy, but were intercepted by the embassy guards and taken to the Jiujingzhuang Reception Center in Beijing, an unofficial detention center where petitioners are held. In an interview with Voice of America (VOA), the couple said they wanted to “beat drums and cry injustice” (jigu mingyuan击鼓鸣冤) at the U.S. embassy because the U.S. “gives people a sense of trust and respect for human rights and dignity.” They claimed to have been inspired by Chen, who received medical treatment from the Chinese government after he escaped to the U.S. embassy.
Despite the abolition of RTL in 2013, many gaoyangzhuang petitioners have not fared any better. They are now more likely to be convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” which carries a maximum sentence of ten years. In 2013, over a dozen petitioners from Fuzhou, Fujian, started a series of gaoyangzhuang petitions in the hope that then-U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke would respond to their plight. In April of that year, they even planned to intercept John Kerry’s vehicle during his Beijing visit on the 13th. Upon learning that the Fuzhou government had dispatched large numbers of interceptors to Beijing, the group proceeded instead to Ambassador Locke’s residence, where they threw stacks of leaflets and some of them chained themselves to the front gate. The group of petitioners grew to over two dozen in July, but many were removed and collectively charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Some of them were released on bail after several months in custody.
Some of the Fuzhou gaoyangzhuang petitioners who attempted to complain about corruption and rights abuses in China to then-U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke in 2013. Photo credit: RFA
Lin Yingqiang (林应强) continued his effort to petition Locke alongside a dozen of the Fuzhou petitioners into early November. After 15 months in criminal detention, Lin was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in February 2015. The judgment stated that Lin circulated 68 blog posts about the “Fuzhou victims” to satisfy his greed in the name of “anti-corruption” and “whistleblowing.” Among these posts, two recounted his stories of “barging into” the American embassy, which were viewed over 9,000 times in 2013. A day after his November petition, he and other Fuzhou petitioners put up another blog post, entitled “Please Follow Fuzhou Petitioners Who Complained to Foreigners,” which was viewed 51,159 times within one month of posting. At least four other individuals surnamed Tang, Chen, Shi and He were sentenced to two and a half years for the same offense of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” According to a Fuzhou activist, the above-mentioned five Fuzhou petitioners were sentenced at three different locations on purpose, because putting all of them on the same trial would have attracted unwanted publicity to this significant gaoyangzhuang case.
In February 2016, unofficial news media reported that the Ministry of Public Security would establish a “national petitioner database” as a preventive measure of stability maintenance. The database would not only track mainland petitioners, but also those who petitioned in Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. An exit ban might be placed on the mainland petitioners, who also faced restrictions from entering various municipalities and cities. Public security would liaise with Chinese embassies to track and monitor petitioners who made complaints overseas.
The petitioner database was created with the intention of curbing the rising number of petitioners who traveled abroad to voice complaints about the Chinese government, according to Bowen Press, citing an informed source. On September 25, 2015, dozens of petitioners attempted to intercept Xi’s motorcade at the end of the Obama-Xi meeting in Washington, D.C. One of them, a petitioner from Jilin, managed to stop Xi’s wife Peng Lijuan’s vehicle. Bowen reported that the incident had “frightened” Peng and made Xi “lose face.” The petitioner was taken away by police and his petition materials were subsequently received by officials from the Chinese embassy. In March 2016, another group of 50 gaoyangzhuang petitioners from 10 different provinces and municipalities were accused of “creating a nuisance” when Xi attended the Fourth Nuclear Security Summit, again in Washington, D.C. At the time of writing, Dui Hua is not aware whether the petitioner database has come into operation.
Communicating with Foreign Media
While petitioning is not the only channel for Chinese citizens seeking to publicize or change policies that they deem unfair, anyone who makes negative remarks about China to foreign media can face accusations of gaoyangzhuang. In May 2014, journalist Xiang Nanfu (向南夫) was detained for the offense of picking quarrels and provoking trouble, a charge stemming from his use of Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese language news website, to “fabricate" news about organ harvesting and violent land grabs in China in exchange for article fees. It is worth noting that although Xiang was not a petitioner, Xinhua News called his act of “smearing” China in front of foreigners gaoyangzhuang.
Lawyers, too, have been affected by Chinese government responses to communicating with foreign sources. There has been a growing trend of using administrative penalties against lawyers following the nationwide crackdown on Chinese lawyers and human rights activists that began on July 9, 2015. During the “Two Meetings” in March 2018, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) warned lawyers not to give dissenting views on China’s constitutional amendment that removed Xi’s presidential term limit. A notice issued by a local justice bureau indicated that violators would have his/her license to practice revoked and be barred from resuming work for five years. The MOJ also explicitly warned lawyers not to give interviews to foreign media, including BBC, Voice of Russia, and American media outlets such as NBC, CBS, VOA, and Radio Free Asia (RFA). When asked by RFA about the health condition of his client Huang Qi, the webmaster of the legal rights website 64 Tianwang, in August 2018, defence attorney Liu Zhengqing apologized for not being able to give an interview because he was under a lot of pressure with regard to talking to foreign media. On December 25, 2018, Liu’s license to practice law was revoked.
Critics in- and outside of academia frequently face harassment for speaking out to foreign media. On August 2, 2018, Shandong police broke into the home of retired professor Sun Wenguang (孙文广) while he was giving a phone interview to VOA. In the interview, Sun criticized Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative, urging Xi to spend more money in China instead of wasting money overseas on aid, loans and investments. Sun was put under house arrest for over 10 days.
A recent case involving prison sentences for who spoke out to foreign media involved Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in May 2018. In 2015, Tashi Wangchuk gave interviews to The New York Times, in which he expressed worries about the disappearance of the Tibetan language, as the Chinese authorities have been prohibiting the use of Tibetan in spheres ranging from schools to commerce even on the Tibetan plateau. Tashi Wangchuk described China’s ethnic policy as a “systematic slaughter” of Tibetan culture. Speaking to foreign media was his last resort, because government bureaus had refused to lodge a petition for him. He had also been turned down by domestic media, nor could he bring a lawsuit against the language policy. Knowing full well of the risk of speaking to foreign media, Tashi Wangchuk stressed that he was not advocating for independence. He insisted that language rights are human rights protected by China’s constitution. However, the nine-minute film made by The New York Times was cited as evidence that landed Tashi in jail. Tashi is scheduled for release from a prison in Qinghai in January 2021.
The frustration of those who apparently feel driven to complain to foreigners is succinctly described by a Caixin columnist who witnessed a gaoyangzhuang incident at the U.S. embassy in March 2014: a middle-aged petitioner holding two crutches, along with three people who appeared to have come from the countryside, were intercepted by a plainclothes officer after they ignored the warning that they would be arrested. Speaking from his own petitioning experience, the columnist wrote that the only response he received from the petition bureau was a receipt acknowledgement of his complaint, and despite an indefinite wait, his petition was never addressed. He guessed that gaoyangzhuang petitioners did not genuinely think they could succeed in obtaining redress from foreigners; they were simply trying their luck because they believed they had nothing more to lose by “speaking out against injustice” in front of foreigners.
Many gaoyangzhuang petitioners who made this or similar assumptions, however, have been mistaken. The cases explored in this article demonstrate how those who complain about China to foreigners, including foreign embassies, visiting diplomats and leaders, and journalists, could very well face several forms of retribution. Not only are they stigmatized for “badmouthing” China, but they also face the risk of imprisonment for picking quarrels and provoking troubles, and even for the very serious crime of endangering state security in cases involving ethnic minorities.
For more on petitioning in China, see also Dui Hua’s earlier reporting on the Beijing city government’s efforts to prohibit the use of “black security firms” and “black jails” to prevent petitioners from outside Beijing from coming to the capital to petition the central government, and, potentially, foreign actors.