Guangzhou’s CITIC Plaza, one of the tallest buildings in China. This is one of the locations where Li Huanming planned to distribute his flyers. Image credit:

Dui Hua researchers started finding the names of political prisoners on Chinese court websites in 2003. One of the first names we found was Li Huanming. My colleague Joshua Rosenzweig found his name on the Shenzhen Intermediate Court website. Later, in a work report out of Shenzhen, we confirmed that Li stood trial for inciting subversion in a high-profile case in 2002.

Months later, in late 2003, Dui Hua sent Li’s name to a professor based in Guangzhou who enjoyed good relations with local security bureaus and courts. Within months, the professor responded with details on Li’s case, marking the first time Dui Hua received information on a political prisoner we identified from a Chinese government website.

The information came from “friends” in the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau. We learned that Li was from Ankang Municipality in Shaanxi Province. He was charged with inciting subversion for distributing or planning to distribute tens of thousands of “reactionary” flyers in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. In one instance, he put flyers near the Shenzhen-Guangzhou Highway so trucks hurtling by would blow the flyers across the countryside.

Diwang plaza in Shenzhen. Image Credit:

According to the email: “The case shocked the Ministry of Public Security, which dispatched two bureau chiefs to Guangzhou to personally supervise the investigation. The Central Committee’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee even hosted a special meeting to discuss the case.” When police detained Li in Guangzhou’s Tianhe District, he “shouted reactionary slogans [demonstrating that] he is a very stubborn person.”

From the time Dui Hua first learned of Li Huanming in 2004 until his release in 2010, we put his name on 11 prisoner lists to the Chinese government both directly and through foreign governments. In 2005 alone, we put Li’s name on four lists submitted to both the central government and the Guangdong government. These interventions yielded eight written responses, which painted a picture of a young man who refused to bend to authority. The court sentenced Li to nine years in Shaoguan Prison in northern Guangdong Province for inciting subversion and to another three years of deprivation of political rights upon his release. He refused to give legitimacy to the Chinese government and did not appeal the sentence, which was the longest for inciting subversion that Dui Hua was aware of at the time. (In 2009, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo would be given an 11-year prison sentence for inciting subversion.)

In prison, he was defiant. Li served every day of his sentence before being sent back to his hometown in Shaanxi Province on September 1, 2010. He spent several spells in solitary confinement, making him ineligible for clemency. I later learned that prison authorities forbade monthly phone privileges to call his family, and he did not receive family visits.

Nonetheless, the stream of prisoner lists we sent beginning in late 2003 improved life for Li. Authorities put him in solitary confinement on three occasions in 2003, but never again after 2004. Li Huanming says that, in 2005, he was excused from working overtime and on weekends. He was given light work in the prison commissary. In 2007, he refused to do any manual labor, and he was not punished. He was left alone to write what would become a long novel that he was not allowed to take out of China.

The China Alliance of Virtuous Youth

In a conversation in 2005, the professor told me that Li originally faced harsh treatment for three reasons. First, he had a bad attitude. Second, authorities took issue with the high volume of reactionary leaflets he distributed and how he distributed them. Third, Li had a record, having served a three-year prison sentence for counterrevolution during the 1990s.

While he was a student at Ankang Normal College (now Ankang Normal University), Li started the “China Alliance of Virtuous Youth.” Made up of five members, the group drafted a manifesto that was then confiscated by the police. Li was detained right before graduation in June 1993. He was subsequently convicted of organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group and sentenced to three years in prison in 1994. Li was the only member of the group sentenced to prison. He finished the sentence in June 1996 and then moved to Guangdong to find employment. After working several jobs in the Pearl River Delta, he wound up working for a real estate company in Shenzhen.

A Message from Vietnam

Less than a year after Li finished his prison sentence, on June 15, 2011, Dui Hua’s Hong Kong office received an email from a reporter in Hanoi. The journalist had run into Li Huanming. He had entered Vietnam illegally and was facing difficulties.

I subsequently learned that Li had taken a train from Shaanxi to Guangzhou. He was contacted by public security agents in Shaanxi and ordered to return to Ankang to serve his deprivation of political rights sentence. Li ditched his cell phone, borrowed money, and headed for the border with Vietnam. He crossed the border at Pingxiang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and was immediately detained by Vietnamese border guards. He paid them off.

Li took a bus from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. From there he headed to Cambodia and then to Thailand. He entered Thailand, a month after leaving Guangzhou, but lost nearly all his documents on the way. He had been stopped by border guards and police on several occasions but managed to bribe or talk his way out of each brief detention. He spent a week living on the streets in Bangkok before finding a place to stay.

On July 22, Li called Dui Hua from Thailand. He had had his first meeting with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNOHCR). Afterwards he visited the embassies of the United States, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. None could help. He also sought out the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), but since he was not a Christian, Li was not optimistic he’d get assistance. I contacted the Department of State to see if it could help Li and asked for help from Dui Hua Director Bill McCahill, who asked Father John Shea SJ to intervene with JRS.

On August 16, a lawyer working at JRS asked me to provide supporting documents to help verify Li’s claim for political asylum. I gathered and submitted all the official responses I had received on Li from the Chinese government.

On September 16, Li had his first formal, full-day interview with UNOHCR. He presented the materials from Dui Hua and JRS. His second interview was scheduled but delayed due to a lack of Chinese interpreters. Li was advised that it usually took two years after the first interview to have a second. Months went by. Li worked at part-time jobs and earned enough to survive, but he was increasingly dispirited and pessimistic.

Finally, on August 27, 2012, Li called Dui Hua’s Hong Kong office to report that his refugee status had been approved by UNOHCR. After months of the UNOHCR trying to find him a new home, Li arrived in Finland on May 7, 2013.  He settled in Mikkeli, a scenic city on a lake that is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital, Helsinki. His life is good. He has made many friends and is free to travel around Europe.

Li Huanming’s case demonstrates the value of submitting prisoner lists to the Chinese government and getting responses in return. The lists led to better treatment in prison, and the responses supported Li’s successful request for political asylum.

Dui Hua’s work is as unique as it is important. Mr. Rosenzweig calls Li’s story a classic case of a successful Dui Hua intervention on behalf of a political prisoner. In the words of Li Huanming: “Dui Hua under John Kamm’s direction was the only human rights organization that cared about me.”

Li Huanming in Mikkeli, Finland
The June 15 Reactionary Leaflet Case in Shanghai

Chinese police have a practice of naming important cases after the date on which the offense was committed. Li Huanming’s reactionary leaflet case was known as the “August 23” case, named after the date in 2001 when Li dropped a large quantity of leaflets from a tall office building in Shenzhen. Li’s case bears a striking similarity to the “June 15” case reactionary leaflet case in Shanghai.

On June 15, 1989 – days after the political protests in Beijing were suppressed – a number of reactionary leaflets were tossed from a building in Shanghai. From that date until his arrest on October 2, 1989, Shanghai resident Yu Rong distributed 1,450 reactionary leaflets on 52 occasions in separate districts around the city. It was the largest case of reactionary leaflets in the history of Shanghai. In the words of the popular tabloid People’s Police, Yu Rong’s reactionary leaflets “caused serious damage to social stability and to people’s peace of mind.”

As in the Li Huanming “August 23” case, solving the Yu Rong “June 15” case became a top priority for both the Shanghai Public Security Bureau and the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing. Zhu Rongji, then mayor of Shanghai and later China’s premier, personally oversaw the investigation that eventually led to Yu’s arrest. Hundreds of public security officers were deployed in stake outs in an attempt to catch the “counterrevolutionary” in the act of distributing the leaflets.

Yu Rong – who, like Li Huanming, had served time in prison – used pages from middle-school textbooks to write his messages. Thirty-five-year-old Yu, who worked at the Shanghai Automobile Service Company, lived alone, and committed the crime without assistance from anyone else. His father had served a prison term for counterrevolutionary crimes. Yu resented the Chinese government and was inspired by the June 4 protests.

Under interrogation Yu admitted that he was responsible for distributing the reactionary leaflets. He also confessed to setting 22 fires and to having dropped bricks from tall buildings on more than 50 occasions, killing three people.

From the time Dui Hua first learned of the Yu Rong case in People’s Police to the present day, the foundation has placed Yu Rong’s name on 15 lists submitted directly or through foreign governments to the Chinese government. It has thus far received only one response. In April 2006, the Shanghai authorities advised Dui Hua that Yu Rong had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990 and been placed in a psychiatric detention facility known as Ankang run by the Public Security Bureau. If Yu is alive he is likely still there.