Ministry of Justice of the People’s Republic of China. Image Credit: Ministry of Justice of the People’s Republic of China

The Dui Hua Foundation was established in April 1999. That same month, the United States introduced a resolution criticizing China’s human rights record at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) advised me that they would no longer provide information on prisoners “for reasons known to all.”

On May 7, 1999, American warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, touching off a major crisis in U.S.-China relations. China immediately suspended the official human rights dialogue with the United States. Since Dui Hua’s unofficial dialogue had already been suspended, the suspension of the official dialogue did not affect us. In fact, it enabled our dialogue to be resumed before the government-to-government dialogue.

My wife and I made a personal donation through the Chinese Embassy in Washington to the families of the Chinese killed in the Belgrade Bombing. I was advised by a senior Chinese official that we were the first American citizens to make this gesture, which was much appreciated.

On March 21, 2000, I received a letter faxed from the MOJ. The letter thanked me for “all your hard work over these past several years to promote understanding between our two sides.” Attached to the letter was information on 14 prisoners about whom I had asked. The letter marked the resumption of Dui Hua’s dialogue on prisoners with the Ministry of Justice, something I called “the Prisoner Information Project.”

The first prisoner about whom information was provided was Bai Weiji (白伟基), an official of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who had led a march during the Spring 1989 protests, for which he was fired and expelled from the Communist Party. Bai was detained on May 5, 1992 and subsequently tried and convicted for “illegally providing state secrets to a foreign organization.” His wife, Zhao Lei (赵蕾) , was arrested a year later, and sentenced to six years in prison. (She was released early after an 18-month sentence reduction.)

Bai was given a 10-year prison sentence. He had provided documents to the Beijing Bureau chief of The Washington Post, Ms. Lena Sun, for whom his wife worked. The documents were found during a police raid on Ms. Sun’s apartment. In her safe were 10 “top secret” documents, according to Xinhua News Agency. Ms. Sun asked me to help secure Bai Weiji’s release, and I began raising his name with Chinese officials and submitting lists with his name on them to the MOJ.

The March 21 letter advised that Bai had received three sentence reductions and been released more than three years early on February 2, 1999.

Not long after receiving the letter, the MOJ invited me to visit Beijing. It would be the first visit by Dui Hua to Beijing and the first visit by a foreign human rights organization to discuss China’s prisoners with the ministry in charge of the country’s 700 prisons.

Prior to leaving for Beijing, I received a letter from Mr. Samuel (“Sandy”) Berger, President Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor. The letter asked me to follow up on President Clinton’s request,  made during his trip to Beijing in June 1998, to release the remaining counterrevolutionaries serving sentences in China’s prisons. The fate of these prisoners would be the focus of my trip to Beijing.

I arrived in Beijing on May 18, 2000. Before I departed on May 20, I met with MOJ Vice Minister Fan Fengping and held 10 hours of talks with officials of the Prison Administration Bureau and the Department of Judicial Assistance as well as Director Liu Huaqiu, head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meetings were held in the ministry’s nearly opened headquarters in Chaoyang District.

I was given a great deal of information on counterrevolutionary prisoners. At the end of 1999, there were 1,300 such prisoners still serving sentences, a reduction of 650 from the end of 1997. Most of those released were released early, including several I had advocated for: Bai Weiji, Shandong’s Zhang Xiaoxu (张霄旭) (paroled in 1998 after serving less than nine years of a 15-year sentence), and Tibet’s Jampa Ngodrup (released three years early in 1999). Immediately prior to my visit, Chen Lantao (陈兰涛), a student leader in Qingdao, was released after serving less than 11 years of his 18-year sentence for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement and blocking traffic. Chen’s sentence was the longest for non-violent actions taken during the Spring 1989 protests, and I had taken a special interest in his case, raising his name on trips to Qingdao.

I raised the case of Zhang Jie (张杰), another Shandong prisoner whose case had been taken up by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey and 15 other members of Congress. I was told that Zhang had had his sentence reduced by four and one-half years. The sentence was due to expire on January 15, 2003. I pressed hard for his release before then, and was told that if Zhang continued to “make progress in his reform” he would be released early.

I handed over a new list of 25 cases involving 51 individuals. Dui Hua had found their names in its research into “open source” Chinese publications. Most of their names were not known outside of China.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Beijing Number One Prison in Daxing County on May 19. This was the prison where Bai Weiji had served his sentence, and I was eager to take a look at conditions there.

I left my hotel at 1:00 PM, and arrived at the prison an hour later. I was greeted by Warden Yang Di, a big man with a broad smile. He had earned a reputation as a warden who, though strict, cared about the prisoners under his charge.

Yang gave me the standard “brief introduction” and showed me around the prison’s spacious and well-tended grounds. I was shown a cell block, the infirmary, and the cafeteria. The prison occupied an area of 440,000 square meters. Established in 1982, it held 2,000 male prisoners overseen by 370 guards.

The prison was a hive of small factories, and included 18 workshops making automobile parts (some for export, although not to the United States), plastic packaging, steel templates, and toys, among other products.

Beijing Number One Prison, now known as Beijing Municipal Prison, was designated a model prison by the Ministry of Justice and one of only seven “Cultural Units” (wenming danwei 文明单位) by Beijing Municipality. To be designated a model prison, a carceral facility has to meet 42 conditions including “no prison escapes” and “no prisoner suicides.” Beijing Number One enjoyed a recidivism rate of less than two percent.

Prisoners ranged in age from 18 to 60. Sentences included life in prison, 16-20 year terms, 10-15 year terms, and under 10 year terms. Most sentences were 15 years or more. Fifty percent of prisoners would be granted sentence reductions or parole during their time at Beijing Number One. Medical parole was granted to prisoners near death who did not represent a threat to the community. Fifty-two percent of prisoners had committed property crimes and 30 percent had committed violent crimes, including sex crimes. Several officials were serving sentences for corruption.

As I boarded my car to return to my hotel after a four-hour visit, I asked Warden Yang if he remembered Bai Weiji. He remembered Bai as a well-behaved prisoner who had been released early.

Years after I visited Beijing Number Two Prison, Bai Weiji came to visit me in the United States. He told me about his life in prison. He had acted as a translator for Warden Yang’s efforts to sell prison-made automobile parts abroad. The warden had treated him well.

Bai thanked me for intervening on his and his wife’s behalf. While he credited my efforts for helping him gain early release, he cited two other reasons.

First, his team had won a city-wide competition among prisons to see who knew the most about Hong Kong’s reversion to China in 1997. Although he gained points for use towards a sentence reduction, his team members were given twice as many points as Bai because Bai was a counterrevolutionary.

The other reason had to do with the visit by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) in July 1996. This visit, made by the Chairman-Rapporteur Louis Joinet, was to make arrangements for a trip to China by the full working group in 1997. Two carceral facilities were selected for visits by Joinet: Beijing Number One Prison and a reeducation-through-labor camp in Shandong Province.

Part of the agreement between China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the WGAD was that randomly-selected prisoners could be interviewed in private, with no prison officials present. Upon arrival at Beijing Number One Prison, Joinet randomly selected Bai Weiji. Bai was the only political prisoner housed at the prison, and his selection was greeted with alarm and suspicion by the prison officials. They refused to let Joinet interview Bai. This led to a stand-off that was only resolved when a senior MFA official arrived to negotiate a solution.

Eventually, Joinet was allowed to interview Bai in a small room off the prison courtyard. Although the interview was supposed to be private and out of earshot, Bai suspected that the conversation was being monitored. Accordingly, he was very guarded. He declined to say why he was in prison, and claimed that he was being well treated. For this performance, Bai was given three successive sentence reductions, totaling three years and three months, in 1996, 1997, and 1998.

Not long after Bai visited me, I flew to Geneva. I requested, and was granted, a meeting with the WGAD. When I told them that the prisoner that Mr. Joinet had selected was the only political prisoner in the prison, they were shocked. I let them know that, because of the way he had handled the interview, Bai was released early, and was now a successful businessman able to travel abroad.