In the Spring of 2004, I was asked by a librarian at a center in Hong Kong to help on a case of endangering state security. This center had on its shelves many valuable volumes – public security yearbooks, court records and the like – that contained the names of people detained in political cases in China. For five years, Dui Hua had done research here, uncovering the names of hundreds of political and religious prisoners. The librarian wanted me to help secure the release or better treatment for one of the center’s Mainland vendors. The vendor had recently been convicted of  trafficking in state secrets because of his sales of old and used books to the center  

The man who had been convicted was a retired official in Fujian Province, a party member from a distinguished family, by the name of Jin Zhangqin. Before retirement this man oversaw Fujian’s provincial archives. After retirement, Mr. Jin set up a small business that specialized in buying old books from vendors in different parts of China. These vendors would buy volumes that had been discarded by government offices when they relocated. The government offices that supplied these vendors wanted to get rid of old volumes for which they no longer had use; the offices would sell the old books for as little as RMB 2 per kilogram to Jin’s partners, who would go through them and sell those considered most valuable to Jin, who would sell them, in turn, to the research center in Hong Kong. Some of the volumes were marked internal (nei bu) or even secret (ji mi); they dealt with mundane topics like economic statistics from collective enterprises in Hebei Province. All volumes were at least 10 years old, some were more than 20 years old.

Jin Zhangqin was convicted of trafficking in state secrets by the Fuzhou Intermediate People’s Court and sentenced to 10 years in prison on January 5, 2004. The sentence was upheld by the Fujian High People’s Court on March 9, 2004. (I obtained a copy of the judgment issued by the intermediate court and was relieved to find that none of the volumes dealing with political crime that Dui Hua had uncovered at the Hong Kong center were mentioned in the judgment.) Not long after the high court rejected Jin Zhangqin’s appeal, the retired official, who was then 64 years old, was moved to Jianyang Prison in northeast Fujian Province to begin serving his sentence.

Ministry of Justice, Beijing. Image Credit: DW News.

I took up the case. In those days, I enjoyed good working relations with both the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in Beijing and the provincial prison administration in Fuzhou. The deputy director general of the MOJ’s Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs had the same surname as my Chinese surname, and he called me “older brother.” I had visited Xiamen Prison in September 2003, accompanied by senior officials from the provincial prison bureau. The visit had been an informative one. I had been briefed on how the sentence reduction system worked, knowledge I would put to good use, and been given detailed information on the inmate population of Fujian Province.

After taking up the case, I developed as much information on Jin as possible. I contacted a relative of Jin’s in New York who told me that Jin suffered a serious heart ailment that required surgery. I was asked to intervene with the authorities to see if an operation could be arranged in Fuzhou, where Jin Zhangqin’s family lived. Fuzhou was hundreds of miles from Jianyang Prison, and the medical care available in the provincial capital was far superior to the care available in Jianyang.

I began putting Jin’s name on prisoner lists, and wrote letters to the officials I had met when I visited Xiamen Prison in September 2003. I raised the elderly prisoner’s name with officials I met on my visits to Beijing.

A Breakthrough Meeting

A breakthrough took place on my April 2005 trip to Beijing. On April 5, I was met by senior officials of the Prison Administration Bureau and the Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs in the minister’s conference room at the MOJ’s headquarters. This was the first time I had been invited to a meeting in the conference room. It was a well-appointed office with a large mahogany table. On the wall were photographs of all the officials who had served as justice ministers since the ministry had been established.

The meeting itself was successful. Agreement was reached that Dui Hua would host a delegation of ten ministry officials on a tour of prison facilities in California. I handed over a prisoner list and a special appeal for Jin Zhangqin; I asked that he be moved to Fuzhou for heart surgery, and that he be considered for medical parole. The deputy director general of the Prison Administration Bureau accepted my letter and told me he would personally take care of it.

The official was true to his word. Senior prison officials went to Jianyang Prison where, in the presence of Jin’s wife, the prisoner was told that he would have the surgery in Fuzhou. The operation was a complete success, but not long after the procedure he was sent back to serve his sentence in Jianyang Prison. (My work contributed to two sentence reductions, totaling 34 months, for Jin Zhangqin. He was released from prison in July 2010.)

The April 5 meeting ended with a commitment that we would meet again on my next visit to Beijing in late June or early July. I didn’t know it at the time, but the April 5 meeting would be the last time I set foot in the MOJ’s headquarters. A new Minister of Justice was about to be appointed, a woman by the name of Wu Aiying.

The Three Nos

I returned to Beijing on June 28, 2005. Shortly before arriving, I phoned a junior official at the MOJ and was told that everyone was too busy to see me. 

My next trip to Beijing was in October 2005. Upon arrival, I phoned the Director General of the Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs Mr. Gong Xiaobing. I had a good relationship with Mr. Gong, having hosted him in San Francisco. Mr. Gong told me that, as an old friend of the ministry, I could visit the headquarters at the precise date and time he specified. He said I should arrive promptly, not a minute early or a minute late. To get this meeting, I would have to agree to three conditions: 1) There would be no talk of cooperation between Dui Hua and the ministry; 2) There would be no talk about “criminals;” and 3) I would not try to hand over a list.

A Solemn Representation

I was shocked. “What else is there to talk about? What’s the point of having a meeting?” I asked. I protested that this was a serious violation of the understanding under which we had operated for nearly 15 years, and that I would make a “solemn representation” to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) when I met them the next day. Mr. Gong sheepishly replied: “Please understand. I didn’t make this decision. It was made at a senior level.” He was referring to Wu Aiying.

Wu Aiying was born in Shandong Province in 1951, the daughter of poor peasants. She joined the Communist Party at a young age, and was admitted to Shandong University in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution. She was almost certainly a Red Guard. She had studied the thoughts of Chairman Mao for two years, which was the extent of her undergraduate education (After she became MOJ minister, she received a law degree from the Party School.) She rose through the ranks of Shandong officials, becoming a senior member of the Communist Youth League in 1982. She became a vice governor of Shandong Province in 1993 in which capacity she oversaw the police and the courts. Some of the harshest sentences of counterrevolution were handed out in Shandong Province.

Wu became a vice minister of justice in 2003 and was appointed minister in July 2005. She was a prominent member of the China Youth League faction, a bastion of support for then-Party Secretary Hu Jintao. Wu Aiying was known as an ignorant, short tempered official who had famously upbraided an official whose cell phone had gone off during one of her meetings. She knew nothing about law, preferring to talk about cooking when meeting foreign visitors. She enjoyed traveling abroad where she was given expensive gifts and enjoyed lavish banquets.

Wu Aiying’s Damage to Human Rights Dialogues

The MOJ under Wu Aiying did everything it could to undermine Dui Hua’s work in China. In addition to refusing to see me, accept lists, or give answers to my queries, the ministry barred me from visiting prisons. On a visit to Yichang in central China, a visit to a prison that had been agreed to in advance by local officials was abruptly cancelled on orders from Beijing. In February 2014, Dui Hua partnered with Renmin University School of Law to hold an international symposium on women in prison. Despite Dui Hua having invited the MOJ to participate in the conference more than six months in advance, and despite the relevance of the topic to the MOJ’s work, the ministry said they were too busy to attend. Ministry officials actively discouraged Chinese Mainland participants from attending, resulting in the cancellation of a presentation from a senior member of the China Prison Society.

The dismantling of the MOJ’s relationship with Dui Hua was but one act in a wide-ranging assault by Wu Aiying on human rights dialogues with foreign governments and international organizations. She resisted providing responses to lists accepted from the MFA’s official dialogue partners. In 2005, China had official dialogues with nine foreign governments. In 2016, her final year as minister of justice, the number of dialogues had shrunk to three. She told the president of an international humanitarian organization that visits to Chinese prisons were out of the question.

She tightened rules governing clemency, reducing the number of sentence reductions and paroles of political prisoners. The MOJ oversees and licenses China’s lawyers. Wu Aiying made sure that human rights lawyers were stripped of their licenses. She doubtless played a role in the crackdown against those lawyers that began in July 2015. She opposed granting medical parole to prominent political prisoners including Chen Guangcheng, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and Liu Xiaobo. The latter prisoner, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, served virtually his entire prison sentence while Wu was minister. He passed away in July 2017.

The Downfall of Wu Aiying

It turns out that Wu Aiying was not only an ignorant and crude obstructionist, she was also a poor judge of people and a terrible manager. In early 2017 it emerged that the director general of the MOJ’s political department, Lu Enguang, was a conman and scam artist who had faked his entire biography – education, age, even party membership – to gain a position in the MOJ. Lu Enguang, like Wu Aiying, was a native of Shandong Province. He was promoted by Wu Aiying, to whom he gave expensive gifts and for whom he performed menial tasks. According to Chinese media reports, as many as 20 other senior MOJ officials benefited from this conman’s corrupt activities. Lu was arrested and is awaiting trial at the time of this writing.

Wu Aiying was removed as Minister of Justice in July 2017. She was expelled from the Communist Party at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017. Lawyers all over China rejoiced at hearing the news. It is expected she will face trial, and she could well wind up in one of the women’s prisons she once oversaw (during her tenure at the MOJ, the number of women in prison in China rose by more than 50 percent). If she goes to prison, she will have received her just deserts.