The events of June 4, 1989 in Beijing – known in the West as the Tiananmen Massacre – had a catastrophic impact on China’s image around the world, especially in the United States, China’s largest trading partner. By one measure, Gallup’s annual poll of attitudes among Americans to foreign countries, China’s favorability rating among Americans fell by 50 percent between early 1989 and the summer of that year. China went from being the “cuddly Communist” to an international pariah virtually overnight.

Seizing on China’s bad image as a violator of human rights, in 1990 the United States Congress began considering legislation that would strip China of its Most Favored Nation trading status. In May of that year I made my first intervention on behalf of a political prisoner. In the ensuing months and years, I intervened on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners, often with good results. A principal weapon in my arsenal was the argument that by releasing prisoners China’s image in the United States would improve.

After the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a War on Terror. In carrying out that war, the United States took a series of actions that affected its global image. It incarcerated scores of captured Islamic militants without trial at the naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba. It built an extraordinary rendition program under which detainees captured in a foreign country would be transferred to the United States or another jurisdiction, without due process.

In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein.  The United States military, with its new Iraqi allies, undertook “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding, viewed by many as torture, at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. As evidence of these abuses began to become public, many were outraged, and America’s image took another hit.

By the mid-2000s, polling data suggested that China’s image around the world was better than that of the United States. The argument that China should release political prisoners to improve its image lost much of its potency.  Beijing had little incentive to deal with me and Dui Hua.

Expanded Mission: Juvenile Justice

Faced with this situation, I decided to find other reasons for the Chinese government to engage with me on human rights. I hit upon the idea that Dui Hua should expand its mission beyond advocating for political prisoners to advocating for other groups of prisoners at risk. One group in particular caught my attention: juvenile offenders. In its third reform plan covering 2004-2008. China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) prioritized the reform of the country’s juvenile justice system. Maybe Dui Hua could help by engaging in expert exchanges with the court’s Office of Juvenile Courts.

In June 2007, I traveled to Beijing to explore the idea of holding expert exchanges on juvenile justice. I had a meeting at the SPC on June 13. Present were three judges from the Office of Juvenile Courts under the SPC’s Research Department. After a review of where things stood insofar as the reform plan was concerned, the Chinese judges said that they would be open to discussing a delegation to the United States to study the American juvenile justice system.

On August 27, 2007, Dui Hua held its annual meeting in Tiburon, California. During my executive director report, I proposed that Dui Hua undertake a new program on juvenile justice. Directors expressed concern that the new program would sow confusion amongst supporters who might see it as diluting Dui Hua’s core mission of helping political prisoners.

According to the minutes of the meeting: “Kamm responded to the concerns, assuring directors that the new initiative would in fact be supportive of the core mission by opening up new relationships, demonstrating to the Chinese government that we’re willing to help in an area identified as a high priority for legal reform.” A consensus was reached that the initiative should only be undertaken if financial support could be secured, and if the initiative did not detract from Dui Hua’s ongoing work identifying and assisting individuals detained in political cases, some of whom, including Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrol, were juveniles.

Working with colleagues and partners in Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, preparations began for hosting a delegation from the SPC in the spring of 2008. Unfortunately, the devastating Sichuan earthquake put paid to those plans, but the visit was rearranged to take place in the autumn. The delegation was a success, and it was followed by a delegation of American experts to China in 2010 and another Chinese delegation to the United States in September 2012.

A few months before the September 2012 delegation, China’s National People’s Congress adopted the amended Criminal Procedure Law. For the first time, the law contained a chapter on the handling of juvenile cases. Many of the ideas explored in Dui Hua’s exchanges with the SPC were included in the chapter, including diversion (referred to as “postponed prosecution” in the law) and sealing of juvenile records.

Women Prisoners and the Bangkok Rules

In December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly had adopted the United Nations “Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders.” Reflecting the strong support of the Thai royal family, the rules became popularly known as the Bangkok Rules.

And in early 2011, Dui Hua began covering the plight of Chinese women in prison in its publications. At its annual meeting, held in San Diego in October 2011. Dui Hua’s board endorsed my proposal to expand our work from juvenile offenders to female prisoners in the framework of promoting adoption of the Bangkok Rules in China. We decided that I should explore the idea of holding an international symposium on the Bangkok Rules in Beijing.

Unfortunately, while China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the idea, China’s Ministry of Justice didn’t. The Justice Minister, Wu Aiying, herself a woman, was dead-set against any form of cooperation with Dui Hua or for that matter other governments and NGOs on issues related to the rights of prisoners. I decided to explore other partners and other venues.

In March 2012, I traveled to Geneva with my colleague Daisy Yau. We were invited to attend a side event on the Bangkok Rules organized by the Thai Mission to the United Nations. After the side event, which was sparsely attended (no one from either the Chinese Mission or the US Mission attended), Ms. Yau and I huddled with Rachel Brett of the Quakers’ Office in Geneva and Andrea Huber of Penal Reform International in London. Both women had played important roles in developing and promoting the Bangkok Rules. We agreed to work together on an international symposium.

It took nearly two years of preparation until the International Symposium on the Bangkok Rules took place in Hong Kong at the end of February 2014. There were four partners: The Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Hong Kong (CCPL); Dui Hua; Penal Reform International; and the Center for Criminal Procedure and Reform (CCPR) at Renmin University of China Law School. The CCPL oversaw logistics, including securing the Law School’s new conference room and arranging rooms for participants. The CCPR undertook field research at five places of detention for women on the mainland and presented its findings at the symposium. PRI lent its expertise in the Bangkok Rules to selecting topics and making suggestions for expert presenters.

Dui Hua was in charge of fundraising and retaining interpreters. In addition to securing support from several individuals, the foundation received grants from the governments of Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Ford Foundation.

Experts from countries in Europe, Asia, and North America attended and made presentations and interventions. Especially gratifying was the high turnout from Mainland China. More than a dozen judges, judicial officials, and scholars came to the symposium. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice declined to attend, even though they had been invited a year in advance. The ministry claimed it was too busy. Not only did it refuse to attend, the ministry actively tried to sabotage the symposium by pressuring a presenter from China’s Prison Society to withdraw at the last minute, claiming illness.

After two days of listening to presenters and engaging in lively exchanges on a wide range of issues, the participants toured Hong Kong’s women’s prison at Lo Wu. Hong Kong turned out to be a good choice for the symposium. The territory has one of the highest percentages of women in its prisoner population of any country or territory in the world. The symposium, attended by officers of the Hong Kong Correctional Services, raised questions as to why this was so, and what could be done about it.

Domestic Violence: Li Yan

One of the topics explored at the symposium was violence against women. On the first morning, two experts – Elizabeth Brundige, Executive Director of the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice in the United States, and Chen Min, one of China’s leading experts on domestic violence at the China Institute of Applied Jurisprudence under the Supreme People’s Court – made presentations.

Using national and provincial statistics, Chen Min outlined the stark realities of violence against women in China: in China as a whole, nearly 25 percent of women experience domestic violence during their marriages, and in Shaanxi Province, 171 women were serving time in the provincial women’s prison for violent crimes, more than 90 percent of them had killed their spouse due to prolonged domestic violence.

While there were no national statistics on the reasons for women’s incarceration, Chen Min, drawing on local data, concluded that the main reason for women’s incarceration was their experience of domestic violence and for their fighting that violence with violence.

Chen Min’s presentation was timely. China’s NPC was considering the country’s first domestic violence law. Legislators finished drafting the law in November 2014, and it was passed by lawmakers in July 2015. It took effect on March 1, 2016. Although flawed (the law has been criticized for failing to address violence in relationships other than marriage), the law was an important step in addressing the pandemic of domestic violence in China.

There was another reason why Chen Min’s presentation was timely. In November 2010, a woman by the name of Li Yan, a then 41-year-old resident of Anyue County in Sichuan Province. murdered her husband Tan Yong. The couple, who ran a noodle shop, had married the year before. It was Tan’s fourth marriage. He boasted of abusing his previous wives, and it wasn’t long after his marriage to Li Yan that he began subjecting her to horrific violence, beating her, sexually assaulting her, stubbing cigarettes out on her face, and locking her outside on cold winter nights.

On November 3, 2010, Tan was at home, drunkenly playing with an air rifle. When Li tried to stop Tan, he kicked her and threatened her with the rifle. Li seized the gun and struck Tan in the head twice, killing him. She dismembered his body, boiled the parts, and spread them around the village. She was arrested and sentenced to death by the Ziyang City Intermediate People’s Court. The judgment was upheld by the Sichuan High People’s Court after which it was sent to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in Beijing. The SPC confirmed the judgment in January 2013. Tan’s family successfully filed a civil suit against Li Yan’s family to pay 58,212 RMB in compensation – a large sum of money for Li’s working-class family.

Death sentences reviewed and confirmed by the SPC typically take place within days of SPC approval. By the time of our Hong Kong symposium, more than 13 months after the SPC decision, Li Yan had not yet been executed. Her plight had drawn domestic attention as Chinese feminists lobbied the government to stay its hand arguing it had not taken into consideration the violence Li had suffered. More than 400 Chinese lawyers and legal scholars had signed a letter to the SPC pleading for Li Yan’s life to be spared. The case was beginning to draw international attention too. Amnesty International initiated a global signature campaign calling for Li Yan not to be executed.

One of the SPC judges attending the symposium sat on an SPC panel reviewing death sentences, and it emerged that she was one of the judges considering whether to carry out the execution of Li Yan. At the end of the symposium, she thanked me for inviting her to the event, and told me that she had learned a lot from the discussion on domestic violence. “It has changed the way I think about it,” she told me. I stayed in touch with the Chinese participants, and on June 23, 2014, a Chinese official who had been at the symposium and was deeply concerned with Li’s case sent me a short email: “She has survived.” At the same time, Li Yan’s brother was advised that his sister’s death sentence had been overturned by the SPC. A retrial by the Ziyang City Intermediate People’s Court was ordered.

Dui Hua issued a press statement and sent it to journalists covering human rights in China, including many who were based in Beijing. Coverage in the international media was widespread, and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva issued a statement applauding the decision.

One of the journalists I sent Dui Hua’s statement to was Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a New York Times journalist based in Beijing. Ms. Tatlow had been reporting on the Li Yan case since late 2012 and decided to travel to Chengdu and thence to Ziyang with photographer Gilles Sabrié to attend the retrial in November 2014. Outside the courthouse, she encountered an angry and threatening mob of Tan Yong’s family and friends. In a telephone call to me, Ms. Tatlow remarked that she had rarely welcomed the presence of Chinese police in her work, but she did on this occasion!

During the retrial, more evidence of domestic violence and testimonies from neighbors and witnesses emerged. Witness protection systems had to be set up to protect witnesses from Tan’s family. Inside the courtroom, the mob hurled insults and papers at Ms. Li and her lawyer. Five months later, on April 24, 2015, the court announced it had changed the judgment to death with two years reprieve, a unique Chinese sentence that almost always results in commutation after two years. On September 8, 2017, the intermediate court commuted the sentence and sentenced Li Yan to life in prison. Under Supreme People’s Court regulations that came into effect on January 1, 2017, Li Yan can be considered for a sentence reduction no earlier than September 2020. Her total time served after commutation cannot be less than 15 years, meaning that she will remain in prison until at least 2032, when she will be 62 years old.

“To Ziyang for Li Yan”

Didi Kirsten Tatlow

The reporting trip I made to Ziyang to attend Li Yan’s retrial was one of the most instructive, and frightening, moments of my 14 years reporting in China from 2003 until my departure for Berlin, Germany, in 2017. I had been reporting on women’s and feminist issues including gendered violence for years by the time the retrial was announced, including one heart-breaking magazine story for the South China Morning Post, my employer for the first seven years in China, about Sun Village, a home for children from abuse-filled families whose parents were both dead (often the father killed by the mother with rat poison after years of abuse by him), run by a former correctional officer from Xi’an. Strangely heartbreaking for me was the small fact that the children’s favorite TV show, SpongeBob SquarePants, was moved to late night viewing not long after my visit around 2006, on the grounds that it was an American show and would sully Chinese children’s minds. The kids  had lost the cute little sponge and his pink friend Patrick Starfish, who made their often-harsh lives that bit more fun.

I applied to attend Li Yan’s retrial with low hopes – never had I been allowed to enter a Chinese courtroom and this was sensitive stuff. And initially I was put off by the Sichuan authorities, but always with the curious suggestion that I should try again later. I did, and on my third or fourth attempt I was given permission.

The experience was tough. In the small town of Ziyang Mr. Tan’s family seemed to be everywhere; the night before the hearing I met with members of Li Yan’s family in a restaurant, but we had to be careful not to speak loudly and her brother, Li Deshuai, though friendly and hospitable, was anxious. The next morning, I understood why. After handing over my reporter ID to the court front gate in order to enter the grounds, I went to talk to a large group of Mr. Tan’s family members that had gathered outside. They quickly grew hostile and began to pull at my clothes and arm, voices rising. His father waved his crutches at me; his sisters wagged their fingers in my face. Somehow, I was to blame, it seemed. Sensing things were slipping out of hand I moved into the court grounds and called for the police as the atmosphere deteriorated. They however were slow to react, and I wondered – if I, a foreign reporter with the backing of the court authorities to be present that day, could not get timely help from the dozens of court police standing around, how bad must it be for a Chinese, especially one with a grievance with the court?

Eventually the police did intervene. But Tan’s family persisted in their verbal and physical aggression, clearly hoping to influence the judges and the decision. I was shocked, too, that court officials did not order them out of the courtroom for contempt, as they sat there shouting and abusing Li Yan, telling her they hoped she would be raped for her crimes (her former husband had already done that, before she killed him.)

As a journalist, one rarely knows if or how one might have helped someone, though to me this was by far the most important aspect of the job. When John Kamm told me that he thought my work had helped I felt a deep sense of happiness. Li Yan was a petite woman standing alone in the courtroom between the panel of judges and shouting opponents, and I felt sorry for her, knowing also details of the appalling abuse she and her family had endured that had not been publicized out of consideration for the dignity and privacy of other family members (I also agreed not to publicize them, following their wishes.) It was a moment when I knew being a journalist was worth it, despite the strain, and regular fear, of reporting deeply not just on politics but also sensitive social issues like gender, in a complex, repressive and trigger-happy place like China.