In 1983, people gathered outside of the Songzi County People’s Court in Hubei Province to read posters of execution announcements covering the walls. Image credit: CUHK

From my first trip to China in January 1976 to the present day, I have made a habit of browsing bookstores in the mainland cities that I visit. I was shown the door at the Shanghai Xinhua Bookstore when I ventured into the section selling internal (neibu 内部) books for cadres in January 1976. Later I sought out rare volumes in small bookstores; the books were left behind when expatriates abandoned their libraries in the years after 1949. In Tianjin, I was mobbed by a curious crowd when I visited the Xinhua Bookstore to buy technical books on inorganic chemistry to better inform my business selling chemicals in China.

Not surprisingly, Beijing has the largest number of bookstores in China. On Wangfujing there were, in addition to the huge Xin Hua Bookstore, two shops selling used books, and there were shops selling such books in Dongtan and Xidan, close to Democracy Wall.

After I began my human rights work in 1990, I frequented bookstores run by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate near the Supreme People’s Court and, further afield, the Ministry of Justice’s bookstore not far from the Asian Games Village. In the early 1990s these stores sold neibu books that contained the names of political prisoners in collections of judgments from various provincial courts as well as more general volumes on the criminal law. I once asked an interlocutor if it was safe to bring such books out of China. He advised me to make sure I saved the receipts!

In June 1994, I purchased Contemporary China’s Judicial Work at the Xinhua Bookstore on Wangfujing. It was a two-volume set published at the end of 1993, so the information contained therein was fresh. It disclosed much useful information on prisoners convicted of counterrevolutionary crimes, including Fu Bin (傅彬), a worker from Taiyuan in Shanxi Province. Fu was one of one 7,123 people convicted of counterrevolution from 1980 to 1984. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement in 1984, a fact not previously reported.

The book also provided information on four individuals convicted of the counterrevolutionary crime of espionage. Two were Hong Kong residents. The four individuals were:

  • Zhou Guokui (周国骙), a 63-year-old resident of Hong Kong who had emigrated from Shanghai in 1983. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and five years deprivation of political rights for espionage by the Shanghai Intermediate People’s Court on October 13, 1987.
  • Li Jiaqi (李家棋), sentenced to life imprisonment for espionage on June 15, 1983, by the Beijing Intermediate People’s Court.
  • Hong Kong resident Qin Hanbiao (秦汉标) and Guangzhou resident Qin Yaochi (秦耀池), a supervisor at a military warehouse in Huangpu District, Guangzhou. According to the book, both men were sentenced to life in prison in 1983 for espionage. 

As it turns out, the story of the cases of Qin Hanbiao and Qin Yaochi were far more troubling. They came very close to being executed. I began asking my Guangdong interlocutor about the two men not long after I found their names. Gradually I obtained information that gave a fuller picture of what had happened to Qin Hanbiao. Little information was found on Qin Yaoqi as he had been sent to Xinjiang to serve his sentence, a common practice in the early 1980s.

Qin Hanbiao was born in 1950 and he legally emigrated to Hong Kong in 1979. On May 10, 1983, the two Qins were detained for collecting and sending information on Chinese military units and militia to Taiwan. They were formally charged on May 30, 1983 and tried by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court on September 10, 1983. They were found guilty and sentenced to death; the appeal was rejected by the Guangdong High Court on September 23, 1983. Since all death sentences for counterrevolution were required to be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court under regulations that took effect around the time of their trials, the judgement was referred to China’s highest court for final review.

The Supreme People’s Court ruled that the offences were not serious enough to warrant the death sentence. The judgment was overturned. The Guangzhou Intermediate Court retried the men in October 1983. They were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The trials in Guangdong took place at the beginning of China’s first “Strike Hard Campaign” against criminal activities that began in August 1983. The campaign was ordered and overseen by China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. According to a rumor making the rounds in Guangzhou, Deng had been traveling around the countryside with a convoy of officials and bodyguards when they came across a fight between two gangs. The gangs turned on the convoy. Although the gangs were beaten back, Deng was furious and ordered all of the gang members to be executed.

China’s first “Strike Hard Campaign” lasted until January 1987. During a period of more than three years, 197,000 criminal groups were suppressed, 1.8 million people were arrested, 321,000 were sentenced to re-education through labor, and 24,000 were sentenced to death. In the waning months of 1983, 10,000 people were executed, 1,000 in Guangdong Province alone. Execution posters, with their distinctive red checks indicating that the execution had taken place, could be seen all over Guangzhou. Some of those executed had been convicted of counterrevolution.

An execution announcement featuring the red check mark signaling that the execution was carried out. Image credit:

Two of those executed for counterrevolution were young men from Hong Kong, He Enjie (何恩杰) and Lin Zerong (林泽荣). Shortly before the Spring 1983 trade fair that I attended, they had taken a room at the Guangzhou Hotel on Haizhu Square where trade fair attendees from Hong Kong and Macau were housed. The two young men unfurled a long banner denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and hung it outside the window of their hotel room. They were intercepted on their way fleeing to the train station by public security officers, arrested, subsequently tried and convicted of counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement, and sentenced to death. The judgement was sent to the Supreme People’s Court for review. The court confirmed the execution, and it was carried out on September 6, 1983, four days before the two Qins were sentenced to death.

A photo of the Guangzhou Hotel with the “Liberation Statue” in front of it. Image credit: Guangzhou government website

Hong Kong people were outraged by the execution of He and Lin. Their anger probably played a role in the decision not to execute the Qins. No Hong Kong residents have been executed for political crimes since the execution of He and Li in 1983.

After his sentencing, Qin Hanbiao was sent to Jiguangkuang Prison in Sihui County to serve his sentence. Qin Yaoqi was shipped off to Xinjiang.

I was told by my Guangdong interlocutor that, because of his “good behavior,” Qin Hanbiao’s life sentence was commuted to a fixed term sentence of 20 years in prison in March 1986. In January 1990 this sentence was reduced by 18 months. I continued to send appeals to the Guangdong prison authorities. Qin’s sentence was reduced by two years in February 1993, one year in October 1994, and two years in January 1997. He was released from prison on August 24, 1999, four months after Dui Hua was established.

I kept the Hong Kong government advised as information came to hand. Neither they nor I had contact with Qin Hanbiao, but I was informed by the Hong Kong government’s political advisor that contact had been made with his wife. As was often the case with political prisoners sentenced to long prison terms, she had divorced him and remarried, thinking she’d never see him again.