Op-ed: China must release Ding Jiaxi, civil rights activist and my father

Ding Jiaxi is pictured. Courtesy Caroline Ding

My father was arrested for the first time in April 2013 for his work as a civil rights activist. Along with activist Xu Zhiyong, he led the New Citizens’ Movement (now China Citizens Movement), which aims to peacefully promote democracy and constitutionalism in China. To attain this goal, they helped like-minded individuals run as independent candidates in local people’s congressional elections and launched specific campaigns, such as calling for government officials to disclose their personal finances, insisting on the rights of property owners and demanding for equality in education.

After my father was released from prison in 2016, he immediately resumed his social activism and continued to press for fairer governance, democratic reforms and greater state transparency. Then, on Dec. 26, 2019, he was taken away again by the police while staying at a friend’s place. His phone and computer were taken, and the house was searched inside out. Unlike his arrest in 2013, this time he had been secretly detained and potentially tortured.

China has a long and horrible history of disregarding the most basic human rights, and ever since Xi Jinping assumed rule, crackdowns on anyone who criticizes the Communist Party have become more frequent and more intense. The 709 crackdown in 2015 targeted more than 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants and activists and marked an increase in forced disappearances, secret detention, torture and extracted confessions. This time, my father will likely meet the same fate as the 709 lawyers, if not worse. 

Other activists Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun were also taken away at the same time as my father. What triggered this round of detainment? A dinner gathering in Xiamen, a city in Fujian province, in December. Though truthfully, the government doesn’t need a reason to forcefully take you from your home; once you arouse the government’s suspicion, you’re under an entirely different legal system, one in which you have zero rights.

None of my father’s relatives received a written legal notice as required by Chinese law to explain his sudden disappearance. We could only guess that he was taken away by officials from the Yantai Public Security Bureau in Shandong province because Mrs. Dai was told that her husband was being kept there. My father’s lawyer went to the Yantai Public Security Bureau but was prohibited from seeing my father. At first, the Yantai police told him that my father’s activities “endanger national security” and thus lawyers cannot meet him. He then received a notice stating that he was not permitted to see my father and that my dad is being kept under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) because he is suspected of “inciting subversion of state power,” a trumped-up charge that is used against pastors, lawyers, human rights defenders and the like to suppress freedom of speech and religion. 

For those who don’t know, RSDL is a Communist Party favorite for torturing and secretly detaining political dissidents. To quote from chinachange.org, “those placed under RSDL have been made to endure some combination of beating, humiliation, forced confession, round-the-clock monitoring, threats made to their family members and children, sleep deprivation, extended interrogation, being forced to remain in excruciating positions motionlessly for hours, or injections of unknown drugs — tortures that leave indelible scars, both physical and mental. Whilst in secret detention, they are denied the right to see a lawyer, and their family members are denied all information pertaining to their loved ones.” 

My mom threw herself entirely into securing my father’s release. 

“Rescuing your father and fighting the Communist Party has become my part-time job,” she once said half-jokingly. 

She wrote to New York senators, Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. She and her friends from Chinese human rights organizations traveled to Washington, D.C., where she did many interviews for newspapers and spoke with officials from the White House, the Department of State and the Congressional-Executive Commission. She also went to New York City to meet with U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a congressman from Massachusetts, and Professor Jerome Cohen of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University. Since day one of my father’s arrest, she has spoken out on Twitter and Facebook, too. It’s a way for us to make our demands clear to the Chinese authorities, since they closely monitor social media outlets. They tell families that their silence will buy a lighter sentence for their detained loved one, when in fact the opposite is true. 

Our hometown, Alfred, N.Y., has also galvanized to action. Members of our community church wrote letters to the Yantai Public Security Bureau, made photo petitions and uploaded YouTube videos of church members expressing their concern for my father’s safety. At the local Alfred University (AU), her alma mater, my mom gave a talk about my father with help from an AU student group that advocates for human rights and gathered petition signatures to send to Chinese authorities, the Chinese Embassy and New York senators. On top of raising awareness internationally, my mom has been working with my father’s lawyers to demand his legal rights to counsel and to receive letters from his family. Almost every night she stays up until three in the morning to call the Yantai police department, communicate with lawyers and convince my father’s relatives in China to procure the necessary documents. 

Just as my mom was ready to give talks at other universities and gather more petition signatures, many states in the U.S. entered lockdown due to COVID-19. My father’s lawyer also couldn’t travel due to China’s domestic travel restrictions from the virus. Undeterred, my mom called the Yantai Public Security Bureau and wrote to my father many times. My father should be able to receive the letters, as the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China states that “no organization or individual may, on any ground, infringe upon citizens’ freedom and privacy of correspondence” and that public security bureaus and the procuratorate can only examine, not intercept, the correspondence in cases of criminal investigation. However, despite persistent efforts from my mom and our community, months have passed and nothing has changed. The letters never reached my father, and his lawyer still cannot see him.

Earlier this year, the U.N. asked for seven pieces of information from the Chinese government, including the legal grounds of the arrest, the definition of “inciting subversion of state power,” proof of ensuring physical and psychological integrity and the guarantee of the lawyer’s right to practice. On May 21, the U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner published the Chinese government’s response to its requests.

The Chinese government gave a curt, one-sentence reply: “The public security authorities have ensured the legal rights of the three persons in question.”

Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya and Li Yingjun were released in June. My father was not. Instead, my father’s relatives received the late arrest notice on June 23. It says that my father was moved to Linshu Detention Center in Shandong, an even more rural and secluded area. Xu Zhiyong, who was detained in February, was also sent with my father to Linshu. My mother has called Linshu Detention Center almost every night, but the police repeatedly challenge her identity and say the name Ding Jiaxi is not in the system. We were only able to confirm on July 8, when his lawyer went to Linshu, that my father was moved under a fake name. He was still not allowed to meet with his lawyer. If this continues, my father will have an unfair trial without representation, and that is if Chinese authorities decide to follow legal procedures at all, which they could ignore entirely.

Many times, I have thought about how nice it would be if my father were with us. We have been separated for seven years since my mom, my sister and I came to the U.S. shortly after his first arrest, mainly to escape police harassment and surveillance. When I see the blue sky and bask in the sunlight, I wish he could be in the U.S. to enjoy the fresh air and the freedom.

He once had a chance to do so, too. When he could still travel internationally without getting stopped at the airport, he visited us in the U.S. for a short while after he was released in 2016. All our friends tried to convince him to stay.

“Why do you have to go back? Life in the U.S. is good; your wife and daughters are here,” they said. “There is no reason why you can’t continue your activism in the states. Plenty of people do that.”

But my father wouldn’t have been happy if he stayed in the U.S. His heart belongs to his people. After seeing so much injustice in China due to the Communist Party’s oppressive rule, continuing activism there is a path that naturally came to him, and naturally, he will follow it, like rivers flowing into the sea

Yet, it is also for the best that my mom, my sister and I are here because now we can speak out for him. With access to free press, I will continue to tell my father’s story until the Chinese government acts according to my demands for his immediate and unconditional release. The Chinese government knows that they are detaining an innocent person, so they hide the names of the people who imprison my father, they hide my father’s physical and mental condition and they secretly detain my father under a fake name. But I will not let them. I will expose every single attempt from them to silence, suppress and intimidate. 

If you are reading this, your political climate is calm enough to hear me, the daughter of a political prisoner. The political landscape in America, while still deeply troubled, is a paradise compared to China because it celebrates the same basic democratic principles that my father believes in. In China, the winds of oppression howl, drowning out even the most eloquent, but you and your government can empower these voices by holding China accountable to international human rights agreements. Sustained media attention and action from your government are crucial for the release of my father and many others like him. 

Author’s note (updated 8/8/2020): To take action, please sign the petition here or write to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China using the directions here.


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