China's Broken Olympic Promises: Detained Activist's Kafkaesque Nightmare

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Ji Sizun, a legal activist who represented ordinary people, disappeared into the clutches of Chinese state security a year ago, on the fourth day of the Olympic Games in Beijing. He had wanted to demonstrate in one of the official "protest parks." Instead, he ended up in prison.

When the Beijing attorney Liu receives a telephone call, his answering machine plays a loud electronic version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He quickly picks up the phone, shouts into the receiver, laughs loudly and makes the stuttering sound of an engine running. In China, all of this is code for: Okay, I understand, everything is fine. Sometimes Liu gets up while he is talking, stands at a window, his body rocking back and forth, and looks out at the commotion surrounding Beijing's western train station -- a chaotic scene that mirrors his own hectic life. When he travels, which he does frequently, he joins the tens of thousands of travelers milling about the train station. Anyone who, like Liu, grapples with the Chinese legal system spends much of his time taking long, arduous journeys.

China's national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Zoom
REUTERS

China's national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

It is early July, and Liu is on his way to Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, a coastal city 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) south of Beijing, where four of his clients -- men and women who were arrested without explanation in the middle of the night -- are currently in custody. The trouble probably stems from the fact that three of the four detainees signed Charter 08, an inflammatory appeal for a new constitution, a new political system and a new China.

Liu, 45, a small man, has been a member of the Communist Party for 19 years -- an apparent but not necessarily inevitable contradiction to his commitment to civil rights. He feels a deep bond with people who are treated unjustly, he says, and he advocates on their behalf on the Internet, in police stations and in courtrooms, for which he has earned a reputation with the powers that be. When German broadcaster Deutsche Welle awarded him a prize the government refused to grant him an exit visa, thus preventing him from traveling to Germany to accept it in person. The incident was yet another episode in the cat-and-mouse game with the government that shapes his daily life.

Since February he has been handling a particularly complicated case. It revolves around his fifth, and most prominent, client in Fujian, the man who disappeared during the Olympic Games in Beijing almost a year ago, all because he had applied for a permit to protest in one of the "protest parks" the government had designated for that purpose. It was the man whose case overshadowed the daily press conferences given by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the man whose story was reported by the world news media, partly because he had shattered the IOC's and Chinese government's grand promises when it came to democracy in China.

That man is Ji Sizun, whose disappearance SPIEGEL reported a year ago and whose fate was long unknown. Today, he is still in detention, but at least his whereabouts are known. He is being held at the Wuyishan prison, a seven-hour train journey northwest of Fuzhou, in Section 6, Cell 207. The prison is located in the midst of a wild, magnificent landscape declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but visiting him there is out of the question. "You can try submitting an application," says Liu. He laughs, but his laugh sounds more combative than bitter.

IOC Hoodwinked by Beijing

What has Ji been charged with? For wanting to protest? For being a regime critic? For seeking to harm China's national image at a time -- the Beijing Olympics -- when preserving its image was paramount? In fact, none of these charges was leveled against him. Ji owes his imprisonment to an entirely different and unexpected charge. He has been sentenced to three years in prison for "the intentional forgery of national documents and sovereign seals." That was the charge, and to comprehend it is to gain a deeper understanding of how China's state security apparatus is structured. It also exposes how naÔve and deceitful it was for the IOC to have claimed that China would open itself up for the Olympic Games, and that the games would open up China.

In retrospect, it seems almost laughable that the IOC, particularly its president, Jacques Rogge, allowed itself to be hoodwinked by China on the subject of Olympic ideals. In fact, it is so laughable that one could almost presume that the IOC was in league with the government and party leadership in Beijing from the start and consistently kept both eyes tightly shut when Tibetans were persecuted or Uighurs were branded as terrorists.

When confronted with the results of SPIEGEL's research, the IOC countered with a cool, standard response, arguing that it is a sports organization that lacks the means to look into possible human rights violations. There was no mention of the name Ji Sizun in the IOC's letter.

His story begins with a photograph taken by Danish photographer Mads Nissen on Aug. 11, 2008, on the fourth day of the impressive Beijing Games. The photo depicts Ji, who was 58 at the time, still dressed in the white, short-sleeved shirt and worn trousers he had been wearing that morning when he submitted his application. He is accompanied by two men dressed in civilian clothes, who are seen forcing him into a minivan. Shortly afterwards Ji was reached once, briefly, on his mobile phone before his service was disconnected. After Aug. 11, not even his family could reach him. He had simply disappeared without a trace.

In China, the bloggers and citizen reporters, the tough and half-baked democrats alike that now exist throughout the country assumed the worst at the time. They expected that Ji would soon end up in a labor camp and later in a reeducation camp, and they did not rule out the possibility that he would be killed in an alleged accident. But, as it now appears, he was initially taken to the National Petition Office, so that he could present his case once more behind closed doors.

Delegates from his home province, Fujian, were already waiting for him. This is a unique characteristic of Chinese political life. The country's provinces, as well as its major cities, maintain liaison offices and guesthouses in Beijing, and they remain responsible for their own people whenever they happen to be in the capital or elsewhere.

Legal Services for Ordinary Citizens

After presenting his case to the disinterested officials at the petition office, he was taken to the guesthouse of Zhangzhou, a city in Fujian where he had lived for many years. The next day, he was put on a train for the 19-hour journey to Fuzhou, the provincial capital. From there, he was taken by car to Zhangzhou, a 300-kilometer journey, where he was detained at the "Hotel of Agriculture" and kept under house arrest. Searching for him, in China, would have been an impossible undertaking at the time. The Chinese authorities operate in secrecy, politicians have no interest in transparency, the police are world unto themselves, and the judiciary is an anonymous machine in which cases are only heard in public when they are likely to serve the propaganda interests of the party and government. The more sensitive issues, including those with relevance to the system, are handled behind closed doors. At first the authorities faced a hurdle in Ji's case: They had no case. No crime had been committed, not even a minor offence.

In 2002 Ji Sizun, a delicate man, unmarried and living alone, undoubtedly somewhat eccentric, moved from Zhangzhou, where he had grown up and spent much of his life, to Fuzhou, a port city surrounded by rolling mountains with tea plantations on their slopes. Fuzhou is a comfortable city by Chinese standards, with fig, palm and mimosa trees lining its streets and, in its downtown area, a large, snow-white statue of Mao Zedong, which is brightly lit at night. The weather is humid and oppressively hot in the summer. Ji lived in the Taijian district, in a neighborhood called Cangxia, at Zhuangyuan Lane 9.

The entrance to his short, narrow street is flanked by a snack bar that smells of old fish and a colorful general store. A neighbor wearing a ribbed undershirt is standing in front of the door to Ji's former house, which resembles a garage door, and when is he asked about Mr. Ji, he says: "Mr. Ji? But he moved away from here about a year ago."

In the years leading up to his arrest, Ji had provided legal services to ordinary citizens. It was his passion. After the Cultural Revolution, Ji worked in a mine and was later assigned an office job. He read up on the law and became a self-educated, amateur legal expert, representing people who couldn't afford a real lawyer. In some cases, he waived his fee if his clients, who he believed to be in the right, were unable to pay.

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