Rule of Law

The persecution of Ni Yulan

(June 8, 2011) “We believe that until the day the rule of law is established in China, what happened to Ni Yulan today could happen to each one of us.”

By Yang Furui

After protesting the forced demolition of her neighbours’ homes, Ni Yulan has become a figure of torment for police and authorities. Credit: VOA Chinese.

The Chinese government has arrested a number of its critics recently. Among those arrested is a woman named Ni Yulan.

She and her husband were taken away by police from the hotel where they were living temporarily. Ni Yulan was once a beautiful woman, a successful lawyer, and lived in a comfortable home in a Beijing “courtyard” house. But the abuses Ni has endured at the hands of the Chinese government over the years have left her crippled, homeless, and unable to practice law. She has lost everything except for her husband.

Since the early 1980s, Ni had been a successful lawyer and lived a relatively prosperous life. But disaster struck on April 27, 2002, when Ni used a camera to record the forceful demolition of her neighbour’s house by government officials. Houses were being demolished to make way for a “Beijing makeover” in preparation for the city’s role as host of the 2008 Olympics. Ni was taken to a police station where she was tortured for 15 hours by eight policemen. Not only was she left badly injured, she was detained for 75 days without any legal formalities. When Ni accused the police of these atrocities, she was sentenced to prison for one year on a charge dubbed “impediment of public function.” As a result of torture, Ni’s legs have been permanently maimed and she is now confined to a wheelchair.

To add insult to injury, after her sentence was issued, she was deprived of the right to practice law – according to Chinese law, once a lawyer receives a criminal verdict, they lose this right forever. The torment of Ni, however, did not end there.

Ni’s home is ransacked by the local government once, every year. Because of her protest against the forceful demolition of homes, she was arrested again in April 2008 after she requested to see legal documentation when unidentified men arrived to demolish her home. Seven months later, her home was torn down by a wrecking crew and all of her property was looted. There was no mention of any compensation. In December 2008, Ni was sentenced by a local court to two years in prison on the charge of injuring policeman Xiao Wei, whom she had allegedly kicked in the groin, when she’d been taken in by police back in April. This charge seemed odd given that Ni had been wheelchair bound for several years at that point. In reality, there had been an altercation but Xiao was the aggressor. Xiao had knocked Ni to the ground and urinated on her: a crime that would go unpunished.

During her time in prison, Ni was often tortured and insulted for her disobedience. After she was finally released in April of 2010, her property was by then all gone. She and her husband were forced to live on the street, and in parks. Two months after Ni’s release, the police moved Ni and her husband to a hotel so the tent they camped in would not become a symbol of human rights abuses.

I first heard of Ni Yulan from my colleague, He Zhengjun, who sent her and her husband a tent to live in shortly after she was released from her second term of imprisonment. In August 2010, I decided to meet with this intransigent woman for myself! By that time, she had been settled in a hotel by the local government. However, the officials had not paid the hotel bill, so Ni and her husband were living under threat of eviction at any moment. Ni and her husband welcomed my visit. Ni maintained a warm smile, even as she told me of the abuses she’d endured. I can hardly believe what she said in such a peaceful mood. Tears blurred my vision when I heard of the persecution she suffered from the government.

Ni Yulan’s name has spread so widely that even the US ambassador to China came to visit her. This is mainly thanks to a newsreel known as, An Emergency Asylum, made by a photographer and circulated over the Internet.

We believe that until the day the rule of law is established in China, what happened to Ni Yulan today could happen to each one of us. Our concern for Ni Yulan also reflects a concern for ourselves.

Yang Furui is a researcher with the Transition Institute, an independent think-tank based in Beijing. Yang focuses on issues related to peasants, villages, and agriculture. Currently, he is researching the results of the New Rural Cooperative Medical Scheme. He also conducts research on the development of democratic institutions and the rule of law. He has translated two books: Damming the Three Gorges and The Victory of Democracy in Spain. He can be reached at

See “Disabled rights activist Ni Yulan freed from jail and vows to seek redress” for an update on this story.

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