Chinese human rights lawyer, Xia Lin, was arrested one year prior to Xi Jinping’s “709 Crackdown” on lawyers and human rights activists in 2015. What has Xia Lin’s time in prison looked like and what kind of world will he find upon his release in late 2024?
In September 2016, Chinese human rights lawyer Xia Lin was sentenced to 12 years in prison in the first trial of the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. He is scheduled for release on November 8, 2024.
By Jiang Xue
[Author’s Note] On October 16, 2022, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was held nearly eight years after the human rights lawyer Xia Lin lost his freedom. In 2014, lawyers Xia Lin and Pu Zhiqiang were arrested one after another, in the lead-up to the “709 Crackdown” on lawyers and human rights activists in 2015. The full-scale assault on Chinese civil society had already begun, and human rights lawyer Xia Lin paid the price of ten years behind bars.
September 10, 2022, is the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, a day for family reunion. It is also the 52nd birthday of human rights lawyer Xia Lin.
In a suburban town northeast of Beijing, Xia Lin’s wife, Lin Ru, gathered with several friends to celebrate Xia Lin’s birthday, who remained in prison. They substituted mooncakes for birthday cake accompanied by a bottle of wine, although no one drank any of it. The weather outside was gloomy and the moon did not appear to bless the Mid-Autumn Festival. Together with her friends, Lin Ru was worried about Xia Lin. She didn’t know if he could eat mooncakes in prison, or how he would spend his eighth prison birthday.
Xia Lin lost his freedom after he was taken from his home by Beijing police on November 8, 2014. In the past eight years, his son has moved through middle school and university, and has become self-reliant. Xia Lin’s 82-year-old mother lives in Guizhou and is looking forward to her son’s return. His wife, Lin Ru, devotes herself to her daily work to support the family.
The last time Lin Ru saw her husband was on August 9, 2022. According to non-pandemic regulations, prisoners can meet relatives once a month. But in the two years since the outbreak of COVID-19, Beijing’s “epidemic prevention” policies further limited this access. After a visit in January 2020, Lin Rui did not see her husband until July 2022 and then, again, in August of that year.
“His head was shaved and he looked in good spirits. When meeting, he mainly greeted his family. What he cared about most was his relatives and friends,” Lin Ru said.
1. “Zero Confession” of the Year
On June 17, 2016, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court heard Lin’s “fraud” case. Prior to the trial, Xia Lin had been detained for nearly 600 days. On the day of the trial, there were six auditoriums in the courtroom, but among Xia Lin’s family members and relatives, only Xia Lin’s brother, Xia Hong, was allowed to sit in the courtroom. A number of citizens who cared about Xia Lin gathered in front of the court, but they were not allowed to enter. Among them was the father of Cui Yingjie, a Beijing hawker who had stabbed to death the city management officer whom Xia Lin had defended in his capacity as a lawyer. Charged with intentional homicide and sentenced to death, Cui Yingjie received a suspended sentence in the first trial because of Xia Lin’s strong defense, which was deemed to have saved his life.
On September 22 of that year, Xia Lin’s case was sentenced in the first trial. The court sentenced Xia Lin to 12 years in prison, 3 years of deprivation of political rights, and a fine of 120,000 yuan for the crime of fraud. When the news came out, a public uproar followed. Xia Lin’s sentence was considered unusually punishing. The outside world attributed the severity of it as “revenge” for his insistence on “zero confession” and his refusal to admit guilt after he was arrested. According to lawyers Ding Xikui and Wang Zhenyu, who defended him, Xia Lin was accused of “fraud,” but before he was arrested, none of his so-called “victims” reported the alleged crime or filed a civil lawsuit. In fact, the financial transactions between Xia Lin and the others involved in the case were private loans, many of which were loans made between Xia Lin and friends. Because Xia Lin had not yet been able to repay the loan, he was accused of “fraud”.
In 2016, Xia Lin’s wife Lin Ru cried outside the courthouse.
Xia Lin refused to accept the first-trial judgment and appealed to the Beijing High Court. The second-trial verdict was commuted to ten years. The sentence is counted from when Xia Lin was detained on November 8, 2014. He is expected to be released on November 8, 2024.
While waiting for the verdict of Xia Lin’s case, his best friend and comrade, Guo Yushan, once offered the following description of Xia Lin for an article: “For twenty-seven years (since 1989), he has never changed his original aspiration. From Guizhou to Beijing, from business lawyer to human rights lawyer, the road of life has only become more bumpy and thrilling.”
Xia Lin, who graduated from the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in 1992, was profoundly impacted by the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, which took place while he was still in college. Of that time, he said: “I vowed not to be a hawk [accomplice of the government] in this life.” Around 2002, he gave up the comfortable life he had known in Guizhou and moved to Beijing to practice as a lawyer. He claimed he was a “technical” lawyer, and, for self-protection, he was unwilling to take on the label of “human rights lawyer” – a descriptor that was emerging at that time. But in fact, before he was arrested, Xia Lin had already represented many important human rights cases.
In 2009, a woman named Deng Yujiao in Badong County, Hubei Province, was suspected of being sexually assaulted by local government officials. At that time, online communication was booming in China, and the Deng Yujiao case aroused the indignation and attention of netizens across the country. Two lawyers, Xia Lin and Xia Nan, rushed to Badong County to defend Deng Yujiao’s rights.
In 2011, the famous artist, Ai Weiwei, was taxed by the Industrial and Commercial Bureau and received a sky-high fine. Xia Lin, as his attorney, provided legal support. Prior to this, in 2008, independent writer, Tan Zuoren, was indicted by the authorities in Chengdu for “inciting subversion of state power” for investigating the school building problem in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake. Xia Lin was one of Tan Zuoren’s defense lawyers. When the Tan Zuoren case opened, Ai Weiwei was supposed to appear as a witness, but was blocked by the Chengdu police at the hotel and beaten (this is recorded in the documentary “Mother’s Hoof Flowers“).
Xiao Xuehui, an independent scholar in Sichuan, recalls that the most impressive thing about that obviously unfair trial was the hot-tempered Xia Lin pointing to the nose of the presiding judge (who was also a graduate of the Southwest University of Political Science and Law Xia Lin had attended), and scolding him in court.
2. The Imperfect Righteous
“Selling prawns and directing cars to sell as pulp are legitimate occupations that have existed since ancient times. My client came to the city and was forced by life to engage in such a humble and lowly job, living in embarrassment on a meager income…” This is part of an argument, widely publicized on the Internet, made by Xia Lin during his defense of Beijing hawker Cui Yingjie’s assassination of an urban management officer. This is also one of the most famous cases represented by Xia Lin.
Cui Yingjie set up a street stall to support his family but his street vending tricycle was seized by city management personnel, who then drove him away unreasonably. In a fit of rage, Cui Yingjie stabbed an urban management officer with a knife and killed him. After the incident, the deceased was regarded as a “martyr” by the government, and Cui Yingjie faced the death penalty. Xia Lin defended Cui Yingjie free of charge. In addition to the legal case, Xia Lin’s defense expressed deep sympathy for the suffering of the people at the bottom rung of society. His words were widely circulated on the Internet. In 2021, the author of this article met a young student born in 2000 for an interview, and she was able to recite the original text of Xia Lin’s defense from memory. The impact of this case has been profound.
Renowned scholar, Guo Yushan, was summoned and criminally detained by Beijing police on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in 2014, and was later released.
In 2014, the “Occupy Central” movement took place in Hong Kong. In October of the same year, Guo Yushan, who had nothing to do with the incident, was accused of being involved with “Occupy Central” and arrested. Guo Yushan was the director of the Institute of Chuanzhixing [Transition Institute], an emerging, private think-tank in China at the time, who had devoted himself to the study of China’s transformation for many years. Before Guo Yushan was arrested, he was working with Xia Lin to rescue Pu Zhiqiang, a famous lawyer who was arrested in June of that year.
After Guo Yushan lost his freedom, Xia Lin stepped forward and acted as his lawyer. But just a month later, Xia Lin was arrested on the grounds of “gambling crimes”. During the first three months of his loss of freedom, lawyers applied for interviews many times, but they were not allowed until 95 days after he was first detained. On February 10, 2015, Xia Lin’s lawyer, Wang Ling, met him for the first time in the Beijing No.1 Detention Center.
In September 2015, after being detained for nearly a year, Guo Yushan was released on bail pending trial on suspicion of “illegal business operation,” while Xia Lin remained behind bars. During the more than a year of detention, the police continued to extend the time limit for investigation, while prosecutors exhausted the time limit for review and prosecution and managed to extend the limit three more times. When the case finally reached court, it was postponed several times. Finally, on June 17, 2016, Xia Lin’s case was officially opened. At this point, he had been deprived of his liberty for 588 days.
According to media reports that year, the day before the sentencing of Xia Lin’s case, his second-trial defense lawyer, Tong Zongjin, met with Xia Lin at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center. Xia Lin was quoted as saying by his lawyer that he was being punished for representing Guo Yushan for being implicated in “Occupy Central”. “During the whole case, Xia Lin did not surrender or betray his friends, and insisted on zero confessions. He said he would take good care of himself, would not give up on himself, and would not commit suicide.”
Because he has always maintained “zero confession” and refused to accept all charges, Xia Lin made the case handling agency feel “helpless,” but he also paid a price for it, which was a ten-year sentence rarely seen in similar cases before his one.
Based on the impression of the author’s friends, Xia Lin has the temperament of what the Sichuan people call “Pao Ge’s family”.i He usually does not leave his cigarettes and seems a bit cynical, but he is actually a person who is most moral and can be trusted. At that time, many people working in the field of civil society regarded him as a lawyer who could be trusted, and wrote a power of attorney to Xia Lin. Therefore, Xia Lin’s gesture of zero confession after losing his freedom did not surprise people. It’s just that my friends didn’t expect that, in the end, Xia Lin would be stigmatized by the authorities for “gambling” and “fraud.” He lost his freedom before the authorities cracked down on lawyers on a large scale.
Chinese human rights lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang. Credit: Peter PARKS/AFP.
3. The Elegiac Couplet in Prison Mourns Zhang Sizhi
Less than a year after Xia Lin was arrested, on July 9, 2015, the famous “709” lawyer incident occurred. Across the country, more than 300 lawyers were rounded up, many were questioned or interviewed, and many were arrested.
Looking back to 2014, lawyers Pu Zhiqiang and Xia Lin were arrested one after another, which now seems like a forerunner to the “709 Crackdown”. The comprehensive suppression of Chinese civil society had already begun, and Xia Lin paid a heavy price for it.
Xia Lin served his sentence at Liangxiang Prison in Beijing, located in Fangshan District, southwest of Beijing, about 50 kilometers away from the city. Every time Lin Ru went to visit the prison, she had to drive for about an hour.
On June 24, 2022, the pioneer of China’s legal profession, the famous lawyer Zhang Sizhi, passed away at the age of 94. Before his death, lawyer Zhang Sizhi enjoyed a deep friendship with Xia Lin. In the Deng Yujiao incident that year, two lawyers, Xia Lin and Xia Nan, were on the front line in Badong, while Zhang Sizhi and Pu Zhiqiang issued a “Statement to Lawyer Xia Lin” in Beijing, expressing their willingness to serve as backup.
Lin Ru said that after hearing the news of Zhang Sizhi’s death in prison, Xia Lin was silent for a long time and was very sad. He prepared an elegiac couplet to mourn lawyer Zhang Sizhi, and entrusted his wife to send a wreath to the old man. The content of the couplet is as follows:
“Flying across the Guanshan Mountain, giving up civilian pursuits to join the army at the Hump, winning a little dignity for the nation; Continuing study at Chaoyang, dealing with cases professionally and excellently at the court, leaving a vein of righteousness for the country. With deepest condolences, Xia Lin.”
Guo Yushan teased his old friend, calling out his couplet rhyme as “wrong”. But Guo Yushan could see that Xia Lin tried to use a short elegiac couplet to summarize the legendary life of Mr. Zhang Sizhi to express his respect.
“Time flies too fast!” Wang Heyan, another good friend of Xia Lin, sighed involuntarily when she realized that he had spent eight years in prison and his ten-year sentence was about to expire.
Xu Zhiyong, one of the founders of the Open Constitution Initiative, he promoted the creation of China’s democratic legal system. He later launched the New Citizens Movement. He was sentenced to four years in 2014 for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” and was released from prison in 2017. He was arrested again in Guangzhou on February 15, 2020. Credit: Greg Baker/AP/Dazhi Images.
4. Changes in Eight Years
In the eight years from 2014 to 2022, China has undergone tremendous changes. Civil society has been swept away to the point where it is hard to find a trace. Human rights lawyers and media reporters who have tried to challenge taboos and expand their space for activity have all been suppressed. Xu Zhiyong, lawyer Ding Jiaxi, and others have all been jailed, again, one after another. At the same time, the global environment is changing.
“A lot has changed over the years. When Xia Lin is out of prison, I wonder if he can adapt,” said another friend of his. He had heard that Xia Lin’s entertainment activities in prison ran to watching TV news broadcasts, some “anti-Japanese dramas” and television shows informed by the “main melody” [programming where the CCP’s point of view is dominant or “leads the chorus”].
Another friend sends postcards to Xia Lin every spring and around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival. She learned from Lin Ru that Xia Lin received these blessings, and she was deeply relieved. Another friend of Xia Lin, a senior media reporter, once heard Xia Lin ask his wife if she was safe during a meeting because he saw an article in the Global Times criticizing her. The incident made her sigh with emotion: “He is in prison himself, and is still concerned about people outside.”
Chinese human rights lawyer, Xia Lin. Credit: Imaginechina.
In 2016, while the Xia Lin case was awaiting its outcome, writer Murong Xuecun wrote a paragraph expressing support for Xia Lin. It read: “In July 2014, I was summoned by the police for eight hours, and many friends rushed to the scene to express their support, including Xia Lin. He won’t say any heart-warming words, but he can be there. When he appeared, I have been deeply impressed, I have never said thank you to him face-to-face, and now, I would like to solemnly thank this silent, good friend who is good at telling bad jokes.”
Time travels to 2022, and Murong Xuecun has been forced to go into exile in order to write the book “Voices from Wuhan”.
From 2014 to the present, Xu Zhiyong, who was imprisoned for civic actions such as advocating for education equality and officials’ disclosure of property, was sentenced to 4 years in prison in April 2014. After being released from prison in 2017, he has now been jailed again. After a secret trial on June 22, 2022, there is no result so far.
“During the past eight years, under high pressure, the decline of civil society is clearly visible. But we can also see that there are still so many people who are silently persevering,” another friend of Xia Lin said. He believes that this seemingly desperate persistence still has meaning. “I’m waiting for the day he gets out of jail,” he said.
[i]“Pao Ge” was a gang organization that emerged in the late Qing Dynasty in the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou. “Pao Ge’s family” is a dialect of Sichuan which describes somebody’s character as straightforward, cool, compassionate and justice oriented.