A few weeks ago, I sat in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the south of Beijing talking to Mao Hengfeng, her husband, Wu Xuewei, and one of their three daughters. A small woman with a pretty face and long black hair, Mao Hengfeng is immensely tough. Sitting there in KFC, she showed me the scars from her latest beating at the hands of the police, and described how they had taunted her.
I was writing a fictional story set in a Chinese jail, and I wanted to hear from her what it was like to be held in a woman’s jail. Mao wasn’t much interested in discussing prison conditions in general. Her own battle with the authorities has been raging for dedecades. That, and the battles of fellow petitioners who Mao supports, are totally absorbing not just for her, but for her family. She speaks rapidly, with few pauses, pouring out information about her own biography, and about the current situations of other dissidents.
Born in 1961, her first confrontation with the authorities came when she became pregnant again after having twins. She was told to have an abortion, and when she wouldn't, she was detained in a psychiatric hospital. She gave birth to her third daughter in 1989. When she became pregnant again, she was threatened with the loss of her job. Eventually she had an abortion, thinking the decision would save her family from further harrassment. She was fired anyway. From 1990 to 2004 she repeatedly petitioned against dismissal, forced abortion and denial of freedom of expression.
From 2004 to 2005, she was detained in a labour camp under the Re-Education through Labour programme, which is fast track imprisonment requiring no trial.
In early 2006, she was detained in a guest house in a round-up of dissidents. She broke two lamps. In early 2007, she was sentenced for ‘willful destruction of property’ to be detained in Shanghai Women’s Prison until November 2008, when she was released at the end of her sentence. She has given detailed and horrifying accounts of her treatment in jail to human rights organisations. She spent seventy days in solitary confinement because of her refusal to admit her 'crime'.
Refusing to keep quiet, she came to Beijing to protest at her treatment, only to be detained and beaten again. Sent back home, she bounced back to Beijing again, which is when we met in KFC.
Her husband has been beaten and harassed too, but they show no signs of letting up. Their battle is the fire in their bellies.
I turned to their daughter, a quiet-spoken young woman who has been denied many years of schooling because of her mother’s repeated confrontations with the authority. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ I asked her.
‘I am,’ she said slowly, ‘but there are some things you just have to do.’
Her parents told me about how their daughters had been harassed and interrogated when they were younger, and how terrified they had been. But none of this seemed to touch the parents' determination to continue.
‘She’s like her mother,’ the father said proudly of his daughter. ‘She’s her mother’s successor.’
I glanced at the daughter and the mother, taken aback by the strange nature of his paternal ambition. The daughter looked calmly at the tabletop. If she felt otherwise, she didn't say so.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of angry protesters gathered at Beijing University after Sun Dong Dong, a law professor, was quoted in the press as saying that 99% of long-term petitioners were mentally ill.
That designation, long term petitioners, includes many people like Mao. What she does – the repeated journeying to Beijing to plead in vain for redress from government departments – is exactly repeat petitioning.
The protesters outside Beijing University were rapidly dispersed, of course. Petitioning the rulers in Beijing for justice is a tradition that extends back to imperial China. These days, the Party pays lip service to the practice, pretending that it is a useful link with the populace. In fact, in all my years in China, I have hardly ever heard of a grievance righted by the authorities as a result of petitioning. Far more often one hears of petitioners dispersed or detained in the kind of detention centre where Mao was last beaten up. Or they may be thrown into mental institutions. At best they are simply ignored while they spend the last of their savings on train tickets and the last of their energies on appeals.
I thought, after I had met Mao Hengfeng, that the choices she was making were not the choices that you or I might imagine that we would make in her situation. Logically, is there not a point where you simply decide to stop fighting? It makes no sense, after all, because you’re never going to win. And your family suffers. Wouldn’t it be better to cut your losses and salvage what normal life you can? After all, for many people in China these days there is a high level of what even those who grew up in the West would recognize as normality – better incomes, freedom to choose your own job, your children’s school, freedom to move around the country and to go abroad. Protesting – when all you’re likely to get for your efforts is a scar or a bruise or worse – doesn’t make sense.
So then does continuing to protest mean that you are mentally ill? It is an Orwellian concept, that persistent protest is proof of madness. And China, with its economic freedoms, sometimes seems to have left Orwell on the shelf. But there are many cases of those who protest being detained in psychiatric institutions.
For Mao Hengfeng’s family, their struggle fuels and defines them, and there are many like them, determined to achieve what they believe is justice even though they know only grief lies ahead. It may not be logical in our eyes, but perhaps if we were in their shoes then we would understand that sometimes there actually is no sensible course to take.
The best discussion of this that I have read is a New Yorker article by a Chinese woman who visits her brother in a Chinese jail and who struggles to understand why her brother has chosen to become a dissident, and to spend years of his life as a prisoner. Both brother and sister seem to conclude, that someone has to be the dissident, and that that to those who risk their freedom to protest, dissent is a vocation. Read the article here.