‘If I Don't Oppose Dictatorship, Am I Still a Man?': Chinese Activist Gets Eight Years in Prison

Wu Gan via Apple Daily News. Licensed for non-commercial use.

“For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen.”

Chinese human rights activist Wu Gan made this statement to a Tianjin court after receiving an eight-year prison sentence on December 26, 2017. In early January, he filed an appeal to the sentence.

Wu Gan, better known by his nickname “Super Vulgar Butcher”, has been active in Chinese human rights circles since 2008, when he began campaigning on behalf of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who was charged with murder after she stabbed and killed a government official when he attempted to rape her.

His earned his nickname after writing a blog post on “how to slay pigs” (a euphemism for bringing down corrupt officials) and thus established his reputation as a “butcher”. Speaking with the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog, Wu's lawyer, Ge Wenxiu, explained that the name is intended to mock state officials’ use of vulgarity with a sarcastic suggestion that he wants to “slay” for them their corruption and misconduct.

Wu was arrested in 2015 after a protest outside a court in Jiangxi province over a rape and murder case in which the defense was denied access to court documents. His arrest marked the beginning of a nationwide crackdown on human right lawyers and activists.

He was initially charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and defamation but upon his refusal to confess to his crime, the police changed the allegation to “subversion of state power.”

Wu explained in his statement (via China Change) that he had refused to trade a lighter sentence with public confession:

For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who “subverts state power” is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights. Liang Qichao (梁启超, famous reformist at end of Qing dynasty) said that he and dictatorship were two forces inextricably opposed; I say: If I don’t oppose dictatorship, am I still a man?
They have attempted to have me plead guilty and cooperate with them to produce their propaganda in exchange for a light sentence — they even said that as long as I plead guilty, they’ll give me a three-year sentence suspended for three years. I rejected it all. My eight-year sentence doesn’t make me indignant or hopeless. This was what I chose for myself: when you oppose the dictatorship, it means you are already walking on the path to jail.

Wu Gan’s friends were disheartened upon hearing the news of his sentencing. On Twitter, Old Wine said:

One after another, my friends were sentenced to jail. Apart from anger, I have complex feelings: I wish that my friends would stand up to their principle like Butcher. On the other hand, I don’t want them going through torture and wish that they could compromise. I respect Butcher and I understand those who make compromise. It is now the new year, whenever I think about those who are in jail, my heart hurts and I feel so helpless.

After Wu’s statement was widely circulated, another round of smear campaigning targeting him and other human rights lawyers has emerged. A number of Twitter bots spread posts (examples one, two, three and many others) accusing Wu Gan of garnering personal benefits through online activism backed by anti-China forces.

Knowing that the Chinese dissident community has been overwhelmed with pessimism, Wu Gan wrote a letter to the Chinese Twitter community, urging them to carry on defending conscience and freedom on December 31:


I wish that fellows outside [the Great Firewall] would not be silenced and overwhelmed by pessimism. No matter how bad the situation is, you can’t conspire with [the dictator]. We can be nervous and frightened, but we can’t be blind to the cruel reality and tell lies that are against our common sense, or imagine that an enlightened emperor can save us, or that the battle can be won without paying efforts. We have to spread the truth, defend conscience, respect knowledge, encourage bravery. Everyone has weaknesses, including me. But I believe that with openness to ideas, more understanding, and less calculation for personal gain, more contribution and acts will be rewarded. The fact that I can feel your support and attention is the best proof.

Lastly I want to borrow a sentence from The Shawshank Redemption: some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers carry the color of freedom. [The original quote from Stephen King is: some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice.]

In response to the letter, veteran Chinese activist Wu’er Kaixi from the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement wrote:

Let’s face the future in a solemn manner today. We are not living in a good time, but we can be good people. We can be affected by Butcher and see fearlessness as an option. Our fearlessness will block terror and make our time better. I hope 2018 can be a starting point for this attitude. Happy New Year!

Wu Gan’s lawyer filed a written appeal to the court’s ruling on January 8 2018 (English version via China Change) defending citizens’ rights to free speech:

When rendering judgement on whether an individual’s conduct is criminal, it is vital to examine the character of their actions. The actions of the appellant — whether speech made via Weibo, WeChat, Twitter, his three “Guides,” interviews given to foreign media, or audio lectures — all fall under the rubric of legitimate exercise of freedom of speech. Similarly, the appellant’s participation in 12 noted cases — which involved ‘stand-and-watch’ protests, appealing in support of a cause, raising funds, or expressing himself via performance art — are also all exercises in freedom of expression, provided for in his civil rights of: the right to criticize and make suggestions; the right to lodge appeals and complaints; the right to report and expose malfeasance, and so on. These rights are innate, and are provided for in the constitution and law of the People’s Republic of China. The exercise of these rights has nothing at all to do with so-called subversion of state power.


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