A Chinese translation of this article will be made available soon.
CW: Self harm
Five years ago, on the 20th of February 2011, democracy protests lit up in China, earning the moniker ‘the Chinese Jasmine Revolution’ after the Tunisian incarnation of the Arab Spring. At the same time, Wu Lebao was writing poems and satirical messages on twitter, like, ‘In China you cannot find Jasmine flowers/ If they’re in your hand, police arrest you/ A fist and a foot they come and beat you/ People of China – surely it couldn’t be’. In the months following the Chinese Jasmine Revolution, Wu Lebao was interrogated and arrested by the Chinese Domestic Security Protection Bureau, an organization likened to the Gestapo. Having sought asylum in Australia in 2012, Wu Lebao just started studying mathematics at ANU this semester.
Fresh-faced and unassuming, Wu’s appearance is far removed from that of the China’s most famous dissident, Ai Weiwei, yet the two know each other well. Only weeks before the democracy protests, Wu was invited to stay with Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio. The two first met through twitter, with Wu’s unremittingly dissenting tweets and blog posts catching Ai’s attention. Wu believes this played a role in his arrest, which came on the 14th of July in the same year. ‘The point [the interrogators] wanted to know was my relationship with Ai Weiwei. They asked me to detail everything from when I was living in his house.’
However, the threat of imprisonment did not worry Wu, who said that he had accepted that his actions as a dissident would get him arrested, long before his arrest eventuated.
His first involvement in anti-government activities was in 2008. ‘I published some essays on my blog in which I questioned whether Tibet was really a natural territory of China since ancient times, as authorities had told us.’ In response to his blog posts, the Chinese authorities threatened to expel him from university, as well as telling him ‘your issue can also interfere with your girlfriend’s degree’. Ever recalcitrant, he ignored their demands that he censor himself.
Then, in 2010 he was once more brought in to be questioned about his involvement in Ai Weiwei’s investigation into government cover-ups of the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, in which over 60,000 people died, and of a Shanghai apartment fire that killed 58 in 2010. During the Wenchuan Earthquake, in one school alone, over 1300 students and teachers died, with these so-called ‘tofu-dreg schoolhouses’ being blamed by many on ignored engineering standards and government corruption. As part of Ai’s investigation into the Shanghai apartment fire, Wu says that he ‘directly gave the government a call, asking them how many people died’.
Following his interrogation in 2010, he lost his job as a mathematics instructor at a local university. ‘At that time I was enthusiastic about political movements. Now I had more time for that.’ It was with this free time that he took up the offer to stay with Ai Weiwei and work for him, travelling North from his hometown of Benbu in Anhui province to Beijing. Returning to Benbu for the spring festival in 2011, he found himself unable to return to Beijing due to the tense security situation during the time of the Jasmine Revolution. During the democracy protests in Beijing, four foreign journalists were beaten by plain-clothes police while covering the events, and jasmine flowers were banned from sale.
In April that year Ai Weiwei himself was arrested under the charge of tax evasion relating to his company Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., the name of which is a play on a certain English expletive. Soon after Ai’s release in June, Wu was inevitably arrested on the 14th of July.
‘I was brought to the police office, one day later, I was put in a short-term detention centre, and nine days later I was put in a long-term detention centre – that was hellish, really hellish. In fact, it was a labour camp. I was forced to do labour for at least 14 hours a day, sometimes it would go to 16 or even 18 hours per day with no break.’
When I asked how long he had spent in the labour camp, it was evident that his time there was still preying on his mind. ’97 days,’ he said, ‘I counted every day.’ During his time at the labour camp, he lost more than 20 kilograms, and for his work he was paid around $0.06 AUD each day. Later, he developed a stomach infection that he contracted in prison, joint pain due to the labour, and currently suffers from depression. His mood, he said, goes up and down, but is generally quite low.
While his time in the labour camp was like torture to him, he said his time in the short-term detention centre was even worse. There, he was subjected to over 30 interrogation sessions in the course of nine days. Every statement they extracted from him had to be fingerprinted. Pressing his finger into the ink, whose crimson red echoes that of the Chinese flag, hundreds of times until its causticity broke the skin on his finger.
‘They made me fingerprint every page’, he said, ‘Initially they asked me about Jiang Zemin’. Jiang Zemin, 89, is the former President of China, whose name appears online each day in the form of false reports about his death. Wu admitted to having participated in spreading and sometimes even starting these false rumours, and was officially charged for the crime of ‘fabricating or dissemination online rumours’. Wu maintains that these were jokes, and just a form of internet trolling, rather than part of some conspiracy to destabilise the Chinese government.
The head of his prison cell during this time, a man called Wang Fei who had been arrested for smuggling guns, would not let him sleep, beat him, and forbade him from using the toilet.
However, Wu believes the authorities’ main interest lay not in these rumours, but in the Jasmine Revolution and Ai Weiwei. ‘They initially asked me about Jiang Zemin, but that lasted only for one day. After that they asked nothing about Chairman Jiang [laughs], they just went to [asking about] the Jasmine Revolution.’
The officer leading the interrogation bragged about being in charge of the investigation into Ai Weiwei. ‘He was very proud of it,’ Wu said.
‘They just wanted to make an excuse to bring me to their office – their ideas are crazy’, he said, ‘it was nothing to do with Jiang Zemin’.
‘The worst threat they made during the interrogation was that – [the interrogator] thought I was hiding something about the Jasmine Revolution – he threatened that he would charge me with … insulting somebody.’
The interrogator explained his cruel plan to Wu. Wu had made a satirical twitter account impersonating Section Chief Xu, a police officer made notorious by Ai Weiwei’s documentary ‘Disturbing the Peace’. The interrogator also pointed to insulting messages Wu had written about Bo Xilai, the then-governor of Chongqing who has now been disgraced, and Fang Binxing, the architect of the Great Firewall of China. He told Wu that he would wait for Wu’s prison term to end, and then bring each of these victims of Wu’s satirical tweets to press charges against him in turn, extending his prison term to over 10 years. Thankfully, Wu knew his threats were empty.
Eager to draw information from Wu, the authorities pressed him on his knowledge of the Jasmine Revolution. ‘I didn’t know anything’, Wu said. The police, however, insisted that he and Ai had some involvement in the Jasmine Revolution, a suspicion brought on by the close timing of Wu’s visit to Ai in January, and the protests in February.
Wu maintains that he and Ai mostly talked about Qian Yunhui, a local village leader and critic of the government who had been suspiciously run over by a truck a month before. Witnesses of Qian’s death claim to have seen policemen holding him down as the truck loaded with rocks from a construction site drove over him, and Ai was attempting to investigate the incident.
After being released from prison, Wu was placed under house arrest. His internet and phone lines were cut, and he was made to write fortnightly essays thanking the police for releasing him from prison. ‘I smoked, I read, I slept. I just tried everything to kill the time. Sometimes I wanted to kill myself.’ I asked if anyone visited him, to which he said his only guests were the police.
In the buildup to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in 2012, Wu was again harassed by the police, who searched his house. When he asked them for a warrant, they wrote one up on the spot.
Wu was then briefly interrogated in a room that looked directly into the exact prison cell in which he’d been imprisoned the year before. ‘I was determined to leave China,’ he said. ‘I did some research and found that Australia’s tourist visa is the easiest to get among Western countries.’
Flying to Australia from Hong Kong, he applied for a protection visa in Melbourne, with the help of the Refugee & Immigration Legal Centre. ‘Hardly could I speak a complete sentence of English then. It was very hard.’
Since coming to Australia, he no longer considers himself a dissident. ‘If I were still a dissident, I would never have left [China], I would continue my career in [China]’, although he still critiques the Chinese government on twitter.
After arriving in Australia, he faced discrimination from members of the Chinese community. In one case, he was kicked out of a room he had rented after the Chinese landlord discovered his past as a dissident.
Wu also told me he felt many Chinese had taken advantage of Australian protection visas. ‘There is a group of recipients of Australian visas who get together every year and they give a toast to thank Deng Xiaoping who shot the students [in the Tiananmen Massacre]’ In light of these events, many eventually received permanent residency after then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke offered extended visas to Chinese students in Australia in the massacre’s aftermath.
Although he lived in Melbourne upon arrival, Wu eventually chose to come to ANU. ‘The reason I left Melbourne was that there are so many Chinese people there. I came to an Anglo-European colony to seek asylum, not a fucking Chinese colony!’
Wu further spoke to me about the Chinese students at overseas universities like ANU. ‘I know some people who studied overseas … they told me they needed to follow instructions from the embassy [when overseas]. They told me they were required to welcome Uncle Xi [Jinping], join clubs, and if they found Tibetan or Falun gong protesters within the welcoming party, they had to fight against them, blocking them with Chinese flags.’
A similar event happened in Canberra during the 2008 Olympic torch relay, where thousands of Chinese students clashed with pro-Tibet protestors.
Wu told me he believed there was a culture of separation from domestic students among Chinese international students. ‘They group together with each other and, let me tell you … some people even talk about turning Australia into a part of China. Crazy. It might happen.’
He also pointed me to an account called Australian Red Scarves on Wechat, a popular Chinese social media platform. It was a reference to the attire worn by members of the communist Young Pioneers organization, in which some Chinese in Australia were priding themselves on their inability to speak English.
‘I consider myself an Aussie’, Wu told me, and his idea of an eagerness to become Australian is shown by the difficulty he has writing Chinese characters, and his occasional reluctance to converse in Chinese. Wu hopes to finish his Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, pursue a PhD in the field, and continue building his life here in Australia.