Accessibility links

Breaking News

Human Rights Lawyer Pays Painful Price for Standing Up to Xi's China

Sophie Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer, Ding Jiaxi, poses with a photo of him at her home in Alfred, New York, July 28, 2022.
Sophie Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer, Ding Jiaxi, poses with a photo of him at her home in Alfred, New York, July 28, 2022.

After years apart from his family, a Chinese lawyer put aside his high-stakes work and flew to America for a reunion with his wife and two daughters.

Ding Jiaxi, formerly a successful corporate attorney, was now practicing a perilous vocation: human rights law in China. It was the fall of 2017. A year earlier, Ding had been released after serving three and a half years in prison for his rights activism. He had only now managed to join his family, who'd taken refuge in Alfred, a leafy town of clapboard homes in western New York, where some locals don't bother to lock their doors.

His wife, engineer Sophie Luo Shengchun, begged him to stay. But he went back to China after two months. "I knew it was no use," Luo said in an interview on the verandah of her small house.

Ding found his calling irresistible. As a lead member of a band of legal activists, he was waging a longshot battle for justice in Chinese courts, always under police surveillance, rarely staying long at any one place. "In China, you need to be on the ground," Luo said Ding told her. "You need people to know that you will be there to go through difficulties with them."

Two years later, he was back behind bars – where, Luo says, he was tortured and denied access to a lawyer for more than a year.

Ding's ordeal is described in a submission to a court in Shandong Province by his lawyer. Jailers bombarded Ding with the soundtrack of a propaganda film about Chinese President Xi Jinping's rule, blared at maximum volume, 24 hours a day, for 10 days. Interrogators later strapped Ding to a "tiger bench" for seven days straight. In this rack-like form of torture, the tightly bound prisoner sits bolt upright with legs stretched out horizontally, joints and muscles straining in agony.

After more than two years in custody, Ding, 55, went on trial in Shandong's Linshu County on June 24 on charges of subverting state power, according to a copy of the indictment. The trial lasted one day and was held behind closed doors. The verdict has yet to be announced; Ding's fellow rights defenders expect a heavy sentence.

Ding is one of the highest-profile targets of the ruling Communist Party's sprawling, multiyear clampdown on rights lawyers and legal scholars. That campaign has intensified since Xi took power a decade ago and began crushing rivals in and outside the Party. It escalated in 2015 with what's known in China as the "709" crackdown, a reference to July 9 of that year, when security forces began arresting and harassing rights lawyers across the country.

As Xi maneuvers to secure a third term as leader at a Party congress next month, the campaign grinds on. Hundreds of lawyers, legal academics and activists have been swept up. Some have been tortured and given lengthy prison sentences, while others have been disbarred and subject to secret detention, according to Chinese lawyers and human rights groups.

Among those arrested is Xu Zhiyong, a close friend of Ding. Xu was also tried on subversion charges, two days before Ding. That verdict too is unknown. The two lawyers were instrumental in founding the New Citizens' Movement, a loose collection of civil rights groups and individuals that came together in 2011 and 2012 in a bid to end authoritarian rule in China.

An undated handout photo shows Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong (L) pictured together in Guangzhou before their arrests in late 2019 and early 2020 respectively.
An undated handout photo shows Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong (L) pictured together in Guangzhou before their arrests in late 2019 and early 2020 respectively.

Ding and Xu are in detention and couldn't be interviewed. This account of Ding's struggle is based on interviews with his wife, six fellow human rights activists, lawyers and legal scholars, as well as court documents related to his two trials.

China's Justice Ministry and Ministry of Public Security did not respond to questions from Reuters for this report. Beijing rejects criticism that it violates basic rights of its citizens, saying China is a country of laws and that individual rights are respected.

The Party's vast internal security apparatus dwarfs this movement of idealistic legal activists – but sees it as a real threat regardless. From 18th century France to the democratizing Asian tigers of South Korea and Taiwan, lawyers have been instrumental in pressuring authoritarian regimes to establish basic but potentially revolutionary legal protections, political freedoms and property rights.

"In country after country, lawyers have been in the vanguard of those transitions," said Terence Halliday, a professor at the American Bar Foundation who has worked closely with Chinese rights defenders. "We see it time and time again, and the Chinese Communist Party has arrived at the same conclusion."

Chinese and foreign legal scholars say the use of the legal code to stifle dissent delivers the appearance of legitimacy in an era when Xi is calling for the Party to rule China through "law-based governance." China has expanded its legal profession in recent years, but rights attorneys find the deck stacked against them.

They account for a tiny fraction – about 300 – of the country's more than 500,000 registered lawyers. They are up against the so-called "iron triangle," the prosecutors, judges and police who cement the Party's absolute control over the justice system. For suspects in politically sensitive cases, verdicts are usually determined in advance, and the rights of defendants are routinely violated during investigations and pre-trial procedures, some Chinese lawyers and human rights groups say.

Like Ding, rights lawyers face harassment and intimidation on lonely trips to help clients in far-flung courts, prisons and police stations. Ordinary citizens stand little chance against the state. Conviction rates in Chinese trial courts have reached almost 100%, according to a report this year by the Madrid-based rights group Safeguard Defenders. Of the 1.715 million judgments delivered last year, just 511 were not guilty. The conviction rate of 99.97% was the highest since data was first recorded in 1980, the group said.

An ambitious dream

Beyond a quest for justice, the most outspoken lawyers admit they have a bigger goal: to chip away at the power of the Communist Party, one case at a time. Each trial is an opportunity to use the law to restrain authorities, they say. They dream of a China where the rights and freedoms enshrined in the country's constitution become a reality.

Ding expressed this hope in a statement to the court in his first trial, in April 2014. "I want to be a citizen who has an opinion and a voice," he said. "I want to be a butterfly. The incessant fluttering of the wings of butterflies will certainly fan the wind of social transformation." In tomorrow's China, he said, citizens will "enjoy freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Justice belongs to us!"

Still, before Ding left his wife in Alfred, he was under no illusion victory was near. "Wait for me for 10 years," Luo recalls him saying. "If after 10 years I don't succeed in my idea for China, to bring civil society to China, I am going to come back and reunite with you, any way I can."

The crackdown on lawyers has spread to Hong Kong, where the Communist Party has clamped down on opposition after anti-government protests paralyzed the city in 2019. The imposition of a draconian National Security Law in 2020 is paving the way for the Party to tighten control over the city's traditionally independent, British-style system of justice.

Under the law, the city's chief executive gets to appoint a panel of judges who preside over security cases. Senior officials in Hong Kong now openly dispute that there is a separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches, long seen as a cornerstone of the city's political system. According to a July report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Hong Kong prosecutors played a key role in carrying out political prosecutions in the city.

Some of the city's leading pro-democracy lawyers have been arrested and prosecuted in the crackdown. Others have fled abroad or renounced pro-democracy activities.

In response to questions from Reuters about the crackdown, a Hong Kong government spokesman said all defendants "will undergo a fair trial by an independent judiciary" and that judges "administer justice without fear or favor and without bias, based only on the law." The spokesman added: "Cases will never be handled any differently owing to the profession, political beliefs or background of the persons involved."

From engineer to lawyer

A native of central China's Hubei Province, Ding originally trained as a jet-engine engineer at Beihang University, an elite science and technology school in Beijing. He joined the student demonstrators during the 1989 Tiananmen Square upheaval, but wasn't there when the military crushed the protest, he said in a 2017 interview with Cao Yaxue, a Washington-based researcher who chronicles the legal human rights movement on the website China Change.

After working in an aircraft engineering institute, Ding returned to Beihang for post-graduate study. Luo was a fellow post-grad there when the couple met in 1992.

"I'll always remember the first time I saw him," said Luo. "He had such a bright smile and big teeth. I felt my heart fall in love with him right away. From that moment, my life changed." Just over a year later they married.

While at Beihang, Ding grew interested in the law, studied in his spare time and passed the bar exam. From 1996, he worked at a succession of law firms, eventually specializing in intellectual property, where his technical background gave him an edge.

While Ding was establishing his practice, Luo went to the United States to study materials science at Alfred University, leaving their three-year-old daughter with him in Beijing. They had a second child after Ding visited Alfred, and Luo later rejoined her husband and their two girls in China. By 2003, Ding and colleagues had set up the Dehong Law Firm in Beijing.

Under Ding's management, the firm thrived. By 2013, when he was first arrested, it employed 20 lawyers and had an annual income of 25 million yuan (about $3.5 million), Ding told Cao in the 2017 interview. He lived large: He spent at least 100,000 yuan a year on golf, stayed in five-star hotels and ate delicacies such as bird's nest soup and abalone every day. Luo recalls that Ding threw himself into his work, leaving home for the office before the family awoke and returning late at night after socializing with clients. At times she felt they lived separate lives.

In 2011, Ding went to Fordham University in the United States as a visiting scholar at the law school. The high-flying commercial lawyer had begun to see China in a different light. His new access to the internet outside China's Great Firewall opened his eyes to a community of rights lawyers and activists working for change, Luo said. While Ding was at Fordham, Chinese police began rounding up activists and lawyers who had taken part in pro-democracy protests in February 2011, inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

"It was definitely a critical turning point," Luo said. "He got a lot of information he could not see before. He completely changed. Now, everything in China was not okay."

When Ding returned home late that year, he renewed contact with an activist he'd met in the early 2000s. Xu Zhiyong, a high-profile lawyer and scholar, was a pioneer of the Weiquan (Rights) Movement. Unlike Ding, Xu had been an activist since his student days, with a vision of a free, democratic China.

Xu and two close friends, Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, were studying for law doctorates at Beijing University in 2003 when a sensational story broke. A young college graduate named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death while in police custody in the southern city of Guangzhou. Sun had been arrested because he lacked the required residence documents to live and work away from his home in Hubei Province.

The scandal erupted as some Chinese media outlets were taking advantage of a brief period of relative freedom, now long extinguished. Reports of the killing sparked an uproar and forced authorities to punish the offenders. One was executed.

Xu and his two colleagues filed an appeal to China's parliament to scrap the custody-and-repatriation policy used to control where people live and work. The policy "was obviously unconstitutional," said Teng, who left China to avoid arrest in 2014 and now lives in the United States. "Lawyers and scholars played a significant role in that case." Months later, the government abolished the policy.

The "three doctors," as the law students were nicknamed, became famous. "That was considered the beginning of the Weiquan Movement," said Cao.

Xu, Teng and others later established a movement known in English as the Open Constitution Initiative. Its lawyers took on clients including dissidents, victims of food contamination and persecuted Christians. Under police pressure, the Initiative closed in 2009, Teng said, but the lawyers carried on.

Once back in China, Ding began working closely with Xu, Teng and others, holding discussions and seminars on China's constitution and law reform. As Xi Jinping was taking power, the New Citizens' Movement was becoming active in politics. In a provocative 2012 essay published online, Xu described it as a "political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism." Xu's essay was a direct challenge to the Party, and it was swiftly censored.

Xu and Ding became close friends, Teng said. "It's a kind of perfect combination," he said. "Xu has clear ideas and a view of the big picture. Ding Jiaxi is an effective organizer."

Xu, 49, is openly confrontational, having published essays and letters online that call for the end of Party rule. Some colleagues say he has personal political ambitions, wanting to one day play a role in a democratic China. In 2020, while on the run from police, Xu wrote a searing open letter to Xi, accusing him of lacking intellect and courage and calling on him to step down.

"Where do you think you are taking China?" Xu wrote in the letter, which was translated by China scholar Geremie Barmé. "Do you have any clue yourself? You talk about the reform and opening up policy at the same time you are trying to resuscitate the corpse of Marxism-Leninism."

Ding is more reserved and avoids attention, colleagues say. He has said he has no plans to be a player in politics other than to see the system change, they say.

But both men are convinced they will one day beat the world's biggest political party. Ding has told his wife and colleagues democratic change will come in his lifetime, though it may take decades. Xu posted a New Year message online in 2020 in which he expressed certainty China would be free of Party rule. "When the day comes that the Party vanishes like mist and smoke," he wrote, "will China want to be buried alive with it?"

Their colleague Teng Biao doesn't share their confidence.

"I think their calculations aren't correct," said Teng. Some of these lawyers and activists mainly speak with each other, creating something of an "echo chamber," Teng explained. In reality, most people in China "are just not aware" of the struggle the rights movement is waging. And the Party is using high-tech tools such as facial recognition to tighten control, he added.

Leaders' wealth

Ding threw himself into working for political change as intensely as he'd pursued his corporate legal career, Luo said. He traveled widely in 2011, setting up meetings to build a network for the New Citizens' Movement. It grew quickly, with scores of people attending events around the country.

At the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi became Party chief. Delegates also selected a 205-member Central Committee. One of the first moves of the New Citizens organizers was to launch a campaign demanding these officials disclose their assets, Teng said.

With official corruption rampant in China, this was a direct challenge to the Party. Ding and his fellow activists began organizing demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, calling for officials to declare their wealth.

The authorities stepped up pressure. Luo began noticing plainclothes cops near their Beijing home and asked Ding why they were there. They were the Guobao, he said – the feared internal security agents of China's police force, the Public Security Bureau. "He told me he was in danger, but he said he wasn't frightened," Luo said.

Soon, police took Ding away for 24 hours of questioning, she said. She decided it would be safer for the children if she took them to the United States. She began applying for visas.

On April 13, 2013, the family was at home and Ding was watching the evening news when half a dozen Guobao agents walked in. They rifled through books, papers, photographs and compact discs, and searched under the beds, in cabinets and on computers, said Luo.

Livid, she berated them. The agents warned Ding to calm her down. Then they took Ding to his law office. Luo followed, but Ding asked her to go home.

"They took him away and he didn't come back home," Luo said. "They wouldn't let me meet him. I suddenly felt it was like he had died. My heart was aching."

Ding was allowed to see a lawyer while in custody, and the attorney relayed Luo a message: "Do nothing. Get your visa and go to the United States." She and the girls packed to leave.

Other New Citizens activists, including Xu, were rounded up around the same time. Ding was held for a year; in April 2014, he was found guilty of "gathering a crowd to disturb social order" and sentenced to three and a half years. In his indictment, prosecutors referred to the group's efforts to compel asset disclosures. Months earlier, Xu had been jailed for four years for similar offenses.

Colleagues of the jailed activists noted an irony: The convictions came about the time Xi launched a corruption purge that has seen hundreds of top political and military leaders, and thousands of lower-level officials arrested and punished for graft. It continues today.

While Ding and Xu were in custody, authorities launched the 709 crackdown. That nationwide sweep targeted more than 300 human rights lawyers, rights activists and legal professionals.

While Ding was in detention ahead of his trial, his lawyers sent tapes of their conversations with Ding to Luo. She was now in Alfred with their daughters. "In that year, I survived on his voice," Luo said.

Luo transcribed some of these talks and published them on the websites Human Rights in China and China Change. "They are terrified of what we did," Ding says in one. "They want to try us in order to warn others." He adds: "In essence, this is anti-anti-corruption."

Sophie Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer, Ding Jiaxi, reads a letter from him at her home in Alfred, New York, July 28, 2022.
Sophie Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer, Ding Jiaxi, reads a letter from him at her home in Alfred, New York, July 28, 2022.

Prison letters

About six months into Ding's sentence, Luo began receiving letters from him. They were "spiritual food," she said, sustaining her through the loneliness and worry of separation.

On a cool, early summer day at her house in Alfred, Luo sorted through a batch of the letters spread out on a table in the living room. She picked up one, dated August 24, 2014, and began reading aloud, translating into English from Ding’s neat Chinese handwriting.

Ding tells her with a trace of irony about the importance of maintaining good health. "The accomplishment I have in jail is getting thinner," she said, reading from the letter. "Right now my weight is 60 kilograms," or 132 pounds, "exactly the same as when we got to know each other."

She continued reading, pensive and subdued: "I believe after the age of 50 I have another 50 years full of energy. I hope you can keep healthy, keep happy so we can spend the 50 years together after I get out of jail."

Ding acknowledged that his single-minded commitment to career and politics caused hardship for his wife.

"From the first day I met you until now, I haven't been as good as I should be to you," Luo read from the letter. "I think you can understand my stubbornness, my ego. Let's hope together our future life will be totally different. I will accompany you to buy beautiful clothes. I will accompany you to travel around the world. I will enjoy the beautiful life with you…This day is not so far away."

Ding also wrote letters to the couple's elder daughter, Katherine, now a doctoral student in physics at Stanford University. Angry and hurt at Ding's decision to put politics ahead of his family, Katherine refused to read them, Luo said.

"She hates her father, still."

Ding was released in October 2016. It took almost a year for him to get a visa to rejoin his family in Alfred. Ding cooked and cleaned while Luo was at work and younger daughter Caroline was at school. The family went to art shows, museums and church. They invited Luo's close friends in Alfred to parties at home. But Katherine was still bitter, Luo recalled. "She said: 'When I needed him he wasn't there. Now I don't need him, he comes back.'"

Katherine and Caroline Ding declined to be interviewed.

It was clear that Ding had no intention of staying in Alfred, said Cao, the founder of the China Change website, which is funded in part by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. Cao met Ding at a café in Washington. Even before he sat down, Cao recalled, "he said: 'America is too comfortable, I have to go back or I will lose the will to go back and continue my work.'"

There was a powerful reason to return. Dissidents exiled from China almost always become less relevant to the struggle at home, where the Party imposes tight control on information from abroad.

Ding also visited fellow activist Teng at Teng's new home in New Jersey. "I strongly advised him to stay in the U.S., at least for a few years," Teng said. "The political atmosphere had become alarming and super-dangerous for him."

Ding returned. Xu, too, had been released and resumed meeting with fellow activists. Ding knew he was getting into a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. "He was trying to avoid the Guobao," Luo said. She kept in touch via regular video calls as he traveled China.

"He kept moving every five to seven days," Luo said. "They followed him everywhere."

On December 7 and 8, 2019, Ding, Xu and about 20 other lawyers and activists held two days of meetings in the port city of Xiamen in southern China. They discussed human rights, the U.S.-China trade war and the pro-democracy protests then roiling Hong Kong, say people familiar with the agenda.

On December 26, Ding and three fellow attendees were arrested. Others fled China. Some, including Xu, went into hiding. Most were tracked down. Xu was caught in Guangzhou in February 2020.

In the indictment of Ding, prosecutors accused him of "subversion of state power" and planning the "overthrow of the socialist system" at Xiamen.

In this second period of custody, the jailers dealt harshly with Ding. His time there is described in court documents submitted by his lawyer, Peng Jian, and in accounts from Peng that Luo shared with Reuters.

Ding was held for 176 days in so-called Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location – a form of detention widely used while an investigation is underway. He was kept in a room with bright lights switched on 24 hours a day throughout these months and deprived of warm clothing in the winter. He was made to wear a black hood whenever he left the room and didn't see sunlight for the entire period, according to a submission lawyer Peng made to the court.

Ding was also subjected to the rack-like "tiger bench." The belt around his waist was so tight he could barely breathe, Ding told his attorney. In intense pain, he was questioned by four teams of eight interrogators each in shifts, for 21 hours straight, seven days in a row, he said. He was released from the bench between 6 am and 9 am to use the toilet and walk around his cell but wasn't allowed to sleep.

"My ankles were swollen like buns and the pain was unbearable," Peng said Ding told him, according to a record of their conversation.

On the morning of his seventh day on the tiger bench, according to Peng's account, Ding told his interrogators he would make some admissions if they agreed to several conditions. He would talk only about the Xiamen meeting, he wouldn't confess to crimes, he would refuse representation by government-appointed lawyers, and he would be allowed to sleep.

In his filing to the court, Peng requested that Ding's admissions to interrogators be excluded on the grounds they were extracted through torture. Reuters was unable to obtain a copy of these admissions.

Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi and his wife Sophie Luo Shengchun pose for a photo during a visit to Washington in September, 2017.
Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi and his wife Sophie Luo Shengchun pose for a photo during a visit to Washington in September, 2017.

Luo is now campaigning for the release of Ding and other activists, writing letters to the United Nations, the U.S. government and Chinese authorities, and speaking at seminars and meetings with rights groups.

She is also facing a battle of her own. Her doctor tells her she is suffering the early symptoms of Parkinson's disease. She now says she wants her husband to give up and come back to her.

"Today I want to be blunt with you, Jiaxi," Luo wrote in a May 8 letter, in which she revealed her diagnosis. "You have dedicated your life to China's democracy and freedom, but this government doesn't appreciate it at all…In return for your patriotism, they torture you and lock you up. Can you consider leaving China, and choosing another life?"

Rights lawyers and activists say it's unlikely authorities will show leniency to Ding, especially given his long refusal to bend.

Peng, the lawyer, held a video call with Ding on August 10 and read him Luo's letter. In a Twitter post afterwards, Peng described Ding's reaction to the news of his wife's illness.

"He thought I had been looking down at the letter without looking at him," Peng wrote. "In fact, I noticed. He bent over, head close to the small tabletop, and with a hand restricted by shackles, wiped the corners of his eyes."

Still, after learning of Luo's battle with Parkinson's, Ding was adamant: He must continue his work.

"I am fighting the diseases of society," Ding told his lawyer, according to a record of the conversation. "I believe god has all of this in hand. In the future, we will definitely be reunited to live a peaceful life, although not now."

  • 16x9 Image


    Reuters is a news agency founded in 1851 and owned by the Thomson Reuters Corporation based in Toronto, Canada. One of the world's largest wire services, it provides financial news as well as international coverage in over 16 languages to more than 1000 newspapers and 750 broadcasters around the globe.