This is a report of what happened on May 2, 2018, in Wuhan while I was shooting video footage for a short documentary about human rights lawyers in China. The days before, I accompanied human rights lawyer Lin Qilei, who is involved in several sensitive cases, including the case of Wang Quanzhang. In Wuhan he was visiting democracy activist Qin Yongmin, whose trial was held in 2018. The short film is part of a multimedia class at Tsinghua University and can be watched here.
Lawyer Lin and I had just arrived in Wuhan three hours before and we had met Guangdong lawyer Liu Zhengqing at the train station. Together we had been on the way to the 2nd Detention Center in Wuhan. In the cab the atmosphere was good. After getting out of the taxi, nothing was unusual. Liu and Lin entered the detention center, which was surrounded by walls as high as a house and a green wire mesh fence.
After the two lawyers had disappeared, I had a walk around the prison walls, watching some swans and their children on a man-made lake close by. As I walked back to the main entrance, a few policemen were watching me. I continued walking to a small bridge close to the prison gate. One car approached me. A young officer got out of the car and asked me where I was from, what I was doing here. “I’m a cop,” he said in English in a relaxed tone. No stress until then.
About ten minutes later a police car drove by from the opposite direction. Three people approached me, two in police uniform, one without. Probably a state security officer, as lawyer Lin said later. “Someone reported you, so you need to come with us,” they said. During our conversation more and more police officers arrived. In the end, there were two or three cars and about eight policemen.
First, they were nice and friendly. After I asked for the reason I needed to go to a police station, they became more aggressive. “Go, go, go,” one of the policemen in plain clothes told me. After increasing the pressure and pushing my shoulder, I moved to the car. The policemen were not happy about my filming. On the car, the state security man took my phone. The video I was able to shoot you can find here:
After we had arrived at the police station, the officer still didn’t want to give my phone back to me. I insisted. Only when he agreed to give my phone back to me, I agreed to follow him. Furthermore, he tried to drag me to a back-office area behind a silver steel door. He pulled my shoulder. I told him: “Don’t touch me. Otherwise, I will call my embassy.” After saying this a couple of times, he finally stopped pushing me.
Now the waiting started. After around one hour a lady of the local Foreign Affairs Office arrived at the police station. She said I needed to continue to wait. Outside of the police station, several officers of different government departments started discussing the case; I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. They only told me that there were people of the local Exit and Entry Administration Bureau (which is responsible for visas) and the local Foreign Affairs Office.
But as there were also several people in plain clothes, I guess that the state security was also present. The officers were calling their bosses, for another two hours. Here is a video of some of them, standing outside. Those in plain clothes fled as soon as I approached them.
After waiting for around two hours the lady of the Foreign Affairs Office once again talked to me and lawyer Lin, who by this time also arrived at the police station. “Would you be okay with deleting the video footage,” the lady asked. I answered: “No.” I didn’t break any law. As far as I know, it is not forbidden to shoot video outside of a detention center. She returned to her colleagues, who were still calling.
She came back after a few minutes. “Lawyer Lin, would you be okay with making a statement?” she asked. He said yes, because he didn’t want to wait any longer. And probably also to save me trouble.
After Lawyer Lin entered the questioning room, the waiting continued. One of the state security men took the written statement to show it to some of the others waiting outside. They continued calling their bosses. After one hour, lawyer Lin finally could leave the back-office, where the police had questioned him. He told them a nice story, to end the three-hour trip to the police station: I am just a student who came to accompany him during the May vacation. At the detention center I just took a few pictures of the two lawyers, he told the police.
He kept silent about the short documentary I was shooting. He didn’t tell them I am doing homework. To end our trouble. We were free to leave.
After a short night, lawyers Lin and Liu left the hotel to attend a hearing in the detention center. They made it clear to me it would be better not to come with them anymore. I checked out of the hotel to leave for Beijing. What I didn’t anticipate was that people were following me. Two or three men were trailing me. When having lunch, they passed by the shop several times. When taking the metro, they got off where I got off. I decided to change the game and approached them, standing one meter away from one of them. Some pictures:
Five stops before the Wuhan train station they suddenly disappeared. Maybe they also understood that I saw them. Perhaps they were sure I would leave Wuhan. I don’t know. On the fast speed train to Beijing, there seemed to be no one following me anymore. But who can be sure? This is today’s China.