SCMP Oct 25, 2010

Shows of force


It's early morning as a middle-aged man helps his wife out of a tent in a Beijing park and into a wheelchair. The camera zooms in to show the woman, wearing red pyjamas, combing her hair and brushing her teeth by the gutter. The husband packs their belongings into large plastic bags and they move on. The woman is Ni Yulan, a lawyer who was so brutally tortured by police she can no longer walk. Three months after being released from her second prison term, the couple camp out in Huangchenggen Relics Park in Beijing because the police won't allow them to settle anywhere. 

Ni's crime? Defending Beijing residents whose homes were demolished to make way for the 2008 Olympics. Ni tells a horrifying story of physical and mental abuse while in captivity. 

The documentary, Emergency Shelter, is the work of He Yang, 40, an independent documentary maker and former cameraman for state broadcasters CCTV and Beijing TV, who this year has made three daring films about the plight of human rights lawyers and their clients on the mainland.

Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy and an outspoken intellectual, praises her former student. 'He Yang's three films are about social movements and they're quite exceptional,' she says. 'They're also very important because they represent the legal situation today as it moves forwards and backwards.'

He studied at the Beijing Film Academy then worked at the state broadcaster for two years before quitting in frustration. 'They pored over your films and eventually you just didn't do certain stories,' he says. 'I felt a lot of things were safe, but the editors worried a lot.'

He turned to making independent films about minority groups in southwestern China. His career took a dramatic turn, however, when he hooked up to the internet and learned about the plight of the mainland's struggling human rights lawyers. 

In April, He made Disbarment Gate, a documentary about the trial of two human rights lawyers whose licences had been revoked. It portrays the trial as a mockery - the lawyers' legal representatives were barred from the court.

Emergency Shelter, He's next documentary, is the story of Ni. She reveals how police broke her feet and kneecaps during 50 hours of torture. 'I could hear my bones cracking,' she says. 'I lost all feeling. That was the end of them.'

Ni describes how she was forced to crawl up and down 12 flights of stairs between her cell and work space several times a day, and how police illegally demolished her home and took all her possessions. As she speaks, other Beijing residents stand by, some stepping forward now and then to tell how their homes were also pulled down thanks to the government's obsession with putting on a good face to the world during the Olympics.

He's films portray public anger at government abuses and the public's efforts to publicise these stories. They show how people are using video cameras, mobile phones and spy cameras to record events. 

'Everyone has a mobile phone, and cameras are cheap,' Cui says. 'New technology has given Chinese people a way to record the citizens' movement they never thought about before.'

Emergency Shelter was taken offline as soon as it appeared on a website on the mainland, but users kept posting it on other sites. He estimates that a million people saw the film. 

Human rights lawyer Teng Biao wrote that Ni's story was known several years ago, but He's film raised awareness, resulting in thousands of people forwarding links via the internet, Twitter and microblogs. As a result, Xiao Wei, a police officer accused of abusing Ni, was condemned by the internet community. 

On June 16, the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, several dozen people visited the park to show support for Ni and her husband. That night, they were taken to a police station before being put up at a hotel with the police footing the bill.

He's latest film, Herzog Days, is the story of three bloggers who were jailed for writing about the death of a young woman in Fujian province. Police say 25-year-old Yan Xiaoling died as the result of complications during pregnancy. Lin Xiuying, the girl's mother, denies her daughter was pregnant and believes she was raped and murdered by gangsters with ties to the local police. She pleaded for an investigation for more than a year but to no avail.

Fan Yanqiong, a self-taught lawyer and blogger, saw Lin crying in front of a government office one day last summer and posted her story on the internet. Wu Huaying and You Jingyou, two other bloggers, read about it and interviewed the distraught mother, posting the interview online.

Fan was sentenced to two years in prison, while You and Wu each received one-year terms. They were found guilty of slander, although court documents did not state who was slandered.

In Herzog Days, named after the Saul Bellow novel, a crowd of about 200 are in front of a courthouse on April 16 expressing their support for the bloggers. A further 2,000 people are on the street. The crowd shouts in unison: 'You Jingyou wuzui, Wu Huaying wuzui.' (You Jingyou is innocent, Wu Huaying is innocent.) Some in the crowd are filming the event while others are tweeting. There are scuffles with the police. 

'April 16 has significance for the citizen's movement as it was the first time the internet community carried out such a large street movement,' He says. 'It will go down in history as an important day.'

He says the public show of support had an impact on the court, and that the bloggers would have received heavier sentences had it not been for the show of support. 

'This is the power of the internet,' says He.

Cui says she tweeted the link to Herzog Days, making it available to her 15,000 Twitter followers. She says that even if a small number of people see such a film, it can still have an effect. 

'In China 10,000 people may be a very small number. But if the 10,000 are young, open-minded and influential, then the impact is big.'

When a dispute broke out over a village chief election in a small Beijing suburb in July, villagers filmed the incident, putting a video online soon afterwards and distributing DVDs to the media. The village chief, who was alleged to have rigged the election, argues that 20 police officers peacefully seized election ballots and that the ensuing conflict had no connection with the election. The villagers' video shows more than 200 police and riot officers scuffling with villagers the day after the election when they try to forcibly remove the ballot boxes.

He travels to Raolefu to interview villagers in the town's main street complaining about the election and other government abuses. While He is busy shooting the scene, several of his friends are in the crowd filming with smaller cameras. Tiantian, a young woman, stands with a video camera in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. She says she's tweeting news of the event to some 2,000 followers. Although Twitter is blocked on the mainland, she can send her tweets simultaneously to an overseas Web address by jumping over the 'Great Firewall'. It then is sent back to her microblog.

The latest trend among members of the citizens' movement is the use of spy cameras with tiny lenses. They can be bought for as little as US$22, and hidden in a car key, watch, the nose ridge of a pair of glasses, a pen or a shirt button. 

Zhang Yongpan, 24, He's student, sticks out his hand to show a sparkly watch. He points to a tiny speck above the number 12 that is the lens of a spy camera, which can barely be seen.

He Yang says the spy cameras have the police on edge. 'Now, as soon as the police see a car key, they get all fired up. They can't tell what equipment we have. It forces them to operate within the law.

'This is the only weapon we have to supervise the government,' he says. 'Our pens are too weak and we only have our cameras. With an article, they can say you're lying. But they can't say that about a film.'