‘I Can Take It’: Young Chinese Activist Dragged Back to Jail

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Originally published by The Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2014

Zhang Kun, a young Chinese activist profiled by The Wall Street Journal in a June 4thfront-page story, has been criminally detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to his lawyer.

Chen Jiangang said Mr. Zhang was taken into custody more than a week ahead of the 25th anniversary of the bloody June 3-4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, amid dozens of similar detentions before the highly sensitive date.

Mr. Zhang was pressured into toning down his activism earlier this year after he became a target of China’s well-honed state security apparatus. He spent two months under criminal detention, also on suspicion of “picking quarrels,” earlier this year. Released on bail in March, he said he planned to steer clear of activities that might land him in jail again.

“There’s no point in fighting directly with police,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in early May. “I’m not the sort of person who really wants to go to prison.”

The Journal attempted to contact Mr. Zhang just prior to the June 4th anniversary, without success. His family couldn’t be reached for comment about his whereabouts, and it wasn’t until Sunday that Mr. Chen was able to verify that the activist had been detained.

According to Mr. Chen, Mr. Zhang is being held at the municipal detention center in his hometown of Xuzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. He has not been charged.

An official answering the phone at the Xuzhou Detention Center declined to comment, saying he could not give out information without approval from China’s Ministry of Public Security. Calls to the ministry rang unanswered Monday afternoon.

Mr. Zhang, who became interested in politics after stumbling across clips from a documentary about the Tiananmen Square crackdown while surfing porn websites as a teenager, was an active member of the New Citizens Movement, a loosely organized civic group known for advocating public disclosure of officials’ assets. He had been a key coordinator of monthly dinners at which members of the group met to discuss political reform.

It’s not clear what the 26-year-old did to warrant being detained again. His last post on the popular WeChat mobile messaging app, dated May 18, contained a photo of him wearing a t-shirt calling for the release of Zhang Shaojie, the pastor of a church in Nanle country in central China’s Henan province who was detained last year. Mr. Zhang told the Journal in early May he had been warned not to post political content.

In addition to Mr. Zhang, authorities “detained, disappeared or summoned” more than 50 rights lawyers and regime critics in the run-up to the Tiananmen anniversary, according to China Human Rights Defenders. Some were released shortly after the anniversary, though many remain in custody, including prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang.

During his previous stint in the Xuzhou Detention Center, Mr. Zhang previously told the Journal, he suffered torture at the hands of fellow detainees but eventually won them over, in part by using a pen he’d been given by police to draw temporary tattoos on their arms and foreheads.

“I don’t want to go back to jail, but if I do, I’m confident I can take it,” he said.

An aerial view of the Xuzhou Detention Center, where Zhang Kun is currently being held and where, during an earlier stay, he says he was tortured by other detainees.


Josh Chin/The Wall Street Journal

Zhang Kun demonstrates how he drew pictures on fellow detainees’ skin as a way to win entertain them and earn a reprieve from torture.


Josh Chin/The Wall Street Journal

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin.

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