Winners Named for the 2023 Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders: Xu Qin and Peng Lifa

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Winners Named for the 2023 Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders: Xu Qin and Peng Lifa

Human rights defenders Xu Qin and Peng Lifa are recipients of the Ninth Annual Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders. The decision recognizes Xu Qin’s long-standing civil society activism to promote protection of human rights in China, and the brave civil disobedience by Peng Lifa to spur on democratic change. Both recipients are currently detained in China for their human rights activism.

March 14 marks the ninth anniversary of Cao Shunli (曹顺利)’s death in police custody in Beijing. Rights activists in China have designated March 14 as “Human Rights Defenders Day.”  Several Chinese human rights organizations established the award in 2014 to honor the memory of Cao Shunli, her life, and her work. The award has been given to those who carry on Cao Shunli’s legacy of grassroots human rights advocacy and who have made great efforts to hold the government accountable for its rights violations, despite threats of reprisals. The award includes prize money to support ongoing initiatives and to assist the recipients in their recovery and recuperation from reprisals.

Meet the honorees 

Xu Qin (徐秦) is a human rights researcher and activist who was the former general secretary of “Human Rights Watch in China” (HRWIC), which she co-founded along with long-time democracy activist Qin Yongmin (秦永敏). Xu Qin was also a member of a human rights organization known as the “Rose Team.” Xu Qin spoke out and petitioned the authorities after Qin Yongmin was detained in January, 2015, and Qin Yongmin’s wife Zhao Suli was disappeared for three years, from March 2015 to February 2018. 

On January 31, 2018, Xu tried to attend a disbarment hearing of human rights lawyer Sui Muqing’s (隋牧青). Police prevented her from entering the courthouse, however, and then closely monitored her. On February 9, 2018, Xu Qin was seized by police from her residence in Gaoyou City in Jiangsu. She was put under criminal detention the next day, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” though her family did not receive a detention notice until almost two weeks later.

Xu Qin’s family hired lawyer Peng Jian (彭剑) to represent Xu on March 14, 2018 and he immediately tried to visit Xu. An officer at the Yangzhou City Detention Center told Peng that Xu Qin had been transferred on March 11 into “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). On March 22, authorities cancelled a scheduled meeting between Xu and Peng, apparently because the charge against Xu was changed to “inciting subversion of state power,” a more serious offense in the category of “endangering state security” crimes. This detention was related to Xu Qin’s human rights activism, including speaking out on the case of previously detained lawyer Yu Wensheng. On August 31, 2018, Xu Qin was released on bail.

On November 5, 2021, Xu Qin was suddenly taken away from her home by police. Before being detained, Xu had just undergone bypass surgery, and she was suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke and high blood pressure. Her condition worsened while in detention. On July 27, 2022, Xu Qin’s family revealed that her lawyer visited her at the detention center and he learned that on June 27, 2022 Xu had become paralyzed. Upon seeing her, Xu was sitting in a wheelchair, looking exhausted, and with poor physical health. However, through her lawyer’s hard work and attention from the public, detention center authorities are treating her better and thus her condition has improved somewhat. She can walk a little bit with the support of others. 

Xu Qin went on trial on November 7, 2022, on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”. At the trial, Xu requested that the prosecution recuse itself on the grounds that she was tortured into giving evidence, was subjected to sleep deprivation, getting just four hours of sleep per night, including deliberate noisemaking. She said that the area on which she slept was so small that she could not turn over. The judge did not agree with this request, and Xu Qin voluntarily kept silent after this. Xu Qin’s lawyer made a not guilty plea. Since the trial no verdict has been announced. Xu remains at the Yangzhou Detention Center in Jiangsu Province. 

Peng Lifa, born in a village in the northern province of Heilongjiang in 1974, Peng lived in Beijing’s Xicheng District and was a physicist who worked at Beijing Melon Network Technology Co., Ltd., a firm that sells acrylic products. 

On October 13, 2022 in Beijing, just days ahead of the 20th Party Congress, Peng Lifa (penname Peng Zaizhou 彭载舟) engaged in a one-man protest on the Sitong Bridge (四通桥) in Haidian District.

Peng spread out a large banner that read: “We want food, not COVID testing; We want reform, not the Cultural Revolution; We want freedom, not lockdowns; We want a vote, not a leader; We want dignity not lies; we are citizens not slaves.”  Another banner read, “Depose the traitorous dictator Xi Jinping.”

A loudspeaker also read out the banner’s contents.

Before engaging in the protest, Peng also released a 23-page manifesto – “A Toolkit for a Workers’ Strike, Student Strike, and the Removal of Xi Jinping” (罢工罢课罢免习近平攻略). The toolkit post was quickly censored on the Chinese internet, but was archived. In the manifesto, Peng laid out a strategy and principles for overthrowing Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime and transitioning to a democracy. He criticized Xi Jinping for his dream of being a Western-suited emperor, and he urged his fellow citizens “not to aid tyranny, not to die for a dictator or become the dictator’s cannon fodder.”

After his protest on the Sitong Bridge, Peng Lifa was quickly detained by police of the Xicheng District and apparently forcibly disappeared.  There are no specific details of his fate; and no one knows his whereabouts. Some people believe he may be detained at the Xicheng Detention Center in Beijing. 

Peng Lifa’s solo protest inspired Chinese youth across China and all around the world to take action. There were more than 350 follow up demonstrations where protestors echoed Peng’s demands.

Previous Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders Recipients

The Cao Shunli Memorial Award acknowledges the efforts of all human rights defenders in China who have demonstrated a deep commitment to promoting human rights, typically in the face of great personal risk. The award has been announced annually on March 14, the anniversary of Cao’s death in 2014. In 2015, disability and labor rights activist Zhou Weilin (周维林) was the first recipient of the award. Housing rights activist Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏) received the award in 2016. Women’s and housing rights activist Su Changlan (苏昌兰) won the award in 2017. In 2018, human rights activists Chen Jianfang (陈建芳) and Li Xiaoling (李小玲) were the co-recipients of the award. Barefoot lawyer Ji Sizun (纪斯尊) received the 2019 award months before he died due to torture in a hospital bed guarded by police. The award went to two human rights defenders, Zhang Jianping (张建平) and Wang Heying (王和英) in 2020, and Li Yufeng (李玉凤) and Li Qiaochu (李翘楚) in 2021. The award was given to health rights campaigner He Fangmei (何方美), and detained human rights lawyer Chang Weiping (常玮平) in 2022.

Click here to learn more about Cao Shunli’s background, activism, detention, and the reaction to her death and efforts for accountability.

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