The importance of Wu Gan “the Super Vulgar Butcher” has been widely recognized for some time, and the most direct testament to his importance comes from none other than the party-state itself.
On May 18, 2015, Wu Gan left for Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi, to support lawyers in the Leping wrongful conviction case.* That evening, he joined the lawyers’ sit-in at the gate to the Jiangxi High Court, demanding the lawyers’ right to access the case files. On May 19, in a performance typical of Wu Gan, he set two roll-up signs in front of the court calling out court president Zhang Zhonghou (张忠厚). Soon after, Nanchang police picked up Wu Gan, placing him under administrative detention for ten days.
On May 25, Xinhua published the story “Netizen ‘Super Vulgar Butcher’ Wu Gan Put Under Administrative Detention by Nanchang Police.” Official websites across the board republished the article soon after. The next day, CCTV’s “Live News” (新闻直播间) aired a five-and-a-half-minute segment on “The Truth Behind the Detention of Netizen ‘Super Vulgar Butcher’ Wu Gan.” This distorted report on the events at the Jiangxi High Court augured in the campaign to defame Wu Gan.
On May 27, Wu Gan was put under criminal detention and charged with slander and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” On May 28, Xinhua published “Uncovering the Real ‘Super Vulgar Butcher’—Wu Gan Criminally Detained on Suspicion of Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble, Slander.” This was printed on page 11 of the People’s Daily—in the politics section. The same day, CCTV’s “Morning News” (朝闻天下) and “Live News” devoted over 5 minutes and 12 minutes respectively to the details of Wu Gan’s detention, while the China Police Daily led with Wu Gan’s story on page 1. These articles and videos were circulated all over the internet. For a time, Wu Gan the Butcher took over computer screens. Some people joked that only a few people had received this much attention since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949.
People can’t help but ask, what’s so important about Wu Gan the Butcher?
Wu Gan is from Fuqing, Fujian Province. He formerly served in the border security force at the Xiamen airport. For family reasons, he settled in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province. He’s an avid internet user, posting mainly on theKDnet forums. “Super Vulgar Butcher” is his KDnet screen name.
When the Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) case shook the nation in May 2009, Wu Gan went on his own to the scene in Badong, Hubei Province. He managed to visit Deng in a mental institution where she was being held for stabbing to death an official who tried to sexually assault her at a public bath where she was a waitress. Working with lawyers, Wu Gan launched an online support campaign that was crucial to Deng’s release and the dropping of her murder charge.
At the same time, Wu Gan raised funds online for his trip to Badong. He was challenged on this, but also gained a great deal of support. As he rose to prominence in the rights defense community, fellow activists copied and improved upon his method of crowdfunding. It increasingly became common practice among human rights defenders and resisters in mainland China.
On March 19, 2010, as netizens around the country “surrounded and watched” (围观, a way of demonstration) the trial of the three netizens from Fujian, the authorities abruptly changed the date, followed by a few clashes near the court. The date of the trial was then officially set for April 16, 2010. About a week prior, Wu Gan set up a tent outside the gates of the Fuzhou No. 1 Detention Center and reported from the scene, stoking the fire of online excitement.
On April 16, more than 100 netizens from all over China managed to demonstrate at the Fuzhou Mawei Court. The success of the 416 demonstration in support of the three netizens tried for internet expressions marked a new high point for crowdfunding, online-offline activism, cross-regional networking, and frontal resistance. It was a breakthrough in both the scale and substance of resistance in mainland China, reaching a level that has not yet been surpassed.
The inspiration for and implementation of crowdfunding for the 416 demonstration came directly from Wu Gan. He also played a key role in the campaign from beginning to end.
On October 8, 2010, Wu Gan, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), and Zhao Changqing (赵常青) held up signs at the east gate of the Temple of Earth in Beijing to congratulate Liu Xiaobo on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Soon after, everyone except for Xu Zhiyong were punished with eight days of administrative detention. Before the Nobel award ceremony, the Fujian police took Wu Gan back. His phone was cut off, and he went missing for over a month.
In October 2011, 30 citizens including Liu Ping (刘萍, a female activist in Jiangxi, now serving a 6 year sentence) decided to stay outside Dongshigu to support Chen Guangcheng. Wu Gan launched a crowdfunding campaign to support their effort, and by then this model of crowdfunding — online-offline, cross-province, frontal resistance — had matured, and it has been imitated by more and more human rights defenders.
Rights defense actions during the past few years — such as the observation of the unusual death of Xue Mingkai’s (薛明凯) father in Qufu, Shandong; of the black jail in Jiansanjiang; and of the congregation outside the Zhengzhou No. 3 Detention Center — all follow the pattern cut by the April 16 demonstration. Even those actions in which Wu Gan had no direct involvement show his influence.
When Yueqing village chief Qian Yunhui (钱云会) was crushed to death under a truck on December 25, 2011, outrage exploded online. Once again, Wu Gan went to the scene, where he managed to obtain relevant video footage. Soon after, Wu Gan experimented to transform himself from the role of the first responder to that of behind-the-scenes operator focusing on gathering resources for the frontline and coordinating public opinion. At the same time, supervision of the crowdfunding account was transferred to Guo Yushan’s (郭玉闪) Transition Institute.
From 2011, Wu Gan introduced his rights defense experiences in a batch of Weibo posts he called “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》). According to the Guide, the rights defense movement cannot count on an enlightened ruler for its success, nor on positive forces inside the system. Instead, the movement must creatively deploy any and all means by which to plant psychological deterrents against the relevant officials, thereby achieving resolution to the issue at hand. Intrinsic to this view is the pursuit of a beneficial outcome for the party concerned. It was met with praise as the activists took things into their own hands, not waiting for a just official to arrive on the scene to solve their problems.
After 2012, Wu Gan devoted his energy more to the role of a fundraiser and public opinion coordinator. He raised money for certain rights defenders, victims of rights violations, and political prisoners, including Xiao Yong (肖勇) and Zhao Fengsheng (赵枫生) from Hunan, Fan Mugen (范木根) of Jiangsu, Liu Jiacai (刘家财) of Hubei, and Ren Ziyuan (任自元) of Shandong. Wu Gan kept a low profile, doing good without seeking recognition. A great deal of similar work of his remains unknown.
Starting in 2012, a band of lawyers known as “diehard lawyers” (死磕派) emerged, fighting the judicial system over procedural violations to advance the rule of law. This method resonates with the direct resistance in the Fujian Three Netizen case. Wu Gan started to interact, even cooperate, with the human rights lawyers. He became involved in cases such as the forced demolition in Huaihua, Hunan Province, and the case of wrongful conviction in Leping, Jiangxi. In November 2014, Wu Gan was hired as staff at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm.
Diehard lawyering emerged from the Weibo era as a form of rights defense. Wu Gan’s transformation signified the infusion of his model of resistance into legal rights defense and diehard lawyering, strengthening the movement’s ability to mobilize, propagate, and sustain itself.
In May 2015, the Qing’an case erupted. At noon on May 2, a peasant named Xu Chunhe (徐纯合) was shot dead by a police officer in the waiting room of a Qing’an County train station in Heilongjiang Province. The incident drew the attention and anger of netizens all over China. Wu Gan immediately started to investigate the truth of the case. On May 7, Wu Gan posted a 10,000 yuan (about $1,500) reward for citizens to collect videos of Xu Chunhe at the train station from eyewitnesses. When the videos were made public, they circulated widely on WeChat, Weibo, online forums, and in overseas media. One after another, rights defense lawyers and citizens from all over the country arrived in Qing’an to offer legal services and take action. Wu Gan’s actions made it harder for the government to manipulate the truth, giving reasons to the authorities to settle accounts with him later.
As you can see, Wu Gan was no superhuman with unusual abilities. His importance, first of all, lay in his place at the convergence of three burgeoning models of resistance: diehard lawyering, citizen and petitioners “surround-and-watch” strategies, online mobilization of public opinion, and online crowdfunding.
Secondly, Wu Gan’s years of activism and exposure turned him into a symbol of popular resistance. This is why, as soon as Wu Gan was detained and the propaganda machine’s smear campaign against him ran in full gear, insightful observers believed that the detention of Wu Gan and the ensuing top-level smear campaign by the state’s propaganda machine was a prelude to a larger attack on the diehard lawyers, human rights activists, and citizen activists. The strike against Wu Gan, they believed, was quite likely just the beginning of something big.
When Wu Gan was criminally detained, I wrote that “The all-out treatment of The Butcher (Wu Gan) by the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and CCTV, a rare occurrence since 1949, is not targeted at Wu Gan himself, but rather is the start of an all-encompassing suppression of the entire model of dieharders (lawyers) + activists (citizens, petitioners) + public opinion mobilizers (online). Their next targets are human rights lawyers and the community of activists. With such a forceful start, the attack to follow could be worse than anyone can imagine.”
And so it went. One and a half months after The Butcher was formally arrested, on July 9, 2015, the all-out attack on human rights lawyers and their activist associates began. Twelve lawyers and similar number of activists were criminally detained and then placed under residential surveillance at a designated place — China’s term for secret detention. Over 250 lawyers were detained, summoned, and subpoenaed. This attack was not just sudden, but irrational and arbitrary. Five months on [this article was written in December 2015 — Editors], no 709 detainees have been allowed to access their defense lawyers. Even more fascinating, the authorities portrayed the Fengrui Law Firm as a criminal gang in order to hide the political objective behind the attack. But in reality, practically everyone can see what this attack is all about!
Nearly every lawyer and activist caught in the 709 crackdown had either worked closely with Wu Gan or was a good friend of his. Seven of the detained lawyers and legal staff worked at Fengrui: Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), Wang Yu (王宇), Bao Longjun (包龙军), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Liu Sixin (刘四新), Xie Yuandong (谢远东), and Huang Liqun (黄立群). Others had worked with Wu Gan on the Huaihua forced demolition case: Li Heping (李和平), Xie Yang (谢阳), and Sui Muqing (隋牧青). The citizen activists Monk Wang Yun (Lin Bin 望云和尚，or 林斌), Hu Shigen (胡石根), and Zhao Wei (赵威) all had strong personal relationships with Wu Gan. For this reason, according to his lawyer, Yan Wenxin (燕文薪), Wu Gan’s case has since been merged with the 709 cases, he could no longer visit Wu Gan, and it’s possible that Wu Gan has been moved from Fujian to Tianjin [this turned out to be the case — Editors].
In the few years since May 2009, Wu Gan has transformed from an ordinary netizen to a legal worker and human rights activist. It is no exaggeration to call Wu Gan China’s most prominent activist, and his model of crowdfunding, online-offline activity, cross-regional networking, and direct resistance, combined with new elements like the diehard lawyers, has already reached a new height, and has become the standard for political activism. His “Guide to Slaughtered Pigs” publicized the concept of improving one’s well-being through opposition and resistance. It has spread widely and continued to gain recognition.
It is precisely for these reasons that Wu Gan was targeted by the authorities. To thwart the further influence of his methodology, they did not stint in using their propaganda to defame him. Months have passed without any news from Wu Gan and the many lawyers and activists detained on July 9 and the following days. Their misfortune confirms the righteousness of their cause, and the system’s increasingly arbitrary strategy against them puts into relief the value and importance of people like Wu Gan.
Looking to the future, China is entering an ice age for political activism under a form of money-infused totalitarianism. The government may ruthlessly stifle the resistance model of diehard lawyering + cross-regional networking + online mobilization. Still, the spirit of resistance Wu Gan and others have shown is destined to be passed down, and to become the fundamental strength in China’s transition to a democracy.
* The Leping case took place in Leping of Jiangxi Province (江西乐平) in 2000, with an incident of kidnapping, rape, and a dismembered body. Two years later police arrested four men in Zhongdian village of Leping county: Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强), Fang Chunping (方春平), Cheng Fagen (程发根), and Cheng Li (程立). Under torture, the four of them “confessed” to the crime; by 2015 they had been in prison for over 13 years and had been given death sentences twice. In 2011 local public security officers arrested a man who confessed to murdering and dismembering the victim in 2000. Lawyers representing the four victims then demanded that the authorities re-investigate the case, but the Jiangxi High people’s Court refused the lawyers’ access to the case files. In response, the lawyers protested outside the court for days. Eventually the Jiangxi High Court did retry the Leping case and on December 22, 2016, issued new verdicts: the four defendants were found not guilty and immediately released.
By Mo Zhixu
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy. He currently lives in Guangzhou.
The Chinese original was first published in December, 2015.