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A Study Group Is Crushed in China's Grip
Beliefs Are Tested in Saga Of Sacrifice and Betrayal

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 23, 2004

BEIJING -- On a Saturday morning in the summer of 2000, eight young people met in a shabby apartment near Beijing University and started a study group to debate the need for political reform in China. Some were students. Others were recent graduates. Not one was over 30.

They were still friends back then, brought together by a shared desire to change their country for the better. After lunch, the group -- seven men and one woman -- took a stroll across campus, earnestly discussing the nation's problems under the willow trees surrounding a green lake.

Two days later, one of the students recorded the day's events on a sheet of lined paper under his university's letterhead.

"I attended a meeting of the New Youth Study Group," Li Yuzhou, a philosophy major at People's University, wrote in a hurried script. He noted the time of the gathering -- 10 a.m., Aug. 19 -- and the names of all the participants. He described their views on political change, asserting that some favored "violent methods." He added that his friends wanted to keep the group confidential.

And then he delivered the report to the Ministry of State Security.

Three and a half years later, four members of the study group are in prison, serving sentences of eight or 10 years on subversion charges. Two are free but living with the shame of implicating the others when interrogated by police. And Li has fled to Thailand, where one recent afternoon he leafed through some of his reports and struggled to explain why he became an informer and betrayed his friends.

Nearly 15 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre and 13 since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world. What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip.

The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China's two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

The leadership's interest in such a ragtag group reflects a deep insecurity about its grip on power. The party has delivered two decades of rapid growth, defying those who believe economic reform must lead to political liberalization. But it is struggling to manage rising social tension and popular discontent and remains especially wary of student activism, which sparked the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

So the party moved quickly to eliminate the New Youth Study Group. In doing so, it forced eight young people to consider how much they were willing to sacrifice for their beliefs -- and for their friends.

This account is based on interviews with the four members of the study group who escaped arrest, relatives and friends of those imprisoned, and others who attended the group's meetings, as well as documents presented in court in the case.

A Forum Is Born

Lu Kun remembers standing over a stove in the alley outside her one-room house, making dinner as she lectured her husband, Yang Zili. He was inside, sitting in front of the computer they had purchased as a wedding present for themselves, tinkering with an essay on democracy he planned to post on the Internet.

"You don't have to do all this," she recalled admonishing him, her voice carrying through the open doorway. "With your education, you could have a better future. You should think of your parents, your family, our economic situation. We don't even have a real apartment!"

But Yang brushed aside the complaint. "He told me that someone had to stand up and work for social progress, and he had decided to stand up," Lu said.

"I knew he was right," she added. "But I was worried."

A slim, outgoing computer whiz with a youthful, angular face, Yang developed his political views at Beijing University, where he earned a master's degree in mechanics but was inspired by reading Vaclav Havel, Friedrich Hayek and Samuel P. Huntington. As the eldest son of farmers so poor they gave his brothers up for adoption, he was especially interested in rural poverty and often traveled to the countryside to investigate the abuse of power by local officials.

After graduating in 1998, Yang found work as a programmer and set up a popular Web site, "Yangzi's Home of Ideas," where he posted forceful essays condemning communism and arguing for democratic reform. "I am a liberal," he wrote, "and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy."

Lu, a magazine editor with long, straight hair and sad eyes, never read her husband's essays and poems. She wanted a quiet life and urged him to be more like classmates who were chasing riches and settling into China's new middle class. Yang refused.

Instead, he found a circle of friends who shared his concern about those left behind by the booming economy. They were college kids and recent graduates, people like himself who had come to Beijing from the provinces for an education and who enjoyed arguing about what could be done to change China and help its less fortunate.

Yang signed up immediately when a few of his friends proposed setting up a club to provide structure to their discussions. They named it the New Youth Study Group after an influential journal published during China's celebrated May 4th Movement, when students and intellectuals passionately debated the country's future after the fall of the last emperor in 1911.

"We didn't want to be ordinary people. We wanted to do something for society," recalled Zhang Yanhua, a soft-spoken graduate who took a civil service job in the nearby city of Tianjin but made the two-hour trip back to Beijing for the group's meetings. They met on different college campuses, in dorm rooms, classrooms or just outside, and they welcomed friends and classmates to join them. Sometimes, they had tea or shared a meal, but usually they would just sit and talk, for hours at a time, about government corruption, the plight of laid-off factory workers or the tax burden on peasant families.

"We talked a lot about the indifference of our generation," said Fan Erjun, a short, spiky-haired graduate of Beihang University who was working as a tutor there. "We felt other young people were too materialistic and didn't worry about the right things."

They often disagreed, debating whether political change should begin inside or outside the party, for example, or how fast elections should be introduced. But they all believed that the Chinese people were suffering, that the party's limits on speech prevented discussion of pressing problems, and that democratic reform was necessary.

Yang, then 28, was the oldest member of the club and also the group's most consistent proponent of Western liberalism. At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum was his friend, Xu Wei, 26, a tall, bookish newspaper reporter and Communist Party member who clung to a Marxist ideology. They were the most mature and even-tempered members of the club, and Xu was elected its president.

There were four others.

Zhang Honghai, 27, a graduate of the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, had a friendly smile, but was the most emotional member of the group, the one most likely to raise his voice or resort to cursing.

Jin Haike, 24, a high school classmate of Fan's with a mop of dark hair and a habit of dressing sloppily, was the most outgoing member. He was put in charge of distributing members' essays because he had access to a computer at the Internet firm where he worked.

Huang Haixia, a petite college senior, was the only woman in the group and at 22 its youngest member. She was so sensitive she had nightmares about the children she saw begging on the streets.

And then there was Li Yuzhou.

Recruiting a Spy

Li was a junior when the Ministry of State Security first approached him. His pager chirped one afternoon, and a number he didn't recognize flashed on its screen. When he called, a man answered, introduced himself as a ministry official and asked if Li would meet him at a downtown hotel.

It was May 1999. Colleges across Beijing were seething over the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which many Chinese refused to believe was accidental. Li was among the thousands of students who had participated in protests outside the U.S. Embassy. But he was confident he had done nothing wrong, and agreed to see the agent.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," recalled Li, then 27, a broad-shouldered, square-jawed man with a crew cut. "I wasn't afraid of anything then. And I was curious, because the Ministry of State Security is so mysterious and secretive."

Two men met him in the lobby of the hotel and thanked him for coming. They were young, he recalled, perhaps in their thirties, and explained they were investigating an unemployed teacher who had been delivering angry speeches on college campuses, denouncing the United States and blasting the Communist Party for not standing up to it.

Li knew who the agents were talking about and helped them, because he believed the man might be dangerous.

But the agents continued calling him and began asking questions about the general situation on campus and what students were saying about various issues. Again, Li agreed to help them.

"At the time, my thinking was very simple," he said. "I thought it was a good thing, because I was helping the nation. It was like they were taking a poll and trying to understand political trends on campus."

Li said he met with them every two or three weeks. The agents asked what students thought of the 2000 presidential election in Taiwan and Beijing's bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. They also asked how students would react if Jiang Zemin decided not to retire. Li said later that he was not the only student helping the Ministry of State Security, though he was never introduced to any others. The two agents told him there was an entire department in the ministry devoted to monitoring universities, and said they were responsible only for People's University.

Still, Li appeared to be among the ministry's best sources on student activities. He said the government began paying him a stipend the equivalent of $60 to $75 per month and asking him to turn in written reports. After several months, he said, the ministry also asked for his résumé and decided to make him a full-time employee after graduation.

In many ways, the ministry had recruited an ideal agent. Li had a wide circle of friends because he ran a popular Internet cafe and helped start a student organization. He also seemed enthusiastic about the work. Growing up in a poor village, he dreamed of becoming a police officer and often heard his father complain about Mao Zedong's destructive Cultural Revolution. Li said he saw a job with the Ministry of State Security as a chance to fight such injustice.

He said he believed the Chinese government needed to change, and he hoped to promote reform from within. "Even in high school, I knew the Communist Party was no good," he said. "I knew it was a problem with the political system, that it was a dictatorship."

When he met Yang Zili and the others, they quickly became friends. He admired them for their idealism and commitment and saw them almost every week. "We were like brothers," he said. "We had the same ideas."

But when the state security agents asked him to provide information about his new friends, Li agreed. Of the 30 or so reports he wrote for the ministry, he said, four or five focused on his friends and the study group he established with them.

Li told himself it was better for them to have someone inside the ministry looking out for them. If he quit, it would only ruin his career and draw attention to his friends, he reasoned. But by investigating them himself, he could protect them.

In any case, Li said he was convinced that nothing would come of his reports. After all, he said, Yang and the others weren't doing anything wrong.

Troubles Begin

The New Youth Study Group never lived up to its founders' expectations. They tried to make it formal, signing an oath, writing a charter dedicating themselves to "studying, researching and solving social problems," even coming up with a system of dues. But when it came to meetings and activities, everybody was busy with school or work or their personal lives. It was rare for more than three or four of them to find the time to get together.

Occasionally, the group managed to organize seminars. One event in the fall of 2000 was attended by two liberal-minded scholars, banned from publishing in state media, who criticized the Communist government and argued for democratic reform. Li said a member of the banned China Democracy Party showed up at the session, too.

A few weeks later, the Ministry of Public Security, China's main police agency, began to harass one of the study group's members, Jin Haike. They detained him for questioning several times, asking about the New Youth Study Group and its ties with the China Democracy Party. They also informed his employer that he was under investigation and tried to persuade him to spy on his friends.

Instead, Jin told the others what happened. Li was surprised police were investigating the group, but not alarmed, and he informed his superiors in the Ministry of State Security. The others were more concerned.

Jin "told us he had given our names to the police," recalled Zhang Yanhua, the study group member in Tianjin. "We weren't angry; we knew he was trying to protect us. But we were nervous."

In January, Jin lost his job, apparently because of the police pressure. His friends agreed to shut down the New Youth Study Group.

Two months later, Jin visited his high school classmate, Fan Erjun. He was agitated, Fan recalled, and wanted to call an urgent meeting of the study group because he believed police were preparing a wave of arrests.

Fan said the conversation left him shaken. Instead of going to the meeting, he hesitated, then sought advice from a party official at his university whom he considered a mentor. That night, the man summoned Fan to his office. Three agents from the Ministry of State Security were waiting for him.

"I tried to explain everything to them, but I couldn't remember a lot, and they weren't satisfied," Fan said. At 3 a.m., the agents let him go home. But they told him they'd be back.

Four days later, on March 13, 2001, state security agents detained five study group members: Jin Haike, Yang Zili, Xu Wei, Zhang Honghai and Zhang Yanhua. A group of agents also grabbed Yang's wife, Lu Kun, forced her into a small car and took her to one of the ministry's detention houses with her head covered by a cloth bag.

Lu said the agents interrogated her for three days, demanding information about her husband's friends and their activities. When she refused to give them any names, the agents scoffed, she said. "You're in trouble today because of your friends," she quoted one of them as saying. "Your friends betrayed you. They told us everything."

Zhang Yanhua said he was questioned for about 10 hours per day for almost 30 days, and was released. He was held in Tianjin, where he lived and worked, and because the agents focused their questions on whether the group had done anything in that city, he managed to answer without harming his friends.

Huang Haixia was not detained, but she was summoned by university officials to meet with state security agents. She was questioned in three long sessions, and she signed a statement after each. She said the agents repeatedly raised the possibility of a long prison sentence and urged her to consider her academic future.

In her first statement, Huang wrote that the New Youth Study Group wanted to "change China into a better country." But in the second, she said she regretted "staying with these young men who always thought they were right" and "using radical words to attack our nation's leaders." She thanked state security agents "for helping me recognize my mistakes."

In her last statement, signed after six hours of questioning, she wrote: "The New Youth Study Group is an organization that opposes the current socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. . . . This organization is illegal. It tried to overthrow the party's rule and shake the leadership and prestige of the party."

State security agents also questioned Fan repeatedly, twice in March and twice in April. The last meeting took place in a city detention center, he said.

"They showed me a transcript of my answers and asked me to sign it," he recalled. "I saw that I had said Yang wanted to change China into a capitalist country and that Zhang Honghai favored a revolution. I did say something like that, but those were just my impressions and I didn't think they should use it as evidence."

He said the transcript also included statements he did not make, such as a line that stated, "Our organization's final goal is to overthrow the Chinese government."

But Fan said he was too afraid to object. "I was in a detention center, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. It felt like they were threatening me," he said. "They kept saying they were a state organ, and that I must cooperate with them or face the consequences."

So he signed the paper.

Facing the Consequences

Li Yuzhou recalled he felt sick when he heard his friends had been arrested. He dialed their numbers, one after another, but couldn't get through to any of them. A day later, he called his supervisor at the Ministry of State Security.

The official confirmed the arrests, and told him to go into hiding for a few days.

"I think he wanted me to know that I had made an important contribution," Li said. "He also tried to comfort me. He said that if we hadn't arrested them, someone else would have. Then he said they would be jailed 15 to 20 years, and when they were released, they wouldn't recognize me anymore. But that only made me feel worse."

Li said he was too confused to argue. That night, he told his girlfriend what had happened and wept in his dorm room. In a moment of rage, he burned his arm with a cigarette, leaving a scar to remind him of the pain and guilt he felt.

Within a few days, Li said, he began using a pen name to post appeals on behalf of his friends on the Internet.

But he did not disclose his role in the arrests. Nor did he break off his relationship with the Ministry of State Security. He may have felt guilty, but not enough to join his friends in prison. He said he wanted to find another way to help them.

"It wasn't so simple," Li said, adding that he was frightened of the agents. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to graduate. They could have arrested me for any reason."

Three weeks later, Li's supervisors at the Ministry of State Security invited him to lunch. During the meal, Li shared a smoke with the agents and didn't challenge their decision to detain his friends. Afterward, they asked him to sign a written statement that was supposed to represent his answers when questioned formally about the case.

"I think the New Youth Study Group was an illegal organization and a political organization," the statement said. "First, it wasn't registered. Second, it had a strong political inclination, which I believe was to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party and replace it with a multi-party system and Western capitalism."

Li signed. He said he didn't study it closely.

A Verdict Is Issued

Six months later, when prosecutors presented their case in court, they relied heavily on the statements signed by Huang Haixia, Fan Erjun and Li Yuzhou.

The four young men spoke in their own defense, according to notes taken by relatives who attended the one-day trial. Dressed in the clothes they wore when they were arrested -- sweatshirts, mostly -- each stood and addressed a panel of three judges.

Zhang Honghai asked how the study group could have overthrown the party when it couldn't even raise enough money to set up a Web site. Xu Wei noted that Communist Party members made up half of the study group. When prosecutors accused Jin Haike of advocating "an end to old man politics," he retorted that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had used the same phrase.

And Yang Zili argued that "liberalization of the social system," which prosecutors had accused them of promoting, did not amount to subversion. "Liberalization means expanding the level of freedom in society through reform," he said. "The reforms of the past 20 years, isn't that just a process of liberalization?"

Li Yuzhou had graduated by then. The Ministry of State Security was preparing the paperwork to hire him and had asked him to begin investigating and infiltrating other suspected dissident groups. But he was no longer interested in working for them.

Instead, he embarked on a course of action suggesting how torn he felt about what he had done. Li seemed desperate to help his friends, but also unwilling to accept full responsibility for betraying them, or to sacrifice his own freedom on their behalf.

First, Li wrote a letter to the judge defending his four friends and renouncing his signed statement. But he did not disclose his relationship with the ministry, and he told his supervisor about the letter in advance, arguing that he needed to send it to enhance his credibility in the dissident community, he said.

Later, he contacted Yang's wife, Lu Kun, and met with her at a McDonald's restaurant. He showed her the scar caused by the cigarette burn, but couldn't bring himself to confess his role in her husband's arrest.

He also tried going to China's highest court to seek help for Yang and the others. Again, he did not tell officials about his relationship with the Ministry of State Security. But the ministry quickly discovered what he was doing. While he was at the court, his supervisor called his cell phone and told him to "get back here or you'll be arrested," Li said.

Later that day, a department chief in the ministry took Li to a teahouse and gently warned him not to go too far. "He said, 'We know you feel terrible because your friends have been arrested. Go home and rest,' " Li recalled. "But he also said I was an adult and must be responsible for my actions. . . . He said, 'Don't think we can't catch spies without you.' "

Li refused to do any more work for the ministry. Instead, he began posting essays on the Internet about his four friends using the name of a fake organization, the China Human Rights Party. In May 2002, his supervisor called and asked if he had heard of the group. Li said no. Two days later, the agent called again and recited a phone number. It was his girlfriend's number, the one he had been using to sign on to the Internet.

"He said if I had written those essays, there was nothing he could do to help me," Li recalled. "I knew I was in trouble."

The next month, Li obtained a passport, and with the help of a friend who works at a travel agency, he flew to Thailand on July 8 and applied for refugee status at an office of the United Nations.

On April 20, 2003, more than two years after Yang and the others were first arrested, the judge convened a second hearing to examine new evidence in the case. For the first time, prosecutors presented four handwritten reports submitted by Li Yuzhou while he was working for the Ministry of State Security.

On May 18, 2003, the four defendants were led into a courtroom to hear the verdict. Two security officers stood behind each of them. But before the judge could announce the decision, Xu Wei leaped forward and threw himself on the ground.

"I protest!" witnesses quoted him as shouting. "Beijing State Security beat me! But I won't admit any crime! I won't falsely accuse anyone!"

He grabbed the leg of a table, and it took five or six officers to pry him loose and carry him out of the room. The judge then announced the conviction of all four defendants on subversion charges.

Xu and Jin Haike were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Yang Zili and Zhang Honghai received eight-year sentences. The security officers rushed the three remaining defendants out of the room before they could say anything.

A World of Regret

Several months later, Li Yuzhou studied the reports that had been presented in court. He was wearing a white T-shirt with elephants on front and sitting in a hotel lobby in Bangkok. It appeared he had not shaved in several days.

"I wrote these," he said finally, looking up from the papers. His forehead was creased in a slight frown, but his face betrayed no other emotion. "I have some impression of them."

The first report was the longest. It focused on Xu Wei. It said he had been busy planning a secret organization and believed violence could not be ruled out as an option for political change. It also said that he had concluded Li was "totally trustworthy."

"I can't remember why I wrote this," Li said, his deep voice trailing off. "I didn't know the purpose of the investigation was to arrest these people. . . ."

The second report was shorter. It described a meeting in which six members of the New Youth Study Group were present. The report offered a statement from each one criticizing the Communist Party.

Li dismissed the report as harmless. "Any Chinese citizen can say these things," he said. "Teachers in class say these things, too."

The third report described the first meeting of the New Youth Study Group. It was even shorter, with few details about what was said, though it divided the participants into two groups -- five members who endorsed "violent methods" and two who supported "peaceful methods."

"The Ministry of State Security wasn't satisfied with this report," Li said. "They said it was a big event, and I should add more details. But I never did it because I was lazy. I always tried to write as little as possible."

The fourth report described a meeting in Li's dorm room in which Jin Haike told him the police had been harassing him. Zhang Honghai was there, too, and it quoted him as arguing that they must try to expand their organization.

"I was working for the Ministry of State Security at the time. I had to write these," Li said. Asked if he was deceiving his friends, he said he was only doing his job but added that the ministry had misused the reports. "It would have been okay to use my reports to analyze society, but not as evidence to convict people. . . . What if I was making up the stories?"

Li said personal ambition appeared to drive the Ministry of State Security's decision to arrest his friends. His supervisors wanted to break a big case, justify their budget and win promotions, and no doubt their superiors wanted the same. As a result, Li said, bureaucrats at each level exaggerated his friends' activities, perhaps all the way to the top of the party. When a rival agency, the Ministry of Public Security, began poking around, state security officials decided to move to make sure they got the credit, Li said.

But Li denied his own ambition had driven him to inform on his friends and exaggerate in his reports. Later, asked what he would say to his friends now, he paused before answering. "I never imagined it would hurt them," he said quietly. "I don't want to shift responsibility. I do regret writing these reports. . . . They were used as evidence, and it hurt them, and I'm very sorry."

One More Reunion

They had not seen one another since the arrests. But last October, after months of silence, the three other study group members who escaped arrest mustered the courage to testify at an appeal hearing on their friends' behalf.

Zhang Yanhua was still living in Tianjin. His words had not been used against Yang and the others, but he had done little to stand up for them afterward. He became interested in Christianity, prayed for his friends every day, and agreed to testify when Yang's wife, Lu Kun, tracked him down.

Huang Haixia knew her signed statements had hurt her friends, but had tried to forget them. After the first trial, she wrote a careful letter to the judge at the request of Xu Wei's girlfriend indicating her answers had been "distorted to some extent" by state security officers. Then she moved to Shanghai. Zhang found her there and persuaded her to return to Beijing for the hearing.

Fan Erjun was still a tutor at Beihang University and for months he had been too scared even to ask around about what had happened to his friends. Once, Lu Kun asked to see him, and he put her off, saying he needed time to think. But weeks before the appeal hearing, Yang's lawyer called him and reminded him of the statements he had signed. He was surprised by the harshness of his words, and felt so terrible he agreed to testify, too.

But the court refused to let any of them in. The three sat on the curb and wrote a statement defending their friends and denying the New Youth Study Group ever intended to overthrow the government. The court refused to accept it.

Later, Lu said she had forgiven all three of them. "They're young," she said, "and they were pressured to do what they did."

But she would not forgive Li Yuzhou. She said his actions had been voluntary. "He lied and betrayed his friends, then left the country instead of staying to help them," she said. "He doesn't deserve political asylum. . . . He should come back, even if it means going to jail, because that's where he deserves to be. He should accept responsibility for what he's done."

Once, Li called her from Bangkok and asked her to send him copies of court papers so he could try to help her husband. She replied: "I hate you."

In November 2003, the court rejected the four defendants' appeals.

Lu was allowed to visit her husband for the first time last month, almost exactly three years after he was arrested. His head had been shaved, and he was thin and pale, she said. The couple sat on opposite sides of a glass panel and spoke through telephone handsets, but it was difficult to hear each other because the room was full of other prisoners and visitors.

Lu said she wept, telling her husband that she had finally read his essays, that she understood now why he had insisted on writing them. But Yang did most of the talking. He spoke slowly, expressing sadness about letting his family down. He asked her to visit his parents, and to take good care of herself in his absence.

"He said he had been falsely convicted," Lu said. "And he told me to prepare myself. He said he wouldn't admit he was guilty to get parole."

After only 20 minutes, the telephone line went dead. Their time was up.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company