Why I’m suing China’s former president

This week, Chinese president and Communist Party head Xi Jinping will visit the United States. Much attention will focus on China’s poor human rights record under his leadership. But another trend in China deserves notice—a growing grassroots effort to hold former leader Jiang Zemin accountable for serious crimes.  

Over the past year, over 170,000 people have filed legal complaints charging Jiang with unlawful imprisonment, torture, and a dozen other crimes. Interestingly, the Supreme People’s Court has accepted the filings and plaintiffs have circulated online signatures verifying delivery. Earlier this summer, I joined this groundswell. 

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I formally filed a complaint against Jiang for the torture, beatings, and deprivation of my rights as a Chinese citizen that I suffered under his orders. Mine was part of a larger submission by 35 former professors and students from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, a top school often called the “MIT of China.”

We decided to sue Jiang because he personally ordered the persecution of Falun Gong in the summer of 1999, launching what has now been a 16-year campaign of terror for countless members of the Chinese public who embraced the popular, peaceful, spiritual practice.

I started practicing Falun Gong at Tsinghua Universityin 1998. Like others, I was attracted by its guiding tenets—truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance—and health-promoting, tai-chi like exercises. Falun Gong grew immensely popular on campus and by 1999,several hundred students, faculty, and staff had taken up the practice. Tsinghua was a microcosm of Falun Gong’s spread throughout China, where it had an estimated 100 million people practicing by then.

This popularity was a grassroots phenomenon and soon bred resentment (and fear) for Jiang, who felt he could not control it or, as an unelected and unpopular leader, compete for people’s trust.

When Jiang and the regime banned Falun Gong in 1999, I was unlawfully arrested, just as I had begun my doctoral studies. I was the kind of young scientist our nation was trying so hard to cultivate, and yet here I was being incarcerated for my beliefs.

I soon discovered how hellish China’s prisons and detention centers could be. I was squeezed with 20 prisoners into a 150-square-foot cell. There, we carried out our existence—from eating and sleeping to using the toilet and performing slave labor. There was not a glimpse of sunlight or fresh air.

In our cell, I first learned about American holiday traditions. I was forced to assemble Christmas tree lights, Spider-man toys, sweaters, and other goods consumers here would recognize.

Somehow we were even allotted the task of shelling pistachio nuts—despite our utterly unsanitary conditions. Our sweat, blood, tears—and sometimes urine—seeped into the nuts. After escaping from China I saw some of these products in American stores, simply tagged “Made in China.”

Our work lasted 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Constant rounds of interrogation, threats, and physical beatings accompanied the labor. The guards’ goal was to break our will, or faith, while squeezing as much productivity out of us as possible, short of killing us.

Attempts to resist were met with brutal responses. I twice attempted a hunger strike only to be pinned down and have my mouth pried open with metal pliers. A strange liquid was force-fed into my stomach.

After my second hunger strike, I was paraded in front of hundreds of prisoners, handcuffed, and forced to kneel before them. A dozen officers shocked me with high-voltage electric batons. The electrical current coursed through my body, causing violent convulsions.

My prison ordeal lasted five years, included a year of solitary confinement. At one point I was deprived of sleep for an entire month. At many points I thought I would die.

But I survived. Though they broke my body, my spirit endured. So has Falun Gong, and so will the good people of China.

But there must be change. For China to become a truly modern and trusted nation, its leaders must end draconian practices like the persecution of Falun Gong.

When China’s current president, Xi Jinping, visits this month, he needs to hear this message.

Xi has more power than anyone in China to change the country’s trajectory and hold people like Jiang to account. Let’s encourage him to do so. May my lawsuit and the thousands more like it help change history.

Huang was a Ph.D. candidate at China's prestigious Tsinghua University when his studies were interrupted by the persecution of Falun Gong, and he now works as an electrical engineer in Peoria, Illinois.

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