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Former Harvard Visiting Fellow Detained by Beijing Police

Former visiting fellow at Harvard Law School says police arrested her

By Margaret W. Ho, Crimson Staff Writer

A former visiting fellow at Harvard University said she and 11 other people were detained on July 23 by police in Beijing for trying to hold a forum on rural democracy.

Wenzhuo Hou, a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School in the Human Rights Program from 2001 to 2003 and an activist who heads the organization Earth and Rights (EAR), said that approximately 10 police entered her home—which doubles as her office—early that morning.

A non-governmental organization that “focuses on protecting the human rights of disadvantaged groups in China—farmers, migrant workers, and petitioners seeking for justice, among others,” EAR planned to host a discussion forum centered on “the controversies and difficulties surrounding the issue of village self-governance,” according to a press release issued by EAR.

The forum planned to host a number of speakers, including several village chiefs and farmers’ rights representatives, who were to share their stories.

Wenzhuo and several others were putting the finishing touches on the discussion slated for that afternoon, her assistant Chen “Orange” Songzhu wrote.

The officers insisted on checking their identification information and then combed through her home, Wenzhuo wrote.

“When I tried to make a phone call, a police [sic] twisted my arm and grabbed my phone,” she wrote.

She, her three assistants, peasants and farmers’ representatives were ultimately arrested and detained with no explanation.

“They just said this was by the order from a higher official,” Chen wrote. “The police officer said they do so because we invited a lot of foreign mediums we want to show the bad things of China to the foreign country we want the government lose face in front of the international society [sic].”

But Wenzhuo said her status as a noted human rights activist automatically gave her some leeway with the police.

“All the other 11 people were not given lunch, starving the whole day,” Wenzhuo wrote. “However I was given a lunch same as what the police had.”

But Wenzhuo characterized the arrests as unreasonable and speculated that her actions had been monitored.

“I still do not fully understand...why they took such a drastic action,” she wrote. “I had organized six other discussion forums, on other issues related to civil rights, protection of private property.”

But—given the political implications of the forum—Merle D. Goldman, an associate of the John K. Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, said that the Beijing police’s actions were not surprising.

“Any one organizing a [forum] that has political implications, can run into trouble with the Public Security Bureau, China’ equivalent of the Soviet Union’s KGB,” Goldman wrote. “One can organize a sewing group on one’s own or even an environmental group, but not a group whose purpose is directly political, even when it takes place in one’s home.”

Goldman said that while she has not heard about this particular organization, Chinese peasants have experienced an economic downturn lately.

“Although the peasants initially benefited from Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, particularly land reforms in the late 1970s, by the 1990s, those reforms petered out and the farmers’ economic situation deteriorated vis á vis the cities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It’s because of these reasons that farmers are protesting all over the country.”

Deng, recognized as the Chinese Communist leader who ordered a military crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, is credited for opening the Chinese economy to the world. His land reforms facilitated economic development, allowing farmers to lease their land and sell their harvest in markets.

And in spite of “competitive elections” for village heads and village council, a rule instated in the late 1980s, corruption still pervades the legislative process.

“The real power in the village is held by the Chinese Communist Party secretary,” Goldman wrote. “The party secretary controls the nomination process.”

But even so, she said, the party secretary has little control over levied taxes, which are set at an even higher level of government.

“Despite the spread of competitive elections to about 80 percent of China’s villages, China’s farmers have little input into how they are governed, particularly on the issues of increased taxes and fees imposed by the higher level township,” Goldman wrote.

Wenzhuo said that she believes she and 11 others were arrested to prevent the forum from taking place.

“Their main concern seemed to stop me from organizing that meeting,” Wenzhuo wrote.

While Wenzhuo said she was released after seven hours of detainment, others were “repatriated back to their hometown.”

“We were followed closely in the following few days,” she wrote. “It seems by now, their watch over us is relaxed.”

But Wenzhuo’s experience has not deterred her.

“I have told the police that I will do it again,” she wrote. “I will change my strategies and deal with it more carefully—maybe next time we will inform the police in advance what we will do.”

Wenzhuo said she does not plan to press charges. Representatives of the police department declined comment.

—Staff writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at

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