Covering protests in China is a difficult and dangerous task, as Lu Yuyu, the founder of the blog Not News, knows firsthand.
Lu ran the outlet with his partner, Li Tingyu, with the goal of evading censorship and publishing information about protests throughout the country. Not News covered demonstrations against land grabs, wage disputes, pollution, and alleged government corruption – until the journalists’ arrests in 2016.
Both were charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a loosely defined offense often used against journalists.
In June, Lu was released after serving his full sentence. He spoke to CPJ via messaging app on Monday about Not News, his time in detention, and his plans for the future. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What motivated you to launch Not News?
From 2011 to 2012, many major events happened, such as [the escape from government custody of lawyer] Chen Guangcheng and [the imprisonment of artist] Ai Weiwei, such as the protests in Wukan, Yinggehai, Qidong, and Shaxi. I happened to begin using [Chinese microblogging platform] Weibo during this period. Information about these events often showed up on my timeline and I have a habit of searching for things I am interested in. In the process, I stumbled upon some demonstrations that had not been reported, so I began intentionally to use certain key words to search for those unknown incidents.
In those two years [from 2011 to 2012], I was imprisoned, expelled, beaten by security agents around the country because of my comments online and holding signs asking for general elections. I wandered around and lived in no fixed place. Later, I went to a plastic factory in Fuzhou to work illegally. I guess it can be considered settling down slowly. I used my free time to collect information. At the same time, because I continuously put out the collected information on the internet, I got a lot of people’s attention.
Li Tingyu started paying attention to my Weibo during that time, and often communicated with me. In July 2013, she began saving the information I found to Google and Twitter [to bypass government censorship]. So strictly speaking, Not News started in July of 2013. The previous data was only saved on a hard disk, and the hard disk was confiscated by the security agents and cannot be retrieved.
In terms of working as a team, I was responsible for searching for information, publishing, and analyzing data. Li was responsible for saving all the information to the external networks.
What were the circumstances of your detention?
At noon on June 16, 2016, Li Tingyu and I went to the Dali Old City to get some rice noodles. During this period, the owner of the [delivery service] Gantong Express Station kept sending text messages urging us to pick up packages. We arrived at the station on motorbike and Li went in to pick up the packages. Suddenly, a few strangers surrounded me, one of them grabbed the handle of my bike, and the others bent my hands behind my back. I was put into a car on the side of the road, and then they put a black hood on me. I also saw that Li was also taken by some policewomen; she shouted my name.
After that, they escorted us to our residence to conduct a thorough search, take photos, and seal up the place after taking some things. After taking me to the city detention center for a physical examination in the afternoon, they started interrogating me, which lasted until 4 a.m. the next morning, and sent me to the Dali Prefecture Detention Center.
How did you respond to receiving your conviction and jail term?
I had foreseen the result of the August 17 judgment. I also know that according to their law, appeals are useless.
The reason I appealed was that I could keep in touch with the outside world through the lawyers and try my best to protect myself through solidarity from the outside. The complaint [released publicly in August 2016] after I went to jail was also for the same reason.
And it proved that, because of the continuous attention from the outside world, they did not abuse me too much.
How were you treated in prison?
I was beaten by the police twice in prison. The time I told the lawyers [in August 2016] wasn’t the most serious incident. The most serious one was at the end of 2016, after I had been transferred to the Dali City Detention Center.
The City Public Security Bureau and the Prefecture Public Security Bureau jointly dispatched four police officers, sometimes five. They took me to a special interrogation room at 8 o’clock every morning, cuffed me to a tiger bench [a bench device that immobilizes and strains a victim’s legs, described as a form of torture in a Human Rights Watch report] to brainwash me and tell me various stories. And sometimes they showed me videos of other peoples’ confessions. It lasted almost a month, causing me to be disoriented, anxious, and hallucinating.
One day, the armed police and prison guards conducted a joint inspection of the detention center. According to the rules, when the police came in, everyone must look down at the ground, but I did not look down. One of the armed police asked me to put my head down. I replied that I couldn’t. He came over and kicked me. I picked up a plastic jar of fermented bean curd and hit him in the face. He started bleeding. And then two policemen came and grabbed my hand. I began shouting “down with the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].”
And then more police rushed in and pressed me to the ground, holding my hands and feet back, and lifting me up to the tiger bench outside the booth. I sat on the tiger bench for about three hours. They then put me in shackles and handcuffs, the conjoined kind, asking me to walk back to the cell myself. After I refused to do so, they took me back to the cell, put me on the bunk in the cell and started beating me. [I was attacked by] two auxiliary policemen, one policeman, and one instructor.
The one who beat me the hardest was [a police officer] named Yang Wenjie. I spit on them because I couldn’t move. Yang then stepped on my lap. The man weighed about 240 pounds and it was very painful. I began to scold him, and tell him why not just break my leg.
He took off his police uniform and said, “Even if I can no longer be a police officer, I will kill you!” I replied, “If you don’t kill me, I will despise you!” I guess other police officers may have dragged him away because they were afraid that he would really kill me. Then they found a motorcycle helmet to put on my head, and transferred a few prisoners in other cells to guard me day and night.
I then started a hunger strike, and I didn’t even drink water. At first, the prison officers went to the prosecutor, but it didn’t work. They also called for a forensic medical examination, saying that if I stopped the hunger strike, I could sue the police officer through the prosecutor’s office.
I continued to strike. Then they said they would ask the armed police officer to apologize to me. On the third day, I told them that I didn’t want the armed police to apologize. I wanted the one who beat me the most, Yang Wenjie, to apologize. They thought for a long time, and had Yang apologize to me. Then I started eating, but I wore the shackles and handcuffs until after the Chinese New Year [in 2017].
The reason why I didn’t tell the lawyer [about that attack] at the time was because I had already gone on a hunger strike before, and I didn’t want people outside to worry too much, and I felt that as long as I was not afraid of death, I could solve these problems myself.
I think my depression started at this time. After I went to the prison [in October 2017], although I was not beaten again, it was more terrifying. It was soft violence. This is more complicated to talk about. In short, prison is more difficult than the detention centers.
Last year, I felt like I was losing control. When I arrived at the prison, I was hoping to pay a professional doctor for treatment myself, but the doctors only came to me twice, did an evaluation, and asked other prisoners to watch me all the time.
I began hearing voices at that time last year, and I always felt like everyone was staring at me. I thought they were alluding or suggesting something to me when they were talking. I also experience insomnia and anxiety.
[CPJ called the Dali City Detention Center for comment on Lu’s allegations of abuse, but no one answered the call.]
How would you describe the current state of press freedom in China?
There is no news in China.
What do you think press freedom advocates can do to help Chinese journalists?
What they are doing is already very meaningful, but the reality is too terrible now, everyone (either inside or outside China) feels hopeless.
Do your best. I think persistence is most meaningful during this period. Even if you can’t do anything, don’t give up your beliefs. Let’s encourage each other.
What are your plans for the future?
I have no plan to do things, just like I never thought I would become a “dissident,” “recorder,” or “citizen reporter” before. I don’t know what will happen in the future. In short, I will try my best to do what I like.