For a dissident living in Germany, China’s digital policing is winning
Liu Dejun, the subject of an Ai Weiwei documentary, brawls China’s hardening censorship and surveillance
Liu Dejun, 45, has spent his life fighting for human rights in China. As internet restrictions prevent people in China from accessing information outside the country, Liu has come up with a number of ways to help people within China access information freely – building underground networks that circumvent online censorship, and an app that enables users to learn how to organize nonviolent protests. In 2013, he fled China after being tortured in Chinese detention, and went into exile. He is now based in Nuremberg, Germany.
Born in Suizhou, Hubei in 1976, he trained in a police academy before working as an officer in a prison and then as a manager in factories in Guangdong. There, he began advocating on behalf of workers and ran several blogs reporting on human rights violations in China, all of which were deleted by the authorities. He now runs a blog called “Free in China” from Germany. Later, he helped organize protests in Beijing on behalf of people whose homes were razed in massive state development projects.
Liu’s work attracted the attention of the artist Ai Weiwei, who made a 2010 documentary featuring Liu called Hua Hao Yue Yuan (Blissful Harmony) about how the Chinese authorities treat activists. After the documentary’s release, he was among those calling for a “Jasmine Revolution”, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings calling for democracy. He was arrested and tortured in Chinese detention. Upon his release he fled to Europe in 2013.
I met him in Berlin, where we discussed his work as an overseas activist and his ongoing fight against intensifying censorship from Beijing.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Coda Story: What is it like to be a Chinese dissident living in exile in 2021?
Liu Dejun: It’s very difficult for me. When Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and democracy activist, died in 2017 after nine years in prison, I was very upset. I called for non-violent revolution in China, to overturn the Communist Party. I wrote letters to the United Nations and to the European Union and other international organizations. And, I’m not 100% sure, but I think the Communist Party was very angry with it and wanted me to stop.
You currently live in Nuremberg, do you feel surveilled?
I used to live in an apartment in Nuremberg, but it was broken into by someone. They left something on the sofa that didn’t belong to me: a ladies’ jacket. I asked all my friends about it but none of them said it was theirs. I think it might have been someone from the Communist party, because it was right before an event where I was to make a speech. I’ve had my bicycle tires slashed and the wheel unscrewed, so that if I cycled too fast and a car came, or I braked too hard, the wheel would come off. I think it’s just to threaten me. Sometimes, my laptops and phones tell me my WhatsApp had a suspicious login. But I think Germany is safe. They can’t kidnap me or torture me. Maybe they could kill me, but everybody will die eventually. I’m not afraid of that.
You spend quite a lot of your time organizing resistance within China. Does technology like virtual private networks help you navigate censorship?
Technology helps us because now people in China can find out the truth about what’s happening in their country on the internet — not only about Tibet and the Uyghurs, but also Hong Kong and human rights violations in mainland China. But the firewall and the internet censorship is getting harder and harder to break through, so it’s getting more difficult. We used to be able to make VPNs that would last six months, but now a private VPN is blocked after just one or two days. I’m looking for support and experts from different corners of the world to create services that are difficult for the Chinese government to discover.
The authorities often crack down on certain populations for using VPNs. For example, for Uyghurs having a VPN on your phone is enough to get you arrested. Do you worry that might become the norm?
VPNs are not very safe anymore and, because Chinese internet censorship technology is improving all the time, it makes them harder and harder to use. People who develop them are always at risk. The government spent many years tracking down the creator of Shadowsocks, a free encryption project that was used to breach the firewall. He was discovered by the security services and arrested, and now he doesn’t maintain it anymore.
Is there any way around this kind of surveillance?
I gave up creating VPNs, because the security services would take down anything I created very quickly. Now I’m looking for support to find other ways to help people cross the firewall. If we use a peer-to-peer network with people using different servers from around the world, it’s much harder for the Chinese government to discover.
It sounds like you are racing against the government to help people access an uncensored internet.
I just want people to access information. I’m planning a mobile phone app that just directs people immediately to a website containing real news and articles about democracy, human rights, and nonviolent social movements.
Is it difficult to talk to your family?
Signal is blocked and Telegram is blocked in China. I think my sister was threatened by the security services, so she doesn’t use a VPN. I have to use a separate mobile phone, only with WeChat, to talk to them. I keep it turned off, and just turn it on to talk to my family.
The artist Ai Weiwei made a documentary about you. How did that happen?
In China, I used to write about human rights, and women’s rights, and was always protesting against the Chinese government. After I helped organize some anti-government protests in 2010 the police kidnapped me, beat me and blindfolded me before taking me out to the mountains outside Beijing. They left me there and told me “if you come back to Beijing, we will kill you.” I told a friend, who wrote on Twitter that I had been kidnapped. Ai Weiwei saw it and came to pick me up in the early morning with a camera and some other friends. He made this film about how China cracks down on activists.
Are you still trying to organize protests within China?
I publish blogs on my website about how to organize and people in China spread this themselves. But it’s difficult for people because of censorship – they don’t have any information about Xinjiang, for example. With the pandemic, there is now a new level of surveillance. Some people are not aware that they’re being controlled.
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