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Guardian: I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Guardian
Nanfu Wang
Friday 22 January 2016 02.12 EST
Last modified on Friday 22 January 2016 02.14 EST

■ I’m not a paranoid person, but my experience making a film about human rights in China gave me a sense of fear that I think westerners don’t comprehend

Last December, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, was put on trial for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge the Chinese government recently has brought upon hundreds of activists, human rights lawyers in particular, who have been fighting against rampant corruption and human rights abuses throughout the country. Outside the courthouse, a crowd of protesters gathered to show their support for Pu – a rare and dangerous move in a country where public displays of dissent often end in arrest, or worse.

Chinese dissident Hooligan Sparrow, the eponymous subject
of a documentary by Nanfu Wang.
Photograph: Little Horse Crossing The River
On this particular day, a few western journalists also happened to be present outside the courthouse, which is the likely reason why what happened next ended up becoming news at all: the protesters and journalists were attacked by groups of masked men who kept them from entering the courthouse. Some uniformed police officers participated, but many of the men visible in news footage wore masks and plain-clothes, their only common identifier being yellow smiley-face stickers that they wore on their jackets.

Three years ago, I would have watched these news reports with incredulity. Before I returned to China from New York in the summer of 2013 to make my film, Hooligan Sparrow, I had no idea to what lengths and in what absurd ways the Chinese government is willing to go to crush its perceived enemies. But I learned that all I had to do was follow my film’s subject, Ye Haiyan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow), a women’s rights activist, for a few days, and suddenly I myself was being followed by plain-clothes secret police, attacked by angry mobs, and interrogated by national security officers. In one instance, police confiscated my camera and erased my memory card simply for standing outside of a courthouse during a high-profile trial.

I don’t think of myself as a fearful or paranoid person. But my experience making a documentary about human rights in China gave me a sense of fear that I think westerners have no frame of reference for. Often when I filmed in public, I had to try to conceal the fact that I was filming. I shot my entire film on a small DLSR camera, a point-and-shoot camera, and in a few instances, a tiny camera mounted in a pair of glasses. These measures were necessary to protect myself and the people I was filming from attracting the attention of police, uniformed or otherwise.

In the scene above, I was filming inside of Sparrow’s apartment. At this point in the film, she already had been arrested following her participation in a protest against a government official, so everyone present in the room was feeling quite on edge. We knew that we were being followed constantly, both by uniformed police and by plain-clothed secret police. The silhouette of the man standing next to the window, listening, is the perfect visualisation of the fear I constantly felt while making my film.

I quickly turned off my camera and went to hide it when I noticed the man by the window. My biggest fear was that at any moment the police would break in and take all of my footage. After a while, the sense of paranoia was so strong that it became comical. Several times while filming with Sparrow, I would hear a knock at the door and quickly hide my camera, but it would turn out to be people we knew, and we would all laugh.

In the scene above, I was speaking with a person who suggested to me that it was too dangerous to continue filming. He said that none of us knew when one would be arrested, and that even the room we were sitting in could be monitored electronically. The moment where all of us stop to look around for – what, exactly? Cameras? Bugs? I don’t think we really knew. That moment reveals a deep, painful truth about my experience of making my film – that the Chinese government’s grip on its people is so strong, the repression is so far-reaching and intense, that any Chinese person who dares to think about speaking up can’t feel safe in their own home.

Paranoia would be the right word for the feeling I experienced as I filmed in China if it weren’t for the fact that the danger was real. My family and friends were harassed by police and state security agents. Some of the activists I was following were imprisoned or beaten by hired gangs. When I returned to the US, I had to smuggle my footage out of China so that it wouldn’t be inspected as it passed through Chinese customs. And in the years since I finished filming, some of my subjects and even their spouses and children have been imprisoned or prevented from leaving the country. One activist who appeared in my film is currently near death on a hunger strike in prison.

I hope that my film will convey many things – the incredible resolve and determination shown by China’s brave human rights activists, the choking grip the government has on its people, and the sense of hope that China can change if there are enough people who are willing to fight for it. But for most people who will see my film – people outside of China – I hope they will understand more deeply the sense of fear that so many Chinese people feel every day: fear that at any moment, their lives could come crashing down simply for dreaming of a brighter future.

Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary by Nanfu Wang, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Friday 22 January.

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"Bob Fu has dedicated his life to bringing freedom of religion to the Chinese people. His story is a testimony to the power of faith and an inspiration to people struggling to break free from oppression."
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