Bao Zhuoxuan: When the 709 Crackdown Happened to a Fifteen-Year-Old
May 04, 2024

In China, May 4th is Youth Day, commemorating the May 4th student movement in 1919. We chose to publish this article today, to tell the story of a young man, Bao Zhuoxuan, who was detained and tortured by the police, and how he tried to recover. His mother is Wang Yu, the lawyer who was first arrested during 709 crackdown in 2015.

Human Rights in China thanks Zhuoxuan for bravely sharing his story and Sloane Song for documenting it.

Bao Zhuoxuan was fifteen years old when his human rights lawyer parents Wang Yu and Bao Longjun were arrested by the police. That year, he was beaten by the police, underwent brutal interrogations, attempted to leave China and failed, and had a gun pointed to his head in Myanmar.

The year was 2015, two years after president Xi Jinping assumed office. On July 9, the Chinese government launched a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, now known as the “709 crackdown,” and over 300 individuals were illegally detained, interrogated, and imprisoned.

According to Front Line Defenders, Bao Zhuoxuan’s mother, Wang Yu, is a commercial and human rights lawyer that defended feminists, Falun Gong believers, and Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur scholar who was sentenced to lifetime in prison for “inciting separatism.” Wang was the first to be detained on the night of July 9. Later, she was charged with “subversion of state power.” Bao Longjun, his father, was detained on the same day, with the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” From July 2015 to August 2016, Wang and Bao were detained incommunicado, while Bao Zhuoxuan was forcefully sent back to his grandparents’ place in Inner Mongolia and lived under heavy police surveillance.

Today, Wang and Bao still live in China. Their son, Bao Zhuoxuan, left China for Australia in 2018 and now lives in the United States.

Last summer, I met Bao Zhouxuan at a human rights workshop in New York. Not knowing who he was beforehand, I found him to be an ordinary Chinese boy in high school who was tall and thin, with a little acne on his face, shy but polite in front of strangers, and had a strong interest in Japanese animation. The night we went to the bar together with other workshoppers, he shouted “I want strong liquor! Give me the strongest!” when he barely knew the names of any cocktails. In the end, he quietly ordered a glass of apple juice. I felt there was a kind of childish innocence with him, almost as if he was unhurt, untainted, yet to be sophisticated by the world. What is this kid doing here at a serious, almost depressing human rights workshop?

It was the next day, when the workshop organizer invited him to share his experience during the 709 crackdown, that I learned his name is Bao Zhuoxuan, and had been through the unimaginable as a fifteen-year-old kid in 2015. He looked nervous as he spoke about that period of time, occasionally stuttering and tightly clutching his own arms. When he finished, many in the audience had tears in their eyes. For the rest of the night, people walked up to him to express their sympathy and admiration.

“If you’re willing, I’d really love to write down your story,” I asked him, “and let the world see what 709 crackdown meant to a kid.”

“Of course, it would be my honor.” He still maintained that shy, polite manner. “But I’m worried that I won’t tell it well. I still get nervous just thinking about that period of time. Every time I talk about it, I end up losing sleep and having nightmares for days.”

This story will be compiled from the self-narration provided by Bao Zhuoxuan during the interview process. For more background information, please refer to existing reporting by international media, such as New York Times, for this story will not attempt to explain the709 crackdown itself. Our sole purpose is to let the world see how a 22-year-old remembers his experience at 15, and how he still struggles to tell this story today.


Below is the account from Bao Zhuoxuan:

I came to Beijing with my parents almost as early as I could remember. They were “Beijing drifters.” We stayed in a hostel first before we rented a small single-story house, where my dad, my mom and I squeezed onto one small bed. It was practically impossible to live. Feeling bad for me for living in such an environment with them, my mom decided to send me to Tianjin, where my paternal grandparents resided. I lived with my grandparents till the end of my elementary school.

My grandparents are one of the most loving couples I’ve seen, though they don’t really exchange sweet words now that they’re in their sixties. They both pampered me, especially my grandma. If I said I didn’t want to study today, she would say alright, let’s go play. She pampered me like that. If I said I wanted something, she’d say, then we’ll buy it. I was pretty close with my grandparents when I was little. I actually liked that period of time because I was able to see my parents. My parents love me a lot. They would visit me once or twice every week. Back then there wasn’t any high-speed train. They’d have to spend hours on the “green train,” sometimes without a seat.

I didn’t consider any of these things back then. Now that I think about it, it was pretty tough for my parents. It was a happy life for me because they visited me every weekend. I had a great time whenever they came to Tianjin and took me out to wherever. I didn’t understand society at all back then, all I thought about was to have fun, to go to zoos, parks, and aquariums.

My mom was arrested for the first time when I was in fifth grade. She was on her way back to Beijing from Tianjin, and the railway conductor asked for her ticket. She did buy her ticket; the conductor started to touch and frisk her when she was still looking for it in her bag. My mom was irritated and gave him a slap. For this slap, my mom was imprisoned for over two years. They said that my mom had caused the conductor to have functional hearing loss. But my mom is the opposite of a strong woman, physically. She didn’t have much strength. She was only angry that she was being touched by a man when she already told him that she was looking for her ticket. She simply acted out of instinct.

Prison visits were permitted, but perhaps my parents felt I was too young and feared it would further distress my mother, so they didn't allow me to go.

My mom was detained in Tianjin. I didn’t want to go to school anymore after knowing what had happened, so I went to the detention center in Tianjin and walked around the gate for a while. That was the first time I skipped school. I skipped school for almost half a week, and the school eventually called my grandparents. I didn’t think I would be able to see my mom; by fifth grade, I wasn’t that naive anymore. I didn't believe that I could just go to the gates of the detention center and see her, but I still took the bus in that direction, without a purpose in mind. I knew I couldn’t see my mom, I just had this urge. I wanted to be closer to her.

My life didn’t seem to change much, but I knew from then on that I wouldn’t be able to see my mom. When my dad came to Tianjin, it wasn’t necessarily to see me; he might have been meeting with lawyers. I felt like I was exposed to the ugly side of society at a very young age because of this. If I had lived in a different family, a wealthy family where my parents were government officials, I might never have known what China’s society was really like for my whole life.

In front of me, my grandparents tried not to show much emotion, but this incident also greatly affected them. They would question why my dad was so concerned about this matter, why he invested so much of his time into it. “Your wife is now a prisoner, and you still haven’t drawn a clear line.” This is the mindset of their generation, influenced by the Cultural Revolution: when faced with a problem, draw clear boundaries first. During the Cultural Revolution, my grandparents were labeled as part of the Inner Mongolia separatists and were locked up in a cowshed without clothes, competing with pigs for food.

For two and a half years I didn’t see my mom. After this incident, my mom completely transformed into a human rights lawyer, and my dad took the opportunity to pursue a law license. She didn’t tell me her experiences inside after her release. Perhaps she felt it was too heavy for me as a sixth grader. I could tell my mom had lost weight, but I also felt she was very resilient. She probably didn’t want me to see her in a bad state.

In junior high school, my parents brought me to Beijing. I hadn’t spent much time with them since I was young, but my parents really loved me and treated me well. It was the happiest time of my life, living with my parents everyday. There has been no comparable time so far.

One time, I had an argument with my mom, and I said, “You’ve only been with me for a few years of my life. Since I was little, neither you nor Dad have been there for me.” I was in junior high at the time. Looking back, I realize how terrible that was to say. My mom started crying. I knew I was wrong; I shouldn’t have said something like that. I was way across the line. Life wasn’t easy for my mom. Life wasn’t easy for my dad. Both of them had had a tough time.

I used to cry a lot. I would cry when I couldn’t see my parents. When I was in junior high and could see my parents, I would sometimes cry when I fought with them or felt like I didn’t receive enough love. In reality, I received too much love.

My parents never told me what kind of person to be, and they never told me to oppose the Communist Party. They would tell me about certain incidents, and I gradually understood the society more. For example, the case of Ilham Tohti. I couldn’t believe that in China, where it’s said that minorities were treated well, they were in fact locked up in concentration camps, similar to what the Nazis did. This was something I didn’t even dare to think about, and it shattered the last bit of illusion I had about this country.

About half a year to a year before the 709 crackdown, there was a time when my parents were away on a business trip, and I was home alone. Around seven or eight in the evening, someone suddenly knocked on the door, saying they were looking for Wang Yu and Bao Longjun. I told them they were not at home. He said, “Open the door and let us in, we are the police.” I really panicked at that moment. This was my first encounter with them. I was scared and also curious about why they were looking for my parents. I said, “I can’t let you in,” and then I called my parents, telling them that there were a group of police officers outside the door. My parents were furious. I told the police, “My parents called me and told me not to open the door, so I can’t open it. My parents really aren’t at home.” I really panicked. “Please leave, they’re really not at home. Please, I'm begging you.” Then they left.

After that, my parents quickly contacted their lawyer friend in the area to come to my house and ask about the situation, and they publicized the matter. These police officers wanted to come in without providing any reasons, why? There was no one in the house except for me. What was the point of them coming in? Wasn’t it just to intimidate me? Right then I wondered if the situation might get worse. I had already lost faith in the Chinese government, and after this incident, I had even less trust in them.

My parents are the type of people who are determined and persistent once they set their minds on something. They go all out without looking back. I didn’t feel like they were particularly nervous about themselves, but they were really anxious for me. Especially after this incident, my mom decided that she must send me abroad first. My passport and visa to Australia were quickly arranged.

By then, I could be considered a little rebel. After fifth or sixth grade, we had the internet at home, and I learned a bit about the euphemisms for illegal interrogation “summoning for tea” and “checking the water meter” in China online. It’s not surprising that I had some longing for life in a foreign country. The only reason that I was hesitant to leave was simply because I didn’t want to be separated from my parents. That was the only reason I didn’t want to leave, nothing else.

But I didn’t oppose them sending me abroad either. They told me the world is big, there are better educational resources abroad, and the current situation in China isn’t good.

I think they might have sensed something. However, the entire human rights sector was still discussing the deterioration of the overall environment, but nobody thought that our family would be unsafe in China. It was something I couldn’t imagine at the time, and I don’t think anyone could have anticipated it happening so quickly. We all knew that the overall environment was worsening, but nobody expected such a large-scale crackdown to happen so quickly.


On the evening of July 8, 2015, my dad and I were getting ready to leave for the airport. My dad would go to Australia and spend a few days with me before he returned to China. My mom originally wanted to go to the airport with us, but my dad and I both said, “Oh, it’s so late, just say goodbye at the door. We’re worried it might be unsafe for you to go back alone.”

I remember that night quite clearly, because that was the last time I saw my parents in over a year.

I tried to comfort my mom. I said, “Don’t feel bad. I’m just going abroad. Whenever you want to see me, just give me a call and we’ll see each other.”

I was a bit restless on the way to the airport, feeling like I was about to face a new environment by myself. But I was also pretty excited, I thought it was a good thing that I had finally “run” away from China. Plus, my dad was there with me. We didn’t think the situation in China would turn out the way it did. I thought I could go back whenever to see my parents. I kept telling my parents that if they could go abroad, they should, and they always responded, no problem, sooner or later we will come to see you.

It was a happy thing. I was happy chatting with my dad on the way to the airport. It was supposed to be the first time I traveled aboard. It was supposed to be an exciting thing.

Everything seemed quite normal at the airport - printing tickets, checking in luggage, everything went smoothly. But when we reached the customs, things started to feel strange. We were at Beijing Capital International Airport, and there should have been many people near the customs area, but there was no one around when we got there. They must have cleared the area beforehand. We were still puzzled when suddenly, a few people rushed out - plainclothes officers - and pushed both my dad and me to the ground.

My dad’s reaction was intense. He shouted at them, “You wanna arrest me, fine! But let go of my son!” and shouted to me, “my son, be careful!”

“Don’t you touch my son. You can arrest me or whatever, but you let my son go!”

I was completely stunned right there. It wasn’t until they were about to drag us out through the emergency exit that I remembered I had to say something. I don’t recall exactly what I said, it’s been a while. All I remember is my dad saying, “Let my son go,” and I think I said something too, but I can’t remember what. My mind was completely foggy. I had never experienced anything like this before, so I just stood there dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. I think I might have said, “Dad, I’m okay.”

After we were taken out of the airport, my dad and I were put into separate police cars. I sat in the middle, with people holding down my hands on both sides. That’s when I started to react. I asked them, “Who are you? Where are you taking me?” They said, “We’re the police. Just come with us. Don’t worry about where we’re going. Just come with us.”

They drove me to a hotel in Tianjin. By the time we arrived, it was almost dawn. There were no other people on the floor where I stayed, so I assume the police had cleared the area beforehand as well. Two police officers stayed in the room with me during the day, and at night, one officer stayed behind while I slept on one bed and he slept on the other.

I tried to assert myself on the first night, but it was futile. I told them to let me go, that I wanted to see my parents. I even demanded to see their police badges, trying to act like an adult. But they just told me to listen to them, saying, “Just do as we say, kid.” I refused, insisting on seeing their badges or else I would leave. Then one of them pushed me to the ground. He threatened me, “Do as I said, or I’m gonna take care of you.”

I was terrified and immediately became obedient. I never again asked them for anything else. I didn’t insist on seeing their badges or anything. It was pointless. You might think I’m a coward. I was also like this the second time I got arrested. At first, I tried not to say anything, but I caved in as soon as they applied some pressure. Even now, I feel like I’m someone who’s very easy to break. After that, I was just cooperative with them, and they treated me okay too.

A few days later, the police arranged for my aunt in Tianjin to come and take me to my grandparents’ house. My grandparents, my aunt, none of them knew that my parents had been detained. When I arrived at my grandparents’ house, the first thing I did was to call my parents’ friends. My phone had already been confiscated, and my grandparents, being from an older generation, preferred using a phonebook. Sometimes, my parents would jot down a few numbers in it, so I started going through that phonebook, dialing number one by one. At that time, I still didn’t know it was a large-scale crackdown.

Some of my parents’ lawyer friends said they wanted to come and see me, and I met a few of them in Tianjin. I can’t disclose who they were, but among them, one person was particularly important. They gave me an iPhone and instructed me to download Telegram, and emphasized not to download any other apps.

Those months at my grandparents’ house were quite boring. Since I moved to Beijing, my parents hadn’t visited my grandparents’ house in Tianjin often. My grandparents weren’t internet-savvy, and there was no Wi-Fi at their place. My phone had limited 3G data, which I used up quickly every month. I could chat online a bit, but by then, I had already said goodbye to many of my middle school friends, telling them I was going abroad. Some friends asked me on QQ if I had arrived in Australia, but I couldn’t respond. I didn’t know how to explain it. I couldn’t just say I hadn’t actually made the trip, and I had been detained by the police for a few days. I cared a lot about my reputation, and I couldn’t bring myself to talk about this incident.

My grades were pretty good in middle school, so my dad had bought me a Nintendo game console as a reward. I played games on it every day. I also watched TV, but it was just to pass the time. I didn’t know how to spend my time anymore. My middle school classmates had already moved on to high school, but here I was with nothing to do.

After staying at my grandparents’ house for a few months, one day the state security officers came over and asked me where I wanted to go, as if they cared. I told them I definitely wanted to go abroad since I had my passport and visa ready. They replied, “Forget about going abroad. Do you want to go back to Inner Mongolia to live with your maternal grandparents and aunt, or stay in Tianjin with your paternal grandparents?” I said I wanted to go back to Beijing, but that was not an option either. I didn’t understand why they bothered asking me because I felt like I had no say in the matter at all.

In September, I returned to Inner Mongolia for high school. My grandparents’ house had Wi-Fi, so I continued to chat with my parents’ lawyer friends online. Around October, Tang Zhishun came to see me and asked if I wanted to go abroad and let more people know about my parents’ situation. I said yes, I really wanted to, as I had planned to go to Australia from the start. He said,  “I have a plan, come find me at the airport on October 1st. Don’t bring anything, and don’t be late.”

He didn’t disclose many details to me. I didn’t know I was about to sneak out of China.


On October 1st, I set off alone to the airport to meet Tang Zhishun. I was scared the whole time. I kept thinking, “Oh my God, what if something goes wrong? Is this even legal?” But because they didn’t disclose many details to me, I just pushed ahead.

I can’t remember most of the details now, but overall, we smoothly flew from Inner Mongolia to Yunnan. After meeting up with Xing Qingxian in Yunnan, we continued driving. When we reached the border, I realized we were crossing from Yunnan into Myanmar. The border between Yunnan and Myanmar is mountainous, and while there are regular roads with border checkpoints, not every mountain along the border has one. So, the smuggler took us on motorcycles up and over the mountains, and we bypassed the checkpoints.

I can’t recall how many days we stayed in Myanmar or what we did there. I’ve been trying hard to forget those details.


To help readers better understand what transpired in Myanmar, a passage from Tang Zhishun’s account is introduced here:

“I had years of experience in rights advocacy on the grassroots level. I decided to help this kid because I was close with his dad Bao Longjun. In July, when I saw them being arrested, I was worried that the police would use this child to threaten them, so I thought I had to get Bao Zhuoxuan out as soon as possible.

After arriving in Myanmar, the prearranged travel permit couldn't be processed, and I felt something had definitely gone wrong. I suggested that we lay low in the hotel until things sorted out, but Bao Zhuoxuan wasn’t having it. He said he couldn't eat the greasy food here and insisted on finding some fried dough sticks and soy milk.

I was like, “Why you gotta be so high maintenance? Don’t you know what the Communist Party’s like? You think you can mess around just ‘cause we're out of the country?” I told him, “You’re just a kid, you don’t get it. You should just behave.” But no, he had to contact his family. He didn’t dare snatch my phone, but he grabbed Xing Qingxian’s and insisted on calling his grandma. Kept causing a ruckus until I finally had to lay down the law and give him a good beating. After that, he straightened out.

But to be honest, I get it. He was scared, and it’s not like every day a kid his age goes through something like this. He couldn’t sleep alone, and insisted on squeezing into my bed, curled up like a ball when it was time for lights out.

One evening, we went out for dinner, and I felt like we were being watched. A motorcycle kept circling around us, and I thought, “This is bad, something's about to go down.” The next morning, Bao Zhuoxuan wanted to go to the market for breakfast. I said, “Alright, I’ll go with you. I’ll go to prison for you. If I don't, your dad will never forgive me.” He didn't know what was going on, but I had a gut feeling we were going to get caught.

Sure enough, the three of us ordered some porridge. I was munching on a baked pancake when suddenly, Burmese and Chinese police pointed their guns at us. I said, “Hold on a sec, let me finish my meal first.”

They dragged us back to the local police station and threw each of us in separate rooms. While I was still being interrogated, I heard a commotion from Xing Qingxian's room. Later, I found out that they had stomped on his stomach so hard that his shit came out.”


Continuing Bao Zhuoxuan’s account:

When the police arrested me, I was having breakfast with Tang Zhishun outside. We were eating at a table set up outside a street food stall, and suddenly a group of people surrounded us. I remember most of them were plainclothes officers. They said, “Do as I said, come with us.” Then they put me in a car, put a hood over my head, and handcuffed my hands and feet.

I couldn’t utter a word. They locked me in a room and said they wanted to take my statement. At first, I remained silent. They said, “If you don’t talk, remember, this is Myanmar, not China. We could shoot you dead here, dump your body in the wilderness, and no one would know.” So, I started talking, telling them my name, my family members, and other details.

They asked me a lot of strange questions. They asked me who instructed me, but I didn’t even know who instructed me. They asked me about my relationship with Tang Zhishun and Xing Qingxian, and I said they were my parents’ friends. They asked me what my parents did for a living.

In the end, when they asked me to sign the statement, they only let me read the last page and didn’t let me see the previous pages. I insisted on seeing the other pages before signing. I said, “You have to let me see the previous pages. I won’t sign unless you do.” As I said that, someone behind me grabbed a stick and hit me on the back. I fell to the ground immediately.

He told me, “I hit your back this time because you didn’t do as I said. The next time you disobey it’s gonna be a hit on your head. And if something happens because of that, we won't take responsibility.” I said, “I’ll sign, I’ll sign. I’ll sign whatever you want me to sign.” He didn’t allow me to see anything, only the last page where I needed to sign, and the folded corner where I needed to put my fingerprint.

A little while after I signed the statement, a group of people wearing police uniforms arrived. Previously, there were only plainclothes officers. They again put a hood over my head, handcuffed and shackled me, put me in a car, and took me back to a detention center in Yunnan. Then they made me give another statement. I was very obedient this time. Whatever they said, I did immediately. If they asked me to sign, I signed. They didn’t do much to me after that. I stayed like that for about a day and a night.

Afterwards, they placed me under house arrest at a hotel in Yunnan, not allowing me to turn off the lights at night. Every time they talked with me, they seemed genuinely concerned, telling me, “You mustn’t do this again in the future. We put in a lot of effort to rescue you this time. Don’t listen to them anymore. Without us, you wouldn’t have been able to get out.”

Later on, I was sent back to my aunt’s house in Inner Mongolia. After returning to high school in Inner Mongolia, both Focus Interviews and local news covered my case. They said that a sixteen-year-old boy was misled by foreign forces to illegally cross the border and was sanctioned by our righteous law enforcement authorities. My name and photo were both made public. They even installed three surveillance cameras in my classroom so that they could see everything clearly from any position in the class. The surveillance room of our school was completely handed over to their people.

My teachers and classmates all knew that the surveillance cameras were installed in our classroom because of me, which led to me being bullied when I first returned to school. Our class teacher was relatively kind. She would tell the other students in our class not to treat me that way. However, she couldn’t guarantee how students from other classes would treat me.

Sometimes when I walked in the hallway, someone would shout at me, “Yo, ain’t that the kid who sneaked across the border?”

The police installed a sensor in front of our house. Even if I just stepped out to buy a pen, as soon as I left, the sensor would pick it up. Then, the house across the street would alert the police, and they would come out, asking me where I was going, saying, “We’ll take you.” I’d tell them I was just buying a pen because I had an exam tomorrow and my pen broke, and they’d say, “We’ll go with you,” and then two people would follow me. Wherever I went, they followed.

They would pick me up and drop me off at school in their car. An officer even used a police car to pick me up several times. During high school, I was quite concerned about my image. If my classmates saw me getting picked up by a police car every day after school, what would they think of me? I was pissed, so I told him that if he used a police car to pick me up again, not only would I report it to his superiors, but I also wouldn’t attend class anymore. He snapped back at me, saying, “What the fuck does it have to do with me whether you want to go to school or not?”

Later on, I didn’t want to go to school anymore. I want to clarify that during junior high my grades were excellent. It was no problem for me to get into a good high school in Beijing. However, when I was transferred to high school in Inner Mongolia, I basically stopped studying, and my grades plummeted. We had classes six and a half days a week, but I only attended four days at most. I never did homework, not because I was lazy, but because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t focus on studying. I was too preoccupied with everything else—my parents, myself—I didn’t even have time to think about what to study. Even when I went to school, I just chatted with my classmates, and sometimes, when the teacher wasn’t looking, I’d read novels.

In the first half year in Inner Mongolia, there was no Wi-Fi at my aunt’s house. The police cut off our internet, so I had to sometimes go downstairs to a noodle shop to use their Wi-Fi to go online.

I was depressed. I lived with my aunt and uncle, who provided me with shelter and meals, for which I should have been grateful. But I kept arguing with them over trivial matters, and I would often break down and shout. It wasn’t that I was arguing with them; I was just collapsing on my own. I frequently found myself shouting alone. I started experiencing insomnia. Every time I said I was going to sleep, I couldn’t actually fall asleep all night long. I tossed and turned in bed. My aunt noticed several times. She worked the night shift and sometimes returned in the early hours of the morning. Even though I turned off the lights, she noticed light coming from my room. She would come in, see me on my phone, and tell me to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep regardless of whether I used my phone or not.

During that time, I particularly enjoyed listening to Radiohead. The first song I encountered from them was “Creep,” but later I found that my favorite was “Paranoid Android.” Listening to those melancholic melodies somehow felt healing to me. I also really liked “The Bends.” There’s a lyric that goes, “I wish I could be happy, I wish that something would happen, I wanna live and breathe, I wanna be part of the human race.” That was exactly my mindset at the time. I wished I could be happy. I wanted to be part of the human race, because I was so isolated and helpless.

Many nights, around midnight or even later, around one or two in the morning, I would lie in bed and start crying. I’d think about my parents, unable to sleep, and the tears would start flowing. I know I was already in high school and was too old for this, but I just couldn’t help it.

One time at school, the police showed me a letter from my parents. They urged me to study hard in that letter. I was so sad to read that letter. My mom wrote, “Seeing the words is like meeting face to face,” but mom, how can it be like “meeting face to face” when I can’t even see you? She wrote that everything was fine on her end, but how could everything be fine?

Suddenly, I started crying at school. I couldn’t understand why we had to go through all of this. I couldn’t comprehend the makeup of this world, nor the makeup of our country. Both my parents are good people, so why?

I didn’t have any real friends back then. I thought my parents couldn’t get out, my grades were poor, and I had no future. My life would just be like this forever. But then my mom wrote me a few more letters, saying she was fine and would be out soon. That became my pillar of support. I wrote back to my mom. I even wrote some poetry, although I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, and it probably wasn’t that great, but I thought maybe my mom would be cheered up if she saw my poems. But in the end, she never received them, even though the police said they would pass my letters to her. It’s quite ridiculous.


In August 2016, my parents were released. One day, the police told me they had a surprise for me, and I had a hunch it might be about seeing my parents. And indeed, I did see them. For the first time, I felt that the two police officers who took me to see my parents were exceptionally kind. When I saw my parents, I couldn’t say anything; I just cried, and they cried too. No words could express what we felt. My dad used to be quite strong, but he had lost weight when he came back, as had my mom. They didn’t tell me anything, just assured me that everything was fine inside.

My parents and I continued to live in Inner Mongolia. Whenever we went out, the police followed us. Being able to see my parents every day alleviated my depression, and life was hopeful again. But my parents made appointments for me with specialists at two psychiatric clinics in Tianjin, and the diagnosis revealed that I had moderate depression. I always felt it was mild depression, and I thought I managed to cope with it quite well on my own. Later on, my parents negotiated with the police about returning to Beijing. After about two years, we finally went back. My parents urged me to learn English; at that time, my English proficiency was only at the junior high level, as I hadn’t studied much English in high school. They also negotiated with the police to return my passport to me. Although obtaining a visa to the United States was difficult, I went to Australia for a year first.

My parents came to see me off at the airport. Several police officers also followed, which triggered some PTSD symptoms for me. I was disoriented, overwhelmed. Before leaving, I was rambling, not making much sense. I had a lot to say, but I couldn’t express anything useful or valuable until I left. I just told my parents, “Hey, I’ll be fine over there. Don’t worry about me.” My parents seemed okay; they told me to work out more, study hard, and play games less, just typical words of encouragement. I kept holding back tears. I didn’t want to cry.

In the end I still cried my heart out. I started crying the moment I turned away, so my mom wouldn’t see it. I cried for a long time, even till I was on the plane. I left with the realization that this was the last time for a long while that I could have face-to-face communication with my parents. My parents also told me that after this separation, they didn’t know when we would see each other again. It might be many years later, or we might never have the chance again.


During my year in Australia, my mental state wasn’t very good. I was often paranoid, believing that someone was following me when I went to school. Once, someone called asking for my personal information, which in hindsight was probably a phone scam. However, I thought the police were trying to hack my information again to hurt me. I often stayed indoors and didn’t go out much.

A year later, I decided to go to the United States. As a bit of a rebel, I had always looked forward to the US. They said it’s the “Lighthouse Country,” all about freedom and democracy. But when I arrived at customs, I was detained. They said I had immigration tendencies and wanted to deport me. My fantasy of America was suddenly dashed. I asked how they could deport me. They said it might be back to Australia or back to China.

I was stunned. I said going back to China was not an option; all my parents’ efforts would be in vain. Going back to China was my worst fear. Right there, I applied for political asylum.

I was taken to an immigration detention center. The prison-like environment triggered my PTSD once again. For the first two weeks, I was in solitary confinement, barely sleeping at all. I tried to convince myself that it was different from the solitary confinement I had experienced in China. Now I had a relatively spacious bathroom, a large bed, and if I had money, I could even buy some gaming facilities. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself, my mind didn’t believe it. My mind kept drifting back to those dark thoughts. My life felt hopeless. I fell into despair once again.

Later, I was moved to a shared room with several people, and my condition improved. There were many Chinese people in that room who would chat with me, comfort me, and take care of me. Moreover, after the other English-speaking person was transferred, I became the only one who could speak English, like I was their leader, a big brother. I felt pretty cool about it. For example, if they wanted to ask the guards for a towel or negotiate a trade with Mexicans for ham or chicken, I would help translate for them.

Many of the Chinese people I encountered in immigration detention were individuals who couldn’t sustain their businesses back in China and had no choice but illegal immigration to the States. Some of them got into trouble. There was one guy who used to work in a casino and collect debts, but he got into trouble with the wrong people. After being chased down for his life, he fled all the way to the States.

After I was released from immigration detention, I initially stayed with a white pastor whom my parents knew in California. He was a very kind person and would reach out to help me. Gradually, I started to feel happier in California, no longer worried about being followed when I went out. I felt a long-lost sense of freedom. The scenery in California was beautiful, and I made some friends. It can be said that California healed me.


Reporter’s Note:

My journalism professors and editors have often emphasized that journalists and their sources should have an equal relationship. While journalists should maintain professionalism and respect, they need not feel obligated to express additional gratitude towards sources simply for agreeing to be interviewed.

But I indeed must be grateful for the time and energy given by the protagonist of this story, Bao Zhuoxuan. I’m grateful for his trust, for his willingness to reveal the most painful memories of his life. I’m grateful that he was willing to look back at and even relive those dark moments. I’m grateful for his courage.

Before we conducted the interview, my biggest concern was that my prompts might cause more harm to Bao Zhuoxuan and trigger his PTSD. According to the trauma reporting training I had received, I made every effort to empower Bao Zhuoxuan and have him take the initiative during the interview. This included asking him to choose the interview location where he felt most safe and comfortable, informing him that he had the right to not answer any question without explanations, and that he could terminate the interview at any time.

When I asked him, “Is there anything more that I could do to make you feel safer during this interview?” Bao Zhuoxuan said, “I don’t know, I actually haven’t had much experience with media interviews before. Everytime I tell these stories, I either can’t sleep at night or have nightmares.”

Eight years have passed since the 709 crackdown. During the interview, when I asked him about the details of that period of time, Bao Zhuoxuan repeatedly mentioned that he couldn’t remember many of these things anymore. Some details, he said, he had also tried to forget during his treatment for depression.

Yet even though it had been more than eight years, when we sat down to chat in a room in California or took a walk in the park and talked about the past, Bao Zhuoxuan still trembled, wrung his hands, and scratched his head.

I contemplated ending the interview numerous times. “If you're feeling uncomfortable, feel free to end it at any point,” I reassured him repeatedly. However, what left me feeling both grateful and guilty was that after a brief pause, Bao Zhuoxuan would always say to me, “It’s okay. Let’s continue. I want to keep going.”

After we concluded the first day of the interview, he drove me back to my hotel. On the way I could sense that he was on the edge of breaking down. “Would you like me to stay and chat, or grab something to eat together?” I noticed he was shaking slightly. “I’m okay. You should go back and rest,” he turned his head away, and I could hear the trembling in his voice, “You should leave now.”

Concerned that prolonging our time together might intensify his distress, I exited the car after reassuring him that he could call me anytime if he didn't want to be alone. As I hadn't walked far, I heard him crying from inside the car. Less than ten minutes after returning to my room, I received a call from Bao Zhuoxuan.

“I almost crashed my car just now,” he said, “I’m a little scared being alone.”

“Where are you? I’m coming to find you.” I dashed all the way to the parking lot and found he was still trembling. We walked around the parking lot for two hours, discussing topics ranging from racial discrimination on the Chinese internet to the chained woman. At around 2 a.m., Bao Zhuoxuan said that he felt more emotionally stable now, and we went back to our places to rest.

On the second day of the interview, when mentioning reading his mother’s letter from the prison saying she was doing fine, when mentioning reuniting with his parents and seeing them slimmed down, Bao Zhuoxuan once again broke down in tears.

I asked him, “Recalling these memories caused you so much pain, why did you still decide to accept this interview? ”

“Every time I talk about it, I might feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit depressed, or maybe I’ll have trouble sleeping again that night. But before I actually talk about it, I’m usually quite happy. Every time someone tells me to prepare to speak, I’m always like, ‘Okay, great!’ I hope to let others know that such things exist in the world.”

When we weren’t talking about the 709 crackdown or about his experience in China, I would almost think of Bao Zhuoxuan as a carefree guy. He liked to ask me if he was very mature, if his car skills were super impressive. He sought advice from me on how he could look more sophisticated, and once discreetly used concealer as foundation before our meeting; I therefore took him to Sephora to buy a real foundation. He loved Disneyland and Universal Studios but was hesitant to ride roller coasters or drop towers. He preferred the merry-go-around beloved by little kids. 

My journalism professors and my editor also used to tell me that journalists should maintain a neutral stance and avoid becoming too close or developing friendships with the interview subjects.

After concluding the interview on the first day, I expressed my gratitude to Bao Zhuoxuan for being willing to share his stories with me. He responded somewhat wistfully, “Don’t mention thanks; friends don’t need to be so polite.” Later, as he drove me to the airport, he repeatedly asked me, “So, are we friends now?” “Of course,” I said, and we made plans to hang out together next time.

Of course we are friends. When he trusted me, opened up his most painful memories to me, when we went through so many thrilling and happy moments together, moments that I cannot fully elaborate upon here for the sake of my safety, our relationship transcended the boundaries of typical journalistic interactions.

This article is compiled from Bao Zhuoxuan’s own account, aiming to provide readers with his unfiltered voice, free from journalistic processing. Writing this reporter’s note is prompted by the recognition that, beyond his narrative, Bao Zhuoxuan possesses a more vulnerable and endearing side.

It’s an honor, as a wordsmith and a friend of Bao Zhuoxuan, to present his story to the world. This isn’t the most comprehensive report on the 709 crackdown, nor is it an exhaustive account of the Wang Yu, Bao Longjun, and Bao Zhuoxuan family. What I hope you see in this article is what 709 crackdown meant to a 15-year-old child, and what recalling the events of 709 crackdown at the age of 23 means to an individual.

Happy May Fourth Youth Day, to Bao Zhuoxuan and all the youth in China.




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