INTERVIEW: ‘I had to do something, even if it didn’t change anything’


A former “white paper” movement protester describes being locked in a psychiatric hospital for holding up a sign.

INTERVIEW: 'I had to do something, even if it didn't change anything'

Zhang Junjie, a former university student in China who is now living in New Zealand, was forced by police into a mental hospital for participating in the “white paper” protests.

A 19-year-old former student who took part in the “white paper” movement that swept China in late 2022 has described being sent to a psychiatric institution for his role in the protests. 

Zhang Junjie, who hails from the eastern province of Jiangsu, recently arrived in New Zealand after fleeing China. 

He told Radio Free Asia in a recent interview that he was subjected to medical abuse at the hands of the authorities, who forced him into a psychiatric hospital claiming he had schizophrenia, a fate that is often meted out to those who publicly criticize the Chinese government or its leaders.

“On Nov. 27, some friends from Tsinghua University and Peking University sent me video clips of protests happening on their campuses,” Zhang said. “I felt that I should contribute to the cause of freedom and democracy in China, that I should do something.”

“I went out and held up a sign twice, the first time outside of the main classroom building on the evening of Nov. 27, but nobody paid me any attention because it was in the night. I held it up for about half an hour, then went back to the dorm,” he said.

Photos of the printed A4 sheets shared with Radio Free Asia read: “End single-party dictatorship – constitutional government now!” and a group of slogans echoing the “Bridge Man” protest by Peng Lifa in October.

“I went back to the same place to hold up the sign at 8.00 a.m. on Nov. 28, and some teachers saw me after about five minutes,” Zhang said.

The teachers dragged Zhang into a nearby administrative building, where he was held while school leaders contacted his family to come and get him.

Locked up

Zhang’s father arrived the following day and took him back to the family home in Jiangsu’s Nantong city, confiscating his computer and mobile phone.

On Dec. 1, his family cooperated with police to take him unawares to the Nantong No. 4 Hospital, a psychiatric facility, where he was locked up for six days, and forcibly injected with medication, including sedatives.

“Two more plainclothes [state security police officers] came on Dec. 1 and drove me to the No. 4 People’s Hospital in Nantong city,” Zhang said. “They must have said something to the doctor, because he suddenly restrained me and said I was mentally ill.”

“I told him I wasn’t, but the plainclothes officer said ‘If you don’t support the Chinese Communist Party, you’re sick.'”

Zhang’s father and grandfather beat him several times because he tried to resist being given the medication, he said.

“Three nurses tied me to the bed, and they told me ‘This is what happens when you don’t love your country and the party’,” he said.

“Whether you have a disease or not is not for you to decide, but for the government and the party,” the state security police told him.

‘You just need to cooperate’

Zhang was also subjected to further abuse from his family members after his brief bout of activism got his father fired.

“You just need to cooperate with treatment, support the party and general secretary [Xi Jinping] and we’ll let you go immediately,” the police told him.

“Then they dragged me through the admissions procedures and took me to the seventh floor, which was hell on earth,” he said. “The doctor, whose name was Zhang Peiyun, told me that I would be released if I changed my attitude.”

Zhang, who also took part in the “Fireworks Revolution,” a brief flurry of nationwide protests defying a ban on fireworks at the beginning of this year, said he had been inspired to protest by “Bridge Man” protester Peng Lifa, who hung a banner calling for Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s resignation from Beijing’s Sitong Bridge traffic flyover on the eve of the 20th party congress.

At the time, Zhang had added his name to a global open letter calling for the “removal and trial” of Xi Jinping at the 20th party congress in October 2022.

Zhang was eventually released from the hospital, whereupon he made immediate plans to leave China, applying to study at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

He eventually managed to get a New Zealand visa in Hong Kong, and tweeted that he had “escaped to freedom.”

Not long afterwards, the police appeared at his family home in Nantong and threatened his family, in a bid to get him to delete the tweet, according to an audio clip of the raid shared with Radio Free Asia by Zhang.

Zhang said he had been at loggerheads with his family since he started finding out about the 1989 student-led democracy movement, and the bloody crackdown that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead when the People’s Liberation Army cleared Beijing of protesters with machine guns and tanks.

‘I had to do something’

Zhang also followed the fate of late jailed 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo and news about the crackdown on human rights lawyers that launched in July 2015.

“I lived in that ugly place for 18 years,” Zhang said. “I had to do something, even if it didn’t change anything.”

“I was persecuted for taking part in those activities, and I felt unhappy because most people didn’t understand me,” he said. “[But] I don’t have any regrets or complaints.”

France-based current affairs commentator and former 1989 student protester Wang Longmeng said other “white paper” movement protesters had also been labeled “mentally ill” by the authorities for “reviving the spirit of the June 4 protest movement.”

“In China, you can be labeled mentally ill if you dare to resist the government’s power,” Wang said. “The whole of China seems to have turned into a psychiatric institution with no humanity.”

“I’m very glad Zhang Junjie was able to flee the psychiatric hospital and escape to the free world,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t deserve such amazing young people.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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