Prominent Chinese dissident and performance artist Yan Zhengxue is unconscious in the hospital under heavy guard by state security police, Radio Free Asia has learned.
Yan, who headed an outspoken group of dissident artists in Beijing during the student-led pro-democracy movement of 1989, is well-known for his sculptures, in particular one of Cultural Revolution-era activist Lin Zhao.
Yan is currently on a ventilator and state security police have instituted tight security around his hospital room, interrogating fellow pro-democracy activist Ji Feng and forcing him to leave his friend’s bedside on pain of “death without a burial,” a person close to Ji told Radio Free Asia on Monday.
“He was threatened by the Beijing municipal state security police,” the person said.
While the reason for Yan’s unconscious state wasn’t disclosed, those close to him believe he is approaching the end of his life, but without one of his closest friends and fellow dissidents by his side.
“[Ji] won’t be allowed to visit Yan Zhengxue from now on, and if he dares to speak out again, his mobile phone will be smashed,” the person said, quoting state security police threats to Ji during an interrogation at a Beijing guesthouse.
Police had treated Ji roughly throughout the interrogation, refused to allow him to record proceedings and kicked the door down when he visited the bathroom, they said.
Ji has been taken to his home city of Guizhou in southwestern China, and only Yan’s wife and daughter are allowed to be with him in hospital, the person said.
Beijing-based independent journalist Gao Yu said she had also received news of Ji’s treatment at the hands of state security police. She said Ji had done nothing wrong in wanting to be with his lifelong friend at the end of his life.
Calls to the media center at the Beijing municipal police department were cut off shortly after connection on Monday.
‘He suffered a lot’
Gao also lauded Yan for continuing to comment on political oppression through his artwork, most notably his sculptures of famous dissidents.
“He was arrested more than a dozen times, and sent to prison, specifically one prison sentence and two stints in a labor camp,” she said. “He suffered a lot.”
“He was beaten many times, his toes were stamped on and broken, and he was taken to the police station on many occasions,” Gao said. “But he never gave in.”
“He created a great deal of his work in prison,” she said, adding that he was “very influential” among China’s dissident artists, particularly the dissident art community in Beijing.
Ji Feng once published an article saying that Yan was one of the pioneers of what he termed “contemporary free culture” in China.
“Whether inside or outside the high walls [of prison], Yan Zhengxue made art with a prisoner’s mentality,” Ji wrote. “He faced the thick walls of autocracy like a soldier, unwilling to retreat even though he knew they were invincible. He was very much a lone hero.”
Brother struck by car
In 2013, Yan’s elderly brother was hit by a car in a near-fatal accident relatives feared could be part of a campaign of political persecution against the artist.
The accident took place in Taizhou city in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang hours after Yan got in a heated confrontation with local officials at the municipal government’s complaints bureau.
The families of prominent critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party frequently report discrimination, loss of employment, physical attacks and harassment by law enforcement agencies linked to the dissident’s activities.
Children of dissidents sometimes find barriers placed in the way of their education, while whole families have reported being held under house arrest and subjected to detentions and beatings.
In 1993, Yan Zhengxue was sentenced to “re-education through labor” after he lodged a complaint against the Beijing police department, during which he reported being tortured with electric batons.
Following his release in 1996, Yan began rights advocacy work on behalf of disadvantaged groups in China, which led to several bouts of secret detention.
He was handed a three-year jail term in 2007 for “incitement to subvert state power.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.