Last Thursday, the Chinese lawyer Ge Yongxi posted a satirical photomontage about the Panama Papers on the Wechat messaging service. A few hours later, he was arrested. The image depicts the three Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping wading through the Panama Canal. It is a reference to a phrase Deng once used to describe his reform policy, about the need to “cross the river by feeling the way from stone to stone”. Deng, on the far right of the picture, says that the Canal is very deep. On the left, Jiang is concerned that they could drown, but Xi tells him not to worry because he has a “brother-in-law”. In China, the term has been used online since 2012 as a code word for the dubious relationships between power and capital. At the time, the secret fortune of Deng Jiagui, who is married to the party leader Xi Jinping’s older sister, was exposed for the first time. Brother-in-law Deng appears in the Panama Papers as the owner of a shell company, as do the relatives of eight current or former members of political office. For this reason, the revelations have been censored from China’s networks. Following Ge Yongxi’s arrest, SZ spoke to his lawyer, Chen Jinxue.
SZ: When was Ge Yongxi arrested?
Chen Jinxue: Around midnight on Thursday night. Five police officers came to his house and took him to Yanbu police station in Foscan. They said he had posted an insulting message about China’s president on Wechat. They demanded his cell phone password and then confiscated his phone.
You suspect Ge was picked up because he posted a satirical photomontage about the Panama Papers. What makes you so sure?
The police told me the reason for his arrest was “public disparagement of a third party”. It’s likely they’re talking about the photomontage that he posted for his friends on Wechat. And it’s still there, by the way.
Why are you representing Ge Yongxi?
We are friends, like-minded people. I am also one of his Wechat friends.
Did you know about the Panama Papers?
I read about them online and on Wechat.
Do you think that many people in China got wind of the revelations? The censors have been working flat out.
I can’t tell. But the Internet helps somewhat. Whoever wants to access information can, even though it might not be comprehensive. At first, there were posts about the Panama Papers on the Weibo microblogging service, and then all of them were deleted in one fell swoop. But on Wechat, a lot of people kept sharing the posts with their friends.
Did you share the photomontage too?
Why weren’t you arrested?
They probably already had an eye on Ge Yongxi because he’s taken on many human rights cases as a lawyer. They were monitoring him for a long time.
But the authorities also monitor Wechat very closely. Why don’t you delete the image? Why did they arrest Ge?
It’s a warning, an attempt to intimidate.
Who are they trying to warn?
Anyone interested in the Panama Papers.
Have they succeeded? Do you feel intimidated?
I was scared when I found out about the arrest, but I’m not afraid anymore. All we want is justice, and we aren’t alone.
What are the authorities worried about?
The names of powerful people appear in the Panama Papers. With these revelations, ordinary people can become aware of corruption.
China has a huge censorship apparatus. Is censorship working?
People who have looked away aren’t likely to find out about anything now. But those who have already opened their eyes know that this system is beyond saving. And that just makes them even more steadfast. The actions of the authorities are effective, but not in the way they’d like them to be. If they had just let the picture be, the situation would have run its course. By arresting Ge, they’ve attracted even more attention to it.