Protester sues Chinese embassy in Washington over 2022 incident outside ambassador’s residence
An ambassadorial posting to Washington, D.C., typically brings with it two things: a leafy, Gilded Age residence in one of the nicest parts of town, and the threat of protesters camping out front.
From Russia to Turkey and Iceland to Canada, all have had their embassies or official residences targeted in recent years. For Americans, this is part of living in a democratic society. For visiting diplomats, particularly from countries where such protests would never be tolerated, it can be a shock.
“For them, being protested is being harassed,” said Times Wang, a D.C.-based lawyer.
Mr. Wang sued the Chinese embassy in Washington this month on behalf of Qiao Jie, who was injured in a scuffle outside the residence of then-ambassador Qin Gang last August. (Mr. Qin left his post later that year to become China’s Foreign Minister.)
In an interview, Mr. Wang said the incident was indicative of the “impunity” with which Chinese officials increasingly act overseas, as they seek to suppress dissent well beyond their country’s borders. He pointed to a similar episode outside China’s consulate in Manchester, England, when staff brawled with Hong Kong protesters.
“Chinese diplomats swaggering onto a street to quell a protest in the middle of D.C. – this can’t be tolerated,” Mr. Wang said.
Prior to the incident, Ms. Qiao, a 70-year-old permanent resident of the U.S., had been demonstrating for weeks outside the ambassador’s residence in D.C.’s Kalorama neighbourhood. Unlike many protesters outside China’s missions in the U.S., Ms. Qiao is not “opposed to either the government of the PRC or the Chinese Communist Party,” according to the lawsuit; her father fought in the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War.
Like many Chinese citizens, however, Ms. Qiao claims to be a victim of corruption. She says she lost more than two million yuan ($394,000) when land she bought in Hubei province was expropriated by a local developer. She spent years in court, and even won an initial judgment, but the case was eventually thrown out on what Ms. Qiao claims were dubious grounds, leaving her with nothing.
After unsuccessfully petitioning the Chinese government in Beijing, she joined a group of demonstrators outside Mr. Qin’s residence in D.C., “as was her right under international and domestic law,” the suit says, adding that “to ensure their messages were heard, plaintiff and her fellow petitioners sometimes issued them using bullhorns.”
During a protest on Aug. 17 last year, several men emerged from the residence holding their own bullhorns, which they used to play sirens to drown out the demands of the demonstrators. A video shows them scuffling with the protesters, as U.S. Secret Service agents try unsuccessfully to keep both sides apart – one agent can be heard telling the men, “You’re causing nothing but problems.”
At one point in the video, a man dressed in a black Puma sweatshirt and wearing a white mask is seen standing over Ms. Qiao, who is far shorter than him, and holding a blaring bullhorn in her face.
According to her lawyers, Ms. Qiao “tried to parry the bullhorn away in self defence,” but the man – identified as Doe 1 in the suit – persisted, later allegedly striking her with it, causing her to collapse. The Globe and Mail cannot independently confirm her account, as this part of the altercation was not caught on video, though Ms. Qiao is seen slumped on the floor shortly afterward.
Ms. Qiao, who suffers from a number of pre-existing conditions, including a heart ailment and cavernous angioma, a malformation of blood vessels that can result in seizures, developed a headache and blurred vision and later suffered a seizure “for the first time in several years,” the lawsuit says.
She was taken by paramedics to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, where she underwent a CT scan and was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhagic contusion, according to medical records reviewed by The Globe. As a result of her injuries, she lost significant function in her left leg and requires the use of a wheelchair to this day, the lawsuit says.
China’s embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment about Ms. Qiao’s alleged injuries or protests outside the ambassador’s residence.
Rather than suing Doe 1, who is likely a diplomat with immunity to civil litigation, Ms. Qiao is seeking US$25-million in “compensatory and punitive damages” directly from the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Mr. Wang, the Canadian-American son of Chinese pro-democracy activist Wang Bingzhang, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2003, said lawsuits like the one filed on behalf of Ms. Qiao are a way of fighting “transnational suppression.” He is also pursuing cases involving the alleged censorship of Chinese-Americans by WeChat.
He said the situation has gotten worse for Chinese dissidents and even non-political expats living abroad, who face increased surveillance and harassment as Beijing attempts to control their behaviour from afar. The Globe has reported on how Chinese police have in recent years set up semi-official “service stations” in Canada and other countries, which have been linked to efforts to influence nationals living overseas.
“It’s bad enough that this is the system you implement on your soil, but to censor and surveil and try to suppress the human rights of the diaspora societies, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “We can’t file lawsuits in China, but we can file lawsuits in Canada and the U.S.”