Zhou Yuan, the “Nie Shubin of Xinjiang”, Finally Exonerated: But is Justice 20 Years Late Still Justice?

Zhou Yuan (周远), at some point after release.
Zhou Yuan (周远), at some point after release.

What follows is a translation of an article that appeared on December 3, 2017 in the Tianjin Daily (天津日报), as reported by Gu Mingjun. It covers the story of Zhou Yuan, a Han man from Ghulja who unjustly spent 15 years in detention, accused of rape and murder that he never committed. Arrested in 1997, it wasn’t until 2017 that Zhou was acquitted, to later be compensated close to 2 million RMB (over 300000USD) by the state. It is an important case that had much resonance locally, and illustrates an imperfect but rare example of justice from the Xinjiang judicial system, even if late and, according to Zhou himself, insufficient. (Some images have been added to enhance the original.)

On the night of May 17, 1997, Zhou Yuan, then 27, was taken away by the police from his home in Ghulja, Xinjiang. The police suspected him of being the perpetrator in multiple cases of physically injuring and raping women, with the trial of first instance seeing him sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve. Zhou is known as the “Nie Shubin of Xinjiang”, because, as in Nie’s case, there were two suspects for the committed crimes, but the emergence of the new suspect did not exonerate him. Zhou would spend 15 years behind bars. During those 15 long years, Li Bizhen, Zhou’s mother, persisted in her arduous journey to get her son’s case redressed. Time and again, she fell into despair but courageously rose up again.

After 20 years of injustice, Zhou finally received the not-guilty verdict on November 30, 2017, obtaining the exoneration that he and his family had waited so long for. Zhou’s reaction to the verdict did displease Li Bizhen ever slightly, however, as she found it too calm. It was a verdict that required much hardship, even going so far as to cost Zhou’s father his life. Meanwhile, Zhou told reporters that he was not grateful for this exoneration at all and that the court didn’t deserve to see any emotion from him, since this is how it should have been in the first place, with him being found innocent 20 years earlier. No matter how emotional he was, he wouldn’t cry in court, because it would have been unworthy to cry in front of those people.

Timeline of Zhou Yuan’s case

May 17, 1997, evening: taken away.

June 24, 1998: the Ili Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court sentences him to death with a two-year reprieve.

December 2, 1998: the XUAR High People’s Court remands the case for retrial.

April 8, 1999: the Ili Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court sentences Zhou to life imprisonment.

May 13, 1999: the XUAR High People’s Court remands the case for retrial.

November 12, 1999: the Ili Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court sentences Zhou to death with a two-year reprieve.

November 9, 2000: the XUAR High People’s Court sentences Zhou to life imprisonment.

March 12, 2001: the XUAR High People’s Court dismisses appeal.

December 22, 2010: the XUAR High People’s Court issues decision to reopen the case.

December 13, 2011: the list of 5 convicted crimes is reduced to 2, with verdict reduced to fifteen years of imprisonment.

November 18, 2016: the Supreme Court issues decision to re-examine Zhou’s case, and instructs the XUAR High People’s Court to retry the case.

August 25, 2017: the XUAR High People’s Court convenes to retry Zhou’s case.

November 30, 2017: the XUAR High People’s Court declares Zhou not guilty.

First, penultimate, and last pages from Zhou Yuan’s exoneration verdict.

Three nightmares

In the evening of May 17, 1997, while Zhou Yuan was at home playing chess, police officers showed up and asked to have a word with him. Li Bizhen asked what the matter was, to which the officers just said:

“Come on, just come with us for a brief visit.”

Li looked at her son while he got changed and, without saying much, went out.

“My mother was already going through too much at that time,” Zhou recalls. “I didn’t want to make her worry even more, so I didn’t want to linger too long at home.”

Zhou’s eldest sister had been diagnosed with cancer in April 1997, and was in Urumqi for medical treatment. Li Bizhen had to commute between the two cities to take care of her.

Before his sister’s troubles started, there had already been a misfortune with Zhou’s older brother. In December 1996, his brother came back from the military for a training program, and suddenly fell seriously ill. He threw up blood, had incessant nose bleeding, and died soon after, not long before his planned wedding. And now, without giving the family a chance to catch their breath from these tragic events, horror visited them for a third time.

As Zhou remembers it, he had barely descended a few stairs when more police rushed in from above and tackled him. Twisting his arms, they pressed his head and quickly thrust him into a minivan. He tried to scream, but couldn’t. Behind him, Li followed her son the entire way with her eyes. After seeing the police come running from upstairs, she ran to the window and saw Zhou being shoved into a red minivan, his arms folded behind his back as he was held by the police.

On that night, the police minivan was parked in front of this tree.

With Zhou taken away, two police officers started searching the home, while another sat on the living room couch.

“Why did you arrest my son?” Li asked.

“It’s nothing much,” the officer answered. “Someone mentioned him, so we’ll just ask a few questions and he’ll be back soon.”

Li asked about who mentioned him and in what context, but the officer wouldn’t reply.

Having searched the main interior, the police decided to search the basement also.

“The basement had been rented out to students,” Li recalls. “But they had just moved out when the police came. Some of their things had been left behind, including a dagger, because crimes against women were common in Ghulja in those years and we always told the students that they should keep a weapon on them. As a result, that dagger was the thing those police immediately noticed when they went in the basement to search, and were all too happy to grab it and leave, without bothering to search for anything else.”

While talking about this, Li couldn’t help herself and acted out how excited the police were upon discovering the knife.

“That knife belongs to a student, I told them, but they just hurried away without listening. Going upstairs, they knocked on the door of a student’s room, who opened up and told them: ‘that knife is mine’.”

The police never told Li what her son’s case was about. The next day, she called the school principal, who picked up and shot back at her:

“Those things that happened at the No. 3 Middle School – it’s your son that did it!”

Li was shocked, as she knew what “those things” referred to. For several years, multiple women at the No. 3 Middle School had been raped and injured with sharp objects in their private areas, with the perpetrator still at large. Zhou Yuan’s father was a teacher at the school, while Li worked at the mail office there. The couple never talked about these incidents in front of their children, as they were too obscene and despicable. To now be informed that it was her son who had done such things left Li at a loss for words.

“I didn’t dare say that it wasn’t him, or they might have said I was protecting a criminal.”

Having confessed, he was still forced to play along

It would take the detained Zhou even longer than his mother to learn the “reasons” behind his case.

On the night of the 17th, he was first taken to the basement of the Public Security Bureau building, where the police started chitchatting with him. He tried to be patient and talk to them, occasionally interjecting with “what’s this really about?” and “did something happen?”, but the police would not give him a straight answer. When their circuitous conversation finally began getting closer to the case, the police’s questions led Zhou to suspect that it was a rape case.

“Because there were female students living on the campus of the No. 3 Middle School,” he recalls. “But I wasn’t afraid. I hadn’t raped anyone.”

From the time that they brought him to the basement, the police would continuously ask Zhou questions, without letting him sleep. Zhou refers to this period as “harassment”. In the end, he’d lose the strength to talk. On May 19, not long before noon, Zhou Yuan heard a person outside the room screaming.

“It felt like he was screaming so intensely that he was almost suffocating, and it was only when he needed to catch his breath that the screaming stopped briefly. When I thought back to it later, I found it very likely that the police were trying to scare me that way. Because they would stare at me to see how I reacted, but I didn’t. I wasn’t scared, and I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

According to Zhou’s written account of the case, the police then began to torture him. Handcuffing his arms behind his back, they put him through a “polygraph”, which meant attaching one electrode to his waist and another to the arch of his foot, then sending an electric current to make him scream whenever he said “I didn’t do it”. After several hours of this, Zhou decided to “confess”.

His handcuffs were removed and he was taken to a different room in the basement. All the interrogators left, leaving only a policeman surnamed Yu, whom Zhou didn’t recognize. Still, he asked “Uncle Yu” to instruct him on how he should confess. Yu was hesitant, but Zhou urged him:

“Just tell me, there’s no one but us here.”

And so, Officer Yu sketched a scene and explained the details of the crimes, leaving Zhou dumbfounded when Yu announced his conclusion. This wasn’t a simple rape case.

Zhou asked to have a look at the protocol. After Officer Yu guardedly slid it to him, Zhou grabbed it and tore it up, swallowing the shreds. This act angered Yu and invited a brutal series of beatings. By now, Zhou had understood that he was meant to be made that criminal, and that this had already been decided before the arrest.

“Guess this is just my fate,” Zhou would later tell investigators.

He broke down. Faced with six investigators, he felt isolated and helpless. Being beaten had instilled him with fear, and the only thing he wanted was to end the interrogation as quickly as possible. In this criminal case, Zhou says, he was an actor and the police were the directors, directing him on how to act. When the procuratorate wanted a video of him identifying the scene of the crime to the police, Zhou tried very hard to follow the police’s hints. There were many rooms and he didn’t know which he should identify, so he pointed to all of them. One room, he figured, was more likely just because a policeman was standing close to it. If he felt there was something off about the policeman’s facial expression, he’d switch and point to a different one. But even though he did his best to play along, Zhou still made mistakes. While identifying the room where he had purportedly raped a woman surnamed Wang – the direct cause of his arrest – he walked past it. The police had to hurry to stop him and bring him back.

On the campus of the former No. 3 Middle School. The site of the blue metal shack is where Wang’s dorm used to be – the scene of the crime.
An old dormitory that is yet to be demolished.

In the afternoon of December 2, Zhou brings reporters to the former No. 3 Middle School, now changed to a vocational school.

“That was also a women’s dorm, where one crime took place,” Zhou says, pointing to a building beside the sports field. “When the police took me there to identify the crime scene, a lot of teachers and students came out to watch. While walking, I would keep sneaking a peek at the officer behind me, trying to guess where the crime scene might have been.”

Entrance to the former No. 3 Middle School.

The “white building case” was also previously attributed to Zhou. Back then, the white building was an off-campus structure where students from the No. 3 Middle School also lived. The police brought Zhou to identify the crime scene here as well. Revisiting this spot 20 years later, Zhou still remembers everything vividly, telling reporters how preoccupied he was then with finding an explanation for how the criminal had entered the building.

“It’s such a dull building. While walking here, I kept wondering how the hell could someone climb up and get inside. When I approached the front, I saw an iron door, and wondered if it was possible to climb over. But in the end that just led to a dead end.”

To this day, he doesn’t know which room the crime took place in.

The white building.

At one point, Zhou asked the accompanying investigators at the crime scene what would happen when the real culprit was found. No one there answered.

In all the cases in which Zhou was implicated, the only evidence relied on were his confessions.

Spurned by everyone

In the wee hours of May 17, 1997, Miss Wang, a resident of the No. 3 Middle School’s No. 8 Female Dormitory, was raped while asleep and received severe stab wounds. The incident incited a great reaction in the student body and had a large resonance, with the government ordering the police to have the case solved by a certain deadline. Losing no time, the police began by probing within the middle school itself. Those loitering in the vicinity and temporary workers were the first to be suspected.

“Someone talked about my son being unemployed and messing around,” says Li Bizhen. “I only learned about this many years later. Those words may have very well been the reason why he came on the police’s radar.”

Zhou Yuan was born in 1970, graduating from a vocational school in 1993 and returning to Ghulja. At that time, the employment policy for the children of teaching and administrative staff stated that parents who both worked in education could have one of their children admitted to work in the education system also. Zhou was eligible and waited to be employed. But instead of securing him a job, the four years of waiting brought him a prison sentence.

When the police took him away, it wasn’t only Zhou’s life that changed but the fate of the entire family, since people believed that Zhou really was that shameless hoodlum. And while Zhou drowned in despair, his parents became suicidal.

Zhou Yuan’s father, Zhou Pei, was a respected history teacher at the No. 3 Middle School, someone who was both knowledgeable and upright. Zhou Yuan’s mother, Li Bizhen, worked at the school’s mail office. The two got along well with people, but after the incident with Zhou Yuan would start to feel a deep distrust, if not hatred, directed at them.

“When I went to the police to ask about how to appeal the case, nobody came out to receive me,” Li Bizhen says. “The staff there looked at me in a way that seemed to say: ‘You still dare to come to us after that?’”

The rumor mill ran relentlessly. At the beginning, it was said that the suspect was the son of a teacher. Later, it was said that the suspect himself was a young teacher, and the young teachers were not amused. Later, the rumor was that Zhou Yuan used knockout drops in each of his crimes, only pulling it off after he rendered the woman unconscious. The drops were said to come from his father, a chemistry teacher. Things culminated in a fantasy that portrayed Zhou as a flying bandit, who with his gravity-defying skills could furtively enter women’s dormitories as he pleased.

Worse than all the rumors were the changed attitudes of old acquaintances.

“When I worked at the mail office, the Youth League Secretary would make me tea and invite me to chat whenever I delivered newspapers and magazines to her office. After the incident with Zhou Yuan, there was one time when I knocked on her door, but wouldn’t be allowed in after she saw that it was me. She reprimanded me before I could even say anything: ‘Just how did you educate your kid? Who would want to attend our school after this? The Top Unit title is gone too. How do we run this school now? A lot of people also want you to move away. They want to smash your windows. It’s good that this is the education system here, or we would have kicked you out already.’”

Returning from the secretary’s home, Li said to her husband:

“Old Zhou, let’s kill ourselves.”

“Okay,” her husband replied.

His reply was so calm that it seemed as if he had been waiting for this proposal. As she cried, Li understood that for her dignified husband, who cherished his reputation more than his life, it would have been better to die and liberate himself from the situation they were in now. However, when she stopped crying and gathered herself, Li gave up on the idea of suicide.

“Now our son is arrested, and if we kill ourselves too then no one will ever believe in his innocence. I will absolutely clear his name. I know it wasn’t my son. He didn’t go out once the night of the 16th. How could it possibly be him?”

In 1998, the first court hearing for Zhou Yuan’s case took place, but as it was a closed session his family was not allowed to enter the courtroom. That day, Zhou’s parents came to the courthouse and sat on the curb outside, hoping to see their son after the hearing ended.

“I was 20 to 30 meters away before they put him into the police car, and he shouted to me, probably to let his father hear too, as his father had one ear injured from an incident while putting out a fire: ‘Believe me, Mom! I haven’t committed a single crime. They didn’t allow me to say anything.’”

Li Bizhen talks about the scene outside the courthouse.

After hearing this, Li couldn’t fall asleep for an entire week.

“You might think it’s an exaggeration, but I took two or three sleeping pills a day and still couldn’t close my eyes and sleep.”

Li and her husband became even more determined to clear their son’s name. From a woman who thought that “intermediate court” (zhongyuan) meant “Chinese medicine hospital” (zhongyiyuan), she gradually changed into an “over-my-dead-body petitioner” who could recall legal provisions and render judges speechless. Each time that the High Court sent back the case or altered the decision, she viewed it as ironclad proof of her son’s innocence.

“If he were really the culprit, then I’d say he deserved to die, and wouldn’t even mourn him. But if he was innocent, then I had to clear his name.”

Li moved to Urumqi to make petitioning easier. From time to time, she’d also visit Beijing. To make the petition officials listen, she asserted herself by raising her voice louder and louder. The many years of petitioning would injure her ankles, which continue to hurt whenever the weather is rainy. Once, she fell and broke her arm, but this is not a big deal for her either. At times, feeling hopeless, she would sit by the side of the road and wail. A kind passerby could stop and ask what was bothering her, prompting her to share a copy of the petition document for her son’s case, taking the opportunity to leave while the person was busy skimming through it. It was such a long story that she wouldn’t know where to start.

No one had the courage to right a wrong

In recounting his long ordeal, what seems to anger Zhou Yuan the most aren’t the 20 years that were taken from what should have been the best period of his life, but the fact that nobody had the courage to stand up and right the wrong, despite there being numerous junctures where things could have been changed and certain ludicrous errors avoided.

In the case of Nie Shubin, Nie had already been executed by shooting ten years earlier by the time that Wang Shujin was caught, and while Wang Shujin admitted to all of the crimes, there was no way to bring Nie back from the dead. Admitting then that the ruling was a mistake would have left the criminal justice system in an extremely awkward position. But in Zhou’s case, things hadn’t gone anywhere near as far.

Similar crimes continued to take place after Zhou’s arrest.

“The odds of there being two criminal suspects who were carrying out these psychopathic crimes at the same time are very low,” Zhou’s defense attorney, Wang Xing of the Zebo Law Firm in Beijing, tells reporters.

Even the residents of the No. 3 Middle School family housing compound began wondering if Zhou hadn’t been wronged.

In August 1998, Huo Yong was caught. As reported by the Ili Evening News, after being caught Huo Yong confessed to having committed a total of 34 crimes between 1991 and 1998, of which 21 were burglary cases, 12 were cases of assaulting and raping women, and 1 was a case of raping and murdering a woman. Huo Yong also had a criminal record, having been sentenced to 3 years for hooliganism in 1983. However, the final verdict only determined him as guilty of the crimes that took place after 1996. With Huo Yong being caught, crimes of this nature stopped as well.

Documents Li Bizhen gathered to appeal Zhou Yuan’s case.

Zhou Yuan learned about Huo Yong’s arrest from his cellmates at the pre-trial detention center, after having been sentenced to death with reprieve in the court of first instance. He was thrilled upon hearing this news, believing that he would be rehabilitated. But nothing changed in his case even after Huo Yong was executed.

“That day when Huo Yong was shot dead, I also heard the news from my cellmates, but I didn’t feel much of anything,” Zhou recalls.

Li Bizhen couldn’t imagine how Zhou passed those days and nights in the detention center and prison, and Zhou never talked to his mother about it. In reality, his life in prison was not as painful as imagined. Having experienced the few days in the basement, Zhou made the choice to accept everything. When entering a detention center, new inmates are questioned by the old inmates about their crime. When it came to Zhou, he simply said:

“Nothing much. I don’t want to talk about what’s written regarding my case. I’m not here to whine about being innocent. Do whatever you want.”

Inmates have no shortage of innovations with which to torment newcomers, such as “taking the plane” or “watching television”. But when Zhou talks about these, he actually cracks a smile, as if those were just boyish games. The detention center and prison didn’t do anything wrong, he says, and he doesn’t hate these places.

As time went by, Zhou became a seasoned inmate and the others no longer bullied him. One day, a cellmate asked him what he had meant when he said, as a new inmate, that he wasn’t there to “whine about being innocent”. For the first time, Zhou told the others about his case, which then became a topic of conversation across the entire detention center. After hearing his story, the other inmates told him that people like him would be shot, but Zhou didn’t think so. Sure enough, the outcome of the trial of first instance was a death sentence with reprieve. Zhou says that this outcome was more or less what he had expected.

The former Ghulja City Pre-Trial Detention Center, where Zhou Yuan was held for years before being transferred to prison in Urumqi.

At the end of 2000, Zhou was transferred from the Ghulja City Pre-Trial Detention Center to the Xinjiang No. 3 Prison. A fellow inmate told him not to act against correction, and to not do anything too radical even if he was innocent, as nothing good could possibly come of it. Zhou followed his fellow inmate’s advice, displaying good behavior in prison and even having his sentence reduced.

“When I heard about my sentence being reduced, I ran to find the political instructor, since I was still appealing my case. Because according to the rules, you can’t get a sentence reduction while still appealing. But the political instructor just ignored me, and after standing there for a while I left.”

His sentence was reduced thrice, and he no longer protested upon hearing the news the second and third times.

In 2011, his sentence was reduced to 15 years. He had already been in prison for 14 years by that time.

“I wasn’t the least bit grateful for that reduction to 15 years. They can set whatever sentence they like. In the beginning, they charged me with 8 crimes, and in the end only 2 were left. Who committed the other 6? Why does it take 15 years for you to figure out that there wasn’t enough evidence?”

That was what Zhou asked the judge when his case was opened for retrial at the Xinjiang High Court this past August.

Zhou Yuan and Li Bizhen, together with their lawyers, outside the High Court in Urumqi.

Every time his mother visited Zhou, she would tell him about all the places she had gone and the people she had met in order to petition his case. Zhou would just listen quietly.

“They say that overturning a conviction is like overturning a mountain, and while I definitely wanted a clean name, I didn’t really hold out much hope.”

On May 21, 2012, when Zhou completed his sentence and was released, his mother came to the prison to pick him up alone. They had to walk a long, long way to get to the bus stop. Li Bizhen told her son to keep walking forward, without looking back.

Struggling to keep his eyes open, his father passed away

In the long campaign for his son, Zhou Yuan’s father comes off as a supporting role. When Li Bizhen visited the petition officials, judges, or prosecutors, he stood behind her, listening to her discuss the details of the case in an ever-louder voice. When she visited the detention center or prison, he went with her, but wouldn’t talk much, other than reminding Zhou to look after his health. But in reality, he was the one who insisted on suing the state. He was the strategist for his wife, looking up legal provisions and telling her how to refute the judge. Although he couldn’t speak out as loudly as his wife, telling others about their misery, it was he who was going through the most pain. As an old-school intellectual, he loved his reputation more than his life, and wanted his son’s name cleared more than anybody else, because it was also his own. Li, always determined and strong when recounting all that she’s gone through during the long process of appeals, breaks into tears when the conversation turns to her husband.

Zhou Pei and Li Bizhen were both originally from Yongzhou, Hunan, where Zhou Pei’s father was a well-known traditional Chinese medicine doctor. In the 1950s, Zhou Pei was enrolled in the archaeology department of the Northwest University of China. After graduating, he could have stayed to work at the university, but instead decided to answer the country’s call to support the border regions. His professors tried repeatedly to persuade him to stay, while his family secured a position for him at Hunan University. But Zhou Pei was determined, and arrived in Xinjiang by taking a freight train.

“I once asked him why he had so many books,” Li Bizhen recalls. “‘Bizhen,’ he said, ‘I was once a person of dreams and aspirations, you know.’”

Since museums and the like didn’t exist in Xinjiang at the time to offer a job to an archaeologist, Zhou Pei was assigned to Xinjiang Normal College as a result of his perfect grades. At the time, there were many cadres on further education at the college. They were older people, with salaries. At 22, the boyish Zhou Pei, who couldn’t even afford good cigarettes, was unremarkable. But the moment he stood in front of the podium, he became the center of everyone’s attention.

“One day when he came home, he told me: ‘I stood in front of the podium and the audience applauded. They were surprised that I was their teacher. And they admired me.’”

Whenever Li speaks of her husband, her eyes shine with happiness. Aware of his sophistication and intelligence, she enjoyed being in his aura. Because to her he was perfect.

“I went to attend his lectures, which he could deliver without needing a textbook. He was so eloquent. Later, when he moved to the No. 3 Middle School and I worked at the mail office, sometimes people from units outside the school would call with professional questions, and instead of telling them that he’d get back to them after looking up the relevant information, old Zhou would just answer them directly. He knew which piece of information was found on which page and in which line.”

With the start of the Three Years of Difficulty, enrollment at Xinjiang Normal College stopped, and the teachers all started looking for livelihood elsewhere. Zhou Pei didn’t know where to go, and was advised to go to the Bingtuan in Ili, because Ili was the best place in Xinjiang, with food plentiful in the Bingtuan. And so Zhou Pei came to the Bingtuan Fourth Agricultural Division, to later be transferred to the Ghulja City No. 3 Middle School when it was founded, owing to his being an outstanding teacher. Ultimately, he ended up settling at the school.

Zhou Pei spent the rest of his life teaching at the No. 3 Middle School, and had just retired months earlier when trouble befell Zhou Yuan, causing Zhou Pei to go from a respected educator to a hoodlum’s father overnight. As Zhou Yuan recalls, whenever his father visited, he could discern the gloom and pain on the latter’s face, even though his father wouldn’t say anything.

In 2006, Zhou Pei suddenly fell ill. He was hospitalized in the morning, with the doctors announcing that he was in critical condition, and would pass away in the afternoon. He was 69. The doctors couldn’t find the cause of the illness.

“The doctor asked if he had any final words. He stared at them with his eyes wide open and didn’t say anything. I understood what he was thinking: he believed that as long as you don’t close your eyes, you won’t pass away. And that’s how he died, with eyes wide open.”

Witnessing her husband’s death left a wound in Li Bizhen’s heart. She knew that he had been living in extreme depression and understood that his death had a definite connection to the injustice suffered by their son.

After a prolonged period of not receiving any visits from his father, Zhou Yuan was able to guess that something had happened, but he didn’t want to ask his mother and she didn’t tell him either, fearing that it only add to his worries. On the day of his release, seeing his mother there all alone confirmed his suspicions. After getting home, he looked at the portrait of his late father and said:

“I’m back, Dad.”

Then, after having looked at it for a long time, he carefully walked out.

When the acquittal ruling was handed down, people asked Li Bizhen if she was happy. She resented the question.

“What can I be happy about? Whenever I try to smile, I feel bitter inside. Everyone says that I can now turn a new page. But I don’t want a new page. Can I return to the first page? Would that be okay?”

Searching for the lost years

Li Bizhen has one daughter and three sons, of which Zhou Yuan is number three. To this day, she still calls him “three-three” (sansan), and dotes on him. The fifteen years, however, have changed too many things, including everyone’s temperaments and the relations between family members. Zhou feels his mother is more short-tempered than when he was a child.

“This probably has to do with what happened to me,” he says. “Before, she wasn’t so… unrestrained, I guess.”

Zhou, for his part, is more like his father. Gentler.

Li also thinks her son has changed. He no longer communicates like he used to, and this has directly affected his family prospects.

“My hometown relatives introduced several girls to him, but it didn’t work out because of communication issues. One of them ended up coming to Xinjiang with him, but ultimately that didn’t work out either.”

Li’s tone betrays complaint and disappointment, and she really wants her son to have a family, worried that he may end up alone until death. Zhou, when asked about this, grows too bashful to speak: “No no, let’s not touch that,” he says repeatedly. Low self-esteem prompts him to avoid it.

“I’m really not doing great, and I can’t afford to raise a family. Such things will not work out for me.”

Zhou Yuan would marry in December 2018, planning to go to Shenzhen with his wife and to find work there.

This 47-year-old man, already with grey hair at the temples, talks with an indisputably pessimistic tone, the two past decades having weighed on him as heavily as on a real convict. And like many other individuals released from prison, he has lost hope on life, putting this label on himself. He doesn’t even really complain about how unfair life has been to him, the greatest complaint being telling fellow detention-center inmates that they’d be old and with their “offals” gone bad by the time they were released.

Zhou’s nephew jokingly asks whether he was a handsome man when he was younger. With a stern smile, Zhou replies:

“How ‘bout that… Maybe I was.”

He doesn’t have any photos of his younger self. Those were all taken away by the police during that evening raid in 1997.

The consolation that comes when a wrong is finally righted is unbearably light. For Zhou Yuan’s family, neither the acquittal ruling nor the state’s reparations can bring back the two lost decades.

Justice delayed is justice denied.”

This is a phrase that Li Bizhen says a lot, the plucky Hunanese woman always straightforward and on point. Just as she has always been, ever since the day her life was shattered to pieces.

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