I’ve always been reluctant to take on human rights in China; that was partly due to my residential status and partly because it’s hard to have fun on that subject. However, it’s hard to think of anything more universally fun than a game of cards. So when I was asked to take a look at pack of cards with a political message – it seemed impossible to say no.

Then I ended up wracking my brains to do the cards justice. I suppose you could sum up the cards as a collection of dissidents that you can play poker with but that hardly touches on their potential.


I can’t find any Chinese dissidents in exile to play with but I do have some friends in the Cambodian-Chinese community who don’t keep their eyes on news out of China as much as they perhaps might. So, I phoned one of them up and asked if they fancied a game of cards with a difference. We’d play a few hands and when a hand made them particularly happy – we’d take a look at the people featured on the cards and see what feelings they brought up for them.

My friend’s name is Selena, well at least that’s the English name she’s adopted, and while she’s not keen on the idea of being photographed for this – in case it ever has any ramifications for her here (where Chinese influence is growing), she’s happy to play the game.

Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping as Jokers made me laugh but I’m afraid the former-Chinese Premier and the General Secretary of the Communist Party end up staying in the box as we play blackjack and there’s no room for jokers in that game.


Just clowning? Not if you’re a dissident in China.

The Game

The cards make for good playing cards, I have a fairly ham-fisted shuffle and they survive unscathed as I force them together to mix them up. Selena and I play a few hands and her first moment of joy is when her 5 card trick beats my pair of queens. I ought to mention that we are playing for small stakes and this hand is the first one that puts her a full dollar in the lead.

Her hand? The Ace of Spades – Liu Xiaobo, The Five of Spades – Chen Xi, The Six of Diamonds – Zhu Yufu, The Three of Clubs – Kong Youping, and the Two of Hearts – Zhiwen Wang.

I feel pretty qualified to talk about Liu Xiaobo off-the-top-of-my-head. His crime was to call for the end to communist party rule as a single party system. He’s a Noble Peace Prize winner (which he won on his 4th trip to jail for speaking out). He’s currently serving an 11 year sentence for “spreading a message to subvert the country and authority”. Selena’s a bit shocked that someone as well known around the world has so little protection from the government. She’s in Cambodia so she’s not unaware of political censorship but she never thought it could happen to someone with so much support in the West either.

Chen Xi’s mistake was to write an essay online. He was convicted of “subversion” and is currently serving 10 years in jail. It’s not his first spell in jail either – he served time following Tiananmen too. I hadn’t come across Chen before and we spent quite a bit of time tracking down various articles about him and marveling at his courage.

Zhu Yufu’s a poet. It was a poem that put him in jail in the latest of a series of arrests and detention periods. He encourage people to participate in pro-democracy rallies in 2011. That’s it. No threats of violence, just a letter to say – why not protest?

Then we come to Kong Youping, whose crime was to put information online on foreign websites relating to democracy and government corruption.

Poor old Zhiwen Wang is in jail for practicing Falun Gong, a slightly off-the-wall Chinese religion. Falun Gong was perceived as a threat to the party because of its growing popularity in China.

Try and work out who each figure is - that's half the fun.

Try and work out who each figure is – that’s half the fun.

The Final Hand

By the time we get through these cards – Selena doesn’t want to play anymore. She’s started to feel like there are too many mirrors between Cambodia and China and that they might get her into trouble. She mumbles her apologies to me and leaves quickly. She hasn’t spoken to me since – though in fairness it has only been a couple of days – maybe she’ll forgive me yet. I notice that she did take the dollar and the other pack of the dissident cards that I’d promised her in exchange for playing.

So I’m left to offer my final thoughts alone. These cards are great. They play well and as a teaching tool – we learned a lot (even if one of us wishes they hadn’t). I know that the manufacturer is looking for a sponsor for the deck so that they can raise further awareness – so if there’s a good Samaritan out there with some spare funds, you could do worse than get involved with the China Dissidents playing card collection.


They’re genuinely lovely cards too – the packaging is first class and they make for great playing cards as well as an educational tool.

Other Stuff

The Political Dissidents of China card deck comes from World Freedom Products. They’re a small company dedicated to developing interesting and somewhat different educational products with a benevolent twist. From Monday the 2nd of June they will be offering the deck at a special price of $6.40 (for folks in the US and Canada) in recognition of June 4th (get it?). The offer ends on June 4th so you’ll need to be quick. If you’re not in the US or Canada – there are deep discounts for you too. Find them here at World Freedom Products or e-mail them instead here.