Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing

By Gu Chuan, published: January 12, 2014

Zho Changqing released from prison on November 27, 2007.

Zhao Changqing released from prison on November 27, 2007.


On April 17, 2013, my good friend Zhao Changqing was detained by the Beijing authorities for alleged “illegal assembly” as part of the crackdown on the New Citizens Movement. On May 24, he was officially arrested on charges of “illegal assembly.”

Changqing has a baby son named “Little Elephant” (小象). The day after Changqing was arrested, 10-month-old Little Elephant mistook every man wearing glasses who came to visit their home for his dad, crying out for the attention of the visitors. I was saddened when I heard this. During the “Jasmine Revolution” in February of 2011, I was taken by the security police, and over the 63-day forced disappearance that followed, my heart was pierced every moment by the scene of my two boys, one 21 months old and the other a little over three months old, screaming as two dozen or so policemen manhandled me and took me away from my home.

Before my family left China in 2012, Changqing was my neighbor in the same apartment complex in Beijing. He was also a member of my church group. He told me that in the summer of 2004, when he was in jail for the third time, he obtained a copy of the Bible from a fellow inmate. He started reading it, first the New Testament and then the Old Testament. After he read through it once, he picked out passages to reread and made notes. In prison, there was no way to get baptized and no one dared to baptize him anyway. On Christmas Eve of 2004, Changqing washed himself with cold water and declared that he had baptized himself. In July of 2010, he was officially baptized and became a Christian. 

A College Freshman during the June 4th Massacre

This is Changqing’s 4th prison stint. He went to jail the first time for his involvement in the June 4th Democracy Protests in 1989, and he was imprisoned in the infamous Qincheng Prison (秦城监狱) for three months.   

Zhao Changqing is from Shaanxi Province, and in 1988 he was accepted into the History Department of Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an. At the beginning of May in 1989, in response to the student democracy protests just starting in Beijing, Changqing, a college freshman, drafted and posted the “May 4th Declaration” and a “Letter to Students and Teachers at the Normal University,” calling on Shaanxi Normal professors and students to join a march on Youth Day [May 4th]. For the march, Changqing constructed a flag with the characters “Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights, and Rule of Law” on it and he walked in the very first row. On May 16, the Shaanxi Normal University Student Autonomy Council was founded, and Changqing was its first publicity director.

Zhao Changqing came to Beijing on May 23rd after martial law in Beijing had been announced by former Prime Minister Li Peng (李鹏) on May 19. Soon, he became the secretary for the “Federation of Colleges and Universities outside Beijing.” After the PLA carried out the massacre on the night of June 3rd and the early hours of June 4th in Tian’anmen Square and nearby locations, Zhao Changqing, who had just returned to Xi’an to debrief about the situation, returned to Beijing to show his support. Upon arriving, he began to collect facts about the massacre. On June 7th, the martial law troops stopped him in Xidan, searched him, and found his notes and will. The soldiers brought him to a grove near the Xinhua Gate (新华门) off the East Chang’an Avenue and beat him up until his head was oozing blood. Afterwards, he was tied up with ropes and brought by five heavily armed soldiers to the martial law troops’ headquarters in Tian’anmen Square, and handed over to the Beijing public security bureau. On June 13th he was admitted to the Qincheng prison where he was confined in the same cell with Sun Jianwei (孙建伟) from Tsinghua University, Chen Lai (陈来) from Beijing Normal University, Zhang Qianjin (张前进) from Beijing Languages Institute, Gong Zhizhong (龚志中) from the University of Politics and Law, Liang Yu (梁煜) from Tsinghua University, Xiong Yan (熊焱) and Lian Shengde (连胜德) from Peking University. Three month later at the end of September, Changqing was released because the authorities had not been unable to find proof that he had participated in the protests. He returned to Shaanxi to continue his studies.

A Veteran Political Prisoner

After graduating from Shaanxi Normal University in 1992, Zhao Changqing was assigned to teach at a middle school attached to a large-scale arms factory in Shaanxi. In 1995, Changqing took the entrance exam for Peking University’s Institute of Social Development and ranked second in scores, but he was rejected for failing the “political background review.”

In early 1998, Changqing participated in the election of people’s representatives in Hanzhong city (陕西汉中) as an independent candidate, but the night before voting, the domestic security agents in Hanzhong ransacked his home and summoned him. On March 25th, he was officially arrested on subversion charges, the evidence against him being a public letter he wrote entitled “Reform the Political System, Take the Democratization Route” in August of 1997 before the 15th Party Congress. This public letter advised that the CCP follow the footsteps of Taiwan, and use the next 20 years to complete a transition to democracy. In July of that same year, Hanzhong Municipal Intermediate Court sentenced Zhao Changqing to 3 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

In 2000 after he was released from prison, Changqing didn’t have a job anymore. He worked odd jobs in Xi’an, and continued to partake in democratic and human rights related activities. On June 28, 2002, Human Rights in China (中国人权), which is headquartered in New York City, published an open letter signed by 170 pro-democracy activists from all over China to call for the immediate release of Dr. Yang Jianli (杨建利), an overseas democracy activist and currently the president of Initiative for China, who had returned to China to engage in labor activism. As an organizer of the signature campaign, Zhao Changqing was secretly arrested and his home once again raided on November 7. On July 10, 2003, Xi’an Intermediate Court tried him secretly on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and on August 4th the court sentenced him to a 5–year prison term.

At the end of 2007, Zhao Changqing completed his sentence and was released from prison. Once out of prison, Changqing continued to participate in various types of rights activities. In 2008, Changqing participated in drafting and revising the Charter 08. Among other things, Charter 08 adopted his proposal for a “citizens movement” in which citizens from all walks of life participate, as opposed to an elite-focused movement. And of course he was among the first of a group of people to sign this document.

Speaking of the “citizens movement,” Zhao Changqing drafted a Declaration of the Chinese Citizens Movement in 2002, and when he was tried for a third time in 2003, the document was used as an evidence against him.  

Zhao Changqing (first from left) and friends (Xu Zhiyong third from left) celebrated Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize  friends at the East Gate of Ditan Park in Beijing on October 8, 2010.

Zhao Changqing (first from left) and friends (Xu Zhiyong third from left) celebrated Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize friends at the East Gate of Ditan Park in Beijing on October 8, 2010.

Changqing wrote a dozen or so articles regarding the Charter 08. In 2009 in an article entitled “The Charter 08 and My Love,” he wrote that “democracy, freedom, human rights, and rule of law” was the “first love” of his political life, and he has never wavered from it. “I embraced this love 20 years ago,” he wrote, “20 years later, I embrace it even more enthusiastically!”

However, while he was searching for his “political love,” he lost love in everyday life. In 1998 while he was imprison, his pregnant girlfriend aborted the fetus and left him. When Changqing and I met the first time, he looked at my son Luoluo and said, with pain in his voice, “my child would be a teenager had I not gone to prison the second time.”

On October 8, 2010, after Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) was announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Zhao Changqing, Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), “butcher” (吴淦) and a group of netizens had a dinner party to celebrate, for which they were detained for 8 days. After that, Changqing was deported, illegally, back to his hometown in Shaanxi and, there, he was put under house arrest until December 31st of that year.

Citizen Activities

Zhao Changqing in Beijing Third Detention Center where he has been held since April, 2013. He has not been indicted.

Zhao Changqing in Beijing Third Detention Center where he has been held since April, 2013. He has not been indicted.

Changqing was the initiator of citizen dinner gatherings in Beijing. He wrote in “Speech during a Beijing Year-end Citizen Gathering,” posted on Charter 08 Monthly on January, 2013, “in the spring of 2011 following the Chinese authorities’ brutal crackdown on the ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ Beijing was a bleak city in dead silence. I was even forced to change the venue of my wedding, which was held on July 16, because of interference from the authorities. To dispel the atmosphere of terror in Beijing, I decided to invite pro-democracy activists and rights defenders to meet and have dinner together at the end of each month, starting August, 2011. After persisting for a few months, by December 2011, there were as many as 30 people or more who were courageous enough to come to the ‘citizen dinner.’ In 2012, I continued the effort. There had been a few occasions when we had to change venue, but all in all they went relatively smoothly, and the ‘citizen dinners’ became better known and they attracted more participants. As the New Citizens Movement flourished in late spring and early summer of 2012, the ‘citizen dinner’ has been expanded as the simplest form of a citizens movement. By the end of 2012, citizen dinner gatherings were held not only in Beijing, but in Shanghai and many provincial capitals, such as Guangzhou, Zhengzhou and Xi’an.”

It turns out that these dinner gatherings, or homonymously called “fan zui” (饭醉), were seen by the authorities as “fan sui” (犯罪, committing crimes). This time, it is because of these dinner gatherings and the discussion about calling for officials to disclose assets in one of these gatherings that got Zhao Changqing arrested, even though Changqing had not been part of the street demonstration for asset disclosure.   

Over the last 30 years, China has changed beyond recognition from the appearance of the country to the material life of the people. But for my friend Zhao Changqing, from the Tian’anmen Movement, to people’s representative elections, to organizing a signature campaign, to citizens dinner gatherings, it is still easy to become a political prisoner. Over the last 30 years, China has built its laws from scratch, but not a single provision can protect him from pursuing his “political love affair,” because there is only one real law and it is called the “communist party.” One does not have to break any law to become a criminal; the party can always fit one on you. Such are the charges against Zhao Changqing as well as the wave of participants in the New Citizens Movement who were arrested in 2013. Some of them have been indicted and are expected to face trial soon.

Gu Chuang's wife held a sign in Times Square last fall calling the release of Changqing.

Gu Chuang’s wife held a sign in Times Square last fall calling for the release of Changqing.

On April 20, 2013, shortly after Zhao Changqing was detained, his wife Liu Xiaodong (刘晓冬) issued a letter drawing attention to Zhao Changqing’s detention. “My baby and I want him to come back to us safely. We feel confused and helpless about the situation. It seems the only thing I can do is to take care of our baby, support the family, and wait for my husband’s return.”

During the weekends last fall, my wife and I, taking our two boys with us, went to Times Square in New York City. We held a “Free Zhao Changqing” sign in the middle of bustling crowd that swirled around us. We will be back there again. 


Gu Chuan (古川) is an internet author and a dissident now living in the New York City. 

Related reading:

Chinese Activists Challenge Beijing by Going to Dinner, Over Unassuming Meals Members of Civic Group Try to Lay Groundwork for Democratizing China (Wall Street Journal)

(Translated by Carolyn Tilney. The translation is based on a revised and updated version of the original article.)

Chinese original

2 responses to “Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing”

  1. […] Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing, a profile of Zhao Changqing by Gu Chuan […]

  2. […] Democracy Is My Love Affair – the Story of Zhao Changqing, by Gu Chuan, January 12, 2014. […]

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