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Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1)

—- An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2

published: April 10, 2014

When Dr. Teng Biao visited Washington, DC in February, 2014, I sat down with him and we talked about his long-time friend Dr. Xu Zhiyong, and we discussed the evolution of Gongmeng over the last decade, to which the New Citizens Movement is the latest link. We publish this interview on the day (April 11, Beijing time) when Beijing Higher People’s Court upheld a guilty verdict against Xu Zhiyong.  – Yaxue Cao

Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

Xu Zhiyong (许志永)

YC: Dr. Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July, 2013, and on January 22, 2014, he was sentenced to four years in prison in the trial of first instance for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Many Chinese were outraged, legal scholarsrefuted every aspect of the case, and the international media reported the trial widely. You and Xu Zhiyong pursued doctorate degrees in law together at Peking University with the same advisor, and you were two of the three PhDs to write to the National People’s Congress demanding a constitutional review of the custody and repatriation system in 2003. You founded Gongmeng (Citizen League, or Open Constitution Initiative) together and, two years ago, initiated the New Citizens Movement with your other friends. The two of you have gone through many trials and tribulations over the last decade, and I cannot think of anyone in this world better suited to discuss Xu Zhiyong with. So let’s get started. First of all, tell me a little more about your time at law school together.

TB: Xu Zhiyong and I studied for our PhDs in law between 1999 and 2002. We were Professor Zhu Suli’s (朱苏力) first two doctoral students. We hung out a lot during those years, the two of us and also Yu Jiang (俞江). We used to frequent little eateries outside Peking University’s west gate where we discussed a lot of issues, often getting into heated debates.

YC: What did you discuss? Or rather, after all these years, what sticks out in your memories?  

TB: Our conversations were very broad — religion, philosophy, history, politics, economics,and of course law, from the loftiest topics of human nature down to specific legal cases. What we discussed most though was constitutionalism, democracy, and China’s political transformation, as well as social ills such like reeducation through labor, chengguan (urban management enforcement), custody and repatriation, and the petitioning system.

YC: I learned from a recent English news report that Xu Zhiyong was often in contact with petitioners when he was still in graduate school. This left a deep impression on me.

TB: Right. In 2001 he went to Tieling, Liaoning (辽宁铁岭) to provide legal assistance to villagers and was detained briefly by the local government. He was nearly disciplined by Peking University for that. He also described another incident to me that occurred when he was still an undergraduate. He was on summer vacation in his hometown in Henan province when there was a clash between local authorities and villagers. He inserted himself and played a mediator, literally standing between the two hostile sides. In the end, he was able to diffuse the tension. My understanding is that this incident shaped him quite bit. He has hoped to be that mediator between the government and the people, to the greatest extent possible using peaceful and legal means to resolve conflict.

Also, there was the Qiu Qingfeng incident in 2000. Xu Zhiyong became a natural activist and organizer of the campus protest. I was with him on the Jingyuan Lawn (静园草坪) where the sit-in protests were held. Our classmate Yu Jiang passed a note to us reminding us to be mindful of our safety. That was the start of our friendship.

From left, Teng Biao, Yu Jiang, and Xu Zhiyong.

From left, Teng Biao, Yu Jiang, and Xu Zhiyong.YCSo Gongmeng was founded after the three of you had left Peking University?

YCSo Gongmeng was founded after the three of you had left Peking University?

TB:  Yes, at the time we all had our teaching jobs: Xu Zhiyong taught at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, I taught at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing, and Yu Jiang taught at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

YC:  Following the Sun Zhigang incident, I’m sure you went through a lot of deliberation, and then you decided to found Gongmeng. How exactly did you make that decision?

TB: The Sun Zhigang incident had had a big impact on us. We were widely reported on by mainstream media in China as well as the international press.  There are grievances and injustices perpetrated all over China. As our names were publicized in the papers and other media, many victims of injustice started to write or call, trying to contact us. For Xu Zhiyong, the idea was: if the three PhDs could abolish the Custody and Repatriation System, they must have extraordinary capacities. They found hope in us by bringing their cases to us to seek resolution. At that point we felt we had to establish an organization, one with staff and an office to carry out routine work. So we established this organization in October, 2003.  It was not called Gongmeng at first, but Sunshine Constitutionalism (阳光宪政), short for the registered name “Sunshine Constitutionalism Social Science Research Center”(阳光宪政社会科学研究中心).

YCSo the initial objective was to provide legal aid to petitioners and victims of injustice?

TB:  More than that.  Look at the name “Sunshine Constitutionalism.” Sunshine represents openness, plus constitutionalism.  The political aspiration was right there from the beginning.

YCFreedom, openness, and constitutionalism……these were also issues you three debated a lot while in graduate school, weren’t they?

TB: We did. We were both deeply influenced by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek. Our liberal ideas developed very quickly, and so did our criticisms of the communist system. Therefore, Sunshine Constitutionalism was never just about helping petitioners.

Gongmeng logo

Gongmeng logo

Soon after Sunshine Constitutionalism was founded, Xu Zhiyong ran for the Haidian District People’s Congress. At the same time, in July that year, we held a series of election forums called “We Are the People’s Representative” in Beijing. The forums trained independent candidates, analyzed China’s system of People’s Congress, discussed reforms that could be made, and invited some district and municipal People’s Representatives to talk about their experiences. Quite a number of independent candidates were successfully elected. In Haidian District alone [Beijing’s northwestern district with a concentration of universities], 18 independent candidates were elected.

YCWhat year was that?

TB: 2004.  In 2004, we were also involved in the “Yi-ta-hu-tu BBS” incident, where a highly influential Peking University BBS domain was shut down.  You can see that, from the start Sunshine Constitutionalism’s activities involved democratic elections and freedom of speech.

YC: You and Xu Zhiyong are very close. What writings and authors do you think had the greatest influence on you two back then? Please cite a few names.

TB: The ones that had a big influence on him and those that influenced me might not be the same. But I think Western liberal thinkers like Friedrich Hayek, Isaiah Berlin, Benjamin Constant, the novelist George Orwell, and also Vaclav Havel greatly influenced both of us. We read Hayek, Havel, and Tocqueville together. For Xu Zhiyong, the rural educator James Yen (晏阳初) in the pre-communist Republic of China era probably had an important influence on him. He is certainly a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and he firmly believes in non-violent struggle and moral power.

YC:  What about Nelson Mandela? Someone said to me the other day that Xu Zhiyong’s closing statement to the court reminded him of Mandela’s trial defense. I said, if I had to guess, Xu Zhiyong very likely had read Mandela’s self-defense.

TB: Well, Xu Zhiyong’s statement is actually highly consistent with his own style. But he definitely admires and appreciates anyone along the lines of Gandhi and Mandela.

YC:  In 2004, Xu Zhiyong wrote an essay called Going Back to China (《回到中国去》, in Chinese), in which he accounted his life as a visiting scholar at Yale University. As far as I know, you also went to Yale as a visiting scholar. Did you two go together? Can you talk a little bit about it? What did you gain from this experience?

TB: He went earlier than I did. I went in 2007. We were both visiting scholars at the China Center of Yale Law School. I remember he was at Yale when the Yi-ta-hu-tu BBS was shut down and Gongmeng was holding seminars on People’s Representative elections. While in the US, he volunteered in the presidential campaigns that year, going door to door canvassing, if I remember correctly.

YC: Following the Xu Zhiyong trial in January, Malcome Moore of The Telegraph interviewed four people who Xu Zhiyong had helped. One of them was a petitioner from Shenyang living with her family in a underground tunnel in Beijing when Xu Zhiyong ran into them. He then brought food and clothes to them, and he even – I was very surprised by this detail — lived in the tunnel for three days to feel what it was like. Among other things, she related how Xu Zhiyong was always carrying a black notebook with information about petitioners and their photos. So please tell me more about his contact and work with petitioners.

TB: I don’t know all about it, though it was something he talked about a lot when we were together. We had had extensive discussions about the petitioning system: the tragic experiences of the petitioners and how the problem should be solved on the system level. He went to petitioner villages a lot. Not just petitioner villages, but also the government offices set up to receive the petitioners and hear their grievances: Letter and Call Bureau, Letter and Call Offices, the Letter and Call Office of the National People’s Congress, the Letter and Call Office of the State Council, the Letter and Call Office of the Supreme Court, etc.

YC: What did he want to accomplish by frequenting these places?

Xu Zhiyong (许志永) staying with petitioners.

Xu Zhiyong (许志永) staying with petitioners.

TB: He believed that these people were the best mirror of the Chinese reality. On the one hand, he wanted to help them; on the other, he wanted to learn about the social reality through their experiences. He visited them not in the same way as a writer [from the state-sanctioned writers’ association] would to “collect materials for writing.” Not at all. He hoped to feel their pains and share their experiences first hand, and he often stayed in the petitioner villages, where petitioners came to congregate and live, for days on end. Petitioners got beaten up a lot, and to change the situation, he insisted on going to these Letter and Call offices on a regular basis, knowing that he could be harassed too. When he went, he mingled with petitioners and he didn’t say, Oh, I’m a PhD and a university teacher. Those sent by local governments to intercept petitioners from their jurisdictions would think he was a petitioner and beat him up too. If he witnessed petitioners being manhandled, he would confront the assailants. For this he had been dealt many fists. This was how he put himself out there to experience [their plight]. Deep inside, he doesn’t have a thing called “superiority.”

YC:  This reminded me of an indignant tweet of his, probably in 2012. He said he had accompanied someone to the People’s Supreme Court, and there in the waiting hall he was slapped in the face by a guard. So what drives him to do this? I feel he must be really driven.

TB: He is. My understanding is that his continued push for the rule of law and human rights in China over the last ten years or so has to do with his strong and pure political ideals.

YC: We mentioned that, from the very beginning, Gongmeng was not just a consulting center for unjust cases. We also talked about Gongmeng’s work in promoting independent candidacy in People’s Representative elections and freedom of speech. Can you tell me more about Gongmeng’s work over the years?

TB: When Xu Zhiyong was detained in 2009, Yang Ziyun (杨子云) and I put together an article titled What Gongmeng Has Done over the Last Six Years (in Chinese) which gives a relatively detailed account of Gongmeng’s activities from 2003 to 2009. Last year Xu Zhiyong himself also wrote The Last Ten Years. Gongmeng’s involvement included the Sun Dawu case in which a private business man was charged for raising funds from private citizens; investigation of forced abolition in Linyi, Shandong province with the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng that eventually resulted in Chen being sentenced to four years in prison; the Cai Zhuohua case in which a Beijing minister was arrested and sentenced for printing Bibles without a permit; the wrongful death sentences in Chengde; the report on the petitioning system; and the campaign for direct election of leaders of the Beijing Bar Association. Other high profile cases include the tainted milk scandal andthe black kiln indicent¹. In both cases, Gongmeng provided legal assistance to the victims in their search for justice and compensation. Xu Zhiyong was also the defense for Yu Huafeng (喻华峰) and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), two editors of the Southern Metropolis tried on trumped-up charges in a government retaliation for their exposure of the Sun Zhigang incident. Gongmeng was also involved in the oil field case in northern Shaaxi province and rescuing the lawyer Zhu Jiuhu, who had been detained by the police along with his clients.

I remember Li Heping (李和平), Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Xu Zhiyong and I, the four of us, went to Jingbian detention center (陕西靖边看守所) and we took photos upon leaving. After walking a hundred yards or so, a dozen or so armed police stopped us, pretty scary. But we had no fear and kept talking and laughing. We greeted them with the same ebullience. And we even took photos of the scene. That was 2005.

In Shaaxi. From left: Gao Zhisheng, Li Fangping, and Teng Biao. Xu Zhiyong was taking the photo.

In Shaaxi. From left: Gao Zhisheng, Li Heping, and Teng Biao. Xu Zhiyong was taking the photo.

YC: I think I have seen this photo somewhere.

TB: In 2005, Gongmeng issued the Report on Human Rights Development in China. The United States publishes an annual human rights report that is all criticism. China publishes an annual human rights report that is all self-accolades and covering up problems. Xu Zhiyong said, “we are going to issue a human rights report from the point of view of the civil society. If they have made progresses, we will give them credit; and where they have problems, we criticize them. We will not stop at criticism; we will make policy proposals.” This is the way Xu Zhiyong has always been: we do not oppose for the sake of opposing. He strives to be “rational and constructive.” At the time he didn’t use the word “oppose.” “Political opposition” is a phrase that has been used only since the last couple of years.  As university faculty at the time, the government had yet to treat us as troublemakers.

And he has worked very hard for years on getting the four wrongfully convicted death row inmates in Chengde absolved.

YC:  What has become of the Chengde case?

TB: It is still in limbo. Those four inmates have been imprisoned for 17 or 18 years by now. Xu Zhiyong has gone to Chengde many times, and Lin Zheng(林峥)has been there several times. Several other lawyers and I all went at one point or another.

Another area of his effort is the schooling of the children of migrant workers. He did field studies and he struggled for the education rights of these children.

YC: This was before the equal education rights movement?

TB: This was in 2006, or even earlier. 2006 was when the project was launched to conduct research on the conditions of schools for migrant workers’ children in Beijing and the legal protection of them in order to make legislative proposals that will protect the education rights of migrant children.

YC: Eight years later, Dr. Xu is in prison for fighting for equal education rights for these children. Ironically, the government has actually adopted many of the proposals he has made that have benefited millions of families, but they fear his grassroots work and social mobilization and feel compelled to lock him up.  That’s a reality that cannot be emphasized enough.

TB: That’s really the core of the matter. But do keep in mind that most of our policy proposals have been ignored and rejected.  The government doesn’t want participation from the civil society; they are afraid of it.

In 2009, Gongmeng organized and campaigned to directly elect the leaders of Beijing Bar Association. We attempted to democratize it.

YC:  What was the outcome?

TB: It failed. The Beijing Bar Association, supposedly a professional organization, was completely under the Communist Party’s control. It not only failed to democratize, many lawyers who pushed for direct elections were retaliated against afterwards. Some didn’t pass their annual review, others got their licenses revoked. The authorities made all sorts of reprisals against them.

Another area of Gongmeng’s work was to push for information disclosure. Lawyer Yang Huiwen (杨慧文), who at the time worked in the Gongmeng office, did a lot of work in this regard. He wrote to 73 government departments and offices requesting information disclosure on a variety of issues.

YC: How did it go? Was he able to receive what he had requested?

TB: There was a news report (in Chinese) somewhere. He got a bunch of receipts and two responses. At one point he was told that he had no business to ask about such information.

YC: Given that petitioning is still a big problem and there seem to be more and more petitioners in Beijing seeking justice, can you tell us a little more about Gongmeng’s report on the petitioning system? What kind of report was it? Who was it for, and what did it say?

TB:  Gongmeng formed a project group to draft a report on the petition issue in China. The group conducted extensive field studies in three counties in different parts of China as well as petitioner villages in Beijing. It produced an in-depth report of nearly 200,000 words. Upon the completion of the project, Gongmeng invited well-known scholars in the area as well as government officials across China to attend a large-scale seminar on the petitioning system. The report was widely circulated at the time, resulting in the public paying more attention to this special group of people known as petitioners as well as the reality of China’s so-called Letter and Call system.

During his research and field studies, Dr. Xu Zhiyong published many accounts of petitioners being beaten and tortured, and he called the attention of authorities to the issue of mistreatment and demanded that the rights of petitioners be respected.

YC: Did it work? Well, I can answer this question myself: we have Jiujingzhuang (久敬庄)Majialou (马家楼) in Beijing. We have black jails all over China. And until recently, we had Masanjia (马三家), the horror of horrors. About the petition report, did Gongmeng submit it to somewhere? What was the government’s feedback, if any?

TB: I don’t think we submitted to the government. But the government definitely knew about it and made no response.

YC:  So we can say that Gongmeng had, to a great extent,investigated many aspects and issues of Chinese society. Is this a more or less objective assessment?

TB: I think so. Gongmeng over the years has been involved in the rule of law, human rights, forced demolition, urban management enforcement, the household registration system, food safety, and many high-profile cases of injustice. In some situations we conducted studies and held discussions with experts and professors, in others we took direct action to intervene and to make a difference.

YC: My understanding is that, at first, there were only a few of you, and then it developed quite a bit. Can you tell us more about that?  

TB: Gongmeng had to change offices several times due to government harassment. At its peak, there were three or four full-time employees. Others, Xu Zhiyong, Li Fangping (李方平), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Wang Gongquan (王功权), Guo Yushan (郭玉闪), myself, and other lawyers, all of us were volunteers who held weekly meetings at the office to discuss matters. There were also internet volunteers who posted blog posts, issued information, or did other things. I don’t have a number at my fingertips.

YC: Today, rights lawyers play a crucial role in pushing for change in China and, to me, they represent a bright spot. Gongmeng was the starting point of the rights lawyer community, wasn’t it?  

TB: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. Gongmeng and the rise of rights lawyers are definitely connected, but I wouldn’t say Gongmeng was the origin of the rights lawyer community. Before 2005, apart from the six or seven lawyers working with Gongmeng, other rights lawyers were scattered and isolated. In ‘05, six lawyers participated in the Cai Zhuohua Bible printing case. With both the Dongyang Huashui case (东阳画水案, a case in 2005 involving mass protest against environmental degradation in Zhejiang) and the Shuangyashan house church case (双鸭山教案), quite a few lawyers got involved at the same time. At the end of 2004, Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) stood up and stepped out, writing open letters to the Chinese leadership calling on the government to stop its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.We met in 2005, and starting that time, rights lawyers began to seek each other out, make ties, and stick together, and the community has since grown like a snowball. Again this was in 2005. Gongmeng was part of it, but not the origin of it.

In the short history of NGOs in China, Gongmeng was pretty much the one in the forefront. There are other NGOs that have been pretty good, such as Love, Knowledge and Action(爱知行), Beijing Yirenping Center (益仁平),  Tianxiagong (天下公, Justice for All), Transition Institute (传知行)、Shenzhen Equity & Justice Initiative (衡平), The Unirule Institute of Economics (天则研究所) and others. They either focus on a particular area or on research. AIDS was very sensitive before, but it doesn’t concern the political system. In terms of the rule of law, human rights, democracy and social movement, Gonegmeng has been in the very forefront. In addition, 64Tianwang, run by Huang Qi and others, Liu Feiyue’s  Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch  and Zhang Jianping’s Human Rights Campaign in China are all very good platforms for human rights information and activities.

YCI am familiar with the last three, but if you ask me, they are very different from Gongmeng. There is some overlapping, but Gongmeng, obviously, is a more comprehensive, visionary organization with much bigger aspirations.

TB:  Indeed. Gongmeng works with many lawyers, scholars, professors, and journalists, especially legal journalists. Some are influential personalities inside the system. They hold meetings about specific topics or engage directly in actions. Among Chinese NGOs, Gongmeng is a rarity that has clear political aspirations, pays close attention to rule of law and human rights, actively engages in social movements, and has gained the support of a large number of intellectuals working inside the system. A rarity indeed.


Part Two



China’s growing human rights movement can claim many accomplishments, (originally titled “From Gongmeng to the New Citizens Movement) by Teng Biao, Washington Post, April 18, 2014.


Chinese original


  1. […] Continued from Part One: […]

  2. […] Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1), interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part One Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2), interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part Two […]

  3. […] Hittade en bra artikel om medborgarrättskämpen Xu Zhiyong. […]

  4. […] […]

  5. […] “socially constructive and politically destructive.” Xu’s longtime colleague Teng Biao discussed developments over the last ten years in a two-part conversation at China Change last month. The different visions of rule of law that […]

  6. […] fellow lawyer and former classmate Teng Biao voiced similar sentiments. (Teng also discussed his and Xu’s work in an interview posted at China Change.) From The Telegraph’s Tom […]

  7. […] enrolling in schools and could not take college entrance exams in the city where they lived.  Dr. Xu Zhiyong was not one of these parents but, because of the Education Fairness Campaign he had led, the legal […]

  8. […] rural household registration and the discrimination and injustice associated with that status. The education equality movement called for the children of migrant workers to have the right to take the university entrance […]

  9. […] Lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who tried to provide legal counsel to the relatives of the children made ill by the 2008 contaminated milk scandal in China, was accused of tax related offenses in 2009, and detained for several months. The founder of the New Citizen Movement, a group of lawyers pushing for greater rights in China, he is now serving 4 years in jail for “disturbing public order,” another common charge against activists that suggests trouble-making, rather than dissent. […]

  10. […] Lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who tried to provide legal counsel to the relatives of the children made ill by the 2008 contaminated milk scandal in China, was accused of tax related offenses in 2009, and detained for several months. The founder of the New Citizen Movement, a group of lawyers pushing for greater rights in China, he is now serving 4 years in jail for “disturbing public order,” another common charge against activists that suggests trouble-making, rather than dissent. […]

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