A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community

By Fengsuo Zhou, Yaxue Cao, published: June 11, 2014

Henry Degroot is a student at Newton North High School, Massachusetts. He wrote a pro-democracy note in a Chinese student’s notebook during an exchange program in Beijing and signed it. A Chinese teacher found out. Henry was detained for five hours, forced to apologize by his American teachers, and, back to America, the school barred him from prom.


As two naturalized Chinese Americans and democracy advocates, we feel compelled to offer our perspectives on Boston Globe’s recent story Newton student penalized for democracy notes in China. Fengsuo Zhou was a student leader during the Tian’anmen Square democracy movement in 1989, No.5 on Chinese government’s wanted list when the movement was crushed by tanks and machine guns, and imprisoned for one year after he was captured and paraded on China’s state-run national TV. Yaxue Cao founded and edits ChinaChange.org to bring news and analysis about China’s democracy movement into English.

First of all we want to ask: Did young Henry Degroot do anything wrong? He wrote in a Chinese student’s notebook, “Democracy is for cool kids;” “don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you;” and “it’s right to rebel.” One does not have to look further than the recent Tiananmen commemoration to see that the Chinese government lies to its people and the Chinese schools teach lies to its students. Is it wrong to rebel against lies and repression? Is it wrong to extol democracy?

The Newton School officials said Henry violated a code of conduct, insulted his Chinese hosts, showed disrespect for the Chinese, and failed to adhere to the standards of the exchange program.

We want to ask: What code of conduct is it that discourages our students from expressing a moral attitude in perfectly decent words? To whom did Henry show disrespect, the people of China or its totalitarian government’s practices? Who did Henry insult when he voiced an objection to government-engineered lies? What are “the standards” of this exchange program anyway? To teach our children to be tame, fearful, unthinking, and muzzle their thoughts so as not to offend a morally repulsive host?

Mr. David Fleishman, the Newton School Superintendent, spoke of the “the intricacies of Chinese culture and social norms.” There is nothing intricate about right and wrong, freedom and bondage; and it should be no one’s norm to deprive human beings of their God-given freedoms and reduce them into sub-humans.

Twenty-five years ago, Chinese communist party crushed protesters with tanks and shot them with machine guns. But for nearly sixty-five years, the regime has never stopped crushing free thinking and free expression. In the 1950s, hundreds and thousands of intellectuals were persecuted for expressions. In 1970, a young Beijingese by the name Yu Luoke (遇罗克) was executed for writing a pamphlet arguing against persecution by family association. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has been serving a 11-year sentence since 2008 for drafting the Charter 08 that spells out a blueprint for a free and democratic China.

We can go on with a long list of Chinese citizens who are serving long prison sentences, often tortured and mistreated, simply because of a few articles or poems they wrote.

Last year, the Chinese communist party issued a document known as “Document No. 9” highlighting “seven perils” to its rule, including ideas about Western constitutional democracy, universal values of human rights, freedom of the press, civil society, liberal ideas of free markets, and criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

In China, internet censorship nowadays is such that you will not be able to express any dissent without your account being deleted. You can register 100 times and you will be deleted 100 times. Every day the Party’s propaganda department issues directives to all media outlets across China, traditional and digital, to conceal truth or stem public discussions about anything that might veer towards criticism of the party, whether it is a speed train accident, an environmental protest, or an alleged terror attack.

Last week, on June 3rd, Fengsuo slipped into China – he is still banned from returning China to see his relatives – to visit Tian’anmen Square on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democracy movement. He succeeded in taking a brief look at the heavily-policed square devoid of any sign of activities, and he was apprehended soon after he returned to hotel, detained for 18 hours and deported.

On Monday, June 9th, we learned that a 22-year-old Chinese Twitter user had been arrested for tweeting a proposal to use fake base stations to spread the truth about the June 4th massacre.

We understand why the Newton school officials are so upset with Henry: Jingshan School is perhaps the most prestigious school in all of China attended by the children of the most powerful and the richest, and Newton School cherishes its exchange program with Jingshan  school above anything else. That’s precisely why we shudder at the choice our educators make. We believe that the Newton School community – the students, the teachers, the parents, and the taxpayers – deserve a debate about the incident and the meaning of the exchange program.

In fact, America needs a debate about its China policies. As a nation, we have acquiesced to China’s atrocious human rights abuses for too long. Such acquiescence has emboldened communist repression, and made the fight for democracy in China much harder. With China representing 1/5 of the human race and under an increasingly aggressive one-party dictatorship, the stakes are high not just for the Chinese people, but also for the world.

Finally, to the Newton School officials, we quote Mr. Slade, the fictional protagonist from the movie “The Scent of a Woman” whose words however should not be treated as fiction: “What is your model here? ….I say you are killing the very spirit this institution proclaims it installs. … There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit, and there is no prosthetics for that.”

To the young people in Newton School, in China and everywhere else, we say, “Democracy is for cool kids. And it is right to rebel against lies.”


Fengsuo Zhou, Bay area, California

Yaxue Cao, Washington, DC



Testimony in front of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on May 30, 2014, by Zhou Fengsuo




7 responses to “A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community”

  1. Abraham Zodick says:

    Awesome letter!!!! Thank you guys!!

  2. […] 12/6/2014 [Chinachange] Letter to Newton (MA) Community where student was punished for writing democracy note in China […]

  3. Cheva says:

    So shame

  4. […] A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community. […]

  5. Guest says:

    If Henry sees this, I’d want to tell him that he did nothing wrong, he just made some people uncomfortable. And it’s a shame that he got punished for speaking what is right.

  6. […] A Letter to the Newton (Massachusetts) Community, by Yaxue Cao […]

  7. […] Zhou Fengsuo and I, two naturalized Americans, wrote two open letters to fellow Americans, one to the community of Newton, Massachusetts, in June and the other to the famed Wellesley College in October. The former has to […]

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