The Court Statement by Guo Feixiong
Translated by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, published: November 28, 2014
According to the defense lawyers, the trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng was forced by the court to conclude at Beijing time 2:50 am, November 29, in Tianhe Court, Guangzhou. Despite repeated interruptions by the head judge and denial of his right to make a closing statement, Guo Feixiong defended himself forcefully and eloquently. China Change is pleased to present his court statement in full in English. – The Editor
1984, Orwell’s masterpiece about totalitarianism that could have been a blow-by-blow script for the People’s Republic of China, also happens to be the year that launched my personal journey as part of China’s movement for freedom and democracy.
That year, on a blustery, chilly night, in a café on the campus of East China Normal University (華東師範大學) in Shanghai, I had the good fortune to hear an old man speak. The lines of his face were as rugged as if hewn by a blade, and his short, thin frame was almost entirely muffled in a gray trench coat. In sharp Mandarin with a southern Chinese accent, he was criticizing Deng Xiaoping, then the top leader in China, for being a dinosaur, for stifling thought, and for suppressing the creative freedom of writers at the slightest provocation. I had arrived in Shanghai from a remote part of Hubei Province less than three months before. This venerable old man was Wang Ruowang (王若望), and this was the first time I ever saw anyone lambaste the supreme leader by name in public. The impact on me runs so deep I cannot describe it.
Shanghai in that era was experiencing an “Indian Summer” of unprecedented freedom for the expression of liberal ideas. Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), an enlightened politician, had reversed a political pendulum that had swung to the extreme left and had declared at the Fourth Congress of the All-China Writers’ Association that the Communist Party would no longer interfere with creative freedom. Liberal-minded professors, intellectuals and writers were full of impassioned thoughts and words on politics and philosophy. In seminars, academic conferences, salons and cafés, they called for free thought and political reform. It was as if an invisible hand was guiding them to vie with one another to show who could bring more novelty and depth to the introduction of modern culture and thought and who dared most to give voice to the need to oppose dictatorship and fight for democracy. Wang Ruowang was one of the boldest of the free-thinking writers.
To be honest, these sowers of freedom, and their peers all around China, may not have been as expert in their academic disciplines as they ought to have been. Yet the way they wrote and acted was reminiscent of the dauntless and passionate thought of the French Enlightenment. Theirs was the idealism, innocence and simplicity that characterizes the original human spirit and that set the tone for the democrats who followed them. I personally owe my awakening to this Indian Summer in China. I gained much from the bold, open and diverse views that were expressed. As a student of philosophy, I drew from the theoretical riches of the Chinese and Western classics; my character and political tendencies are entirely a product of the free spirit of the 1980s.
I heard Mr. Wang’s speech at a time when I was wending my way through a variety of political discussions and seminars. From the sidelines, I watched a soccer-fan riot, strikes at dining halls, and other outbreaks of the restless young. Those were years when people found the confines of their post-totalitarian life increasingly unbearable. An impulse for direct action grew among the students and finally exploded in the student protests of December, 1986. Shanghai was at the center of those protests.
The demonstrations of December 22, 1986, marked the first time I joined an independently organized and high-risk democracy movement. I clearly recall the nerve-wracking moment when a few of us, banner in hand, suddenly faced several thousand young workers who rushed forward, with thumping strides, to join us. Such a public assembly would have been high treason in earlier times.
I was already teaching at a college in Wuhan (武漢) when immense waves of protest in spring, 1989 inundated China. I acted out of my sense of duty as an intellectual that year, just as I had in 1986. In the years that followed, I returned several times to Wuhan and would linger at sites where I had spoken in public. Sometimes particularly dangerous moments came back to me. I recalled a time when, rallying to a student’s sudden yell of “Charge!” (a vestige of the military propaganda films we had grown up with), hundreds or even thousands broke into a run. In an incredible, surreal moment, the bridge over the Yangtze River began to sway under our feet and twist like a snake. Deep inside I understood that my life was inexorably tied to the era of Tiananmen.
The massacre of students and other young people in Beijing who were protesting peacefully on the Boulevard of Everlasting Peace (長安街) on June 4, 1989, was one of the most grotesque events in human history. It cleaved Chinese society irreconcilably from its government. At that moment I decided never to compromise with the autocrats who had slaughtered innocent citizens and to throw myself into the work of bringing freedom and democracy to China to the full extent of my abilities and of the will of heaven.
Censorship and draconian social control prevented people from learning until much later how, from that darkest moment onward, many intrepid souls, each on his own island, began as if by agreement to explore and build an opposition movement. Within the next decade or so, my generation of activists tried a number of peaceful tactics of resistance, like the mythical Chinese emperor who tasted every herb for the first time and unlocked the secret of medicine. In the late 1990s, liberalism as a system of political thought seeped deeper into China, and after that the thinking of democrats reached maturity.
As the millennium dawned, the Internet, out of the blue, came in to connect the long-isolated activists to one another. From 2003 to 2005, constitutionalist liberals founded the “rights defense” movement, which provided for China’s political opposition a highly original, homegrown and ineradicable path on which to grow and expand.
On January 28, 2005, Fan Yafeng (範亞峰) and I joined several others in attending the farewell ceremony in honor of the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who had been ousted and held under house arrest until his death because of his support for the 1989 protesters. Hugging a large photo of Mr. Zhao to my chest, I left the ceremony with a heavy heart. A throng of policemen was on the other side of the street. I turned back toward the funeral home and asked Fan how many people he thought had been there. After a pause, he answered that it looked like at least two or three thousand.
Fan and I had been meeting with others on how to promote effective connections within civil society. We noticed one major difference from the 1980s: the commemorations of the reformist politician Hu Yaobang in 1989 had been open and legal, but in order to attend Mr. Zhao’s funeral, people had to register using their government-issued IDs as police looked on. The uncertainty of such exposure, like the sword of Damocles, kept many people away. Still, several thousand people braved the odds to attend. To us, this proved that moral courage was returning everywhere, and we had new hope for the future of the democracy movement. Responding to this subtle political signal, we decided to take a series of steps to try to push the movement to a new stage.
Within half a year, an unprecedented number of groups were formed for political and legal action. This development showed the spiritual ties between the Tiananmen protests and the new rights-defense movement. Activists drew their strength from their shared tie with the towering figure, Hu Yaobang, who died with his character unsullied by betrayal.
We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open. We kept no secrets. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village (太石) residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and support from society at large. As participation grew, hunger strikes emerged. With the help of courageous human rights lawyers, citizens at the grassroots fought back, drawing attention to wrongs they had suffered and using political means that not long before had been unthinkable. The tide of this movement brought the political opposition back from the margins, making it once again central to the spiritual life of civil society. Terrified, the post-totalitarian machine sprang into action, and crackdown followed.
As a founder of this movement as well as one of its foot soldiers, I came into the line of fire several times. From April, 2005, until now, I have been criminally detained four times and jailed three times, for a total of five years. I was taken to six detention centers, evenly split among the provincial, municipal and district levels. The police have interrogated me more than two hundred times, which is probably some sort of record. Sometimes they had other prisoners carry me, more than once a day, and faint from hunger striking, on a stretcher to a room where they tied me to an iron chair. My five hunger strikes lasted 3, 59, 24, 75, and 25 days respectively, for a total of 186 days.
My extreme fasting struck a chord within the liberal camp and set a sort of example for the relay hunger strikes in 2006. One friend, though, a secular humanist, told me that he did not understand what I was doing. “We who believe in liberal democracy call for humanism and rational self-interest,” he said, “but you are always starving and putting yourself through the wringer. This seems shaky on humanitarian grounds and in any case cannot accomplish much.”
I did not want to resort to high-sounding principles so never formally responded to his criticism. Over time, I stopped keeping diaries of my strikes, writing memoirs, or publicly encouraging others to fast. But when occasions arose, I still did strikes on my own.
Why? Why fast and insist on fasting? My answer has always been the same: a hunger strike is not only a strong voice of protest against political persecution in a totalitarian system, but also address of the highest ideals that reside within myself – the ideals that I am serious about what I am doing and am loyal to the cause of freedom and democracy. Fasting keeps my mind free from the danger of taint.
The prototype for hunger strikes is the self-mortification of monks, who challenge the physical limits of the human body in order to pursue ideals. Like theirs, my fasting is safe and under control. Its process is dignified. After my first hunger strike, I was struck by how dazzling white the walls around me were, which I had until then looked at but never saw. It was then that I understood the inner purity of true believers. Suddenly I, who had been enmeshed in the pettiness of daily life, had the chance to cast it off and seek that purity. The clarity that protracted physical deprivation brought to me gradually helped to purge me and to help me reach an inner purity.
The system of free democracy that we aspire to transcends our personal destinies of success and failure. This is the sacred nature of this earth, which transcends the earth and rules it at the same time. The price that I pay to immerse my life in this movement is worth it. Perhaps not always, of course – and yet each fasting brings an experience of sustained euphoria, when I feel how truly fortunate I am to be sharing or projecting the spirit within me. Its bright image provides ultimate and pure joy. In our transient and prosaic life, what can eternity mean? Eternity is just such moments.
I never urged other people to join any of my longer hunger strikes. The rule for the 2006 relay hunger strike was that each person fasts no longer than 48 hours. This was not because I believe fasting to be against human nature. It is not. It is a powerful means of peaceful resistance, a show of inner strength for democrats, and a testimony to responsible suffering. It contains an idealism that is inherent in humanity and natural law and that is implicit in individual freedom, autonomy and the sovereignty of the people.
Our generation faces ubiquitous political terror imposed by a regime that has a rare record of brutality. This is why we need to draw upon the ideals that lie within each of us in forceful and disciplined ways. This is rational self-interest. Democracy is not opposed to passions, self-interest, and materialism; it is about accommodating such things and setting rules for them. The democracy movement is there to awaken our awareness and agency as free human beings and citizens. My hunger strikes are my homework as a prisoner. They purify and motivate me. I cherish this personal experience and its political ideals.
When faced with interminable interrogation by police and secret police, I provide almost no information. Because I keep silence and refuse to cooperate, my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling things like “You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is the real SOB here – you or the Party!” Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few “standard bearers,” as they put it, to accept parole. Later generations might find it hard to imagine that in 2007 an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.
For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an “illegal business operation.” I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear. The next morning, in fury and pain, I threw myself headlong toward the window and then the wall. Death was to be my protest. I survived, fortunately, but after Chinese New Year, the taser shocks resumed.
Through all of this, including the torture, I held to two principles; don’t abandon ideals and don’t betray anyone. Eventually, my interrogators were impressed and relented somewhat. Put to draconian tests, treatment hardly in keeping with peacetime, I stuck with precepts I had learned in childhood. I can smile and tell others and myself that my behavior under duress was consistent with being a human being. I have not wronged others. That is enough. I have lived.
It has been said that it is easier to go to your death in a surge of courage than to submit to a sacrifice that is slow and drawn out. In fact, sacrifice is not the hardest thing there is. After your eyes close and your body is destroyed, your spirit can endure forever. The endless physical and mental agony imposed by unbridled violence, which leaves you drained of life and denies you the relief of death, may be harder to guard against than the choice of self-sacrifice.
I do not use my personal choices as benchmarks in the judgment of others. People who compromise temporarily under pressure and return to the path of righteousness later have my wholehearted respect. Even those who break down and capitulate should not be judged harshly. The horrors of my experience have made me more tolerant and understanding of the hard choices that everyone confronts. Only when we offer our understanding and support can victims recover their mental health and dignity. We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule.
In 2007, the security apparatus gave up on interrogating me and sentenced me to five years in prison. I had thwarted their aim. However weak my pushback, it stuck in their craw. Meanwhile, for democrats generally, it was a flourishing time. Hu Jia was struggling against the tide, Gao Zhisheng’s human rights work was showing tremendous courage, and Zhang Zuhua and Liu Xiaobo were mobilizing intellectuals to give voice to constitutional reform. Both Hu and Liu received prestigious prizes from the international community. Since then, China’s multipolar opposition movement has come back stronger after each crackdown, and this fact is deeply unsettling to the rulers. I would like to think that the resultant “butterfly effect” contains a few flappings of my own wings.
Today, with the exception of Wang Gongquan (王功權) – an activist in the New Citizens movement (新公民運動) who is known as “the conscience of the business world” – and the Three Heroes of Chibi – Huang Wenxun (黃文勳), Yuan Xiaohua (袁小華) and Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), who have to date been detained for fifteen months without due process or indictment – the honor of imprisonment is no longer so hard to attain. Dozens of democrats have won it in smooth processes that include few surprises.
The mental and physical tortures that are used to extort confessions, grotesque and fantastic in their variety, are on the wane. Even though the practice persists, the brutal powers that we contend with must feel a bit of shame over their vicious acts. Our dream, passed from generation to generation among activists, to see “the prisons overloaded with conscientious objectors,” is nearing realization. Our faith is that totalitarianism, which negates so completely the humanity in its minions, will one day be driven from the earth.
During my challenge to the government and the tumult of my arrest and imprisonment, my wife and children have suffered the most. On the morning of March 10, 2006, when Taishi village residents were running for People’s Congress, my wife was stopped by secret police on her way out to buy groceries. When I went out to reason with the agents, they beat me up and left me with a bloody face. When I took my ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to buy books, several secret agents took turns taking photos and videos of them on the bus. They did this obtrusively, making an intimidating show for other passengers to observe.
My daughter, older than her brother, came to know fear. One day, when the four of us went out for our regular morning exercise in a small nearby park, six or seven agents followed on our heels, speaking loudly in Cantonese. My daughter kept turning her head to watch them, her little face terrified. She whispered to me, “Daddy, this is all your fault! Your fault!”
I felt too pained to say anything. Over the last eight years, this scene has played over and over again in my mind.
In the spring of 2007, Guangdong security agents who were interrogating me threatened that, if I continued to refuse to confess and accept parole, my son would not be allowed to go to elementary school and my daughter would be assigned to a middle school far away. When she goes to high school, they continued, the computer will assign her to a rural school from which she will not be admitted to university. I had no reason to doubt them. I knew the rules they operate under and knew their track record.
On February 8, 2006, I went on a hunger strike outside the gates of the State Council building. I did this to protest the threats to my children’s safety, to protest a police shooting of several innocent farmers who had been protecting their land from illegal seizure, and to protest curbs on press freedom in the case of Freezing Point magazine. I was detained, and then, from prison, could no longer do public protests.
On November 14, 2007, the Tianhe District Court (天河區法院) announced my five-year prison sentence. As I was being taken away, I turned and asked my wife, who had been allowed to attend, “Is our son in school?” She said no, they won’t let him go. At the Guangzhou municipal detention center, I tossed and turned that night, barely able to sleep at all. A few days later, a cellmate who had been sentenced for white-collar crime suddenly asked me, “Dude, how come that whole patch of your head turned white?” I did not quite believe him. There was no mirror in the cell, so I could only ask other cellmates to take a look, and I believed the story only after everyone said the same thing. Then, for the first time, I knew the ancient tale of Wu Zixu (伍子胥) – whose hair turned white overnight in flight, after his entire family was executed by the king – might not be imaginary.
The man who had discovered my white hair appeared to be in his fifties. I told him about the fate of my son. At first, he merely shook his head: there should be no way something like this can happen in this day and age. I explained what happened in detail. He had a good opinion of me and came to believe what I was saying. This white-collar criminal, who during his childhood had been ruthlessly persecuted because he came from a landowner family that had been labeled as “class enemies,” suddenly fell to his knees and covered his face, sobbing without a sound. I did not cry when they turned my son out of school, but this man did. Although I did not cry, my heart bled. In the year that followed, a voice inside kept reminding me, “Things cannot go on like this; I can’t sit by and watch the future of my children be destroyed; I must act.”
This was why, in 2008, I suggested to my wife, through the visitor’s window in Meizhou Prison (梅州監獄), that the three of them should find a way to leave China. It was a choice that a parent in my shoes had to make, hoping that his children could go to a free country where their right to education would not be blocked. With the help of several people, including the fearless Ms. Wang, my family made its way to Thailand. But there, their visa applications ran into unexpected difficulties; several Chinese who behaved suspiciously moved into their hotel; and they almost got run over by a mysteriously-driven car.
At this pivotal juncture, it was the esteemed Reverend Bob Fu (傅希秋), along with a wonderfully kind Christian woman from England, who took tremendous personal risk to bring my family to the United States. The United States government and people took them in and helped them. Schooling will never be a problem again. I am most grateful to all the people who helped us, and I thank the humanitarianism of the American government and the Christian Church. I shall remember their great deeds until the day I die. Through their help, I began to feel, in the most direct and deep way, how universal, selfless and noble human love is, and how generous democratic culture is. For me it was a kind of baptism.
After my release on September 13, 2011, I was finally able to communicate with my family through the Internet. My daughter sent me a comic strip she drew of her escape and her stay abroad. It shows how helpless and lost she felt, how hard it was to adapt to a different country, and how much she misses her childhood friends back home. As I read it, my tears flowed, on and off by turns, for three days.
I am a man, and I had never shed a tear over anything in jail, including my children. Yet when my daughter asked me, “Cried after you read it, didn’t you?,” I said I did. I cried a lot.
My daughter was no longer the baby who had once wanted me to hold and carry her. She was grown, indeed had grown tall. She was now proud and rebellious, and wanted to make her own decisions on everything; I felt she was drifting away from me. She began to harbor a resentment about all the love and obligation that I owed her as her father from my eighteen years of democracy work. She referred to this work every so often in a sarcastic way and rarely called me “Dad.” I feel pangs of pain inside but I didn’t know what I can do. I am flooded by guilt when I think about my family.
After release I was rearrested. Just a few months ago, on July 4, 2014, during visiting hours at the Tianhe Detention Center, my lawyer Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠) told me that my daughter had drawn my portrait. He said it looks a lot like me. In the picture, I am surrounded by mountains, and the caption, a Chinese proverb, reads: “Someone lofty to look up to.” This portrait was on display in a noteworthy building, as part of a campaign to rescue me. While I know I am far from deserving such a description, I do read a deeper meaning in what he told me. The revelation leaves me bright-eyed, as if I can see through the thick brick walls and sail through the open sky between us: My dearest child, I have once again won your love, and you have acknowledged it.
When I left prison in 2011, seeing how robust and widespread the struggle for freedom was, I felt unspeakably excited. My choice—there was no other—was to be part of this ferment. I worked alongside my peers; we took concerted action and nothing turned us back.
We experimented with the opportunity to support the anti-censorship efforts at the reformist newspaper, Southern Weekend (《南方週末》), and, proceeding with caution and peaceful discipline, to break through the limits on freedom of assembly. We also organized a signature campaign to demand that the National People’s Congress ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We coordinated small-scale street protests in eight cities in support of ICCPR and the government’s anti-corruption policy. Both actions were part of our strategy to promote the drafting of sound laws and the abolition of harmful ones. This activity was a significant step forward in pressing against government red lines and in addressing universal values in civic action—not just protesting individual grievances. We made waves, and many others followed.
It is no surprise that the government construed these two political experiments as my crime of “disturbing the public order.” An ancient proverb laughs at the folly of “bargaining with a tiger for its skin,” but that is precisely the task we have to undertake. We need to force a totalitarian government to shed its tiger’s skin, resume its humanity, and return to us the rights that belong to us.
The sentencing that I will now be facing will be consistent with the government’s entrenched habits of persecution. I am very honored to have landed in jail for my work. I hope that more citizens will come forward to join the fight for freedom when they see the dozens of us who are in jail. For me personally, another stint in prison may help to cleanse and mend me in small ways. Regardless of how long my sentence is this time, the first thing I will do when they let me out will be to go out and support constitutional democracy through direct action.
For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators. It is unacceptable that they should slaughter the innocent and enslave others. The chief and greatest punishment for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity. We believe that future generations will always make the same choices on the same principles. Outnumbered as we are, and Sisyphus though we may be (or the hero Kuafu who died chasing the sun), the prevailing meaning of our opposition movement persists in our refusal to give up or give in.
Another reason why action is imperative is that we need to show to others real-life examples of resistance that can encourage them to act on their own. During a transition we will need to prevent plutocratic groups from continuing the enslavement of the Chinese people by monopolizing political power for themselves. As civilization evolves, the culture of dictatorship and violence sometimes absorbs new resources and takes on new forms. Even after the dissolution of dictatorship, China could still face a tug-of-war between constitutional democracy with checks and balances on the one hand and Singapore or Russian-style “birdcage rule” on the other.
If Chinese democrats wish to avoid the strong-man or bird-cage scenario, whose legacy will be continued stagnation and unrest, we must be committed to working together and have the wisdom to build an independent and strong civil society that can balance the political power of the state. The end goal is a tripartite system where power is evenly distributed and transferred through institutionalized elections. Such a system best serves the sovereignty and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. Chinese civil society has reached the view that an opposition party is essential for bringing such a result about. Such an opposition party must act decisively, transparently and without guile, seeking round-table consensus, whether through a revision of the laws and institutions or by winning the sympathy and direct participation of the people. And its members must be prepared to bear the costs that might be inflicted upon them.
As an aging veteran whose life has been given to democracy, when I look back over the last thirty years, I truly feel that our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front line of the movement for freedom, tortuous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man, whose feet are planted on the ground and over whose head the heavens arch, as conceived by our ancestors long ago and writ large in the Chinese character for “human.”
Yang Maodong (aka Guo Feixiong)
Lawyers Describe Trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng, November 28, 2014.
Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by human rights lawyer Xiao Guozhen
Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, a profile by Xiao Shu