Ren Bumei, August 2, 2016
In 2005, when Hu Shigen was serving the 13th year of his 20 year prison sentence for forming the Chinese Free Democratic Party, he was awarded that year’s Outstanding Democracy Activist Award by the California-based Chinese Democracy Education Foundation. This is an excerpt of a speech given by exiled dissident Ren Bumei (任不寐) titled “Hu Shigen and the Highest Aspirations of Our Age” (《 胡石根与我们时代的精神高度》), upon accepting the award on Hu’s behalf. Hu, among the first four of the July 9, 2015 detainees to be indicted, is being put through a show trial today (August 3, Beijing Time) in the Tianjin Second People’s Intermediate Court. This is our first post in a series about Hu Shigen. — The Editors.
I’m grateful for the trust and confidence placed in me by Hu Shigen’s family and friends that allowed me, unworthy as I am, to share the honor bestowed on Mr. Hu. As a matter of fact, I can hardly represent Mr. Hu to say anything to the jury or the public. He’s spent 13 dark years in prison, and this award will add little to his suffering or glory. Instead, it is an opportunity for us. So today, I’d rather speak as an independent intellectual, recognizing the value of Hu Shigen’s existence for our time, and what it symbolizes for China’s cause of freedom.
Mr. Hu Shigen was born in the countryside of Nanchang City, Jiangxi Province, on November 14, 1954. His father, extremely impoverished, died when Hu was five — after putting up for adoption the three youngest of seven children. Hu Shigen didn’t begin his schooling until he was nine years old, when he enrolled in the Shitou Street Elementary School in Nanchang. As the oldest boy, at age 16 Hu began working at the Jiangxi Automobile Manufacturing Factory to support the family. In 1979 he passed the national college entrance exams to become a student at Peking University in Beijing. From 1979 to 1985, Hu Shigen studied at PKU, majoring in Chinese language (中国语言专业).* After graduate school, he was assigned to a teaching position at Beijing Language College (now Beijing Language and Culture University). He was quickly promoted to be an associate professor and vice department chair. He would have lived as a comfortable professor, but the arrival of the Tiananmen Movement and the June 4th massacre changed his life forever.
Hu didn’t exhibit much political passion during the “soul-racking 56 days” of protest and repression. But it was in the post-Tiananmen period, when droves of student leaders and participants like myself were fleeing Beijing, telling of our escapes at every opportunity, and the entire country was shrouded in terror, that Hu Shigen came into his own.
Thus, June 4, 1989, became a dividing line. Those who continued to resist in the midst of the terror lock-down were the real political heroes of China. The manner of Hu Shigen’s resistance was regarded by many as radical. I don’t know until this day whether this was a scholarly, rational assessment, or just a cover for cowardice. Hu Shigen initiated the Chinese Free Democratic Party (中国自由民主党), the Chinese Progressive Alliance (中华进步同盟) and the Chinese Free Workers’ Union (中国自由工会) with Wang Guoqi (王国齐), Wang Tiancheng (王天成), Kang Yuchun (康玉春), An Ning (安宁), Liu Jingsheng (刘京生), Chen Wei (陈卫), Chen Qinglin (陈青林), Xing Hongwei (刑宏伟), Gao Yuxiang (高玉祥), Zhang Chengzhu (张承珠), Xu Dongling (许东岭), Zhao Xin (赵昕) and many more. They printed, posted, and mailed thousands of fliers promoting freedom and democracy, condemning dictatorship, and calling for a redressal of the June 4th Massacre.
They were planning to rain down fliers on Tiananmen Square from a remote-controlled airplane on the third anniversary of June 4. But their plans were leaked, and on May 28, 1992, Hu was arrested as the “principal organizer of a counter-revolutionary ring.”
Those who were tried with him told us how, in the fascist court, he roared thunderously, like a lion. We learned from eyewitnesses that he and his accomplices adopted a no-compromise, no-cooperation stance in court, and that he and Wang Guoqi, Wang Tiancheng, and Chen Wei, even shouted “Long Live Freedom and Democracy!” and “Down with the Chinese Communist Party!” Even today I still feel a quiver when I imagine the scene. What gives us pause is this: Why are these commonsense convictions still so shocking and unnerving?
Of course no one was more shocked by such resolve than the authorities. At the end of the “trial,” Mr. Hu Shigen was sentenced to 20 years in prison for “the crime of organizing a counter-revolutionary ring” and “the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda.” He and his peers were among the few democracy activists to receive such lengthy sentences in the post-June 4 years.
In 1995 Mr. Hu Shigen was sent to Beijing Second Prison to serve his term. That prison became notorious because of him. He fasted on June 4 every year to commemorate the massacre and the dead. For nine years he was locked up in a brig cell (禁闭室) for “rejecting reform” and “inciting disturbances.” Because of police brutality, his hands and feet are permanently crippled. This year The Washington Post interviewed John Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation. According to Mr. Kamm, the Chinese government told him that Hu Shigen was not qualified for parole based on his attitude toward reforming himself. So Mr. Hu Shigen is continuing his one man defiance of the state.
I agree with the assessment of others: Hu Shigen is a prominent political prisoner that few know about. Even though over 20 people across China were thrown in jail in the case of the “Chinese Free Democratic Party,” and it has been declared the biggest “counter-revolutionary ring” since 1989, the case has received little media attention, and few have paid attention to Mr. Hu Shigen’s conditions. Early last year, a friend googled “胡石根” and found only 600 or so results.
Just as the prophets of the Old Testament said: misfortunes doubles down on those who were chosen to be the light and the salt, and put through tribulations. Hu Shigen and his like are not only the enemies of tyranny, they have also been forgotten by our times and rejected by their contemporaries — in particular by their dearest loved ones. The latter is so destructive that it resembles the work of Satan. Zhao Xin, a close friend of Mr. Hu Shigen, vividly recalled how Hu was slashed by his wife with a knife, eleven slashes in all, for not listening to her demands that he cease his activities. The marriage fell apart after 12 years, and he has met his daughter only once over the years since.
Having spent 13 years in prison, he has developed health conditions that have never been effectively treated, such as hepatitis B, lumbar disc herniation, rheumatoid arthritis, and migraines. On October 17, 2004, his older sister Hu Fengyun wrote to the prison authorities voicing her concern about his health. On December 9, 2004, his younger brother Hu Shuigen wrote me that his health had been deteriorating rapidly and he was afraid that Hu Shigen might die in prison. He called on the international media and human rights groups to “save” Hu Shigen.
In May last year, I met someone in Zhengzhou who was a “criminal” in the same case as Hu Shigen. That was when I began to learn of his story, and I was shaken to the core. While I was ashamed of myself, it was also the first time since 1989 that I felt so proud of China: in this society of victims of political disaster, we have Hu Shigen. I hugged this friend and bid him goodbye, determined to speak out for Hu Shigen.
I don’t mean to create a Hu Shigen myth, for the story of Hu Shigen is already a myth of our times.
Hu Shigen seems to be the post-Tiananmen Wang Weilin — but he’s not. That photograph of Wang as The Tank Man hangs on the office walls of numerous political activists around the world — but no one has heard of Hu Shigen. And yet, Hu Shigen is the Wang Weilin of the post-Tiananmen era. Hu Shigen, also, both is and isn’t the Václav Havel of China. After the June 4 crackdown, China’s intellectuals placed their hopes in a Havel-like figure, and yet no Chinese care to mention the Havel of China. Hu Shigen is also the Lin Zhao after Lin Zhao, the young women executed in custody during the Cultural Revolution, after a prison sentence of 20 years for two poems she wrote. And yet he’s not that, either. At a time when everyone is tearfully searching for Lin Zhao, Hu Shigen has assumed the same suffering, and the same propensity to shock the soul as she — and yet no one has written a word about him. In the peculiar age we live in, not only has Lin Zhao become a hero (which is as it should be), those who memorialize her have also become heroes (which is also of course as it should be), but Hu Shigen is the post-Lin Zhao Lin Zhao. Hu Shigen is also the Sophie of China — but also not. In China Sophie’s Choice has become a code word for the misery of the Cultural Revolution, in ways parallel to the misery of the Holocaust. Hu Shigen, on the other hand, is right now being tormented by his own choice, yet is absent from all this lofty discussion. Yet, Hu Shigen is the Sophie of China. Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi — but also not. Aung San Suu Kyi received the attention and support of the world, including the adulation of China’s intellectuals — yet Hu for over a decade has not received an ounce of similar respect. But all the same, Hu Shigen is China’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
Hu Shigen has also fallen into a spiritual prison that’s been built around him — this is the shame of our entire generation of “public intellectuals.” The fact that they are not even ashamed of this makes it all the more shameful. Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, lamented in a famous speech: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the crime itself; second the reaction of the world to that crime. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century of the Christian era, a great and cultivated nation put power into a band of assassins who transformed murder from a secret transgression into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State. He will find the monstrous story of the human slaughterhouses, the lethal chambers, the sealed trains, taxing the powers of belief… But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of mankind, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of the civilized world in the face of this immense, systematic carnage of human beings…”
But allow me alter those famous words for our use: “When the historian of the future assembles the black record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable: first, the Hu Shigen case itself; second, the fact that this age produced a such a ceaseless number of outstanding public intellectuals in China. He will sift the evidence again and again before he will be able to give credence to the fact that, in the twentieth century, a nation that has produced so many public-spirited intellectuals, has put power into a band of assassins who transformed violence and imprisonment into a publicly avowed government policy to be carried out with all the paraphernalia of State — and where matters of such great import never became the topic of open discussion among the country’s intellectuals. He might find that the story of the persecution of Hu Shigen, for establishing the Chinese Free Democratic Party, taxes the powers of belief. But when that historian, overwhelmed by the tragic evidence, sets down the verdict of the future upon this savage phenomenon, unique in the annals of China, he will be troubled by still another circumstance. He will be puzzled by the apathy of China, international human rights organizations, and public intellectuals, in the face of this immense, systematic persecution of Hu Shigen.”
*Hu Shigen was a college classmate of Hu Chunhua (胡春华), the Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and current Party Secretary of Guangdong province. According to Mr. Wu Renhua, the researcher of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement, who shared the same bunk-bed with Hu Shigen in graduate school, since his release in 2008, whenever Hu Chunhua attended class reunions, Hu Shigen was excluded.
Ren Bumei is an exiled Chinese dissident living in France.