Xu Zhiyong, November 19, 2017
Dr. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was released on July 15, 2017 after serving four years for organizing social movements such as the New Citizen Movement and the equal education rights campaign. He is a 44-year-old legal scholar, a pioneer of China’s rights defense movement, and a founders of the Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng 公盟) in 2003 which offers legal assistance to the disempowered and the wronged. — The Editors
After getting out of prison I discovered a pessimistic sentiment in many of my friends. Some of them fled China. Others said that the Chinese people aren’t worth saving. With this totalitarian surveillance state and its repressed people, it feels like history is running in reverse. But I’m an optimist at heart and I remain optimistic. I see that authoritarianism is actually weakening, while the strength of liberty and democracy is on the rise. More and more citizens have woken up.
The authoritarian ideology, once powerful beyond compare, is in rout. The last few years have seen challenges to economic growth and nationalism—the pillars of legitimacy in the age of reform and opening up [China’s economic and social reforms beginning in the 1980s]. The economy is in recession, and nationalism has met with setbacks in the Diaoyu Islands and along the Sino-Indian frontier. Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture are incompatible with Communism. A privileged class predicated on profit is sure to be brittle and weak. As we can see from the example of Yuan Shikai (袁世凯),* rule by vested interests betrays the current of history. When the time comes, it collapses overnight.
China’s finances are in a bad way. The economy relies on a monetary policy of forced stimulation that has reached a dead end. Endless sums are created, lent, and spent on inefficient infrastructure investments, betraying the principles of economics and making financial crisis unavoidable. The split Party and civil administration are almost like a double government, the hierarchies are multitudinous, and the burden upon the people is among the highest in the world. State revenues decrease while the cost of maintaining stability rises rapidly. Just like the imperial dynasties in their final years, today’s financial situation is dire.
However, the biggest uncertainty comes from the central leadership. Chinese officials are unenthusiastic and shirk their responsibilities by deferring everything to orders from above. Totalitarian systems are doomed to grow weaker over the generations as factional compromise saps the regime’s core strength and places mediocrities in positions of power. Even if there is someone who wants to restore the old order, his efforts will lead nowhere. He is ridiculed, not revered, by the majority. The leader is the greatest uncertainty of the system and indeed of the entire country.
Meanwhile, society is marching forward. Private wealth is increasing. Technology is improving, the world is becoming one. Pro bono lawyers, entrepreneurs of social care, independent intellectuals, and victims of the powers-at-large, the number of awakened Chinese citizens has increased during these four years [while I was in prison].
But we are still relatively scattered. How to concentrate the powerful energy of civil society is an urgent task that demands our full responsibility.
What does China need most for its social transformation? A mature civil society. If there is a mature civil society, we will incur fewer costs and a beautiful future awaits. Revolution is not the design of any one individual. Our responsibility is not to knock down walls—though of course, living freely and candidly is equal to knocking down walls. It would be irresponsible for us to wait for change. Our responsibility lies in construction, constructing ourselves as a civil body.
Is civil society possible? There is space for it. The critical matter is what is to be done, how it is to be done, and to which degree. We need to be wise and methodical. To build civil society and unite those Chinese who seek democracy and constitutional rule on one platform, I offer six key phrases.
The citizen is a common identity. This identity conveys rich inner meanings of power and responsibility, it implies a society and nation of citizens. The day that 1.3 billion Chinese are citizens is the day that China is truly beautiful. To become genuine citizens is our present and final objective. More importantly, citizenship can be an identity—yours, mine, everyone’s common identity. We can’t say “you are democracy, I am democracy,” but we can say “you are a citizen, I am a citizen.” This concept has roots in China over a century old. It cannot be taken from us or censored. However fearful people may be in private, all can come out and say “I am a citizen.”
Freedom, Justice, and Love are our shared core values. These values ought to be the new height following freedom, equality, and fraternity, the desired values of a future society. Freedom is the true sovereignty of individual action and existence, its scope expands with the development of civilization. Justice means a fair and just society—its meaning is richer than the egalitarianism that was once applied to the stratified French society. It is a society with democracy, rule of law, and rational boundaries between individuals—each to his own, each to his ability, each is provided for. Love is more generous and profound than fraternity; it is the wellspring of life and happiness.
One day these will become the core values of Chinese civilization. They don’t come from our ancestors. The core values of France—liberté, égalité, fraternité—were not those of the nobility, they were created by the people of France during their great revolution. Creating Freedom, Justice, and Love is the struggle of our generation of Chinese. For our ancient people and their civilization, these values will usher in renaissance and take common root across all humanity.
Truth shall be the common guiding principle in our actions. To be a true citizen. To uphold the citizen’s identity, rights, and responsibilities. To uphold and proactively implement the freedoms and rights written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Late-stage totalitarianism also preaches democracy and liberty, but it doesn’t really mean it. In its crowning absurdity, the core values of socialism have become sensitive phrases and subject to online censorship. We uphold these things. The truth is the ultimate deconstruction of lies and absurdity, and the greatest tool for building a beautiful China. The 1.3 billion Chinese need not take radical action. If they all took the rights contained in the Constitution seriously, China would change.
A Beautiful China is our common direction. The China of our dreams is not only beautiful, but also free, just, and happy. A beautiful China encompasses beauty, but even more so embodies deeper values of democracy, rule of law, and freedom. Freedom, Justice, and Love is our direction, it is our mission and glory. Ours shall be a beautiful country reborn on the land where authoritarianism reigned for thousands of years. This is our purpose in life.
Citizens are not an isolated circle. Say not “you citizens,” but “we citizens.” Do not reject the noble identity of citizen just because some unscrupulous people may appropriate this title. Lawyers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, judges, civil servants, regardless of your wealth, social class, you are citizens. All us Chinese shall identity as citizens. We may not necessarily all eat at the same table, lawyers and entrepreneurs may have their own circles, but our identity is a common one—the citizen.
The force of liberal democracy must be united. The identity of “citizen” is the best platform and the most solid cornerstone. Regardless of your social status or group, we are working forward together to a common goal. Communities of citizens can rise in each region and every industry. Assemble together, stay in touch with current affairs, and when the timing is favorable, take steps to coordinate with each other, for example by meeting on the last Saturday of each month. When millions and millions of Chinese assemble with the same identity, the same core values, and discuss the fate of the country and the people, they will have begun to form a civil body.
Being a citizen and building civil society does not equal being under someone’s leadership or joining some organization, it means independently wanting to be a citizen among citizens. Citizens in different regions act autonomously and make progress of their own accord. A community of citizens and civil society is necessarily an organic development.
Being a citizen, especially being a community of citizens, means standing up to oppression. If you abandon your identity in the face of pressure and don’t even want to be a citizen anymore, then you will have nothing to show for it. As the common body that shows the way towards social progress, the only way to build strength is to experience oppression and learn from the experience. If even the simple act of a same city dinner gathering (同城聚餐) means suppression, so be it. But this requires our perseverance. When the days comes that we are not even allowed to eat, there is still no problem: just go on hunger strike for a day. Even better, everyone go on hunger strike for a day. Have faith: your identity as a citizen can withstand oppression. It cannot be taken away from you.
I earnestly beseech every one of my compatriots seeking democracy and liberty to know their identity as a citizen and its significance. Be a dignified and upright citizen together with those who share your ideals and ambition, discuss with them when you meet, follow current affairs, spread the citizen’s ideal, and uphold social justice. If you are entrepreneurs, you can seek like-minded friends among your business circles and gather as citizen entrepreneurs. If you are lawyers, you can seek the like-minded among your legal circles and gather as citizen lawyers. If you are judges, you can discover the like-minded and gather as citizen judges. You have common ideals regardless of your professional fields, your wealth, or status. Seek out and join hands with the citizens by your sides.
I am a citizen, we are citizens. This is a pious faith. This is our responsibility to an ancient people. This is the struggle of our generation of Chinese, its undertaking, and its glory.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong (许志永)
*Yuan Shikai was a general of the former Qing Dynasty who manipulated China’s republican movement in an attempt to establish his own dictatorship. His actions contributed to the chaotic warlord era.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, Part 1 of 2, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, part 2 of 2, April 13, 2014.