Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018
Xu Zhiyong was released from prison on July 16, 2017, after serving four years for his role in the New Citizens Movement. Xu is a seminal figure in China’s rights defense movement with the founding of “Gongmeng” (公盟) in 2003, a NGO providing legal assistance to victims of social injustice. It was a training ground for some of the earliest human rights lawyers and took on some of the most high-profile cases of the time. Gongmeng was shut down by the government in 2009. After that Xu Zhiyong and colleagues sought new ways to continue their work for change, resulting in the New Citizens Movement. Between 2013 and 2014, dozens of participants were thrown in jail, including Xu himself. China Change had extensive coverage of the movement and the crackdown, and a lengthy interview titled “Who Is Xu Ziyong?” Scroll down midway for a new, 6-minute video in which Xu Zhiyong speaks about his current projects and hopes for the future. The following article was first posted on July 20 in Xu’s new blog, and China Change is pleased to offer a complete translation of it. –– The Editors
It’s been a year since my release from prison. Friends often ask about my life during those four years. It seems as if it were a lifetime ago. That’s how it feels.
It was a summer morning –– the first time in three months I had been allowed to walk out the door of my home. A municipal public security bureau (PSB) car took my wife and I to the hospital for a prenatal check-up. After that I watched her to go to work.
When we returned to my residential compound, there were police cars and many mysterious strangers in front of my building. At the stairway, I was handed a criminal summons notice for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Dozens of people entered my home and conducted a search.
I had already been deprived of my freedom for three months. On April 12 , I was intercepted at the airport departure gate on my way to Hong Kong, per invitation, to participate in a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the Sun Zhigang case. From then on, people from the domestic security police’s wenbao (文保) division [i.e., political police responsible for culture and education work units] kept watch in the corridor 24/7; I couldn’t even go out to buy food.
On March 31, Yuan Dong (袁冬) and several others had gone to Xidan [西单, downtown Beijing about two miles west of the Tiananmen Square] calling for officials to publicly disclose their assets. Citizens of a normal country have freedom of speech. But this is China. They were taken into custody.
In April, Zhao Changqing (赵常青), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Sun Hanhui (孙含会) and others were detained in succession. Two days earlier, Song Ze (宋泽) disappeared. I sent my unfinished manuscript “Free China” to Xiao Shu (笑蜀), and prepared for imprisonment.
What’s meant to be will be. “Gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” was just an excuse.
What the autocrats were really concerned about was the New Citizens’ Movement. The “citizen” badge, the avatar, and the core values of “freedom, justice, love.” When, on the same day, banners were hung in more than 20 cities calling for the public disclosure of officials’ assets, it looked like a nascent political opposition was taking shape.
After May, I had three “talks” at a farm near Xiaotangshan [a small town in Changping district, Beijing] with someone who claimed to be the principal person in charge of the Beijing Municipal PSB. We argued about ideas, and he urged me to “admit my mistakes.” The meaning was very clear: if I surrendered, I could go home, but if I didn’t capitulate, I’d be facing 10 years or more, and there would be more than one criminal charge.
Think about your family. I said I could stop working and do nothing. If indeed I was mistaken regarding individual matters, I could admit to them, and I myself also reflect on them.
How did they want me to acknowledge them? It must be done in front of the media. A TV confession. That was asking me to renege my mission.
For so many years, so many people and I worked hard together. Then all of a sudden, I was supposed to turn around and say that I’d done wrong? This is a question of character. I treasure freedom and I love life, but between destroying my character and being thrown behind bars, I can only choose the latter. Since there is no way to retreat, let whatever may come, come.
The car drove straight to the Beijing Municipal Special Police Division. It was the fourth negotiation. Two people who “talked” with me earlier showed up. “Shall we have more talking, or shall we go ahead with legal procedures?”
You’ve already begun crackdown, what else is there to talk about? We were deadlocked for two or three hours. The special police rushed in, put me in a car and drove off. I was blindfolded.
I got out of the car. I heard the sound of a plane and thought I was back at Beijing No.1 Detention Center, where I was detained in the summer of 2009.
It was Daxing (大兴). The cell in Beijing’s No. 3 Detention Center was already prepared. It was specially set up the day before. There were twelve people in the cell; except for me, everyone else were theft suspects. The vast majority of the more than 400 people detained in the No. 3 Detention Center were there for allegedly stealing mobile phones on public buses.
My code name was 716; the day was July 16, 2013.
No one was allowed to call me by my name. The “head” prisoner said that it was the same for an accomplice of Zhou Bin’s who was detained here last year: he was also called by a code name.
When the broadcast system called out: “716, 716!”, I pretended not to hear. Two days later, the calls changed to “Xu Zhiyong.”
Almost every day they interrogated me for long hours –– regarding the New Citizens’ Movement, citizens’ dinner gatherings, equal education rights for migrant workers’ children, and calls for officials to disclose their assets. I talked about ideas, and didn’t avoid discussing my own actions.
With respect to questions involving other people, I didn’t say a word. “It’s not convenient to say” was my answer, or I would tell the transcriber to simply note “silent.”
I was the one who went to the copy shop to print the flyers for the “228” petition for equal education rights. They repeatedly asked me where the copy shop was. I knew they were unlikely to be hard on the shop; at most, just threaten them a bit.
But I didn’t want innocent people to be harassed and frightened. My principle was not to give information about other people. I sat on the iron chair from morning till night, refusing to answer. The stalemate lasted for six days. Then they gave up.
They asked how much money Wang Gongquan (王功权) gave to Gongmeng (公盟, Open Constitution Initiative). I said, “I can’t tell you.” “Why are you holding it back when he himself has already told us?”
I didn’t say a word. My words must not become testimonies that are used to incriminate others.
This is also legal common sense. He gave me cash, only the two of us knew about it. This fact is not the same as a legal fact. Legal facts require at least two people’s testimony that mutually corroborates the other. If only one person says it, then it’s useless; it doesn’t become legal evidence.
I thought of all kinds of torture. When even life can be given, then torture doesn’t matter.
[Lawyer Zhang] Qingfang appeared in front of the iron-grated window, and we smiled at each other. What I remember best is his passionate and voluble manner during the Yanyuan Lectures. We were both PhD students at Peking University Law School. He was the class of ‘98, and I was ‘99.
He and lawyer Hu Yu (胡育) both came to see me almost every week. We exchanged information, and it was extremely important for the defense in political cases. They took and later disseminated a video of me speaking, handcuffed and in a prison garb. Because of this video, the interrogators were livid.
Later, the Party-state tightened control, and it’s now impossible for political prisoners to have such opportunities. Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) has not been allowed to meet with a lawyer for three years. They said this is according to their law. But how many countries in the world have such evil laws?
In defending political cases, it’s very important for lawyers to speak out. Regardless of whether a prisoner is prepared to go to jail or compromise in exchange for freedom, widespread outside attention is valuable. At a minimum, the attention would result in more safety for the prisoner. Speaking only in the authoritarian court setting is essentially saying nothing.
Even if you want to compromise, it’s a compromise on the part of the political prisoner, not on the part of the family and the lawyers. What family members and lawyers can do is to speak out, tell the story, and talk about how an idealist pursues democracy and freedom, how he or she upholds ideals and serves the society.
Every time a lawyer meets with his or her client and then tells the outside world, it’s basically the outside world’s only source of information. What autocrats fear most is the spread of the power of conscience. If lawyers are under too much pressure, they can talk to the family of their client, and then the family can speak to the media and put the news out online.
Li Wei (李蔚) was held next door; sometimes we were able to say hello to each other. Sometimes when I was taken out of the cell for interrogations, I could see Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) in #201 cell, in quiet contemplation, as I walked down the hallway. Sometimes during the let-out time, I could hear the cry, “Call on officials to publicly disclose their assets!” They were Zhang Baocheng (张宝成) and Ma Xinli (马新立). In September, I knew that [Wang] Gongquan had also been taken in. One day we met in the hallway. We raised our shackled hands, and cupped one fist into the other hand to greet each other.
I told Qingfang to tell the others that those who could leave should do their best to leave; we don’t need so many friends going to jail.
My happiest day in the detention center was the news transmitted over the walkie-talkie that Song Ze (宋泽) was released on bail. Later, I learned from a fellow prisoner that when Song Ze left the detention center he had grown long hair, and that he had never complied with the jailhouse rules.
Early November, the gloom hung the heaviest.
One day they began to ask about “a country of the people and for the people,” a constitutional vision for a beautiful China.
In the fall of 2011, on the occasion of 100th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911, many constitutional scholars held bi-weekly discussions that lasted for five months with continuous research output. Where is China headed? What the Chinese people need is a constitutional consensus.
They stopped letting my lawyers see me. For a Chinese legal professional, this suggested a subversion charge. Some of the cell arrangements, such as not having to be on duty at night, were cancelled.
They began to use night interrogations –– just when I was about to fall asleep, they came to get me. Straight through until dawn. I was expecting that, perhaps next, I would be deprived of sleep for days –– a form of torture. I said to them that if they did the same tomorrow, I would refuse to cooperate.
The second night, I didn’t say a word; it was a stalemate till dawn.
It was a weekend. Back to the cell, I lay down on the bed plank amid the blaring TV.
I was exhausted. Everywhere was grey. Initially, it was one charge, with a maximum sentence of five years; now there were two counts, which means at least 10 years. Under five years, it’s part of life; ten years and more, it’s a career. That’s a fundamental difference.
There is a lot of suffering in life. Prison was never a surprise for me. When I bought a home in 2004, the purpose was very clear: when I was released from prison one day, I’d have a place to live. But ten years would be a long time when that became a reality! I was overcome by immeasurable pain and sadness.
Suddenly a voice said, in a flash, “Make it a happy experience” (快乐体验). In 2009, when I was at the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center, there was a similar moment of sudden light.
Those are moments when history is made.
Embracing everything in life with happiness. I got up, and using a small piece of sandstone, wrote “make it a happy experience” on the wall of cell #208.
I had no paper or pen –– this probably was a rule targeting me, I had quite a few words. On July 31, I wrote: “For freedom, justice, love, and happiness for all beings, for your glory, Lord, I want to live your life in this world.”
On December 5, Nelson Mandela passed away, and I wrote “Long Road to Freedom.”
I’ve always believed there’s a mysterious and inexorable force in me, leading me and spurring me on. He always flashes light in the darkest moments of my life. He created this world. He is the ultimate cause of everything –– the universe, life, evolution, humanity, and civilization.
They came for me on third night, menacing. As soon as I came out of my cell, the guard yelled, “Squat down!” I laughed. It is the rule of the detention center that when a suspect leaves his cell he must squat and put his hands behind his head, fingers interlaced. I never abided by that rule.
As soon as I sat down in the interrogation room, a new face, a man in his thirties, unleashed a torrent of invective and abuse.
Who do you think you are? Scum, bastard, degenerate… he exhausted almost all of the insulting words there are in the Chinese language. He paced back and forth, waving his arms, stomping his feet, twisting out his cigarette butts, making threatening gestures and monstrously screaming. It seemed that he was about to tear me to pieces and gobble me up. Both my hands were shackled to the iron chair, and I sat quietly. This went on for about an hour. Then he stopped. The room became quiet.
I raised my head, and looking into his eyes, asked him, “Are you done performing?”
I was genuinely concerned for this person. Who is he? What did he just do? For whom? How could he utter those words if he had the slightest sense of right and wrong? Unless he is mentally ill –– he is not, he is putting on a show.
It was like watching from high above a little marionette shook and screamed loudly on the blue earth. He looked so pathetic that I had to show my concern.
He suddenly fell apart. He said, in a succession of quick utterances, “Alas, I am really sorry; I was indeed performing; oh dear, I really can’t do this job! Why are they asking me to do this?”
He had completely forgotten about his colleagues around him, as well as the watching eyes supervising them in another room. Later, we chatted for a while. He was a graduate of Renmin University. He repeatedly apologized, saying that he shouldn’t have cursed and insulted me, and that he had failed.
If I had any fear, or felt humiliated, they would have won. Whatever worked on you, they would use it against you. For me, beating would only inspire me. In Linyi, Shandong province, at the entrance of the black jail in the Youth Hostel, brutal violence did not make me submit. Nor did insults have any use.
In a post-totalitarian society, ideology is dead. There is no more class hatred. Beating people is just a job, a role to play.
From a historic perspective, we each play our own role. What’s there to be afraid when you transcend the confines of this world and look at yourself and the world around you from the vantage point of distance? You see the preordained role of each person in the world; there is only compassion.
Just like that, the quasi-torture of me was over.
On December 15, the news of Mandela’s death was broadcast on television. I thought of the song “The Glorious Years” by Beyond. How many people must bear the cost for a nation to be saved? Countless ancestors shed blood. We are their successors. We’re very fortunate.
2014 arrived. In the brightly lit cell, on the large shared plank bed, each went to sleep with their own dreams. I recalled the distant ring bells, the open countryside of my childhood, the wheat waving in the spring breeze. And the green lawns of New Haven, and the cross atop of a church pointing to the blue sky and white clouds. And the clamor and roar on New Year Eve on the southern shore of Lake Weiming, straddling two centuries. The distant bells; the years of youth in the river of time.
I prepared for trial.
As far as the law was concerned we were not guilty, of course. Opposing segregation based on hukou, or household registration, promoting equal education rights, and calling on officials to publicly disclose their assets, all of these is simply public expression and an exercise of freedom of speech as stipulated in China’s Constitution. We didn’t block roads or traffic; we didn’t “disrupt social order”; our actions resulted in no social harm whatsoever.
All of the witnesses for the prosecution were either policemen or security guards, and none of them testified in court. And not a single city resident was a victim.
The Party didn’t respect the law, nor did it care about procedures. The lawyers fought hard about the key issues of whether the New Citizen cases should be handled together or separately, and the appearance of witnesses in court.
The New Citizen “cases” were obviously a single case. We all identify as citizens, recognize the core values of “freedom, justice, and love,” and work together to promote educational equality and the public disclosure of officials’ assets. The allegations against us, as well as the case materials, were the same; there was no legal reason to try us separately.
The authorities used rogue, unlawful methods to force the case to be divided into separate cases in order to minimize the impact of the New Citizen trial. That was the only explanation.
We requested witnesses to appear in court to testify, a reasonable request in any normal country, but the judge refused.
Without respect for procedures, it was impossible for the trial to be just.
The so-called “trial” then was no more than a formality; all we could do was use non-cooperation to protest. My lawyers and I agreed to sit through the trial in complete silence.
The trial was held on January 22, 2014. The police cordoned off the intersection near the court. Many friends came to the courthouse that day, and many more friends were restricted from coming. Thank you all!
My lawyers Zhang Qingfang and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱) explained briefly the reasons why we must be silent, and then stopped talking. Regardless of how the judges asked, all three of us maintained silence.
Enraged, the presiding judge called for an adjournment. He urged me to speak. I didn’t.
In private, other judges and prosecutors said to me that they were sorry, there was nothing else they could do –– they did so to let me know that they still had a conscience. Only the presiding judge was full of hostility toward me. There are fewer and fewer people like him in the autocratic system.
When the trial resumed, we maintained our silence. No matter what the judges or prosecutors said, we ignored it all. The angry presiding judge announced the court would adjourn again, and threatened me and my two lawyers.
With basic procedural justice trampled upon, how could we cooperate? The next part of the hearing was pointless. One by one, the prosecutors presented their “evidence.” The judge asked the defendant if there was any objection. No answer from me. Any objections from the lawyers? Silence.
They are all in it together, so let them do their own show. At one point, I dozed off.
It was finally over at four o’clock in the afternoon. When I gave my final statement, the judge interrupted several times. Finally, I was forced to stop.
It’s not important what was said in court, “For freedom, justice, and love –– my court statement” has already been disseminated outside the courtroom.
She came on the day of the trial. Our daughter was born just nine days before. I got down on my knees. Actually, those of us who believe in destiny don’t care about the price. But our loved ones bear the cost. Four days after the first-instance trial, the verdict was pronounced. The four-year sentence was not a surprise. But for a wife and a 13-day old baby, it was much too long.
We filed an appeal on the final day of the appeal period. Not to change the outcome, but just to lengthen the battle front, so more people could learn about the citizen movement.
The major facts were unclear and the procedure was seriously illegal, but the authoritarian court is not a place to reason. The court of second instance, the Beijing High People’s Court, didn’t hold a court “hearing.” They were afraid of another trial. On the day the verdict was announced, I declared in a loud voice when I was taken out of the courtroom by bailiffs: “The absurd judgment cannot stop the trend of progress of human civilization, and the haze of communist dictatorship will inevitably be dispelled; the sunshine of freedom, justice, and love will inevitably shine in China!”
There is joy everywhere. My last days at the detention center were leisurely. There was a fundamental improvement in my shuangsheng ability (a variation of poker). I could now remember cards. After each round the loser would have to drink cold water. A young man who had been to the juvenile detention facility when he was a teen promised me that he was going to open a hot spicy soup stall after he got out. I promised to help him. I don’t know where he is now.
On April 27, a young guard said goodbye to me after breakfast. His family is in Fengtai (丰台), and they also suffered forced eviction and demolition of their home; he had consulted me about some legal issues.
For English subtitles, click setting.
The first stop was Tianhe Prison (天河监狱). It was formerly known as the “South Building”; the transfer station was well known for its perversely strict management. Prisoners who were not from Beijing were sent here and then transferred to their place of residence to serve their sentences. I had heard many stories about the “South Building”, so from the outset I didn’t have a good impression.
At the beginning, the prison was unusually harsh. Then we were under regular management. During the last three months up until we got out of prison, the management loosened up. With each change, one felt happier. The same changes, if done in reverse order, it would be hard to endure.
Tianhe is the starting point for prison, it played the role of hell. New prisoners had nothing, not even a single drawer. There was no private space whatsoever. You couldn’t read, you couldn’t take an afternoon nap. Every day, before we watched TV for study, the warden shouted, “Bow your heads, raise your heads, bow your heads, raise your heads…”
I must resist, for human rights, and also to carve out some space for myself.
On the first day, because I wore slippers in the corridor, the lieutenant blocked me, and I said I would not obey. He yelled, do you dare to write that down? I said, Give me a piece of paper and I will write it down that I refuse to obey order. I did just that and signed my name.
There was a small library there for the prisoners from Beijing who remained at Tianhe. I went and got a book. The lieutenant told me to take it back; I refused. He shouted at the cell leader, “Take it away from him!” I said, “Who is going to come over here and have a fight with me?” The cell leader was a skinny young man. He used to work at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau; his crime was taking bribes. He didn’t know what to do. I was able to keep the book.
I know that I had the strength to resist because of the attention on me from hundreds of thousands of people. That is my good fortune and also the hope of the nation. Compared with many who came before me, I was lucky.
I would often stand in front of the window in the cell, thinking about the golden dandelions in the sun and the sparking stars, the cuckoo singing throughout the night, the happiness. Also my boyhood.
The one month of resistance was over. On May 30, 2014, I was told to gather my things. The deputy warden said he didn’t know which prison I was being transferred to. We had talked about privileges in prison before. He said that I might be sent to Yancheng (燕城). Usually a prisoner would go to a second prison for another two months, and then to some other prison. I hoped that my situation would stabilize as soon as possible.
The police car got on the highway. The wheat fields on both sides were just turning yellow. When I was a child, this was my favorite season. White mushrooms, hard working ants, panicked hares whizzing by. Those distant times.
The car drove to a yard with a high electrified wall. Seeing “Liulin Prison” (柳林监狱), my heart said, my Longchang Yi (龙场驿)! Five hundred years later, I was also in a remote place. Far away from it all.
Liulin Prison is divided into seven wards; each ward had about 100 prisoners and 20 prison guards.
In my ward, the Superintendent (the leader, later renamed ward captain) was a decent person. He said to me privately that all people have a conscience. He said in the minds of the the prison guards, there are three categories of prisoners. “The first category is you,” he said, “so no need to explain.” The second category, he said, is those guilty of corruption—the larger social environment is just like this. The third category is ordinary criminals.
A few days later, he said that the reading room was ready. We then took 200 some books from the prison library to the reading room, including traditional cultural classics such as The Book of Songs, The Analects, and Instructions for Practical Living, as well as world classics such as Les Miserables and War and Peace.
The one that I cherished the most and kept for the entire three years I was there was The Federalist Papers.
Sixteen people lived in one cell. Robbery, murder, theft, drug trafficking, bribery and other crimes were all mixed together. A small society. These were hardened people to begin with, and when they were stuck together in such a harsh environment, they became worse –– it was a vicious cycle.
There were no mirrors in the prison. Anything that could injure a person was not allowed, so there was no glass, no bamboo sticks, etc.; they feared self-inflicted wounds.
In the first month at Liulin Prison, the labor was weeding and turning up the soil. We removed the weeds on both sides of the road and then turned the soil over and over again. It was a perversity on the part of the prison: they wouldn’t allow anything to grow freely, including weeds.
I then was sent to the large workshop to wrap chair frames with plastic wire. I didn’t want to earn credit to reduce my sentence. Labor was symbolic, so I’d do a little bit of cleaning, and occasionally I’d wrap a chair too.
An optimistic person can work everywhere, and wherever I am, there is space for me. My work was to think and write.
A rule was applied to me at the beginning: I could study half the time and do labor half the time. After I swept the floor, I read in a corner of the workshop.
The first two months were my “study period.” After that, the Superintendent and his deputy called me outside and said that prison rules stipulated that no reading was allowed in the workshop.
I said I must be allowed to read; if you don’t let me read, I will switch into total noncooperation, and you can just go ahead and send me to the “training team.”
The training team is a prison within a prison. In the beginning, you’re tied to a bed with iron chains 24 hours a day. Usually there’s a ceremony for those sent to the training team: a large meeting is held, the disciplinary violations are announced in a stern voice, the police raise the prisoners’ arms high overhead, press their heads down as low as possible, and hurriedly stuff them into a truck. It was the posture used for struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution. For many people, that was a frightening place. I didn’t care. Actually, it’s perfect for a meditation retreat.
The Superintendent made concessions. “Well, just bring one book at a time.” A few months later, a floor supervisor found me reading a book in the workshop. The warden reminded me to be watchful. I said that my reading was out in the open, and I would never hide from anyone.
Outside the window, dusk fell. In the distance, the high-speed train hurled past. It connected the city and my life.
A huge white bird, flapping its wings, landed in Liulin. The northern coast was not far away. Many years ago, I listened to a big sister telling her story in the dark clouds and cold wintry wind of the northern coast. In the summer of 1989, it was the first time I, a wandering boy, came to see the sea, under the gloomy sky with several big ships and a few seagulls in view. I stayed with her until late at night, an atlas for a headrest, and fell asleep amid the sea breeze. It was the coast of Tanggu, not far away.
I stayed at Liulin for less than five months. In the late autumn. On October 22, , we were all transferred to Kenhua Prison (垦华监狱).
Kenhua is about ten kilometers from Liulin. There are several prisons in the area. This place called Chadian is an enclave of Beijing in Tianjin. Zhou Enlai is said to have chosen this wilderness to detain Kuomintang war criminals.
Kenhua means reclaiming China. The name is as suggestive as my hometown Minquan –– civil rights.
Kenhua was newly built, not big, and could accommodate 1,000 plus prisoners, but only 600 or 700 people were detained there. Ten people lived in one cell. There was less green there than Liulin. Liulin has pear-leaved crabapple groves, jujube forests, corn fields, and old willows everywhere. In Kenhua, the road had two rows of small trees on each side, and there was a wide expanse of clover growing in a clearing.
The biggest problem with the food was its monotony. If you only looked at the weekly menu, it was not too bad: salted vegetables and steamed buns in the morning and evening, stir-fry at noon, Monday cabbage, Tuesday eggplant, Wednesday potato slices…. Each week there were two dishes that included a bit of meat, and two meals of rice. But year in, year out, we only had these 10-20 dishes; we never saw anything else.
Each month, prisoners could fill out purchase orders for pig’s head meat, salted duck eggs, fruits, etc., but the types of extra food you could buy were always the same, year in and year out. There were only ever two kinds of fruit –– apples and oranges. I didn’t see any other fruits for several years. Picking a green onion or radishes from the ground behind the squad leader’s back was a great luxury.
Therefore a peach or a banana could be used as a reward for a labor competition for such a group of people who have seen the world.
What luxurious happiness it would be to be with two or three good friends, having a few small dishes at a food stall with a few bottles of beer on a summer evening!
There was no life here, only poetry and a distant place.
A happy time was when we collected debris. The prison was a tofu-dregs project with construction waste left everywhere, so going downstairs to the lawn to collect debris became frequent labor. There was a rich life amid the clover. The pill bug waited quietly, the little gray spider ran desperately, the praying mantis lifted its machete. And the ants were always busy.
That was their home. They didn’t know the high electrified walls, and they didn’t know the world outside. They were free.
Our space was much larger than that of the ants, but we felt the pain of lost freedom.
Humans don’t have wings to fly, nor fins to swim; we live and die on this planet like dust. I once lived like these ants, and didn’t feel it was painful. What’s habitual and constant is no suffering.
Freedom, pain, happiness, everything in this world is born because of comparison. So God created a hellish world.
To make it a perfect world and to turn life into an experience of happiness –– this is the meaning of life. My Longchang Yi.
I had a lot of time to think. Real, quiet thinking. On the outside, even if my phone is turned off, my mind still can’t settle down. But there, it was useless to ponder what was happening outside. I was relieved of those responsibilities, so I could really calm down.
For several days in a row I thought about the theory of special relativity, and for several consecutive days I thought about the question: what is time? I wanted to know the truth of the world, time, space, energy, quality, matter, life, humanity…
To be precise, I was quietly waiting for a divine revelation. All flashes of light and thought come from God, and all human knowledge comes from that ultimate spiritual homeland.
The progress of civilization means to know nature, to know oneself, and to know God, from a higher place.
Over the past 300 years, the understanding of nature and science has taken a big step forward, while the other foot, the understanding of God and religion, has remained in the same place.
People are animals looking up at the stars. We will always question our previous lives and the afterlife and be concerned about the meaning of life. We always longing for a refuge for the soul.
The roads of the past are old. This is the era of a new civilization.
I am blessed. I’ve received so much new knowledge. I know the truth of the world. I know the meaning of life. I wrote it down carefully, and saved it. I’m grateful for being on a sacred mission.
I still have a lot of time to long for you. When thinking of you, I stared out the window at the flowering crabapple in bloom and the green fields. It was another spring. I missed as I walked in the prisoners’ formation. Looking up at the sky, I saw a flock of ducks flying north to a distant nest. When I missed you, I gently plucked a four-leaf clover and I wanted to give it to you as a birthday present. I wanted to give you everything that was the best in this life. I missed you at a small corner in the noisy workshop as I pondered the fate of mankind. At this predestined place for meditation, you disturbed me, again and again, giving me life, happiness and longing.
My cellmate Tian Shudong (田树东) had lumbar disc surgery. He helped a friend collect debt, and was sentenced to 13 years for “robbery.” He once shared a cell with Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), a father imprisoned for his baby son who was one of the many victims of the tainted milk powder.
Every day Lai Huaichao (赖怀超), Wu Min (吴敏), myself, and a few others, used a stretcher to carry Tian to the workshop, and after work, we carried him back. Both of them were in for corruption. Wu Min studied physics at Nanjing University, so I often sought him out to discuss physics questions.
About 40% of the people in my ward were convicted of corruption. Among them there were six bureau-level officials; they were smart people and we were able to discuss philosophy together. Each month there were newcomers, and some would leave. When someone left, everyone else felt a little sunshine coming through.
In the last six months of my sentence, our cell had eight people: one Ph.D., two Masters, and three with undergraduate degrees. Several were in for corruption, one was a murderer, and one a robber. Old Li, who slept under me in the bunk, was the general manager of a state-owned enterprise, sentenced to twenty years for corruption and bribery. He had already served nine years, and still had nine to go. He had only received a two-year sentence reduction when a new policy prohibited sentence reductions for corruption offenders. He had shingles.
Tian Shudong was lying on the stretcher in the workshop. One day the political instructor saw him and shouted, get up! I almost lost my temper. One day, he made four prisoners raise their arms and tortured an inmate with mental-illness; I held back my anger, because there was important work to be completed.
In June 2016, after a heavy rain, during the night, the hallway was filled with vomiting sounds. I also had a stomach ache, but it was slight. By my estimate, 40 people were vomiting and had diarrhea; 80% of the inmates had fever, stomach pain and other symptoms. In the entire prison, more than 400 people were poisoned by food. We ruled out all kinds of possibilities and concluded that it was very likely a problem with the drinking water. A few days later at an assembly, the deputy prison warden mentioned this incident, and downplaying it, said that everyone should pay attention to personal hygiene. He was scared of speaking the truth.
It was the place predestined for my personal cultivation. I often thought: what is human nature? And I recalled that debate in the detention center.
My cellmates argued heatedly about whether they could steal from a hospital. They mainly stole mobile phones in the subway, and during a national holiday week they could make 50,000 to 80,000 RMB. Some mainly stole from the mall. There were also those who stole from patients in the hospitals.
Two people approved. The cell “boss” said, the thief is a profession that has existed since time immemorial. “It doesn’t matter if the cat’s white or black, as long as it’s able to make money, it’s a good cat.” He had been in Beijing for three decades since his teens, and he had bought a house and married. His was a history of personal struggles full of blood and tears. The other one who was unscrupulous about stealing from hospital patients was the young man who would later become the cell “boss.” He said that stealing is stealing, so “whatever.”
Four people felt uncertain about their takes: they didn’t support it nor did they oppose it.
Four people resolutely opposed it. Among them was Little Anyang. He was 21 years old; when he was nine he was tricked into going with a gang boss to Shanghai. Countless times, the boss beat him violently. Speaking about it, he was still fearful. This was his fourth prison run; the previous two times he was sentenced to one year each. Thieves like him normally were sentenced for the most part to one year or less, because the evidence that police were able to seize was usually just a single cell phone or a few hundred RMB.
He said, how can you steal money from a sick person? I will never do something like that!
Everyone has their own moral baseline. Everyone’s behavior is supported by their value system. “This society is just like this” is the reason many criminals give in defending themselves. That debate left me with such a deep impression. I often think, what is evil?
In the spiritual world of humanity, there lives an abundance of species, thoughts, and doctrines. They compete against each other to entice and dominate “I.” The “I” often struggles between temptations.
Robbery, theft, rape –– at that moment a species exceeds the rationality of normal people and dominates the “I.” Or, they lack the rationality of normal people. Under the control of certain value systems, the self becomes selfish and greedy.
Human nature is good. It won’t do things for evil purposes. To do evil is to be controlled by a certain species. Bad guys are actually sick people. Therefore, a civilized punishment is not “a tooth for a tooth” but is for redemption. In the new civilization, there is no hatred, no matter how much pain history has seen.
All people have a conscience. Therefore, I am always optimistic, believe in human nature, and believe in the power of conscience. Even at the darkest time, the depths of our souls are still sunny. We are made incomparably strong by the power of grace, and we are poised to be a reformed people and create history.
Spring Festival 2017. It was my last New Year there. Every festive season the cell was decorated with balloons and ribbons. It was sad on holidays. We had seven days off, three and a half days were for education, raising the flag, etc., and the rest of the time we played cards, chess, and watched TV. Everyone cared most about the better food: two meals with stir-fried meat dishes, and on the first and fifth day of the New Year, two dumpling meals.
In between holidays, the time was endless. Winter and spring were good times. New Year’s Day, Spring Festival, tomb-sweeping festival, May Day, Dragon Boat Festival, one by one, we looked forward to each. The hardest time was summer, for a long stretch of time, there was no holiday. It was very hot, and people were irritable. Every year, the theme of the three months of summer was “Safe Summer.”
In the bustling world outside, sometimes it was only when the leaves fluttered off the trees and fell onto your head that you would reminded of the arrival of the fall. But in prison, through the narrow window, through the thick bars, you could clearly see the river of time slowly passing by. The crabapples blossomed, bore fruit, their leaves fell, and the snow followed. The crabapples blossomed again.
I remembered the New Year’s Day of 1987, the sound of reading aloud under a kerosene lamp, the snow falling outside the window. I was a teenager and wrote down my dream for life in my diary. It’s been thirty years.
The road is long — the road leading to a free China, a beautiful China.
I’ve become a determined revolutionary. It’s not that I have changed my mind. It’s just that previously I always had illusions about others. It wasn’t that I put my faith in someone; what it was is that I was tempted by life and didn’t want to shoulder responsibility for this ancient people. But having watched CCTV “Evening News” for three years, a voice said: Stop evading your destiny.
One can work anywhere. One can cultivate oneself anywhere. With three busy years, I completed the most important thing in my life. I wrote down more than 200,000 characters by hand, and hand copied it twice. I had finished my mission two months before I was released from prison. I breathed a long sigh of relief.
Carefully, I read The Federalist Papers one more time, and returned it to the library. I reread the Bible, the Koran, and some Buddhist and Taoist books. I pondered the citizens’ movement, the political transformation, and my beautiful China.
North of the Great Wall, south of the Yangtze, the Kunlun mountains, the East China Sea. The sun has risen in the east for 5,000 years. This vast and beautiful land has seen vicissitudes. I am your child, China; suffering and hardship belong to me, so do glory and pride.
An honest, fair, and kind-hearted people will sustain a new civilization. A perfect world under the sun. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China. Freedom, justice, love, and a beautiful China.
Exactly at midnight on July 15, 2017, the warden woke me up in a friendly voice: hurry, get going, go home. I said, what about my notebooks? Earlier I had handed them over for examination. Let’s talk about it at the gate, he said. I was tricked. I went out the main gate and asked for my nine notebooks. They didn’t give them back to me, they didn’t even give me a receipt. I gave up after nearly two hours of impasse. Many friends were waiting for me, and some had to overcome layers of obstacles to get closer to the prison. Thank you all!
I’m back, China.
Citizen Xu Zhiyong, July 2018
 Xu Zhiyong was arrested on July 16, 2013.
 Zhou Bin (周滨) was the son of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), a former member of the CCP Standing Committee and the former secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
 A large group of migrant parents and volunteers gathered outside the Beijing Municipal Education Commission on February 28, 2013, petitioning that their children be allowed to take college entrance exams in Beijing where they lived, not back to their hometown where their household registrations was.
 In October, 2005, while visiting the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng in Linyi, Shandong, Xu Zhiyong was beaten up by thugs taking order from the local government.
 Xu Zhiyong spent a semester at Yale Law School in 2004 as a visiting scholar.
 Longchang yi is where the Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucian official and philosopher Wang Yangming was exiled in today’s Guizhou for protesting official corruption.
 This is a variation on Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (1) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 10, 2014.
Who Is Xu Zhiyong (2) — An Interview with Dr. Teng Biao, April 13, 2014.