Xu Zhiyong, June 18, 2022
This autobiographical essay was written shortly before his arrest in 2013. It was translated into English and first published in Xu Zhiyong’s collection of essays “To Build a Free China – A Citizen’s Journey” in 2017. We make this important essay available to online readers before Xu Zhiyong’s trial on June 22, 2022. — The Editors
— “What’s your hometown?”
— “Minquan—as in the ‘People’s Rights’ of the Three People’s Principles.”
Whenever I answer this question, I often have to add, “China really has a place by this name. It came into being during the idealistic republican era.”
This is the first memory from my childhood: It is the 1970s, in a village located on the eastern Henan plains in what had once been the course of the Yellow River. At the front-most house in the village, a sad little boy stands on top of the short wall surrounding his courtyard. Before his eyes is the endless expanse of the North China Plain.
My young village companions would dig up layer after layer of sandy soil from the bottom of a dried-up pond. Our elders said this was sediment left by the Yellow River. My first real understanding of the Yellow River’s former course came after I began middle school, when I rode my bicycle more than 10 km to the northeast to see the great Yellow River levees. It was then that I came to the clear realization that my hometown was located atop what had once been a towering riverbed.
When I was young, my mother often told stories of how she had had to beg during her childhood. Before she turned seven, her family had been considered wealthy. Then, my grandfather gambled away all the family’s property and left with the Eighth Route Army as it passed nearby. It seems our family’s descent into poverty turned out to be a lucky break, as another villager whose wealth had been comparable to my grandfather’s would go on to be labeled a landlord in 1949.
When she was in her twenties, my mother married my father, who was poor but educated. It was the Great Leap Forward, and the villagers toiled day and night under the banner of the Red Flag, turning the fields over and over with their spades. That was followed by the devastating Great Famine, during which the land was cleared of weeds, bark, and anything else that could possibly fill one’s stomach. After a diet of such things, many people’s bodies became bloated with edema, and some of the elderly and infirm began to die. During that period, my father went from place to place in the area around Xinyang, Henan, treating the sick. As he recalled scenes from those days many years later, my father could not suppress deep sighs. He saw villages in which one household after another was completely wiped out, leaving corpses with no one around to bury them.
My father was a rarity in villages in those days: a doctor with an actual medical degree. From my childhood, I recall him being awoken in the middle of the night by urgent knocking or even crying at the door and the way he would rush off to distant places to treat fellow villagers, sometimes only returning after dawn the next day. Father was a doctor at the township hospital, and treating villagers free of charge when he was at home was purely a matter of fulfilling his duty. Each Spring Festival, strangers would often come to call on my father. Years later, once I had learned the word “grateful,” I felt moved by the way Father remained in the village all his life.
After experiencing so many political movements, by the late 1970s things finally began to settle down in this ordinary village in the East Henan Plain. Our neighbor, as the first demobilized soldier in the village, served as the village party branch secretary. People would often bring him gifts, and whenever officials came from higher levels they would dine at his house and you could often hear the sound of drinking games coming from next door. Because of our neighbor’s change in status and because of my mother’s upright disposition—she had always been disgusted by power and influence and only cared about looking after those less fortunate—the previously friendly relations between our two families soon soured.
The fields and streams, the busy swarms of ants, the purple flowers of the Chinese parasol tree—these are my happy memories from childhood. But my impressions of village society are not as beautiful as the tales that some people tell. Political movements, the arduousness of survival, the collective economy, and despotic privilege ruthlessly eliminated traditional village morality and its decent, upright people. The village party branch secretary was the absolute center of power, and the shadow of privilege could be felt throughout relationships between neighbors in even this tiny village.
Numerous arguments and conflicts developed between neighbors over a chicken, a tree, or a land boundary. People lacked even a modicum of trust for anyone but their closest blood relations. Any kid who was resourceful enough to steal something from the “production brigade” would earn praise from adults. When a new shipment of vinegar arrived at the village’s only shop, the adults would order the children to rush over at once to buy some, knowing that overnight it would get watered down.
I was a shy, awkward child who lived in his own imagination, seemingly out of place with village society in every way. More of my memories from childhood are painful, such as a memory of standing alone in a field on the eastern edge of the village, silently staring out into space.
In the wilderness roughly two km northwest from my village, there is a red brick building. That was my middle school. The third-year classroom was situated on top of a graveyard. Two meters outside the door was a grave that had been trampled flat by naughty students jumping all over it. Beyond the courtyard wall were fields. There was no electricity, and on winter days we would cut across the fields at 5 a.m. to our classroom, light kerosene lamps and loudly recite our lessons. Sometimes, the chattering of weasels could be heard coming from the courtyard. After morning study hall, I would arrogantly race home often leaving my classmates on their bicycles far behind.
On January 1, 1987, a heavy snow fell. Amid the sound of students reciting their lessons, snowflakes would periodically slip past the edges of the black plastic covering the windows. Our English teacher had come to the classroom before daybreak and wrote “Happy New Year” in big letters on the blackboard.
For me, 1987 was an important beginning. After countless times racing through the wilderness or thinking long and deeply along the edge of the stream or in the snowy fields, it finally became clear to me what I needed to do in order to make my life meaningful. I had previously thought I might become a scientist. In third grade, my older brother gave me my earliest science primers with books like Galileo and Secrets of the Ocean. By middle school I heard about biological engineering, and I planned to study biology so that I could immerse myself in research and win the Nobel Prize for biology.
But that winter I came to realize that what our society needed most was truth, freedom, and justice and that it required people working to promote the good society. So, I decided to work hard to realize this ideal. From that time, I started keeping a journal to record my development path as an idealist. I’m not sure why that sort of village produced such far-off dreams—dreams that sometimes seemed so distant that they led me to lose hope. Many years later I could only chalk this up to fate.
That year, only five of the more than 80 students in our third-year middle-school class tested into the top high school. (Basically, only those who made it to that school would have any hope of reaching university.) I was fortunate in being directly selected to attend the high school based on my performance in competitions covering Chinese, math, and foreign language.
In order for us to participate in that competition, one May day our teacher led several of us students to slosh through the mire for three hours under our umbrellas as we made our way toward the highway leading to the county seat. There, we waited another two hours or so before boarding a bus. That was the first time I had ever gone to the county seat, the first time I had ever seen a train, and the first time I had ever passed the Yellow River. From that moment on, the misty surface of its waters would feature in my dreams of home. When I would pass by there returning home from high school for a weekend each month, I would often just sit there, daydreaming for an entire afternoon.
My high school was called Minquan High School. It was located on the northern side of the Minquan county seat, with vast apple orchards stretching out behind the campus. Beyond that was the great levee that marked the former course of the Yellow River, something that I would later always come to associate with my hometown. One of my fondest memories of springtime is lazily kicking a slipper through the orchard and arriving at the Yellow River levee, where I sat next to a pile of straw, reading until I fell asleep.
I wasn’t an obedient student and spent most of my time each day reading lots of non-assigned books. In my journal, I recorded my impressions after reading Nietzsche, Hegel, the Communist Manifesto, and the like. During my final exam for my first-year politics class, I spent most of my time writing a long essay on the back of my exam paper critiquing scientific socialism and expounding on the meaning of real socialism. (I would continue to think about this type of thing for many years afterward.) Then, I waited anxiously for my kindly teacher to pass judgment. The end result was a bit disappointing—she said nothing about my essay, barely passing me.
Back in the dormitory at night, we would sit on our long, common bed and have heated debates about which was superior, capitalism or socialism. I often found myself pitted against my nine roommates in these debates. Our politics textbooks back then described capitalism as decadent and in decline. Our politics teacher even taught us that, though an American worker’s wages might seem higher than ours on the surface, there wouldn’t be much left once you subtracted the high cost of rent and living expenses and he might even wind up in debt. The conclusion we were supposed to take away was that American workers lived in extreme misery, but I already knew at that time that the welfare benefits available to American workers far exceeded those in our country.
I was the classic example of a teenager concerned about his country and his people. My earliest surviving journal entry from January 1, 1988, expresses my state well:
I love China, but we mustn’t be blindly self-satisfied. It’s been more than 30 years since the founding of the new China, but our standard of living remains low, our industry is old and outdated, and our agriculture still principally relies on manual labor. Compared with developed countries in the world, shouldn’t we feel ashamed? We are all humans, all a common people. So why should the Chinese people, with their splendid 5,000-year civilization, be so far behind other people today? There is no reason for us to allow poverty to continue. If we continue to complacently exalt the “Four Gold Medals” left to us by our ancestors and stand still and refuse to make progress, how can we face either our ancestors or future generations?
As we prepared to enter our second year of high school, the teachers busied themselves helping us students to choose whether to pursue study in arts or science. I had no hesitation and did not listen to anyone else’s advice. On May 25, 1988, I wrote in my journal:
The time has come to choose a course of study. I’m choosing arts without any hesitation whatsoever. This is no impulsive decision; it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a while . . . .
During the second semester of my second year of high school in 1989, we students gathered around the small shop next to the cafeteria, standing on our tiptoes and craning our necks to see the television. June 3 was a sleepless night for me and several friends. A serious rift had developed between myself and my family over our differing political views. I took the university entrance examinations ahead of schedule, but the results were not what I had hoped for. One day following the exam, I stood on the railway platform, only one or two yuan in my pockets, and hesitated for the longest time before hopping on a westbound train and beginning my first long-distance travel.
I knew little about the complexity of life back then as a teenager and proudly stepped onto a path whose distant endpoint I did not know. It was at Minquan High School that I began to see a kind of link between my personal destiny and my hometown. I came to comprehend the meaning of “People’s Rights” and understand the ideals of our republican forebears.
Whenever I think of Lanzhou University, I am filled with emotions. For me, that is the western wilds, the place where I grew up.
It’s 9:30 a.m. and I’m sitting in a beef noodle shop on a lane behind the university. I order a bowl of noodles and two pieces of flatbread. Having eaten my fill, I walk over to the Gansu Provincial Library and read Lincoln the Unknown, Napoleon, Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, the Cambridge History of China volume on Republican China . . . . I emerge at 4:30 in the afternoon and go to the banks of the Yellow River. Immersed in thoughts of history’s vastness and magnificence, I walk in the evening glow of the setting sun back towards school.
That is a memory of how I spent many a weekend in Lanzhou. When I think back many years later about the four years I spent as an undergraduate, I feel proud of my time there. I practically had three main fields of study: I majored in law, minored in public relations, and prepared for a graduate school entrance exam in international politics. Each of these areas of study has been important for my life’s work.
In terms of my law studies, I was not a very good student. For at least three semesters, my cumulative grades put me among the bottom few students in my class. But I read a lot of books about history and politics, subjects in which I had an interest. I hungrily borrowed and read books, almost always having the maximum number of books out from the university library at any one time and spending many weekends at the provincial library.
I wrote nine journals during my four years at university. Most entries concerned my ideals and reflections on growing up. For example, I wrote a commentary and made predictions about the August 19, 1991, coup attempt in the Soviet Union. Apart from these journals, I also wrote a separate, 60,000-character volume entitled Freedom for China. In the spring of 1993, I spent many days in a classroom, my head buried in my writing. That was a book about my ideals, expressing my views on 20th-century history and what China would look like in the future.
Each semester, we would have two work-study classes where we would go to Mt. Gaolan to plant trees. Those were exciting times for all of us. First, it was a mountain-climbing competition. Everyone brought their field rations and vied with each other to be first up to the section of the mountain assigned to us. Once there, we dug holes, planted trees, and gave them water. When our work was finished, we’d play cards and tell jokes. During our resting time, I would often climb up to the highest peak and look down at the smog-covered city below as I daydreamed or practiced making speeches.
As the great Soviet empire came to an end in late 1991, flyers began appearing on campus for a lecture entitled “Why the Soviet Union Collapsed.” We had to write an essay for the final exam in our “Socialist Construction” course. As in high school, I took a risk and wrote an essay entitled “On the Need for a Market Economy in China.” At that time, mainstream socialist ideology in China was still critical of the market economy and my essay received the lowest score in the entire class, again barely passing. Two or three months later, Deng Xiaoping went on his famous “Southern Tour,” during which he raised the curtain on a new stage of major development of China’s market economy.
During my senior year at university I registered for the entrance examination to do a master’s degree in international politics at Peking University. International politics was both an interest of mine and a part of my ideals. I had always dreamed of achieving a world government in our lifetime and believed that this was the inevitable trend of human civilization. Besides taking the exam, I sent my prospective advisor two essays—”The End of the Cold War: The Future of Sino-American Relations” and “Rule of Law Development in International Relations”—in which I described my thinking about and forecast for a future international order. Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t accepted. I could have tried again to apply to the international politics program at Peking University, but that advisor sent me a letter telling me that my essays contained political errors. I was extremely disappointed and forever abandoned any hope of studying international politics at Peking University.
Conceited as I was, I had always thought I would get accepted to graduate school, so I basically never looked for a job. Graduation, then, came as a heavy blow. I returned home in early June, feeling depressed. It was the time of the wheat harvest, and just three days before I arrived something big had happened in my hometown. There had been a land dispute between a village and a state-owned farm. When farm employees arrived under police protection to harvest the wheat on the disputed land, the confrontation turned violent. Police opened fire, killing four villagers and injuring seven. In the chaos, villagers took two hostages from the other side, also seizing two handguns and a jeep. At the moment of my arrival back home, police and the villagers were engaged in a standoff at the village entrance.
The next day, I rode my bicycle to that village. At first, I just chatted with the villagers as a student, gaining their trust. Later, I spent the afternoon talking with village leaders, eventually convincing them to release the hostages. I of course promised them that I would be willing to provide them with legal advice with regard to their land dispute.
Even though I clearly told the villagers that I was only a university student and not a reporter, it still made the local government a bit nervous. That evening, the county party secretary came to my house. He claimed to be there to express his greetings and thanks, but in reality he was looking into me. I told him that he could relax and that I was acting in everyone’s common interest and merely hoped to help the two sides mediate. I later learned that while the county party secretary was visiting our house, the chief of the city public security bureau was waiting just outside the gate to our family’s courtyard.
That was my first time participating in a major public incident. Sometimes I think that a person’s stance on things might be instinctual in some way. When I would later help farmers in places like Tieling, Liaoning, or Xishan, Anhui, to protect their rights and interests, I always took a neutral position and tried to find a plan that both sides in the dispute could accept. We need more reconciliation in our society and more people willing to follow the path of mediating disputes.
I later found out that the villagers released the hostages and the situation was properly resolved. When I was looking for a job after graduation, I once went to the Shangqiu City Public Security Bureau. When the police chief saw me, he said he recognized me and immediately promised me a job there. But I only planned to work for a year before applying again to graduate school, and we could not reach an agreement on this point because their rules said I had to work for three years before applying to graduate school. I decided to pass up the job and went back to Minquan County to work for a business enterprise.
My parents had naturally hoped that I would take the job at the public security bureau. My first month’s salary back at the enterprise in Minquan was only 180 yuan, and many people seemed to think my only future was bankruptcy and unemployment. Naturally, there was pressure from my family. Later, when I began taking risks and going around the country protecting citizens’ rights, this kind of pressure would frequently re-appear. The good thing was that my mother had been worrying about me for a long time, ever since middle school. After a while, she got used to it and wasn’t so afraid. Given a choice between a steady job and my ideals, I chose my ideals. Fortunately, my application to pursue graduate study in law at Lanzhou University was successful.
For my master’s degree, I studied economic law. This included a year of studying economics, which greatly opened up new horizons for me. I began to think about legal costs and the necessity of government control. Thinking about these questions would later be very useful as a delegate to the Haidian District People’s Congress whenever we would discuss matters related to social management. Often, other delegates would propose that the government take control over some problem in response to calls from the media. But I would remind everyone that while, yes, there was a problem, it was not necessarily something for the government to manage. Management by the government might be too costly, so we ought to consider whether or not there were better ways to manage the problem.
Deserts and prairies form a big part of my memories of western China. Nearly every summer vacation or holiday I would choose a place and go traveling. In the summer of 1996, I joined an expedition group, the principal members of which came from two different groups. The two members I knew best were Zhao Bing, a judge, and Bing Zhe, a policeman. One August night, ten of us set out, water bottles at our waist carrying nearly 10 kg of water each and packs filled with flatbread and preserved vegetables. We took a public bus to the edge of the desert north of Wuwei and walked into the desert. That night, we set up our tents beneath a beacon tower of the ancient Han Great Wall and watched the sun set beyond the desert, gazing at the glittering heavens and watching the full moon slowly rise over the dunes.
After finishing my master’s degree, I once more faced the same dilemma I had faced upon graduation from university: choosing between a practical job and my ideals. I spent some time as an intern at Southern Weekly, during which I also took the civil service exam. I wanted to become a civil servant because I hoped to gain familiarity with the way that state organs operated.
There was another reason, of course: I liked Beijing. When I was young, I heard my dad tell stories about my great-grandfather. Folks back home said he was buried somewhere near Wangfujing after having been poisoned by the Japanese during the invasion of China by the Eight-Nation Alliance back in 1900. My father said that relatives had gone looking for his grave but never found anything. When I first visited Beijing in 1996, I immediately fell in love with the city and its atmosphere and history.
At graduation, though, I encountered some major difficulties. My thesis entitled “Cultural Misconceptions Regarding the Localization of the System of Economic Law” was a critique of Prof. Zhu Suli’s theory of local legal resources. The thesis was sent to a professor at Renmin University who had been chosen to serve as external examiner. He wrote a six-page criticism of the thesis, branding it with political labels like “privatization” and “cultural nihilism.” Obviously, he didn’t pass the thesis.
With the help of Prof. Cai Yongmin, I worked all night to revise the thesis and then flew to Sichuan University to present it to a professor there who could serve as external examiner. The next day, the law department made special arrangements for me to defend my thesis. The defense took 3½ hours, from 10 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. It probably only ended because everyone began to get hungry.
A dozen or so of my good friends had come to observe the defense. Together, we left the meeting room and waited for the verdict. A few minutes later the results of the vote were announced: I could receive a graduation certificate but I would not be awarded the degree. After hearing the results, I gave an impassioned speech, saying: “I have spent the seven most valuable years of my young life here at Lanzhou University. I never thought it would end like this. You are all my teachers, and you know that I am a person who lives for my ideals. I will reflect on my errors, but I would like to earnestly request that you, my teachers, give me another chance. Please believe me: wherever I go, I shall never fail to live up to the reputation of Lanzhou University.”
I will never forget that moment. I could see that some of my teachers were on the verge of tears. One of them proposed a re-vote. We again left the room and waited. But the chair of the defense session objected, saying that there was no provision in the school’s rules for a re-vote. I would have to wait six months and defend the thesis again.
I have since reflected upon this moment of frustration many times, and it has given me deep insight into this society. That arrogant kid who had traveled from the banks of the Yellow River far, far away to school in the great Northwest never gave his advisors or many others the respect that they deserved. A person needs to learn to be humble. I did not fully understand this at that time. At graduation, I was not qualified to wear the robes of a master’s degree-holder, so I borrowed my roommate’s doctoral robes to pose for a graduation photo.
At the end of July, I learned that there was a problem with my job. At first, the problem was that I had not received my degree, but the Ministry of Education had held that a civil-service assignment could be made as long as there was a graduation certificate. Not long after arriving at my post, however, there were new complications. This was connected to my activities at Lanzhou University. I and some other classmates there had organized an activity called “21 Days,” in which we would meet every three weeks to discuss academic issues or real-world problems. Once, we gathered in a classroom to discuss the book China Can Say No. At the time, I made a sharply critical speech attacking ultra-nationalism, and some meddlesome people started to take notice of me.
By August of that year, I had not spoken to anyone about the problems surrounding my job assignment and I wasn’t even in contact with my parents.
The next several months were very turbulent. I decided to go to Nanjie Village to conduct a sociological investigation. I learned that this village filled with Maoist propaganda posters and slogans has taken out more than 600 million yuan in loans. But after a week, I soon began to have difficulty making ends meet. I considered finding work in a neighboring enterprise, which would make it convenient for me to continue my investigation.
I began working as secretary to the chairman of an enterprise. I woke up each day at 6:30 and returned home tired each evening at 8 or 9 p.m. It was rewarding to be so busy, but I was fully aware that work in the enterprise was taking me further and further from my ideals. If I continued to stay there, I might become a senior manager one day and enjoy a good salary and comfortable life. But my dream was public service. I once thought of running a business, earning lots and lots of money, and then pursuing my dream of building a more just society. After this second experience working in an enterprise, however, I finally realized that making money and public service require two different sets of abilities and that public service and commerce were two different paths altogether. I decided to leave and make my living in a university or research institute.
The Spring Festival holiday in 1999 temporarily interrupted my plans to carry out a sociological investigation of grassroots democracy. So, I spent more than a month reviewing in preparation for the Ph.D. entrance examination. After taking the exam, I considered staying in Beijing to look into the petitioning problem. But staying in Beijing would mean, first of all, dealing with the problem of everyday survival, and finding an ordinary job would mean that most of my efforts would be spent on earning a living. I didn’t want to waste time. At the end of April, after learning I had no hope of being accepted for a Ph.D. program, I decided to return to Zhengzhou.
I resolved to stay in Zhengzhou for three years and thoroughly investigate grassroots democracy. After that, I would go back to Beijing on the strength of my academic influence. In Zhengzhou, I could earn a living at a university or the provincial academy of social science and still have considerable free time. There was another advantage for me in returning to Zhengzhou: I could hitch rides on petitioners’ tractors back to their villages to investigate their cases. In Beijing, on the other hand, there was no such convenience, as Beijing was too far from the villages and I could not afford the transportation costs.
Once settled in a job and a place to live, the proud and ambitious young man set out on what was to his mind a sacred ceremony: worshipping the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and the Yellow River. He wanted to tell his forebears that he would never abandon his dreams, no matter how many difficulties he encountered. After having experienced one frustration after another, he wanted to begin a new journey.
Many years later, I still clearly remember the details of that encounter with destiny. At just after 9 a.m. on July 10, 1999, I slowly and solemnly climbed the steps of the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum. Amid the endless stream of people passing before Dr. Sun’s vault, I stood in silence, meditating: “Here I am, Dr. Sun.” My vision unconsciously began to blur. Later, I went out and sat on the stone steps, thinking about all of the turbulence of the past century and the road ahead for the Chinese people. I left only at 1 p.m., when I began to feel hungry. On July 11, I returned to Zhengzhou, and early the next day I went to the Yellow River. While on the bus that would take me to the river, I received a message from my good friend Wang Jianxun, telling me that I had been accepted to a doctoral program.
In three years at Peking University, this restless idealist seems to have collected more stories than other students: swimming in Weiming Lake, the drunken bicycle ride on the lake edge that chipped a front tooth, pulling a girl who tried to commit suicide out of the lake, giving speeches on Jingyuan Lawn, getting detained by the local government in Tieling, Liaoning, for providing legal aid . . . .
Like many Peking University students, I had a kind of deep psychological complex that made me believe that I had a personal connection to the university’s passionate and turbulent 20th-century history. After failing to get into graduate school the first time, I thought that would be the end of it. But when I took the exam for a doctoral program and was faced with the choice of studying with either Prof. Jiang Ping at China University of Political Science and Law or Prof. Zhu Suli at Peking University, I chose Prof. Zhu in order to be at PKU.
When I first learned my results in April 1999, I felt that things were completely hopeless because my scores in two out of three subjects failed to meet the admission standards from prior years. I thought about going to see Prof. Zhu and let him know that I would definitely find a way to get back to Beijing. But my ego led me to hesitate outside the gate of the Law School for quite a while before silently walking away.
School was already out for the summer holiday when my good friend Wang Jianxun told me that he had seen my acceptance letter at the PKU Law School. If he hadn’t happened upon it then, that letter might have sat there forever. That evening, I telephoned Prof. Zhu for the first time. We had never had any previous contact before, only seeing each other once during my interview.
After that, I took care of the necessary formalities and went traveling in Tibet. I arrived at Peking University at the end of August. Not long after I got there, Prof. Zhu went to the United States. Teng Biao and I were handed off to be advised by Prof. He Weifang. I am proud to have studied with two such outstanding scholars from PKU Law School, each so very different from the other.
The two of them represented different schools of thought in legal studies. One held that if we wanted to modernize we needed to learn from others; the other said that we should not forget our own practical circumstances and that it was no use to be too hasty. He Weifang carried on China’s enlightenment tradition of more than a century, which believed that China’s most pressing problem was modernization. Whether we liked it or not, China was already well along on the path toward modern civilization, and what we needed most was to learn from the experience of others. Zhu Suli believed, on the other hand, that intellectuals were too idealistic. China had its own practical circumstances and would discover its own unique path. In his view, China’s existing system possessed its own rationality.
Because I didn’t like to be restricted, I had never taken the initiative to make contact with Prof. He. We were connected, however, by the similarities in our thinking. After graduation, our contact with each other actually increased. With Prof. Zhu, it was the opposite. Because of the differences in our ideas and approaches, after graduation we gradually fell out of contact.
Many of my unforgettable times at PKU were in the company of my two close friends, Teng Biao and Yu Jiang.
Teng Biao and I were both disciples of the same teacher, having both been chosen as Zhu Suli’s only doctoral students for 1999. He was a shy, quiet kid from a village in Huadian, Jilin, who did nothing but study during primary and secondary school. Once, when his uncle came to visit, he was thrilled to hear Teng Biao call out “Uncle,” because it was so rare for this child of so few words to say anything at all without prodding from others.
Teng Biao spent a total of 11 years at PKU, beginning in 1991. He studied law as an undergraduate, and then got a master’s degree in library science before returning to law school for his Ph.D.
For Teng Biao, PKU was completely new world, and those 11 years thoroughly transformed his life. There, he encountered brilliant new ideas, the likes of which he had never heard before. There, he became a poet, writing many exquisite verses. There, he fell happily in love, the box of love letters from those days becoming the most valuable possession for him and his wife. There, a mere two years after arriving at university, this guy took the unexpectedly daring step of putting up a critical “big-character poster” in the Triangle, an act for which he was sent, in all righteousness, to the university security office.
Yu Jiang had served as a police officer for three years after graduating from university. This was an experience he was most unwilling to discuss. Once after having too much to drink, he told a story about a time when he savagely beat up a mugger, then he turned and walked out the door, wiping the tears that began streaming from his eyes. This burly guy from a local police station would go on to be a member of the academic elite at PKU Law School. During his three years as a doctoral student, he published more than 20 academic articles, the absolute leader among all of us doctoral students in the law school. So, immediately after graduating at the age of 30, he was hired as a full professor by Huazhong University of Science and Technology.
I really got to know Yu Jiang during the student sit-in at Jingyuan Lawn on May 24, 2000. That was the time of the so-called Qiu Qingfeng affair at PKU. Earlier that month, a first-year student named Qiu Qingfeng had been murdered on the road while returning to the Changping campus of PKU in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing. Students gathered to mourn her death began to express their dissatisfaction about living on the Changping campus, and university officials, fearing an incident, tried to block the students from holding memorial activities. Suddenly, what had started out as an ordinary criminal incident turned into a student protest. Gathered on the Jingyuan Lawn, I gave a speech expressing my views on the incident and criticism of the way the university had handled things. Someone was making a video recording, and some of the students began shouting about wanting to smash his video camera. I told them that we shouldn’t be afraid of being recorded, because everything we were doing was perfectly above-board.
After the protest, I received a note from Yu Jiang reminding me to be careful. Though we each knew of the other before that point, we were not friends. After all, there were 108 people in our class of doctoral students. Later, the matter ended peacefully and the Changping campus was relegated to history.
After the Jingyuan Lawn incident, Teng, Yu, and I gradually came to be known as the “Three Swordsmen” of the law school. The three of us would often discuss subjects like liberalism, “New Left” thinking, rule of law, democracy, tradition, culture, language, and post-modernism. We established a “mini-reserve.” At first we would meet at a small Sichuan restaurant outside the small East Gate, where we would discuss academic topics over fish boiled in spicy chili oil and bottles of Erguotou liquor. After that place was torn down, we moved to a location in the “Tiger Cave” area outside of the south gate of the university. When that area was also razed, we moved to a Laomajia noodle place outside the West Gate. Not long afterward, the spring before graduation, that Laomajia was also torn down. We were forced to relocate to the Triangle Restaurant on campus, which we had always previously looked down upon. However, the good thing about the Triangle Restaurant was that it was not too far from Weiming Lake. When we had been out drinking and hadn’t finished our discussion by closing time, we could always go continue our arguments by the side of the lake.
On one day in May, shortly before graduation, we had finished drinking at about one o’clock in the morning. We were riding our bicycles around Weiming Lake, singing, when suddenly a young man rushed over to us saying that someone had tried to commit suicide. We abandoned our bicycles and raced over to see. I was the first to arrive and saw that a girl had jumped into the lake. I rushed over and grabbed her by the arm, and the three of us pulled her over to shore. Fortunately, the lake was not deep, and we only got wet up to our waists.
We all went over to Building 27 so that she could change her clothes. We soon began to chat. She said her boyfriend was a graduate student at PKU and that, for the sake of their love, she had abandoned a steady job to come to Beijing to be with him. But it was difficult to find work, and the two of them often argued. After their most recent argument she was suddenly overcome with despair and decided to commit suicide.
That morning, as I proudly made my way back to my bed from Yu Jiang’s dormitory, I suddenly had a strange thought: these three years, my stories on the shores of Weiming Lake seemed to have become complete.
I first logged on to the “Yi Ta Hu Tu” (“一塔湖图”) BBS in the spring of 2000. That was a whole new world for me, a place where I didn’t need to keep my thoughts to myself, hidden inside a drawer.
My login ID on the YTHT and PKU Weiming BBS systems was “sunnypku.” My screen name was “Free China” and my signature line was “A Life Spent in Pursuit of a Dream.” Here, I soon came to know other users like “monic,” “bridged,” “bambi,” and “puccini.” We were all well known online for being “rightists” who often got into arguments with “leftists.”
On the night of September 11, 2001, photos of the burning World Trade Center suddenly began appearing on the YTHT forum. At first, I thought someone was playing a prank, but soon it was confirmed that there had been a terrorist attack. Many online users cheered the attack. I, “monic,” and others issued a signed statement in response to those cheering the incident, condemning the terrorist attack and calling on others to cherish life.
Over the next two days, I got into heated online arguments with many people. I firmly opposed the terrorist attack and attacked those who hailed the attack as terrorist accomplices. The article that drew the most intense online criticism was one entitled “To the Terrorists’ Minions,” which contained many fierce statements like this: “It would be too kind to call you fascists. You don’t deserve to be called human, let alone Chinese. I’m ashamed of people like you, without a shred of conscience, and the way you insult the dignity of Chinese people infuriates me.”
Not long afterwards, though, I came to regret such statements. I gradually came to understand the value system behind those who cheered for 9-11. Often in this world, there is no simple divide between true and false ideas. Rather, it is a question of different sides to an issue. It is just like the way that leftists and rightists view the problems facing humanity from different perspectives and propose different solutions. Even when one side is proven wrong, it is “wrong” only in terms of the past and present and does not necessarily mean that their ideas can never be applied to human society.
Instead of saying that Bush represented justice and bin Laden represented evil, or vice versa, it would be better to see each of them as being committed to very different sets of beliefs within humanity. If we truly want to resolve conflict between civilizations, it is no good for one side simply to wipe out the other side. We must find a way of thinking that rises above the two sides.
During that period, I wrote two essays: “On World Government” and “Our Common God.” These two seemingly whimsical essays were not the academic explorations of a bystander but rather the product of an activist who was thinking and establishing his goals.
“On World Government” conceptualized a new order for humanity’s future. Wherever there are human groupings, there is a need for public power, a power broadly exists throughout the structural levels of human society. What international society needs now is a public power that transcends national borders. This would include a fully representative democratic decision-making body to serve at the head of government; armed forces to prevent invasions and maintain order; judicial organs to resolve disputes and punish crime; economic institutions to reduce trade barriers, protect against financial risk, and coordinate economic development in each country and region; and environmental protection bodies, a space-exploration body, and social insurance institutions to resolve the problem of poverty.
World government is no utopian idea, and neither is it something that needs to be created out of thin air. Rather, it is something that has already begun to appear as a response to the changing times. Looking at the institutional structure of world government, the institutions all currently exist in various forms, even though some are still only in their earliest stages of development. For example, the United Nations serves as a decision-making body and the Hague Court serves as a judicial institution.
Humanity needs a clearer understanding and initiative to promote the development of trans-national institutions of public power. In fact, thanks to technological development, economic globalization, growing moral consensus, and China’s democratization, we are already witnessing this natural trend of development.
“Our Common God” was a reflection on religion. All religions worship the same God, but people’s understanding of God is limited. It is this human limitation that causes people to believe that theirs is the only true God and that other forms of worship are incorrect. This, then, has led to religious wars. Civilizational conflict can be prevented if only humanity were to recognize that the different religions are merely vestiges of historical culture and different paths by which people of different temperaments come to understand God.
Human social order needs the establishment of democracy and rule of law. Building a trans-national world government to resolve cultural conflict and common human problems like the environment is not a far-off, unattainable dream. And I believe that a China with democracy and rule of law can play an important role in the process of building this great human civilization.
In March 2001, I had an unexpected opportunity when I encountered a petitioning farmer from Tieling, Liaoning, named Liang Guilin. During the construction of the Shenyang-Harbin Expressway in 1995, 113 acres of land were requisitioned in his village of Diyunsuo. After only a few years, however, local officials squandered all of the funds that had been given to the village as compensation for the land. Liang came to Beijing to petition on behalf of his fellow villagers, who now had neither land nor compensation funds.
I accompanied Liang Guilin back to Diyunsuo. After two days of investigation, the basic crux of the problem became clear to me. In order to cover up their mishandling of the compensation funds, the village committee planned to re-allocate land within the entire village by taking land from village units with more land and transferring it to units that had lost land in the requisition. In the process, Unit 8 stood lose more than 13 acres, based on its proportion of the village population.
I worked hard to help resolve the problem from a position of neutrality. In fact, I was also helping the local government. I gathered together representatives from the villagers and told them my analysis of the situation. I proposed an intermediate plan that involved demanding appropriate compensation from the township government and village committee for any land given up by villagers. As for the corruption by the former village committee leadership, it had already been investigated by the relevant authorities and it was unlikely that there would be any further developments. The focus should be on taking the next round of elections seriously and selecting a village committee that villagers felt comfortable with, as well as on establishing mechanisms for proper accounting and oversight that would prevent this type of thing from happening again in the future.
After convincing the villager representatives, I decided to convene a meeting of all the villagers in order to explain my views and hope that a resolution to the conflict could be reached right there. This was, in effect, my attempt to be accountable to the villagers as I prepared to leave. But all of these efforts aroused the misunderstanding and anger of local government officials.
At just after 2 p.m. on March 24, 200–300 villagers gathered in the courtyard of the Diyunsuo Village government to listen to me discuss the legal issues in the case. Someone told me that some people had come from the township. Going out to greet them, I was met by a group of public security officers and other cadres led by the director of the Tieling Office of Letters and Visits, which handles citizen petitions. They were very aggressive, and as soon as they arrived they asked me: “What gives you the right to come here?!” I immediately retorted: “I am a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Of course I have the right to come here!” Then, in front of several hundred people, we began to have a public debate. In their anger, they shoved me into a police vehicle, which was immediately surrounded by a large group of villagers. The atmosphere was very tense, and violence could erupt at any moment. I told the villagers to make way and stop blocking the vehicle.
The siren blared the entire way as they took me to the police station. In the meantime, many of my friends from Peking University had heard the news and began calling the police station to inquire after me. A call to rescue me was launched online, with some even proposing a march to protest my detention. With this strong support from my classmates, the authorities had no choice but to release me after six hours.
That evening, it began to snow heavily. When they set me free, they warned me not to return to the village. But I said that I had to go back, otherwise the villagers would worry about me.
I immediately took a taxi back to Diyunsuo. Many people were gathered at Liang Guilin’s house, worrying about me. When they saw that I had returned, some of the old folks nearly began to cry. But that night, as I said my goodbyes, an unidentified black shadow had already fallen over the village.
I arrived back at PKU a day later. At nearly the same time, a local official from Tieling arrived at the university, telling school officials that I had disrupted social order and demanding that I be punished. They also used their connections to contact the Ministry of State Security, which contacted the Ministry of Education, which in turn put pressure on PKU. I heard that someone had proposed that I be expelled, but my advisor withstood the pressure and enabled me to continue my studies.
I never again heard from Liang Guilin and don’t know how he is doing now these many years later. What I regret most about this incident is that I was not able to help the villagers, and I am deeply pained that Liang Guilin was sentenced to a year of reeducation through labor as a result.
In July 2002, as the day approached for leaving PKU and I was gathered for a group chat on the PKU Weiming BBS, I suddenly felt as if the previous three years had gone by so quickly. I began writing a collection of stories set on the shores of Weiming Lake entitled Weiming Memories. Many years later, the sounds from one of those stories continue to echo in my mind.
It was the eve of the new millennium, and there was a carnival atmosphere as a whole bunch of us gathered on ice-covered Weiming Lake, holding hands and singing and dancing. As my friends and I danced and sang joyously, we fell down countless times on the ice, only to get right back up and continue celebrating. It was as if we were celebrating together with the entire world—no matter whether we knew each other or not, we all had this moment together.
Just before the dawn, we followed the sound of the bells to the lake’s southern shore, where many students were already gathered around the hill that sits there. Suddenly, we were startled to hear a voice: “Fellow students, let us pray together for the coming new century! Let us pray for a free, prosperous, and strong China! Long live our great and hallowed Peking University!” Though I did not know whose voice it was, I knew that such a voice could only come from Peking University—the last sacred ground of idealism in China.
Change — A 2020 New Year’s Message, Xu Zhiyong, January 1, 2020
Four Years Afar, Xu Zhiyong, September 16, 2018