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My Brother’s Keeper: A Proposal for “Dual Key” Accounts to Preserve Twitter’s Voices of Freedom

Jeff Rambin, December 11, 2018

 

Twitter purge, 漫画

A cartoonist in Nanjing marks his 10th anniversary with Twitter. He describes his Twitter experience as “like bathing in a hot bath, enjoying momentary peace and freedom.” https://twitter.com/YaxueCao/status/1070666032556204032

 

“There is no word for the pain, sadness, humiliation and anger I feel in my heart.” After six years and four months of tweeting, Wang Jiangsong was forced to delete his account. Wang calls himself a “labor scholar,” but he is too modest. William Nee of Amnesty International calls Wang “arguably the most prominent labor academic in China.” This is due not only to Wang’s scholarship, but also to his connections, and most importantly, his compassion. Wang’s perspective has been relied on by the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. Last year, Wang became part of the news himself. As reported by Radio Free Asia, officials in a Beijing neighborhood used a November fire as a chance to evict migrant workers. With winter effectively underway, Wang and others not only set up shelters for the workers, but also penned an open letter condemning the evictions as illegal.

In a farewell tweet, Wang said that the deletion was “due to force majeure which you all understand.” Though he said that “the sun will continue to rise,” Wang spoke of the deletion of his account as an “obituary.”

5,614 tweets to more than 23,300 followers will be gone in a few hours.

[As of now Prof. Wang’s handle is still alive, and he’s subsequently tweeted an account of the police visit.]

This happened on Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the day after the 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

As followers of ChinaChange.org are aware, Wang Jiangsong’s story is far from isolated. It is part of a recent and accelerating crackdown on the use of Twitter by Chinese authorities. On November 9, 2018, Wu Gan’s Twitter account was deleted. That deletion carries concerns of its own, because Wu has been in prison since 2015. What is more, the deletion was unannounced. Yaxue Cao just happened to be online at the right time to see it go down. As with Wang Jiansong, Wu Gan used his Twitter account for the cause of the oppressed. Time and again, Wu rallied support to those who were ignored.

30,277 tweets from 2009 to 2015. Erased as though they never existed.

The list of names is rapidly growing. The campaign against Chinese Twitter users is being followed with increasing alarm on Twitter itself. It has been reported by outlets including Beijing Spring, the Epoch Times, the Hong Kong Free Press & Agence France Presse, and Human Rights Watch. As reported by Eva Xiao of AFP: “Despite being blocked in China, Twitter and other overseas social media sites have long been used freely by activists and government critics to address subjects that are censored on domestic forums — until now.” More and more Chinese Twitter users are receiving invitations to “drink tea” at the police station. To put it mildly, this is a consent issue. These accounts are not being deleted voluntarily.

What Wang, Wu, and so many others are up against is the “People’s Republic of Amnesia,” as described by former BBC and NPR reporter Lousia Lim in her book by that title. Indeed, the first rule of imposed political amnesia is that there is no amnesia; China has banned novelist Ma Jiang’s book China Dream, in which he describes both the efforts to erase memories, and the way those memories come back to the surface like a ball which has been held under the water.

 

Twitter purge, old wine

The account of Shenzhen-based dissident and businessman 陈年老酒 @old_wine was deleted after he had been interrogated three times. In April he called out “Save the Uighurs!”, a rare outcry from Han Chinese who have remained largely silent on concentration camps in Xinjiang.

 

The systematic campaign to erase history is now reaching out to Twitter users. Not via technological means, but by the knock on the door in the middle of the night.

This is loss on a staggering scale, and the worst of it is that there’s no way of knowing exactly how bad it is. How do you account for the damage done by severing the connections of someone like Wang Jiansong? How do you assess the impact of the collective body of free-minded people tweeting everyday acts of individuality? We can get some idea of their value from the extent to which oppressors are going.

Has the next Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, or Martin Luther King, Jr., been formulating ideas tweet-by-tweet? Purists might laugh, but I wonder if today’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or at least its existence and how to access it, wouldn’t be spread via Twitter. Imagine such tweets permanently disappearing.

Imagine that the perpetrators of the June 4, 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square had the ability to delete every image of Tank Man. No doubt they would.

That is not an armchair historian’s counterfactual. Through the deletion of Twitter accounts, we are losing the record of what is happening right now in the Xinjiang camps. We are also losing the record of non-Uighur Chinese who are trying to stop that atrocity. In other words, this is not only about a historical record. Twitter users are trying to save lives in the here and now.

The “Dual Key” System

What is Twitter going to do about this? Twitter may not have the resources to investigate consent in so many cases. Besides, determining whether a deletion was voluntary or under duress could embroil Twitter in political issues. Same for issuing a blanket order that no deletions will be permitted from China, or any other country. Twitter is by-and-large, what the users make of it.

Given what is at stake, though, Twitter should find a way to do something.

The point of a dual key system would be to protect the dissenter, the dissenter’s tweets, and Twitter. Twitter would not be involved in assessing consent.

The second key would be held by a person of the primary account holder’s choosing, most likely in another country. The second key holder would have no ability to tweet, only the ability to approve or veto deletions. The conditions under which deletion would be permitted would be determined up front between the keyholders.

Such a program presents moral quandaries. To state but one: If the ground rules between key holders are to never delete no matter the circumstances, do you abide by that as a second key holder?

The thing is, we are already in the moral quandary whether we acknowledge it or not. As things stand, when the knock on the door comes, Chinese Twitter users are alone. And we’re letting that happen, pretending that none of the responsibility falls on us. To my mind, though, as I’ve gone about my daily business, I’ve been a free rider on what Wang Jiangsong and so many others have done and are doing to fight darkness in this world. So in some way I owe this to him — even though we’re a world apart and we’ve never met. Perhaps others see things the same way. Perhaps Amnesty or Human Rights Watch or others would be willing to coordinate this with volunteers from around the world. Electricians, teachers, retirees, college students – the variety of volunteers will be surprising.

This is about connection and shared burden. When a Twitter user is sitting in an interrogation room facing a demand to delete their account, they should not be alone. The very existence of a second key holder changes the dynamic in that room. If a deletion request is made, the notification to the second key holder will be a pre-arranged call for help. A dual key system turns the table on the interrogator by shining a light into a dark place.

Please, Twitter, do something. Brave dissidents are already risking punishment by speaking. Give them the option of a dual key account to preserve their words. In these trying times give us reason to sing “All people become brothers where your gentle wing abides.”

 

 

Jeff Rambin is a father and attorney from Tyler, Texas. He is a lifelong student of history and politics. Years ago, he served as the chairperson of the foreign-policy focused Wiley Lecture Series at Texas A&M. Memories of 1989 have stuck with him. At some point he grew sick of reading books and watching the news and decided that he had to do something.

He can be followed on Twitter at @RespectHope.

 

 

https://www.theepochtimes.com/chinese-regime-forcing-twitter-users-to-close-their-accounts_2723395.html
http://beijingspring.com/bj2/2010/150/1115201825953.htm
https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/21/chinas-social-media-crackdown-targets-twitter#
https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/11/18/stealth-crackdown-chinese-censorship-extends-twitter-activists-accounts-disappear/
https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/03/meet-chinas-protest-archivist/
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-labour-lawyer-insight/labor-movement-concertmaster-tests-beijings-boundaries-idUSKBN0JL00T20141207
https://www.businessinsider.com/chinas-168-million-migrant-workers-are-discovering-their-labor-rights-2015-4
https://www.theepochtimes.com/chinese-regime-forcing-twitter-users-to-close-their-accounts_2723395.html
http://beijingspring.com/bj2/2010/150/1115201825953.htm
https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/21/chinas-social-media-crackdown-targets-twitter#
https://www.hongkongfp.com/2018/11/18/stealth-crackdown-chinese-censorship-extends-twitter-activists-accounts-disappear/

 

 


Related:

China Steps up Nationwide Crackdown to Silence Twitter Users – the Unmediated Story, Yaxue Cao, December 5, 2018.

Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’, November 11, 2018.

#LoveTwitter, a Special Place Like No Other for Mainland Chinese Netizens, March 24, 2016.

 

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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

Courage Comes from Prison

Liao Yiwu, December 10, 2018, International Human Rights Day, Berlin

 

IMG_2470

Liao Yiwu at the Hohenschönhausen Prison Complex, now the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, April 2018. Photo: Yaxue Cao

 

I’ve so often said that my courage and everything about me comes from prison. This is how I differ from other Chinese writers. In prison, I was tortured ‘til I could no longer bear it, and tried to kill myself twice. But I learned to write secretly; and I learned to play the xiao (ancient flute) from an over-80-year-old monk. From the sound of his xiao, I realized that freedom comes from the soul.

A man of inner freedom is the natural enemy of a dictatorship. His political views come in a pale, second place.

The key is that, only after experiencing the horror, sadness, and pity of losing freedom and being trampled upon, does one fight for the freedom of others with all one’s heart, and moreover turns the fight for freedom into a kind of personal faith.

Most of the time, outside of writing, I’m a failure. For example, my friend Liu Xiaobo, four times jailed, was murdered in a cage on July 13, 2017. We did our best to rescue him, but it was all a failure. Although his wife, Liu Xia, was eventually released and allowed to come to Germany, the price was too painful and too great. And soon it will all be forgotten.

China is still the world’s largest capitalist market, and with the US-led trade war against China and the constant thrashings-about in the news, already the memory of Liu Xiaobo and his wife is being diluted and lost. It’s a vulgar and cruel world that no longer needs a martyr like Liu Xiaobo to strive and be jailed for the cause of democracy. I understand all this. I know that though the records already are numerous, I must continue to write. It’s just as, over 2,000 years ago, when Plato recorded the philosophical debates in Socrates’ cell before his death; without those words Plato left behind, Socrates would have been erased by time, and his death left a vague mystery. His words would no longer stir us so deeply.

Yes, I wrote “June 4: My Testimony” and “Bullets and Opium,” both of which are part of a single whole describing the victims of the Tiananmen massacre nearly 30 years ago, many of whom died, many of whom were destroyed by prison. (Although, even when released from prison, they went on to die in a larger prison without walls.) The idea that “the internet will destroy autocracy and open markets will lead to democracy ” has been a popular notion for American politicians, and coincided with the administration of then-US President Bill Clinton. It’s this phrase that lubricated China’s entry to the WTO, and helped grant it most-favored nation status over 20 years ago.

But it’s clearly not the case that “the internet undermines dictatorship.” Instead, it’s the authoritarian regimes that have made extensive use of Western network technology to comprehensively monitor the entire Chinese populace. No matter where you are, as long you’re a dissident, you’ll be tapped and tracked; all your trips to the bank and online speech will be recorded, and in a moment’s notice, all will become evidence of your intent to harm the state. At hotels, train stations, and airports, your face will be automatically identified by the police using their mobile phones and computers — technology invented by Westerners and augmented by the internet and open markets, all of which has given a tremendous boost to the dictatorship.

What follows naturally is that the dictatorship will challenge Western democracy. For instance, China has the Great Fire Wall, and if you circumvent it and visit foreign websites, this is called “illegal” and perhaps you’ll be arrested. Western countries have no firewall, and almost all overseas Chinese, and many foreigners interested in China, are free to use WeChat, Weibo, and Huawei cell phones — but then they’re silently monitored and tracked too. And if you say ‘extremist’, suspicious, sarcastic, or subversive remarks about China, WeChat administrators will issue a warning that your account may be cancelled — or simply cancel it without a word. Or maybe you’ll temporarily go “missing”, and your family and friends in the country may also find themselves under a cloud of trouble. Dictators not only borrow the propaganda of “counter-terrorism” to carry out concentration camp-style forced brainwashing of millions of Uighurs in Xinjiang, but also use the internet to prevent those in the free world from actually being free.

Many dissidents around me also use WeChat and accept the regime’s control and surveillance without really thinking it over. So today, I, a writer among dissidents, not only refuse to use Chinese-made smartphones, but I refuse to install any software from China, and I only publish my work in democratic Taiwan and the free West.

More importantly, I don’t flinch, I don’t succumb to silence, I continue to fight for the freedom of others, and in this oft-failed struggle, I’m drawing from a passionate need to make a record of this era.

Coming up next, I shall prepare another book; I shall get ready to turn defeat into victory in the history that will soon be upon us.

“1984” itself makes one hopeless — but the act of writing “1984” is already a flickering of hope from the depths of despair.

 

 

 


勇气源于监狱

廖亦武

2018年12月10日, 国际人权日

柏林

 

我一再说,我的勇气,我的一切都源于监狱,这是我和其他中国作家不一样的地方。在监狱里,我受尽折磨,自杀了两次,但我在监狱中学会了秘密写作,还跟一个80多岁的老和尚学会了吹箫。从箫声中体悟到“自由源于内心”。一个内心自由的人,是独裁政权的天敌,而政治观点倒在其次。关键是体验过失去自由、任人宰割的可怕和可悲,你才会全身心地为他人的自由而奋战,并把“为他人的自由而奋战”作为一种信仰。大多数时候,在写作之外,我是失败的。比如我的四次坐牢的朋友刘晓波,在2017年7月13日被谋杀在囚笼。我们曾竭尽全力营救,但是被打败了;虽然他的妻子刘霞后来被释放到德国,可代价如此惨痛——况且这一切很快会被忘记,中国依旧是全世界最大的资本主义市场,美国发起的对中国的贸易战,不断持续的起伏震荡,已经在一点点抹掉对刘晓波夫妇的记忆——这个庸俗而残酷的世界不再需要刘晓波这样为祖国走向民主而坐穿牢底的殉道者——我明白这些,我明白虽然记录得够多,可还得写下去——正如两千多年前,柏拉图记录了苏格拉底临死前的那场狱中哲学辩论。如果没有柏拉图留下来的文字,苏格拉底也会被时间抹掉,他的死也是一个渐渐远去的谜,不会至今还激荡着我们。

是的,我写出了《六四 我的证词》和《子弹鸦片》,两本书是一个整体,都记述了30年前的天安门大屠杀的受难者,许多人死了,许多人被监狱毁了——他们虽然出了监狱,却在一座没有围墙的更大的监狱中,生不如死——“互联网将摧毁专制,市场化将催生民主”,这是美国一位著名政客的流行语,与当时的美国总统克林顿不谋而合,于是中国被批准加入世贸组织,被给予最惠国待遇——20多年过去,不是“互联网摧毁专制”,而是专制政权大肆利用西方网络科技,对全中国实行全面监控,不管你在任何地方,只要是一个异议分子,都会被窃听和跟踪,你的任何一次银行进出和任何一段网上言论都会被记录,并随时转换成你危害国家的罪证。在酒店、车站和机场,你的人脸会被警察从手机或电脑屏幕自动识别——被西方人发明和不断升级的互联网和市场化,就这样有效地帮助了独裁统治。进而挑战西方民主——比如中国有防火墙,翻越防火墙,浏览海外网站是“违法犯罪”,警察有权抓人;而西方国家没有防火墙,几乎所有在海外的中国人,还有不少对中国感兴趣的外国人,都可随意使用微信、微博、华为手机等等,却不知不觉被监视和跟踪,如果你有过激、可疑、讽刺或其它手段的颠覆言论,微信管理员就会发出“取消账号”的警告,甚至不警告就直接取消,你暂时“失踪”了,你在国内的家人、朋友说不定也会惹上麻烦。

独裁者不仅利用国际反恐,在新疆对上百万维吾尔人进行集中营式的强制洗脑,也利用互联网,让自由世界的人们不自由。我身边的众多异议分子,也使用微信,神鬼不觉地接受他们的控制。所以在当今,我,一个异议分子中的作家,只有拒绝使用中国产的智能手机,拒绝安装来自中国的电脑软件,在民主台湾和西方各国出版作品。更重要的是,不要退缩,不要沉默,继续为他人的自由而奋战吧,并在这种经常失败的奋战中,获取记录这个时代的激情。

接下来准备写书,准备在即将过去的历史中,转败为胜。

《1984》令人绝望,但写出《1984》,就不太令人绝望了。

 

 


Also by Liao Yiwo:

‘Dona, Dona,’ Give Freedom To Liu Xia, May 2, 2018.

Acceptance Speech for the 2018 Annual Disturbing the Peace Literary Prize for a Courageous Writer at Risk, Liao Yiwu, September 27, 2018, New York City

 

 

 

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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

International Human Rights Day: Presenting the 2018 Outstanding Citizen Award to Pu Wenqing

China Citizens Movement Outstanding Citizenship Award Selection Committee, December 10, 2018

 

Huang Qi_mother in line outside petition office_title photo

Pu Wenqing, middle, outside the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing on October 11, 2018. Photo: Twitter.

 

 

Today, we offer our respects to an outstanding citizen. She is a loving mother, a strong mother, and a great mother. She is eighty-five years old this year, an age at which she should have been enjoying a peaceful retirement with her family. Instead, at her venerable age, she has been thrust into a situation that no mother should be forced to experience: she has had to see her son imprisoned and brought to the verge of death for committing no crime at all. In her quest to protect and support him, she stakes out a trail of blood and tears upon the great but troubled land that is China.

Using all the strength that her frail person has to offer, she has stood up against constant harassment, surveillance, and intimidation from the state. She overcomes tribulations using gentleness, patience, and tolerance, acting with firm yet nonviolent determination.

Courageously, she persisted in seeking all possible help to gain her son’s freedom and is praised by all for her conscientiousness. She has demonstrated the best example for all citizens who are dedicated to justice, and will inspire more citizens to pursue justice.

Her pure love has awakened a humanity that is in shackles: no matter how society changes, no matter how cruel the world is or how deluded the people are, a mother’s love is the eternal light of spring that consoles the hearts of every citizen and illuminates their path.

This admirable mother is Ms. Pu Wenqing (蒲文清), and her son is Huang Qi (黄琦), a prisoner of conscience who is currently serving a third sentence for his unyielding determination to expose human rights abuses in China.

In thinking of Ms. Pu Wenqing, we are reminded of Themis, the Greek goddess of divine justice, and her son Prometheus, a hero who sacrificed his eternal freedom so that humanity could learn the secret of fire.

Today, we are honored to present this year’s Outstanding Citizen Award to Ms. Pu Wenqing in acknowledgement of her efforts to live as an upright citizen in the pursuit of her civil rights. In her extraordinary efforts, we see the warm strength of humanity overcoming the forces of tyranny, moving us ever closer to a society of freedom, justice, and love.

Here, on the International Human Rights Day, we express our sincere wishes: that Ms. Pu Wenqing may enjoy good health and longevity, and that Huang Qi may regain his freedom and be reunited with his family!

 

 


Related:

85-Year-Old Mother Fights For the Release of Her Son, Renowned Human Rights Defender, Yaxue Cao, October 15, 2018.

 

 

Support Our Work

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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.

 

Deletion of Wu Gan’s Twitter Posts Reflects the Urgent Need to Protect Chinese Human Rights Activists’ ‘Data Ownership’

Yaxue Cao, November 11, 2018

 

Wu Gan Twitter deleted, Nov 8, 10_10 pm Eastern Time, less cropped (2)

 

 

Around 10:10 pm eastern time on Nov. 8, as I was browsing my Twitter timeline and taking a breaking from editing a website post, a tweet by Wu Gan (吴淦) jumped into my vision. Even though he has gone for three years and a half, his avatar immediately stood out. It’s an auto-generated tweet that reads: “I just activated @Tweet_Delete on my account to automatically delete my old tweets (is.gd/delete)!” Instinctively, I pressed the “prt src” key:

It was 11 am on Nov. 9, Beijing Time. Wu Gan, better known as the “Super Vulgar Butcher,” is serving an eight-year sentence in a prison somewhere in the mountains on the border of Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. He was detained on May 20, 2015, outside the Jiangxi High People’s Court where he had been protesting the court’s denial of lawyers’ access to case files in the “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case.” In December 2017 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subversion of state power” following secret detention, torture, and his refusal to admit guilt in exchange for lenient punishment.

I clicked his account. It was emptied out – all 30,277 tweets from Nov. 2009 to May 2015 were gone. The tweet announcing the deletion soon disappeared as well. The circumstances of the deletion are shocking to many Chinese Twitter users because of the scale of the loss.

Wu Gan’s Twitter feed is not just anybody’s feed. In late 2008 he began to actively surf Internet and frequent a vibrant forum called “Cat Eye Forum” (猫眼论坛) at www.tianya.cn, one of China’s earliest Internet portals. He wrote: “I learned of the earthquakes, the shoddy school buildings [that killed thousands of students]; I learned Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the school deaths. I was rather stirred. I began to write articles, and in 2009, I became an activist.”

In a remote town in western Hubei in May 2009, three township officials asked 21-year-old hotel waitress Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) for “special services” and attempted to force themselves on her. Yujiao defended herself using a fruit knife, stabbing one of her would-be rapists to death and wounding another. She turned herself in to the local public security authorities, and was charged with intentional homicide.

The incident found instant resonance with netizens around the country. Compared to today, that time was still something of a “golden age” for online free speech, as the Great Fire Wall was not as fully developed as it is today and the Chinese government had yet to introduce a mechanism of effectively and thoroughly curbing public opinion on the internet.

The way the authorities handled Deng Yujiao’s case stirred outcry among masses of ordinary Chinese. They did not want to see a young girl be imprisoned as a murderess and possibly receive the death sentence for standing her ground against abusive officials. But help could only come from the people and the forces of public opinion.

Wu Gan_via Wang LihongWu Gan, a 37-year-old Fujianese businessman who had served in the southern border troops, called upon fellow frequenters of the Cat Eye Forum to “take action to help this young lady who had defended her dignity with a fruit knife.”

A few days later, Wu Gan went to Hubei, spoke with Deng Yujiao’s family, and managed to meet Yujiao in hospital. A photo of the two together went viral. He persuaded the Deng family to engage lawyers for Yujiao, and made arrangements with two lawyers in Beijing. A month later, the local court held a public hearing for Deng Yujiao’s case and handed down a verdict exempting her from punishment.

The Deng Yujiao incident was seen as an encouraging example of how public opinion could lead to justice; at the same time, it became the starting point for Wu Gan to enter the public sphere and conduct online and offline activism. Next, Wu Gan got involved in the case of Shenyang street vendor Xia Junfeng (夏俊峰), who had killed two chengguan (城管) officers (note: chengguan are Chinese urban enforcers infamous for using violence and intimidation) in self-defense. Wu Gan travelled to Shenyang to help Xia’s wife and son get legal help, and rallied public opinion on social media and at the same time recorded his activities and reflections.

Sadly, Wu Gan and thousands of concerned netizens were unsuccessful this time. Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death and executed in 2013. Over the next six years, Wu Gan helped with hundreds of rights defense cases across China by mobilizing public opinion online and working directly with victims on the ground. Most of the people he helped were the socially disadvantaged, such as Deng Yujiao and Xia Junfeng, who had suffered humiliation and deprivation at the hands of the powers-that-be.

Wu Gan’s activism, which he styled “butchering pigs,” aimed to pressure local officials using public opinion, the law, and his unique performance art to pursue social justice in places where the rule of law did not exist. In order to popularize his experiences, Wu Gan, who lacked university education, wrote three handbooks: “Guide to Butchering Pigs” (《杀猪宝典》), “Guide to Drinking Tea” (《喝茶宝典》), and the “Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolition of Homes” (《访民杀猪宝典》). In these pamphlets, Wu taught fellow activists how to protect their rights by resisting the government and dealing with police interrogation and intimidation.

In China’s rights struggle over the last decade, Wu Gan occupies a unique position of seminal importance. He was the first detainee during the 709 crackdown; his steadfast resolve to expose torture and refusal to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence is awe-inspiring.

In an editorial, the Washington Post quoted Wu Gan’s statement to the court: “For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights.”

Social media revolutionized Chinese citizen resistance, and Wu Gan was one of the most creative user of it. Not surprisingly, he quickly found himself in the crosshairs of the Chinese government’s censorship organ and was barred from domestic platforms like Weibo, so Twitter became a safe haven for him and other human rights activists. There, they didn’t have to worry about their accounts being deleted, and they expressed their thoughts freely and left a record of their activities and thoughts – Twitter was their open diary.

 

Wu Gan, 公平正义比太阳还要光辉

“Fairness and justice are brighter than the sun.” In 2010, Wu Gan and friends were protesting in Mawei, Fujian province, where three netizens were tried for their online expression.

 

Wu Gan’s Twitter account was such a diary.

At the beginning of this year, when I was doing research for an article, I was able to download his tweets from May 19, 2015, going back to the same date in 2014, reaching apparently the limit Twitter set for retrieving archives.

Take May and June, 2014, as an example: in May, Wu Gan and lawyer Li Heping (李和平) were in the county of Mayang in Huaihua, Hunan Province (湖南怀化麻阳县), where they were assisting a family that had been expropriated of their land, had their house demolished, and relatives in detention. In June, Wu Gan organized a few dozen people to observe the trial of a political prisoner in Hunan, as well as paying attention to the sentencing of Jiangxi’s Liu Ping (刘萍) and the detention of three civil disobedience activists in Guangzhou. That month, Wu Gan also went to Jingdezhen (景德镇) and met with a group of lawyers to work on overturning the the death sentence against four peasants who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. There, he talked to the relatives of the accused about how to use and weaponize the internet. At the same time, he had followed the development of practically all political cases, including those of Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), and Gao Yu (高瑜). Wu Gan also released information about donations he had received for completed activities, as well as his experiences, for instance in the Jiansanjiang case [involving rights lawyers beaten up for defending Falun Gong practitioners].

 

Wu Gan, 给乐平案家属讲解如何把互联网变成武器

Wu Gan, right, spoke to relatives of the four wrongfully convicted men in Leping case about using Weibo as a tool and a weapon in June 2014.

 

Wu Gan had some rather big ideas: he hoped that Chinese democracy activists overseas could set up a mock voting system for Chinese citizens to elect a Chinese president, as well as judges, legislators, and local officials.

As for current events, his views were often direct and insightful. He said, “If Taiwan still cannot take a hint from today’s situation in Hong Kong and continues to flirt with the Communist Party thinking that trade will lead to a good and risk-free future and think the wolf’s milk they’re drinking is free, one day the Chicoms are going to take back everything when they have an epileptic attack. No good can come of making a deal with the devil.”

In June that year he also said he was occupied with his marriage, fixing up his house, and family matters in his hometown. He said he had to deal with his family life and that [his work on] justice would have to take a back seat for the time being. But afterward, it seems that he had forgotten about this statement.

One of my favorite Wu Gan tweets is: “Some people fancy that after Xi Jinping finishes the anti-corruption campaign and consolidates power, he will return back to the right path. How many times were these people kicked in the head by donkeys to come up with this kind of idea?”

 

Wu Gan, 驴踢截屏.png

 

As you can see, due to his extensive contacts with various groups and his involvement in many incidents, his Twitter served as a veritable history of China’s human rights struggle between 2009 to 2015. Today, while he finds himself behind bars, cut off from any means of communication with the outside world, his tens of thousands of tweets have been deleted with just a single click.

This goes beyond Wu Gan’s personal loss; it is a huge setback for researchers and anyone who cares about the struggles of contemporary Chinese society.

What happened to Wu Gan’s tweets isn’t unique. In 2016, Sichuan human rights activist Chen Yunfei (陈云飞) not only had his Twitter posts deleted, but his entire account was closed and erased without any trace. There may well be more political prisoners who have been liquidated from online existence — it embarrasses me to admit that I have not paid the matter enough attention thus far.

The internet age has made information easier to produce and more convenient to circulate. However, It has also made it convenient for a highly sophisticated dictatorship, like the one in China, to wipe out the memories and records of people and even entire communities in an instant. They have been doing this all along, but in the last two or three years, the censorship has reached unprecedented heights in its scale and intensity.

For the Chinese government, it’s not enough to delete domestic social media content. They have been trying to extend their control to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — all of which are banned in China.

Like me, a scholar who studies the Chinese resistance movement was shocked and concerned about the erasure of Wu Gan’s Twitter record. She proposed the concept of “data ownership.” Chinese netizens are not only deprived of data ownership inside the Great Fire Wall; political prisoners and currently active Twitter users face threats to their data security as well.

The researcher urged me and my fellow human rights advocators to study methods of protecting Chinese netizens’ “data ownership” in foreign social media. The data security of those political prisoners who are in prison, or “sensitive people” who are not in prison but are strictly monitored and threatened by the government, is particularly urgent. Seeing the deletion of Twitter content belonging to Wu Gan and Chen Yunfei and the recent round of censorship targeting Chinese Twitter users (I will report on this in a separate article), we sense that the Chinese government will stop at no means to delete more content that they disagree with.

Large companies like Twitter should be held responsible for protecting the data security of political dissidents in authoritarian states. The researcher suggested that human rights organizations should negotiate with Twitter to develop a third-party mechanism to protect the social account data for Chinese political prisoners based on CECC’s relatively complete and constantly updated database (http://ppdcecc.gov/) of Chinese incarcerated for their dissident activities. This system could provide regular backups and prevent the prisoners’ account from being modified.

Right now, what is most urgent is that Twitter needs to know the shocking attacks on free speech that are quietly taking place. We ask Twitter to restore Wu Gan’s Twitter content and Chen Yunfei’s account from its backup database.

Ms. Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), another noted human rights activist and a close friend of Wu Gan, tweeted, “Can someone go talk with Twitter about this? We’re not in jail, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t even protect the Twitter account of a prisoner of conscience?”

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao

 


Related:

#LoveTwitter, a Special Place Like No Other for Mainland Chinese Netizens, March 24, 2016.

Chinese Twitter Users Unsettled at Appointment of New Managing Director, April 17, 2016.

Young Chinese Twitter User Arrested For Proposing Method To Spread Truth About June 4th Massacre, June 9, 2014.

A Month Or So In The House Of Twitter, Yaxue Cao, January 23, 2012.

 

 

 

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An Interview With Xu Youyu: ‘The Worst Is Yet to Come’

China Change, October 31, 2018

This is part of China Change’s new interview series that seeks to understand the effort of civil society in bringing change to China over the past 30 years. The interview was conducted in June 2018 by Yaxue Cao, editor of this website, at Professor Xu Youyu’s home in Flushing, New York City. — The Editors

 

Xu Youyu, screenshot photo

Xu Youyu. Photo: China Change.

 

Yaxue Cao (YC): Professor Xu, would you mind first introducing yourself to our readers?

Xu Youyu (XY): My name is Xu Youyu (徐友渔); I was born in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in 1947. I was in the graduating class at the Chengdu No. 1 Secondary School in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution erupted — right when I was enrolling for the national college entrance examination. Later, I got deeply wrapped up in the Cultural Revolution and became a leader of a mass organization, and as a result I gained a great deal of understanding of what it was all about. This has put me at an extraordinary advantage for studying the Cultural Revolution period in my scholarship now. I was one of the first new entrants to university in 1977 when matriculation resumed. But I’d only studied undergraduate for a little over a semester when, unprecedentedly, I was recommended to take the graduate exams. I transferred to the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing in 1979 to become a grad student, and worked at CASS from then on until my retirement. During that period, in 1986, I studied at Oxford for a couple of years. I retired in 2008.

YC: You retired in 2008? You were still quite young at that point. What caused you to retire so early?

XY: It was CASS rules that stipulated 60 as the retirement age — and once you reached 60, out you go.

YC: But for a scholar, a thinker, 60s are quite possibly your golden years.

XY: As the definitions go in China, those under 60 are young and middle-aged scholars; the day after you turn 60, you’re a retiree. It’s absurd, but that’s just how it is in China.

YC: Where were you in 1989?

XY: I was in Beijing. During the Tiananmen protest I was on the Square nearly every day. I was near the center of the Square on June 3rd and 4th, close to the Monument, and I saw the entire sequence of events. I stayed there the whole time, until the early hours of the 4th when students were forced to retreat from the southeast corner. I waited at the edge of that corner until all the students had exited, and only then did I go home.

YC: Just like that?

XY: The route home passed through Liubukou (六部口), and the scene there left a peculiar impression on me. As I proceeded, I saw in the distance a tank facing off against a crowd. When the tank rushed toward the crowd, the latter retreated like the tide going out. Then the tank would stop, and the crowd would again roll back like a tide coming in, then the tank would retreat. That’s what greeted my eyes in the distance. Around me, riding on my bicycle, I had to stop, hoist it up, and step across a pile of people lying on the ground. And I thought, “Huh? How could they be sleeping so soundly, right there on the road when it’s so noisy?” This didn’t seem particularly strange at the time, because many people had been out for days and were completely exhausted. But only as I wended my way through them did it hit me: they were dead. This is one of the clearest and most lucid memories in my entire life: in the early morning on June 4, 1989, after the students had all evacuated Tiananmen and I was on my way home, I stepped across a pile of corpses.

YC: Had they been crushed by tanks or gunned down?

XY: They must have been shot. But I don’t think I saw bullet holes. The corpses were clearly in one piece, this I am absolutely sure of.

YC: What of the blood?

XY: I don’t remember seeing much blood either. I just stepped over; I was perturbed in my heart, and panicked. I didn’t stop to examine the bodies, but it was very clear that they were corpses there on the ground, not live people sleeping.

YC: Can you briefly introduce us to your scholarship?

XY: My field of study had been an extremely technical, specialized area, known as the philosophy of language. When I went to Oxford University my adviser, Michael Dummett, was one of the most well-known philosophers of language in England. After I returned from Oxford, the idea was for me to build an academic career in the system, and it would have been smooth sailing from there.

When the Tiananmen Movement occurred, the strongest feeling I had at that time was that Chinese intellectuals were woefully unequipped and unprepared. When the students put forward their demands, what they actually needed was to be mentored by the intellectuals. The authorities did claim that a few intellectuals were ‘black hands’ behind the scenes, but that wasn’t the case. The thing is, intellectuals should have actually been the ‘black hands,’ but no one was, not because none dared, but because none had the wherewithal. After this massive social movement erupted, just what should intellectuals have done? What theoretical guidance may they have proposed? At the time there were none. I know that Yan Jiaqi (严家祺) held a Democracy University on Tiananmen Square, so he lectured there, but it was far, far from enough for the rushing waves and roiling torrents of that movement.

I personally made a self-conscious turn at a time when I was ready to be the academic authority in my generation, I turned away from language philosophy and turned to political philosophy. I felt that the next time a social movement erupted forth in China, when it was time for us to put forward theories and answers, intellectuals couldn’t be like they were on June 4 — doing a few childish and simplistic things. We have to learn from the experience of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Taiwan. We need a huge number of people who understand the law, and understand politics. I knew our shortcomings. For instance, in 1988, a group of Chinese intellectuals submitted a petition to Party Central, calling for the release Wei Jingsheng (魏京生). I drafted the letter, yet I had no concept of China’s constitution or laws, and what I wrote was based completely on my personal feelings. When I thought about it later I felt really embarrassed. So I turned my focus to political philosophy.

I wasn’t the only one who made this change of orientation. The entire intellectual class in China went through a similar shift — because when the historical mission of 1989 was placed on our shoulders, we failed our role. One of China’s most well-known scholars in the 1980s Li Zehou (李泽厚) put particular emphasis on this — he wrote that the most remarkable change in the Chinese intellectual sphere after 1989 was a major orientation toward political philosophy. I knew that humanist philosophy was good, along with the Enlightenment, liberty, equality, etc. But when a social movement of true significance unfolded, what theories should be used to examine Chinese society? This requires specialized knowledge. It’s not something that a humanist scholar who relies on his personal passion and ideals can carry off. I’ve done a great deal of reading in the contemporary Western literature on political philosophy and political theory, and later I had many opportunities to travel outside of China.

Another part of my research agenda is the Cultural Revolution, since I was deeply involved in the movement myself, and I came to my senses and reflected on it early on. In the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, I formed a Cultural Revolution Studies group with friends, focusing on collecting documents. I think this part of my research is also very important. I’ve published quite a bit on this topic.

YC: Do you think that Chinese intellectuals of today can provide the kind of guidance you’ve been referring to?

XY: I think that if there’s another movement like June 4, intellectuals won’t be helpless in responding to it. I think that today China’s intellectuals can contribute a great deal of deep, quality thinking and analysis. But I still don’t think intellectuals are capable of successfully guiding a similar movement, because the reality of China today is just too complex. I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time, but I can’t focus on both theory and practice. If there’s a tectonic transformation in China sometime in the future, just what should be done? I don’t think one can demand the Chinese intellectuals to supply ideas. They can try, but my sense is that Chinese intellectuals cannot provide the kind of guidance and direction.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 1YC: When did you get to know Liu Xiaobo?

XY: I met Liu Xiaobo very late in the piece. Liu Xiaobo sought me out. I knew at the time that Chinese intellectuals were afraid of being in contact with democracy activists, just like people in the Middle Ages were terrified of leprosy. That was the overall attitude. But when Liu Xiaobo got in touch, I thought that if all intellectuals were afraid of having contact with democracy activists then, firstly, intellectuals would be just too pathetic. What are you afraid of? He’s a citizen; he’s not in jail, he’s free to contact anyone he wishes. Each one of us should be forthright and easy-mannered in our associations, and we should help normalize Liu Xiaobo’s social life. So, when Liu Xiaobo reached out to me I knew what was going on; I certainly knew there was some risk involved by associating with him, and the life I had of the quiet scholar in his study would be broken and it would go in a different direction. I also understood clearly that, because the police were monitoring Liu Xiaobo, they would then begin monitoring me too.

YC: What year was that? In one of the essays you wrote, you mentioned 2004, because you’d signed an open letter on the 15 anniversary of Tiananmen. Tell us more about the Liu Xiaobo you know.

XY: To me there are two parts of Liu Xiaobo. In the 1980s, I knew Liu Xiaobo’s thought and scholarship very well — as a scholar myself I have the habit of reading a great deal. Most people know that he’s the “Dark Horse,” but I went and carefully read through his doctoral dissertation. I thought it was truly execrable — a complete disaster. He loved philosophizing, but basically everything philosophical he had to say was mistaken [Laughs]. So I was really quite nonplussed about why he had gained such a grand reputation. And yet, I was completely different to those jealous of him for gaining notoriety so quickly. I saw his strengths early on: Liu Xiaobo’s thought, from beginning to end, I’ve felt, can be summed up simply: it is extraordinarily penetrating and thorough.

Let me tell you why. Objectively speaking, the thinking of Liu Zaifu (刘再复) and Li Zehou was rather modern in China in the 1980s’, and it indeed it helped to educate and enlighten the young people. But my point is that precisely because the level of thought in the entire Chinese public was so poor at that time that Liu Zaifu and Li Zehou were able to be the tutors. And it was Liu Xiaobo who challenged the role of Li Zehou as a spiritual lodestar that really shows his penetrating insight. I think he really got it.

So, before I met Liu Xiaobo, my impression of him was mixed. I simply felt that on the political level I must receive him, and the more the authorities tried to repress him, the more important it was for me to have an open and unhindered association with him. This was a rational consideration, not because I naturally like Liu Xiabo or have some sort of emotional resonance with him. There was none of that. I felt that as a citizen, I simply had to do these things out of my political conviction.

But once I actually got to know Liu Xiaobo, my impression of him changed for the better a great deal, and over the course of a decade it got better and better. I saw for myself Liu Xiaobo’s step-by-step process of bettering himself. He became a modest and humble man, and a man who puts himself in others’ shoes. This was completely different to the impression I had of him in the 1980s, and it’s because he himself went through a profound transformation.

YC: This is interesting. In April I visited Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) in Berlin, and he said the same thing, describing how he went from loathing Liu Xiabo to becoming his best friend.

You just said that there weren’t any intellectuals who could come out and guide China’s political life and social movements. Did Liu Xiaobo strike you as an intellectual who could have done so? What role do you think he had in China’s democracy movement, and how do you evaluate it?

XY: I think that he took on a leading role, but I don’t think it can be said that he was a leader. Let me give an example: Apart from Liu Xiaobo, I am also very close to Chen Ziming (陈子明), and I understand his thinking and also know the many things he did. When it comes to planning and leading actual political movements, I think Chen Ziming was stronger than Liu Xiaobo — much, much stronger. But if we examine a more recent democracy movement such as in the now Czech Republic, then I think what Liu Xiaobo has done is totally comparable to to the role Vaclav Havel played. He doesn’t meet the traditional definition of a revolutionary leader, and I think the days for that are long gone. If he wasn’t deprived of his freedom and persecuted to death, then I think he would have become more and more a mature and skillful leader.

YC: What’s your involvement in Charter 08?

XY: I had nothing to do with the origins of the Charter 08. On November 15, 2008, Liu Xiaobo came to me with a draft and asked me to sign it. I was reluctant initially and he seemed a little shocked. I said that open letters and statements must have a specific focus, and it has to be for something that you must speak out on. I said that you had already done a number of signature campaigns this year, and there would be more next year, and I was afraid that, with such frequency, this sort of initiative would become a meaningless formality. He seemingly hadn’t considered it from that angle.

But he was insistent, and in the end talked me into it. I said I’d consider it. I agreed to sign it when we met again three days later. I thought that the text itself had many defects, and as a scholar of political philosophy and political theory, I proposed many ideas [for how it might be revised], and Liu said he’d go back and talk it over with Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦). He sent back revisions for me to look at, and said that they were adopting basically all my suggestions.

YC: Not all petitions are equal. All the others have passed into oblivion while Charter 08 has entered into history. Liu Xiaobo was arrested in December of 2008; my impression is that you became more active afterwards, speaking out and trying to get him freed.

XY: When Liu Xiaobo was arrested, my first reaction was emotional — I was really furious. It was purely an issue of expression. Also, Charter 08 was very moderate and entirely in conformance with the constitution and laws of the People’s Republic of China. So this really got me: I wanted to speak up for Liu Xiaobo and do things for him. At the same time, I also felt that there were indeed so many things that needed doing, for example, explicating the basic principles of Charter 08 and defending them. That I became more and more active is a direct result of his arrest.

YC: You were part of the campaign to nominate Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you please tell us more about that? 

XY: When people first discussed the idea that Liu Xiaobo should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I supported it. I thought that he entirely met the criteria of candidates and accorded with the aims of the Prize. But how to make it happen? Someone said to me half jokingly: you call for it! I gave it some thought, and thought that I was actually in a unique position to do so. From 2001 to 2002 or so I was a visiting scholar in Sweden, not just any visiting scholar but the Olof Palme Visiting Professorship, which is a rather privileged position established not by a university, but the state, and it was named after former prime minister Olof Palme after his assassination. People [in Sweden] look upon this post with high regard, and I started the Palme Professorship with an acceptance speech. I thought this distinction might lend some weight to my nomination of Liu Xiaobo. So I wrote a recommendation letter to the Nobel Committee and set out my reasons. I put a lot of thought in it. I sincerely believed that he should be awarded the Prize, not because he is a Chinese person, or because he’s my friend, or because he fought for democracy and freedom.

I don’t think the role of this letter should be exaggerated. The day he won the prize, journalists from around the world, abroad, and in Beijing, wanted to interview me. I was fully prepared for what I had to say, and I spoke from morning to night the whole day: why they had awarded him the prize, why they should, the significance of it and so on. I had thought all of this through beforehand and was ready for it.

YC: I read that a group of people, yourself included, went to Prague for the Homo Homini prize. What was that?

XY: After Charter 08 was published, a human rights award in Czech Republic called the Homo Homini Award was given to Liu Xiaobo and all the signatories of Charter 08, and it invited some of us for the ceremony. We accepted the Homo Homini award on behalf of Liu Xiaobo and all Charter 08 signatories, and while there we had a lot of direct interaction with Vaclav Havel.

YC: It’s sad: come 2018, Liu Xiaobo is no more, and none of what you did then is possible now — signing Charter 08 and going abroad to receive a human rights award. 

XY: Before Xi Jinping came to power, the persecution was severe, and imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo was one example. Yet on the other hand we had a little bit of room to breathe. The day Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, I was taking interviews all day and I remember part of the day I was walking through a busy shopping street like Wangfujing (王府井), a really bustling part of town, while talking on the phone to foreign journalists. Nobody interfered with me. But that’s inconceivable in China now.

YC: A few years ago you and Hua Ze (华泽) compiled a book titled 《遭遇警察》. It was also published in English as In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon: Stories of Repression in the New China, which includes your own chapter ‘Defiance’ (《抗拒》). It left a very deep impression on me, and from it I understood the life of an intellectual living under the constant surveillance of China’s political police. China Change published the English-language version on our website.

XY: Police in China are unrestrained and shameless. Chinese police permeate into your everyday life. They’re there with you all the time; ubiquitous. They ‘make friends’ with you, go out drinking on the town with you, make jokes, give you a nickname, and so in the end, you get so used to their presence that the figure who was sent to spy on you becomes some kind of ‘friend’ of yours.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 2But I could never get used to it. I hate it. When the police come to visit me I often don’t let them in — but I can’t do that every time. They would force their way in. They can be polite, calling me ‘Teacher Xu,’ but the only reason they dare enter my home is because they’re police. They just come in with or without your permission or invitation because they can. As seemingly respectful and polite as they are, it’s still a humiliation. Every time they came visit me, it was an encroachment and insult on my dignity and personal liberty.

I was forever tortured by such questions. I could never get over it. For me, the basepoint is that I’m a free citizen. The police come, I subject myself to them, but I can’t reconcile with such subjugation.

YC: In May 2014, a dozen or so intellectuals, dissidents and lawyers held a commemoration of June 4 at your home. They included Qin Hui (秦晖) of Tsinghua University, professor Guo Yuhua (郭于华) also of Tsinghua, Hu Shigen (胡石根), and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强). Five were detained and you were one of them. Was that the first time you were held in a detention center? What was it like for you?

XY: That time was really just risible. I always see myself as a rational and careful person; I guaranteed everyone that it would be safe to hold such a gathering. Five years prior, in 2009, we’d held a similar event, and that time I felt it was extremely dangerous and the fallout would also be severe. Things got quite dramatic; I won’t talk about it all, but in the end it didn’t turn out so bad. So in 2014, I told everyone that there wouldn’t be any problems. I cited Chen Wei (陈卫) and Yu Shiwen (于世文), who in February of that year held a big event marking the death of Zhao Ziyang in Henan, and nothing happened.

YC: Although in July that year the couple was arrested, and Yu Shiwen was locked up until August 2016 — held without trial or sentence for two years before being released.

XY: So in May, 2014 when they arrested us, it was a surprise. In hindsight, things seemed a little off that very morning. The property management people had come to my apartment in the morning to fix something without an appointment; they were there fixing it for half a day but didn’t end up fixing anything. Later on I realized that they were there to watch me. They had been planning it all since the morning; they’d arranged everything, but I had no clue. So later on when the police came to our meeting, I said: “you didn’t come earlier and didn’t come later; you’re here right when I’m busy — what do you want?” They said that I had to come with them. So it happened just like that.

Some people gave the opinion that the arrests were mainly about taking Pu Zhiqiang, and the rest of us were just caught in the net. Some people love such analyses; the more they analyze it, the more esoteric it gets, and they think they’re so full of foresight — like ‘Look, I even know how the state security apparatus works.’ I really take exception to this stuff. What I stick to is one thing: Have I broken the law? Which law have I broken? Do you have evidence? Later when I was in detention center being interrogated, this is what I focused on.

YC: How long were you detained?

XY: Precisely a month, in the Beijing No. 1 Detention Center.

YC: What was it like for a Chinese philosopher?

XY: I had read so much about Chinese prisons, so I had some idea. For example, when new inmates come in, typically the veterans will bully them. They’ll make a show of strength and domination. They make you do the filthiest and most tiring work, give you the worst place to sleep, or do other things to take advantage of you.

It was early morning when I was sent to the cell, and the prisoners were just waking up. Everyone had their head shaved. It was a terrifying sight to behold. They all looked like bandits, with no clothes waist up, all with an ominous glint in their eyes. As soon as I got in, someone ordered me to squat: Who are you? I thought I’d be beaten up right then. I said that I’m a political prisoner and that I was being detained for commemorating June 4, and that I was a professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. As soon as I said this the entire atmosphere in the place changed. Their attitude turned around entirely. They were good to me the entire time I was there. There are things that I don’t dare to tell you even now. You wouldn’t believe some of the things if I said them, about how the police told the prisoners to treat me well.

The place they gave me to sleep was the second best to that of the cell boss. I was afforded all the preferential treatment that one could expect in prison — but of course, there wasn’t much of that. Overall, conditions were horrendous, but at least their attitude to me was completely different — all because I said I was a political prisoner and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, because I’d held a memorial for June 4. This was for me a real psychological relief. Those men, locked up for murder or whatever else, are actually very clear on what’s right and what’s wrong in the politics of Chinese society. They truly had a sense of respect towards me.

There was a murderer there who was very nice to me — if he didn’t help me out, I’d be in a sorry state, because when a prisoner was taken in, you had nothing. You have no toothbrush to brush your teeth with, no chopsticks to eat with, you have to buy everything. He gave me all of that. I would have been extremely miserable without them. He was someone who had committed homicide. Who did he kill? He killed the village official who was a corrupt embezzler and bullied everyone in the village.

There were other prisoners who were also quite nice. A young police officer told me privately, while taking me out of cell for this and that purpose, ‘Teacher Xu, I’ve read your books.’ To convince me, he began citing A Variety of Rebellions (《形形色色的造反》) and explaining its place in the history of scholarship on the Cultural Revolution. He knew a lot about it. But the police officer in charge of interrogating me was really bad. He had a female assistant officer and I wasn’t exactly polite with her. We got into an argument during interrogations. She seemed like she wanted to justify herself and said, ‘Oh, Teacher Xu, let me tell you, I’m a PhD graduate of the China University of Political Science and Law.’ As soon as I heard this I really had a fire in my belly and I retorted: ‘Oh, CUPL, I thought it was better, so you are what they produce.’ But later she was very nice to me. There were others who were even nicer. I can’t say how good they were because that would be bad for them. You’d find it hard to believe. Actually they understand exactly what’s going on. I think that most people in the police forces are like that. Of course there are some, like the one who interrogated me, who are just vicious. But other police would criticize him; they said to me that they themselves had already been on the force for years, but he was still young and felt the need to prove himself. This is how they’d talk to me in private, that he wanted to make a name for himself on the force and that’s why he was so fierce.

YC: Hearing you describe things this way, it seems like many people are simply keeping to themselves, living a kind of dual life.

XY: This is a question that can be subject to deep examination; but I’ll put it simply. A regime that does not enjoy popular support, or rather one that completely goes against human nature, can exist in two ways: the first is ideological deception. For instance in the Maoist era, everyone truly felt that Mao Zedong was an angel, truth incarnate. The other means of rule is, an illegitimate regime can use naked violence and power to get its way when the ideological control no longer works. The situation in China today is of this sort. This is something shown in history and contemporary times, in China and around the world. In the ancient past, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang could spark a rebellion and overthrow the [Qin Dynasty] regime, because a soldier and a peasant were about on par in terms of arms. The soldier had a broadsword and a lance; the peasant had a hoe and a sickle — the difference is not huge. In modern society, violent rule is able to rely on a massive gap in coercive power. But ruling by coercion doesn’t give the regime any more stature in the eyes of its subjects.

YC: This year, Xi Jinping announced that he was abolishing the system of term limits for state chairman. He’s also begun implementing and exhibiting some ‘Maoist-revival’ behavior, so some people have said that China is returning to the Cultural Revolution. Thus, in such a modernized, interconnected society, we seem to be in a situation where among China’s 1.3 billion people, Xi Jinping is the only one allowed to have his own thoughts: whatever he likes is correct; whatever he doesn’t like is wrong. At the same time, the regime is doing everything it can to monopolize ideas and thought. There is on the one hand a high level of economic capacity, yet on the other an extreme level of control and suppression. How do you think this country will end up if this new absurdity goes on?

XY: The first thing I want to say is that there’s a huge difference between the society of today and Mao’s time. You can say that during the Maoist era the idea was that Mao was the only one who could think, even though I know through my studies that during that time there were many heresies and folk schools of thought, but overall it can be said that, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong was one brain controlling 800 million Chinese people. Nowadays, that is absolutely not the case. We could say now that of the 1.3 billion Chinese people, at least half have their own minds. The regime allows only one voice [in the public sphere], but there is no way they can control what people think. This is a fundamental change. These days the regime uses naked violence to force people to conform — this differs from ignorant people truly believing something. So from this perspective, the times have changed, and there is no going back to the Maoist era.

But unfortunately we must face one cruel reality: the use of naked violence to rule, though it has no moral value, can be maintained for a long period of time. I don’t think this situation in China will change anytime soon. I’ve prepared for the absolute worst, based on what I’ve lived through. From what we’ve spoken today, we can see one thing, which is that China doesn’t have a ‘worst’ period, it only has ‘worse’ periods. I’m very pessimistic.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into the Cultural Revolution — though I also reflected on it very deeply afterwards. I wondered why the Cultural Revolution happened, and from there wondered why the Chinese communist revolution took place in China and why it is that the CCP was able to seize power. I feel that I thought it through deeply and thoroughly, and began to understand just truly how sinister and cruel the Chinese Communist Party is. I think that I see these things a little more thoroughly than most. I especially appreciated the thoroughness of Liu Xiaobo’s thinking, and I also consider myself a thorough thinker. As for how evil the Communist Party can be, I’ve had the time to psychologically prepare — this is what sets me apart from others. Everyone now thinks that things are the worst they can possibly get, and they can’t bear it — but when you look back and understand the Party’s own operating principles and guiding ideology, and especially its own history, I think the most evil things it may do are already within my expectations.

I don’t think that the fascist forces and tendencies in China have reached their extreme yet. The worst is yet to come. Under such circumstances, hoping for any kind of rapid change is impractical. As someone who loves thought and theorizing, the mission I gave myself is to tell the world just how this tragedy came to pass. There are no obstacles to the rise of fascism in China. I want to explain how it happened and why it happened and is still happening. These are the questions I’m observing and thinking over at present.

Xu Youyu, pullquote 3YC: After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, on October 14, 2010, you and 109 Chinese liberal intellectuals, dissidents, rights lawyers, and rights defenders published a statement. Your name was first on the list. The first sentence of the statement reads: “In contemporary society, peace and human rights are inseparable.  The deprivation and trampling upon life takes place not only on the battlefield, but also in the workings of the tyranny and the Draconian laws inside a country.” Come 2018, Liu Xiaobo died in prison for more than a year, the repression in China is such that it would no longer be possible to find 109 firm voices to sign a letter like that. In the China of 2018, the violent deprivation and trampling upon life is even more vile, even more unrestrained. And yet China’s influence on the world stage has become ever greater. It’s truly distressing to behold. What would you say to our readers?

XY: Peace doesn’t depend merely on the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization distributing grain and cereals around the world — though of course this is very important; and it isn’t just about healing people who are ill and injured. The enterprise of promoting peace is not simply tender-hearted charity work — such an understanding of peace is far from sufficient. A country that is ruled by a tyrannical dictatorship that uses naked violence to mobilize the power of the state to ravage human life and destroy human freedom — this is a matter more worthy of attention than sickness and hunger. I hope that the international community pays more attention to the values that Liu Xiaobo fought and sacrificed for. An important component of peace is that we must stand up and fight against evil forces that take humankind as their enemy. It’s an extremely salient issue, and it’s something that people with ambivalent values find uncomfortable, and that they wish to avoid. But this cannot be avoided. This is an issue that goes to the heart of the enterprise of peace. I think that the use of the instruments of the state to, in an organized way, on a large scale, violate the principles of peace and violate human rights, is far more damaging than the natural and man-made disasters that happen, or the inter-ethnic conflict that breaks out. This is a task that we cannot avoid shouldering.

 

 


Related:

Defiance, Xu Youyu, China Change, May 13, 2014.

Intellectual Discourses in Post-Mao China and Today, Xu Youyu, China Change, May 24, 2014

The Cultural Revolution, Fifty Years Later: How It Echoes Today, Xu Youyu, Foreign Affairs, May 15, 2016.

 


Xu Youyu’s work in Chinese:

《“哥白尼式”的革命》,上海三聯出版社,1994年,获1995年金岳霖学术奖。
《羅素》,香港中華書局,1994年
《精神生成語言》,四川人民出版社,1997年
《形形色色的造反》,香港中文大學出版社,1999年
《告別20世紀》,山東教育出版社,1999年
《驀然回首》,河南人民出版社,1999年
《自由的言說》,長春出版社,1999年
《直面歷史》,中國文聯出版社,2000年
《人文立場》,中國青年出版社,2008年
《重读自由主义及其他》,河南大學出版社,2008年

 


Xu Youyu’s essays in Chinese:

http://www.aisixiang.com/thinktank/xuyouyu.html

 

 

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Chinese Students at Bard College Offended By Art Exhibit

Yaxue Cao, October 18, 2018

 

Art exhibit at Bard, title pic

 

Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is a small liberal arts college with around 2500 students. The Campus Center is the central meeting place with a bookstore, a cafe, a post office, computer terminals, a small auditorium, lounge areas and art exhibit space. On October 1, a photo exhibit was mounted along the hallways of the center. It is called, adopting a well-known Mao Zedong quote, “Weightier Than Mount Tai, Lighter Than a Feather: Human Rights Experience of Chinese Contemporary Art.”

Featuring ten artists (all but two lived in China), the exhibit includes photographs, conceptual compositions, negative images of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and photographs that depict a wide range of life in China: the student movement in Beijing, migrant workers in the slums outside Beijing, prostitutes and homesexuals. Photographs of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the same year are also on display. It is a traveling exhibit and was first shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It ends on October 19 at Bard.

 

手枪指头.JPG

 

On October 3, Siyuan Min (闵思渊), who goes by the name ‘Frederick S. Min,’ a political science major and chair of the Chinese Student Organization on campus, wrote a long letter to one of the two curators of the exhibit, Patricia Keretzky. Keretzky is Oskar Munsterberg Lecturer in Art History and author of more than 10 books about Chinese art, religious and secular, medieval and contemporary. From his letter, we gathered that the exhibit stirred quite a bit of sentiment from a WeChat group that consisted of current Chinese students at Bard, recent graduates and visiting scholars from China. In his letter to Ms. Keretzy, Mr. Min summed up this “vibrant and highly intellectual conversation” on WeChat, China’s popular but heavily censored and surveilled online messaging platform.

The community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit on three points: the topic, the date and the offensiveness of it.

 

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Photo: Chen Chuangchuang.

 

They objected to the sensitive nature of the topic, singling out “the images of protests,” “an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong,” and “a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on Tiananmen Square where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stand(s),” the last of which implying that the two symbols of struggle contravene each other.

They took issue with the date. Why launch the exhibit on October 1, our National Day, “the equivalent of July 4th”? When “a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill” on the Serbian national day, he said, a diplomatic crisis ensued causing World War I. He then walked back a little bit from the parallel between Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War I with his assassination and the two curators provoking Chinese students at Bard, but we get the idea: it’s a grievous provocation.

Mr. Min went on conveying how Chinese students felt: they feel ‘ambushed’ by such an exhibit at the student center; they feel embarrassed when asked questions by their curious American friends; their pride in their nationality is hurt; they feel “a certain sense of betrayal” because at Bard the atmosphere has been “pluralistic yet always respectful.”

 

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So the photo exhibit is a deviation from the pluralistic and respectful atmosphere at Bard according to this junior. When Chinese students at the University of California San Diego opposed the Dalai Lama giving the commencement speech, they applied the same awkward, brain teaser logic.

Because of the exhibit, the Chinese students and scholars feel, Min went on, judged by “our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government.”

But isn’t it the case that the Chinese students and scholars have all these hurt feelings precisely because they themselves identify with the repressive regime, with the policies of the Chinese government and its political sensibilities? They do not seem to recognize that each and every Chinese citizen has the right not to identify with the government. As a political science student, young Mr. Min should know better.

In reply, Ms. Keretzky invited the junior and the Chinese students to come to the screening of dissident films by Chinese artists and a roundtable discussion afterward on Saturday at the Campus Center. None of them came. She also ask Mr. Min to post her response on WeChat. I don’t know whether this has been done. I doubt it, because the words ‘human rights’ and the name ‘Liu Xiaobo’ will not pass through the censorship, even if Min tries to. I doubt he would try in the first place.

 

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Photo: Chen Chuangchuang.

 

“I want to have a dialogue with the Chinese students on campus,” Wu Yuren (吴玉仁), a participating artist, said on Saturday at Bard. “This is a serious exhibit. In 2015, Patricia met with us in Beijing and we had a discussion about it. We know why we do this. Today’s China is undergoing a massive transformation, and artists have the acutest sense it. As freedom of speech is being choked off and art creation faces more and more restriction, it’s only natural that artists are going to express such repression.”

I asked Mr. Wu what would happen to these artists living in China, he said, they are used to regular police summons known as ‘drinking tea,’ forced evictions, and shutdowns of exhibits. “Under dictatorship, artists who explore its manifestations face big dangers.” Wu Yuren himself was detained for ten months in 2010 for using what they called the “rights defense performance art” to oppose forced demolition of art districts in Beijing where he and hundreds of artists had their studios.

“By the way,” he said at Bard, “I want to state a common sense here:  October 1st is not the birthday of our motherland.”

 

 

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao, or follow China Change @chinachange_org

 


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At China Change, a few dedicated staff bring you information about human rights, rule of law, and civil society in China. We want to help you understand aspects of China’s political landscape that are the most censored and least understood. We are a 501(c)(3) organization, and your contribution is tax-deductible. For offline donation, or donor receipt policy, check our “Become a Benefactor” page. Thank you.