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Tang Danhong, translated by Anne Henochowicz, January 26, 2018
Elliot Sperling died in his sleep at the end of January, 2017 (the Wikipedia entry puts the date of his death on January 29, 2017). In our unabating sorrow of losing a dear friend, China Change presents a full translation of Ms. Tang Danhong’s interview with Elliot. Ms. Tang (唐丹鸿) is herself a prolific writer about Tibet, and now lives with her family in Israel. The interview was conducted in Chinese on July 27, 2014, in New York City. Ms. Tang published it for the first time in February, 2017. — The Editors
“When I got to Greece, someone said to me, ‘You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…’ I said to myself, ‘Huh, why didn’t I think of that?’”
Tang Danhong: Dgenlags [teacher], let’s start where you began. How did you choose to study Tibet and China?
Sperling: My interest in Tibet wasn’t academic in the beginning. America had the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the hippies in the 1960s. I was 17 in late 60s, growing up in New York, and I lived in the midst of these movements. New York is an international city, and these changes were going on all around me. It was counter-culture: we made a new kind of music, and our thinking, even what we wore, were all part of our rebellion. And a lot of people smoked marijuana and took LSD. We thought we could reach an altered state of consciousness, just like a religion. Young me was so innocent. I yearned for a huge transformation in our consciousness. I read a lot of the Beats: Ginsberg, Kerouac. Psychology, for instance Carl Jung, also had a huge influence on me, and because of Jung I started to learn about the East. I took interest in Eastern culture, Eastern philosophy and so on. The East became more and more interesting to me. For me, it was a new world.
When I got to college I didn’t know what to study. Despite my interest in the East, I hadn’t yet thought of it as a specialization. At the end of my freshman year, a friend and I hitchhiked from New York to California just like Kerouac. We were on the road for many weeks. I thought it was so “beat,” ha ha. I did the same thing after sophomore year, this time in Europe. I flew to London, then hitchhiked from there to Greece. I’d think about what to major in from time to time. The good thing about travel for me was that my thinking was more open in new environments, so I could really mull over just what I wanted to do.
When I got to Greece, someone said to me, “You know, the road doesn’t end in Greece. You could go on, to Turkey, Asia, India…” I said to myself, “Huh, why didn’t I think of that?”
I went back to the US that time, but I decided I would take that trip. Of course my parents weren’t thrilled. I went to class during the day and drove a taxi in the evenings. After one semester I’d made enough money, so I flew to Europe and quickly got to Greece. In Greece I found out there was no need to hitchhike in Asia. Transportation was cheap there, and besides, hitchhiking was a little dangerous. So I hitchhiked from Greece to Istanbul, then took trains and buses to Tehran. I took another bus from Tehran to Mashhad, and from there entered into Afghanistan. I took all kinds of transportation in Afghanistan, even horse-drawn carriage. I went to Herat, to Kandahar, and then to Kabul. From Kabul I took a bus to Peshawar, Pakistan.
People are scared of Afghanistan and Peshawar now, but at that time the people in Iran and Afghanistan were really polite. I don’t know if they were polite to women, but if you were a man they were extremely hospitable to you. I only stayed in Pakistan for a day. I went from Peshawar to the border at Lahore, then crossed into India.
In north India I first got to New Delhi. To answer my travel questions, like where to find a cheap hotel, I had to find my fellow hippie drifters. Back then there were a lot of hotels that were more like dorms, with lots of beds in one room. In Delhi I found a bargain room for less than 50 cents a night. One of the guys in the room was getting ready to head back to the US and passed on to me some of his travel strategies. He said there’s a place in Delhi I would definitely like, called the Tibet House.[i] I went there, where I met Tibetans for the first time. I had no idea of the connection my fate and my future would have with their country.
After that I left Delhi and went to Varanasi, then on to Kathmandu [Nepal]. There were a lot of Bodpa [Tibetans] there, and my fascination with them started. I already had some interest in Eastern thought. I had read some books about that, and also about Buddhism, and I had been to a Japanese Zen center. I was most attracted to Tibetan Buddhism and went to a Buddhist temple in Kathmandu. In the course of my time there, I leaned farther and farther away from religious faith. My interest in Tibetan religion weakened, while my interest in their country, history and society was kindled. I paid more and more attention to the fate of the Tibetans, instead of their religious images.
After I left Kathmandu I went to Darjeeling, to Gangtok and onward. After two or three months of travel, I arrived at Dharamsala. In the 1970s, Dharamsala was an ideal place for a traveler in India. There weren’t many tourists, and few foreigners. There were hardly any Indians in McLeod Ganj. There were basically only Bodpa. Dharamsala was quiet and lush. There were only a few hotels. Foreigners stayed at Hotel Kailash. It’s still there today, but now McLeod Ganj is full of hotels with all the amenities. It’s not like in the old days. Before there were only five buses into Dharamsala every day, and you never saw a private car. Maybe at most the office of the Dalai Lama had a car. If I hadn’t been there in the 1970s and only visited Dharamsala today, I could never have imagined how idyllic and peaceful it used to be. So as soon as I got to Dharamsala, wow! This place is great! The Bodpa are wonderful! It’s then, I realized, that my curiosity about the history and people of Tibet really blossomed.
Back then, I knew a little about India’s long history, and about China’s long history. But Tibet was a big question without an answer: Where did they come from? What was their history? I knew nothing. I started reading and talking to people…
After that I came back to the US and decided to specialize in Tibet studies. Queens College didn’t have Tibet studies, but they did have East Asian studies. At the time East Asian studies really meant China studies. They didn’t even offer anything on Japan. My first Chinese teacher is still alive and well. He’s at least 90 now, living in New York. I just visited him about a month ago. I started in China studies. I took two years of Mandarin and one year of classical Chinese. I also took the electives Eastern thought, Chinese philosophy, East Asian economics, history, and so on.
Back then you couldn’t go to the mainland. China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Nixon had visited, but US-China relations hadn’t been normalized yet. Maybe the US had an office in China, but not an embassy. After I graduated, I decided to go to Taiwan to improve my Chinese. Before I got to Taiwan, I visited India and Dharamsala. I stayed in Taiwan for about a year-and-a-half, then went to India and studied Tibetan there. It was at McLeod Ganj that I got to know Jamyang Norbu.[ii]
I also wanted to earn my Masters and my Ph.D. I already knew that religion interested me, but not in an academic way. I wouldn’t be a Buddhist, and I wouldn’t be a scholar of Buddhism. The first time I went to India, I realized I wouldn’t become a Buddhist. I know that some people think they believe in Buddha or something, but I wouldn’t dare say that myself. Belief involves a religious experience, an experience in your heart, but I understand religion with my mind. The two aren’t the same. Instead, I’m really interested in Tibetan history, society and culture. Where could you pursue advanced study of Tibet in the US at that time? There were only two places to study Tibet history: the University of Washington, in Seattle; and Indiana University. In the end I chose Indiana.
Tang: The Dalai Lama’s oldest brother, Taktser Rinpoche, is a professor at Indiana. Were you his student? Could you talk a little about him?
Sperling: We had several teachers at Indiana, including Taktser Rinpoche, whose full name is Thubten Jigme Norbu[iii]. Professor Norbu was an extraordinary person, a very good person. A lot of students wanted to take his classes just so they could brag, “Oh, I’m Thubten Jigme Norbu’s student.” Some of them didn’t work hard and had nothing to show for it. Thubten Jigme Norbu didn’t bother with them. He simply said that if you took a class with him and want to work hard, he will do everything he can to help you. If a student wanted to read more Tibetan sources, no matter how many, or wanted to learn Mandarin, he would put his heart and soul into you. This is why I had Taktser Rinpoche as one of my two advisors.[iv]
Four-and-a-half years later I had passed my exams, but hadn’t started writing my dissertation. When I embarked on my research, I thought I ought to go back to India. I spent over a year at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. I had a good friend, Kun’bzang Phun’tshogs, who didn’t have very good English but who did have excellent Chinese, since he had been at the Central Ethnic University (中央民族学院) in Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time it was extremely rare to find a Tibetan who could speak Chinese in Dharamsala. There must have only been three or four of them at most. And I’d all but forgotten my Tibetan. So he and I spoke to each other in Chinese. At McLeod Ganj I saw Jamyang Norbu again, and we became good friends. We’re friends to this day.
Tang: What was your research project then? What was the main focus of your work?
Sperling: My dissertation was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). I wanted to learn when China-Tibet relations had started, as well as the nature and substance of this relationship.
I knew that Tibet was on Manchu Qing maps, and on Mongol Yuan maps, too. But the more I read the more I realized that this relationship wasn’t at all like what the Chinese government claimed. It’s apparently very difficult to explain this to Chinese people. Chinese people today think that everything belongs to them, in large part because of the new historical viewpoint in China. But we believe that the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) was part of the Mongol empire, and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) the Manchu Qing empire. We consider these two to be “conquest states.” If Tibet is really a part of “China,” then we should have a look at the Ming. The Ming was not a conquest state. The Ming attitude toward the Mongols is also really interesting. They didn’t consider the Mongols to be a “brother nationality” at all.
As I continued my research, I found that Ming dynasty China-Tibet relations were basically that they didn’t have relations. The Chinese think the Ming was the heir to the Yuan, a changing of the guard; but Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, they did not consider themselves the emperors of China. They considered themselves emperors of the world. How can you simply say that the Ming were the inheritors of the Yuan?
When I was at Indiana I did some research of Chinese and Tibetan sources from the Ming era. My masters thesis was about the Fifth Karmapa [Lama] (1384-1415), who received an invitation from the Yongle Emperor to visit Nanjing. I read the biography of the fifth Gyalwa Karmapa in Tibetan, as well as Chinese texts, and nowhere did I find evidence that China controlled Tibet. I didn’t find any primary texts about Ming control of Tibet. There were none. I didn’t find any in a year at the archives in Dharamsala, either. The interesting thing is that I looked at how Republican China dealt with this, and found that no one at that time was saying that Tibet was a part of China since the Ming. At best they would say “Tibet was brought within China’s border during the Qing.” Now China says Tibet was a part of China during the Ming. It’s nonsense.
Then I came back to the US and took about two years to finish my dissertation. It was about China-Tibet relations during the Ming, titled Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet.[v] My conclusion was: they didn’t have any. During the Ming, Tibet was divided by competing regimes among the Tibetans, and continued that way until the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682). But this had nothing to do with Ming policy; this was internal to Tibet. The Ming emperor’s interactions with Tibet were religious at most, about benefactors and lamas.[vi]
I focused on history. I published “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics,”[vii] and several articles in academic journals, such as “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.”[viii] I’ve also written articles [for a general readership]. Some have been translated into Chinese, including “Incivilities,” “The Body Count,” and others.
Tang: As the Chinese government describes it, China has had sovereignty over Tibet since the Yuan dynasty. Chinese people today also see the Manchu Qing dynasty as a Chinese regime, and insist on China’s rule over Tibet by dint of Qing political control there. From a scholarly perspective, how do you view this question? How do Western scholars see it generally?
Sperling: In the common view of Western historians, there was a Great Mongol Empire and a Great Manchu Qing Empire. The Mongols considered both Tibet and China as part of the Great Mongol Empire. China says that Tibet became part of China during the Yuan dynasty, but if you ask Chinese scholars “when during the Yuan dynasty?” each will give you a different answer, because there is no one document, including any imperial edict, that proves that “Tibet belongs to China.” There is none. Tibetan sources are full of evidence that Tibet belonged to the Mongols, but not one document shows they belonged to China. What they showed allegiance to was the Mongol empire. Since the Mongols already controlled Tibet, why would they put Tibet inside the border of “China”? There’s no good explanation for it. So I wrote an article about when Tibet started “belonging” to China.[ix] According to my research, my view is this: the historical record proves that it is incorrect to say that “Tibet came within China’s borders during the Yuan dynasty. It is illogical to say so, and the reasons for my argument are clear.
The Manchu Qing was also a conquest dynasty. The Great Manchu Qing Empire was not at all the same thing as China. China was merely a part of the Great Manchu Qing Empire. The Manchu Qing, through to its final days, used the terminology of imperialism and colonialism in its Tibet policy. For example, at the turn of the 20th century the Manchu Qing official Zhao Erfeng (趙爾豐) proposed that they ought to deal with Tibet the way that Britain dealt with Australia, France with Vietnam, and the US with the Philippines. This language in and of itself proves that it was 100 percent colonialism. These materials from Zhao Erfeng are all in Chinese. You can see from books published in the mainland. Chinese scholars can see immediately that this is an imperialist, colonialist way of thought. Today people think of “empire” as a bad thing, but in Zhao Erfeng’s time “empire” wasn’t a pejorative. All it meant was “we conquered you, you lost to us, and now you must submit to us.” Back then “empire” signified greatness. So there was no need for acrobatics, like “we are a great Chinese nation” or “we’re one big family.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the British and French sailed on the Pacific to China. The Manchu Qing officials they met along the coast had already become Sinicized, and everywhere they saw “Great Qing” written in Chinese, so foreigners didn’t understand the difference between the “Manchu Qing” and “China.” But in Inner Asia, the Great Manchu Qing Empire was what it was. The Russians for example knew the difference between the Great Manchu Qing Empire and China. Since the Manchu Qing managed relations with Russia as well as with Mongolia and Tibet under the same ministry, the Ministry of Minority Affairs (理藩院), you can tell that it was an imperial mechanism. But the British and the French didn’t get it. They refer to the “Chinese Empire” in their official correspondence and treaties and so on, and the Manchu Qing emperor approved of this formulation.
But the Manchu Qing Empire was not China. This is indisputable among Western academics. Many scholars outside of China, including some Sinologists, call their studies the “New Qing Studies” (新清史). Fundamental to “New Qing Studies” is the recognition that the “Qing dynasty” was an “empire,” the Manchu Qing Empire. But the scholarly community in China is unwilling to accept this point. This is a denial of history; it is a false history.
Tang: Have you discussed the issue of Tibet and the Manchu Qing with Tibet scholars in China? What do you think are the differences between the Chinese and Western approaches to historiography?
Sperling: Because of current ideology, Chinese scholars not only cannot say that “the Manchu Qing is not the same as China,” but also must say that “China has been a multi-ethnic, unified country since ancient times,” that “they are all the Chinese nation,” etc. About four years ago, China went back to a theory from the 1980s, that is Tan Qixiang’s (譚其驤) theory. Tan compiled the Historical Atlas of China, and is perhaps viewed by officials as the greatest authority on Chinese historical geography. He wrote a paper on China’s historical territory arguing that China’s historical map ought to be based on that of the Qing dynasty at the height of its reign.[x] What this means is taking the map of the eighteenth-century Manchu Qing’s greatest territory to be “China since ancient times.”
Now if that’s so, shouldn’t Britain also be able to claim India, Australia and so on as its own? Western scholars generally acknowledge that historical territory changed, that it was once this way and is now that way. But not China. They count the Qing dynasty’s largest territory as theirs since time immemorial. As for when Tibet became part of Chinese territory, Tan Qixiang said, “Tibet has been China’s ever since there was human activity on the Tibetan Plateau.” He also had an explanation for the facts that Tibet didn’t belong to Yuan China and that instead they pledged allegiance to the Mongol Empire. The gist of his argument was: we shouldn’t speak of dynasties, for example that the Tang dynasty didn’t control Tibet. Instead, we should say that Tibet and the Tang are both China’s! We should say that the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Tang and Tibet, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, the Jin, the Liao… all belong to China! So he already warped the conventional conception of history. What a joke! Not one scholar outside of China would agree with this. I have never encountered this stance in the English-speaking world. But China pushes this stance, this bravado, this narcissism. I refuted this theory.
Furthermore, Western scholars don’t think ethnic identity is fixed. It can also change. For instance, what is the nationality of the French? The same goes for Americans. Since national identity is a product of history, it is also a product of human beings. We’re in Central Park right now. I see the people around us—people with different skin colors, of different races—as American. This is the American identity created by history and by people. But if you were to say that Asian people who arrived in America 200 years ago were also American, no one would agree. But China created the new identity of the one “Chinese nation” out of current political exigency, then stuck the historical background onto the Chinese nation. That’s a distortion of history. In Chinese academic circles, if you doubt the official position on the national identity of the Tibetans, you have separated yourself from the concept of the “Chinese nation,” and that’s a serious problem. When I was in China in 2001 a rather prominent Chinese scholar said, “Foreigners can say that, but not us. We don’t accept it.” Chinese academics are relatively progressive and open in other fields, like comparative literature and philosophy. They can have all kinds of theoretical debates. But not so in Tibet studies. You cannot argue about Tibet’s historical status. Because it is extremely sensitive, you aren’t allowed to have a theoretical debate. I have yet to meet a Chinese scholar who publicly denies the identity of the “Chinese nation.”
There have been great achievements in Tibet studies in China, and some really good scholars. But if you’re talking about the Tibet issue, they’ll go on about “restoring the great Chinese family” and such. If you’re talking about national identity, or historical identity, the Chinese have all kinds of untruths. It’s the same as it was in the 1950s. Yet this 50s scholarship still hasn’t decided on a pretext for [its version of] Tibetan history. There were also people in the 50s who said that Tibet became Chinese territory during the Tang dynasty, that Tibet has been a part of China ever since Princess Wencheng (文成公主) was married off to Songtsen Gampo. Of course Chinese scholars in the 1950s didn’t have much knowledge, and they didn’t really understand the Tibetan language. The argument that “Tibet became Chinese territory under the Yuan dynasty” came later. When I was in China last year there were still scholars saying that Tibet became a part of China under the Qing.
In 2011 I went to China to participate in a closed door meeting about “the Tibet issue and the image of the Dalai Lama.” You may have seen my lecture “Talking about the Tibet issue with Beijing.” When I was done there was a lot of excitement. They said, “We agree with some of Sperling’s points, but not this, not that… I thought about what they said. Yeah, maybe they agreed when I said, “Hi! I’m Elliot Sperling,” and “Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conference.” They may have agreed with me on those points. Otherwise, I don’t think we agreed on anything else. They asked me questions for two hours, but they weren’t real, challenging questions. In fact, you could say it was a struggle session. For instance, someone said, “I don’t accept your comparison of the Dalai Lama with Gandhi.” It was all questions like that.
China does, of course, have some really brilliant scholars. The Tibetan and Chinese sources I’ve mastered, they’ve read them, too. Obviously the books I’ve written about Zhao Erfeng and Tibetan historical geography can’t be openly published in China, but I know they’ve been translated for internal use by officials. They’ve definitely read them. But I’ve never seen anyone address or refute my position in academic journals.
I’ve also talked about Said’s Orientalism. In principle, Said’s theory of Orientalism is useful for China, since mainland scholars like to use “Orientalism” to counter Western criticism, to cast Western criticism of China as Orientalist. Said’s book Orientalism is published in China. Mainland Chinese academics also use Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West to chastise Western scholars for their “Shangri-La-ist” view of the Tibet problem. But Prisoners of Shangri-La can’t be published publicly in China. It’s also only circulated internally. Why? Because in his book, Lopez also criticizes China for what he sees as ruthless domination of Tibet.
Autocracies don’t tolerate dissenting opinions. They use the police and the courts to control dissent. Scholars within China’s [party-state] system can’t just speak on the Tibet issue whenever they like. It’s too sensitive. Different voices—Ilham Tohti, Tsering Woeser, Wang Lixiong and other dissident scholars and writers—could topple the great tower of rewritten history and historical theory that China has built.
Tang: You studied Chinese in Taiwan. Have you had any connections with Taiwanese scholars of Tibet? How do they see the issue of Tibet’s status?
Sperling: I haven’t been to Taiwan in over 20 years. My impression is that there are some Tibet scholars there whose Tibetan is fairly good, but they’re mostly focused on religious studies. The people studying Tibetan history and the Tibet issue mainly use Chinese sources. I was in Taiwan in the 1980s, when the country was still under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang. The KMT’s view of the Tibet problem is the same as the CCP’s. The KMT has different policies and handles Tibet differently, but in terms of Tibet’s historical status, they are in agreement with the CCP. Taiwanese history books generally say, “Tibet became Chinese territory during the Qing dynasty.” This is the official KMT line. They still want Tibet to be “a part of China.” The KMT still has a Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission.[xi] They still haven’t gotten rid of it, because they need it as evidence of “one China.” If they dissolved the commission and then Tibet wanted independence, it would no longer be Taiwan’s concern. I think the mainland doesn’t want the commission to be dissolved either, lest Taiwan take one step closer toward independence. The mainland used to call Chiang Kai-shek “Chiang the Bandit,” but now they praise him. The mainland government would rather the KMT keep its policy of “unification.”
Tang: Could you talk about any work you’ve done with the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala? Did the government restrict your research, or offer you support.
Sperling: I also disagree on some points with the government-in-exile. They say that the Manchu Qing didn’t control Tibet, the Mongolians didn’t control Tibet, that these were simply “priest-patron” relationships. This priest-patron relationship I’ll admit, but what exactly is it? These days a lot of Tibetans says that the emperor found Buddhism was a wonderful way to cultivate the mind and the spirit, as if the emperor were just a normal person studying Buddhism. Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. The emperor understood how to use Buddhism for control, for warfare, how to use the “gods” to defeat the enemy. It’s from this angle that I studied how the emperor observed Buddhism. During the Mongol Yuan, Kublai Khan had the same interest in Buddhism, a conqueror’s interest. Of course he thought he could use Buddhism as a means of subjugation. Besides, Buddhism had already spread to the nations under his occupation. I began to research the Western Xia (1038 – 1227) because the Mongols had learned from experience. Before the Tanguts were destroyed, lamas from Tibet came to the Western Xia capital. Tibetan documents record their activities, and I’ve read these sources. The emperor asked the lamas to perform a Mahākāla (Daheitian) kalpa (ritual), to use Mahākāla to resist the Mongol invaders. And it worked: after the kalpa the Tanguts defeated the Mongols in their first battle. This is recorded in both Tibetan and Chinese documents, and the Tibetan ones are more detailed. I’ve written about this in articles on the origins of Sino-Tibetan relations.
I’ve also contributed to the website Rangzen Alliance, like my article “Incivility.” These aren’t academic papers; they’re “good citizen” articles. A good citizen should have a critical eye towards society. I’ve criticized both the government-in-exile and the CCP, but the consequences haven’t been the same. If I go to Dharamsala and criticize the government-in-exile, no one will be hurt or killed. There’s no comparing the Tibetan government and the Chinese government. They’re completely different. But there are aspects of the Tibetan government-in-exile that need to be criticized. There are also Tibetans who say, “Why is he always criticizing the government-in-exile? Why doesn’t he call out the Chinese government?” Actually, I criticize them both, but the way I criticize each one is different. Also, the government-in-exile can’t restrict me in any way. It’s a government-in-exile. It has no sovereignty in India, so it can’t limit me. As soon as I get to Dharamsala I can use the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, as well as the Amnye Machen Institute, an advanced research institute. It’s private, non-governmental. The government has never given me any trouble in Dharamsala; I’ve also lectured there and in the Delhi Tibetan exile community. The government-in-exile never restricted me. As long as someone had invited me to speak, I could do it. Two or three years ago, I went to lecture at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, it was fun: when the library director introduced me, he said, “Last time he slammed us, he really slammed us! Hahaha.”
I’ve also criticized the Dalai Lama. There are some Tibetans who aren’t happy about this. I think if I were a Tibetan exile, this would pose a bit of a problem, but in the eyes of Tibetan exiles I’m a foreign scholar. There really are some Tibetans who don’t like me. But they don’t hinder me — it’s not like the Chinese government not letting me into the country. They’ve never kept me from visiting Dharamsala. They know I won’t live there permanently. After a few weeks or a month or two I’ll come back to America. I can’t say I’m a “veteran” foreigner in Dharamsala, but there are very few foreigners who have maintained ties with the government-in-exile from the 1970s to today. I guess I’m one of them. Anyway, they are happy when I criticize the Chinese government, but they aren’t when I criticize the government-in-exile. That’s about how it goes, heh heh. I call things as I see them, but a lot of people don’t like that. They think: well, you could be a little more diplomatic, a little more polite; you could change your wording here, correct that there. But keep doing this, you won’t even know what you believe anymore.
Tang: What’s your take on the “middle way” policy?
Sperling: The Dalai Lama is a great man, but in the end he is only human, who can make mistakes in his judgement like anyone else. In terms of the “middle way,” I really think he’s wrong. It’s just that a lot of people aren’t willing to come out and say so. I think because of the “middle way” policy, a lot of Tibetans in exile have given up hope. They won’t admit this hopelessness to anyone, so they have given up resisting and sought personal happiness. They think of ways to get an American green card, they think of ways to immigrate to Western countries. A lot of exiles are like this now. They say, “China is now the fantasy-China of the leaders in exile, the Tibet of the future is the fantasy-Tibet of the leaders in exile.” That is, a free Tibet cannot exist under communist rule that respects no human rights. They all know this, and I think that the exile leaders, in their heart of hearts, know this, too. The fight for a free Tibet is a just one, but now the exile leaders are making it pathetic.
Tang: Since 2008, a lot of overseas Chinese people have supported the “middle way.” What do you think about this?
Sperling: I think the factor that makes many Chinese support the “middle way” is the same one that makes the Bodpa support the “middle way.” It’s because the “middle way” is the Dalai Lama’s idea. In China a lot of people know who the Dalai Lama is. Although politically China condemns him, many people still view him as a “living Buddha.” I don’t like this title of “living Buddha”— there are a lot of Chinese people of blind faith. They say the Dalai Lama stands for the “middle way,” so they stand for the “middle way.” But they haven’t considered how illogical the “middle way” is. If they really thought about it, they ought to realize that the “middle way” can’t happen in China. It just can’t. The Chinese authorities really want the Dalai Lama to keep faith in the fanciful, hopeless, impossible “middle way.” They’re happy to see the Dalai Lama go on and on about the “middle way” with the international community, with people on all sides, because to them this is the ideal way for the Dalai Lama to waste time. They’re just waiting for him to die. Even though there are a few naive Chinese people who support the “middle way,” they aren’t the vast majority of Chinese. The vast majority of Chinese don’t think about the Tibet issue at all. There are some overseas Chinese who support the “middle way” not with regard to the Tibetans inside China, but to the Dalai Lama. They’re just like some of the Tibetans outside of China and some foreigners. What they support is not Tibet, but the Dalai Lama, they echo the Dalai Lama. They’re willing to see him as a god. And there are some people who support the Dalai Lama for their own kind of vanity. They use the Dalai Lama’s name to make themselves look good. These people aren’t just among overseas Chinese. There are Westerners like this, and leaders of the government-in-exile, too. They want to use the Dalai Lama’s name, so of course they “support” him. So it’s a sad situation.
The Dalai Lama and some Tibetans in exile say, “We have a lot of friends in China. The Chinese understand our position more and more.” I think this is completely wrong. Some people ask me, “What do the Chinese think about the Tibet issue?”I tell them that the average Chinese person doesn’t even think about the Tibet issue. It doesn’t cross their minds. But if something happens in Tibet, they just listen to what the government tells them. They say, “Didn’t we liberate Tibet? Then why are they betraying us? Why aren’t they grateful?” There are also plenty of people who will add, “The Tibetans are backward and savage. They haven’t developed.” The average Chinese person will only get angry at the government if the government’s interests conflict with their own. They have no civic awareness. If it doesn’t concern them, they don’t think about it, or else they’re afraid to get involved. They won’t think, “Why are there all these clashes between ethnic minorities and the government? Maybe these minorities have a point? In 2008, a lot of Bodpa had this experience in China: some Tibetans in Beijing faced all kinds of insults. Beijing cabbies would refuse to pick them up as soon as they saw they were Tibetan, and would even curse at them. There were hotels that wouldn’t let them in and told them “you aren’t worthy of the kindness the Party and the country has shown you.” Ordinary Chinese know in their hearts that it’s an authoritarian regime, but they refuse to listen, they refuse to think. It’s the same situation in Xinjiang. It’s the same for the Uighurs.
Tang: Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares up, there’s a big reaction from the international community, and sharp criticism of Israel. But it seems like there isn’t strong condemnation of China’s Tibet and Xinjiang policies. Do you think that’s so?
Sperling: Yes, it’s not that strong. I think at least it’s for this reason, that when the Dalai Lama says “we seek autonomy, not independence,” Westerners get confused and lose the direction or focus of their support.
Tang: There is a popular view among Chinese dissidents: they believe the Tibet issue has to do with the Communist Party, with human rights. Without democracy in China, Tibet can’t be free; but if China democratizes, the human rights issue would disappear, and Tibet would have no need of independence. What do you think of this?
Sperling: I think it’s still a “Great China” way of thinking. If the Tibet issue is “between the CCP and Tibet,” then how come the 13th Dalai Lama didn’t recognize Tibet as a part of the Republic of China? He fundamentally rejected the notion of Tibet being a part of China. The Tibet issue was influenced by the CCP later on, but at its root it’s not about the Party, it’s a “Great China” problem, a problem between China and Tibet. After the destruction of the Manchu Qing, the revolutionary party and the republic wanted to maintain the empire. They just changed the words they used: “We’re not an empire, we’re a multi-ethnic country.” This is Chinese chauvinism, the idea that the “Middle Kingdom” controls “all under heaven.”
Also, by emphasizing that the Tibet issue is a “CCP vs. Tibet issue,” doesn’t that upset the Dalai Lama? The Dalai Lama often says that he’s a Marxist and that he likes communism. So it’s contradictory for the Tibet issue to be an issue “with the CCP.” On the other hand, the Dalai Lama doesn’t really understand Marxism. When you hear him talk about it, it sounds like some kind of Christian movement that helps the people and so on. He doesn’t understand the Marxist view of history, he doesn’t understand dictatorship, class struggle — this is all Marxist theory. Of course, Marxism differs from Maoism. Marx’s theories are really interesting, but there are huge problems putting them into practice. All of the administrative systems in the world that call themselves Marxist are authoritarian, and none have any regard for human rights. Now the Dalai Lama says he’s not against Marxism. Even Lopsang Sangay has said that he doesn’t oppose communism or communist rule. If you’re not opposed to communist rule, does that mean you accept limits on human rights? Communism is not communism if it doesn’t strip human rights.
Tang: Do you think China’s denial of Tibet’s sovereignty is related to natural resources in Tibet and East Turkestan?
Sperling: I think at first it’s because of their view of history. The Chinese didn’t think about the issue of natural resources during the Xinhai Revolution [in 1911]. They just thought that they belonged to China. Even though they often said that “China was a semi-colony” etc. etc., they themselves fought for the largest colonial boundaries. India wasn’t a semi-colony, it was an actual colony. But they recognize their own history and acknowledge the changes to India’s historical borders. China’s colonial “wounds” were inflicted by other countries controlling Chinese territory, like the British in Hong Kong and Japan’s occupation of Manchuria. So China wants to recover all of its imperial territory!
Tang: I knew of you before as a Tibetologist and Sinologist. Recently, I learned that you’ve put a lot of effort into trying to rescue Uighur professor Ilham Tohti. Then, have you also done research on the “Xinjiang problem”? Could you introduce the work you’ve done on Xinjiang?
Sperling: I’m interested in China’s policies towards nationalities and the situation of ethnic minorities, but I’m not an expert on the Xinjiang issue. Ilham Tohti is a very important person. Look at Ilham’s website, “Uighur Online.”[xii] A lot of information about the Uighurs and Xinjiang was there. I first noticed him in 2009. Public Security had him and no one knew where he was being held, so I signed an open letter calling for Ilham’s release. But I didn’t meet him face-to-face until 2012. It was a truly happy occasion, and we became friends. I invited him to the US, to come to Indiana University as a visiting scholar in 2013-2014, for one year. But, as everyone knows, he was stopped at the airport and wasn’t allowed to leave the country. He’d already been under house arrest several times. He was detained this January . From that point until now, only his lawyer has seen him, and only once.[xiii] He’s in a terrible situation. They’re rough on him. Of course I’m worried about how they’re treating him. Ilham and I have talked a lot. I know he doesn’t support East Turkestan independence. Besides, he writes in Chinese. His Uighur is excellent, but he writes in Chinese. He wants his website and his writing to help Han people in China understand what’s happening in Xinjiang and what the Chinese government is doing there. He wants dialogue. It’s just like Wang Lixiong said: among Uighur intellectuals, Ilham is probably one of the few who doesn’t support East Turkestan independence. He wants dialogue, but have you seen how the Chinese government treats him? They say he’s a separatist, that he praises terrorist activities, and on and on. If this is how they treat someone who’s willing to have dialogue and compromise, then there’s no hope for the Uighurs.
Tang: Even though you’re not a Xinjiang expert, I still want to ask: what’s your general sense of China’s claim that “Xinjiang has been a part of China since ancient times”?
Sperling: First, this is how I see it: since 1949, so much blood has been shed in Tibet and Xinjiang. They’ve been under such brutal rule. Having gone through this, they should decide their future for themselves.
When people ask me if I think Tibet should be independent, I say, “It’s not for me to decide. It’s for the Tibetans to decide.” Of course I still imagine that if Tibet did gain independence, my greatest wish would be for Tibet and China to be equal, to have friendly relations. I hope they would both be democratic countries. And I hope that Chinese people would continue to go to Tibet, not of course to control their economy, but to travel, to study Buddhism, to help Tibet develop. I hope that Bodpa would go to China, too. I hope the Nationalities University would continue to exist. That the two countries would have a relationship of mutual benefit, and that they would both have seats at the United Nations. I don’t want hatred to linger between them. This is my sincere hope. I believe the future of Tibet should be decided by the right of national self-determination. Tibetan history is a great tragedy. Just based on this alone, the Tibetan people have the right to decide what kind of future they want.
Xinjiang is the same. They’ve been under the same kind of brutal rule. These people must freely express their own will. Without the pressure of an authoritarian system on them, they ought to speak freely. It’s their right. As for saying that Xinjiang is historically a part of China, obviously that’s twisting history. China says that artifacts from the Han dynasty have been found in Xinjiang, which proves that Xinjiang belongs to China. But you can find anything on any kilometer along the Silk Road. They’ve also found ancient Chinese coins in Rome. Does that mean that Europe belongs to China? That doesn’t make any sense. It’s the same as China declaring its right to the South China Sea, but in Xinjiang they’re even crazier. Over the past few centuries, Xinjiang has been most closely tied to Central Asia historically, culturally and politically. They didn’t have any connection with China. The Central Asian peoples were made a part of Czarist Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now, they’re no longer within Russia’s borders. Xinjiang’s history is complicated. You can’t say it’s belonged to China since ancient times. That’s Tan Qixiang’s “historical method.” History is always changing. The map we see today isn’t necessarily what it will be 100 years from now.
China labels the peoples of the territories as Chinese “ethnic minorities” just because China ruled over them for a few years or a few decades in the past. But this identity of “ethnic minority” is really problematic. “Ethnic minorities” were created by China alone. It’s not a natural classification. What is an “ethnic minority”? What are their characteristics? In fact, each group is different from the other. But if you look at sources from the 1980s about “ethnic minorities,” all they say is that they’re “good at song and dance” and are “colorful.” Besides this, for example the Tibetans, the Zhuang, the Yi, what connects them? What common features do they share? Language, culture, history? They have nothing in common.
According to the historical and cultural background of the Uighurs, they should be considered Central Asian. China has labeled them East Asian according to their modern history, but from a historical perspective, the Uighurs belong to the Central Asian cultural sphere. When Chinese officials describe the age of a Tibetan mural, or when a temple was built, or any other historical artifact, they don’t use the Gregorian calendar. They use the Chinese calendar system instead: this dates to the Tang dynasty, that to the Song, etc. They do the same in Xinjiang. We know that the native peoples of Xinjiang, their ancestors were Indo-European, Central Asian, and Turkic. They don’t consider themselves to be Chinese. Their languages are Indo-European and Turkic. But China’s logic is this: from the moment a Han Chinese person set foot in a place, it became a part of China. China argues the same point for its claims in the South China Sea. As long as Zheng He crossed that point, it belongs to China. This is bound to create conflict with other countries, and these conflicts have no logical basis.
Tang: Some people compare the Tibet issue and the Xinjiang issue to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do you make of that?
Sperling: There are those who say these conflicts are the same, but they really aren’t. Perhaps you could say a similarity exists: there are Westerners who support Tibet, but they don’t really understand the many aspects of the Tibet issue. It’s the same for the Middle East. A lot of people say they support Palestine, or that they support Israel, but they don’t arrive at these opinions based on nuanced understanding of the issue.
The problems in the Middle East are quite complicated. The Muslim world also has a tradition of anti-Semitism, though certainly not everyone is like that. In the past, many Muslims societies didn’t recognize the individual, only the ethnicity or the group. Certainly, Jews were persecuted. It was the same in the West. In history, Jews frequently faced pogroms and exile. In medieval Germany, there was an attitude that “the Jews want to get rich, so we must kill them. We can’t let them flourish.” I’m not saying that we should excuse Israel’s current policies. I’m not fond of Netanyahu, and I don’t agree with Likud’s policies. What I mean is, there are anti-Semitic forces in the Arab world, and the Palestine-Israel conflict isn’t one-sided. I must say that I oppose Israeli settlement on the West Bank of the Jordan. I also believe that Israel can engage [Mahmoud] Abbas in dialogue. He’s made a lot of compromises. In this respect he’s better than Arafat. But he hasn’t gotten the chance. This is a big mistake on Israel’s part.
But there are people who don’t consider the complexity of the issue, fantasizing Hamas. For instance, in Gaza, eight months after Israel withdrew—the borders hadn’t been closed—Hamas launched an attack on Israel from Gaza. No one seems to have noticed. But when Israel attacked Hamas, then everyone took notice. This explains the psychological element of why many people in the outside world support Tibet or Palestine. It’s about people and culture, but they’ve forgotten about the nature of the conflict. And I must emphasize, when I say this, it is not to excuse Israel. It’s similar to the Tibet problem. There are those who really don’t understand the complexity of the issue. Like when I criticize the Dalai Lama or the government-in-exile, they tell me, “You’re against Tibet, you’re against the Dalai Lama.” The truth is, our world is full of complexity.
The Palestine-Israel conflict is a real tragedy. The Jews and the Palestinians both have the right to build a state. Some aspects of the Tibet and Xinjiang problems are completely different from the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Han people aren’t fighting to exist. The Palestine-Israel conflict, by contrast, touches on the existence of two peoples. Of course they should both work to come to terms with each other, and both should admit the mistakes made on their side.
Now people generally find and accept simple viewpoints that they see on Facebook or Twitter, and they treat the Palestine-Israel conflict or the Tibet and Xinjiang issues simplistically, too. There are people who say, “All Uighurs are terrorists.” First of all, while we must acknowledge that there have been terrorist activities, that’s doesn’t mean that their struggle for freedom is a terrorist movement; second of all, the fact that some people used terrorist tactics doesn’t justify China’s suppression, just as terrorist activity among some Palestinians doesn’t mean that Netanyahu and Likud are right. And another thing. In Israeli society, there are people who oppose Netanyahu and Likud’s Palestine policies. They can protest and hold demonstrations. There are soldiers who oppose occupation and refuse to serve in the West Bank or in Gaza. Could any of that happen in China? But if you ask most Westerners, “Whose predicament is the worst, the Palestinians’, the Tibetans’ or the Uighurs’?” They’ll say the Palestinians’.
The Jews still face problems in the Western and Muslim worlds. For a lot of people who are anti-Israel—I’m not saying they themselves are anti-Semitic—their view on Israel is anti-Semitic. Recently I’ve seen a lot of anti-Israeli writing that actually says “kill all the Jews.” But look at what the Russians are doing in Ukraine right now. Is anyone saying to “kill all the Russians”? They reserve this language for Israel. They say it’s a Jewish problem. This clearly proves that anti-Semitism still exists in Europe. These people don’t admit that they’re anti-Semitic, but they don’t realize what their words represent. They’ve been influenced by a certain type of thinking in which Jews are especially bad. Of course, if you ask them directly if that’s what they believe, they’ll deny it. Before, they could express these ideas publicly because there was a social basis for anti-Semitism, and they didn’t have to hide their sentiment. Today, while they won’t admit it, they really have been influenced by anti-Semitism.
As I said, I dislike Said’s Orientalism. I think it’s simplistic. It makes sweeping generalizations about Westerners: Westerners are like this, so inevitably they are prejudiced, and elitist, too; they had to press imperialism on the “Orientals,” and it couldn’t have been otherwise; Western literature and art have all been influenced by this elitism, etc. etc. This is ideological, just like the CCP talking about “proletariat thought and proletariat morals,” the idea that every member of the proletariat is exactly the same.
What’s interesting is that Said isn’t willing to say who among those who are anti-Israel have been influenced by the Muslim world, and in which respects. Discrimination against Jews wasn’t all that bad in the Muslim world, even though there were some wealthy Jews, just like there were wealthy Jews in Europe. There are good people in the Muslim world, but there is also discrimination against Jews. I’m not at all saying that if a society is prejudiced, then every non-Jew oppresses every Jew; just as in the American South not every white person is prejudiced and violent against non-whites. There are also black people who have done well there, just like in the North. But they still live in a cruel, prejudiced society. So the situation isn’t simple. Said isn’t willing to apply this method of analysis to the Muslim attitude toward the Jews. There are those who say the Jews forced the Palestinians from their villages — that’s true. On some occasions it was because there was war, on others there was no good reason. It’s complicated; but the first expulsion happened in 1929 in Hebron. It was the Arabs expelling the Jews. They killed a lot of Jews, then forced them all out. Nobody talks about that. I’m not saying that we should excuse Israel’s policies, but Jews do have rights. This is also something they should consider.
What I mean is that the situation is incredibly complex, but people only want to see one simple side of it. Before 1967 Americans thought of Israel as good and Arabs as bad. Now it’s been reversed. People like to simplify problems. When I try to explain the complexity of these issues, people tell me, “Oh, you support Netanyahu.” In India there are Tibetans who tell me, “Oh, you support the CCP. You criticize us instead of them.” There are also people who say, “Sperling always gets a visa to China. He’s definitely a secret agent for the CCP!” It’s like one crazy person saying “Woeser hasn’t been detained? Then she’s got to be a secret agent.” Before he was caught, people said that about Ilham Tohti, too. Now that I’ve been refused entry into China, I wonder what they think about me being a spy, heh heh.
Tang: I heard that an interested party from China has approached you about “collaborative scholarship.” It seems they want to give you research funds. Did this actually happen?
Sperling: Now, this is a funny story. They wanted me to be a spy in the U.S. They said, “You’ve been involved with the U.S. government.” That’s true. During the Clinton administration I was on an advisory committee at the State Department. They said, “Shi Boling (史伯嶺), you know U.S. government officials, don’t you?” I told them, “Yep, I know a few.” They asked who, but I pretended that I couldn’t understand them and didn’t respond. Then they asked, “Shi Boling, you know the American government’s view on the Tibet issue and its Tibet policies, right? We’d like to ask you to write some reports for us.” I feigned misunderstanding again. I said, “I’m very open-minded on the matter. You can look online and see what I think. Everyone knows.” They said, “no, no, we need you to give us an exclusive report.” I said I couldn’t, I refused. This happened in 2010, when I was in Beijing for a conference. I reported it to the US embassy. I told them I’m American, that people in China asked me to be a spy for them back in the U.S. The business cards they gave me were from the Institute of American Studies at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences. Someone told me it was fake. A few of them, including their boss, invited me to dinner. We had a private room. You know how it goes in China: baijiu, drink, drink, bottoms up, bottoms up… after that I went back to my hotel room.
The next day the conference attendees were taken to visit a few Ming dynasty temples just outside of Beijing. They also treated us to dinner along with two or three other foreign scholars. It was a big banquet. Among the people soliciting me was a man who had all these Tibetan images of the Buddha, very valuable. After the banquet he asked us to go look at his collection. I got back to the hotel around 11 p.m. I was going home the next day. But the phone rang. It was one of those people from the banquet. He said, “Shi Boling, we’d still like to chat with you.” I said, “I’m sorry, it’s very late, I’d like to sleep.” They replied, “Then how about we meet up tomorrow?” I said, “I’m leaving tomorrow” and hung up the phone. They called again at seven or eight the next morning and asked if we could meet. I said, “But I have to leave today,” and hung up. Ten minutes later, they called again: “Hey Shi Boling, we can take you to the airport.” But Woeser had already agreed to take me to the airport. I refused and told them a friend was taking me. I didn’t want to linger in the room any longer. I left the hotel right away and waited for Woeser at a Starbucks nearby.
My guess is this: the first time they asked me to dinner, when they wanted me to write “exclusive reports” for them and I rebuffed them; they hadn’t brought up money. Maybe they thought that was why I had refused. So the next day when they kept pursuing me, it could have been to talk about money. In 2011, when I was a visiting scholar at Peking University, they found me again. The same people asked me to dinner and continued to press me to work with them. Slowly, cautiously, they felt me out. They said, “We’d like to invite you to our office. Think about it. If you’d like to come over, let us know a few days beforehand.” I thought: does their office even exist? Do they need me to tell them in advance so that they can buy office furniture and find some actors to be secretaries? Ha ha. In 2012 I went to Beijing for an international conference at the China Tibetology Research Center. I got there a few days early to show my daughter around the city. I didn’t tell any of the other scholars about our trip. But again I got an email from them saying they knew I would be at this conference and that they wanted me to contact them. The night before the conference they sent another email asking for my cell number. I told them my SIM card was having issues in China, and that if they wanted to meet with me they could find me at the conference. They didn’t show up. Here’s what I think. Maybe there’s a “capitalist” competition in Chinese intelligence. If they want funding from the relevant bureau, they might say, “We want to work with Shi Boling” or some such. It doesn’t matter whether or not I agree to cooperate, but they want to get funding this way. This is my guess. I don’t know what’s really going on.
[i] Throughout the interview, Professor Sperling used the Tibetan words Thubhothi (Tibet) and Bodpa (Tibetan person), rather than the equivalent Mandarin terms, Xizang (西藏) and Zangren (藏人).
[ii] Jamyang Norbu is a Tibetan writer in exile. He was a member of the Tibetan guerrilla group known as Chushi Gangdruk (1958-1974) at their base in Mustang, Nepal. He created the “Green Book,” the Tibetan government-in-exile’s tax system, which has financially supported the government since 1972. He also founded and directed the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala. Norbu moved to the US after living in India for four decades. A supporter of Tibetan independence, Norbu has written a number of books and articles in both English and Tibetan, including the 1989 political commentary Illusion and Reality. His 2000 novel The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (published as Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years in 2001 in the US) won India’s Crossword Award for English Fiction and has been translated into more than ten languages.
[iii] Thubten Jigme Norbu (1922-2008), also known as Taktser Rinpoche, was an author and activist devoted to Tibetan independence. He was a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University’s Department of Central Eurasian Studies. He was also the oldest brother of the 14th Dalai Lama.
[iv] Because the recording is unclear at this point, I am unable to hear the name of Sperling’s other advisor.
[v] Early Ming Policy toward Tibet: An Examination of the Proposition that the Early Ming Emperors Adopted a “Divide and Rule” Policy toward Tibet. Indiana University dissertation, 1983.
[vii] “The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics.” Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2004.
[viii] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3. For a more complete list of Sperling’s publications, see Roberto Vitali ed., Trails of the Tibetan Tradition: Papers for Elliot Sperling, Dharamsala: Amnye Machen Institute, 2014.
[ix] “Tibet and China: The Interpretation of History Since 1950.” China Perspectives 2009/3.
[x] Tan Qixiang, “China in History and China’s Historical Borders” (speech delivered at the May 1981 Symposium on the History of Chinese Ethnic Relations, available online)
[xii] Uighur Online, or Uighurbiz, was launched in 2006 and permanently shut down in January, 2014, after the arrest of Ilham Tohti. Over the years of its running, it was repeatedly suspended or attacked, and because of it, Ilham Tohti became a target of intense pressure from police.
[xiii] I interviewed Sperling on July 27, 2014. At that point, Ilham Tohti hadn’t been sentenced yet. Six months later the Urumqi Intermediate Court convicted him of “separatism” and sentenced to life in prison. He is being held at the Urumqi Number One Prison.On March 31, 2014, PEN International gave Ilham the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.A number of international figures and organizations have nominated him for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, including the Dalai Lama and Elliot Sperling. On October 11, 2016, Ilham was given the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. Sperling, who has doggedly supported Ilham, went to Geneva with Ilham’s daughter Jewher Ilham to receive the prize.
Tibetan History Inside and Outside China by Prof. Elliot Sperling at Charles University, Prague, November 11, 2016.
Between China and the World: Issues in Tibet’s History by Prof. Elliot Sperling at the University of Zurich, November 17, 2016.
Chinese original 《唐丹鸿：2014年对美国藏/汉学家埃利亚特·史伯岭教授的访谈》
June 6, 2016
China Change just marked its third anniversary on June 4, and here I am, writing you our second “Dear Subscribers” letter. It’s a relief that I don’t have to explain what we do at China Change, as you know us well enough, and value us enough, to have us delivered to your mailbox. It’s an incredible honor.
Over these three years we have made over 300 posts, all original content. We have steadily grown in viewership and repute. People keep telling us the work we do is important — and we agree, or we’d be doing something else.
Our most popular posts reach 10,000 page views, and our less popular ones have a few hundred page views. But the value of a post is not always in the number of clicks.
The last time I looked (in late March), we were read in 195 countries and territories. I couldn’t believe it: Are there that many countries and territories in the world?!
We see China Change as a public service, and just like any service, we have strived to give our readers satisfaction, both in information and style, and we hate to waste your time.
But before we are a service to our readers, we are first of all a service to the dissident and activist community. Yes — China Change is for “them,” and they know it, even though they may not read us as attentively as you due to language obstacles.
In our reporting and translation, we hold ourselves to the highest professional standards.
As we grow, our advocacy has also grown organically beyond the website itself. Take Ilham Tohti, for example. As the only website that translated a body of his work and interviews, we moved on to take part in a campaign to nominate him for the Sakharov Prize. Similar examples abound.
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, China Change has been around for three years. But we are in need of additional help to maintain a healthy operation, and to do a few extra things that we have learned to do well.
In this letter, I want to make an appeal particularly to those among you who are affiliated with organizations that support human rights. A small grant from you will go a long way for us. We run a tight ship, and we make a strong impact — so be assured that your gift will be well spent.
I look forward to hearing from at least one or two of you!
Yaxue Cao, founder and editor
(Overworked, tired, I forgot to sign off the first email.)
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two)
June 4, 2016
Wu: Another find that was very exciting was to discover the chief of staff of the 38th Group Army’s 1st Tank Division. This chief of staff led the spearhead of that tank division, the 1st Regiment of armored infantrymen and the 1st Regiment, the very first tanks to arrive in Tiananmen Square, including the three tanks involved in the massacre at Liubukou. This chief of staff was eager to carry out orders and show his “politically correctness.” In all the military propaganda materials celebrating his “heroic achievements,” he was only ever referred to as “Chief of Staff Yan.” They described how he repeatedly ordered for forcing advancement, and his troops shot dead a student attempting to obstruct them outside Beijing Broadcasting Institute (now the Communication University of China). So I had a very strong wish to identify this chief of staff. But despite countless searching, I had never found the man’s name.
There were a total of five regiments in the 1st Tank Division. The 2nd and 3rd tank regiments, and the artillery regiment, were led by the division commander and political commissar — they were the remaining units that followed. The division commander and political commissar acted completely differently. Like a lot of the other martial law troops, they encountered obstruction and interference by citizens as they advanced toward Tiananmen, but they weren’t willing to smash through and hurt people. So they simply stopped, and only arrived at the Square on June 5. They didn’t participate in the clearing of the Square, and had no involvement in the massacre.
A Taiwan publishing house is going to put out the Taiwanese version of The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth this year, so I made a round of revisions for that, correcting a few minor errors, and also did some more searching for a few tricky pieces of information that I had never been able to solve. The name of Chief of Staff Yan was one of them. As I searched, I came across a Yan, the division commander of the 38th Army Group’s Sixth Tank Division. My intuition was: this is my man! Yan Hongji (闫红计) is his name! I was able to confirm the connection with more searching. I’d poured countless hours into figuring out this person’s name and whereabouts, and in this round of revision I found the answer. I was so excited. This happened not long ago.
CC: Mr. Wu, you often refer to the book One Day During the Martial Law (《戒严一日》) in your book about the troops. Can you talk a little about this book?
Wu: One Day During the Martial Law was edited by the PLA’s General Political Department and published in 1990. This is the most valuable official publication about the Tiananmen incident. It consists of two volumes and was an anthology of over 100 articles by as many authors, all of whom are named along with their service post and military rank. Each of the authors records their participation and experience in the enforcement of martial law. Some of them write about how they helped the common citizens, others discuss their marching into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. Among them there were commanders and political commissars of army groups, but also regular soldiers. Apart from a few policemen from the Beijing Public Security Bureau, the vast majority were all soldiers and officers involved in martial law. The value of each piece is different, but overall this book provided many leads and clues for my own research. From a historiographical perspective, the official documents are extremely accurate, better than individuals’ memories, when it comes to times and places, although other details of the events may be concealed or distorted.
Not a month after this book was published in 1990, it seems that the military realized that it revealed too much, so they retracted it, making it a “banned book.” Later they published an “abridged edition,” which was shrunk into a small pamphlet with huge chunks deleted.
CC: I assume it goes without saying that you consult the full version.
Wu: Right. In early 1990 when I’d just arrived in Hong Kong, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Contemporary Monthly (《当代》) Ching Cheong learnt about my interest in researching and recording June 4, so he gave the book to me. He was once the Beijing bureau chief of Hong Kong’s Wen Hui Bao (《文汇报》).
CC: You mentioned another book, Defenders of the Republic. Tell us about it.
Wu: This is official propaganda material, also published between the latter half of 1989 and 1990. A year after the June 4 incident, this form of propaganda was put to a stop; evidently an internal decision was issued to cease it, because they knew there was nothing glorious about it, and it would only draw more criticism. On June 4, 1990, Yang Baibing (杨白冰) and the General Political Department wanted to put on a massive celebration, but Li Ruihuan (李瑞环), the then head of Communist Party propaganda and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, dissented. Yang was furious. Li said that it wasn’t his order, but from the top — from Deng Xiaoping, obviously. So from that point on basically all celebration and propaganda about the suppression vanished from official sources.
The sub-title of Defenders of the Republic is A compilation of the deeds of heroic troops and model soldiers enforcing martial law in the capital — that’s the kind of book it was. There are about a dozen or so similar books. I asked friends in Beijing to dig them out for me. Some were brought over to the U.S., other were scanned and sent.
CC: Out of the 200,000 martial law troops, you verified and listed the identities of over 3,000 soldiers in your book The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth. You’ve taken an enormous amount of time to identify them, and yet it’s only 1.5% of the total. Why did you put so much time into finding and verifying these names?
Wu: Of the hundreds and thousands who experienced the June 4 massacre, I may be one of a few who has a background in historical and documentary research. From the perspective of recording history, to ensure that a massacre like this is properly recorded, we must have the victims, as well as the perpetrators. Since the Communist Party’s founding of its regime, a huge number of people have died in its political movements. For instance, in just the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries in the 1950s, official figures say that 2.4 million were executed. Is there a name list of these 2.4 million people? No. Who sentenced them to death? We don’t know that, either. The political campaign closest to June 4 was the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and official Communist Party documents acknowledge that it was a “calamity,” and vaguely say that millions of people suffered unnatural deaths. But who are they? Wang Youqin (王友琴), who also graduated from the Chinese Department at Peking University and who teaches at the University of Chicago, has been searching for victims of the Cultural Revolution for the last two decades — her record is still extremely limited.
I feel that when it comes to June 4, if I don’t do this kind of recording, then with the passage of time the massacre will become just like the Cultural Revolution, or any other political campaign, and end up with no legitimate historical record.
In The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth, my chief task was to search out information about the perpetrators. The work of the Tiananmen Mothers for so many years has been to seek out and record information about the victims. They have a list of those who died in the massacre, and so far have recorded and verified the names of 202 victims. This is still quite far from the real death toll, but the work they’ve done has already been extremely difficult.
CC: Let’s not forget that these 200,000 martial law troops are a huge group of witnesses, and most of them are of the same age as the student protesters. When we say “the 1989 generation,” we have to keep in mind that they are the other part of the 1989 generation. Are there any in their midst who have spoken out about June 4?
Wu: Yes, they are indeed a huge group of witnesses, but so far, only two out of the 200,000 have come out, using their true identity, and spoken about their experiences. One is Zhang Sijun (张四军), a soldier with the 54th Group Army and now a veteran living in his home province of Shandong. He has been detained several times and harassed for speaking online about 1989. According to my research his testimony isn’t that valuable, but morally, it’s significant. If a large number of them testify, we would know so much more about the massacre.
CC: Imagine a few thousand of them doing this.
Wu: The other is Lieutenant Li Xiaoming (李晓明) , who headed a radio station of the Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. He was what we call a “student-officer” who enlisted after graduating from college. Following his discharge, he went to study in Australia and became a Christian. He held a press conference and spoke about his experiences. It is from his testimony that we learned about another general who disobeyed orders, in addition to Xu Qinxian (徐勤先), the commander of the 38th Group Army.
That was Xu Feng (许峰), commander of the 116th Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army. I had done so much research, and I discovered the passive resistance on the part of General He Yanran (何燕然), the commander of the 28th Group Army, and Zhang Mingchun (张明春), the political commissar, but I had known nothing about the division commander. Because of his refusal, he was disciplined and discharged after June 4. I have wanted to know his whereabouts and what happened to him, but I have never found any more about him despite my efforts.
CC: What about the commander and the political commissar of the 28th Group Army?
Wu: They were both demoted and removed from the combat forces. Zhang Mingchun was demoted and reassigned to deputy political commissar of Jilin Provincial Military Command, and He Yanran the deputy commander of Anhui Provincial Military Command. Zhang Mingchun died a year after being demoted.
CC: This is probably a no-brainer question, but I’ll still ask anyway: Have you received any comments, publicly or otherwise, from the PLA after you published The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth?
CC: I’m sure there are reactions that are just not reaching you.
Wu: They would definitely purchase the books and give them to certain people to read. Not no one has told me anything. On the other hand, the authorities haven’t come out to say: this book is wrong here and there, or it’s nonsense.
CC: I saw some news on Twitter a while back saying you’d be taken “ill” for a while. Can you talk about that?
Wu: I worked at the Press Freedom Herald for 15 years and then wrote for 10 years, and I’ve always been healthy. I fell ill for a period because of the emotional and psychological toll of my work. There’s a famous saying about 1989: “Dare not forget; don’t dare to recollect.” I had been immersed in everything about 1989 for more than two decades. I’ve collected a photo gallery of 9,000 images, each one of them full of blood and passion. Take the clearing of Tiananmen Square: When I was writing about how 11 students were crushed by tanks at Liubukou, an incident I personally witnessed, tears would stream down my face, and I would crying bitterly by my desk. Finally, beginning in the latter half of 2010, while I was going over the draft manuscript of my third book, something went wrong — I succumbed to depression.
My original plan was to publish it in May of 2011, and I knew that I had to work every day in order to meet the deadline. But every time I opened the computer I just sat there in a daze. I couldn’t write. I’d go out for strolls, or chat idly with friends, but I couldn’t enjoy distraction either, and had to return to my desk. This dragged on for a long while. So I had to stop working and think of a way to solve the problem.
In addition, a lot of my friends know that I’d been paying out of my own pocket to get these books published, and relying on meager royalties to get by. It wasn’t easy. Emotionally, I’ve been separated from my family, and especially my mother, for 22 years. It’s hard to put into words how much we missed each other. She knew my situation, and never said anything disheartening in all my years calling her. She’s never said: Son, I miss you, I’m old, come back and see me. She’s never said that. So when I found myself unable to work, I said to myself: I need to see my mother; it’s been 22 years, she’s 85 years old. Maybe I’d be able to write again after I got back.
Up to that point I had not taken up American citizenship, nor had I planned to. I always wanted to be a Chinese citizen, and record this massacre as a Chinese citizen; oppose dictatorship as a Chinese citizen; and contribute to democratization of China as a Chinese citizen. As a historian, my PRC citizenship had an added significance. Young people might dismiss my old fashioned sentiments. But in the end, in order to go back and visit my mother, in late 2010 I decided to become an American citizen. After that I quickly got my American passport.
CC: How about the visa?
Wu: That’s another story. In order to stop people like me — who are banned from the country — from getting a foreign passport and coming back in, the Chinese authorities required all ethnic Chinese, whether mainlander, or from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Singapore, to submit their original passport when applying for a visa after becoming an American citizen. That’s how they would get your original Chinese name.
I spotted advertisements in the World Journal for a service to handle Chinese visa applications. I picked one and called the number. Sure enough, they accepted cash, and they took care of the visa. It wasn’t cheap: for $1,200, I could get a visa without having to provide an old Chinese passport.
I picked one of the services. A male clerk asked me a few questions, and then got down to it: are you involved in politics? I said nope, that I’m a Wenzhounese who got smuggled into the U.S., and that I didn’t have a passport at the time. Wenzhou was a known source of illegal immigrants. I was accompanied by a friend who also came from Wenzhou, so we chatted in Wenzhou dialect. He believed the story and asked me to write down my Chinese name. I came up with Wu Yanhua (伍彦华), matching Yenhua Wu, the English spelling of my name — it was spelled this way on my documents when I left Hong Kong in 1990. He asked nothing else: no address, phone number, or reason for visiting. When I got the visa two weeks later, I was worried it was fake.
Over all these years, my mother had never asked me what I was doing overseas, what book I was writing, but she knew because the younger generations in the family would find out and tell her. At my mother’s home, I accidentally found my first two books under my mother’s pillow. I’d never seen a book so dog-eared and used, with the pages worn yellow. I could imagine my mother, in the dead of the night, missing me terribly, going over the pages again and again. In the preface to the first book I dedicated it to those who died, and also to my mother. I had resolved not to shed tear on my visit, but I broke down seeing those two books.
CC: You can’t go back anymore?
Wu: No. Now that they know, they won’t give me visa anymore.
CC: My last question has to do with Wang Weilin (王维林), the Tank Man. There have been different versions of who he is. What’s puzzling is that, so many years have passed and the image has become so iconic — how could there be no information about this man whatsoever? I want to hear your take on him.
Wu: As long-time researcher on 1989, of course I’m very interested in finding out who he is and what happened to him — the man in the white shirt and shopping bag in each hand who, on the morning of June 5th, stopped a formation of tanks. Wang Weilin, as many believed, is not necessarily his name. Videos show that he was spirited away by a few men off the street. For many years the story went that he was dragged away by good people and once on the sidewalk disappeared into the crowd, and safety.
But a couple of years ago, an academic specializing in body language studied the video and concluded that those who took the Tank Man off the street were not ordinary bystanders, but trained personnel. He believed that the Tank Man fell into the hands of the Chinese military or police.
When this analysis came out, the Voice of America was very interested and consulted me for my comment. In their studio in Los Angeles, I watched the video over and over again. It was a couple of seconds longer, and revealed the scene: there was nobody on the sidewalk, and dozens of tanks were parked in the area. That means that it was an area secured by the martial law troops, and there could be no large crowds anymore. I had to agree with that professor that the Tank Man ended up in the hands of the soldiers or the police.
We already know that protesters who were captured after the clearing of the Square were beaten badly with batons or the butts of rifles. For example, Gao Xu (高旭), a student of Shanxi University who was captured on June 5, was tied to a pillar at the Great Hall of the People and beaten so badly he ended up blind in one eye.
In the case of the Tank Man, he was seen as highly provocative in that he not only tried to stop the tanks, but even climbed on one. So he would be treated even more brutally in the hands of the troops. My sense is that he was probably beaten to death. Otherwise, in the age of internet, we would have heard something.
CC: Recently a friend said that they’d heard from a credible source, that at the time of the June 4 massacre, the PLA had killed students in the parks near Tiananmen—Zhongshan Park and the Worker’s Cultural Palace. I momentarily thought of Wang Weilin.
Delving deep into the full truth of June 4 is still such an arduous task, so we thank you so much for your studies. I agree with Mr. Yan Jiaqi’s assessment: This isn’t merely the pursuit of one individual, but a contribution to all of China.
Yaxue Cao is the founder and editor of this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
The Road Home Is 22 Years Long, January 15, 2013.
By China Change, published: February 25, 2016
Retired Chinese real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang (任志强), known as “Cannon Ren,” fired at Xi Jinping after Xi’s tour of China Central Television. Xi Dada’s opinion warriors are now all over him, outdoing one another to see who can work themselves into the biggest frenzy. – The Editors
The first article in the attack against Ren Zhiqiang, “Why Must Netizens Teach Ren Zhiqiang Lessons About the Party?”, appeared on Qianlong.com, a website sponsored by the propaganda department of the Beijing Party Committee. Then it was republished on the website of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and the Cyberspace Administration of China. The author, Li Jiming (李吉明), is a member of the Party and a former “National Excellent Teacher” who now serves as an official in the organization department of the Fengquan District Party Committee in Xinxiang, Henan:
On the morning of February 19, CCP Central Committee General Secretary Xi Jinping made an inspection tour of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, and China Central Television. That afternoon, General Secretary Xi hosted a conference on news media work at the Great Hall of the People, where he emphasized that party- and government-sponsored media are battlefronts of the party and government’s propaganda work and must be considered part of the “party family” . . . .
Despite its short length, the slogan “party media belong to the party family” is actually a very clear statement of the responsibilities and mission of today’s media to set the direction of news and opinion. But as all news practitioners begin intensively studying and implementing General Secretary Xi’s words and making it their duty to build a harmonious and united media environment, there are some “party members” who have no consideration for party spirit and who don’t obey the party’s constitution and disciplinary rules. Instead, they spout nonsense, give distorted interpretations, seek confrontation, and spoil everything with their antics.
For example, the night after General Secretary Xi’s speech, Ren Zhiqiang—known widely online as a “Big V” [i.e. influential] opinion leader and “outstanding member of the Communist Party”—posted on Weibo: “When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government’? Does it run on party dues?” Then he wrote: “This isn’t something that should be changed so casually!” “Don’t use taxpayers’ money to fund things that don’t provide them with services.” Shortly afterward, Ren Zhiqiang again exclaimed: “Have we split completely into two camps? Once all the media is part of one family and stops representing the interests of the people, then the people will be cast aside and left in some forgotten corner!”
As soon as Ren Zhiqiang posted these things, he was immediately attacked and ridiculed by many people online. One netizen even went so far as to point out Ren’s errors in posts under the heading “Teaching Ren Zhiqiang About the Party.” In them, he criticized this “outstanding member of the Communist Party” for not knowing that a defining characteristic of the Chinese Communist Party is that the party and the people have always been consistent and united, for being unaware of the fundamental relationship between the party and the government, and for failing to understand that, as the governing party, the Chinese Communist Party occupies a leadership role throughout society. Ren’s ignorance on these matters is utterly ridiculous!
As a party member and “Big V” opinion leader, Ren Zhiqiang not only fails to understand that “there is no concept of the party that is removed from the concept of the people, and the people are not separate from the party”; he’s even forgotten the substance of Xi Jinping’s speech on “maintaining the spiritual unity between the party and the people.” In his attempt to please the public and seize attention by providing distorted interpretations, smashing the cooking pot [from which he eats] and pushing the wall [i. e. confronting the authorities], he has let his party spirit die out and his humanity run amok.*
The same day, another critique was posted on Qianlong.com titled “Where Does Ren Zhiqiang Get the Nerve to Oppose the Party?”:
Commercialization of the media has inevitably confronted it with problems of survival. As competition has intensified under market forces, it’s easy to wind up in a situation where you cozy up to whoever feeds you. Especially since the recent rise of social media, some traditional media have been facing serious challenges. In response, media outlets resort to unscrupulous methods of seeking profit and spread rumors and publish clickbait to increase their hit counts. They keenly wallow in the cesspool of the false, ugly, and harmful in order to attract attention and are willing to become the running dogs of capitalism for the sake of advertising revenue. Just consider the recent cases of fake reports by New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou, the case of 21st Century Media’s CEO Shen Hao (沈颢), the punishments for executives at People’s Daily Online, and that presenter at a certain television network who tweeted support for Tibet independence and the democracy movement. All these demonstrate how some of our media and media practitioners have already lost their party spirit and abandoned their mission of serving the people and become slaves to money.
If the media doesn’t get clear about whom it serves, it can never be truly for the people. By emphasizing the party spirit of the party media, we also emphasize that it is for the people. The essence of Comrade Xi Jinping’s speech is the unity of the party and the people. How can Ren Zhiqiang turn such a simple and clear principle into opposition between the media and the people? Has Ren Zhiqiang forgotten about the line in the party constitution about “persevering in serving the people wholeheartedly”? We have to ask, where does a party member who gives no heed to the party constitution get the guts to brazenly oppose the party? Where does Ren Zhiqiang, who likes to phone leaders at all hours of the night,** get the “courage” to object like this?
For those members of the capitalism-restoration gang like Ren Zhiqiang, after they seize control of capital resources they try to use that capital to control the political regime. Their goal is to take the Western constitutionalist road and finally realize a long-term position for their capital. During this process, they use their resources to control the media, which they use as a crucial bully pulpit to prepare and arrange public opinion for capitalism. How did the former Soviet Union fall? First to fall was the media. We should take a lesson from others’ mistakes: when the party media starts disregarding the principle of party spirit and no longer belongs to the party family, then everything’s bound to become part of the “capitalist” family.
It’s inevitable that those of Ren Zhiqiang’s ilk would get all worked up over the emphasis on “party media belong to the party family,” since this undermines their efforts to methodically topple the system. This is a battle for position along the media front. Gunsmoke fills the ideological realm. It’s a non-stop bayonet fight. Faced with this gang of public intellectuals who tries to chip away the system every day, we must use the principle of party spirit and the idea of serving the people to strengthen our barricades. For too long our media haven’t dared to promote party spirit, as if doing so might be seen as a violation of so-called freedom of the press. However, if we remain faithful to the general principle of serving the people, what’s to fear from being a “member of the party family”? As for Ren Zhiqiang, there’s no need for us to teach him anything more about party spirit. Eventually, this “Cannon Ren” who speaks for capitalism—this “outstanding member of the Communist Party” who separates himself from, and tramples over, the people—will sooner or later turn into a dud.
On February 24, commentator Wang Dehua (王德华), who writes for Xinhua, Global Times online, and China Youth Daily online, published a piece on China Youth Daily online titled “The Sinister Intentions Behind Ren Zhiqiang’s Idea of ‘Party vs. People’”:
As a party member, Ren Zhiqiang ought to have a deep understanding of the unity between party spirit and the people’s spirit. Our party is of the people and for the people, and it relies on the people. To be part of the party family is to be for the people, so if the media is part of the party family then it, too, is for the people. This is as provided in the PRC constitution. This made-up idea of “two camps”—of opposition between the party and the people—is an attack on the fundamental structure of the Chinese polity.
For Ren Zhiqiang to so brazenly oppose the party’s policies and plans clearly falls under the category of improper discussion of central decisions. To negate the media’s membership in the party family is to eliminate the party’s right to ideological leadership. To concoct this idea of “opposition between party and people” is to break up the revolutionary camp; at its essence, it challenges the party’s legitimacy. The cannons may be pointed at the media’s relationship to the party, but if the media is not part of the party family then, based on the mistakes of the past, China’s collapse will be not far behind. Ren Zhiqiang’s speech threatens the nation’s political security and is a violation of the National Security Law. To tear apart party, government, and people like that is the stuff of Western constitutional democracy.
On February 25, the news portal of the party committee and provincial government of Jiangsu published an article under the name Mao Kaiyun (毛开云) entitled “Ren Zhiqiang is the Shame of Over 80 million Party Members”:
Ren Zhiqiang is a classic member of the “Red Second Generation.” He grew up under the party’s loving care and later grew rich under the party’s wise leadership and correct policy direction. There’s a saying: “He who drinks the water shouldn’t forget he who dug the well.” But Ren Zhiqiang is an ungrateful person—he knows neither where he came from nor where he’s going. Ren Zhiqiang was born in 1951 and has already retired. That someone of his age doesn’t yet understand the basic principles of life shows that his condition is incurable. For many years, Ren Zhiqiang has been unaware of the kind of path he’s been following. He surely could talk about business as a businessman, but the things he has been saying about the housing market and property development make officials really angry and leave ordinary people desperate. Who’s to blame when he angers people at both ends?
For the past couple of years in particular, Ren Zhiqiang first challenged the central leadership of the China Youth League, saying that we’d been misled for over a decade by their slogan of “We’re the successors of Communism.” Now he’s gone against the central leadership of the party, hollering: “When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government’? Does it run on party dues?” Ren Zhiqiang could have taken the easy, sun-lit path; instead, he insisted on taking the dark and difficult path. Now that he’s reached the end of that path, people are asking: “How did Ren Zhiqiang turn out this way? Is this worthy of his ‘Red Father’ and his ‘Red Family’? How could such a ‘Red Family’ produce such a degenerate?”
Faced with “Where Does Ren Zhiqiang Get the Nerve to Oppose the Party?” “Why Must Netizens Teach Ren Zhiqiang Lessons About the Party?” “Ren Zhiqiang, Have You Forgotten that Line in the Party Constitution?” “Sorry, I’m Unwilling to Call Ren Zhiqiang ‘Comrade’” and other denunciations, not only does Ren Zhiqiang not recognize his errors; he’s actually chosen to consult with legal specialists and wants to sue the authors of these pieces, the website on which they’re published, and the institutions that sponsor those websites! However, people truly don’t understand: what’s he going to sue them for? It’s all nonsense! What’s more likely to happen in the end is that Ren Zhiqiang sends himself to prison!
Ren Zhiqiang hasn’t responded directly to the attacks and threats made against him, but netizens consider this February 22 Weibo post to be a kind of reply: “A board of directors is empowered by shareholders to manage and run a company on their behalf. But the company still belongs to the shareholders, not to the board of directors. Everyone knows that!”
Over the following two days, his Weibo appeared as if nothing had happened. But he quoted a few lines from the classics, perhaps as a form of response:
You can split the rock, but it will retain its hardness; you can grind the cinnabar, but it will retain its redness.” — Annals of Lü Buwei
When the arm of the scale extends without favoring one side or the other, you call it balanced; when a guideline extends without being crooked, you call it correct. — Huainanzi
On February 25, Ren’s regular Weibo was blocked, and he sent a message through what looks like an alternative account of his: “I woke up this morning to find that my Sina Weibo had been blocked, so I came here to say Hi.”
*This is not a mis-translation: the author seems to imply that Ren’s free expression of humanity is a result of loss of loyalty to the party. He can’t be more correct: Loyalty to the party kills humanity. – The Editors
**In his memoir, Ambition and Elegance (《野心优雅》), Ren Zhiqiang writes: “In the autumn of 1964, I was admitted into the Beijing No. 35 Middle School. This school’s most famous graduate is Wang Qishan, who was a student political counselor during my second year of middle school. He himself was about to graduate from high school and was the student political counselor who stayed with us for the longest. I kept in touch with him while in school, when I went down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and after I returned to Beijing to work. To this day, he will still occasionally call me in the middle of the night.”
A New Regime, Not a New Country, By Ren Zhiqiang, October 3, 2015.
Liu Shihui, human rights lawyer, September 16, 2015
The Chinese stock market crashed again today (September 15), with multiple market indices reaching their yearly lows. As they plummeted, Xi Jinping’s dream of a heavy-handed market rescue was irreparably shattered.
As the economy enters a quagmire, Li Ka-shing (李嘉诚), the richest man in Asia, and many other tycoons are pulling their capital from China. Xi Jinping now has no means of restoring prosperity, and in the midst of internal and external pressure, the Party is trying to drive exports to Europe and America. The hope is that exports will inject some energy into the stagnant Chinese economy, stirring up modest signs of life.
At this point, the Chinese Communist Party isn’t feeling as confident as it was during the American subprime crisis in 2008. Back then, it was America asking for the help of the cashed-up Communist Party—now it’s the reverse: the American economy is marching along nicely, among the best in the world, and the U.S. Federal Reserve is about to raise interest rates, perhaps as soon as the end of this month. In this scenario, Xi Jinping’s visiting the U. S. feels to some extent like a trip to get help.
Inside China, the Party has not in the least slowed its pace of political repression—it’s kept up its campaign to suppress, crackdown, and annihilate those who fight for a liberal democratic society. Dark clouds loom above China, foreboding doom. The United States is the lighthouse of freedom and democracy for the world, but under the Obama administration it has been too accommodating, even appeasing, to the regimes that act like rogues and hoodlums in the international community. Almost the entire Western free world, including America, has been led by the nose by the Communist Party’s checkbook diplomacy. They’ve become weaker and weaker in defending human rights, and have become feeble in holding to and promoting their own values of freedom and democracy.
I recommend that in conducting great power diplomacy, the Obama government again take up the cause of freedom and democracy, look far ahead into the future, and don’t allow the glittery promises of wealth from a dictatorship muddle your priorities. Indulging a dictatorial regime and pursuing only profit may indeed bring near term benefit, but it’s a poisoned chalice, apt to harm both one’s own country and the other over the long term. In the end, it won’t be only the regular folk under the violent dictatorship that eat the bitter fruit of this union; the Western world will also find it hard to emerge unscathed.
The above remarks are my personal views. If they reached the Obama administration, I would be pleased beyond measure.
Liu Shihui (刘士辉) is a Guangdong-based lawyer who has taken on a number of prominent rights cases, including that of activist Guo Feixiong. Liu has had his license to practice law revoked for his activities, and in 2011 was detained and tortured for 108 days by security police.
From China, Messages to President Obama Before Xi Jinping’s Visit (2), Jiang Tianyong, September 17, 2015.
The Court Statement by Guo Feixiong
Translated by Louisa Chiang and Perry Link, published: November 28, 2014
According to the defense lawyers, the trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng was forced by the court to conclude at Beijing time 2:50 am, November 29, in Tianhe Court, Guangzhou. Despite repeated interruptions by the head judge and denial of his right to make a closing statement, Guo Feixiong defended himself forcefully and eloquently. China Change is pleased to present his court statement in full in English. – The Editor
1984, Orwell’s masterpiece about totalitarianism that could have been a blow-by-blow script for the People’s Republic of China, also happens to be the year that launched my personal journey as part of China’s movement for freedom and democracy.
That year, on a blustery, chilly night, in a café on the campus of East China Normal University (華東師範大學) in Shanghai, I had the good fortune to hear an old man speak. The lines of his face were as rugged as if hewn by a blade, and his short, thin frame was almost entirely muffled in a gray trench coat. In sharp Mandarin with a southern Chinese accent, he was criticizing Deng Xiaoping, then the top leader in China, for being a dinosaur, for stifling thought, and for suppressing the creative freedom of writers at the slightest provocation. I had arrived in Shanghai from a remote part of Hubei Province less than three months before. This venerable old man was Wang Ruowang (王若望), and this was the first time I ever saw anyone lambaste the supreme leader by name in public. The impact on me runs so deep I cannot describe it.
Shanghai in that era was experiencing an “Indian Summer” of unprecedented freedom for the expression of liberal ideas. Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), an enlightened politician, had reversed a political pendulum that had swung to the extreme left and had declared at the Fourth Congress of the All-China Writers’ Association that the Communist Party would no longer interfere with creative freedom. Liberal-minded professors, intellectuals and writers were full of impassioned thoughts and words on politics and philosophy. In seminars, academic conferences, salons and cafés, they called for free thought and political reform. It was as if an invisible hand was guiding them to vie with one another to show who could bring more novelty and depth to the introduction of modern culture and thought and who dared most to give voice to the need to oppose dictatorship and fight for democracy. Wang Ruowang was one of the boldest of the free-thinking writers.
To be honest, these sowers of freedom, and their peers all around China, may not have been as expert in their academic disciplines as they ought to have been. Yet the way they wrote and acted was reminiscent of the dauntless and passionate thought of the French Enlightenment. Theirs was the idealism, innocence and simplicity that characterizes the original human spirit and that set the tone for the democrats who followed them. I personally owe my awakening to this Indian Summer in China. I gained much from the bold, open and diverse views that were expressed. As a student of philosophy, I drew from the theoretical riches of the Chinese and Western classics; my character and political tendencies are entirely a product of the free spirit of the 1980s.
I heard Mr. Wang’s speech at a time when I was wending my way through a variety of political discussions and seminars. From the sidelines, I watched a soccer-fan riot, strikes at dining halls, and other outbreaks of the restless young. Those were years when people found the confines of their post-totalitarian life increasingly unbearable. An impulse for direct action grew among the students and finally exploded in the student protests of December, 1986. Shanghai was at the center of those protests.
The demonstrations of December 22, 1986, marked the first time I joined an independently organized and high-risk democracy movement. I clearly recall the nerve-wracking moment when a few of us, banner in hand, suddenly faced several thousand young workers who rushed forward, with thumping strides, to join us. Such a public assembly would have been high treason in earlier times.
I was already teaching at a college in Wuhan (武漢) when immense waves of protest in spring, 1989 inundated China. I acted out of my sense of duty as an intellectual that year, just as I had in 1986. In the years that followed, I returned several times to Wuhan and would linger at sites where I had spoken in public. Sometimes particularly dangerous moments came back to me. I recalled a time when, rallying to a student’s sudden yell of “Charge!” (a vestige of the military propaganda films we had grown up with), hundreds or even thousands broke into a run. In an incredible, surreal moment, the bridge over the Yangtze River began to sway under our feet and twist like a snake. Deep inside I understood that my life was inexorably tied to the era of Tiananmen.
The massacre of students and other young people in Beijing who were protesting peacefully on the Boulevard of Everlasting Peace (長安街) on June 4, 1989, was one of the most grotesque events in human history. It cleaved Chinese society irreconcilably from its government. At that moment I decided never to compromise with the autocrats who had slaughtered innocent citizens and to throw myself into the work of bringing freedom and democracy to China to the full extent of my abilities and of the will of heaven.
Censorship and draconian social control prevented people from learning until much later how, from that darkest moment onward, many intrepid souls, each on his own island, began as if by agreement to explore and build an opposition movement. Within the next decade or so, my generation of activists tried a number of peaceful tactics of resistance, like the mythical Chinese emperor who tasted every herb for the first time and unlocked the secret of medicine. In the late 1990s, liberalism as a system of political thought seeped deeper into China, and after that the thinking of democrats reached maturity.
As the millennium dawned, the Internet, out of the blue, came in to connect the long-isolated activists to one another. From 2003 to 2005, constitutionalist liberals founded the “rights defense” movement, which provided for China’s political opposition a highly original, homegrown and ineradicable path on which to grow and expand.
On January 28, 2005, Fan Yafeng (範亞峰) and I joined several others in attending the farewell ceremony in honor of the former Secretary General of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), who had been ousted and held under house arrest until his death because of his support for the 1989 protesters. Hugging a large photo of Mr. Zhao to my chest, I left the ceremony with a heavy heart. A throng of policemen was on the other side of the street. I turned back toward the funeral home and asked Fan how many people he thought had been there. After a pause, he answered that it looked like at least two or three thousand.
Fan and I had been meeting with others on how to promote effective connections within civil society. We noticed one major difference from the 1980s: the commemorations of the reformist politician Hu Yaobang in 1989 had been open and legal, but in order to attend Mr. Zhao’s funeral, people had to register using their government-issued IDs as police looked on. The uncertainty of such exposure, like the sword of Damocles, kept many people away. Still, several thousand people braved the odds to attend. To us, this proved that moral courage was returning everywhere, and we had new hope for the future of the democracy movement. Responding to this subtle political signal, we decided to take a series of steps to try to push the movement to a new stage.
Within half a year, an unprecedented number of groups were formed for political and legal action. This development showed the spiritual ties between the Tiananmen protests and the new rights-defense movement. Activists drew their strength from their shared tie with the towering figure, Hu Yaobang, who died with his character unsullied by betrayal.
We worked together within the law (which the government was obliged to pretend, at least, to recognize) to defend political and human rights and raise democratic awareness. Everything we did was completely open. We kept no secrets. We supported landmark cases, including Cai Zhuohua’s (蔡卓華) imprisonment for printing Bibles and the collective efforts of Taishi Village (太石) residents to impeach corrupt officials. The impact of these cases was magnified by the Internet, where they won broad sympathy and support from society at large. As participation grew, hunger strikes emerged. With the help of courageous human rights lawyers, citizens at the grassroots fought back, drawing attention to wrongs they had suffered and using political means that not long before had been unthinkable. The tide of this movement brought the political opposition back from the margins, making it once again central to the spiritual life of civil society. Terrified, the post-totalitarian machine sprang into action, and crackdown followed.
As a founder of this movement as well as one of its foot soldiers, I came into the line of fire several times. From April, 2005, until now, I have been criminally detained four times and jailed three times, for a total of five years. I was taken to six detention centers, evenly split among the provincial, municipal and district levels. The police have interrogated me more than two hundred times, which is probably some sort of record. Sometimes they had other prisoners carry me, more than once a day, and faint from hunger striking, on a stretcher to a room where they tied me to an iron chair. My five hunger strikes lasted 3, 59, 24, 75, and 25 days respectively, for a total of 186 days.
My extreme fasting struck a chord within the liberal camp and set a sort of example for the relay hunger strikes in 2006. One friend, though, a secular humanist, told me that he did not understand what I was doing. “We who believe in liberal democracy call for humanism and rational self-interest,” he said, “but you are always starving and putting yourself through the wringer. This seems shaky on humanitarian grounds and in any case cannot accomplish much.”
I did not want to resort to high-sounding principles so never formally responded to his criticism. Over time, I stopped keeping diaries of my strikes, writing memoirs, or publicly encouraging others to fast. But when occasions arose, I still did strikes on my own.
Why? Why fast and insist on fasting? My answer has always been the same: a hunger strike is not only a strong voice of protest against political persecution in a totalitarian system, but also address of the highest ideals that reside within myself – the ideals that I am serious about what I am doing and am loyal to the cause of freedom and democracy. Fasting keeps my mind free from the danger of taint.
The prototype for hunger strikes is the self-mortification of monks, who challenge the physical limits of the human body in order to pursue ideals. Like theirs, my fasting is safe and under control. Its process is dignified. After my first hunger strike, I was struck by how dazzling white the walls around me were, which I had until then looked at but never saw. It was then that I understood the inner purity of true believers. Suddenly I, who had been enmeshed in the pettiness of daily life, had the chance to cast it off and seek that purity. The clarity that protracted physical deprivation brought to me gradually helped to purge me and to help me reach an inner purity.
The system of free democracy that we aspire to transcends our personal destinies of success and failure. This is the sacred nature of this earth, which transcends the earth and rules it at the same time. The price that I pay to immerse my life in this movement is worth it. Perhaps not always, of course – and yet each fasting brings an experience of sustained euphoria, when I feel how truly fortunate I am to be sharing or projecting the spirit within me. Its bright image provides ultimate and pure joy. In our transient and prosaic life, what can eternity mean? Eternity is just such moments.
I never urged other people to join any of my longer hunger strikes. The rule for the 2006 relay hunger strike was that each person fasts no longer than 48 hours. This was not because I believe fasting to be against human nature. It is not. It is a powerful means of peaceful resistance, a show of inner strength for democrats, and a testimony to responsible suffering. It contains an idealism that is inherent in humanity and natural law and that is implicit in individual freedom, autonomy and the sovereignty of the people.
Our generation faces ubiquitous political terror imposed by a regime that has a rare record of brutality. This is why we need to draw upon the ideals that lie within each of us in forceful and disciplined ways. This is rational self-interest. Democracy is not opposed to passions, self-interest, and materialism; it is about accommodating such things and setting rules for them. The democracy movement is there to awaken our awareness and agency as free human beings and citizens. My hunger strikes are my homework as a prisoner. They purify and motivate me. I cherish this personal experience and its political ideals.
When faced with interminable interrogation by police and secret police, I provide almost no information. Because I keep silence and refuse to cooperate, my interrogators have used excessive force on me and have resorted to many forms of torture. They have tasered my head, hands, shins, thighs and private parts in sequence, yelling things like “You were offered parole and you said no! You prefer jail and making the Communist Party look bad! We’ll see who is the real SOB here – you or the Party!” Their torture aims at coercing a confession in court, where they want me to admit that I am wrong to oppose the Party and that I will give up the fight for democracy of my own free will in exchange for parole and for getting my university job back. Their broader intent is to undermine the image of the rights defense movement and to demoralize civil society by getting a few “standard bearers,” as they put it, to accept parole. Later generations might find it hard to imagine that in 2007 an honest commitment to promote democracy by going to jail was such an arduous thing to attempt.
For thirteen days and nights, they put me through marathon interrogations and denied me sleep. For forty-two days, I was reviled, beaten, and shackled, with the shackles nailed to a bed. My hair was plucked out. Once my torturer applied a high-wattage taser to my groin. To defend my dignity as a man, I had to confess to the utterly groundless accusation of an “illegal business operation.” I barely escaped the fate of my cellmate, whose penis was zapped to a blackened smear. The next morning, in fury and pain, I threw myself headlong toward the window and then the wall. Death was to be my protest. I survived, fortunately, but after Chinese New Year, the taser shocks resumed.
Through all of this, including the torture, I held to two principles; don’t abandon ideals and don’t betray anyone. Eventually, my interrogators were impressed and relented somewhat. Put to draconian tests, treatment hardly in keeping with peacetime, I stuck with precepts I had learned in childhood. I can smile and tell others and myself that my behavior under duress was consistent with being a human being. I have not wronged others. That is enough. I have lived.
It has been said that it is easier to go to your death in a surge of courage than to submit to a sacrifice that is slow and drawn out. In fact, sacrifice is not the hardest thing there is. After your eyes close and your body is destroyed, your spirit can endure forever. The endless physical and mental agony imposed by unbridled violence, which leaves you drained of life and denies you the relief of death, may be harder to guard against than the choice of self-sacrifice.
I do not use my personal choices as benchmarks in the judgment of others. People who compromise temporarily under pressure and return to the path of righteousness later have my wholehearted respect. Even those who break down and capitulate should not be judged harshly. The horrors of my experience have made me more tolerant and understanding of the hard choices that everyone confronts. Only when we offer our understanding and support can victims recover their mental health and dignity. We should save our condemnation for the perpetrators, the people who deny their opponents dignified prison time and dignified death, who trample such dignity underfoot. We should never use philosophical contortions to rationalize the bestiality of totalitarian rule.
In 2007, the security apparatus gave up on interrogating me and sentenced me to five years in prison. I had thwarted their aim. However weak my pushback, it stuck in their craw. Meanwhile, for democrats generally, it was a flourishing time. Hu Jia was struggling against the tide, Gao Zhisheng’s human rights work was showing tremendous courage, and Zhang Zuhua and Liu Xiaobo were mobilizing intellectuals to give voice to constitutional reform. Both Hu and Liu received prestigious prizes from the international community. Since then, China’s multipolar opposition movement has come back stronger after each crackdown, and this fact is deeply unsettling to the rulers. I would like to think that the resultant “butterfly effect” contains a few flappings of my own wings.
Today, with the exception of Wang Gongquan (王功權) – an activist in the New Citizens movement (新公民運動) who is known as “the conscience of the business world” – and the Three Heroes of Chibi – Huang Wenxun (黃文勳), Yuan Xiaohua (袁小華) and Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), who have to date been detained for fifteen months without due process or indictment – the honor of imprisonment is no longer so hard to attain. Dozens of democrats have won it in smooth processes that include few surprises.
The mental and physical tortures that are used to extort confessions, grotesque and fantastic in their variety, are on the wane. Even though the practice persists, the brutal powers that we contend with must feel a bit of shame over their vicious acts. Our dream, passed from generation to generation among activists, to see “the prisons overloaded with conscientious objectors,” is nearing realization. Our faith is that totalitarianism, which negates so completely the humanity in its minions, will one day be driven from the earth.
During my challenge to the government and the tumult of my arrest and imprisonment, my wife and children have suffered the most. On the morning of March 10, 2006, when Taishi village residents were running for People’s Congress, my wife was stopped by secret police on her way out to buy groceries. When I went out to reason with the agents, they beat me up and left me with a bloody face. When I took my ten-year-old daughter and five-year-old son to buy books, several secret agents took turns taking photos and videos of them on the bus. They did this obtrusively, making an intimidating show for other passengers to observe.
My daughter, older than her brother, came to know fear. One day, when the four of us went out for our regular morning exercise in a small nearby park, six or seven agents followed on our heels, speaking loudly in Cantonese. My daughter kept turning her head to watch them, her little face terrified. She whispered to me, “Daddy, this is all your fault! Your fault!”
I felt too pained to say anything. Over the last eight years, this scene has played over and over again in my mind.
In the spring of 2007, Guangdong security agents who were interrogating me threatened that, if I continued to refuse to confess and accept parole, my son would not be allowed to go to elementary school and my daughter would be assigned to a middle school far away. When she goes to high school, they continued, the computer will assign her to a rural school from which she will not be admitted to university. I had no reason to doubt them. I knew the rules they operate under and knew their track record.
On February 8, 2006, I went on a hunger strike outside the gates of the State Council building. I did this to protest the threats to my children’s safety, to protest a police shooting of several innocent farmers who had been protecting their land from illegal seizure, and to protest curbs on press freedom in the case of Freezing Point magazine. I was detained, and then, from prison, could no longer do public protests.
On November 14, 2007, the Tianhe District Court (天河區法院) announced my five-year prison sentence. As I was being taken away, I turned and asked my wife, who had been allowed to attend, “Is our son in school?” She said no, they won’t let him go. At the Guangzhou municipal detention center, I tossed and turned that night, barely able to sleep at all. A few days later, a cellmate who had been sentenced for white-collar crime suddenly asked me, “Dude, how come that whole patch of your head turned white?” I did not quite believe him. There was no mirror in the cell, so I could only ask other cellmates to take a look, and I believed the story only after everyone said the same thing. Then, for the first time, I knew the ancient tale of Wu Zixu (伍子胥) – whose hair turned white overnight in flight, after his entire family was executed by the king – might not be imaginary.
The man who had discovered my white hair appeared to be in his fifties. I told him about the fate of my son. At first, he merely shook his head: there should be no way something like this can happen in this day and age. I explained what happened in detail. He had a good opinion of me and came to believe what I was saying. This white-collar criminal, who during his childhood had been ruthlessly persecuted because he came from a landowner family that had been labeled as “class enemies,” suddenly fell to his knees and covered his face, sobbing without a sound. I did not cry when they turned my son out of school, but this man did. Although I did not cry, my heart bled. In the year that followed, a voice inside kept reminding me, “Things cannot go on like this; I can’t sit by and watch the future of my children be destroyed; I must act.”
This was why, in 2008, I suggested to my wife, through the visitor’s window in Meizhou Prison (梅州監獄), that the three of them should find a way to leave China. It was a choice that a parent in my shoes had to make, hoping that his children could go to a free country where their right to education would not be blocked. With the help of several people, including the fearless Ms. Wang, my family made its way to Thailand. But there, their visa applications ran into unexpected difficulties; several Chinese who behaved suspiciously moved into their hotel; and they almost got run over by a mysteriously-driven car.
At this pivotal juncture, it was the esteemed Reverend Bob Fu (傅希秋), along with a wonderfully kind Christian woman from England, who took tremendous personal risk to bring my family to the United States. The United States government and people took them in and helped them. Schooling will never be a problem again. I am most grateful to all the people who helped us, and I thank the humanitarianism of the American government and the Christian Church. I shall remember their great deeds until the day I die. Through their help, I began to feel, in the most direct and deep way, how universal, selfless and noble human love is, and how generous democratic culture is. For me it was a kind of baptism.
After my release on September 13, 2011, I was finally able to communicate with my family through the Internet. My daughter sent me a comic strip she drew of her escape and her stay abroad. It shows how helpless and lost she felt, how hard it was to adapt to a different country, and how much she misses her childhood friends back home. As I read it, my tears flowed, on and off by turns, for three days.
I am a man, and I had never shed a tear over anything in jail, including my children. Yet when my daughter asked me, “Cried after you read it, didn’t you?,” I said I did. I cried a lot.
My daughter was no longer the baby who had once wanted me to hold and carry her. She was grown, indeed had grown tall. She was now proud and rebellious, and wanted to make her own decisions on everything; I felt she was drifting away from me. She began to harbor a resentment about all the love and obligation that I owed her as her father from my eighteen years of democracy work. She referred to this work every so often in a sarcastic way and rarely called me “Dad.” I feel pangs of pain inside but I didn’t know what I can do. I am flooded by guilt when I think about my family.
After release I was rearrested. Just a few months ago, on July 4, 2014, during visiting hours at the Tianhe Detention Center, my lawyer Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠) told me that my daughter had drawn my portrait. He said it looks a lot like me. In the picture, I am surrounded by mountains, and the caption, a Chinese proverb, reads: “Someone lofty to look up to.” This portrait was on display in a noteworthy building, as part of a campaign to rescue me. While I know I am far from deserving such a description, I do read a deeper meaning in what he told me. The revelation leaves me bright-eyed, as if I can see through the thick brick walls and sail through the open sky between us: My dearest child, I have once again won your love, and you have acknowledged it.
When I left prison in 2011, seeing how robust and widespread the struggle for freedom was, I felt unspeakably excited. My choice—there was no other—was to be part of this ferment. I worked alongside my peers; we took concerted action and nothing turned us back.
We experimented with the opportunity to support the anti-censorship efforts at the reformist newspaper, Southern Weekend (《南方週末》), and, proceeding with caution and peaceful discipline, to break through the limits on freedom of assembly. We also organized a signature campaign to demand that the National People’s Congress ratify the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We coordinated small-scale street protests in eight cities in support of ICCPR and the government’s anti-corruption policy. Both actions were part of our strategy to promote the drafting of sound laws and the abolition of harmful ones. This activity was a significant step forward in pressing against government red lines and in addressing universal values in civic action—not just protesting individual grievances. We made waves, and many others followed.
It is no surprise that the government construed these two political experiments as my crime of “disturbing the public order.” An ancient proverb laughs at the folly of “bargaining with a tiger for its skin,” but that is precisely the task we have to undertake. We need to force a totalitarian government to shed its tiger’s skin, resume its humanity, and return to us the rights that belong to us.
The sentencing that I will now be facing will be consistent with the government’s entrenched habits of persecution. I am very honored to have landed in jail for my work. I hope that more citizens will come forward to join the fight for freedom when they see the dozens of us who are in jail. For me personally, another stint in prison may help to cleanse and mend me in small ways. Regardless of how long my sentence is this time, the first thing I will do when they let me out will be to go out and support constitutional democracy through direct action.
For those of us who are committed to this cause, action is imperative. Only through action can we prove to history that we did not surrender our dignity to dictators. It is unacceptable that they should slaughter the innocent and enslave others. The chief and greatest punishment for totalitarianism is a thorough rejection of its rejection of justice and humanity. We believe that future generations will always make the same choices on the same principles. Outnumbered as we are, and Sisyphus though we may be (or the hero Kuafu who died chasing the sun), the prevailing meaning of our opposition movement persists in our refusal to give up or give in.
Another reason why action is imperative is that we need to show to others real-life examples of resistance that can encourage them to act on their own. During a transition we will need to prevent plutocratic groups from continuing the enslavement of the Chinese people by monopolizing political power for themselves. As civilization evolves, the culture of dictatorship and violence sometimes absorbs new resources and takes on new forms. Even after the dissolution of dictatorship, China could still face a tug-of-war between constitutional democracy with checks and balances on the one hand and Singapore or Russian-style “birdcage rule” on the other.
If Chinese democrats wish to avoid the strong-man or bird-cage scenario, whose legacy will be continued stagnation and unrest, we must be committed to working together and have the wisdom to build an independent and strong civil society that can balance the political power of the state. The end goal is a tripartite system where power is evenly distributed and transferred through institutionalized elections. Such a system best serves the sovereignty and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. Chinese civil society has reached the view that an opposition party is essential for bringing such a result about. Such an opposition party must act decisively, transparently and without guile, seeking round-table consensus, whether through a revision of the laws and institutions or by winning the sympathy and direct participation of the people. And its members must be prepared to bear the costs that might be inflicted upon them.
As an aging veteran whose life has been given to democracy, when I look back over the last thirty years, I truly feel that our exploration and toil have not been in vain. Our path is becoming ever clearer, and the horizons of our souls ever broader. To have had the opportunity to rush forward on the front line of the movement for freedom, tortuous as it has been; to have gone against the tide and borne the cost of doing so; and to have glimpsed the beauty inherent in my personal tragedy and in the sacred purity that is part of paying the price – these have been the immense good fortune of an ordinary man, whose feet are planted on the ground and over whose head the heavens arch, as conceived by our ancestors long ago and writ large in the Chinese character for “human.”
Yang Maodong (aka Guo Feixiong)
Lawyers Describe Trial of Guo Feixiong and Sun Desheng, November 28, 2014.
Meet Guo Feixiong, a profile by human rights lawyer Xiao Guozhen
Guo Feixiong: Willing to Be Cannon Fodder, Will Be a Monument, a profile by Xiao Shu