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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
By Frank Sieren, published: September 10, 2014
Chances are we will never get to know what really happened 25 years ago in Beijing. But a trace leads from Beijing to the peaceful revolution in the former GDR, says DW-Columnist Frank Sieren.
Just one month after June 4th incident in 1989, a high-ranking East Germany politician traveled to Beijing. His name is Günter Schabowski. At the time he was an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and a member of the central committee of Eastern Germany´s Politburo, the center of power of the SED. With him he had two orders from Erich Honecker, head of state and party leader: to congratulate the Chinese government for successfully cracking down on the counterrevolutionary movement. brotherly greetings from hardliner to hardliner so to speak.
On top of that Schabowski should “find out what really happened on the Tiananmen Square.” Not that the Politburo in eastern Berlin did not believe that Beijing had taken drastic measures; it didn’t trust the western media and saw them as instruments of propaganda. Schabowski therefore was sent to get an idea for himself about what had happened. Schabowski, son of a plumber, with a diploma in journalism who had risen steadily up the ranks within the SED, wasn‘t the only one in Beijing looking for first-hand information.
Quietly,US President George Bush also sent an envoy, Brent Scowcroft. But his mission was different. He was to assure Beijing that the USA would outwardly show its indignation but behind the scenes work on a fast normalization of the relations. The reason for the American message was simple: At the beginning of the 1970s Mao Zedong and the then US president Richard Nixon had allied against the Soviet Union, and Washington wanted to continue the pact, especially after Michail Gorbachev, the then head of state and the Party of the Soviet Union, had visited Beijing in May as the first USSR leader since the split with China in 1959. The Americans wanted to err on the side of caution, although Gorbachev‘s visit had not been a pleasant one for Beiijing.
Gorbachev: Chinese Leadership Has Lost Control
Because of the protests Gorbachev had to enter the Great Hall of the People through the back door. Instead of supporting the Chinese leadership, Gorbachev kicked Deng Xiaoping in the back. Assuming the wisdom of a western statesman, he told the Russian news agency Tass at the end of his visit that the Chinese leaders had lost control. This was a huge loss of face for Deng that definitely fuelled his decision to use military force to end the protests.
Erich Honecker, who had been angered by Gorbachev’s reforms for years because they made him look pigheaded, wanted to show his approval of Deng’s decision by sending Schabowski to Beijing. Schabowski met with the newly-installed CCP Secretary General and president of China, Jiang Zemin, who, formerly the party leader of Shanghai, had replaced Zhao Ziyang who had been dismissed for siding with the students.
Confession of Weakness
Jiang explained to his East German comrades that the military had cleared the Tiananmen Square peacefully and it was only in the neighboring streets that things got out of hand, and that about 400 people died when protestors and soldiers confronted each other. Schabowski was surprised that Jiang basically conceded that the bloodshed occurred because the leadership had obviously lost control over the situation. “That was a surprising confession of weakness,” Schabowski later recalled.
He noticed how uneasy the Chinese politicians he met were about the international condemnation after having been celebrated as exemplary reformers for just a decade before. So shocked and shaken was Jiang Zemin by the bloodshed of his own people that Schabowski refrained from relaying Honecker’s congratulations for “successfully cracking down on the counterrevolutionary movement,” Schabowski recalled. Jiang did not speak of the protesters as counterrevolutionary forces but only as confused students. From Jiang’s remarks, the visitor from East Germany neither confirmed the rumored news of a “massacre” in Tiananmen Square nor heard the assumed position of Beijing, that is, while restoring order, “unfortunately” there had been some inevitable casualties.
No “Beijing Solution” for Leipzig
Jiang’s tone had consequences for the German-German unification process that shouldn’t be underestimated, because a mere five months later the SED-Politburo had to decide whether it should bring in tanks against the protestors in Leipzig. Schabowski was of the same opinion as Egon Kgon, the head of the state and the Party, he says looking back, “one of the lessons from the events in Beijing was that we must not use military force against protesting citizens.”
The subdued tone of the Chinese leadership was confirmed by a third party a year later. In 1990, the then former chancellor Helmut Schmidt met with Deng Xiaoping, the first German politician visiting China in the aftermath of 1989. Deng also spoke about the muddle-headed students and he faulted the party’s internal division for the incident. Deng did not leave Schmidt the impression that he would like to do the same thing again. His main concern was how to bring China back to the path of opening up to the world. As a matter of fact: 1989 has remained a one-off in the history of the New China.
A Realistic and Fair View On June 4th Is Possible
Why is this historic episode so important? It shows a picture of June 1989 that is closer to the reality. It helps no one when the west lopsidedly exaggerates the events; it is just as shameful as the silence the Chinese government imposes on the incident of 1989. Both impede consensus, for example, the consensus that it is wrong and short-sighted to jail those who want to discuss the matter, even though a political party doesn’t want to comment on it. But this consensus is rather reached if [China’s] national security can´t claim anymore that it has to stop western exaggerations from agitating its own citizens.
The West has developed an understanding of the law and justice over centuries, and it is based on the onus of proof, which distinguishes between negligence and intent, between a single killer and a serial killer, and in which there is no place for guilt by association. We should stick to this principle even when we are outraged. It’s not about relativization of events, but about fairness even for those who have acted unfairly and still do so today, because only fairness of this kind gives power to your own values.
DW-Columnist Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for 20 years.
Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, Chang Ping’s rebuttal to this article by Sieren
(Translated by Florian Godovits. This is the first of three articles by Frank Sieren that China Change has translated from German to English to present the complete picture of the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate about the Tian’anmen incident and China in general. – The editor)
A short story by Yaxue Cao
(Originally published in the September, 2007, issue of Boulevard, an American literary quarterly.)
Six-Peace Restaurant stood at the end of a narrow road that had been built, apparently, for the Compound across the street, because the asphalt surface reached only to the front gate of the Compound, and beyond that, the road turned to dirt, leading to a field of debris and overgrown weeds. Across the field on the east, you could see the towers of the Asian Games Village where the new cityscape was unfolding. The restaurant adjoined a bicycle repair shop on one side and a hair salon on the other. It had about twenty tables, and was the only restaurant at this corner of the city’s northern outskirts, not counting a couple of tiny eateries in the outdoor free market at the entrance of the road.
I started going there, a book tucked under my arm, for lunch around two in the afternoons soon after I had moved to the Compound. At that time of day, the restaurant had few customers and sometimes none, and I liked to sit at the last table by the window. The owner was also the chef, a man in his mid-thirties, my age, slim, tall and erect. I read Proust while eating, his tentacles spreading themselves deep and wide the way the roots of a giant tree do. From time to time, I emerged from reading to watch the street scene (the sun was high and glaring, the din of life dropped a few decibels, but the two young soldiers guarding the gate of the Compound were meticulously upright as always) or the owner who was busy in the front (it was an endless chore to operate a restaurant, and the owner didn’t seem to have a helper, at least I hadn’t seen one). Perhaps because I was a woman and alone, the owner was extraordinarily polite to me every time I ordered or paid my bill and left. But I could tell he was a shy man. One day, he asked, while getting me change, why he hadn’t seen me in the area before. I said I had just moved into the Compound. My answer didn’t satisfy him. He went on asking, “Do you come from … the south…?” At this point, I told him I had just returned from the United States. “No wonder,” he said, smiling, “you look different.” Then he started apologizing for the homeliness of his dishes. I said my taste was simple and homely dishes were the best. I asked his last name, and he said Shang.
“Why come back?” Mr. Shang sighed when he saw me again. “How wonderful America is!”
Having exchanged names, Mr. Shang and I were on more familiar ground now. Halfway into my meal, he strolled to the back of the dining room and sat down two tables across from me. I pushed Proust aside.
I had been back for only a couple of weeks, and had been asked the same question several times already. My family asked, my college friends, whom I had not seen yet, asked over the phone, now even a stranger like Mr. Shang wanted to know. I should have prepared a standard answer, so I wouldn’t be at a loss again as I was then. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to answer. I had sensed, from people’s sighs or their pauses, some sort of reproach, as though I had done something stupid, or I was a loser, and had grown a little resistant to their inquiries.
“America is great, isn’t it?” He asked.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s a developed country after all.”
“I bet it’s not as dirty as here.”
I followed Mr. Shang’s line of sight and saw, outside the window, a small van had just hurled by, a cloud of dust swirling in its wake.
“Yeah, it’s very clean over there,” I said. “Not much dust, and the air is fresh.”
“Where did their dirt go? Don’t they have any?” Mr. Shang was bewildered.
“Dirt is everywhere on Earth,” I laughed. “Except that in America, wherever roads and buildings are not, there are lawns, natural vegetation or trees to hold the dirt.”
Mr. Shang looked like he had just heard some bizarre theory. Then he too laughed, “Of course, of course.”
He went back to his work in the front.
He was a Beijingese. One could tell from his accent. But otherwise he was rather atypical of a Beijing man. He was not glib as many of them were, and far from being caddish, he reminded me of a gentler, cultured kind that the bamboo groves and limpid streams of the south traditionally had produced. He was as busy as any restaurateurs, but he looked neither overly shrewd nor hyperactive as many of them were. This somehow gave me the impression that he was doing an unsuitable job in an unsuitable place.
I had not expected to see a city beyond my recognition. But that was exactly what happened. When I stepped off the plane and into the brand-new, spotless international airport, I thought, for a moment, I had somehow circled back to America. The airport I remembered resembled a country bus station, only bigger, more upscale and more complex. I could still recall the stench coming out of the toilets. Outside the airport, the taxi turned onto a new highway lined with meticulously ordered poplar trees. The flickering sunlight on the leaves evoked something familiar, but I couldn’t recall the old road anymore. Soon the skyline of the city came into sight. Before I could figure out where I was, the taxi had merged into an endless river of cars under the shadow of skyscrapers. I asked the driver where we were, he said, nonchalantly, “The Third Beltway East.” “Was there a Third Beltway?” I asked hesitantly. “Oh there was, but it’s completely different now,” the driver said. It dawned on me then that I had come back to a strange place. “You are not Beijingese, are you?” The driver asked. “I lived here before and left in 1990.” “That was six years ago!” The driver exclaimed, “it’s totally different now!”
The next day and a half, I visited my sister and a friend of mine, and rode through more streets that I didn’t recognize. The city did not become any more real. Instead, I grew more bewildered. The next evening I passed by the Gate of Heavenly Peace (or Tiananmen) and for the first time felt I had really arrived in Beijing.
A few days after moving into the vacant apartment my sister had in the Compound, I found an email service provider in the yellow pages called chinaonline. The next day I took my laptop with me heading to the Friendship Hotel, where the provider had its office, to install software. The streets now were filled with yellow mini-taxi and white mini-buses. Even outside the Fourth Beltway, where I was living now, I could get a mini-bus as soon as I reached the main road, a few minutes walk from the Compound. As new as I was to the city, I was already growing accustomed to the howling of ticket men hanging half their bodies outside the bus window beckoning passengers. I had already seen a lot of new buildings with ornate styles, such as faux Chinese palatial designs or imitations of Western grandeur. And I kept seeing more every time I went out. From the billboards on top of the buildings, another life enticed: a luxury car accelerating on an immaculate road in the midst of a breathlessly beautiful mountain forest; the Marlboro man on his horse at the edge of a cliff; a warmly lit chamber and sparkling chandelier; a dewy, red rose.
On the Third Beltway North, I transferred to another mini-bus whose destination was the Friendship Hotel. Before, when the municipal buses were the only transportation, they were always packed like cattle cars. Now, with the mini-buses, everybody had a seat. I sat comfortably in the back of the sparsely occupied bus as it turned onto the avenue leading from the Zoo to the university district, looking forward to see a part of the city I had traveled most and been most familiar with during my college years. But it soon became clear to me that, even here, I couldn’t recognize anything but the proper names. After a while, even those names started receding from familiarity.
Presently, the ticket man jumped off the bus and disappeared for about ten minutes to attend his own business while the bus and passengers waited. While he was gone, a middle-aged woman got on and sat in the seat right next to the door where the ticket man had been. He came back, seeing his seat had been taken, shook his head in disbelief and launched a torrent of invective.
“You fucking idiot! Are you blind? There are so many empty seats around and you, stupid bitch, had to take mine? …”
The woman quickly got up and moved to a seat across the aisle. Apart from her, there were only two other passengers—a man in the front holding a computer monitor on his lap and myself, in the back.
“Look at you! You imbecile from the province!” The ticket man continued still standing, still pointing his finger at the woman. “Have you ever been to Beijing? Have you, stupid?”
The woman said nothing, her head turning away toward the window.
“I’m going to give you a lesson today,” the man went on. “Listen, this seat belongs to me, your great-uncle! If I haven’t beaten you up, that’s because I’m merciful. Understand?”
I fidgeted in my seat, and could hardly stand it any more. The man with a monitor sat motionlessly like a rock.
“Anybody off?” The driver called out.
The door opened, and the woman bolted out. Then the man with the monitor got up and hurried off too.
I took out my sunglasses and put them on.
The bus moved a little bit further down the road and then stopped.
“Hey! You! Where are you going?” The driver turned around and shouted at me.
“The Friendship Hotel,” I said.
“There’s construction ahead, it’s hard to go through. You can get off here,” the driver said.
The ticket man was absorbed, counting money. I said nothing.
“Hey, did you hear me?” the driver called again, looking at me from the rear-view mirror.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, and I will not get off until I am there.”
“It’s not too far from here. You get off, make a right turn ahead, you walk a little bit, then you are there,” said the driver.
“No. Take me to the Friendship Hotel before I get off.”
“Why are you so stubborn? All I’m saying is that it’s hard to get through,” said the driver.
“I bought a ticket for Friendship Hotel, I get off at Friendship Hotel.”
The driver stepped on the gas, mumbling something. The ticket man had stopping midway from counting money and stared at me without saying a word. I could see him, but he couldn’t see me behind the sunglasses.
I was triumphant when I got off at the hotel.
Then I felt an urge to go back to look for that woman. I wanted to find her. I wanted to ask her name, where she came from and what she was doing in Beijing. I wanted to sit down and have a chat with her. I wanted to apologize for not having helped her, and I was ashamed of myself. But as I looked at the piles of dirt on the road, the traffic jam and the crowded skywalk behind me, I knew I would never see her again.
On my way back from the Friendship Hotel, I saw Luxurious View Villas again off the Fourth Beltway—a cluster of cream-yellow, two-story single houses. They looked like they had just been finished, and there was no sign of life yet. But I could imagine the swift-footed few, who made their fortune before anyone else did or ever would, would soon begin their new life there, safeguarded by the solid black iron fence around.
Six-peace restaurant was again empty. On that particular day, I felt like have a bowl of noodles with pickle sauce, asking Mr. Shang if he had pickles. He said yes. I asked if I could go to the kitchen with him to see what kind of pickled vegetables he had. He said, “Come and see.”
I didn’t expect Mr. Shang to have the kind of pickle I used to eat in my childhood. I just wanted to make sure it was not the sweetened kind the southerners made. It was not. It was made of large bok choy that I had had before and was pretty good. Mr. Shang began to prepare the ingredients for my sauce, and I watched beside him.
“You have lived in America for so long and you still like to eat such things?” Mr. Shang said.
“You always like what you ate when you were little,” I said. “It’s like your second nature.”
“Did you eat Chinese food or Western food?”
“Both. But I prefer Chinese, if I have a choice.”
“What are Chinese restaurants like over there?”
“Terrible. Awful. The same everywhere.”
“So you cook for yourself? You don’t look like you can cook.”
“Well, you can never tell.”
“Did you drink coffee or tea?”
“I drink tea.”
“Coffee is a fad in Beijing right now.”
“I like tea better.”
“Are Americans very polite?”
“You can say so.”
Then I remembered my fright just moments ago when I had been crossing the street and a pick-up truck had sped toward me.
“In America,” I said, “especially in small towns where life is slow, if a driver sees you crossing the street, he would stop at a comfortable distance from you and let you cross.”
Mr. Shang looked at me in disbelief. I felt like I had just pulled a magic trick. After a while Mr. Shang said, “How do they do so well but not us?”
Before I said anything, he added, “The Chinese are wicked.”
I thought of the incident on the bus.
“You don’t know how bad the Chinese are these days,” he emphasized, as though trying to convince me.
“But you are not wicked,” I teased.
“China will never be as good as America,” he sighed.
By now, the meat shreds had been stir-fried, pickle was added in, and the water was boiling on another burner for noodles.
“I’m going to wait outside,” I said. As I was leaving, I saw, on the wall behind the kitchen door, a large poster of Marilyn Monroe, in which she smiled radiantly like a wide-open blossom and her breasts, barely contained in an embroidered bra, erect, full, and high. I would never have expected to see her in Mr. Shang’s dim kitchen, on a smoky wall and among the chaos of pans, bowls and dishes. It was a strange feeling.
Back at my seat, I wondered if I should tell Mr. Shang, when he asked me about America again, that I had once been robbed at gunpoint, that a debt collector had harassed me for over two years for money I had already paid. I would have been scared to death by his threats if I didn’t know I was innocent. Also, that professor and translator of Wang Wei, the Tang poet, who didn’t speak one word of Chinese. I worried that the America I had described (the grass and trees, the houses, the clean air and polite people), like the billboards on the streets of Beijing, had become a seducing mirage for Mr. Shang.
Take Monroe for instance. I didn’t know what goddess she was to Mr. Shang. For me, she was a girl named Norma Jeane and she would not be too different from any other girl on the street. In Hollywood, she became Marilyn Monroe, her red lips were forever open, and her eyes expectant, enticing and provocative. Her body was forever posing. She was desired by powerful men, including a President, but died lonely in her bed at the age of 36, holding the telephone receiver……Whatever she had been saying, it couldn’t have been pretty.
Mr. Shang brought my noodles, then sat down two tables across from mine, the same place he had sat down last time. One didn’t see many Chinese men as discreet as Mr. Shang.
“America has a good rule of law, doesn’t it?” He asked.
“Right. People are in general law-bidding.”
“How wonderful,” he said softly, as if to himself.
“What are their police like?”
“They are nice and friendly.”
All of a sudden, I was tired of talking about America with Mr. Shang. Even the few things I had wanted to say, I didn’t want to anymore. What does it matter? I thought. Would it make Mr. Shang’s understand America better?
“Why would you choose to open a restaurant here?” I changed the subject. What I didn’t say was, how could you make money if there were no customers?
Mr. Shang said he used to have a restaurant near The Gate of Broad Peace in the south side of the city, and moved here about a year ago. “Make a right turn at the end of the dirt road,” he said, “and walk for about five minutes, it would be around the Forth Beltway.” He had moved here for its proximity to the new beltway and the Compound. Besides, the rent was very cheap.
I didn’t know there was a shortcut to the Forth Beltway.
“I’ll hold on for another year and see,” he said.
“I like your plaque,” I said. It was a black, rectangular, wooden plague placed at a slight angle over the door, overlooking customers walking into the restaurant. The four characters of “Six Peace Restaurant” were of the gentle, smooth kai style.
“The name sounds like one of those old, traditional names from the southern side of the city,” I said. “What are the six peaces anyway?”
“The peace of the people, the peace of family, the peace of business….” Mr. Shang itemized. “Well, there is really no such thing as six peaces. I picked six simply for its euphonious sound.”
The girl from the hair salon came out with a chair, and sat down in a shady spot on the borderline between the restaurant and the salon.
“Xiao Qin is out again for fresh air,” Mr. Shang commented. “Looks like she’s idle now. She is very able, very tough, for a twenty-something. She is all by herself but does pretty good business.”
I was due for a haircut a long time ago, but every time I saw the name of the shop—Salon of Rome, I hesitated and never went in.
My brother was in Beijing for business, taking my nephew with him to meet me. He left the boy to me and went about his affairs. The last time I saw my nephew, he was a six-year-old and came with his father to see me out of the country. Now he was twelve, standing bashfully and quietly in front of me. I was just as clueless. “Have you been to the Palace of Restfulness?” I asked him and got no answer. “How about we go and row a boat there?” He smiled and nodded and off we went. On our way, I tried to start a conversation with him, but whatever I said, his replies always came shorter than I expected—a few words, at most one short sentence. I tried in vain to search for the little boy from six years ago who had enthusiastically shown me his model cars, but I knew that, with long absence, I had become irreversibly an outsider with whom he had nothing in common.
At the intersection near my old college, traffic came to a complete standstill where a sea of cars, buses and minibuses were jammed side by side. While our driver inched along gingerly and diligently with every opportunity, I looked in vain for traces of my recollections. The small department store, its exterior and interior, the two restaurants, the bicycle streams, or the look of the tiles on the sidewalks. Nothing remained. Then I had a glance of the dilapidated red-brick, residential buildings of the Academy of Sciences. They were still there, blocked by buildings with glass façades. An argument erupted outside the window. Three men, who had just jumped off the minibus next to ours, were shouting. They must be the driver, the ticket man and a friend of theirs.
“Get out! Get out!” They demanded of our driver.
“Don’t you know how to drive a fucking bus?”
“You bumped our side-view mirror, do you see?”
“Get out! There are police ahead. Let’s talk to the police!”
Our driver didn’t get out. Nor did I hear him saying a word—I happened to be sitting behind him.
Those three yelled in turn and together.
I couldn’t stand it anymore and, pulling the window open, started yelling at them.
“Look at yourselves, you three men! How petty you are! Is this all you can do? Stupid! Shameless! Despicable!”
Dumbfounded, the three men stopped. They froze for a few seconds, and then turned around and went back to their bus. I was dumbfounded too, not knowing what I had just done. The episode ended just like that.
I sat down. The compartment was dead quiet. A few moments later there came a buzz of indignation. Nasty people. Hooligans. Making trouble out of nothing. The passengers spoke under their breath, though there was no way those three, back in their bus, could hear them. I looked at my nephew. He was looking ahead expressionlessly.
The traffic started moving. Our bus turned at the intersection. As soon as it did, the driver pulled up to the curb. “No, no, no, I have to give them money,” I heard him saying to himself. “Why,” I said, “you did not damage their mirror, you barely touched it!” “You don’t know,” he said while jumping off, “I ran this route with them everyday, if I don’t give them some money, they are going to give me a hard time later.”
The driver disappeared for a while and then returned and started the bus without a word.
When I got off at the Palace of Restfulness, all of a sudden I was scared and kept thinking that the three men were going to follow me and teach me a lesson. My nephew and I entered the Palace grounds, rented a boat, and rowed off the shore quickly and onto the Lake of Great Brightness. Only then was I relieved and sure I hadn’t been tailed. My fear was gone all right, but the day had been ruined. There was no way I could enjoy the sun, the water, the white marble Bridge of Seventeen Arches, as well as the willow trees on the shore, with the twelve-year-old boy.
Until now, the boy had not said a single word. We sat face to face on each end of the little boat, and he seemed to be avoiding my eyes. Suddenly I was vexed.
Why isn’t he saying anything, or showing something? I thought. What does he think of the incident? Is he shy or he didn’t register it at all? Did I scare him? He probably didn’t expect his aunt to be such a shrew. Does he think I am dumb, and I did something unwise? After all, nobody else says anything, and why would you? Perhaps he resents the fact that my behavior could have brought him harm.
What exactly do I expect him to show? Praise? My train of thought continued. The idea had barely surfaced before I hurriedly cut myself off.
I only wanted to see something on his face, anything, so I would know how to speak to him next. But now I had to shut up.
Off our stern, a plastic soda bottle and a discolored food wrapper floated on the water. My nephew had been glancing at them for a while. “Let’s go over there and pick up the trash,” he said, “it’s not good to litter the lake.”
He rowed the boat over and collected the trash. “My teacher said we need to build environmental awareness and we have to develop social ethics,” he said.
I wanted to ask him whether his teacher said anything about people. But instead, I asked him, “What is social ethics?”
“It’s not to litter, not to spit everywhere,” he said.
I said nothing.
“My dad said you were very good at composition, but it’s my worst subject, so my dad told me to learn a few tricks from you.”
“Tricks? What tricks?” I scoffed.
“Oh! I know! I can write about collecting trash on the Lake of Great Brightness! From there, I can write about the importance of social ethics and the importance of protecting environment.”
What about the earlier incident? I insisted in my mind. But from his expression, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to have happened.
On our way back, we stopped at the new Double Peace Shopping Center. I insisted on buying a couple of things for my nephew. At the junior department, he picked a pair of pants and a jersey top. I was surprised to find that he had fine taste for clothes, both the style and the color were very up to date even by American standards.
Back around 4 o’clock, we met Mr. Shang’s wife and daughter outside the restaurant. Mr. Shang was standing while his daughter, about ten years old, hung on his back, and the father and daughter were laughing together. Mrs. Shang sat on a stool, speaking vividly. Both mother and daughter were very pretty. The mother, lively and trendy, had on light make-up; the daughter resembled her father with his eyes, his tall and straight posture. I had known that Mr. Shang was a married man, but this was the only time I had seen his family.
Next time I came to the restaurant, Mr. Shang was sending off the last batch of his lunch customers. The mother and daughter flashed like a sunbeam and then disappeared. I complimented Mr. Shang on his beautiful wife and daughter, and he was happy. “I don’t see them here often,” I said. Small restaurants like Mr. Shang’s were often family run where everybody worked, and Mr. Shang’s case was unusual.
He said his wife had her own job and his daughter went to school and studied piano and dance after school.
“Besides,” he said, “I don’t want them to hang around a greasy place like this”
That’s probably the real reason, I thought.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” I asked.
“Meng Na.” [“Dreamy and Lithe”]
“What do you think? Do you think it’s a good name?” Mr. Shang asked eagerly. He must be the one who named her.
“It’s pretty,” I said, except that it sounded illusory and vulnerable too.
“People talk about nomenology a lot these days. Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“To count the strokes of your name and to see whether the number is auspicious,” he said. “I’m going to find someone to check my daughter’s name.”
Mr. Shang became contemplative. I changed the subject. “Perhaps your wife and daughter could visit you more often to at least give you some company.”
Mr. Shang stood up from where he had been sitting. “Of course I would like to see them as much as possible,” he said. “But you have no idea what China is like.”
There was something else. I stopped eating and waited.
“They live in a secret place. I don’t let them come here often,” he said, leaning forward on his elbows. “The restaurant I had at The Gate of Broad Peace had been very prosperous. It was about the same size as this one, but full of customers all day long. My neighbor was an electronics store, selling smuggled goods. They wanted to expand and offered my landlord higher rent for my space. The landlord had been happy with me, didn’t want me to go, and besides, he raised my rent too. But those people were local thugs, and the landlord wouldn’t dare say no to them. He told them it was up to me. And I said no to them. After a while, just when I thought the whole thing was over, police raided my restaurant and detained me for ‘forging documents.’ They kept me for a month and then released me. By then my restaurant was part of the electronics shop. I didn’t want to give up. I sued them. One evening as I was walking down the street, four men jumped me and beat me. They threatened me. They threatened my wife and daughter. Then I withdrew the suit and moved here.”
Mr. Shang finished his story. I was speechless.
“Now it’s over,” he said, “I sleep here with a kitchen knife under my pillow.”
“They won’t bother you anymore, will they?” I mumbled. I didn’t know he spent the nights in the restaurant.
“As long as my daughter and wife are fine, I’m not afraid of them,” he said stiffly.
The day before I invited friends for dinner, I finally went to Salon of Rome to get a haircut. It was a small room, about thirty square meters, divided into two sections by a cotton curtain. The curtain was drawn, showing only a corner of what looked like a folding bed. It must be where Xiao Qin slept. The front was for business, with a barber’s chair, a sink, a mirror, a hood drier, and a sofa for customers to sit on as they waited. No one was waiting while I was there. Off the sofa, at the corner behind the door, was a little stand, and on its top, there were a few cosmetics bottles, an electric heater for boiling water and a bowl with a red plastic lid. I felt a little uncomfortable when I sat down in the barber’s chair, but I didn’t know whether it had to do with the place or the girl who worked there. Xiao Qing was skillful and seemed to understand my request perfectly. I relaxed to the crisp sound of scissors. Since I had known her name, I felt I knew her. I asked where her family lived. “Family?” She replied in a strong retort as though she was surprised by such a question. “You mean my parents?” She asked. “Yeah,” I answered, surprised by her tone, for I had assumed that, being so young, she was probably unmarried. “They live a little bit north of here,” she said coolly. “Do you go home often?” I asked. “No,” she said.
I thought I would have liked to chat a little more with her but in the end I sat through my session saying nothing more. I really didn’t know what to think about girls like her. I felt that any of my words would be like an arrow shot in the wrong direction, embarrassing and irrelevant.
While I was paying for the haircut, Xiao Qin cleaned the floor briskly. No one was waiting, and, as I walked out, Xiao Qin stepped outside too with a chair and sat down, legs crossed, browsing a fashion magazine. When I crossed the street, I could sense that she was watching me from behind, mockery in her eyes. I didn’t know why I thought so.
I decided to invite my college friends for dinner on a Saturday evening at the Six-Peace Restaurant. Mr. Shang was a pretty good chef, as a matter of fact, and I ordered a few special dishes not on his menu in advance. It was the first time I had dinner there. It was surprisingly busy, and for the first time I saw waitresses there. There were three or four of them, all girls. Mr. Shang, working in the kitchen, was nowhere to be seen. Nor were his wife or daughter. I knew I wouldn’t see them here, but I couldn’t help expecting to. Their absence was, to me, a wound on the little place.
Mr. Shang had set a large table for us at the corner where I always sat. My friends had all come. It had been ten years since we had seen one another. But, after a burst of screaming and laughing, we seemed to have immediately gone back to where we had left off. Li, my bunkmate, was still an army officer working in the same military academy, but she had gained quite a bit of weight, and her plump cheeks were flushed pink. My other roommate Deng now worked in a Hong Kong market research company. Lan from the next door room still worked in the same government agency and, according to Deng, had risen straight up to middle management. Hearing this, Lan gave Deng a good shove on the shoulder. I was not surprised at all by Lan’s success because I had always said she was the perfect material for Chinese officialdom, but I was surprised to find that she smoked non-stop and the earnestness of the Secretary of the Youth League was replaced by certain vagueness. The person who had changed the least was Yun, still as self-effacing as she had always been, listening more than speaking. She still worked in that municipal institute for adult education in an old-town alley, married a colleague, and had twin boys who were already going to elementary school.
About myself and my return I had said nothing. At first this verbal vacuum was as conspicuous as a black hole in our midst, and as embarrassing. But after a while it was engulfed by our merriment.
Li was just as talkative as in the old days. Words and laughter rolled off her tongue, round and fast, while her hands gestured rapidly and forcefully. I was surprised to find that Li, a avid fan of Agatha Christie, was now a converted Buddhist. When I asked her in disbelief, she stopped abruptly in the middle of a roar of laughter, and said solemnly, “Right. Right. That’s right. I belong to Buddha now.” Then, without transition, she went back to a tale of a love triangle and murder in the Academy that she had been recounting.
I recalled her affair with a married officer when she had first arrived there more than ten years ago. Because of it, she was sent away to a lower unit for a year “to reflect on it.” What happened next I didn’t know. She had married someone else since and had a daughter. She seemed very happy.
“Cheers for the mystery novel called Life,” I said to Lan next to me.
Lan and I were the only two at the table who drank, and we were sharing a bottle of Great Wall white wine. In the old days the group liked to gather, in the evenings or on weekends, in the big office where Yun lived temporarily, and without exception Lan and I drank a bottle of wine together. Our empty bottles lined up under Yun’s single bed hidden at one corner, causing her colleagues to think, for a while, she was an alcoholic, which amounted to being bad and corrupt for a woman. Yun used to say she very much liked to be perceived so, and it would be even better if she really could drink. Lan still had her previous, if not larger, capacity, but I started feeling dizzy after the first glass.
Deng complained about her job incessantly. “The capitalists exploit you mercilessly,” She said, “asking you to work overtime everyday as though they own you.”
“Stop grousing about it,” Lan interjected. “You never say you make more money than anyone else does and you take a taxi to work everyday.”
I had noticed the difference between Deng and the others. Her clothes and her demeanor reminded me of the American bank clerks.
I told her I had brought her a CD of Grieg’s serenades with the melody she used to hum on it. I said I had bought two wrong discs before I had found that melody.
“My goodness! Get out of here!” Deng cried, her eyes wide-open and sparkling. “How can you still remember?”
“Well, you hummed it all the time,” I said. “It’s hard not to remember.”
Li beckoned the waitress who had taken our order.
“Where is my tofu vegetable soup?” She asked.
The girl looked blank—she had forgotten the special vegetarian order. She apologized profusely and was about to go to mend her mistake when Li stopped her.
“Forget about it!” she huffed. “You don’t know how to serve, do you? Who wants the soup halfway through a meal? Forget about it!”
The girl apologized again.
Hastily, I told the girl to go about her business and not to worry about the soup anymore.
As the girl passed behind Yun, the latter pulled her arm and said softly, “Don’t mind it. It’s not a problem.” The girl relaxed somewhat.
When Yun turned around, our eyes met.
Yun and I had never been really close, either in college or after. We didn’t seem to have too much to say to one another, but then, there wasn’t much that needed to be said.
“You are back so suddenly,” Yun said quietly. “Homesick?”
I nodded vaguely.
“If you want to come back, then come back,” Yun said. “After all, it’s other people’s country there.”
I kept quiet.
“I saw that your boxes were still unopened. I can give you a hand,” she said. She had made the same offer already when she had visited earlier and met me in my apartment.
“Thanks,” I said. “But it won’t be necessary, really.”
“Well, you know where to find me when you need help,” she said. “Anyway, it’s so nice to have you back.”
“It’s nice to see all of you again,” I said. “So many years have passed and so fast.”
Except for necessities, I had not unpacked all my belongings from the two gigantic suitcases, neither had I open any of those ten some boxes of books that had arrived for a while.
It had been such a relief the day I had finished packing in the apartment in Bloomington and shipped those boxes to China. The wood floor at the graduate dorm room in that old, two-story limestone building was once again as empty as when I had first moved in, reflecting sharply the afternoon light from the window. I had moved too many times, and I didn’t want ever to move again. After this time, I would finally settle down in one place, a place I could say was mine, there I would build a home for myself, settle down the way dust settles on the ground, and begin the life that had never really begun.
But now I was at a loss. The will to take things out and display them in the new place had left me. I had dawdled many days away.
My friends and I bid each other good-bye outside the restaurant, and I turned around to go back to the Compound. Even at night, the two soldiers guarding the gate stood as erect as ever, except their faces, under the glaring lights from above, were shadowed under the brim of their caps. A black sedan glided out of the gate, and the soldiers stood to attention and saluted sharply. The Compound consisted of two four-story, soviet style office buildings and ten some residential buildings of the same era. I had moved in for three months but, apart from the guards and the old women coming back from the market with bundles of fresh vegetables, I had not the least idea who lived there and what they did. Entering the gate, I kept walking on the main, north-bound avenue. The building I lived in was at the end of it. The further I walked the darker it got. Nearing the end, there was only faint light from the windows of people’s homes.
Nothing seemed right. It had become clear to me tonight. I saw something I had not thought of before: I had become a stranger, an outsider. Life had moved on and things had been rearranged while I was gone, the way chairs around a table were, and mine had been taken away.
A truck hurled passed me from behind, barely a foot away from me.
I was enraged. “Fuck you! Son of bitch! You almost ran me over, you fucking savage!”
The truck raced toward the brick wall ahead and pulled up abruptly at the dead end of the road. I had turned left around the corner of my building, walking toward the third entrance.
“Who was it?” I heard a man’s gruff voice.
“Let’s get out and take a look,” a woman said toughly.
Then I heard two people jumping out of the driver’s cabin and running in my direction. I realized they were after me. I started running. They were only about ten yards behind me and running faster.
Turning into the dark stairwell, I rushed up the steps. Those two had arrived at the entrance just as I raced to the second floor. Their shouting pierced the night. Shaking, I opened my door on the second floor, darted in, and slammed the door. My heart raced.
They were still down there, swearing, cursing. I didn’t dare to turn on the light lest they find out where I lived. After a minute or two, I heard them walking away, still cursing.
My legs gave way, and I slid down to the floor. Anger and humiliation thumped in my chest, smashing and tearing it.
By Zhang Dajun
The appeal of a revolution is gaining momentum.
Many in China are fighting for freedom. People with different worldviews have their own perspectives on how best to achieve this goal. These people fall into two groups. The first favors a gradual and linear transition from tyranny to freedom. The other sees no way other than overthrowing the regime. It’s a race between “evolution” and “revolution.”
This race between “evolution” and “revolution” has raged on for centuries. In China’s case, not more than a few years ago, the great majority of freedom fighters in China hoped for a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now, increasing numbers of thinkers, activists, and lawyers call for a more radical approach. Why has there been a change of heart and mind? And what does such a change mean?
The Communist regime’s pretense of “benevolent authoritarianism,” characterized by its program of “reform and an open-door policy,” has lost its appeal as it becomes more ruthless in dealing with the economy, foreign policy, and human rights. The Communist Party’s core beliefs are back in vogue. Economic reform measures are rolled back, militaristic attitudes are strengthened, and abuses of human rights multiply and intensify. To many in China, this backward move signifies the death of a gradual evolution, which used to be dearly cherished by broad segments of China’s intellectual class and civil society.
This assessment of the attitudes and policy choices of the Communist regime inevitably leads to a sobering recalculation on the part of freedom fighters in China. This means that those seeking change have to lower their political expectations and raise the political stakes. They understand that—as long as the Communist party remains—there can hardly be genuine freedom. The win-win supposition inherent in the first evolutionary approach is doomed. Hence, fighting for freedom has become a revolutionary zero-sum game.
It is also interesting to note the role of demographics in this political divide. People below the age of 40 tend to favor revolution while those above 40 are likely to stick to a more cautious route. There are two main reasons for this divergence.
First, this demographic gap can be ascribed to the different experiences between young and old. There has not been significant reform during the young generation’s adult lives. The tenets of the reigns of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao ensured stability and maintained the status quo. In other words, the young can be excused for their lack of enthusiasm for top-down, evolutionary, politics. The older generation witnessed and was excited by rapid political developments in the 1980s. Their youth was memorable partly because of the Communist party’s reform programs. This memory left in their hearts the hope for a more benign government.
The second reason for this is economic or social. The old have benefited from the Chinese government’s economic reforms more than the young have. Though in varying degrees, the older generation has been socially and economically established. Many of them have their own houses and cars. Their living standards have risen steadily. Furthermore, their childhood during the Maoist era was harsh. As a result, they believe incremental improvement can be achieved or is in order. On the contrary, the young, while not raised in poverty, are less able to appreciate the progress that has been made. The inflexibility of the system deters them from achieving the social and economic successes which have been taken for granted by the older generations.
Chinese society is changing, not just intellectually, but also politically, socially, and economically. As the Communist regime’s militancy in domestic and foreign policies continues, it is hard not to foresee the “gradual” radicalization of the Chinese opposition. It is time to prepare for a more volatile and perhaps more violent China.
Zhang Dajun (张大军) has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for several transnational corporations. In recent years, he has worked with the Transition Institute (传知行研究所) in Beijing, held forums on citizenry and social advocacy, and translated works about democratic transitions. His tweets (@ZhangDajun) about Chinese political and social affairs are popular and enlightening. He now lives in Arlington, Virginia. The author wrote the article in English.